Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Bo Knows Best About Blackshirts

Judging by the banter that I've seen on various Husker message boards, the jury is out on whether or not Bo Pelini should give out the coveted Blackshirts to the Nebraska defense. The tradition, which goes back to Bob Devaney's third season, is a hallowed part of Nebraska football lore, which is funny because the only reason that the color is black is that the sporting goods store gave assistant Mike Corgan a deal because they weren't selling. Can you imagine if neon yellow had been the best deal?

Luckily, black was the best bargain, and Nebraska's defense has never been the same since. Which brings us back to the present day. Many fans are pointing to the defense's performance against both Virginia Tech and the shutout performance against Louisiana Lafayette as worthy of having the blackshirts bestowed before next week's melee against the Missouri Tigers, and to be honest, it's hard to disagree with them.

Nebraska's defensive rankings through four games:

Scoring defense: 7 points per game (3rd nationally)

Total defense: 285 yards per game (23rd nationally)

While those are obviously good numbers, this is where Bo Pelini's decision to withhold the blackshirts comes in. Pelini isn't going to hand out something so valuable just because of a few solid games. If you look at Bo's quotes throughout camp and this season, the thing constantly preached is "playing up to expectations". Not the media's expectations, not the expectations of the fans, up to Pelini's expectations.

Which is why the Big Red are still sans blackshirts. Bo doesn't care about rankings, he cares about across-the-board effort and consistency. As we saw with Virginia Tech, one play, no matter how good the other 60 or 70 went, can cost a team a ball game, and Pelini will continue to keep the shirts in the box until the Husker defense can achieve his goal of perfection.

While Husker fans bemoan that Pelini is ruining the "tradition" of handing out the blackshirts before the first game, they need to know that Bo isn't the first Husker coach to make players earn the jerseys on a daily basis.

While Tom Osborne instituted the aforementioned practice of giving out the blackshirts before the first game, Bob Devaney's policy is nearly identical to that of Pelini's. Initially, the black pullovers were distributed each day at practice and collected immediately afterward. A player might have it one day and a gray one the next: the blackshirt wasn't a right as a starter, it was an honor that had to be earned on a daily basis in practice throughout the season.

Having lofty statistical rankings is all well and good, but the results in games are not what makes a defender a "blackshirt". It's on a cold Tuesday afternoon in November, when the last place you want to be is on a practice field yet you have the focus and determination to play to your highest level on every play. Anybody can get up for games, it's the times when the lights are off and nobody is watching when championship teams are made, and Bo expects his team-especially his defense- to play at that level no matter what. And I for one agree with him.

Monday, September 28, 2009

With Cream Puffs Out of Way, Eyes Turn to Clash in Columbia

Is anyone else glad that Bo Pelini and Jeff Jamrog are working on beefing up Nebraska's non-conference schedule the next few years? After watching the Huskers win the Sun Belt title Saturday with their defeat of the ULL Ragin Cajuns, fans of the Big Red can now turn their attention to the conference slate, where we will finally find out just how good the Huskers are in their second year under Pelini.

For decades, Missouri, along with both of the Kansas teams, was little more than a nuisance to Nebraska, similar to a pesky younger brother who would irritate until the older brother responded by taking them to the woodshed and putting them back in their proper place.

That pecking order began to fall apart in 2003, when Nebraska, up 24-14 going into the 4th quarter, gave up 27 points in the final period to a team led by Brad Smith, a collapse that probably contributed to Steve Pederson's decision to fire Frank Solich at the end of the season (though that was probably more of a reaction to the 7-7 campaign in 2002).

Counting that game, Nebraska has lost three straight games at Farout Field, which is why next week's game in Columbia is the game on which Nebraska's season hinges. Last year, the Huskers were embarrassed on their own field by Chase Daniel, Jeremey Maclin, and Chase Coffman, who cruised to an easy 52-17 victory.

This year, the Huskers return to Columbia with an improved defense who has obviously benefited from having a year in Pelini's system and bouyed by their strong performance against Virginia Tech. In addition to the improved defense, Nebraska's running game is stronger than a year ago and the wide receivers have more explosiveness than the duo of Nate Swift and Todd Peterson from a year ago.

The biggest benefit for Nebraska is that all the main characters from the past few debacles against Mizzou are gone. Booger McDaniel, Maclin, and Coffman have all moved on, and in their place are some talented but green replacements. Blaine Gabbert, who a couple of years ago was in many circles regarded as the #1 pro-style recruit in the country, has stepped in to the quarterback spot and has performed admirably, but not as lethal as McDaniel was. In addition to the turnover in offensive talent, the Tigers have had to overcome replacing both their offensive and defensive coordinators.

Missouri opened a lot of eyes with an opening-week drubbing of Illinois, but that the enthusiasm from that victory has been tempered by having to come from behind to beat Bowling Green and struggling with Nevada (coupled with the realization that Illinois is just downright terrible). The Tigers will face their first true test against Nebraska, who already has shown it's mettle with it's near-win against #6-ranked Virginia Tech.

The interesting thing about Mizzou is that with it's rise in relevancy and it's drubbings of Nebraska the past couple of years, the Tigers have seemingly replaced Colorado as the pre-eminent rival of the Huskers in the Big 12 North. Sure, Kansas is a decent program, in many ways equal or better than Missouri in terms of accomplishment and ability. But Kansas doesn't raise the same level of ire in Husker fans as Missouri does. With Mizzou, there is just something that rubs Nebraska backers the wrong way about them.

Maybe it's the arrogance of those within the program over finally playing decent football after decades of underacheiving. And yes, decent. Despite winning 10 games a year ago and 12 the season before that, Missouri has averaged 8 wins a season since 2003, hardly the results that would warrant the Tiger faithful having such a high opinion of themselves.

The rise of the rivalry could come from Missouri fans, who for the most part strike Nebraska as one of the least classy groups of people they have had to attend games with. And I'm not trying to rip on the entire fan base, but what upsets Nebraska fans is this: When there is a jerk at a Nebraska game, he's the exception to the norm. At Mizzou, it seems that the jerk is the norm, while a classy Mizzou fan is the exception. I'm not trying to deride every Missouri fan, but that seems to be the consensus among many who have had to go to a game in Columbia.

That's what makes the showdown on October 8th so exciting. Two ranked teams, a prime-time Thursday night national telecast, and a shot at redemption and payback for Nebraska. These two teams, despite what they may say to the media, have a genuine dislike for each other. Mizzou players expressed annoyance and surprise when the media picked Nebraska to win the North before the season, and Nebraska desperately wants to show to the entire nation that they are on the path back to power. And what better way to prove it than by annihilating the Tigers on their home field?

Monday, September 21, 2009

Shoulda, Woulda, Coulda: Huskers Blow It in Blacksburg

The picture for this article nearly made me vomit. True story. I wanted to write this article on Saturday night, when my depression, angst, and anger were all at a fever pitch. That article would probably have packed quite a punch, but it wouldn't have been fair to the Huskers for me to write while alcohol and so much ill will coursed through my veins.

Nebraska should have won this game. The statistics all point to a dominant defensive effort by the Blackshirts, and Roy Helu turned in a memorable performance. Nebraska could have won this game, if they had substituted a touchdown for one of their five field goals. Nebraska would have won this game, if they could have gotten one more first down.

But there are no moral victories in football. The stats, the effort, the gameplan, all of it can be commended, but it is an ineffective strategy to help one cope with the cruel reality of what the scoreboard read: Virginia Tech, 16. Nebraska, 15.

There will be many images from this game that I'd like to forget but will be unable to. The 3rd-quarter penalty debacle that not only cost us a touchdown but pushed us out of field goal range. Meno Holt's dropped touchdown pass. And that lonely #19 in maroon and orange, somehow behind our secondary, the feeling of desperation and the realization that yes, he was going to catch the ball, that somehow, Nebraska is just destined to blow these games and tear out the heart of it's collective fan base.

I'm not sure what Nebraska did to anger the college football gods. Perhaps we were too blessed in the 1990's, maybe we were so spoiled that it wasn't enough just for us to lose our identity, our bowl streak, and our national respect the past few years. Maybe we needed to lose games like this in the most heart-breaking ways imaginable to remind us of just how special those glory days were. But at what point does karma evening things out go too far? To lose would be one thing, but to stand on the precipice of a great victory, only to have it torn from us, seems especially cruel.

This loss will sting for a long, long time. I still remember with particular frustration the feeling I had when we lost to Texas at home in 2006, when Terrence Nunn fumbled away a game-clinching first down? Now, is it fair to Nunn that this moment, one bad play, will be what we remember most about his career at Nebraska, a career that includes being among the top-5 pass catchers of all time? No, it's not. But all it takes is one bad play in the wrong situation, and your legacy at NU is forever altered.

And so I arrive at Matt O'Hanlon. I'm not trying to beat a dead horse here, because even that horse's corpse can't have much left on it after what Husker fans have been saying the past two days. I know Matt is well-respected among his teammates, he works hard, and I'll always appreciate his effort during his time at NU. That said, he had no business being on that field. I know, he came back and made a sack on the next play, but that in no way excuses the brain fart of Biblical proportions he suffered on the 81-yard play before it. And this isn't just me tearing into Matt, because everyone makes mistakes. But in that situation, you have to be telling yourself before and during the play, that NOBODY GETS BEHIND YOU. NOBODY.

My question is this: throughout camp, the staff talked at length about the strides that Ricky Thenarse had made, that he was one of the best players on the defense, and he was listed as co-#1 at safety. In addition to Thenarse, Eric Hagg was described by defensive backs coach Marvin Sanders as "the best lockdown guy we have", and in addition to that praise, he is capable of playing both corner and safety. Oh, and did I mention that both of these players are measurably more athletic than Matt O'Hanlon?

I don't know what the staff's thought process is with #33. For some reason, he manages to find himself on the field at the most key points of the game despite the fact he is, in my estimation, our fourth-best safety. I know that O'Hanlon undoubtedly feels like jumping off a building after Saturday, and I'm sure he's aware that people in this state will remember his gaffe for the rest of their lives. He understands our fan base enough, he's aware of that. So while I'm angry and astounded by his failure to do his job, I do legitimately feel awful for him. That said, he shouldn't have been out there in the first place.

In the end, it's not just Matt's fault. His mistake only cemented what was a day of missed opportunities and Nebraska's failure to finish and make a play when they needed it most. When we needed a touchdown (or a first down on the final drive to kill the clock), the offense couldn't do it. When the Huskers needed a turnover or a stop at the goal line, they couldn't do it. For a brief while, NU showed they are capable of playing with great teams, that they are on their way back to where they used to be.

But on the way isn't where we hoped to be today. We wanted to be back. And that, unfortunately, is going to have to wait. We outplayed Virginia Tech, and I fiercely believe we are the better team. But my hat is off to VT, because the team that deserved to win did. Now, NU must figure out a way to move past this knee-buckling stomach punch and look forward to the rest of the season. There may be a hangover, but I don't think Bo Pelini will let them dwell on it. In fact, I take a great deal of solace from reading this quote from Phillip Dillard, the senior Husker linebacker:

"There's only two ways you can go - you can either go up or you can go down," Dillard said. "This team's going to choose to go up, and we're going to keep fighting and we're going to keep proving ourselves, because it's not over.

"It's a long season. I believe in my teammates, and everyone else should. Regardless of whether we won or lost, you saw the fight in us. That's something you didn't see in us for a long time."

There's still a lot of football left to be played, and I hope the rest of the team follows Dillard's lead and uses this game as motivation to avoid having to feel this kind of gut-wrenching loss the rest of the season.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

A Big Week as the Big Red Heads to Blacksburg

I've never been a big believer in "signature victories" or whatever other monikers people are so quick to put on games against big-time opponents. For the four years of the Callahan era, Husker fans waited for the day Callahan would get over the hump and beat a top program, a signal that the program was relevant and powerful again. Of course, that day never came, which is why Callahan is coaching the offensive line for the New York Jets right now.

While beating a #14-ranked Virginia Tech team would hardly qualify as a signature victory, it would go a long way in re-establishing the Nebraska Cornhuskers in the nation's football-following consciousness. For years now, it's been a skeptical eye that looks Lincoln's way whenever the Huskers have a marquee game. Which is understandable after the debacles against USC, the inability close against Texas, and the fact we've won exactly zero-that's right, zero- conference championships this decade.

A win in Blacksburg is no easy feat, as Lane Stadium's 66,000 fans are much louder than Nebraska's 85,000 in Lincoln. Whereas Memorial Stadium is beautiful atmosphere on gameday, Lane is an intimidating one, which will test a young Huskers team that hasn't had to work on audibles or adjustments away from home yet.

A few things that will have to happen for the Huskers if they are going to come home with a win:

- Roy Helu has to re-establish himself after a sub-par game against Arkansas State. The Huskers can't depend on Zac Lee to drop another 300 yard game with 4 touchdowns, especially in light of the fact that there's a good chance that rain could show up on Saturday. Nebraska needs to be able to run the ball and wear down the defense, otherwise it's going to be a long game.

- Stop Tyrod Taylor. Obviously any 4th grader could have told you this, but it has to be said. Taylor had one of his best passing games against the Huskers last year, and NU has to be able to keep him in the pocket and prevent him from making plays with his feet. Force Taylor to become a real quarterback, and NU can blitz and force him into some bad throws.

- Tackle better. The Huskers looked shoddy at times last week, with too many arm tackles. Against Taylor and freshmen standout Ryan Williams, NU will need to fix those problems or it could get extremely ugly.

While I predicted that Nebraska would lose this game in my season preview column, I also have 20 dollars on the Huskers going into Oklahoma undefeated, so you can see that I've struggled to temper my enthusiasm for NU's potential this year with the realization that we are sending an extremely green team to Blacksburg. Despite their youth though, Nebraska has the ability and coaching staff to win this ball game, and it's a win that both the Huskers (and after last week, the entire Big 12) needs right now.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

A Belated Nebraska Season Prediction

While some may consider it a faux pas to post a game-by-game prediction article after the season has started, I think there's nothing wrong with it if you already knew what the outcome of the first game was going to be.

Speaking of the Florida Atlantic game, how much fun was that to watch? I was so excited that I even tweeted that NU needs to start a Roy Helu-for-Heisman campaign.

That's right, I advocated starting a Heisman campaign off of one performance against an out-manned opponent in the season's opening game. (And to answer your inner monologue, yes, I'm embarrassed to use the word "tweeted"). Perhaps my optimism is running too high, but there was a lot to like about last Saturday's 49-3 romp.

The young linebackers played as well as you could hope for in their first start, the secondary didn't suffer any of the lapses that were so common last year (though Larry Asante apparently still hasn't learned how to catch, despite being a senior). The defensive line play was solid against a team that was in max protect the whole night, and even the younger guys (Cameron Meredith and Baker Steinkuhler) looked pretty decent in their collegiate debuts.

To top it off, Cody Green and Rex Burkhead both got into the end zone, with Green's following an electric 49-yard jaunt down the sideline and Rex showing suprising strength for a 200-pound guy fresh out of high school. I think it's fair to say that I'm as excited for Nebraska's future as hippies were for Dubya to leave office. HEY-OH!

So how does the rest of the season shake out? Obviously, had I written this article on time, the result may have been different. Before last week's games, OU hadn't lost Sam Bradford and Jermaine Gresham, Baylor hadn't defeated Wake Forest, and Missouri hadn't destroyed Illinois. All that aside, here's how I see the rest of the season shaking out for the Big Red.

Sep. 12—Arkansas State

Despite having the Sun Belt's preseason offensive (QB Corey Leonard) and defensive (DE Alex Carrington) players of the year, the Red Wolves aren't going to stop the Big Red. They might have had a prayer of sneaking up on Nebraska if they hadn't already beaten Texas A&M last year at Kyle Field, something that is already on the Husker's radar.

Prediction: Nebraska 45, Red Owls 10

Sep. 19—@ Virginia Tech

After Darren Evans went down in the preseason, I thought Nebraska's chances of stealing one from Lane Stadium went up considerably. However, now I'm not so sure after watching freshman Ryan Williams total 113 total yards and two touchdowns on just 15 touches, and that was against Alabama's defense.

The question here is, just what do Pelini and Watson have in their bag of tricks for this game? Against Florida Atlantic, we saw the most vanilla gameplan we'll see all year out of the Huskers, and that's on both sides of the ball.

The key will be stopping QB Tyrod Taylor and Williams from running on them. If we can successfuly do that, it will force Taylor to go to the air, and that's where we can hopefully use whatever blitz packages Pelini has saved through the first two weeks of the season. If NU can get to Taylor, he will make bad throws, despite whatever progress he has supposedly made in the offseason. Even if all this comes to fruition, can NU move the ball on Tech's defense?

If you look at Tech's loss to Alabama, the Hokies gave up nearly 500 yards of offense to the Crimson Tide. That stat is misleading in my opinion because the defense played solidly early in the game. The key number to look at here is time of possession, where the Tide held the ball for 37 minutes to 23 minutes for VT.

Nebraska's forte last season was holding onto the ball and wearing down a defense, and that's when big plays (Castille in the Gator Bowl, anyone?) started coming. The Huskers can't afford a slow start in Lane Stadium, they need to piece together long scoring drives from the get-go and take the crowd out of it, while wearing down the defense before breaking out something sweet at just the opportune time for the kill shot.

That said, if Virginia Tech can put up 24 on Alabama, what will they put up on us? Just how far has the defense really came? While my gut is telling me to put NU as winning this game, my gut has also led me astray many times.

Prediction: Virginia Tech 28, Nebraska 21

Sep. 26—Louisiana-Lafayette

After losing the two most prolific offensive players in school history to graduation last year, the Ragin' Cajuns are in for a rough game, but at least they can take solace in being cannon fodder for the 300th consecutive sellout in Memorial Stadium.

Prediction: Nebraska 45, Louisiana-Lafayette 10

Oct. 8—@Missouri

I was pretty sold on Nebraska winning this game. That is, until I saw Blaine Gabbert torch Illinois for 313 yards passing and four total touchdowns. Pretty much everyone expected there to be some kind of dropoff after Chase Daniel and Jeremy Maclin left town, but the season opener was an eye-opener for anyone who anticipated that.

While Gabbert's blistering start is a cause for concern, I think everyone needs to take a step back and look at the game. First off, it was against Illinois, a team whose defense wasn't any good last year during a 5-7 campaign and whose best offensive weapon (Arrelious Benn) was sitting the entire second half due to injury, making them pretty one-dimensional. Remember, Illinois went to the Rose Bowl two seasons ago. Illinois last year was the Big 10's equivalent of Kansas State.

That said, going into Missouri on a Thursday night for a nationally televised game is something to be a little concerned about. And I'm not talking about the final score; I'm more concerned for our players safety going into Faurot Field, when the whole city will have been drinking since 10:00 a.m.

According to Pelini, the reason we got our asses handed to us last year is because the coaching staff "got cute" with it's game plan and gave the players more than they could handle, which is why you saw Maclin streaking through our secondary like The Flash.

If Nebraska wants to rebuild it's national image, it's games like this one (and obviously Va. Tech) that they need to win. The real X-factor here is that Pelini and his staff have 11 days to prepare for Mizzou thanks to a bye week. The Tigers had a problem with turnovers last year, plunging from 11th nationally to 8th in the Big 12 last year.

I'm sure that the NU staff will "get cute" again with it's game plan. The difference is that this year, our defense actually knows what they are doing, and I think we'll get 3+ turnovers. And that, combined with a stronger special teams (the Tigers lost the most accurate kicker in NCAA history to graduation last season), will be the difference for Nebraska escaping Faurot with a win.

Prediction: Nebraska 24, Missouri 17

Oct. 17—Texas Tech

Last year, the Huskers took a Red Raiders team that was ranked in the top 10 at the time to the brink—in Lubbock—only to lose on Joe Ganz's interception in overtime. This year, without Graham Harrell and Michael Crabtree, it's going to be much tougher for Tech to get a win.

I know, I know, Taylor Potts is already becoming the next guy in the Tech quarterback assembly line, but I still think that losing Crabtree will be a bigger loss than anyone is saying yet. Also, the Red Raiders have to come to Lincoln this time. Still, I could see a nail-biter developing.

Prediction: Nebraska 35, Texas Tech 31

Oct. 24—Iowa State

Win. Best of luck to the Cyclones against the Hawkeyes this weekend, though.

Oct. 31—@Baylor

I'll admit, this is a tough game to call so early in the season. The Bears are coming off a win over a pretty good Wake Forest team, and Robert Griffin has solidified his passing skills to go with his world-class speed. While I'm impressed with Baylor's improvement, I still don't think they have the horses to keep up with the Huskers, especially given Nebraska's continuing improvement on the defense.

Prediction: Nebraska 35, Baylor 14

Nov. 7—Oklahoma

So much could happen between now and this game. Will Oklahoma shore up their pass protection? How will Sam Bradford recover from his AC joint injury? Will Nebraska still be healthy at that point in the season?

While I certainly believe this will be much more competitive than last year's massacre in Norman, I still don't know if Nebraska can knock off OU. This is what makes predictions hard, because my head is telling me that Oklahoma is the smart pick, but my heart is telling me that NU will win.

To be honest, I don't know, I really do think this game could go either way. How much faith does Pelini and company have?

In the summer of 2008, Pelini went on Jim Rome's radio show. Rome asked if he should buy tickets for this game, still over a year away at the time. He was basically asking if that by then, would Nebraska be back to where they need to be and in a position to beat Oklahoma. Pelini's response, simply put: "Buy the tickets."

I hope Bo's right. Because I'm buying tickets, even if the outcome isn't what I hope for.

Prediction: Oklahoma 31, Nebraska 17

Nov. 14—@Kansas

This game will be the most pivotal in the season for Nebraska. Coming off a letdown against OU, they have to travel to Lawrence to battle a very good Kansas team. While the Jayhawks have to work with some inexperience on the offensive line, you'd think that they'd have everything figured out by mid-November. Same goes with replacing their three starting linebackers from last year.

That said, I think the difference in this game is Pelini and the coaching staff. In the past, maybe NU tanks this game after a letdown against OU. I don't see Pelini and company letting that happen. They're going to force the Huskers to snap out of it and be accountable, and I think that's why NU will win this game and regain their momentum going into the end of the season. Reesing, Briscoe, and Sharp are good weapons for the Jayhawks, but by then we'll have faced plenty of good players, and if we beat KU last year, there's no reason to think we can't do it again.

Prediction: Nebraska 31, Kansas 21

Nov. 21—Kansas State

While it'll be interesting to see if Bill Snyder can revive the program for a second time, that's going to take a little while with the talent left over from Ron Prince, who loved JUCO players like fat kids love cake. And that opening 21-17 win over UMass doesn't bode well.

Prediction: Nebraska 42, Kansas State 7

Nov. 27—@Colorado

While some people picked the Buffs as a potential sleeper in the North, I wasn't sold on it, and I'm still not. I don't look at the loss to Colorado State with as much disbelief as some did, mainly because I'm a big believer that anything can happen in a rivalry game. Still, I don't think CU is going to get to the 10 wins that coach Dan Hawkins promised. I think Nebraska uses this as a springboard into the Big 12 title game.

And it won't be the barnburner it was last season, either. The real question is, how much debris will get thrown on the field when Nebraska wins?

Prediction: Nebraska 35, Colorado 15

Dec. 5—Big XII Championship Game

That's right, I'm predicting a Big XII North title for the Huskers, where they earn the right to play spoiler against Texas. The Longhorns should be in position to grab a national title berth if they win this game, which, if they are healthy, will happen. Colt McCoy and Jordan Shipley will be too much for the Huskers.

Prediction: Texas 34, Nebraska 14

The bowl game is tough to call. What if Oklahoma loses to Texas AND Oklahoma State? What if Okie State crumbles for a couple games before beating OU? We could be headed to anywhere from the Alamo Bowl to the Cotton Bowl, but in my opinion, our conference is too deep for us to end up in the latter.

My guess, much like the rest of the pundits nationwide, is that Nebraska will end up in the Holiday Bowl, most likely against the likes of Oregon or Oregon State. I'd rather face the latter, to be honest with you, despite Oregon's loss to Boise State.

Either way, I'm predicting a Nebraska win in the Holiday Bowl, which leaves the Huskers with a record of 11-3, and a springboard into national title contention in 2010, when we'll have 18 starters back and a shot at the whole thing. Don't look ahead, though, guys, this season's ride promises to be one you don't want to miss.

Friday, September 4, 2009

Bold Predictions for 2009

While I know the season technically started last night with the two crapfests on ESPN and assorted small-college ball (I'm talking about you, Iowa State), the real fun begins tomorrow. We sit on the precipice of a season that will take the college game to even greater heights, with countless dramas and storylines that will unfold over the course of the next four and a half months. Two Heisman trophy winners coming back, and for the first time in history all three finalists from the previous year's balloting will again vie for the trophy.

Here are the stories I'll be paying close attention to in the following months:

-The hope for resurgence among three of college football's heavyweights. In Tallahassee, the vibe coming out of Florida State is that they finally have a QB and offensive line that will put them back to where they belong. In South Bend, Charlie Weis is officially out of excuses at Notre Dame with a cupboard stocked with playmakers at the skill positions. And in Lincoln, Bo Pelini is looking to make the Huskers into a team that competes for national titles, not Big 12 North ones, with a more confident defense and re-emphasizing of the running game.

-Tim Tebow will attempt to lead one of the more stacked teams in recent memory to it's 3rd national title in 4 years, a feat not accomplished since Nebraska's glory days in the 1990's. Though it should be pointed out that the Husker championship teams were all undefeated, and Florida has yet to have one of those.

In addition to chasing a crystal ball and another Heisman, Tebow will also cure cancer, defeat terrorism with one hand tied behind his back, and end the economic recession. Coinciding with this effort by Tebow, ESPN will launch a new network devoted entirely to covering him in all his glory. In case you haven't noticed by now, I'm sick of hearing about Tim Tebow.....and he hasn't played a game yet this year.

-ESPN will declare the Gators the best college football team of all time in week 5. That went real well the last time they did, when they called USC that in 2005. Oh wait, that team didn't even win the national title that year? Oh....well maybe, just maybe, ESPN should stop with the hype and just report the scores. I get so damn sick of watching these roundtable discussions with analysts shouting over each other when all I want to see is some highlights.

-Colt McCoy will win the Heisman trophy, and it will be well-deserved. In addition to the leftover sentiment from last year, I believe few voters want to give a second Heisman to Tebow. Only Archie Griffin has two, and I don't know if people are ready for another two-time winner. Taking that into account, along with Sam Bradford playing behind a new offensive line, and I think McCoy has not only the weapons at his disposal to win, but also the support of most college football fans.

- The only thing stopping USC from winning another Pac-10 title (and assuring another Big 10 beatdown in the Rose Bowl) is wildfires. Oregon looked woeful against Boise State, and I think Cal will continue to falter when the pressure is on. Here's my question: If you were a USC player, wouldn't you get really sick of having to play all your bowl games 20 minutes away? I mean, obviously you want to win the conference title, but wouldn't it be sad knowing that you have to go to the national title game or you're assured of going to Pasadena again?

- Boise State, with their most difficult game already a W, will run the table and "crash" the BCS, leading to another year of bitching and moaning by WAC officials. Look, I get it. It sucks for the Broncos that the system is stacked against them and they have a shot for a 3rd undefeated season and have no national title to show for it.

That said, if the Broncos just manned up and scheduled Oregon, USC, and Cal for their non-conference games instead of teams like UC Davis, Bowling Green, and Tulsa, maybe they would get the shot they are looking for. If teams from the WAC want the respect given to BCS teams, then they should try to schedule as many teams like that as they can.

Perhaps those teams wouldn't want to face Boise State, but the effort has to be made on Boise State's part, because as long as your playing in the WAC, you have to have a brutal-and I mean brutal- non conference slate to get the voters to put you in the title game. Either that, or call the Pac-10 and see if they'd be interested in adding a 12th team to their league. Which they wouldn't because the Pac 10, much like it's Big 10 counterpart, is so stuck in the past they can't see that making some changes might help them, and college football as a whole, to solve some lingering issues about the game.

-Speaking of Boise State and BCS berths, it doesn't help the WAC teams of the world when Notre Dame can fall ass-backwards into 9 wins and snatch BCS invites away from more deserving teams. I don't understand the media infatuation with them....I mean, when was the last time they won a national title, 1988? And if the whole country hates Notre Dame (which that seems to be the case), why do they keep getting the publicity they do? Because they were a juggernaut during the 40's?

Being a Nebraska fan, believe me, I respect tradition, and ND will always rank as one of the all-time greats. But Nebraska has received almost no attention the past few years while they stumbled through the Callahan era. Meanwhile, Weis and the Golden Domers get brought up nearly every damn telecast. And that's not jealousy, that's just me being sick of hearing about them. Can we just hold off on talking about them until they go into the USC game undefeated? Or are we going to do the standard operating procedure for Notre Dame, which is boost them to #9 in the rankings when they start 3-0?

Oh, and while I'm on the topic of Notre Dame, can someone please do something about Lou Holtz? I mean, I like the guy for the most part because he's an old timer and has a lot of respect for the programs that were dominant back in the day (and yes, I'm talking about Nebraska). That said, since when is it OK to have such blatant homerism on what's supposed to be an objective show? Look Lou, we know you love Notre Dame. You had a great run there, and nobody is saying you can't root for them. But could you please stop slobbering through another pro-ND rant on College Football Live? Because quite frankly, I can't take much more of it.

- The Big 10 will be a three team league this year instead of the usual two. Michigan State, the whole conference is counting on you to bring some shred of respectability to it. Um....good luck with that. Let's just say I have my doubts.

-I thought initially was disappointed that Michigan hired Rich Rod to be their coach, because I feared he would fast-track them back to national relevance, and I didn't want to see that happen, because the weaker the Big 10 is, the easier it is for me to live in Minnesota and deal with these idiotic fans. However, its looking like he's going to need a good season to cool off a fan base even more upset now that he's brought NCAA investigations looking into practice-gate.

So I just realized that my "bold predictions" was more of a rant about different college football topics with only a couple of predictions mixed in.....but really, do you expect anything different? We're only 24 hours away from the real kickoff of college football, you can't expect my attention span to be that good with Christmas only a day away. Good luck to everyone's teams this year, and for the Husker fans, I'll be back tomorrow with a game-by-game season prediction.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Nebraska Defense Looks to Make Leap in Pelini's 2nd Year

A year ago at this time, all of Husker Nation was wondering what Bo Pelini, even with his defensive wizardry and impressive resume, really could do to fix a defense that the previous season had been massacred (and I'm talking Biblical proportions here) on a near-weekly basis. Not only had fundamental things such as tackling and basic gap assignments apparently fallen by the wayside, the thing that bothered Husker fans most was what seemed like a lack of effort by the Nebraska defense, a seemingly lackadaisical attitude that was among the main factors when Tom Osborne ultimately terminated the previous staff.

One year later, we know why we hired Pelini as our head coach. While he may not have turned the Pinkskirts of 2007 into Blackshirts, he salvaged a sinking ship and got it pointed in the right direction. The Huskers improved from 112th in the country to 55th, and while 55th might not be cause for celebration, it was good enough for 2nd in the Big 12, and it certainly was better than crapfest saw the previous season under Kevin Cosgrove.

So what does 2009 hold? Will inexperience hold back the Huskers, or will a year in the system overcome any youth-related shortcomings? Here's a look at each unit of the Husker defense for the upcoming season.

Defensive Line

Much like their offensive counterparts, the defensive line for Nebraska is the strength on this side of the ball. Led by All-Everything DT Ndamukong Suh, this unit will be counted on to put pressure on the backfield by itself a lot of the time, especially considering it's difficult to blitz linebackers or defensive backs in a conference where the average pass is gone in two seconds or less. One exciting thing to watch this season is where Suh positions himself in the pantheon of Husker greats.

How high can he climb? A recent article in the Lincoln Journal-Star put him as the 20th-best defender in Husker history. Obviously he has a long way to go to get into Grant Wistrom territory, but what if he puts up another monster season with a few more sacks? What if by dominating, he enables the rest of the defense to rise to new heights on his back? Stats are not the only thing that measures greatness. Greatness is making the people around you better.

In addition to Suh, the Huskers have proven players in defensive ends Pierre Allen and Barry Tuner. Allen, who last year filled in for Turner after the latter's season-ending knee injury, surprised many with his stellar play. According to defensive coordinator Carl Pelini, he could be the Huskers next "superstar", though Allen was quick to downplay the quote. Still, having Suh on the interior, along with a rejuvenated Turner on the other side, should offer Allen plenty of opportunities to make good on Pelini's prediction.

The guy who is the most unknown player among the starting front four is Jared Crick, a sophomore defensive tackle. While he may be an unknown commodity at this point, Bo Pelini singled him out in his press conference Tuesday as a player who has had a great camp and could make a lot of plays with opposing offensive lines having to focus on Suh. Behind both Crick and Suh is redshirt freshmen Baker Steinkuhler, the former high school All-American who along with Terrence Moore (no slouch himself) will be counted on to give both starters a breather.

Along with Steinkuhler, another redshirt freshmen to keep an eye on this season is Cameron Meredith, who turned heads this spring and will be looked to spell both Turner and Allen on occasion. The only true freshmen that has really made much noise at all in fall camp is Jason Ankrah, the defensive end out of Maryland. Right now it hasn't been determined if he'll redshirt or not, but they could wait the first few games and see how everyone's health is before making it official.

The key to a great defensive line is having quality depth, as any player, no matter how well-conditioned, is going to get tired up front if the defense is out there for an extended series. Carl Pelini didn't switch guys out much last year, but I expect him to be less hesitant to throw some younger players in this year now that everyone knows the system, and it should be fun to watch what should be a extremely good (and potentially dominant) unit.


This is what makes writing a season preview for the Huskers difficult: we are still sans a depth chart. That said, a few things have began to hash out the past week, and apparently Nebraska could be trotting out a cabbage patch kid assortment at linebacker. Two of the projected starters, Will Compton at the MIKE and Sean Fisher at the BUCK, are redshirt freshmen. Obviously we have no way of knowing if they both will indeed be starting Saturday, given the coaching staff's insistence on making competition go up through Thursday, but the staff, and the young duo's older teammates, have been effusive in their praise of Compton and Fisher.

Compton, a 6'2" 230-pound wrecking ball, was highly recruited out of high school in Missouri, and there were several times last year where he nearly had his redshirt yanked to help a depleted linebacking corps. Luckily for Husker fans everywhere, they were able to resist the temptation and continue Compton's development. According to Carl Pelini, Compton's communication and mastery of the defense are two of the biggest reasons for his rise to #1 on the depth chart. Backing him up will most likely be Phillip Dillard, who in his senior year is looking at his last chance to live up to the spotty potential he has shown the past few years here. Expect senior Colton Koehler, who saw significant time last year, to also see his share of playing time at the MIKE position this year.

Fisher, the 6'6" genetic freak, is someone I'm going to be watching with great interest this season. Anytime you get someone with that frame and speed on the field, it makes life hell for opposing quarterbacks, because it shuts down some throwing lanes and forces the QB to float his passes just a little bit more than he'd like to, which hopefully will lead to more interceptions. In addition to his physical skills, word out of camp is that he also is a student of the game and is becoming, according to fellow linebacker Blake Lawrence, one of the leaders of the defense, which is surprising for a second year player. In addition to being the #1 BUCK linebacker, Fisher is also getting the lion's share of the reps as the #1 linebacker in both the nickel and dime packages as well, so this is a kid who will be on the field a lot this fall. Said linebackers coach Mike Eckler halfway through camp: "His game, it's just elevating by the day."

Lawrence and former walk-on Mathew May are both competing pretty hard for the remaining starting position, though it will be interesting to see how many linebackers are on the field for most of our defensive sets, given the amount of spread looks the Huskers will get in the Big 12. May has more athleticism than Lawrence, but reportedly is still trying to soak up the playbook. Of course, Lawrence also has had multiple concussions, so it'll be interesting to see what kind of rotation Eckler will use to utilize all the players he has at his disposal.

In addition to the two deep, there are also a couple of freshmen to keep an eye on this fall. Alonzo Whaley, a redshirt freshmen, made a lot of noise last year on the scout team, and his speed should be an asset, particularly on special teams if nothing else. In addtion to Whaley, true freshmen Eric Martin and Chris Williams also could potentially see playing time this fall. Martin by all accounts has had a head-turning camp, including the now-infamous hit that Eckler said was one of the best he's seen during his time at Nebraska. Williams, one of the higher-rated linebacker recruits in the country, might not make it on the field till later in the season, as he's working back from a knee injury he suffered last season. While he's reportedly making good strides, the staff is being especially cautious with him, especially after Kody Spano's knee injury.


While the name may suggest otherwise, this unit is of primary concern if Nebraska is going to make another big leap in the defensive rankings this year. Last season, while still trying to learn the ins and outs of Pelini's defense, the secondary had several embarrassing mental lapses that led to easy scores for opponents. In fact, I blame this group for the meteoric rise in my blood pressure last year, Larry Asante in particular.

To be honest, hearing the chatter out of camp that Asante is one of the best performers is making me both optimistic and nervous. Optimistic because maybe now I won't see slot receivers racing past him after he bites on the tight end running routes underneath, and nervous because what if he hasn't really improved and it just means that everyone else is playing like garbage? Obviously, I'm joking here. While I'm always hesitant to believe everything I read coming out of practices, it seems that Asante, and the secondary as a whole, have finally wrapped their heads around the defensive scheme and are beginning to simply react instead of hesitating to read everything before doing their job.

With the safety spots, there seems to be a four-headed monster with Asante, Ricky Thenarse, Eric Hagg, and Matt O'Hanlon all looking at being interchangeable parts who will see considerable time. While I expect Asante to be a starter, the other spot is still seemingly for grabs. In camp defensive backs coach Marvin Sanders identified Hagg as his best "lockdown" player, so you would think he would get the nod, but the other spot has usually been a two-player fight between O'Hanlon and Thenarse.

Thenarse, a senior, has been teasing Husker fans with potential for three years now with YouTube-worthy special teams hits, but he has run out of time at Nebraska. While his inconsistency can be maddening, you can't help but root for a kid who lost not one but two brothers to gang violence last year in addition to dealing with nagging shoulder problems. Finally 100% healthy and focused on football, it will be interesting to see if Ricky can be the player so many have long hoped he would become. Sanders has indicated that Thenarse has made significant strides during camp, but also was quick to point out that he's excited about the depth at the position and will "look at ways to get them all on the field."

In addition to the main four safeties, there are a couple of younger guys to keep an eye on. The most promising thus far is redshirt freshmen P.J. Smith, who will definitely see his share of playing time this year after dominating on the scout team last season. Courtney Osborne is another who might see some time, though not as much as Smith. I expect both these players to get a chance to make a mark on special teams if nothing else. In my opinion, if you're the coaching staff you're going to want to get these guys some looks in game situations though, especially when you consider that Thenarse, Asante, and O'Hanlon are all seniors.

As far as the cornerbacks go, Sanders has indicated that juniors Prince Amukamara, Dejon Gomes, and Anthony West, along with sophomore Alfonzo Dennard will all see significant playing time. Though Amukamara has reportedly been making a few mental mistakes, he is still considered by many to be the best player at the position in terms of physical tools. If he can curb the errors, he'll be a starter for sure.

In addition to the main four, Anthonly Blue, who was a freshmen All-Big 12 in 2007, is looking to bounce back after redshirting last season with a knee injury. An injury like that is always unfortunate, but to have it happen when there's a regime change makes it twice as tough on the player, as he misses a lot of reps that would help acclimate him with the defense. Though I haven't heard much about him during camp, he could be a guy who halfway through the year is getting more and more playing time as he soaks up the scheme. The young guy to watch at this position is Andrew Green, a true freshmen who was a three-star recruit out of San Antonio. According to Carl Pelini, he's been doing a lot to turn heads thus far in camp, and could see playing time eventually.


I wish I could sit here and tell you that the defense is going to take a quantum leap this year. To improve from 112th to 55th last year was quite a feat, and even then we still had embarrassing performances against Oklahoma and Missouri. The thing about total defense rankings, however, is that they don't tell the whole story. The rankings are based off of the total yards given up per game, which can be a bad indicator when you're playing in the Big 12 and basically every team is putting up 400 yards a game through the air.

Pelini's defenses are predicated on everyone doing their 1/11th, and all it takes is one guy being out of position to make everyone else look like a horse's ass (as we saw all too frequently last year). Film study and repetition within a scheme has a way of getting rid of that split-second hesitation that is the difference between making an interception and giving up a touchdown, and I really think we'll see more of the former than the latter this year.

Am I predicting a juggernaut? No, not by any means. We still have a pretty young team, and there will still be the occasional mental breakdown. But I do believe that this staff, and these players, have an air of confidence not seen in Lincoln in years. While some may not see confidence as the greatest indicator of future greatness, I think that we are beginning to see the rebirth of the Blackshirt mentality, one where everyone is keeping each other accountable within the system, and nothing but perfection is tolerated. And that, my friends, will lead to the leap we are all hoping for.