Thursday, October 29, 2009

Script Is Flipped: Husker Offense and Defense Switch Places Over 2 Years

Like any Husker fan, I don't like to dredge up memories of 2007. Nobody likes remembering massacres of Biblical proportions or watching Bill Callahan stand seemingly indifferent on the sidelines as opposing teams rang up the scoreboard like they were playing Madden on XBOX instead of facing a once-proud program.

While Kevin Cosgrove led the Husker defense to the septic tank of the NCAA rankings (including giving up 38 points per game), the other side of the ball was an entirely different story. In the last three games of that doomed season, the Huskers rang up 39, 73, and 51 points.

The fans were only left to wonder what the team would be able to do if they had a defense that could even play in the top 50, let alone an elite unit like the one that resides in Lincoln this season.

When Callahan got the axe and Pelini was hired, many fans were thankful that Watson was retained. The thought process was that with Pelini fixing the moribund defensive unit and Watson keeping his job, the offense would continue humming until the defense was on par. When a team's offense and defense are both ranked in the top 25, it's not hard to come to the conclusion that you're going to win your fair share of games.

Last year, with the offense still residing in the top 25 and putting up 35 points per game, the defense rose halfway up the rankings to the mid-50's, and that led to 9 win season and a (perhaps unwarranted) large amount of optimism heading into this season.

Halfway through, well......let's just say things haven't worked out quite as well as we had expected.

On the defensive side, the Huskers took another quantum leap under Pelini, jumping into the top 25 in nearly every defensive category. The only one where they still haven't cracked? Um....turnover margin. Having Zac Lee and Team Anvil Hands in the offensive backfield isn't helping that cause.

What has been stunning has been just how far the offense has regressed. It would be one thing if only Zac Lee was playing poorly. However, the fault can't be piled on his efforts alone. The ineptitude has been spread all across the skill positions.

Nebraska's offense now finds itself ranked 58th in the country, which is funny, because that's pretty much exactly where their defensive counterparts found themselves last year.

How did we get here? How on earth do we have the best Husker defense in 10 years, only to watch it completely wasted by an offensive stink bomb that nobody saw coming?

To think, if we had last year's offense was still here, we very well could be undefeated. I guess the lesson to take away from this article is that I really miss Joe Ganz and Nate Swift. Who knew Watson's offense would fall so far so fast?

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Husker Offense: 7 Points, 8 Turnovers, Zero Hope

What do you say after a game like that? What words can adequately describe such futility, such complete ineptitude? I find myself at a loss today, unable to come to terms with the nightmarish slew of mistakes I saw Nebraska commit yesterday in a 9-7 loss to Iowa State.

Christmas came early for the Cyclones, as the Huskers gift-wrapped a win for them and handed it over, again and again. We all know about the eight turnovers. Even more shocking than that staggering number is the manner in which they occurred. Fumbles with nobody touching you (Niles Paul). An interception thrown directly to a defender when no Nebraska receiver was within 10 yards (Zac Lee).

Four turnovers inside Iowa State's five yard line. Think about that. The Huskers were just a few feet away from winning this game 35 to 9. Hell, even if you only get field goals on those drives, you still win 19-9.

What initially was anger over turnovers turned to frustration. Then the Huskers hit the 4th turnover, and it turned to bewilderment. Once the 6th turnover was committed, it became disbelief. There aren't enough adjectives in the English language to describe the feeling that sweeps over you when your team commits that many back-breaking mistakes.

The real tragedy here is that the turnovers and garish play of the skill-position players on offense overshadowed a great performance by the offensive line and an even better effort by Ndamukong Suh and the Nebraska defense.

The Cyclones were held to 102 yards passing, 47 of it coming on one long touchdown pass. On 48 carries, Iowa State managed 148 yards rushing, giving them a 3-yards-per-carry average, which dips to 2.72 when you take away the 20-yard gain on a fake punt.

You have to feel for the Blackshirts, who put up a Herculean effort only to watch it be wasted by an offense who couldn't get out of their own way. During the game, I tweeted that the Huskers weren't shooting themselves in the foot, they were blowing off their leg at the kneecap. Which is true.

Shooting yourself in the foot is having a couple of bad penalties. Shooting yourself in the foot is having two turnovers in the red zone. What we saw yesterday was far beyond that.

I don't care what Bo Pelini says: Zac Lee did not play well. I don't know what game the coaching staff is watching, but the quarterback play yesterday was downright awful. Did Lee's teammates do him any favors? No.

There was a litany of dropped passes, and those obviously aren't Lee's fault. Niles Paul and Meno Holt, in my opinion, need to be benched for a game just to give them time to pull their heads out of their ass. And maybe learn how to catch too.

But how many more passes do I have to see go above and behind receivers before the staff is convinced that Lee isn't the best option?

I don't know that I've ever seen a quarterback who delivers the ball to the back hip of receivers more than Lee. Nearly every time he throws, the receiver has to alter his route to attempt to bring in an errant pass. I only saw two or three passes yesterday that hit the receiver in stride, and those are the kind of plays that this offense is built on.

An offense predicated on getting a few yards after the catch isn't going to be successful when the receiver has to stop and reach behind him every time. And it's not just the poor passing, it's the questionable decisions.

On the Nebraska's final drive yesterday, the Huskers faced a 3rd-and-10 with just over a minute to play and no timeouts left. It is OBVIOUSLY 4-down territory, meaning that you don't have to get all 10 on one play, because you know you're going for it on 4th regardless. So what does Lee do?

He throws it 50 yards down-field.

Into double coverage.

Luckily, Niles Paul turned into a defensive back (which he maybe should be one at this point) and broke it up. But the fact that Lee even threw that pass to begin with was mind-boggling. You don't need 50 yards there. Hell, you don't even need 10. You have another down after 3rd, and you can get whatever is left on the next play.

That play would have stood as the perfect example of why Lee must be benched. But then Lee topped himself. When he threw his final interception, I at first thought he had thrown it to a Nebraska receiver.

Why? Because there was nobody within 10 yards of him. It was as if Lee thought the Cyclone linebacker was his own teammate, because that's the only way you can explain a throw that hits a guy right in the numbers. There was not a single Nebraska receiver in the camera shot. That throw was hands-down one of the worst throws I've ever seen in all my years of watching and playing football.

The only way Lee could have topped that series of mistakes is if he had dropped his pants and laid a deuce on the "N" at midfield. I say that in jest, because that's basically what his performance the past three games has been. His play is so bad that I just compared it to a bowel movement.

With Nebraska now mired at 1-2 in the conference and in desperate need of a spark on offense, there is no choice: Cody Green must play.

Not only because of Zac Lee's ineptitude, but because, at 1-2 in the conference and 4-3 overall, it's become apparent that the Huskers must start building for next season.

Let me clarify: I am in no way writing off this season. The Huskers still have an elite-level defense, and in a down Big 12, there are still opportunities to do great things yet this year.

But it has become painfully obvious that Zac Lee is not the future at the quarterback position. Now is the time to throw Green into the fire and let him make his mistakes now, because it surely can't be worse than watching Lee kill the Nebraska offense.

Yesterday was very odd to me. After the Virginia Tech loss, I was devastated. There was literally pain in my chest and stomach.

After the Texas Tech loss, I was angry. I couldn't believe how poorly the Nebraska offense had played, and how awful the play-calling was

However, yesterday's loss didn't result in either of these feelings. I walked out of the bar with a sense of detachment, an odd bewilderment reserved for those who can't comprehend what they have just seen.

I found myself resigned to another year of irrelevance for Nebraska, the reality creeping in that this year may result in an Insight Bowl bid if we're lucky.

I have a little story for you, perhaps one that will resonate for Husker fans after yesterday's game:

Every week, my brother and I watch the Nebraska game at a Husker bar in the Minneapolis metro area. We always bring along our friends, who are Minnesota fans. We always give each other crap about the other's team. We have heated debates about the Huskers and Gophers, the Big 10 vs. the Big 12.

After the loss to Virginia Tech, they were downright merciless, rubbing it in our faces.

Yesterday however, there was nothing. They saw it my face: giving me crap was completely unnecessary. I already knew my team sucked, and they didn't even need to reaffirm it.

Welcome to Nebraska football in 2009.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Midseason Report Card: Suh-Led Defense Earns High Marks

Crazy how time flies, isn't it? We wait for months through spring and summer for football to finally come back into our lives, but then when it finally arrives, we don't properly savor it. We spend so much time analyzing and agonizing about every game that all of a sudden we take a step back and half the season is gone.

Which is exactly where we find ourselves now. Halfway through year two of the Bo Pelini era, Nebraska stands at 4-2, and while that may be a one-win improvement from last year at this point, many questions remain.

A 4-1 start with a heart breaker to Virginia Tech and a comeback victory against Mizzou gave fans hope that 2009 may be more than just a stepping stone to a big 2010 season, but that momentum came crashing down in a lethargic and head-scratching loss to Texas Tech.

With six regular-season games remaining, it's time for a midterm report card.



Well, um.....can I give an "Incomplete" grade? If Nebraska was in the Sun Belt conference, this would be an A+, but alas, that's not the case. As spectacular as Zac Lee was against those also-rans, he has been equally mediocre against everyone else. The more I watch him, the more I recall Sam Keller, who would stand in the pocket too long, freak out, and then dump it off to a guy in the flats for three yards. Or get sacked.

Nebraska now stands mired in a quarterback controversy, pitting a beleaguered Lee against true freshmen Cody Green, who has won the hearts of Husker fans with some spectacular mop-up duty and the fact his name isn't Zac Lee.

One thing is certain: whatever the outcome of the competition, it will determine whether Nebraska is playing in a New Year's Day bowl or the Alamo Bowl. For now though, the grade on this position is just barely passing.

Grade: C-

Running Backs

This position, led by Roy Helu, has been the one dependable group on the Nebraska offense. Another pleasant surprise was just how effective Rex Burkhead was in his first season of college football.

Unfortunately, the running backs have also had the most difficulty staying on the field. Between Helu's banged-up shoulder and Burkhead's broken foot (that will cost him the next six weeks), the Huskers have been stretched thin at the position. You think Bo might be regretting booting Quentin Castille right about now?

But this report card isn't based off of what-ifs or injuries, it's about grading the results, and so far, these guys have done a great job.

Grade: B

Wide Receivers/Tight End

What's that? Oh, I'm sorry, I wasn't aware these guys were in class this semester. Or perhaps they've just been truant a lot. Either way, this was a group that, while admittedly a question mark in camp, had given Husker fans a lot to expect due to the amount of physical talent they possess.

As we've seen though, talent doesn't always translate to results. Niles Paul looks like Randy Moss for spurts, and then disappears faster than beer at a frat party. Curenski Gilleyen is equally inconsistent. And the most consistent performer among them is senior Chris Brooks, who was all but written off before the season started but has emerged as the most sure-handed of the bunch.

Then there's the tight ends. All through camp, there was so much sunshine being blown about this group that you'd have thought KC and his band had taken up residence in Lincoln. We all knew about Mike McNeill, but then we kept hearing about Kyler Reed, Ben Cotton, and Dreu Young, and how the coaches were scheming to get them all on the field.

But like their fellow receivers, these guys have been missing in action. The question is, how much of it can be traced to the inconsistency at quarterback? If Joe Ganz was still in town, would these guys still be having such run-of-the-mill seasons? It's doubtful.

Grade: C- , only because the Sun Belt games boost them up.


The performance of Shawn Watson mirrors that of his unit. He is at times brilliant, mixing a concoction of diverse plays out of multiple sets. Yet, that very word, "multiple," makes me want to vomit. All through the season, we've heard that his offense is striving to be "multiple."

How is it then that it can be so damn predictable most of the time? As I said in my Texas Tech article, there are times where it seems as if this offense only has two plays, and that, as much as the inconsistent quarterback play, is what is holding the entire offense back.

Grade: C+


Ahh, something actually fun to talk about.


Downright dominant. Ndamukong Suh is an absolute beast, and he recently moved to #1 on Mel Kiper's big board for the NFL Draft. In his shadow, Jared Crick is playing spectacularly well, and he's been getting better with each passing week.

Due to the scheme that Pelini has employed (keeping quarterbacks in the pocket, not letting his d-ends get too far upfield), Pierre Allen and Barry Turner have been somewhat quiet this year, but against Tech, Allen had two sacks and I could see both of these players having a big second half. Even younger guys like Cameron Meredith and Baker Steinkuhler were doing pretty well in the Sun Belt slate.

The bottom line is that without this defensive front, who knows where the defense would be at this point. It is far and away the strength of the entire team.

Grade: A- ........and it only got a minus because I'd like to see more sacks. But that's nitpicking at it's finest.


The big question mark of the defense going into this season; this unit is long on talent but short on experience. The names Will Compton and Eric Martin may already be household names, but it's mostly because of hype, not results. Sure, they've made a few nice hits, a few nice plays.

But when the mistakes came, the experience came back to the forefront. Phillip Dillard, who was two tiers down the depth chart before the season started, worked his way back into the starting lineup and has become a calming presence in the middle of the Nebraska defense, even notching 12 tackles last week against Texas Tech. While the play of this group looks to improve, it's still very much a work in progress.

Grade: C+


This was supposed to be a pretty decent unit, and while it has shown flashes of great play, it also has a few examples of truly bone-headed brain farts: the blown coverage by O'Hanlon in Blacksburg, several costly dropped interceptions by Larry Asante (seriously, at what point do you find some Stickum for this guy?), missed tackles by Prince Amukamara against Texas Tech.

No player is entirely at fault, as obviously the play of these guys is determined by the defensive call. That said, there have been many times where the secondary has been in position to make a game-changing play, only to blow it and see it carom off their outstretched fingertips.

Before the season, I thought the Blackshirts would be getting a lot of interceptions, but through 6 games they only have 4 picks, and that has to change, especially in light of how poorly the offense is playing. The offense needs more possessions, and if the defense doesn't start forcing more turnovers, it could spell trouble.

Like seemingly every other unit on the team (excepting the defensive line), the secondary has to play more consistent if Nebraska hopes to have a big second half of the season.

Grade: C


Looking at the numbers, Nebraska has improved by leaps and bounds from last season:

Rushing Defense: 16th in the country, 96.5 yds/game

Passing Defense: 23rd in the country, 174.5 yds/game

Total Defense: 12th in the country, 271 yds/game

Scoring Defense: sixth in the country, 11.83 points a game

And while I'm overjoyed at the vast improvement, the thing that stands out to me isn't the dominance 85 percent of the time, it's the other 15 percent, the one polluted with breakdowns, blown tackles, and schematic screw-ups.

Bo has preached all season about living up to his lofty expectations, and it's these mistakes that he is referring to. Playing excellent ALMOST all the time isn't going to win championships. It'll win you a lot of games, and it'll get you to a decent bowl every year. But if this program is going to get over the hump and rejoin the nation's elite, it is these screw-ups that must be fixed.

And it's Pelini's job to keep on the players until they get it right.

Grade: B+ (This is downgraded from an A due to sideline antics and evisceration of refs...that stuff is OK, but not so often.)

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Not "Back" Yet: Reality Sets in After Loss to Tech

So much for going into the Oklahoma game 7-1. All the good will and warm fuzzy feelings from the win a week ago were effectively killed Saturday by a unbelievably bad offensive performance and the development of a quarterback controversy.

When you look at the stats, you wonder not only how Nebraska lost the game, but how it wasn't even close. If someone had told me that the Huskers would hold the Red Raiders to just 260 yards of total offense, I would have been thrilled. I would assume that it would be a 14, maybe even 21-point victory for NU. Which goes to show just how misleading statistics can be.

After the win in Missouri, many Husker fans (including yours truly) were so giddy about the fourth quarter comeback that we shrugged off what had been a putrid performance by the offense for the first three quarters.

Sure, we knew we had struggled, but we reasoned that when challenged, the offense would get back on track and Zac Lee would find a way to make the necessary plays to win. And really, if you look at his statistics from yesterday, you would come to the conclusion that he really didn't play that bad. He completed 16 of his 22 passes, after all. But go up two paragraphs and re-read that line about stats being misleading.

Because if you watched the game, you saw the same thing as everyone else: a tentative QB who seemed to lack any aggression or resolve to rise to the moment when his team needed him most.

Where is this "gunslinger" I heard about through camp, the guy who wasn't afraid to air it out deep? The one who was so confident he bordered on cocky? Because that's not the guy we've seen the past two games under center for Nebraska.

To be fair, it wasn't a banner day for anyone on the offense. There were drops, the most glaring one by Niles Paul. After batting down a bubble screen pass (that was actually a lateral) with the skill of a defensive back, Niles and the rest of the Huskers watched it get taken back by Tech for 6 points.

I would go so far as to say that the receiving corps disappeared, but that would be inferring that they had actually shown up to the game. At least Chris Brooks decided to put in an effort.

In addition to poor performance by the players, an equal amount of blame lays upon the shoulders of Shawn Watson, whose play calling had many fans scratching their heads. And by scratching their heads, I mean hurling obscenities at their TV screen.

Last year against the Red Raiders, Watson called a perfect game in a 37-31 loss that helped the Husker offense establish it's identity the rest of the season. Yesterday seemed as if he was experimenting on how to do the exact opposite.

When the Red Raiders gained a two score lead, Watson decided that the Huskers needed to throw the ball every play, which was odd because it was still the first quarter. Oh, and the fact Nebraska has arguably the best running back in the Big 12 is another reason one would want to continue to use the ground game.

I know Roy Helu was banged up. However, the abandonment of the running game was a harbinger of doom for the Huskers yesterday. Without an effective running game, Tech's defense was able to drop everyone in coverage because they knew we were going to throw it every time.

Even more frustrating was Watson's decision to try to run it when Nebraska was down 3 scores in the fourth quarter. THAT is when you start throwing the ball every play.

It was if he had a sheet of situational play calls for each quarter but accidentally put the "4th quarter, down by 21" plays on the first quarter sheet and placed the 1st quarter running plays on the 4th quarter sheet.

It was truly bizarre to watch a team that can be so diverse at times be reduced to running two plays. Those two plays were either a zone read (which becomes easy to stop when it's apparent the QB has no intention of keeping it), or a shotgun pass where Lee would dance around, become flustered, and either take a drive-breaking sack or throw to a (well-covered) guy in the flats for three yards.

Then there's Cody Green. To be honest, he didn't look all that amazing yesterday. He overthrew receivers. He seemed to be unable to take any velocity off his throws when it was needed.

But unlike Lee, there was no hesitancy. Green always looked authoritative on his delivery. He stepped up in the pocket with purpose and delivered missiles, albeit inaccurate ones sometimes. There was the sense that, even if there would be bumps in the road with him in the game, he believed that he could handle them. Lee has shown that he shrinks in those moments.

After watching Lee stumble his way through another hesitant and uneven performance, people will be calling for Green to start, and that's completely understandable. Halfway through the season, the decision needs to be made whether or not we continue to give Lee a chance or whether the future is now and it's time to let the freshmen try his hand.

The schedule is friendly for such an experiment. Green would be in the confines of home, playing against an Iowa State team that ranks 95th in the country in passing defense. So it will be interesting to see how Pelini and Watson handle the quarterback situation.

Do you give Green the nod but still put Lee in for one or two series a half? Do you stick with Lee but let him know Green will be getting a few series? It's a difficult situation that Nebraska finds itself in, but that is what happens after you lay a bomb like the offense did against Texas Tech.

With Oklahoma coming to Lincoln in three weeks, one thing is for sure. Nebraska had better establish it's offensive identity quickly, or that Big 12 North title that once seemed assured will be in serious jeopardy.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Huskers Will Exorcise Red Raider Demons

After an emotional and extremely gratifying win over Missouri last week, there was some concern that the Huskers might have a problem on their hands this week against Texas Tech. Not only because of the concern for a potential letdown, but because the Red Raiders, more than perhaps any team in the Big 12 this decade, have been a thorn in the side of Nebraska.

Last year's overtime defeat. The LeKevin Smith fumble in 2005 that lost Nebraska the game. The 70-10 drubbing in 2004 that was a quintessential Blackshirts-under-Cosgrove moment.

With momentum building and Nebraska starting to make waves nationally, Texas Tech comes to town in a match-up that will go a long way in determining just how far the Huskers have come the past year.

In many ways, this game is a classic trap game. Coming off a big road comeback....a team whose offense has given you fits for years....your own offense coming off a performance that stunk of Garbagio Armani for the first three quarters, with a quarterback who still hasn't shown he can put together a whole game against a quality opponent. An injury to a key offensive cog (Burkhead).

Lest we forget, the real reason Nebraska was in position to win last season in Lubbock wasn't because of a stout defensive performance or offensive fireworks. It was due to the Husker offense spending 2/3rds of the game on the field. Literally. Joe Ganz and company were on the field for 40 minutes.

Can Nebraska do that again? And furthermore, do they really have to rely on that this year? Yes, it would obviously help to keep the Tech offense on the sideline most of the game, but unlike last year, I don't think it's an absolute necessity. This season, there's a Nebraska defense that is playing with a confidence and swagger that wasn't there last year.

A year in the system has given rise to a unit that has grown by leaps and bounds, and that will go a long way in stopping the Red Raiders tomorrow. With most of the game spent in the Dime formation, it will all depend on sound tackling and preventing four yard gains turning into 40-yarders.

The biggest advantage Nebraska has is that it's defensive line's dominance enables the Huskers to drop seven players into coverage and still generate a pass rush, something that is an absolute necessity against Texas Tech. If Suh and his buddies on the front get into the backfield and throw off Steven Sheffield's timing, it will go a long way in keeping the Red Raiders off the scoreboard.

The most comforting feeling in Pelini's second year is the complete lack of complacency in Nebraska's program. It seems as if every cog within the team refuses to rest on their laurels or previous accomplishments. The team has adopted Pelini's expectations of perfection, and that will be the reason that there will be no letdown against Tech.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Suh Striking the Pose: Pipe Dream or Legitimate Chance?

After the Missouri game, I jumped on the Suh-for-Heisman bandwagon, one that I thought would be reserved for my fellow delusional Husker fans. All of a sudden though, Suh has become the fresh face in the race, joining Tennessee's Eric Berry as the only defensive players on the potential ballot. Sure, we expect the Omaha and Lincoln press to start boosting his candidacy, but national media? We were skeptical that they would come around.

However, national writers like Sports Illustrated's Gene Menez and Pat Forde now have him their top 5. SI's Andy Staples has him as his leader, claiming that he fits the billing for Heisman, which is supposed to be awarded to the nation's Most Outstanding Player, not the media's skill-position darling of the moment.

And right now Suh is kicking more doors down than the bad guys from the ADT home security commercials, forcing people to take notice of his dominance.

The question is, can he stay there? Is the media merely finding someone to fill the void that exists because of the sub-par play of the quarterbacks (Bradford, McCoy, Tebow) thus far, or are they really going to give him a shot?

And furthermore, can Suh continue to contribute at this pace, a necessity given the media's penchant for moving on to the next big thing after a bad week or two?

I for one think that if there's one thing we can count on, it's that Suh will continue to put up great numbers. Obviously, every team thus far has thrown double teams and other tricks at Suh in an effort to slow him down, and he has proven that those efforts are futile at best.

Will he continue to put up games like Virginia Tech or Missouri though? That's a tall order. Not many guys have games like Mizzou (six tackles, one sack, one forced fumble, an interception, and three quarterback hurries, along with a pass breakup) twice in a career, let alone a season.

Unfortunately, if he's to stay in the conversation, Suh has to continue performances close to these. Suh has been aided by the aforementioned quiet performances by the the big three quarterbacks from last year. But that cannot be counted on continuing through the season.

Will ESPN and Sports Illustrated continue to list Suh so highly if Tebow and company start putting up big numbers? Will Suh be at a disadvantage from a lack of nationally televised games? It's all up in the air right now.

The good news for Suh is that his fellow linemates are all good players, and that will prevent any opposing team to focus too much attention on him, preventing him from making the plays necessary to stay in the Heisman conversation.

The bad news? So many teams in the Big 12 throw the ball so quickly that it's going to be difficult for him to get the sacks that so many pundits look at to determine how dominant a player is at defensive tackle.

Which shows just how short-sighted the national media is. At least SI's Staples has pointed out that any media member with a vote has to watch Suh play a whole game before passing judgement. It's difficult for some to keep their eyes on the trenches, when the perceived "real" action happens wherever the ball is headed.

But even when Suh doesn't put up stats, he single-handedly can turn the outcome of a game just with his presence. He might not get a sack, but if he collapses the pocket from the interior and forces a quarterback outside to Pierre Allen or Barry Turner, he deserves as much of the credit as them.

The truth of the matter is, Suh's chances of success are directly tied to Nebraska's. If the Huskers continue to win and make a run at the Big 12 championship, Suh will at least stay in the conversation. However, should NU falter (I don't think they will, but then again, I'm chugging the Husker Kool-Aid), then Suh's chances diminish greatly.

What the hell, though. If I'm chugging the Kool-Aid, then I might as well beer-bong it. Suh for Heisman. Why not?

Friday, October 9, 2009

Huskers Show Muscle in Missouri Monsoon

I'm still dumbfounded. The game ended hours ago, but I'm still sitting here in some kind of idiotic stupor, like a kid who thought he had lost his favorite toy but then found it in the least likely of places.

Which is fitting, because a similar thing happened to Nebraska on Thursday night in Columbia.
For three quarters, the Huskers offense looked less effective than Poland's army did against Blitzkrieg tactics.

Zac Lee seemed hell-bent on trying to replicate his performance against Virginia Tech. The running game was anemic, receivers were dropping passes, and our line was getting pushed back on every play. It was truly painful to watch, and it got so bad that I even tweeted at one point: "It has become apparent the only way we are going to score is if our defense does it."

That's right—the Nebraska offense laid such an epic bomb during the first three quarters that I thought our defense would have to find a way to score two touchdowns and simultaneously keep Missouri from scoring to win.

All of which goes to show that doubting Nebraska might be a very bad idea.

First off, let me say that I know it's only Missouri. This wasn't Oklahoma. This wasn't Texas. This didn't win any championship, and it probably didn't really alter the national perception of the Huskers that much.

But compared to the alternative? If Nebraska loses that game, the entire season swings the other direction. People would have written the Huskers off, and we wouldn't have heard anything about them the rest of the year.

But a win like that? In those conditions, and particularly in that style? It gets people's attention.
Yes, much will be pointed out about the negative—like having approximately 80 yards of offense through three quarters. But numbers, stats, all that crap doesn't matter when the scoreboard reflects the true story: When it seemed there was no hope, both units, both offense and defense, rose to the challenge and responded with a kind of grit that even the most hardened Husker fan didn't know was there.

With Cody Green taking warmup snaps on the sideline, Lee decided to show why Shawn Watson and Bo Pelini had so much faith in him. A guy who couldn't hit the broad side of very large barn for the first 45 minutes threw three touchdown passes in four minutes, not only vaulting Nebraska to a lead it would not relinquish, but simultaneously turning Faurot Field into the quietest group of 70,000 people I've ever seen.

Lee's main target, Niles Paul, finally had his true breakout game. While some may have pointed to his performance against Florida Atlantic, I'd say his six-catch, 102-yard game tonight, complete with two momentum-changing touchdowns (in a torrential downpour, no less), tops that performance by a mile.

Oh, and Bo? You might want to dust off those Blackshirts. Missouri totaled a meager 225 yards and turned the ball over three times, the last two being absolute back-breakers.

Ndamukong Suh turned in a performance that hopefully will open up whatever eyes were still closed to his brilliance. For three quarters, he nearly singlehandedly kept Missouri from opening up a lead—and then, somehow, he topped it in the fourth.

His final stat line is impressive: a sack, an interception, a forced fumble, six tackles. But like most interior defensive linemen, stats don't do the man justice. He dominated that game like few players can.

I'm not the first to say it, but I will repeat it: This man has to be considered for the Heisman. The quarterback club be damned—if Suh keeps this up, he has to get an invite; otherwise they ought to throw that trophy away, because it's a fraud.

For over two hours, I sat in silent gloom, that familiar shroud of a loss creeping in. We've all felt it ruin our weekend in the past. When Nebraska loses, the world just isn't that fun. You're irritable, cranky, and sometimes downright depressed.

Watching Nebraska for three quarters, I feared I'd find myself in that all-too-familiar position.
Fifteen minutes and 27 points later, all is right in the world.

It's too early to say where the season goes from here. There's still a lot of football left to play and plenty of drama yet to unfold. But at the end of the season, and maybe even years from now, we'll look back at this game as a turning point, one where Nebraska, having played 45 minutes of the crappiest football anyone has ever seen, decided that enough was enough.

The Big Red might not be "Back." But they sure as hell are on their way.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Bowden's Plight Highlights Osborne's Good Decision

There was a time a dozen years ago when two men stood out above all others in the world of college coaching. Bobby Bowden directed the Florida State Seminoles through the 1990's in style, leading a program that finished ranked in the top 5 every season during that decade. FSU won two national championships (one of them coming over Nebraska in the 1994 Orange Bowl) and won or shared the conference title in every season over that span.

The other program at the top was Nebraska, who joined FSU as the only programs to rack up 100 wins in the decade. The Huskers, led by Tom Osborne, won 3 national championships in 4 years to finish Osborne's career, which ended with his retirement after sharing the national championship with Michigan in 1997.

I bring this up because of the current calls for Bowden to step down at Florida State. To think that the man who brought Florida State from the cellars of college football to the pinnacle is being asked to give up the program that he built is one that has stirred heated debate in the world of college football.

Bowden took over Florida State in 1976. The previous three seasons, the Seminoles had gone a combined 4-29. Four years later, the Seminoles lost only one game, the Orange Bowl to Miami, a game that could have awarded them a national championship. For the last 25 years of the 20th century, Bowden was the steward of a juggernaut, and much of the credit for that belongs to him.

Yet, much like his friend Joe Paterno once did at Penn State, he now finds himself confronted with boosters, trustees, and fans who question whether the game has passed him by. And unlike JoePa, who was able to resurrect his program in a highly-suspect Big 10 in the latter half of the current decade, Bowden has not been able to completely right the ship in Tallahassee.

While he hasn't overseen any losing seasons this in this decade as Joe Pa did (Paterno's record during the first five seaons of the 2000's: 26-33), Bowden also doesn't have near as forgiving of supporters as Paterno did. Would Bowden still be the coach at Florida State if he had four losing seasons in five years, as Paterno did? Doubtful, given the run of success that the Seminoles had in the 80's and 90's.

While some of you may say that a run like that would elevate a coach to a status that is beyond firing, I would say otherwise. College football fans are some of the most impatient people in the sporting world: if success becomes so commonplace that it is expected, it doesn't matter what you did to get to that point, you are expected to maintain it.

Why, even Osborne faced calls for his head after he took over for Bob Devaney. Despite the fact he never won less than 9 games and his teams finished ranked in the top 15 in 24 of his 25 years at the helm, many fans, spoiled from Devaney's two national championships in his final two years, questioned whether or not Osborne was the right guy for the job.

The criticism was so bad that Osborne actually considered taking the Colorado job in December of 1978, but fortunately for Nebraska, opted to stay put. But what puts Osborne in deity status is that he left at the apex.

Unlike Bowden or Paterno, Osborne left before his program began it's downward spiral. It is impossible to say whether or not Nebraska would have gone as far downhill as it did if he had stayed. Would there have been two 5-7 seasons in four years? Would the bowl streak have ended? I would argue that those disasters would have been averted had Osborne stayed at NU.

But what if Nebraska had started going 7-5 or 8-4 every year? What if the Huskers had two consecutive seasons with 6 wins? Would Nebraska fans tolerate it for very long, even from a man they consider just behind God and Christ in terms of devotion? I'd like to think that they would. I'd love to think that Nebraska fans would have given him the same leeway that Paterno had in that dark period from 2000 through 2004.

However, with the rise of the Big 12 South and the cyclical nature of college football's hierarchy, it's tough to say just how differently Osborne's career would have played out. Nebraska fans look at 9 wins and they shrug. It's probably delusional to have such high expectations, but Husker fans were spoiled for 40 years, and they expect championships.

He'd undoubtedly be either in the lead or neck-and-neck with Bowden and Paterno for the career wins record. He may have tacked a couple of more conference championships, maybe even recruited enough horses to reverse that debacle at the end of the 2001 season and win another national title.

But there's no guarantee that the same slide suffered by FSU and Penn State could have been avoided by NU, even with Osborne at the helm.

For the record, I think Bowden should be able to stay until he decides to leave. While I sympathize with Florida State fans, the man has done enough for your school that he's earned the right to stay, especially given that Jimbo Fisher is supposed to be the man in charge by 2011. That's the rest of this season and next year, and I don't think it's too much to ask that the man be given that time frame to have one last hurrah and turn it around in Tallahassee.

But having watched fans call for Paterno's head a few years back and people calling for Bowden's now, I'm glad that Tom Osborne got out while he was still on top. Paterno and Bowden, as unfair as it is, will always have the "Yeah, but they tailed off at the end there" arguments as part of any debate over their legacy.

Osborne's, on the other hand, will only continue to gain luster as time passes.