Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Nebraska's Offensive Ineptitude May Cost Ndamukong Suh The Heisman

With the announcement of the Heisman finalists, the debate on who should receive this year's stiff-armed statue has begun in earnest. Should it be Toby Gerhart, the stud Stanford tailback who led the nation in rushing and scoring? Or how about Mark Ingram, the Crimson Tide's 1500 yard rusher who keyed the nation's #1 team to an undefeated season in the national title game?

I'm not going to bother bringing Tim Tebow or Colt McCoy into the conversation, as it seems that losses in their respective conference title games have seemingly knocked them out of position to win it. In reality, Tebow's decreased stats this season and McCoy's poor performance against better pass defenses is what set them back more than any one game.

Which brings me to Ndamukong Suh, Nebraska's All-Everything defensive tackle. First off, for those of you who don't read my work, I'm going to admit I'm biased. I'm a Nebraska fan, and so anything I say can be taken with a grain of salt.

After the Missouri game, when Suh's name first began to pop up in Heisman conversation, I wrote that for him to have a realistic chance from the defensive tackle position, not only would he have to continue to put up monster statistical games, but his team would have to win in order to keep him on the national radar.

If Nebraska has a banner season, there's an inevitable flood of media love touting their return to prominence. With that would have been coverage of Suh, the cornerstone of a defense that just two years ago ranked 112th in the country but now is #2 in scoring defense.

Months later, Nebraska sits at 9-4, a victim of an offense so putrid that if it were the offspring of skunks, even the parent skunks would have disowned them because of their stench.

The thing about 9-4 teams is that, well, there's a lot of them. They tend to get swept under the rug later in the season as the media inevitably turns it's attention to the BCS hoopla.

A look at Nebraska's four losses this season:
Virginia Tech, 16-15
Texas Tech, 31-10
Iowa State, 9-7
Texas, 13-12

What do you notice about those losses? Well, other than that eyesore against Iowa State?
Three of Nebraska's losses are by two points or less.

In the Virginia Tech game, the Husker offense managed to go from first-and-goal to punting the ball on a possession that included two penalties and a dropped touchdown pass and an 11-for-30 performance by Zac Lee that included two interceptions.

The loss to Texas Tech, while more one-sided, wasn't because of defensive shortcomings. The Huskers held the Red Raiders to 259 total yards, the lowest total in Mike Leach's tenure since his first game. Also, one of the Tech scores came on a bad Nebraska pass that was returned for a touchdown.

Against Iowa State, Nebraska's offense put up a performance for the ages. The Dark Ages. In a game that should have been a four-score margin of victory, the Huskers managed to turn the ball over eight times. Yeah, eight. Like, the number 8. Oh, and four of those turnovers came inside the Iowa State five yard-line.

Finally, in the Big 12 championship game, the Huskers managed a paltry 106 yards for the entire game, wasting a Hurculean by Suh and the defense and costing Nebraska the Big 12 championship.

The point of this whole rant is this: Heisman winners come in three forms.

One is the stat monster, a person who, despite perhaps being on an 8-4 team, puts up numbers that are so far above and beyond anyone else's that it catapults them to victory. An example would be Tim Tebow in 2007, when the Florida quarterback took home the trophy on the strength of having over 50 total touchdowns despite the Gators going 8-4 before the presentation.

This is where Gerhart comes in. First off, he's racked up over 1700 yards rushing and has 26 rushing touchdowns. Sure, Stanford is 8-4, but they've won some games in dramatic fashion, most of it while riding Gerhart's (extremely) broad shoulders.

The other Heisman winner is someone who puts up stats that aren't mind-boggling yet still are noteworthy, but fall in the best-player-on-the-best-team argument. Think Chris Weinke in 1999 or Troy Smith in 2006. Not that either of those players didn't deserve the award, because they both had great years. But would they have won if their teams weren't leading the national title conversation? That's tough to say.

Mark Ingram fits this mold, though I think comparing him to Smith or Weinke isn't fair to him, because Ingram is, at least in my opinion, a much better player than those two were. Also, he had a great performance against that stout Gator defense in the SEC title game.

The third is the guy who puts up ridiculous numbers AND plays on the best team, a'la one Reggie Bush in 2005. Sure, Vince Young put up quite a fight that year, but when a guy puts up 9 yards a carry and makes ankles break and jaws drop on a weekly basis, it's tough to top.

And so we come back to Suh. If Nebraska wins those three close games and is sitting at 13-1 with a Big 12 title, he rides the wave of Nebraska-is-back stories to a potential Heisman win, which would be the first legitimate win for a defensive player in history of the award.

Yes, I know Charles Woodson won in 1997, but let's be honest: if he wasn't taking snaps as a receiver and punt returner, the media doesn't let him leave New York with the trophy.

However, because Suh's offense plays with the precision of a drunken (and perhaps mentally challenged) surgeon, Suh stands little chance of winning. The media, convinced that everyone should be happy that a defensive tackle is invited at all, will award the trophy to either Gerhart or Ingram. Either of them are deserving choices.

But dammit, so is Suh. I challenge any Heisman voter to watch every defensive series from the Virginia Tech, Missouri, Kansas State, and Texas games and come away thinking anything but this:

The nation's Most Outstanding Player (which is what they are supposed to be voting for) doesn't reside on the offensive side of the ball. It's just a shame that Nebraska's offense couldn't help them realize that.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Nebraska Left to Wonder What If

Why? Why does this happen? Why doesn't Nebraska just get blown out, the way all the "experts" say they would? Why can't Zac Lee throw for more than 39 yards? Why does Niles Paul drop at least one game-changing pass a game? Why did the Husker coaching staff put Cody Green in for one series on his own 2-yard line, only to yank him right after it and put back in the most inept quarterback in recent Nebraska history?

I feel like I'm Nancy Kerrigan after she got her knee busted by Tonya Harding's strongman. You remember the clip, where Kerrigan sits crying on the ground, asking in a horrifying voice....Why?
When Nebraska lost to Virginia Tech earlier this year, I hadn't felt that kind of wrenching pain in my gut for a long time. But that was a simple non-conference game. This was for a championship and a trophy, rewards this defense desperately deserved for carrying one of the moribund offensive units in the country all season.

If Nebraska had lost by three touchdowns, I really wouldn't be all that torn up about it. Hell, we were expected to get our asses kicked, so to see it actually take place would have at least been tolerable. Sure, it would have been embarrassing, but at least all of Husker Nation wouldn't be on suicide watch.

Instead, we saw a pantheon-level performance by the defense (and the defensive coaching staff) get wasted yet again by an offense that belongs in a local intramural league.

I don't know how the offense lives with itself. I know that I shouldn't be upset, because really what else would I expect? Zac Lee and company have shat themselves all season long, and this time they were against one of the best defenses in the nation.

But if I were a member of that unit, I'd be taking a long hard look in the mirror and be giving serious thought about buying an "I'm sorry" gift for every member of the Blackshirts.
For the third time this year, Husker fans are left to pick up the pieces after watching a game that Nebraska SHOULD have won.

Woulda, Shoulda, Coulda. Those words don't count for much when you watch a team go from BCS-bound to the Holiday bowl in the span of two plays.

Before I get to those two plays, let's stand back and think about just how unbelievable it is that Nebraska was even in the game during the 4th quarter.

Nebraska put up 106 total yards of offense.

106 total yards. On 55 plays.

That's 1.92 yards per play, or about the distance covered by walking two small steps. You would think just by pure odds and statistics that Nebraska would get lucky and get one big play to boost that number over the 2-yard threshold, but you'd be wrong.

There were people on Twitter joking about the Huskers starting the winner of the Dr. Pepper halftime throwing contest at QB. Another person said that the offense could overdose on Viagra and still be impotent. And they were right.

Zac Lee continues to amaze me with his inability to do even the most simple of tasks on a weekly basis. After the Blackshirts intercepted a pass in field goal range, the only thing the Huskers could not afford was a turnover. So what does Lee do on the very next play? Throws it directly to a Texas defender in the end zone.

The question here is, what the hell is Watson thinking with that play call? I can understand taking a shot when you are on you're own 30 and are trying to make something happen, but to do it when you're in field goal range is unacceptable. Hell, he's been watching this abortion of an offense all season, just like we have, and he should have known that 3 points is a priceless commodity when your unit smells like a burnt diaper filled with Indian food.

That wasn't the only atrocious throw Lee made. Earlier in the game, Niles Paul got a couple steps on a Texas cornerback, and Lee had about a 15-yard window to throw into before the safety came over to break up the play. If Lee throws that ball to Paul's outside shoulder (by the sideline), it's a potential touchdown.

Instead, Lee must have thought the Huskers switched to their colors to burnt orange, because he managed to hit the safety in stride on the right hash mark. Never in my life have I seen one team be screwed so consistently by one player, and it's been happening all season.

So when taking that complete ineptitude into account, it's astounding that Nebraska was even in the game, let alone 1 second away from winning it. The Blackshirts held Texas nearly 300 yards below their season average. They forced 3 turnovers. They harassed the most winning quarterback in college football history into one of the worst performances of his career, likely costing him the Heisman in the process.

Then there was the last defensive series. Nebraska had kicked a field goal to take the lead with 1:44 to play, and all of a sudden, the Huskers were one more stop away from being Big 12 champions. I didn't know whether to scream or vomit. Scream because surely our defense wouldn't let us down after this Hurculean performance, and vomit because over the past few years I have come to expect that the worst possible thing that could happen for Nebraska always comes to fruition.

So it was no surprise when Adi Kunilac, Nebraska's kickoff ace, managed to do the one thing he couldn't afford to, and sent the ensuing kickoff out of bounds, giving the ball to Texas at the 40. Even if he merely sends the ball into the end zone again, the Huskers force Texas to go 60 yards for a game-winning field goal.

Then Texas completed a 10-yard pass that was stopped by a horse-collar tackle, giving the Longhorns the 15 yards they desperately needed to make a game-winning field goal. With two bone-headed plays, the Huskers went from hoisting the Big 12 championship trophy to going to the Holiday bowl.

To make it even worse, the clock had seemingly run out on the Longhorns' last play, setting off a celebration that had been a long time coming for this program. Ah, but there was one second left, and that was all Texas needed to punch their ticket to the national title game.
And about that Heisman....

Any person who watched the game in it's entirety Saturday night can't deny that the "most outstanding" player in the nation doesn't reside on the offensive side of the ball. Ndamukong Suh had 12 tackles, 7 for loss, with 4.5 sacks. Read that stat line again.
It's downright jaw-dropping, only this has been the type of performance that Suh has been putting up all season except for one or two games. Yet because Heisman voters think that the award is a beauty contest, it will likely go to Mark Ingram, who is an incredible player but isn't the best in the land.

The only hope here is that the Downtown Athletic Club and the voters see fit to at least invite Suh to the ceremony, because no one player has been more integral to his team's success than him. If he doesn't get invited to New York, than they can take a baseball bat to that award as far as I'm concerned, because the damn thing is a farce.

The tragedy here is that for the briefest of moments, Nebraska fans were once again back in the spotlight they have for so long clamored for. For a few seconds, they were relevant again, a conference champion headed to the BCS with a defense that is (along with Alabama's) the nation's best.

But for some reason, the football gods decided that the Huskers and their fans have not suffered enough. Sorry Nebraska, you have to get off the field so Texas can kick both it's field goal and you in the nuts at the same time.

After the game, I didn't know whether to cry or vomit. To be angry or destitute. The first drink I ordered after the game was a double of Jack Daniels, and I drank it in a catatonic shock, unable to talk to anyone for a good half hour because my chest hurt too much to acknowledge just how close Nebraska had come to pulling off an upset for the ages.

It's a pain that I'm going to remember for the rest of my life, something I acknowledge is both depressing and, at least to non-Nebraska fans, probably pathetic.

But that's what makes Nebraska special. I don't have a pro team to root for on Sunday. I don't have a baseball team to follow during the summer, or a basketball team to look forward to in the cold months of winter.

All I have is Cornhusker football. To watch them lose a championship in the most cruel of ways is heart-wrenching, because I know that I'll still be lamenting this loss next July, wheres fans with multiple sports to follow can simply transfer their passion to the next one.

The Huskers lost by 1 point to Virginia Tech, 2 points to Iowa State, and 2 points to Texas. 5 points away from being 12-1, a top-5 ranking and Big 12 Champions. Thanks, Nebraska offense, for blowing a potentially great season.

Nebraska returns 16 starters next season, and may be the favorite for the Big 12 title. But that's not going to assuage the pain of this loss. I don't know if anything will.