As far as losses go, this one is right up there. It doesn’t have near the significance of the ’84 or ’94 Orange Bowls, or the 2009 Big XII Championship Game, but it was a heartbreaking way to lose. And yet, it didn’t gut me the way giving up a 42-yard pass on the final play of the game should. One reason is that I expected BYU to win, admittedly with their starting quarterback making the big play late. Another is that you could see it coming the entire fourth quarter when Nebraska failed to put the Cougars away. But the biggest reason why I’m not devastated by the loss is because I’m trying to look at the big picture this season. Whether Nebraska gets ten wins and a New Year’s Day bowl or eight wins and a MAC opponent in December could rest on a few fluke plays. What I want to find out is where the Huskers will be two and a half years from now—battling for a Big Ten title and a playoff berth, or clambering up a backyard mound in a King of the Hill battle with teams from border states.
The Good (What I Liked)
Fight: Late in the second quarter and after the first series of the third, I thought the Huskers would get run out of their own stadium. Then Nate Gerry stepped in a passing lane and they turned things around. Memorial Stadium went from lifeless to energizing, and the Huskers went from leaning on the ropes to landing haymakers. We got our first glimpse of how they responded to adversity, and it was good. Now we’ll get a much better look.
Tommy Gunning: Armstrong has improved as a passer. Nobody will mistake him for Peyton Manning anytime soon, and there were still some errant throws, particularly in the second quarter. But there were also long stretches where he looked sharp. He’ll get in trouble relying on arm strength alone and throwing off his back foot, and there is plenty of progress yet to be made. But ABC commentators Chris Spielman and Todd McShay repeatedly mentioned his improvement from last year, and I have to agree. Let’s hope it continues.
Creativity: It’s too early to decide on Danny Langsdorf as a play-caller, but I had mixed feelings about what I saw Saturday. What I really liked were the late release route by Foster on the TD and the pump and go to Reilly on the last drive. Those are new and clever looks I hope to see more. I’m also a fan of screens as a major part of the offense (maybe not so often on third-and-long, but I don’t want to nitpick) and distributing the ball to a variety of players. Aside from some things I’ll mention later, I give the early returns of the offense a thumbs up.
The Bad (What I Didn’t Like)
Same Old Song: Frustrating, inexcusable miscues were one of the bugaboos of the Pelini-era, and in game one of the Riley regime, they’re still there. Penalties, turnovers, and offensive disappearing acts hurt the Huskers again. Some—or all—of that could be a result of first-game rust, but it still gives one pause.
The Open Door: Starting the fourth quarter, Nebraska had the lead, momentum, and a worn-down opponent missing its starting QB (technically he played a little into the quarter) and its stud on defense. And they couldn’t close. The offense went into a shell, productivity-wise. The defense failed to land a knockout blow and blew the final series. All the attention goes to the Hail Mary, but any number of plays along the way could have saved the day.
Play Calls: I am the typical armchair quarterback who loves to criticize play calling. I try not to, however, because such criticism is often results-based. If Newby plows into the line for a yard, everyone complains about Nebraska going conservative and playing not to lose. If he finds a crease and gets six yards, everyone champions the Huskers for getting back to power football and starts drawing comparisons to the Pipeline. That being said, I do have two bones to pick. One is the QB sneak middle of the fourth quarter. I love a good QB keeper as much as the next guy, especially when that QB is Scott Frost behind an unstoppable line. Yesterday, Nebraska’s O-line was porous, and that was a long yard they asked Armstrong to get. Number two is the jet or fly sweep that was Nebraska’s final offensive snap. I am a fan of the play as a staple in the offense, but I don’t like it in a “must have” situation because there is too much east-west running. This makes it susceptible to being blown up, which can be survived on first-and-ten, but not on third-and-three. And when the jet/fly sweep is blown up, it gets nothing or loses yards because of the east-west running. I would have preferred an option. Armstrong is a smooth option operator and a tough runner, and BYU wouldn’t likely be expecting a play Nebraska had run once or twice all game. And, while it could be blown up for lost yardage too, the option provides a better chance of getting a yard or two and opening the door to go on fourth down.
Running Away: Nebraska gave up on the run, particularly in the second quarter. Then again, their leading rusher at the half was a wide receiver, so it’s hard to blame them. The O-line is inexperienced, so I’m hoping they can gel by the time Big Ten play rolls around. If not, it will be a long season. There were very few rushing lanes, no breakaway runs, and Armstrong barely had time to catch the snap before being pressured on passing plays. I wonder how much of the pass-heavy play calling was due to the deficit, how much was due to BYU not having the greatest secondary ever, how much was due to the inability to run, and how much was indicative of what we’ll see from the Riley/Langsdorf brain trust. On the plus side, I thought going back to the run with the big fella (Cross) after the Gerry pick was a smart move. As I said above, it’s too early to vote yay or nay on Langsdorf, but there were a few things that had me scratching my head.
Defenseless: Hail Mary’s happen. I get it. A guy scrambles around, heaves up a prayer, five guys are jumping and trying to catch it and knock it down and bat it away, and hands and fingers deflect the ball and strange things happen. Ask Jordan Westerkamp. But that wasn’t the case Saturday. Nebraska just blew it defensively. As soon as the Cougars got to midfield (on a dubious run call that, had it gained less than ten yards, would have left the visitors scrambling to get off another play) I figured a heave to the end zone was fifty-fifty given their corps of eight-foot-tall receivers. But Nebraska could have played it better in several ways:
1) I’m not a fan of only rushing three guys. I get not wanting to blitz when a QB only needs time to throw the ball forty yards, but you’ve got to come with at least four.
2) Why wasn’t the good hands team on the field? Put out Westerkamp and Reilly. They don’t have to cover or tackle, just high-point a football. And nothing against Luke Gifford, but having a freshman linebacker only playing because of a suspension is questionable to me too.
3) Positioning was off. Somebody has to front ALL Cougar players, and somebody has to be deep as the deepest. The Hail Mary is known for its chaos, and Nebraska’s defense showed why.
4) I do not have a problem with Riley’s timeouts. In fact, they’re the right move. You want to make sure the guys know what they’re doing. To that end, I wish we’d taken another one. I saw someone on Twitter opining that the timeout was a bad move because it gave BYU time to get organized. It doesn’t take much organization to run around and heave a ball as far as you can. It does, apparently, take some organization to knock down such a pass.
Ultimately, flukes are going to happen. But this wasn’t a fluke. This was very poor defense.
At the End of the Day
Suppose Nate Gerry had gotten around Mitch Matthews a split second faster and had knocked the ball to the Memorial Stadium turf. Suppose Nebraska won 28-27. Aside from being 1-0 instead of 0-1, what difference did that final play make? Other than bowl positioning and nine-wins-a-season streaks, does this play change anything? Had Nebraska won, they still were mistake prone, struggled with blocking, and couldn’t put away a team without its best players. (As an aside, remember when freshman quarterbacks used to get rattled?) They still made some dubious decisions and struggled in the kicking game. They’re still a M*A*S*H unit heading forward. In the end, they essentially played an even game with BYU, with both teams missing key players due to suspensions and injuries. So does that one play change your perception of Riley as a coach, of his staff’s ability to motivate and teach players, of the team’s talent or fight? It shouldn’t. We live in an overreacting society, and so I’m trying hard not to do that. We saw a lot of good and a lot of bad. Ultimately, it’s too early to tell if the brief glimpses were the rules or the exceptions. It’s going to be weeks before we know what the 2015 Huskers are and seasons before we can judge the new staff. Bottom line, as that ball was in the air, all that really hung in the balance was the outcome of a single game. And in that case, I guess it was pretty gut wrenching after all.
Jordan Westerkamp is a star. His catch radius is huge and he is a playmaker. We’ll miss Kenny Bell, but maybe not as much as we thought.
It’s hard to judge running backs who have no holes to run through, but I thought the freshman Wilbon showed promise. I read someone last week (and I don’t remember who so I can’t give them credit) who thought he would be starting by the end of the year. I can see why.
Drew Brown struggled, but don’t put the loss on him. The first FG was into a strong wind and the second, as it turned out, wouldn’t have mattered a lick. BYU would have gotten the ball after a touchback at the same spot on the field and needed the touchdown they scored.
It could be worse, Husker fans. Penn State got trounced by Temple. Stanford’s playoff bid died in the high grass at Northwestern. And Texas . . . ugh.
It’s a shame to learn that Taysom Hill’s season (and possibly career) are over because of injury. The kid is a real talent and BYU had a chance for a special season. Actually, they still might.
I love seeing teams celebrate huge wins. I’m just sick of seeing it in the visitors’ locker room at Memorial Stadium. Was it just me or did Bronco Mendenhall floating on his players’ hands seem reminiscent of ISU coach Paul Rhodes being “so proud” to be the Cyclones’ coach a few years back?
Anybody else keeping an eye on the YSU Penguins? Bo Pelini’s squad hung around with Pitt, losing by only eight.
South Alabama went bowling last year, but so did every team with a pulse. Talent-wise, Nebraska should have a solid advantage. It just remains to be seen how the Huskers bounce back from a tough week. I think youth serves them well, as will Riley’s demeanor. I expect a good week of practice and a solid effort against the Jaguars. Some things to watch: Does the O-line continue to struggle? If so, it’s still early, but a major cause for concern. Does a running back begin to emerge from the pack? Will suspended players return (particularly on defense) and what sort of impact will they make? Can the kicking game (assumedly minus Sam Foltz) get on track? I’ll say the Huskers win 38-17 in a game that maybe isn’t as close as the score suggests. #GBR