That felt good. That felt really good. That didn’t feel like a team with a losing record achieving a slightly better losing record. The fans who made the trip to the Twin Cities and who cheered the team off the field didn’t feel like the fans of a bad (according to the W/L column) team. It all felt like a turning point, and speaks volumes of the commitment and buy-in of the players and of the support of the fans. Sticking together in all kinds of weather feels real and feels good today. Let’s be honest, Nebraska needed that win. The players needed it for their psyche. The coaches needed it to cool their seats back to room temperature. The fans needed it to keep them hopeful. And the team needed it, frankly, because I don’t think they were coming back from 2-5. They don’t exactly have it made in the shade at 3-4, but did you notice ESPN’s FPI (Football Power Index) that was displayed late in the game? Nebraska is favored in all of their remaining games, save for Michigan State. That includes Iowa, who is projected to be 11-0. Here’s hoping they are, setting up a huge spoiler opportunity on the day after Thanksgiving.
The Good (What I Liked)
Swagger: As mentioned above, Nebraska didn’t look like a 2-4 football team. They played with fire, passion, purpose, and with, yes, swagger. No doubt they were helped by big plays early and by the return (in a contributory sense) of De’Mornay Pierson-El. But listening to comments of coaches and players, this was not a team hanging its head all week. This was a team that fought. At the beginning of the year, I said one of the keys to watch would be how much resolve the Huskers displayed. We saw them show fight early in the year against BYU and Miami, and these last few weeks we saw it when the season could have gone into the tank. The Huskers don’t quit, and that reflects well on them as a team and on their coaches.
Pass it On: I do get why the Nebraska coaches want to throw the ball. When he’s on, Tommy is really good. And he might just have the best receiving corps in the Big Ten. Saturday, Armstrong got off to a bit of an errant start, but really settled in (15-20 in the first half). The on-the-run TD pass to Moore was a huge play, both for Tommy’s confidence and for the momentum of the game. Had the Huskers squandered good field position back to back times, it could have set up a long afternoon.
Potential: It has been very frustrating to watch the Huskers in recent years, because they’ve had—in my opinion—Top 10 potential. The problem has been, they’ve seldom lived up to it. On Saturday, Nebraska showed that the ceiling is again high. Beating Minnesota doesn’t put them on par with the big boys of the sport, but it does give fans hope. There is still plenty to work on, but we got a taste of what can be when all is well.
$5 Bits of Broken Chair Trophy: I love trophy games. I love seeing Minnesota or Wisconsin players race across the field to grab Paul Bunyan’s axe and “chop down” the goalpost, or seeing Texas coach Charlie Strong don the Golden Hat after beating OU last week. So when the Huskers joined the Big Ten, I was excited about the possibility of them developing a “trophy game” with someone. Unfortunately, the Heroes Trophy (vs. Iowa) and the Freedom Trophy (vs. Wisconsin), while well intentioned, fall flat. Trophy games aren’t about capturing a contrived piece of craftsmanship. They’re about taking home an absolute piece of crap, like a bucket full of chains (Indiana-Purdue), a wooden statue of a mythical legend (Michigan-Michigan State), or an old brass spittoon (Indiana Michigan State). Which is why I think it is awesome that Nebraska and Minnesota now play for the $5 Bits of Broken Chair Trophy. Twenty-five years from now, we’ll be explaining to the younger generation why the Huskers and Gophers race across the field after a win to hoist a broken wooden chair the same way the older generation explained to us why Iowa and Minnesota fight over a bronze pig or Michigan and Minnesota vie for a little brown water jug. And the reasons are absurd. (Although arguably not as absurd as a Twitter fight between a parody of Nebraska’s former coach and a rodent.) The trophies wouldn’t fetch five dollars at a flea market (except for the $5 Bits of Broken Chair Trophy which actually has five-dollar bills attached to it). But they are what make the college game so unique and grand. Some might say weird. But I, like psychic detective Shawn Spencer, would counter with, “It’s not weird; it’s wonderful.” Oh, and that splintered, broken, somewhat ugly piece of junk is back in Lincoln, baby! Whaaaaat.
The Bad (What I Didn’t Like)
Passed By: New week, same song. The Huskers pass defense continues to be porous. In defense of the Blackshirts, they did stuff a good running game, so well in fact that Minnesota didn’t really try to run up the middle, where they had success (read: wore Nebraska out) the last two years. Some of that may the absence of David Cobb. A lot of it was a fired up Maliek Collins and company. It’s also fair to note that a lot of the Gophers’ passing yards came in the fourth quarter when the Huskers had a big lead and Minnesota was passing every down. And the Blackshirts did end the last two Gopher possessions with interceptions, including Kalu’s pick six. But if Joel Stave and Mitch Leidner can throw for 300 yards each in back-to-back weeks, it is a problem. I’d rather be stout against the run and leaky against the pass than the other way around. But until there’s significant improvement, nobody is ever out of a game against the Husker D.
Three and Out?: Minnesota’s three touchdown drives started when they converted third and five, seven, and ten respectively. This is a recipe for disaster, allowing a clock-eating team like Minnesota to stay on the field in situations where, as a passing-challenged team, they shouldn’t succeed. Fortunately, the Gophers went just 3-12 on their other third downs (including several great run stops by the Blackshirts) and the Huskers’ offense was in fine form. But getting off the field on third and long has plagued the Big Red in recent years. It’s another area where some improvement is sorely needed.
Run it Out: Overall, I thought the play calling was pretty good by Danny Langsdorf. It’s hard to score 41 points with bad play calling. Still, it frustrates me to see the Huskers run for five or six yards on first down and routinely start passing. I get that they can’t run it up the center’s back every play, but this staff seems intent on passing. It worked Saturday. It might work long term. They do have really good receivers, as noted previously. Maybe I’m just nostalgic for the days of power football. Then again, I’ve seen too many “cute” offenses bog down in November Big Ten play. I come from the old school mentality: when the running game is working, run it some more. (Also, I give Langsdorf a pass (pun intended) for throwing deep on the series after Minnesota cut the deficit to 38-22. I don’t give him a pass for calling three straight (and after a 15-yard run on the first play of the series) that used up almost no clock.)
At the End of the Day
Before the year, I said Minnesota would be a swing game for the Huskers. I expected them to beat Illinois and enter the contest at 3-3. Because of the loss in Champaign, this game was even more monumental. The team stayed upbeat after the Wisconsin loss, likely feeding off the environment and electricity in Memorial Stadium late in the fourth quarter. But a third consecutive loss, especially had it been in heartbreaking fashion, would have made it a real challenge to stay positive. It would have made any respectable season goals mere pipe dreams. Now, it really feels like Nebraska could get on a run. In baseball, they say that momentum is only as good as the next day’s starting pitcher. And if Nebraska comes out against Northwestern and starts dropping passes and committing penalties and beating themselves, this all falls apart and the season could still get ugly. But we saw how good Nebraska was when they only have to beat one team—the one in opposite colors. The positive vibe started with great effort against Wisconsin. It got a huge boost with a blowout win over Minnesota. If the Huskers take care of business against the Purple Cats, they’ll have two should-win games against Purdue and Rutgers and two good opportunities to make a statement against Michigan State and Iowa. It’s still overcast in Lincoln. After all, the team is still 3-4. But there’s a line of blue sky on the horizon. Now to keep the front from stalling.
It sure is nice having DPE back and making big plays. Even though his punt return ended in a missed field goal, it was a huge play in that it inspired the Huskers and served noticed to the rest of the conference. Don’t punt to #15! (His one-man tip drill TD wasn’t bad either.)
Nebraska is tipping its plays. Several times Saturday, they lined up with two receivers on the same side of the field both on the line of scrimmage. The inside man is considered “covered” and thus ineligible to catch a pass, which tells the defense a running play is most likely coming. And each time it did. Nebraska gained some big yards on Armstrong runs and Reilly sweeps on such plays, but formationally, can’t they stop giving away that plays are likely to be runs.
It got tense for just a little while there. I never thought Nebraska would actually lose, but had the Gophers punched it in to get within 10 or even 8, well, let’s just say I wouldn’t need to cut my fingernails for a few weeks. Kudos to the Cornhuskers for closing the door. As Keith Jackson once said, “it wasn’t terribly authoritative,” but it got closed nonetheless.
Michigan, oh, Michigan. I feel ya.
Nebraska is catching Northwestern at the perfect time. The Huskers’ trajectory is up, and the Wildcats’ is down. After back-to-back thumpings at the hands of Michigan and Iowa, Northwestern, to quote their former coach, is “who we thought they were.” They have to be reeling mentally now, and Nebraska has a chance to deliver the knockout punch. The Cats won’t be pushovers, mind you. And one clean performance hasn’t fixed Nebraska’s woes. But the Huskers have an athletic edge over the kids from Evanston and now a psychological one as well. I expect a repeat of last year. It will be close for a while, but the Huskers’ superiority will show in the second half. Nebraska 41, Northwestern 24.