The Huskers might be the best 2-4 football team ever. Consider they’ve lost by a combined 11 points and led or been tied for the lead with 15 seconds left in the fourth quarter of each game. They’re not far from 6-0. Then again, Nebraska has nobody but themselves to blame for their losses. Penalties, questionable play calling, atrocious game management, and failed opportunities cost them against Miami, and especially against BYU and Illinois. Nebraska should have beaten the Cougars and Illini. Those games were in the bag. This one wasn’t quite the same. Nebraska could have beaten the Badgers, and had every opportunity to do so. But they didn’t collapse in calamitous fashion in the final minutes. Rather, a series of the same old problems plagued them throughout the game. The second half was like watching a person throw up in slow motion. It was that scene from so many movies where a desperate man’s fingers slowly slip off a ledge. Give the Badgers credit—they won the game. But fault the Huskers too—they lost the game.
The Good (What I Liked)
On Fire: No, not Mike Riley’s chair. The Huskers still appear to be playing with passion. The fans, despite some of the grumbling on social media and message boards, are still behind them. Memorial Stadium was rocking Saturday. The team hasn’t quit and they haven’t split, not discernably. If the old adage is true that what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, then the Huskers are going to be real strong someday. But in order to avoid being killed, they’ll need to “stick together in all kinds of weather.” So far, so good. But will the team continue to hold together with the season on the brink of falling apart?
On the run: Remember the last two outings against the Badgers? Wisconsin linemen opened holes wider than I-80 West and a bevy of Badger backs ran, danced, strolled, and laughed their way to astronomical rushing totals. Wisconsin was without the elite running backs of years past and their O-line isn’t up to typical standards, but the Husker defense was still much improved. Maliek Collins and Vincent Valentine looked more like the dynamic duo we expected, and Chris Weber has played admirably in the absence of Banderas and Rose-Ivey.
Pass, Bucky, Pass: I have no idea why the Badgers’ game plan included Joel Stave going all Drew Brees and heaving the ball all over Tom Osborne Field, but it played right into the Huskers’ hands. True, Nebraska’s pass defense is porous, but passing is clearly not Stave and Wisconsin’s strength. Their running game was mostly held in check, but did have success against a worn down defense in the fourth quarter. Had they pounded the rock all game, I doubt Nebraska’s in position to win late. I particularly appreciated their pass calls on third-and-short in plus territory. I was just sure Stave was going to serve up a game-ending pick, but to his credit, he didn’t.
The Bad (What I Didn’t Like)
Attention to Detail: Nebraska continues to struggle with little things—running a three-and-a-half-yard route on third-and-four on the opening series, a DT lining up in the neutral zone on a third-and-one, repeated dropped INTs, procedure penalties, and so forth. All of those things are going to happen from time to time, but they keep occurring, and that ultimately reflects poorly on the coaching staff. Bo Pelini’s teams were known for similar frustrations, and it is disappointing that thus far Mike Riley’s staff hasn’t corrected them.
Turn Around: Back in the day, my grandpa used to complain about Nebraska cornerbacks (Erwin Swiney especially) who “won another track meet” but failed to play the ball in the air. The Cornhuskers’ current crop of DBs make Swiney look like Deion Sanders (or like Richard Sherman for you young folks). Nebraska corners repeatedly look lost, staring at receivers who catch a ball that seemingly (to the DBs) came from nowhere. Pass defense was always a strength of Bo Pelini’s defense, so I have to ask why they suddenly seem to have lost all ability to defend the forward pass. Whatever it is, the defensive staff needs to coach them up and fast. If Joel Stave can throw for 300 yards against them, who can’t?
Management: What is it that Nebraska is trying to do? When in crisis, what do they rely on? I don’t know because I suspect they don’t know yet. The running back rotation gets crazier by the week (back to Newby and Cross again—the way it’s going, Mikale Wilbon may start next week) and the reluctance to run Armstrong at the most logical times (final third down against BYU, on the final series Saturday) is questionable. The decision to bleed the third quarter clock instead of running a third-down play (and likely ensuing punt) with the wind was also a head-scratcher. Maybe I’m nitpicking, but there seem to be a lot of nits to pick.
The Door is Ajar: Bottom line, the Huskers can’t close games. It’s not just a problem in the final minutes. Nebraska had chance after chance in the third quarter, but couldn’t put points on the board with momentum, great field position, and the wind. They couldn’t contain the Badgers after Sam Foltz pinned them at the one. They couldn’t hold a lead late with Wisconsin backed up and the crowd howling. I know the defense was gassed and missing a lot of key players, and I don’t question their effort or heart. But something is lacking, and that something is big-time players making big-time plays. In each of these losses (Miami perhaps exempted) all Nebraska needed was one player to make one play somewhere along the line, and nobody could do so.
At the End of the Day
Nebraska’s not competing for a Big Ten championship this year. They’re not continuing the nine-win streak (neither’s Oregon, it would appear). Right now, a reasonable goal is making a bowl game. For any Husker fan older than a Husker player, that’s incredibly disappointing. I’m frustrated by it. But if Nebraska can stick together and keep fighting, if they can show improvement (both coaches and players), if they can eliminate mistakes and form an identity, and if they can scratch and claw their way to a bowl game and a winning record (even if it’s a 7-6 record earned with a win in a Detroit bowl named for an oil change provider), then I will see 2015 as a success in that it is part of a building process. If they fail—if they achieve a winning record but still are inconsistent, sloppy, and mismanaged—it will be a long off-season. And should they fail in both regards, particularly if the season should spiral into a 4-8 or 3-9 debacle . . . well, it won’t be pretty but let’s not go there yet. I still think this team has potential. Nebraska isn’t losing because they’re not as good as BYU or Illinois or Wisconsin. They’re losing because they’re not playing and coaching as well as those teams. That can be corrected. Now we’ll have to see if gets corrected.
I blinked and must have missed Jordan Westerkamp’s participation again this week. I also didn’t see too much of DPE. When Nebraska needed a big play offensively (all second half) I’d have expected more plays go toward #1 and #15. Makes me wonder if Pierson-El isn’t 100% yet.
Now we run Janovich on third-and-seven? NOW! Last week was the time to run a very conservative dive and this week was the time to try something “cute” like a bootleg. Or put the ball in Tommy’s hands on the QB counter or QB power. Just a thought.
Speaking of the walk-on fullback, his go-ahead TD run was a thing of nostalgic beauty and a great Husker moment. Too bad it was negated by another heartbreaking loss.
Is there anything systemic to all of these injuries? I get that they happen and even in bunches, but with this many, it’s worth asking if there’s a training/strength and conditioning issue that could be addressed?
Texas and Tennessee got off the schneid. Hope springs eternal for the Huskers . . .
In the final round of the 1968 Masters Tournament, Argentine golfer Roberto De Vicenzo tied Bob Goalby to force an 18-hole playoff the following day. Only De Vicenzo’s playing partner incorrectly recorded the Argentine’s score on the seventeenth hole, and De Vicenzo didn’t note the error and proceeded to sign an incorrect scorecard. As a result, his score was recorded as on the card, placing him one stroke behind Goalby. Instead of potentially winning the coveted green jacket, De Vicenzo went down in golf lore for his mistake. I bring this up because the only way Nebraska could lose in more agonizing fashion than they have thus far is by doing whatever the football equivalent is of signing an incorrect scorecard. (I hate to even think what that might be.) I’ve said all season that Minnesota is nothing special, and I still believe that. But they know who they are and don’t often beat themselves. Meanwhile, Nebraska is beat up physically and beat down psychologically, and still searching for an identity. I want to be optimistic and pick the Huskers, but until they get over this hump, it’s hard to do so. Minnesota 20, Nebraska 17. (And not on a 64-yard FG into the wind and snow or anything, just a regular, run-of-the-mill close loss.)