Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Pitching From Behind

Nebraska played another big football game in prime time Saturday night and racked up another embarrassing loss. In usual fashion, NU shit the bed. In unusual fashion, the Cornhuskers showed a backbone, didn't quit, and almost came back to beat its mediocre Top 10 opponent led by a subpar quarterback. So, take stock, things have gotten better but are still pretty fucking sad. On we go with our game recap:

--Nebraska's Blackskirt defense forced an early turnover, picking off Michigan's statuesque and inaccurate Connor Cook. The offense failed to capitalize from deep in Spartan territory, which became a repeated and rueful habit for this game. (Side note: Cook sucks and went 11/29 on the night)

--The referees blew an early call, blowing dead a huge punt return for Demornay Pierson-El when they misconstrued his signal to teammates as a fair catch. Just the kind of ineptitude that keeps a college football official in place for 15-20 seasons.

--ABC showed Michigan State's locker-room hardware as it came back from one commercial break. One was a 2013 Big Ten championship banner and the other was a 2014 Rose Bowl champions banner. What a fucking embarrassment.

--Cornerback Daniel Davie, after making a nice play early in the first quarter, got hurt. Michigan State, being strategic, targeted his replacement Jonathan Rose on the following play, beat him with a double move, and scored a 55-yard touchdown. 

Nebraska coaches, being not very strategic, blitzed the safety from 12 yards and two counts too late on that same play, offered Rose no help and did their part in spotting the home favorite a 7-0 lead. We're, as always, fine.

--On the following drive, Jake Cotton continued the Cotton Legacy of killing Nebraska by falling over backwards when he couldn't remember the snap count. This, in effect, ended the game and sealed another disastrous national-television fate for NU. 

--Husker Offensive Coordinator Tim Beck did his best to assist in killing that same drive by calling a deep fade pass to Kenny Bell and wasting a down.

--Nebraska coaches, in their infinite wisdom, gave up the wind AND the ball to start both halves of the game. Fine, indeed.

--In a typical big-game move, NU got pinned at its own one by a Spartan punt. NU went three and punt. MSU returned the ball to NU's 31 yard line. Nate Gerry got caught inside on a Spartan run play. Trevor Roach was too slow to make up for his teammate's mistake, and MSU reeled off a 31-yard TD run on the drive's first play to make the score 14-0. The rout was on. 

--Bell hurt himself with 11 minutes remaining in the second quarter and didn't return to the game.  By this point, it was apparent that Nebraska's offensive line was going to miss blocks all night and that the team was being pounded into submission by a tougher Michigan State squad.

--NU countered with another three and out. 

--MSU quickly answered with a 22-yard pass play that had Corey Cooper on ice skates -- his normal assumed position. Sparty did its best to keep Nebraska in the game and fumbled the ball back the next play at its own 41.

-Nebraska gained a first down at Michigan State's 30, before Mike Moudy built his resume for MSU's Game MVP Award by picking up a personal foul penalty and pushing his team back to near midfield. Beck countered with three straight pass plays, forcing NU to punt the ball right back.

--Still in the gifting mood, Macgarrett Kings Jr. gave Nebraska its third present of the evening by fumbling Sam Foltz's punt at his own 24. NU was back in business and down just 14-0. Time to capitalize and cut the lead to one score....right? Right? Or for those with N on their helmets, time to find an entirely new way to choke.

--Not wanting to lack creativity, Moudy was dominated by the MSU defender and thrown on his ass but not before falling back into Ameer Abdullah and causing a fumble. No doubt, this gaffe rested on Moudy's shoulders. PYB has pinned three key fumbles and the subsequent losses of those games on Abdullah over the course of the last two seasons. Not his fault this time. 

--Six plays later, it was 17-0. Five straight pass plays after that, NU punted again and Beck was in mid-blowout form. Going pass happy, forcing a square peg (dropback passing with multiple reads on hard-to-complete routes) into a round hole (run-first, pass-second QB). Calling plays that looked as if he garnered no suspicion that Michigan State would attempt to neutralize Abdullah and beat them with other weapons. What, developing an in-house marketing campaign and sending out some batteries doesn't guarantee your star back will run for 175 yards a game?

Don't believe us? Read the below from Sam McKewon's Omaha World-Herald column Monday. McKewon, not one to spew venom and well known to present the facts based on Xs and Os, went with the following as he mirrored verbatim what PYB and probably millions of others were thinking:

And the Huskers’ offense — long a mercurial, capricious partner in its marriage to the defense — couldn’t land a single blow. The offensive line fell to pieces. The star back had no place to run. The quarterback is tougher than $2 Texas brisket but unpolished as a passer. The coordinator’s play at consistency during the last two weeks gave way to a boom-or-bust attack, putting the game on that quarterback, who struggles to see the whole field and make basic throws for a spread offense.
Forty-seven rushing yards. That’s a low in the Bo Pelini era — and there were stinkers in 2008 and 2009. You have to go back to Nebraska’s 2007 loss vs. USC for a ground game so anemic. Pelini put his stake in the ground by picking a dual-threat quarterback in 2010 precisely to avoid games like the one at Michigan State. Quarterback Tommy Armstrong had shown himself to be an adept runner this year.
But he spent most of the second half chucking it around to a depleted corps of wideouts — and getting beat up in the process — because the line had no push on run plays and little cohesion on pass plays.
How many times have you read this? How many times has Bo Pelini’s defense put it on a tee for Nebraska’s offense — better yet, put it right on the green, 20 feet from the cup — only for that offense to card a double bogey?
 As far NU not capitalizing on all, or any, of the Spartan turnovers, he said:

Nebraska didn’t play four quarters of sustainable football. It rarely does in big games. When you get the ball at the opponent’s 30 two plays in, and you’re headed into the wind, you first have to get the yards necessary for the three points. The Huskers lost a yard on the first two plays, then tried a rollout pass with just two reads on third down from the 31. Then they punted. The punt decision doesn’t match up with the third-down call; if you don’t intend to go for it on fourth, get five yards and try a field goal. Brown made a 40-yarder into the wind; he might have made a 43-yarder, too.
Amen to that. Still, PYB was getting texts from friends saying NU had a chance to win the game. Sure, its talent level and MSU's willingness to lay the ball on the carpet said as much. NU's history of big-game performances and sporadic coaching and decision making said there was no chance. We hoped too, but knew better.

--We were suprisingly impressed with Private Bo Pinelli's halftime television interview. Obviously pissed, he cited NU's lack of toughness and refusal to capitalize on opportunities as reasons for his team's 17-0 deficit. Internally, he had to be seething and seemed to be tired of the shit show his offensive line and offensive coordinator had produced. The head clown himself had tired of the old ink-squirting-from-the-bowtie gag. He'd had enough and couldn't even muster the indecency to be rude to the ABC sideline reporter before retreating to the locker room.

--Good football coaches adjust their strategies as needed at halftime. Nebraska's don't. As Nebraska entered Dropback City, its third-quarter drives went as such:

  • Three plays. -6 yards. Punt.
  • Three plays. Fumble. Give up ball to MSU on own 10 (BS fumble call, for the record)
  • Thirteen plays. Last three plays being passes to stall drive. Settle for 40-yard FG.
  • Seven plays, the first four being passes. The last being a fumbled snap on 4th down.

--After Cooper looked embarrassingly awful for approximately the 15th time in 2014 and 50th time in his career while being pushed backward for 15 yards on an MSU reverse that went for a touchdown, NU went to the fourth quarter trailing 27-3.

--Alex Lewis cemented his reputation as a penalty machine, proving it's much harder to block a defender of one's own size than it is to beat the shit out of a civilian outside a bar..

--Beck refused to scrap the wide-receiver screen after NU had botched it the first four times in the game.

--He also insisted on emptying the backfield in several obvious passing situations, despite the fact that his offensive line couldn't block anyone or protect Tommy Armstrong.

--NU fans started clamoring for Ryker Fyfe via Twitter, Facebook and text messages. Those same NU fans must have missed Fyfe's only mop-up duty this season and insist that one spring game is resume enough to make one a Division I starter despite having Division III talent. Apparently, these same fans have blocked the Beau Davis/Texas Tech fiasco from their collective memories.

--NU's lone bright spots were its refusal to quit and Pierson-El. Sure, this team laid another big turd. Sure, the coaches were inept and the players did their part to make it worse for the first three quarters. For some reason, however, the team is too stubborn to quit.

Armstrong, despite getting no protection from his coaches, kept chugging away for better or worse. While being far from perfect and asked to do things he shouldn't, he has refused to show the Martinez-in-the-headlights look that NU fans are so used to. For that, we can't give a commendation but at least give partial credit.

Pierson-El, however, is a natural and is one of the most exciting talents NU has had in 20 years. His punt-return TD made the score 27-22 and almost propelled NU to a win. He likely would have had another huge return if not for the referees' first-quarter botch. Please find ways to get him the ball in space. Please don't put him back as kick returner, unless he's capable. In the same vein, please take Abdullah off of those duties -- his 19-yard average is not worth the potential for injury.

So, despite all the complaining and bitching above, NU had the ball on one final drive with a chance to win the game. Armstrong started by missing Abdullah badly on a screen pass where Abdullah had at least 30 yards to roam free. 

Still, NU got to midfield. Instead of taking easy yardage to get within touchdown range for a final series of plays, Beck opted to force low-percentage deep balls every play. In the end, NU's depleted/inexperienced/subpar receiving corps miscommunicated on a route, failed to be where Armstrong thought they'd be, and turnover number four ensued as MSU intercepted one last-gasp pass. Game over.

So, in the end, we were all deeply embarrassed by Nebraska's effort for three quarters and pleased with the gumption it showed in the final stanza. NU by no means deserved to win Saturday, but it could have. The same happened against the Spartans in 2013. 

We still all wait to see which force will win out: Pinelli's penchant for disaster in big games or his team's newfound pattern of righting the ship before it's too late and salvaging at least some dignity. Are we suckers to believe in a new day or just stupid? Depending on whether NU produces another road-game calamity in the next few weeks against a bad opponent or navigates through a series of also-rans to make the Big 10 championship for a likely rematch with MSU, we'll know soon enough.

If the 5000 words preceding this weren't enough, we're proud to offer some side notes this week:

Alex Henery -- Career over. Sad to watch. Proof that kicking is 95% mental, as a guy who couldn't miss and rarely deviated from the exact center of the uprights in college can't make a routine field goal in the NFL. He missed three Sunday in Detroit, including a potential game-winning 50-yarder against Buffalo. 

Conveniently, the team used its kicker's woes as an excuse for not winning a home game against a Bills team led by Kyle Orton. Anyone who's watched the Lions in recent seasons knows this bunch is the most pathetic group of underachievers in the league.

Bengals vs. Patriots -- So much for ESPN saying Tom Brady was washed up and Cincinnati was the NFL's most complete team. Easy money.

College Football rankings -- Anyone needing confirmation that the sport is watered down (perhaps nearly irrelevant), take into account that:

  • Mississippi moved from 11th to third after beating Alabama. Enjoy the one-week ride at the top, Rebels. (They play at Texas A&M Saturday). They even got two first-place votes (huh?)
  • In-state rival Mississippi State jumped nine spots, also to third, to TIE the Rebels in the rankings after beating an overrated Texas A&M team. Pro wrestling, anyone? The Bulldogs host Auburn this weekend. Less cowbell.
  • Arizona jumped from 29th to 10th by beating Oregon in Eugene. What a farce. The Mildcats are now realized as such a power that they are a home underdog this weekend to 3-2 USC. 
  • TCU jumped 16 spots to ninth after a home win against Oklahoma and has the honor of getting drilled at Baylor Saturday. 

Enjoy your off week......PYB

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