|All Points West: Blackshirts can’t take a play off|
|October 30, 2014 Frank Marquez|
There was never a doubt in my mind the Cornhuskers (7-1, 3-1) would pull out a win this week. This time, missing my TV, I tuned into the car radio even though some of the best seats in the house awaited me at Memorial Stadium. The only thing in doubt was arriving on time in my cross country trek from Virginia.
Needless to say, it didn’t happen. What did happen? Rutgers, like other opponents this season, played tough at the start of the game and like other games, Nebraska shot itself in the foot with flubs — remember, it is the most penalized team in the Big Ten, if not the nation. Nebraska was better than most weeks with 5-for-35, going the wrong direction. This lack of discipline pointed to coaching and mental prep.
I-back Ameer Abdullah was the Huskers’ saving grace with three touchdowns. He carried the ball 19 times for 225 yards, exploding for runs of 53, 47 and 23, respectively. In the end, Nebraska prevailed 42-24, in which sloppy play in any other season would have made this contest a close one, and likely a loss.
The Rutgers Scarlet Knights, even without starting QB Gary Nova for part of the game (Randy Gregory tied him up in a pretzel), managed to churn out a few long hauls but more than the visitors’ offensive talent, this was due to the Huskers’ defensive lapses. In bare Cross-Bones terms, the distribution of Blackshirts after handling Northwestern the previous week was a little premature — string some air tight games together, then you’re talking. Defensive Coordinator John Papuchis in an interview with the Big Ten Network said he knows that DT/DE extraordinaire Gregory and company need to put together four good quarters.
Nebraska won the coin toss and opted to try the defense against the Knights to open the game. Radio announcer Matt Davison reported that coaches wanted the team to do a little helmet cracking in warm ups, hoping this would wake them up enough to get them off to a fast start. No dice. Three plays and 75 yards later, Nova connected with his primary receiver Leonte Carroo to even the score, 7-7. I’d write more on the D’s accomplishments but they haven’t earned it yet.
Issues for the defense remain: containment at the ends (Gregory can’t be everywhere), weakness at the corners particularly with giving up the long ball, and slow-as-molasses starts. Opponents have probably gotten wise to the blitz packages on third down and devised quick passes over the middle or in the flat in man-to-man coverage. Wipe off two Rutgers scores late in the third quarter, another in the fourth, plus the first drive that cut through the defense like it was melted butter; count the Knights’ only earned score — a field goal.
To look at it another way: Nebraska’s mistakes would have been costly. Without Abdullah, cut the Huskers’ points total in half and Rutgers wins, 24-21, in a season full of upsets as commonplace as the College Game Day announcers continually and wrongfully disrespecting a Nebraska team brimming with talent. The general media struck too, so much so the Huskers fell in the AP Poll one spot to No. 17. Where would Big Red be if it had two losses and played in the SEC? The answer: They’d be an LSU Tigers team that toppled No. 3 Ole Miss and moved up seven spots.
Now the Bayou Bengals are back in the thick of things in a hotly contested SEC West.
The rankings leave a lot of fans disillusioned about how teams start the season. I would suggest no rankings until after the first games of non-conference tilts. Wisconsin played LSU in the first game of the season at Baton Rouge, La. For any team to do it, winning in the south makes a big impact statement; the Big Ten is still biding its time but there are only so many Saturdays in a season. Michigan State gave Oregon and QB Marcus Mariota a comfortable start in Autzen Stadium. Otherwise, given the home field advantage in close games, officials’ calls might have leaned another way. Case in point: The Notre Dame-Florida State outcome.
The NCAA playoff committee members will need to dissect each close game; then look at when in the season those close games were played. November will be under the microscope. The committee might also examine individual development, difference makers. Case and point: Abdullah’s 341 all-purpose yards that set a school record and are the second-most in the history of the Big Ten, per ESPN Stats and Information.
Purdue, Wisconsin (RB Melvin Gordon), Minnesota (RB David Cobb), and Iowa remain on the Huskers schedule down the stretch. The no-brainer, with each passing week and victory, Nebraska’s odds of running the table increase. Scores will matter and may be the tipping point on which of the big conferences sends a team to the final four. The Minnesota Golden Gophers fell to Illinois, 28-24, on Saturday despite Cobb’s 118 yards and two TDs, leaving the Huskers alone at the top of the West Division. When, not if, Nebraska does the right thing, and takes the division, it will meet either the Ohio State Buckeyes or Michigan State Spartans in the Big Ten title game — the latter would be my preference based on payback alone. This win alone would need to be decisive as in leave everything on the field.
Next up: The Purdue Boilermakers (3-5, 1-3) can play spoiler. Don’t underestimate a desperate team. The game is at Lincoln with a 3:30 EST start on ABC and ESPN2. Before last week’s bye, Purdue was almost the Spoilermakers versus Minnesota in a 39-38 squeaker.
My advice for the Huskers: Really earn the Black Shirts in the final four games. With each sack, rush and tackle for loss, Nebraska gains confidence and an undeniable post-season edge.