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All Points West: Husker failures a lack of basics
October 08, 2015 Frank Marquez   

Read more by Frank Marquez
I never thought I would see it, not this early in the season, and not in this lifetime – three losses in five games. Another sign of the apocalypse?

Nebraska failed to capitalize on a 13-0 lead over the Illinois Fighting Illini going into the fourth quarter. Anyone in their left or right mind would have never thought it possible. In fact, you’d have to be out of your mind. Yep, even mathematical geniuses were shaking their heads at this one, saying the law of averages was against the home team with most 72-yard drives taking at least a few minutes, especially in the run-first Big Ten. Illinois did it with a quick-strike aerial attack in 41 seconds. The result was mind-boggling.

Even a wet finger in the wind wasn’t a good indicator. But if you’ve been following my columns you might have caught last week’s reference about Nebraska’s secondary being suspect. Well, by now, it’s been confirmed. In each one of the three close losses this season, starting with BYU, the Huskers pass coverage stunk, and Illinois’ hurry-up offense catching the Huskers off guard was no excuse.

Against Miami, our defensive backs might as well have been standing still. Nebraska is commonly out of position, and the common refrains, just “knock the ball down” or “don’t get beat” make things worse because it indicates pass coverage is the most undisciplined part of the Black Shirt defense.

I played for a short time in college, albeit Division III. Although by no means an expert, nothing changes about the fundamentals even with the complexity of pass formations. The field’s the same size. Receivers run the same patterns. And, contrary to popular belief, the guys in Division III are just as fast, at times faster.

If a defensive back gets beat, he knows help should come his way. If there’s no help, he should watch the receiver’s tail because at some point, the receiver’s going to turn. If he turns left going along the left sideline, you know the ball is coming over his left shoulder. The same scenario exists for the right sideline. If he turns right along the left sideline, the ball is coming down the middle. There’s no trickery – no such thing as a curve or sinker like baseball. What detracts from fundamentals? Ego. Hot-dogging. Bad habits.

Before the play develops, a DB watches the QB’s eyes. If off the line, the defensive man hasn’t shaded his receiver to run him out of harm’s way or minimize the damage, he’s forced to contend with coverage another way. Usually it’s one that does little to stop the opponent’s offense, or causes more Nebraska penalties. You guessed it. PI. In this case, Nebraska incurred three critical penalties near the end of the game. With every pass interference call came a fresh crop of downs favoring the Illini. Call it sloppy, desperate play. Call it panic. Ultimately, the ball was placed mere inches from the goal line, the best possible scenario for the final deciding heartbreaking score, 14-13. All it takes is one stinking point.

The play-calling by Head Coach Mike Riley was less a factor than the Huskers inability to score against Illinois, especially in the second half, and more importantly when it mattered in the fourth quarter. I would have to say Nebraska’s lack of drive made Big Red fans nervous with each punt, nine altogether. Illinois had several chances to score in the first half, which meant disappointment would have come sooner for Nebraska and its fans, well before the final stanza.

Blaming the weather for all the dropped passes? Who is Nebraska kidding? There were plenty of chances. The last time, I heard, there are 11 players on the field at any given time. A coach can lead players to water, but he can’t make each one drink. In this case, the Huskers just weren’t thirsty enough. With enough wind gusts, I’m sure their lips were plenty parched, and the team in orange was living and breathing and playing in the same conditions. Illinois earned their nickname Saturday. They were nothing less than fighting, scratching, and clawing their way back from a two-score deficit. You can’t block the desire of a home team that thirsty or hungry for a win, and one so heavily weighted in conference play. On the bright side, it’s just one loss in the West Division. On the not-so bright side, depending on how Nebraska bounces back from another heartbreaker, this could be an even longer season.

Yet, I’ll add this caution: The blame does not fall squarely on Riley, who was dealt the cards of his predecessor Bo Pelini, who by the way, according to at least one player defensive lineman Jack Gangwish, still has the loyalty of some players wishing for his return. Or, these purported players believe Pelini should have never been banished. Spilled milk. Get over it. If this is the case, expect more losses. I’ll admit, I didn’t like all my coaches, but followed orders, then let my desire take care of the rest. Take a few lessons from Andy Janovich and freshman Devine Ozigbo, runners who seem to be cast in the mold of classic ground-pounding fullbacks the likes of Cory Schlesinger, whose philosophy of football is nothing but the preferred smash-mouth approach. Or, the defensive line led by Maliek Collins, who probably played his best game of the season so far with 1.5 sacks and several QB hurries. Give credit to QB Tommy Armstrong for not lamenting the loss. His favorite target Jordan Westerkamp was covered like white on rice by an underrated secondary. Yet, Armstrong chose alternatives like tight end Cethan Carter to get the job done.
If Nebraska’s attitude for winning spreads, and that’s a sizeable IF, expect the wins. Nebraska won’t be beat. They can’t be beat.

Next up: Nebraska takes on the Wisconsin Badgers at home. Last week, the Badgers, singing woes of their own, lost to West Division foe the Iowa Hawkeyes, 10-6.

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