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All Points West: Huskers should make most of bowl
December 11, 2015 Frank Marquez   

Read more by Frank Marquez
Well, howdy and hello. Can you believe it? The Nebraska Cornhuskers are alive in post-season, though not in the manner fans expected. They’ll play the UCLA Bruins in the Foster Farms Bowl at Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara, Calif., on Dec. 26 at 7:15 p.m. Gering time. Be sure to tune in.

Most recently, the Huskers played the Bruins in a home-and-home series during the 2012 and 2013 seasons. UCLA came from behind in both games to sweep the series.

Although Nebraska ended the season at 5-7, the Football Bowl Association did not have enough qualifying teams (77) with six victories to fill 80 spots. Nebraska had the highest Academic Progress Rate of all eligible teams it was considering. In choosing teams for the last three spots, the NCAA used the APR as a tie-breaking mechanism. That says a lot about Nebraska’s All-American student athletes. I’ll add that Nebraska’s reputation and fan draw didn’t hurt its chances either.

UCLA on the other hand, finished the season at 8-4 (5-4 conference), struggling in the PAC-12’s south division. The Bruins finished behind USC and Utah. Their best win of the season came against No. 16 Arizona Wildcats, who the Bruins defeated 56-30 in September. Note the margin of victory as compared with the ranked teams of the Big Ten. It points to the playoff committee’s long hard look at ball control. Take note PAC-12.

Nebraska’s best quality win came against the Michigan State Spartans on Nov. 7, coming from behind on a controversial last-minute touchdown pass from Tommy Armstrong to Brandon Reilly. Despite the single play, the Huskers one-point 39-38 victory proved Nebraska can move the ball on any team in the nation if they’re in rhythm and don’t make mistakes. Specifically, wide receivers Reilly and Jordan Westerkamp have to be on their game against UCLA.

Addressing the biggest factor, the guy who makes the big plays also commits to the biggest errors. Armstrong’s untimely interceptions have cost the team. In the most clear-cut example, Nebraska’s stirring rally against the Miami Hurricanes on Sept. 19 ended on a heartbreaking turnover in overtime with Armstrong tossing a huge pick. The Huskers lost to the Canes, 36-33. Overall, Armstrong has thrown 16 interceptions on the season, four more than he threw in the 2014 season, and twice as many as the 2013 season. Obviously, the wrong direction to go. I’ll pin this weakness squarely on the coaching or lack of it. After three years, Armstrong should have worked on getting rid of bad habits, including bad mechanics and poor decision making. Coaches also made very few attempts to design or develop schemes that played to Tommy’s strengths – his legs.

Despite the huge upset loss to Nebraska, Michigan State was selected as one of the top four teams to play for this season’s NCAA title, along with Clemson, Alabama and Oklahoma, representing the ACC, SEC, Big Ten, and Big 12, respectively. (Of course, venues and revenue play a factor. Yes, size does matter.) The Spartans sealed their playoff fate after a bare knuckle brawl against the Iowa Hawkeyes on Dec. 5. However, the Spartans needed 22 plays and nine minutes and four seconds in the final drive to finally punch through the Hawk’s unbelievably stiff defense and cap a 16-13 victory. Iowa suffered its first loss of the season. Hats off to the Hawks for earning the right to play for the conference title and for assuring their place with the 28-20 victory over Nebraska at Memorial Stadium.

As for who was left out, who cares? The highest ranked PAC-12 team was Stanford at No. 6 behind Iowa in the College Football Playoff rankings. Those two teams flip-flopped in the AP poll. Fans may argue that all Power Five conferences should have a representative, but that would mean the playoffs would have to expand to inviting eight teams. Will it happen in the near future? Factor in cost and logistics and the answer to that question is a big fat NO. Also, the chances of running the table in conference matchups gives little chance of any team getting through the season unscathed. The odds of any team going undefeated goes even higher. Clemson beat those odds.

There are five Big Ten teams who ended up in the Top 25 rankings, three of them in the top 10. Of those top 10 teams, all of them have just one loss to a conference opponent. Remarkably, Ohio State and Iowa both fell to Michigan State by a mere three points, while Nebraska knocked off the Spartans by one point. This speaks to unparalleled parity in the Big Ten. Nebraska has shown it can run with the big dogs, knocking off one of those top 10s and putting the scare into another. It also shows that Big Red fans can look forward to a better season in 2016, as long as recruits buy into Mike Riley’s NFL-style system and player development continues in earnest. The Huskers will lose very few notable starters including offensive linemen Alex Lewis, Chongo Kondolo and Zach Sterup. Running backs Andy Janovich and Imani Cross, and wide receiver Jamal Turner will be gone. On defense, the Huskers bid farewell to Byerson Cockrell and walk-on Jack Gangwish. That leaves a thick core of young players, a lot of them freshmen, and some blue chippers Riley and staff have managed to sell. Considering Nebraska’s brutal winters and lack of beaches, any recruit who makes it to Lincoln shows a strong desire to play football, obviously against some of the toughest teams in a premiere conference.

Speaking of last hurrahs at the high school level, look for all the Husker seniors to play big in the Foster Farms Bowl – that is if they can avoid any pre-game celebrations and other West Coast distractions. This may be their last chance to impress the pro scouts. My prediction for the outcome of this one: Nebraska 24, UCLA 18. Oh, and best to Big Ten representative Michigan State as they take on the Alabama Crimson Tide in the first round on Dec. 31 in the Goodyear Cotton Bowl Classic scheduled for 6 p.m. The other semi-final features Clemson versus Oklahoma in the Capital One Orange Bowl at 2 p.m. Both games are on ESPN.

In other Big Ten bowl games:

Dec. 26 – Indiana vs. Duke in the Pinstripe Bowl at 1:30 p.m. on ABC

Dec. 28 – Minnesota vs. Central Michigan in Quick Lane Bowl at 3 p.m. on ESPN2

Dec. 30 – Wisconsin vs. USC in the Holiday Bowl at 8:30 p.m. on ESPN

Jan. 1 – Michigan vs. Florida in the Citrus Bowl at 11 a.m. on ABC

Jan. 1 – Northwestern vs. Tennessee in the Outback Bowl at 10 a.m. on ESPN

Jan. 1 – Ohio State vs. Notre Dame in the Fiesta Bowl at 11 p.m. on ESPN
Jan. 1 – Iowa vs. Stanford in the Rose Bowl at 3 p.m. on ESPN

Jan. 2 – Penn State vs. Georgia in TaxSlayer Bowl at 10 a.m. Jan. 2 on ESPN

GBR!
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