|All Points West: Here’s hoping in the Huskers’ post post-season|
|January 01, 2016 Frank Marquez|
The Nebraska Cornhuskers ended 2015 on a positive note. The good news: Nebraska won its bowl game 37-29 over the UCLA Bruins on Dec. 26 at Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara, Calif. The bad news: Top Defensive Tackle and junior Maliek Collins said he’s declaring eligibility for the NFL draft, opting to finish his degree later. Experts say he’ll go in the second or third round. In mixed news: For Strong Safety Nate Gerry’s sake, NCAA officials need to work out the targeting infraction calls, or guys need to play in Stay-Puft Marshmallow suits. God forbid this game deteriorate to two-hand touch.
Other than these few hot-buttered-corn issues, what does the off-season mean for Coach Mike Riley’s recruits, and the changing of the guard as players from the Bo Belini era continue to stream toward the exit?
QB Tommy Armstrong vows to improve his fundamentals. He’ll likely be competing for a job against San Juan Hills (Calif.) product and pro-style helmsman Pat O’Brien come the fall. Arriving with a four-star rating (based on some mathematical measurement of intangibles), O’Brien fits in with Riley’s offensive scheme of passing the ball first. My prediction? Since the Big Ten is run first, and because Tommy has the better wheels, expect a dual-headed monster the likes of Tommy Frazier and the late great Brook Berringer, which incidentally in 1995 was the fourth time the Huskers won a national title. Given several months to plan, for Riley, it may mean win or retire. He looked a little haggard in California – a worrisome and fanatical fan base and a few annoying newspaper columnists can do that to a coach. It’s time to get creative with some variation or hybrid of the option and play-action passing. Or, just stick to a pounding run game.
Notably and likely helped by a few short weeks of intense practices, Armstrong did not make a mistake. Specifically, he did not throw a pass to the wrong team. However, the team did fumble in its second offensive series, and that turnover, may or may not have led to a score by the UCLA Bruins depending on if you think a subsequent 60-yard pass play (typical of the Pac-12) by QB Josh Rosen to Kenneth Walker III was small risk and had a good chance of scoring. Consider the left-coast league has few strong rush defenses. For a moment, it appeared Nebraska would revert to its old ways; the secondary had a tough time defending against the Bruins’ speedy receivers to start out, then shook off the rust and started to get down to business. The Black Shirts returned to end-of-season form, allowing the Nebraska offense more chances with the ball and rattling Rosen, who threw two INTs. UCLA rushers didn’t fare much better. Among four ball carriers including Rosen, the Bruins managed only 67 yards on the ground, while Nebraska’s run game feasted. Freshman running back Devine Ozigbo (with a promising future) rumbled for 80 yards on 20 carries. Armstrong, Imani Cross, Andy Jonovich, and Terrell Newby score four TDs in a relentless ground attack that wore down the Bruins’ defense. Kudos to Nebraska’s strength and conditioning coach.
In short-shrift analysis, the UCLA-Nebraska matchup gave the team and fans hope – that’s dangerous in this game. In other ways, the Foster Farms Bowl was meaningless unless you were an advertiser. Admittedly, I laughed aloud at more than a few chicken commercials.
Yet, the question bears repeating: What does Nebraska’s performance mean during the off-season, and for the future of the program? There were too many close games in 2015, which might have been all my heart could take this season, both in the literal and figurative sense. Two things, player development and better play calls are on my wish list. These are not overnight fixes.
The Foster Farms Bowl has been played since 2002. Although not a top-tier affair (ask the officiating crew) in any sense, it is played near San Francisco if you’re asking where Santa Clara sits. The Huskers were one of three 5-7 teams that played in the post-season, and by the way, all of them won. A Fox Sports blog headline pretty much said it all: “In your face purists! 5-7 bowl teams get last laugh, go 3-0.” Interestingly, most prognosticators picked the Bruins, perhaps because UCLA swept the Huskers in a home-and-home series in the 2012 and 2013 seasons, and Nebraska struggled in the top conference in the nation with great lessons about leaving nothing to chance – BYU, Miami, Illinois, and dare I say Iowa. What I have been saying about the Huskers all season long holds true. They can run with the big dogs, sans mistakes.
Barring injuries, Nebraska could vie for at least a conference title next season. But take a cue from Clemson, leave no doubt.
The other two 5-7 teams to make it into post-season, eligible based on academic performance, the Minnesota Golden Gophers toppled Central Michigan, 21-14, in the Quick Lane Bowl, while San Jose State was a 27-16 winner over Georgia State in the AutoNation Cure Bowl.
Online sources say there are a total of 41 bowl games including the National Championship game. The Big Ten entered the post-season with 10 teams getting the chance to play in bowls, most notably the No. 3 seeded Michigan State Spartans who will have played the Alabama Crimson Tide in the Cotton Bowl by the time the Gering Citizen hits the stands. Up to press time, 24 bowls had been played, and the Big Ten perhaps surprising to some folks was only predicted to come up with six victories. The Big Ten, so far, has a 2-1 bowl record. Aside from representation by the Spartans, their only loss was to Nebraska, getting at least four more wins is inevitable in my book. The only post-season blemish at press time was Indiana’s 44-41 loss to the Duke Blue Devils in the Pinstripe Bowl at New York’s Yankee Stadium.
Last-minute predictions: Wisconsin over USC, Northwestern over Tennessee, Michigan over Florida, Penn State falls to Georgia, defending champ Ohio State falls to Notre Dame, Iowa over Stanford, and Michigan State over Alabama.
Otherwise … GBR!