All Points West: Huskers look for one last reward, to be heroes
     2014-11-27      By Frank Marquez   
It was a fine sunny day on the last home game of the 2014 season for the Huskers. A little colder than normal in Lincoln, as key players Mark Pelini, Kenny Bell, Randy Gregory and Minnesota’s David Cobb all found out. All fell victim to injury and found themselves sidelined. Only Gregory was able to return later, adding to his resume on Senior Day. Nebraska enjoyed about three bright quarters until it all went dark and the Gophers were the first to hold up the mock Broken Chair Trophy.

The Black Shirt defense remained suspect, and was absent the aggressiveness that existed weeks ago against the Miami Hurricanes. Minnesota’s freshman QB Mitch Leidner was more formidable than an easily rattled helmsman running the Cane’s show. The Huskers dismissed Leidner as any real threat, missing containment assignments on more than one occasion. By the time Nebraska made up for the shortcoming, the damage had already been done. Leidner scored two TDs on the day, including the go-ahead score that put Minnesota ahead for good, with star RB Cobb sitting on the sideline.

And, the Golden Gophers paid little attention to the fact they were expected to lose on the road. No one told them were supposed to boost Nebraska’s chances of climbing back into contention for the Big Ten’s West Division title. In fact, in my book, Minnesota deserved the comeback win.

Golden Gophers Head Coach Jerry Kill’s well-oiled machine came out in the second half ready to snuff any Big Red spark. Up 21-7 after the first half, QB Tommy Armstrong and the Huskers failed to get anything started in the first series to build on the two-touchdown but tenuous lead. It was truly a tale of two halves.

Nebraska’s special teams played a hand in scoring, getting in on the act when Minnesota attempted a field goal right before halftime. Gregory got a hand up to swat the ball away, which sent a bevy of Huskers scampering to pick up the loose rock bounding down the field. Slipping out of Safety Corey Cooper’s grasp, the ball came to rest in Nate Gerry’s clutches. Nothing could stop the linebacker from charging down the field to score his first TD as a Husker.

The only Gopher in sight was the desperate kicker, who was sent sprawling to the turf overmatched by Gerry’s accompanying blockers. Momentum seemed to shift in the Huskers favor, but again, scoring opportunities faded away time and again. A remarkable near TD reception by DeMornay Pierson-El would have capped an impressive drive to keep Nebraska comfortably in the lead. In the previous series, they could not convert on third down and settled for a field goal – the only scoring allowed by Minnesota in the final 30 minutes of play.

If this was Tom Osborne’s team, something tells me fans might have seen a little trickery in an effort to reach the end zone late in the game. But this isn’t Dr. Tom’s team. It belongs to Head Coach Bo Pelini, and he with his young coaches will review the game on film. Together, they will make the necessary corrections, then head for Iowa, and one last chance at regular season redemption.

Since there is no other chance for winning the West, the only reward left for Nebraska is the Heroes Trophy which is presented to the winner of the Husker’s finale versus the Hawkeyes. And for Bo, there’s a chance of getting to double digits in the win column. That’s presuming the Huskers triumph over their opponent in whatever bowl invites them. Yes, I dare say, Nebraska could end the season a respectable 10-3.

To add insult to injury, the loss knocked the Huskers out of both the AP and Coaches polls. Whatever opponent Nebraska faces in a bowl may be unranked, thus giving no chance of the team finishing the season in the Top 25, thus no strong statement for the 2015 preseason. This does not bode well for the Big Ten if the conference is faced with gaining any advantage against rival conferences the SEC and Big 12.

Scheduling games against key opponents needs to be made before the start of the four non-conference contests next season. There’s more risk with playing against lesser, unranked schools and losing (McNeese State), than facing an Alabama or Georgia early on. As was shown this year by SEC teams, one loss seems to be a non-factor in making up ground in November. A quality opponent in the early season can expose faults and better prepare the Huskers for the conference matchups down the stretch.

My bold prediction for this year’s playoffs is that four teams will not be enough to effectively decide a clear-cut winner. Look for the college football brackets to expand to eight teams. There’s zero chance every conference will be represented, and unless Ohio State gets some help, the Big Ten may not have a dog in this fight. Big Ten bowl wins against the other four power conferences may boost Nebraska.

Meanwhile, it’s time for Nebraska to start rebuilding the roster. With this season’s experience, a host of returning starters on both sides of the ball, and blue chippers and walk-ons to fill the gaps, Nebraska should be in the thick of it. But that’s next year.

My advice to the Huskers this week: Leave it all on the field. Unless your arm is dangling from its socket, stay on the field until the final whistle.

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