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Burn the Film…Burn the Boats. New BHF Editorial by Mark Solomon


  • Burn the Film…Burn the Boats. New BHF Editorial by Mark Solomon

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    Well…that didn’t go very well.

    Ohio State Head Coach Urban Meyer, after striding off the field following a 62-3 shellacking of Nebraska, stated flatly during his postgame press conference, “I didn’t see this coming.”, and “That’s not what we saw on film.”.

    He wasn’t referring to the outstanding athleticism and very sound execution from his own Buckeyes, which had been on display all evening long, as they laid ruin to a heart-wrenchingly-hapless Husker squad.

    He was talking about the sheer ineptitude, incompetence, and, sadly, hopelessness that bled from every pore of the NU team, as they stood like a deer in the headlights while OSU went up and down the field at will…all…night…long.

    11 of 15 on third down conversions, plus 1 for 1 on fourth down – that’s 12 of 15 drives where NU’s defense couldn’t seal the deal – ZERO punts, 37:18 time of possession, 86 plays, 590 yards of total offense, 6 trips into the red zone, six scores, one long, debilitating “explosive” play after another, and, again, SIXTY-TWO POINTS.

    And that was just the offense. Two pick-sixes by the Buckeye defense – one on the very first NU offensive series of the game, added to the Husker’s misery, as well as their humiliation, even as they padded the Buckeyes’ “scoring offense” stats, (Odd that they still don’t separate out defensive scoring in official stats).

    Meanwhile, Nebraska’s offense was about as imposing as a fainting goat with anemia. 204 total yards, 3.25 yards per carry on the ground, 9 of 33 for a measly 126 yards passing, and all of 3 points – on NU’s second drive of the game. The rest of the night was startling in its futility, and the effort put forth by the team was as pathetic as it was shocking.

    After the game, a shell-shocked Mark Banker described his defense’s complete failure against the Buckeye offense by staring blankly ahead and stating the obvious, that that offense “was a riddle we never solved.” Ineffective out of the gate, hampered by that early pick 6, no apparent adjustments were made, and if anything, the defense got worse as the game wore on, in effort, in fundamentals, and in the stubborn refusal to adjust.

    For the last several weeks, Northwestern, Wisconsin, Penn State, and yes, even INDIANA, had slowed and muffled the Buckeye offense by deploying Cover-3 concepts in defending OSU quarterback JT Barrett and his speedy but young receiving corps. The results were Northwestern playing OSU to within 4, Wisconsin taking them to overtime, Indiana trailing by only SEVEN entering the 4th quarter, and Penn State pulling an upset that allowed them to take NU’s place in the Top Ten after the smoke cleared last Saturday night.

    Cover-3 is not rocket science. It’s a coverage concept taught from junior high onward, picking up tweaks and refinements as players mature and skill levels rise, but still just another zone chassis on which a defense is built.

    It’s often shifted in and out of by teams utilizing the “Quarters” coverage as their base, as it’s relatively easy to give the same initial “look” out of either up to the snap, creating some uncertainty for the opposing quarterback and receivers.

    But with few exceptions, NU stayed in a Quarters posture – a pattern-matching mission against Ohio State’s fleet receivers, putting the Husker corners on their own personal islands all night. Those corners seldom played in press or even tight alignments at the line of scrimmage, spending most of the night at least “off” (6-9 yards), or as often as not, playing the 10 or 12 yards off, as if defending deep vertical routes.

    The result was Buckeye receivers running free through the wide open spaces all night, as they undercut the coverage, exploiting the fearful posture of their opponent, with sadly predictable results. Even the television crew commented on it several times as the yards and the points piled up for Ohio State.

    Offensively, Nebraska quarterback Tommy Armstrong was knocked out of the game in the second quarter, after leading NU within striking distance with an impressive run up the left sideline. As he made an obvious move to run out-of-bounds, an Ohio State Defensive Back hit him low right at the sideline, (completely legal, though called as often as not in the bubble-wrap nanny state of modern college football), taking Armstrong’s legs out from under him, upending him to the point that he came down hard enough on his shoulder to bounce his head off the turf like it was fired out of a cannon.

    The result was a very somber and frightening scene, as Armstrong laid motionless on the turf for several minutes, as trainers removed his facemask, cut away his jersey and shoulder pads, and strapped him onto a back board before rushing him to a nearby hospital.

    Thankfully, it turned out that Tommy did not sustain a serious head or neck injury. In fact, he somehow avoided a cerebral concussion – where the brain sloshes about in the skull, striking the interior surface, causing trauma to the brain itself, as well as the thin tissue and network of blood vessels that lay between the brain and the skull. This is the type of concussion that can cause loss of consciousness that lasts for several seconds to indefinitely.

    Tommy suffered a “Flash Knockout”. It’s a fairly common occurrence for boxers and martial artists, usually only lasting a second or two, and consisting more of a jolt to the nerves involving the eyes, ears, or the plexus between the jaw and carotid artery. These nerves directly impact perception – vision, hearing, hot/cold detection, as well as balance and depth perception, but their getting shocked by an external impact usually causes little or no trauma, and doesn’t involve the brain directly.

    As such, the effect are mostly transient, passing within hours, minutes, or even mere seconds. Anyone who’s ever played contact sports has likely had more than a few of these, whether they realized it or not.

    Armstrong sustaining only this minimal version of a knockout was and is great news for future games, but discretion rightly demanded that his night in Columbus was concluded, and the NU offense was never the same.

    Though it wasn’t terribly smooth or consistent, Nebraska’s offense had moved the ball a bit on Ohio State to that point, putting together a decent drive on its second possession to set up a Drew Brown Field Goal, and moving toward scoring position on the drive on which Armstrong was lost. Had he not been injured, and had the Huskers managed a touchdown to pull to within 14 at the half, perhaps the game would have gone somewhat differently, in the final complexion of the game, if not its ultimate outcome.

    We’ll never know, of course, because Tommy was carted off, and Ryker Fyfe entered the game. What happened from there still defies explanation or justification.
    Last week, I touched on the “Good Danny/Bad Danny” problem that Nebraska’s offense seems to have with regard to the consistency and/or effectiveness of Offensive Coordinator Danny Langsdorf’s playcalling.

    Yes, Nebraska’s rushing game has been hobbled by injuries all along the Offensive Line, but to insert a backup quarterback – who is a backup by a far wider margin than should ever be the case at a school like Nebraska – into a game against one of the best teams in your Conference in their home stadium during a night game that is a “must win” for them, and then proceed to call pass plays on all but SIX plays in the second half is poor strategy at best, and genuinely cruel at worst.

    Cruel to Fyfe, who was running for his life the rest of the game, and cruel to the defense, as they staggered back onto the field following one three-and-out after another throughout the entire second half. It was cruel to the entire team, as one pass after another fell incomplete in the face of a Buckeye pass rush that pinned its ears back and came hard and fast every single down, as they were free to ignore the run altogether.

    Not only was virtually every call a pass play, but they were almost invariably of the low percentage variety, most notably on third down – even third-and-short, even third-and-one, as one long sideline pattern after another was run, one deep pass after another was launched, more on hope than expectation of success, and 13 times out of 18 tries, ended up incomplete. Again, even the commentators took note, and they sounded almost as if they pitied the Huskers.

    It was nauseating; all the more so, since they seemed sincere.

    With incompletion, the clock stopped. With each clock stoppage, Ohio State’s offense retained that much more time to grind away at Nebraska’s defense and the entire team’s psyche.

    No, the players didn’t play well. Fundamentals were almost non-existent, especially tackling, footwork, hand placement, footwork – all the most basic and essential ingredients for sound performance. Neither did the Coordinators’ respective schemes, either pre-game or in-game lived up expectations, or to even the barest adequacy.

    They were lost, and it showed – badly.

    Both Coordinators’ postgame commentaries featured thousand-yard stares with answers that trailed off to helpless silence. They had no more answers after the game than they’d had during it.

    But as hard as it was, as ugly as it was, as wrenching and disillusioning as it may have been, it was one game. No matter how troubling, one game is not a trend, and the result, horrendous as it was, was not a fair indicator of this Husker team’s talent or potential.

    They’re battered, and injured here and there, but they are still miles better than they were in 2015, and still a team to be reckoned with down the stretch and into the Bowl season.

    A Conference Championship Game appearance is a very longshot at this point, as the loss in Columbus handed the reins to Wisconsin. If the Badgers win out, Nebraska starts Bowl prep a week earlier, as Wisconsin faces either Michigan or Ohio State in Indianapolis.

    If Nebraska wins out, they remain poised to take the Badgers’ place if they drop one of their last three, but they’d also finish the regular season 10-2, which is as good or better than most of us predicted for Mike Riley’s crew in his second season at the helm of the Big Red.

    So, I would hope that the coaches take the film of this horrible game, and burn it – or whatever the digital equivalent might be (Perhaps “BleachBit”?).

    At most, I’d show the team “Cut ups” of the best and worst of the position groups, plucking only the teachable moments, rather than making them relive the gutting they underwent.

    A loss like this falls on the entire team – players and coaches alike. Coaches get paid to suffer such indignities and learn from them; they’re professionals, and highly-paid professionals, at that. But the kids – yes, kids – that play the game have only the next game or games to burn the pain away. It is up to the coaches to distill all the hurt into motivation, to analyze the failings and create a plan of action, a strategy to push forward and past that dark night in Columbus.

    Legend has it that Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés, upon his arrival to the Americas in 1519, ordered his ships to be unloaded, then burned, leaving no direction to go but forward, as he set about conquering the Aztec Empire. Not the most noble of achievements, and the story may well be apocryphal, but the concept is clear.

    Men fight hardest when their back is against the wall, and sometimes it is necessary to for a leader to create that wall. Sometimes it is the weight of the mission at hand, the sheer gravity of it that creates that wall and allows us to push off of its solid surface.

    So it is for the Nebraska football program.

    So it is for its coaches and players.

    So it is for its fans.

    Yes, its fans.

    Even before the game had ended, Bo Pelini’s name was invoked. Some as a foil, to compare this horrendous blowout loss to others suffered under the prior Head Coach. Some as a scapegoat, blaming Pelini and his staff for the team’s talent level. Some, just so be smart asses, and to get in cheap, lazy “I told you so” jabs in one direction or the other.


    Bo Pelini doesn’t Coach at Nebraska anymore, and hasn’t for nearly two full seasons. Move on.

    Burn the boats.

    Many of Nebraska’s best players were recruited by the prior staff. So what? They’re being coached by this staff, playing in systems designed by THIS staff.

    There is no direction to go but forward. Husker history is a stout wall, and Mike Riley knows his back is against it, coming off such a lopsided, embarrassing defeat. His staff knows it. His players know it. There is no need for the fans to belabor the point, let alone exaggerate it by magnifying it to insurmountable proportions or by ascribing it to some failings of players based primarily on who recruited them to Nebraska.

    Mike Riley knows. He’s already proven he won’t stand pat when things aren’t right. He booted players from this team – good players – because they failed to toe the line. He fired Defensive Line Coach Hank Hughes after a single season because he judged that his Defensive Line had underperformed, (and considering that two of those D-Linemen start in the NFL as rookies, he wasn’t wrong in that assessment), and there is no reason to believe he’ll accept the sort of performance by his staff and his players that we saw last week to become defining characteristics of this program.

    If Danny Langsdorf is unwilling or unable to put together a more coherent gameplan, or to make more effective adjustments during a game, I have no doubt that he’ll take the wheel himself. He’s done it before with Langsdorf, at Oregon State, and he’ll do it again, if necessary, even to the point of finding a new OC, if worse comes to worst.

    Mark Banker has more history than Langdorf, but I doubt Riley/Banker is as inseparable a duo as Callahan/Cosgrove proved to be, and if he felt it necessary, Riley would likely find a dignified way to sever ties.

    But he also knows both extremely well, and he certainly has the experience to read them, and where necessary, to coach them up, particularly Langsdorf.

    If you truly “burn the boats” as fans, you must trust Mike Riley to correct the errors and shore up the weak spots in his program, Coaches and Coordinators included.

    There is certainly no other (sane) choice in 2016, and the improvement Riley has brought about in only his second year ought to have already earned him both time and freedom to keep refining his vison for this program.

    Currently, three teams in the Big Ten West Division have 7-2 Conference records: Nebraska, Wisconsin, and…Minnesota. Two of them control their own destinies – win out, and win the West – and Nebraska isn’t one of them.

    That makes tomorrow’s game with the Golden Gophers an elimination game; the loser is out of the West Divisional race altogether. However slim Nebraska’s chances, a victory is the only way to keep “slim” from slipping to “none”.

    We’re going to find out if Nebraska is still a team of “brawlers” after last week’s debacle.

    Minnesota is a decent team, no more, no less.

    They’re good enough that if you give them just a little help in the form of turnovers or poor play, they can hang with you until the tail end of the game and have a genuine shot at pulling it out.

    Given Nebraska’s tendency to “play down” to lesser competition in 2016, it is absolutely imperative that they hit the ground running and not let up at all tomorrow.

    And make no mistake, despite what happened in Columbus, despite all the nicks and bruises, Nebraska is a better team across the board than Minnesota. The extent to which those injuries continue to hamper NU, particularly across the Offensive Line, and to a greater extent the psychological status of the Huskers will determine just how much better – or not.

    Minnesota has a Senior quarterback in Mitch Leidner. He’s big, at 6’4”, 230lbs, has decent, not great, arm strength, and while he has only pretty good speed, he’s a very smart runner, who picks his spots well, both out of the Zone Read and when scrambling. It’s important to keep him stationary in the pocket as much as possible.

    As a passer, he’s streaky, and this year, he’s been as likely to throw an interception as a touchdown, statistically, and can be baited on the fly and fooled with pre-snap disguised coverages. This will be as much an opportunity as a challenge for the Blackshirts. Leidner could be a real “get well” opportunity for Nebraska’s pass defense, from the rush of the front four to the coverage of the Defensive Backs to the lateral range of the Linebackers – all of whom have demons from last week to exorcise.

    Minnesota’s receivers are OK, with slot man Drew Walitarsky their most consistent threat, though he is more a possession receiver than a deep threat.

    No, Minnesota’s offense makes whatever noise it does on the ground, with two running backs averaging over 5 yards a carry. Rodney Smith is nearing 1000 yards for the season – he’s close enough, (954 yards) that he’ll probably get it tomorrow, but the key will be keeping him and his chief backup, Shannon Brooks, (472 yards) from getting loose in space. Both have good “make you miss” and good speed, and they can make you pay if you lose eye discipline or employ poor tackling technique, both areas where the Huskers failed utterly last week.

    Minnesota’s Offensive Line is very big, not terribly fast, and not at all nimble. They don’t try to finesse you; they try to steamroll you, play after play after play, until they wear you down or bait you into biting too hard on a fake and gash you with a play action pass. It’s old school, and it’s worked pretty well for them so far in 2016.

    Minnesota’s defense is exceptional against the run, trailing only Ohio State in yards allowed per carry, but it’s worth noting that they’ve not played any team, particularly in-Conference, that runs the ball particularly well. Stout as they appear up front, and as active as their Linebackers are, they are nothing special in the secondary.

    Nebraska’s receivers, lacking speed outside due to injuries to Brandon Reilly and Alonzo Moore, and with Tight End Cethan Carter nowhere near 100%, weren’t able to get much separation last week against Ohio State’s secondary. Even Jordan Westerkamp, as good a route runner as there is in college football, had difficulties, and once Armstrong went down, and NU (Langsdorf) abandoned the run, the sledding got even tougher.

    Minnesota’s secondary will pose no such difficulties, and while Reilly isn’t likely to play much if at all, Moore has practiced well this week, and Carter is said to be much closer to his old self. The Gophers have no one on defense who is a matchup for Carter, (when he’s healthy, there aren’t a half dozen teams in the country who do), and their Defensive Backs won’t be able to keep NU’s receivers under wraps.

    Part of the reason is that Tommy Armstrong is slated to start tomorrow. I’d venture he’ll be eager to raise some hell on an opponent after getting dumped out of the game in Columbus last week, and he’ll come back with a vengeance. His ability to extend plays and rush by design will be something the Gophers haven’t seen yet in 2016. They’ll have to keep `backers and Safeties at home on occasion, and that will open things up for the Husker passing game.

    Of course, if NU were to go “All Pass, All the Time”, as they did last week, they’d be just about as simple to defend, and while Minnesota’s defense wouldn’t be likely to shut down the Huskers as thoroughly as the Buckeyes managed, but they could probably make enough noise to keep the Gophers close into the 4th quarter.

    Close enough to win.

    That is why Nebraska must rediscover, resuscitate, or resurrect its running game.

    By all reports, Left Tackle Nick Gates is better than he’s been in several weeks, Right Tackle David Knevel is back in the starting lineup, (for how long is anybody’s guess, since he hasn’t played an entire game in almost two months), Right Guard Tanner Farmer is back from an ankle injury, (how healthy he is remains to be seen), and perhaps the best news is that Left Guard Jerald Foster will be available for the first time in 2016 at Right Guard.

    If Foster is in good enough shape to play for any extended period, it is possible that NU will field the starting five O-Linemen they’d intended to open the season with before injuries started shaking things up. This five, with the now-experienced backups that have been filling in the gaps so far this season, could make NU’s running game a force to be reckoned with tomorrow, and a better running game will make the passing game all the more effective, as play action, draws, and Armstrong’s legs become even greater factors.

    If the line is relatively healthy, it is also time for NU to return to more power looks, using Devine Ozigbo, if he’s healthy enough, or to give Tre Bryant another chance. Terrell Newby has been much better in 2016, but he’s far more effective after Ozigbo has ground away at an opponent’s front seven for a couple of quarters. Mikale Wilbon also needs a place at the table, as his quickness and vision are weapons that could be far better utilized than we’ve seen.

    On special teams, Tre Bryant either needs to learn that it’s OK to take a knee, or to let a ball come to him in the endzone, as his poor decisions have too often pinned NU deep in its own end. If he can’t do this, then it’s time someone else took point on Kickoff Returns.

    Punt returns have been hit-or-miss, and I am still at a loss to understand why De’Mornay Pierson-El is given no blocker back deep, and is thus left on an island every time. He’ll have no blocker at hand, and if he happens to biff one, he’s the only Husker who’ll have a chance to recover it.

    A couple of longer returns would help. DPE taking one to the house would boost morale, which might be at least as important as the points themselves, all things considered.

    Punter Caleb Lightbourn has improved considerably, but his coverage unit has been far too loose a weave the last couple of games, allowing too many yards, and ceding too much field position to opponents. They’ll need to tighten up considerably.

    If NU were healthy, and if they hadn’t just absorbed such a cob-stomping last week, I’d pick Nebraska to win very comfortably; not a blowout, but a game with little doubt in its outcome, wire-to-wire.

    But NU isn’t terribly healthy, and we won’t know where the team’s collective head is at until they’re on the field. It’s good that the game is at Memorial, and that it’s a night game, a loud, boisterous, “festive” crowd could make a difference tomorrow, buoying the team’s battered psyche, and interfering with Minnesota’s Offensive calls.

    A night game at Memorial Stadium is something special, and it can be absolutely hellish for visiting teams. (Think Miami in 2014 or Michigan State last year). Making it so for the Golden Gophers tomorrow would actually, tangibly help this Nebraska squad. The team may not ask, but we can certainly give.

    This is an important game for these NU players, but it is at least as important for Mike Riley and his staff. They dropped the ball in last week’s Offensive and Defensive gameplans and in-game adjustments, and while their being man enough to admit as much is encouraging, redemption only comes with success, and in 2016, success will be defined by a 3-0 record through the last 3 games, fair or not.

    Minnesota is a very conventional team, and despite coming to Memorial Stadium with a quarterback and other upperclassmen who’ve won here before, NU won’t be taking them likely after an 0-2 road trip the last two weeks. Nebraska won’t look past the Golden Gophers, because they can’t afford to look past anyone.

    It won’t be a runaway; barring a meltdown by an opponent, Maryland may be the only “easy” game remaining, and even that is a relative term.

    Better to “burn the boats”, and take them all deadly seriously.

    Starting tomorrow.

    Tommy Armstrong comes roaring back, and the running game revs up again. The Blackshirts contain Minnesota’s ground attack, and force the Gophers to try to ride Mitch Leidner’s arm to an upset. It won’t work, and NU will have a couple of picks to prove it.

    Not a blowout, but satisfyingly solid:

    Nebraska 31
    , Minnesota 21

    With 3 games left, this is the 4th Quarter of the season, and Nebraska has been strongest in the 4th Quarter all year.

    That’s a point worth belaboring.

    GO BIG RED!!!

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    • redfred
      redfred commented
      Editing a comment
      I had to force myself to read the first half of the article. Reliving that is so painful. Glad I forced myself to do it however, as it puts new perspective on today's game.

      We've burned the boats. We're here to or die.
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