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Closing Ranks - New BHF Editorial by Mark Solomon


  • Closing Ranks - New BHF Editorial by Mark Solomon

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    “Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more; Or close the wall up with our English dead.”
    1. Henry V, Act III, by William Shakespeare

    The battle rages all around, and comrades and foes alike fall all about you. But the line must hold, or all will be lost, so you do the only thing you can; you fill the hole with the next available able bodies, and as they fall, the next.

    And the next.

    At some point, the bodies aren’t so able, but they still step forward, some grimly, some with an odd serenity, some even with a smile…because it’s duty. It’s dedication to something larger than themselves. Something worth the risk, the pain, the sacrifice.

    Oftentimes, the sacrifice of the fallen themselves creates the motivation for the living to fill the breach and fight on, so that their sacrifice will not have been in vain.

    With few exceptions, history richly rewards the peoples or countries whose best shone through when things were at their worst, those who fought on from battle to battle until the greater war was won, be it on that field or the next, days, weeks, months, years or even generations later.

    Fight on, because you should; because you must. Step over your brother’s body to honor his sacrifice with your own offering.

    Battling for King and Country, for life and limb are, of course, much less trivial than mere sporting events, and certainly the stakes are infinitely higher. The fallen seldom rise from those fields, after all.

    But anyone who has ever stepped out onto a football field, armored and clad in their school’s colors, representing their family, their school, their town, their state – we fight for what’s most dear to us – knows that the senses of honor and duty echo throughout the culture of a football team, and you’ve felt the relentless pull of your obligations to your teammates, and ultimately to yourself, to given your all, even when you thought “all” had run out a series or two ago. You somehow find more – that “all” has been redefined, until more is needed.

    And you know in your heart that you’ll find it then, too.

    It’s part of what make this Game, (yes, capital “G”), so special, and the experiences and lessons of it so unforgettable and formative for the rest of our lives.

    I haven’t played a meaningful game in a little over 30 years, and I still miss it. I’m sure I’m not alone in feeling that tug. There is simply nothing like it, and those moments are as impossible to let go as they are to relive.

    Because they’re moments when we were at our best, or even those rare, fleeting moments where perfection was actually achieved – usually through little to no fault of our own, but precious nonetheless.

    We jumped into the breach. We closed ranks for the sake of our team and the advancement of the goals and aspirations of that team, buoyed by honor and duty.

    Maybe these notions were exaggerated, (they likely were), but maybe they were exaggerated for a purpose; to prepare us for bigger things we’d face later in life, when more than personal pride, esprit de corps, and the numbers on the scoreboard would be at stake.

    Even three decades removed from my playing days, the term “It’s just a game” grates on me mightily.

    It’s more than that somehow, and the lessons learned still echo through my life.

    Adversity builds character, and not a game, not a practice, not a drill goes by in football where adversity isn’t present in abundance. Watch every play, and consider that woven into the fabric of each are several little pockets of adversity running their course right before your eyes, from the mano-y-mano combat between individual linemen to the brutal ballet played out between wide receivers and defensive backs, to the duel between running back and would-be tackler in the open field.

    It’s always there, and once you take note of it, you can’t miss it.

    Sometimes, it’s stark and overwhelming – like watching your team’s quarterback, in the course of playing one of the best games of his Husker life, limping off the field on a gimpy ankle, then returning, biting back the pain to weave his way the final 13 yards to paydirt, tumbling into the endzone, only to pop to his feet, grabbing the back of his leg, before being reluctantly carried off the field by two of his linemen, both of whom, somewhat ironically, were playing in their first game back from their own leg injuries.

    Adversity, overcome by will, then glory, bookended by yet more adversity.

    Then, the honor and duty of teammates’ loyalty.

    The grace of the Game itself.

    That’s no small thing.

    It’s the thing former players miss every day.

    It’s earned, and it endures beyond all reckoning, blessing us all more than we deserve for longer than we would dare hope.

    That grace creates the gravity of the Game, and its imprint is indelible and invaluable and inviolate to all who have felt it – and continue to feel it every day of their lives.

    That grace doesn’t always come with beautiful gift-wrapping. It’s often forged in fire, amidst smoke and sweat, with effort and passion and pain, and underneath it all, with love.

    This year’s Huskers have won 8 of their 10 games, usually not prettily, but always admirably, and always as a team – and imperfect, frustrating, exhilarating, wonderful team.

    NU has fielded better – far better – but few have shown as much heart, or as much sheer will as this bunch in 2016.

    Last week was no exception, but then, “exceptional” hasn’t been used to describe these Huskers in very many instances or in many contexts this season. They’ve been exceptional only in their ability to make more out of less, and to exceed almost everyone’s expectations, other than their own.

    The philosophy of “Us against the world” has come under fire by many Husker fans in recent years, but I suspect that’s only a matter of context, because this team exemplifies that philosophy like few other have during my lifetime.

    The context is that it isn’t a chip they constantly carry on their shoulder, or a defensiveness or paranoia that colors everything they say and do; but they can fall back behind the walls of their collective Alamo, regroup, and come back strong when no one outside of their sideline and huddle fully believes.

    Yes, they came up short against Wisconsin, where they could, and probably should have won three weeks ago, and they surely faceplanted in Columbus two weeks ago.

    But last week, facing one of the more physical teams in the Conference – the best against the run, statistically – they leaped back into the breach, closed ranks, and pushed through the pain and embarrassment of the meltdown against the Buckeyes only the week before.

    Buoyed by the return of several injured starters, as well of the courage of their many brethren who’ve fought through injuries every game – every snap, for some, they took the field with a purpose, and followed the lead of an indomitable player wearing number 4.

    It started with the firm anchor of the Blackshirts, which slowed the Gophers all day, and flat shut them down in the second half. Minnesota couldn’t run, other than one busted fit that allowed a long gain to set up a touchdown. In the second half, they couldn’t pass, either, and managed only 93 total yards and no points.

    Offensively, the aches, pains, and cobwebs of the prior week’s humiliation took awhile to sluff off, but as Jerald Foster found his rhythm somewhat after a 3-month layoff, and Right Tackle Cole Conrad played his best football to date, the pounding finally took its toll, and NU did just enough once again, running their record to 8-2, eliminating Minnesota from the West Division Title race while keeping their own flickering hopes alive.

    Tommy Armstrong was a general on the field, willing his team onward, but he was also a soldier in his own right, because his actions spoke louder than any words, his courage was contagious, and you could almost see his teammates, to a man, resolving not to let this young man’s sacrifices be in vain when the clock hit 00:00.

    Armstrong found a way to win, and it was simple: don’t stop, don’t slow, follow me. He didn’t even have to whisper it, because his actions shouted it loud and clear to all present.

    Nebraska wasn’t going to lose this game. Period.

    The Blackshirts were the anvil, and Tommy was the hammer. He had help, of course – football is the quintessential team sport, after all – but that help fed off of the grace imparted to them by their quarterback’s heroic effort, and played better than their battered bodies and tattered emotions would have otherwise allowed.

    Yes, the beatdown at Columbus took its toll, and it showed last week.

    But this team needed to give its all one week later, and “all” was a much larger quantity than anticipated.

    Adversity was in abundant display, as well, as stupid penalties, (one would hope that college-level students and professional coaches could count to twelve), poor tackling in the early stages, and punts that travel all of two yards – BACKWARDS created a lot of potholes in the road for the Huskers – self-inflicted potholes.

    I’m not going to get into the wisdom of paying $450,000 a year for a Special Teams Coordinator, or in the bang NU is getting – or not getting – for all those bucks. I’m not going to dissect the game all that deeply in any particular area, because it was less the details of the game than the sheer will on display, as a team lived up to the final stanza of it’s pre-game team prayer:

    “A team that can’t be beat – WON’T be beat!”

    The Huskers, led by Armstrong, anchored by the Blackshirts, simply refused to lose, and they didn’t. However clunky or ugly or frustrating, they simply, finally found a way to win.

    They closed ranks, and they sealed the breach.

    This week, another breach opens, in the form of the Maryland Terrapins, and the leader that willed his team to the win last week is somewhere between “doubtful” and “unavailable” for tomorrow’s game.

    It turns out that his being carried off the field last week was more necessary than any had hoped would be the case.

    If Tommy Armstrong were relatively healthy and starting tomorrow, Nebraska would cruise to a resounding victory over Maryland. The Terrapins are having their own issues at quarterback, and the presence of a 4th year starter of Armstrong’s abilities would be a death knell for the Fight’n Turtles.

    He may well play, but probably should not. He seemed very determined to play at the postgame presser last week, because it’s Senior Day, and his last chance to lace `em up in Memorial Stadium.

    I hope he does play, but only to take a knee to close things out in the game’s final seconds.

    This is a game where Armstrong’s teammates need to close ranks, and create the scenario whereby #4 doesn’t need to run out front for them to follow. They need to honor the lion-hearted way Tommy has battled all year.

    He’s one of their fallen, and they need to step over him and into the breach, and ensure that all his sacrifices have not been in vain.

    They need to win the battle.

    Ryker Fyfe is not a great quarterback. At his best, he’s a game manager who needs a strong running game to enable him to not damage his team by being called upon to perform beyond his capabilities in trying to win a game. He needs to be able to simply not HURT the team’s cause.

    Fyfe is also an admirable young man, who, by all reports, fought through a brutal personal battle all off-season, and had to be persuaded to rejoin the team. To his credit, he answered the call.

    Tomorrow, he’ll have a chance to make that answer count, for him and for his team.

    His team needs to close ranks around him, and push forward.

    The Blackshirts must be a stone wall in the face of Maryland’s spread Offense, a task that’s been problematic at times this season, but those games were against opponents with far better personnel than those who’ll be wearing the ugliest helmets in college football in Lincoln tomorrow.

    They’ll need good eye discipline and crisp open-field tackling tomorrow. They’ll be facing a quarterback who is operating under less-than-ideal conditions, due to either shoulder injury, in the case of Senior Perry Hills, (whose rotator cuffs must both resemble lace curtains by this point), or by the uncertainty of a 2-quarterback rotation that has proven horribly ineffective the last two games for Maryland.

    To make matters worse for the Terrapins, an outbreak of stupidity seems to have swept trhough the team, as well, leading to the suspensions of two key offensive weapons in running back Lorenzo Harrison, (leading rusher at 70 yards/game, 7.2 yards/carry, 5TDs) and wide receiver DJ Turner, whose contributions are less essential, but whose absence still reverberates through his teammates.

    Simply stated, this is a spread Offense that the Blackshirts could probably have contained pretty well if they were healthy and fully manned, and now, they won’t be either for tomorrow’s game. Barring garbage points scored against reserves after an NU blowout has been assured, or unexpected scoring from the Terrapins Defense or Special Teams, I would be surprised to see Maryland score more than 21 points, with 13-17 points more likely their max.

    If Tommy Armstrong was healthy, Nebraska would almost certainly score at least in the mid-40s. Even hobbled, I think Tommy could help generate 34 or 35 points.
    As it is, Nebraska will have to grind tomorrow. Even with an Offensive Line that’s still gimply here and there, they should be able to put together a physical enough attack to wear through the Turtles’ shells and decide the game before the 4th quarter has even begun.

    Jerald Foster’s return, and a second week of practice with the first unit, along with fellow Guard Tanner Farmer having come out of last week’s game no worse for the wear, should shore up the NU middle, and allow more versatility in the running game than we’ve seen in recent weeks.

    This is imperative, as Fyfe’s best chance at success will be facilitated in large part by the ready availability of a full array of play action passes. If it’s there, he’ll be able to dink and dunk, and hopefully not be forced to throw more than 25 times tomorrow. That would be the upper end of the target for throws, in my mind.

    In that running game, Devine Ozigbo is said to be closer to 100% after battling with his own ankle/leg injuries most of the season. This is good news for NU and for fellow running back Terrell Newby, whose quickness and burst is more devastating after an opposing defense has been softened up by Ozigbo’s more smashmouth, physical running style.

    And Tre Bryant’s play last week screams for a few snaps’ worth of experimentation early on in the game tomorrow. If he’s effective, I’d say rest the two older backs and let youth be served tomorrow. It’d get Bryant valuable reps, Ozigbo and Newby some well-earned rest, and allow NU to travel to Iowa City after a short week of practices to take on a Hawkeye team that is suddenly relevant again after they accepted Michigan’s generous giveaway last week.

    (Just as an aside, wouldn’t you think that a Coach who as a player often became a starter as a result of injury would make it a priority to get his backup quarterback a ton of reps during the half dozen or so blowouts the Wolverines had enjoyed up until last Saturday? I don’t know if it was shortsighted, arrogant, or just plain stupid, but having no one ready to go last week was unforgivable).

    I think NU will be able to run very effectively against Maryland tomorrow. The Terrapins are ranked 113th against the run, and they’ve been absolutely shredded the last two weeks. Armstrong’s absence will make it less brutal than it would have otherwise been, but there should be ample opportunity for NU’s running backs, nonetheless.

    Ryker Fyfe must be able to lean on that run game and sprinkle in timely play action passes to supplement the usual diet of quick-outs this offense frequently deploys.

    He cannot toss up a bunch of “50/50” balls, as we saw in Columbus, or put up 40+ passes, as we saw on a disastrous Halloween in 2015 at Purdue. He has to be enabled and allowed to simply manage the game, handing off or pitching the ball to his running backs twice as often as he throws it to his receivers.

    I think he’ll be able to do so. He’ll probably make a couple of mistakes, and it will be up to the Blackshirts to erase or minimize those for the good of the cause.
    It’ll be a spanking, but not a full-fledged blowout. It’ll be a wide spread, but it won’t come prettily.

    It’ll be enough, and NU will roll into Iowa City far better for having rested Tommy Armstrong.

    This Senior class, who’ve endured so much, who’ve overcome so much adversity on the field and off of it, will go out winners, with the first perfect season at home for Nebraska since 2012.

    Nebraska 31, Maryland 13

    Close ranks.

    Fill the breach.

    On to Iowa, to turn “Black Friday” Husker RED.

    GO BIG RED!!!
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    • redfred
      redfred commented
      Editing a comment
      The perfect article for senior day ..........

    • DrThunder
      DrThunder commented
      Editing a comment
      Great read Solly, and feels so accurate. Seems like so many times this year you could just see it in Tommy that he simply decided "not today" and started putting the team on his back until they started following. Hope the attitude this team has continues as we fill in more talent and hopefully less injuries in the years moving forward, because a more talented/deeper/healthier team with this scrappiness would be unstoppable. GBR.
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