Sunday, January 5, 2014

Sunday Review: Georgia

So that was fun.  Four days later, and my heart is still in my throat as I think about the ball glancing off of Georgia TE Arthur Lynch's hands.  What a fantastic win for this beleaguered Husker team in enemy territory, a win and a powerful statement for the Bo Pelini regime.

There's a palpable glow about this football program that wasn't here last Sunday; it proves the old axiom of 'winning cures all'.  When that win comes against a ranked SEC team on a national stage, well that's just gravy.

It wasn't a pretty game, it sure as heck wasn't pretty weather, but the scoreboard read 24-19 at the end of the 4th quarter, and the good feelings and momentum should warm Husker hearts through the long cold winter.

On with the review:

Offensive MVP: Quincy Enunwa WR.  Enunwa's four catches for 129 yards and 2 TDs more than made up for his drop.  The senior added another highlight to his reel with the 99 yard bomb, and will take his skills to an NFL team in May.  Husker nation will miss the hard blocking receiver with a knack for finding the end zone.

Defensive MVP: Corey Cooper S.  Cooper led the team with 10 tackles, including a touchdown saving one-on-one tackle of Todd Gurley on Georgia's second to last drive.  Tackling Todd Gurley one-on-one is something that Cooper will tell his grandchildren about someday, as the Georgia RB seems poised to make a real name for himself in this sport.  Cooper will be counted on to lead a young Nebraska secondary next season that will likely be the biggest question mark on this defense. 

Special Teams MVP: Josh Mitchell CB.  Mitchell made the best play of the first half, recognizing Georgia's muffed punt and pouncing on the loose ball, securing it on the wet, slippery turf.  So often this season Nebraska has been burned on special teams, it was nice to get one back.

Freshman MVP: Tommy Armstrong QB.  The freshman didn't light the world on fire, but aside from that late interception, he mostly made good decisions and didn't lose the game for his team.  Next season he should have a stout defense and it will be important for him to complement them better than he did this season.

Assistant Coach MVP: Ross Els, linebackers coach.  You're never going to be able to completely shut down a special player like Todd Gurley, even hobbled as he was, but to hold him to 86 yards on 21 carries shows that the linebackers mostly played assignment-sound football and most importantly, tackled well.  The young bucks' next step is to stop getting lost in coverage.  Good halftime adjustment shutting down TE Arthur Lynch, who tortured Michael Rose for 6 catches in the first half.

5 Who Stood out:
*Thad Randle DT.  Another senior who ended his career with a bang.  Randle finished with six tackles, and was consistently pushing the pocket all game long.  I've been critical of Randle being on the field in place of more talented youngsters, but he proved me wrong in his swan song game.

*Ameer Abdullah RB.  Abdullah didn't have any real breakaway plays, but he still ground out 122 yards and a TD, getting solid national publicity for a potential Heisman run next season.  Which given the recent history for Nebraska's star offensive players, probably means he'll get injured.

*Cethan Carter TE.  The freshman finally got an on-target pass on that play-action seam route and cashed in with a 23 yard catch.  I can think of at least five times this season that that same play was wide open but the pass just wasn't within Carter's reach.  Here's hoping for big things next season.

*Michael Rose MLB.  The freshman capped his strong debut season with another 9 tackles and some good clean QB hits.  Rose has work to do in learning to cover the crossing routes that burned him so many times yesterday, but he's going to be a good one.

*Randy Gregory DE.  The sophomore made as beautiful a move as you'll ever see on that second quarter sack, and he's come a long way in run support.  If he adds good weight and refines his skills, he's poised to have an amazing season next year.

Key Stat: +1.  I don't want to try and remember the last time Nebraska finished a game on the right side of the turnover margin; it made a huge difference yesterday.

Play of the Game: The 99.9 yard bomb.  It was all the more special because there was such potential for disaster.  Rewards are made much sweeter with risk.

Play We Want Back: How much different would the game look if Tommy Armstrong's third down pass was a few feet closer to Quincy Enunwa's hands on Nebraska's last drive?  Nebraska's offense might have finished the game on the field instead of sweating on the sidelines.

Blown Call: I didn't particularly like the unnecessary roughness call on Georgia DE Ray Drew in the first quarter.  I think that a QB on a zone read should expect to be tackled if he's performing an adequate ball fake.

And no holding penalties all game?  Come on...

Hit of the Game: The hit by LB David Santos on Georgia TE Arthur Lynch as he caught the ball on that crucial 4th down with 25 seconds left was just enough to ensure that Lynch would drop the ball and essentially end the game for the Big Red.  I liked Bo's sideline celebration too, that smile looks good on him.    

I want to see more...
*Option.  It worked well once, not so well another time, and then it was gone.  Nebraska's offense seemed to abandon the option in favor of speed sweep fakes, and I'm not convinced it was a good trade.
*Randy Gregory.  The sophomore said he was coming back next year, and if he duplicates the success he had this season, it will more than likely be his last in Lincoln.  I hope that it's on par with Ndamukong Suh's 2009 season.
*Kenny Bell.  He only had one catch and a handful of targets.  Enunwa really took over as the primary receiving target this year, and I'm interested to see how Bell reacts next season when he's the main man again.
*Good bounces.  Footballs are a funny shape and that adds a large element of luck to the game.  Nebraska finally got a bit of that on their side this game.
*Mud ball.  There's something romantically old-school about a football game in the muck.  I love to see it once or twice a year.

I want to see fewer...
*Drops.  Jamal Turner had a rough season with injuries, and he compounded his woes by dropping a touchdown pass in the second quarter.  This has been an off-and-on issue for the Big Red wide receive and it needs to go away.
*Penalties.  Six penalties doesn't seem like a lot, but there were too many false start penalties for my liking.  With a completely different offensive line next season, this could be an area of concern.
*Missed tackles.  With the exception of that long pass to Chris Conley, all of Georgia's big plays started with a missed tackle.  For this defense to take the next step and be dominant, that's going to have to change.
*Games with Ed Cunningham in the booth.  Husker message boards spent most of Thursday and Friday griping about Cunningham's blatantly unfair color commentary (if you knew nothing of the Bulldogs or Cornhuskers before the game, you might have thought that Georgia was starting their third-string everything while Nebraska was completely healthy) and obsession with calling defensive timeouts near the end of the half.  Give me Chris Spielman any day.

Armchair coach: I wouldn't have thrown the ball on 3rd and 4 with three and a half minutes left.  Tommy Armstrong was 6 of 14 before that throw and hadn't completed a pass since the 99 yard bomb in the third quarter.  In that situation I put the ball in the hands of my All-American running back and tell him to go win the game.  Even if stopped short, that's 40 more seconds off the clock and less chance of heart attack for the fans.

Jennifer's Take (my wife doesn't know much about football, but she still has opinions)
"I'm glad the Huskers won, now everyone can be happy until the Spring Game."

We'll see.  I'm sure that Husker fans will be griping again soon, it's how we show our love.

Opponent Watch:
*If you weren't paying attention, Wyoming fired coach Dave Christensen after their 5-7 finish, and hired Craig Bohl away from North Dakota State where he just won his third consecutive FCS National championship.  QB Brett Smith, the scourge of the Blackshirts in week one, elected to enter the draft instead of riding out a coaching change, and the Cowboys are enjoying a lovely Laramie winter, while their Mountain West Conference buddies have been on a tear this bowl season.

*South Dakota State beat Northern Arizona in the first round of the FCS playoffs, but then fell to Eastern Washington 41-17 in round two.  The Jackrabbits finished a respectable 9-5.

*Minnesota turned in the Big Ten's most disappointing bowl performance, stinking their way to a 24-17 loss to 7-6 Syracuse.  The Gophers only managed 127 rushing yards and only scored three points until the fourth quarter.  So the Gopher's surprising season ends with a three game losing streak, and an 8-5 finish.

*I'm sure the Fiesta Bowl executives would like a mulligan.  They picked Michigan over Nebraska to face Kansas State in the Buffalo Wild Wings bowl, and the Wolverines rewarded them with a putrid performance in a 31-14 defeat.  Missing QB Devin Gardner, who was out with a turf toe injury, the Wolverines could only muster 65 rushing yards and allowed the Wildcats a 35 to 25 minute time of possession advantage.  Brady Hoke is officially on the clock.

*Brett Hundley and #17 UCLA went off on Virginia Tech, scoring four TDs in the fourth quarter to get the win.  Hundley's 387 total yards and 4 TD's put him back on the national radar and into the 2014 Heisman and NFL Draft discussions.  Jim Mora's Bruins could be unstoppable next season if Hundley stays.

*Iowa didn't win, but they traded body blows with #16 LSU deep into the fourth quarter until a late interception allowed the Tigers to steal the game.  LSU very nearly gave the Hawkeyes a great chance at overtime with some classic Les Miles clock mismanagement, but in the end the Hawkeyes fell.  That a middle of the pack Big Ten team could hang with an SEC blue-blood was part of a strong national statement by the non-SEC conference teams this bowl season: the SEC is not head-and-shoulders ahead of the rest of college football like they think they are.

*In one of the more exciting Rose Bowls in recent memory, #4 Michigan State overcame some serious errors and stuffed #5 Stanford on a late 4th and 1 to get the Big Ten's best win of the bowl season.  Sparty has a legitimate claim to the #2 spot in the final polls, and I'm sure that Mark Dantonio will lay awake at night and wonder what could have been had he stuck with QB Connor Cook late in the game against Notre Dame last September.

Keeping an Eye on the Rest of the College Football World...
*Of all the bowl games I watched this season, none was crazier than #24 Duke vs #21 Texas A&M.  Duke's 38 points in the first half were three points more than the Blue Devil's basketball team had scored in the first half of their game versus Elon earlier that day.  Then Johnny Manziel did what Johnny Football does: make dazzling plays.  Helped by Duke's offensive self-destruction, the Aggies managed to erase a 21 point deficit, take a late lead, and hold on after Duke's last drive ended inside their 30 yard line with an interception.  Crazy stuff.

*That game was an ominous sign of things to come for the SEC.  #9 South Carolina and #16 LSU would sweat out physical games against Big 10 foes, #22 Georgia would lose to Nebraska, #8 Missouri was a Michael Sam strip-sack away from losing to #13 Oklahoma State, and #3 Alabama would be embarrassed by #11 Oklahoma and their freshman QB.  The SEC is a respectable 7-2 in bowl games pending the BCS Championship game tomorrow, but this bowl season popped a huge hole in the idea that they are somehow on a different level than every other conference.

*No conference had a worse season than the MAC however.  Pending Ball State's GoDaddy bowl against Arkansas State, the MAC is 0-4 with mostly embarrassing performances.

*Every year I take part in Yahoo's Bowl Pick'em contest, and never before has a conference screwed me like the Big 12 did this season.  Texas Tech's upset win over #14 Arizona was a shock (that was my wife's favorite game of the bowl season because she discovered that TTU head coach Kliff Kingsbury is Ryan Gosling's doppelg√§nger), #6 Baylor's loss to #15 Central Florida was a disappointment, and honestly, who expected #11 Oklahoma to beat #3 Alabama?  That's why I don't gamble.

*I hate Texas and I'm not a Mack Brown fan, but I'm also human, so seeing his face at the end of their 30-7 loss to #10 Oregon evoked something resembling pity.  Tough way for the guy to go out.

*Texas' new coach Charlie Strong had an impressive final game at #18 Louisville, soundly defeating Miami behind Teddy Bridgewater's 447 yards passing.  I thought Louisville would win that game, but I really expected the Canes to put up a better fight.

*If you didn't see the end of the Orange Bowl between #7 Ohio State and #12 Clemson, then you missed one of the sloppiest final 3 minutes of football you can imagine.  Buckeye's QB Braxton Miller threw a potentially game ending interception, only to get the ball back a few plays later after Tiger's QB Tajh Boyd threw one of his own.  Then on the very next play, with a short field and chance to drive for the win, Miller tried to thread the needle on a pass and had it picked off to effectively end the game.  Ohio State has had a ton of team issues exposed in their last two games that were masked during their 24 game winning streak.  Urban Meyer will earn his paycheck this offseason.

*I hesitate to write this, but #1 Florida State has a huge chance to duplicate the success of the '95 Nebraska Cornhusker team.  Florida State has been so dominant this season (their closest game was a 14 point triumph over Boston College), that if they defeat #2 Auburn convincingly, then they will have a legitimate claim to being one of the greatest teams in the history of college football.  Heck, Jameis Winton's legal issues create yet another parallel to the current greatest team in NCAA history.  The Seminoles have a lot to play for tomorrow night, and they have more than enough talent to beat the upstart Tigers, but a football's funny shape lends itself to funny bounces, and Auburn has had a lot of good bounces this season.

Last Thought
So after the sixth season of Bo Pelini's tenure, we're right back where we left off in 2008: coming off a scrappy win in the Gator Bowl with a promising, talented team coming back next season.  Bo burned every last bit of good grace with the fan base this season, but earned a little bit of it back on New Year's day.  That will be important as Bo tries to build momentum for a Big Ten title run in 2014.

Everything sets up well for the '14 Huskers, the schedule is soft again, the talent should be primed for a big step forward, and there's palpable momentum that comes with beating an SEC program on what was essential their home turf.  We're left asking the same question this offseason as in the past five: is next year the year the Huskers finally break through?

We'll see.

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