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UNIQUE POST-GAME ANALYSIS

Lane Grindle provides a weekly look at Nebraska athletics. Installments of Lane’s blog will appear on this page after each week’s gridiron contest.

SPORTS NIGHTLY AUDIO CONTEST

Each week, a special audio clip from the last Nebraska football game will be loaded here. Sports Nightly listeners will be asked to identify the clip on Thursday night for a chance to win great prizes from the Nebraska Lottery. The program airs weeknights from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. (Central Time).

TaxSlayer.com Gator Bowl vs. Georgia

Winning a bowl game matters. Winning a New Year’s Day bowl game matters even more. Beating an SEC team that beat LSU and South Carolina matters. Beating an SEC team that was a Hail Mary away from beating Auburn matters. Nebraska did all of those things. They did all of those things despite a difficult year in the face of adversity. There is something to be said for that.

Why was Nebraska able to pull off the victory in Jacksonville? Because despite the sloppy playing conditions, the Huskers played one of their cleanest games of the season. They were +1 in the turnover department. They outscored Georgia 14-7 in points off of turnovers. They played their best defense when it mattered (in the red zone). They got back to the recipe that the best teams use to consistently win: good defense, good running game, win the turnover battle, don’t get beat on special teams.

Hats off to Quincy Enunwa and the rest of the Husker seniors. That group has been through a lot and had not won a bowl game until Wednesday. There are some great stories in that class. Enunwa was an afterthought coming out of high school. Now he’ll be playing on Sundays soon. Thad Randle never became the dominant defensive tackle so many hoped he would… but he played through injury after injury and gave everything he had to the Huskers. Jason Ankrah and Andrew Green saved their best for last as both played as well as they had in their entire careers at Everbank Field. Don’t forget about Ciante Evans. He’s come a long way since that tackle at the goal line of Blaine Gabbert as a freshman in 2010.

What does this win mean? Does it carry over? Those are always the popular questions after a bowl win. No one truly knows the answer to that. What we do know is that it helps Nebraska’s story on the recruiting trail. Three teams have won 9 or more games in each of the past 6 years. Alabama, Oregon and Nebraska. That’s a good stat to sell to recruits. The Huskers will likely end up ranked in the top 25 for the 5th consecutive year. That’s a nice stat to sell to recruits. Confidence should be gleaned from this win. Motivation should not be lacking after this win. The Huskers have proven to themselves that they are capable of bigger things. Now they have to put the work in to insure themselves of realizing their potential in 2014.

On the field after the bowl win, it was a special scene. My favorite moment? Bo Pelini, all smiles, hugging Nebraska Director of Athletics Shawn Eichorst and thanking him for his support. Eichorst responded with a “congratulations!” and was beaming with pride as they embraced. You got the sense that a tough year had taken its toll on everyone and that this was the first chance to exhale. You also sensed that surviving this season could bring a renewed energy into the program to push it to the next level in the future. That’s what Nebraskans want. That’s definitely what the head coach wants too.

GAME 12 VS. IOWA

Someday when we look back upon the 2013 Nebraska football season, we’ll realize it was one of the more eventful seasons in recent history. It had some great highs (wins at Michigan and at Penn State, a Hail Mary and development of some promising young football players) and it definitely had some lows (Friday’s loss to Iowa among them.)

That’s what football is about. Sure, at Nebraska we’re used to hanging banners and playing on New Year’s Day for our bowl games. We’re used to and expect a lot more than most fan bases around the country. That’s a good thing. However, we also need to keep in mind that the journey is a part of the process to returning to that ultimate destination.

Let’s reflect on Friday’s loss to Iowa. It was a disappointing outcome for sure. Nebraska did not come out of the gates very well – specifically on offense and special teams. Turnovers and poor field position go hand-in-hand. That poor field position is compounded even worse when special teams do not get the job done. When we reflect on 2013, the two biggest issues that HAVE to get corrected going into 2014 are turnovers and special teams. If those two areas were even 25% better this year, then the Huskers may have finished about 10-2. They are a big deal. The Huskers have to shore them up.

Once again I felt the defense played pretty decent football on Friday. Unfortunately, much like in the Michigan State game, the defense was time and again put into impossible situations. That happened plenty this year. You could even argue that the offense’s inability to sustain a drive and slow UCLA’s 2nd momentum back in September had as much to do with the Husker D’s struggles as anything else. Football is a team sport. You have to execute in all phases. Too often this year Nebraska only played well in one or two of those phases.

I felt once the Huskers scored on the opening drive of the 2nd half that they had weathered the storm, they had taken Iowa’s best shot, and would not seize control of the game. Give Iowa credit: they answered with a field goal scoring drive to go back up by a touchdown. The Huskers were able to hang around and give themselves a chance throughout the rest of the 3rd quarter and early 4th quarter, but could never get closer than a touchdown deficit. It still looked like the Huskers might pull this thing out when Nebraska got the ball at their own 41 yard line with 10:09 remaining in the game down 24-17. Ameer Abdullah fumbled shortly after and Iowa recovered. It seems like that was the Huskers’ last chance. You can’t fault Abdullah though; that kid was the heart and soul of this team this year. Too often he made plays when no one else would or could. Without AA (which stands for Ameer Abdullah but should stand for All-American) it’s hard to imagine what Nebraska’s offense would have become with all the injuries.

Bo Pelini was passionate on Friday. He let his emotions get the best of him at times. He apologized for it. He knows that Friday was not his best day as the Husker coach. However, make no mistake; this man has had plenty of very good days as the head Husker. A young child running for daylight and punching cancer in the face, a high school quarterback that may never be able to play again having his scholarship honored by Bo because it’s the right thing to do, an emotional and inspiring speech following the Penn State game in 2011 and countless other examples exist. You should know that Friday was a regression in what has been a major upward trend in terms of his “polish” as the head coach of the Huskers. Look for that upward trend to continue again moving forward.

The most important piece to the puzzle is the locker room. I can tell you that I’ve never been around a program in which the locker room is more behind its leader. The kids that play for Bo and have played for Bo would do anything for him. The same can be said for the people on his staff and on his support staff. These people appreciate his passion. They love his loyalty. They know a man that is different than what the cameras show.

Now we wait for a bowl assignment. It would appear that the Buffalo Wild Wings bowl versus Texas or Oklahoma is a strong possibility. There is nothing like an old rival to finish the season. Let’s support this program and these kids and help them try and achieve a 9-win season for the 6th consecutive year.

MYDAY-MYTEAM BOWL BASH

MyDaY MyTeaM Bowl Bash

The Huskers are bowl bound, and you could be too! Just enter your non-winning MyDaY tickets for a chance to win a trip to the upcoming Husker bowl game.

Between November 18 and December 8, enter one non-winning MyDaY ticket online at nelottery.com for a chance to win a trip for two people to the Husker bowl game (game location and date TBD). Entries must be received by 11:59 p.m. on December 8, 2013.

One drawing will be held on Monday, December 9, 2013, to select four winners:

Grand Prize (1):

  • One bowl trip for two (2) for the 2013 University of Nebraska football bowl game, including airfare to the game site, two (2) night hotel stay, tickets to the game and $1,000.

Second Prizes (3):

  • MyDaY tickets for a year (312 Free MyDaY play coupons to cover an entire year).

Click here for complete contest information.

GAME 11 VS. PENN STATE

In the last three years since joining the Big Ten conference, we have seen some incredibly memorable moments. Some incredibly memorable comebacks. Some incredibly gritty wins. Saturday was no exception.

I’m simply not a talented enough broadcaster or writer to accurately describe the guts this team has. I can’t find the right way to explain my own sense of pride watching these kids put it all on the line for their leader every week. Make no mistake: it starts with the head coach. If people want to place all the blame at Bo’s feet every time Nebraska loses, they should at least be fair and heap praise upon him when his team shows the guts, pride and class that it’s shown numerous times over the course of his tenure.

Consider this: Nebraska kicked the game winning field goal in overtime against Penn State on Saturday with defensive tackle Vincent Valentine playing on the offensive line. Nebraska won in Happy Valley with its 3rd string quarterback. It won despite fumbling on Penn State’s 1-yard line and fumbling inside its own 10. That combination alone was a 14-point swing. It won despite a blatant offensive pass interference no-call on Allen Robinson on Penn State’s initial scoring drive. It won despite the most ridiculous penalty called this year in college football (on Sam Burtch) that negated a 62-yard touchdown run by Ameer Abdullah. It won because it’s together. It won because it respects the game. It won, in large part, because of its head coach.

The truth is this program doesn’t hit the panic button. Down on the road? No big deal. Bad call against us? Big deal, but turn the page on move on. It’s as mentally tough of a program as I’ve ever been around. Sorry, for those of you that may refuse to accept this as the fact that it is. You can’t argue with the results. Time and time again, this program finds a way. This program toughs it out. This program ignores the excuses and wins.

You should be proud of what this program represents and is about. There is strong character within it. There has to be to continue to win these tightly contested contests.

A little about the game:

1.   Ron Kellogg III provided a very obvious spark to the offense. It was less about his physical talent and more about his excitement and attitude. It was a change of pace and a good one for the unit. Tommy Armstrong Jr. is going to be a very nice quarterback. He’s been a solid starter in the absence of Taylor Martinez this year. However, the reality is that he’s a freshman and is going to go through the rollercoaster at times. RKIII is the more consistent energy guy right now.

2.  One guy too few are talking about in the wake of the win vs. the Nittany Lions is Jordan Westerkamp. He simply doesn’t drop the football. Best hands of any Husker I can ever remember. He made some big catches to keep the chains moving on Saturday. He was large!

3.  LeRoy Alexander is playing better football by the week. I think he is blossoming into a very nice Safety alongside Junior Corey Cooper. Cooper did not have his best game against Penn State, but don’t fret: He’s been one of the more consistent performers this year for the Big Red on defense.

4.  Speaking of Alexander, a redshirt freshman, let’s look at just how many freshman or sophomores are significantly contributing on defense.

-          Randy Gregory (Soph.)

-          LeRoy Alexander (Frosh.)

-          Michael Rose (Frosh.)

-          David Santos (Soph.)

-          Vincent Valentine (Frosh.)

-          Aaron Curry (Soph.)

-          Greg McMullen (Frosh.)

-          Avery Moss (Frosh.)

-          Maliek Collins (Frosh.)

-          Josh Banderas (Frosh.)

-          Nate Gerry (Frosh.)

5.  How about offense?

-          Tommy Armstrong Jr. (Frosh.)

-          Imani Cross (Soph.)

-          Zach Sterup (Soph.)

-          Ryne Reeves (Soph.)

-          Cethan Carter (Frosh.)

-          Jordan Westerkamp (Frosh.)

-          Alonzo Moore (injured, Frosh.)

-          Sam Burtch (Soph.)

6.  Pat Smith told me that when Penn State called a time out to try and ice him that it actually pumped him up. He essentially told me that it makes him feel in control when someone tries to get in his head over something he does with ease every day. He was never concerned after Givens Price jumped prior to his first field goal in OT sailing through the uprights. Smith said guys looked at him nervous after they gathered back into the huddle. However, Smith told them, “I got this, quit worrying.”

That’s 20, yes 20, freshman or sophomores that have had a significant impact beyond just special teams in 2013. Folks, that is exciting. These are talented young kids that have developed this year. The future is bright.

So what’s next? Iowa and then a bowl game. This game against the Hawkeyes figures to be a real battle. I think the Hawkeyes are the most improved team in the Big Ten this year. They are physical and sound. They don’t make many mistakes and they make you earn the W. Nebraska is banged up and tired. They’ve used a lot of energy to keep this thing pieced together through all of these injuries. However, they are still the more talented team. They are still at home. They’ll need a steady hand at quarterback and mistake-free football. Do that and they should be fine. One more win and another season with 9 wins is a reality again. That’s still a big deal in these parts. It should be too.

GAME 10 VS. MICHIGAN STATE

I promise I’ll write more than the one sentence it takes to explain Nebraska’s 41-28 loss to Michigan State on Saturday. I promise. Here it is anyway: Nebraska had five turnovers. That’s the beginning of the story, the middle of the story, and the end of the story.

This game had an uncomfortable feeling from the start. Nebraska looked quick on their first two plays from scrimmage and then showed a new formation and new wrinkle on an option play to the left with freshman speedster Terrell Newby. It was blocked well. It would have gone for a nice positive gain. The pitch was high, it hit Newby’s hands, it hit the ground. The turnover epidemic spread throughout the team from that point on. Nebraska committed five turnovers in total. Those turnovers led to 24 points. They were the difference in the game, plain and simple.

What made this game frustrating was that no one that watched the game objectively could argue that Michigan State was the better team. They were the winning team, they earned the win. Connor Cook made clutch third-down throw after clutch third-down throw. Michigan State ran the ball in crunch time late. They won the time of possession category. They didn’t turn it over. They followed their script for a win.

However, their vaunted “immovable” defense looked rather pedestrian at times. Ameer Abdullah sliced through them time and again on his way to 123 yards on the ground. The Husker offensive line (playing with 4 of the top 6 lineman either out or banged up) pushed the Spartans around.

Tommie Armstrong was a freshman. A talented freshman, but a freshman. He made a few brilliant plays. Unfortunately, he also made his fair share of mistakes. Costly mistakes. He’ll be fine. He’ll be better for these experiences.

The defense, although giving up 41 points (which is incredibly deceiving given the numerous short fields MSU was given,) played rather inspired football again. This group is getting better and better. It will be a dangerous unit next season. The front seven for the Huskers in 2014 could be the class of the Big Ten. I really believe it could be that good.

In the end, this was a disappointing outcome. The Huskers will have to tighten things up and do the little things better if they want to win big games in the future. Sloppy ball handling and ill-advised decisions won’t get this team over the hump. That is something that I’m sure will be an emphasis (as it always is) once again in the off-season and pre-season and during the season. It will be an emphasis again this week in practice too.

So what’s left? No Legends title? No Big Ten championship game? It’s kind of a weird place to be for Husker fans. Nebraska has played in the conference championship game in ’06, ’09, ’10, and ’12. That’s quite often. The Huskers now need to move on and focus on Penn State and Iowa. Neither will be easy. A 9-3 regular season is still something to be quite proud of. It’s still something within reach. The Huskers need to keep their focus right there.

GAME 9 VS. MICHIGAN

We’ve seen this before. We’ve seen the Huskers with their backs against the wall. We’ve seen people on national television proclaim they CAN’T do this or CAN’T do that. We’ve seen people “count them out.” What generally happens after that is the single best quality of the Bo Pelini era. If you want to know what this program is really about, then look at those moments over the years. This program throws punches. They don’t feel sorry for themselves and sulk. They dig themselves out of the hole they may have either fallen in or put themselves in. Character: that’s what you have to have to do the things this program has done the last couple of years. There’s no shortage of it in the Nebraska locker room.

Saturday’s 17-13 win at Michigan was not the greatest win in the history of the program. It was not the greatest win in Bo Pelini’s tenure. Make no mistake though; it was a tremendously big and important win. It was a CHARACTER-filled win. This team is battered and bruised. They are operating on offense with a back-up quarterback, a back-up right tackle, a back-up left guard, a back-up right guard, a back-up slot receiver, a freshman tight end, a beat-up Kenny Bell and numerous other guys like Jordan Westerkamp not 100% healthy. What Nebraska did on Saturday was subscribe to my favorite quote in sports: “Win Anyway.” What does that mean, you ask?

You’re hurt. You’re not 100%. You’re in a hostile environment. Win Anyway.

You’re behind late in the 4th quarter. You just muffed a punt. The Legends title is slipping away from you. Win Anyway.

Back-up Freshman Quarterback with one last chance. 4th and 2 to keep the drive alive. Michigan’s won 19 straight at home. Win Anyway.

That’s how the great teams think. They don’t care what is working against them. They win anyway. Nebraska has this quality right now. That’s what the 2012 team had in the final six games of the regular season. Something changed when Jordan Westerkamp caught that Hail Mary. This team realized no one was going to give it to them. They had to go make the plays to win. They made just enough in the Big House to “win anyway.”

I blogged last week to never bet against Bo Pelini. He proved me right on Saturday.

All season I’ve blogged about being patient with this young defense. I almost guarantee that you’ve rolled your eyes at that statement once or twice. No one likes to be patient. No one likes what seems like an excuse when it’s really a reality. This defense is loaded with potential. It could be scary good next year. It’s becoming very formidable right now.

Some quick hits:

  • If you haven’t randomly blurted out that you love Randy Gregory at your watch parties at some point this year, then you’ve been too busy worrying about the nacho dip instead of watching the game. Appreciate every moment you get to watch him. He’s special. Few teams get to boast a talent like this. Don’t take him for granted.
  • Avery Moss and Greg McMullen are going to be special. Moss already might be. Nebraska is in good shape at defensive end for the foreseeable future.
  • Michael Rose is going to be one of those iconic leaders before his career is over. He oozes leadership. He’s mentally tough. He’s a keeper.
  • Tommy Armstrong has no idea that he’s a freshman. Sure, he makes freshman mistakes, but what he doesn’t do is let those freshman mistakes eliminate his aggressive, confident play.
  • I know Melvin Gordon is a really special back for Wisconsin; however, I wouldn’t trade Ameer Abdullah for any running back in the conference. Maybe even the country.
  • I want to give a ton of credit to Thad Randle. He’s been criticized by fans and media a lot over the course of this year. He’s played most of his career without knees. Literally. He played his best game as a Husker on Saturday.

So that gritty win left Nebraska with this: a date with the Spartans on Saturday. Michigan State is improved on offense but not great. They can be physical though and run the ball between the tackles. They’ll challenge the Huskers for sure. They boast perhaps the best defense in the country – great against the run and great against the pass. They turn mistakes into touchdowns. They remind me a bit of Nebraska’s 2009 bunch. Memorial Stadium needs to be rocking on Saturday. It’s the site of what looks like the de facto Legends championship game. Oh what a difference a couple of weeks can make!

GAME 8 VS. NORTHWESTERN

I have had the privilege to be on the sidelines for some special moments. Some of them involve football being played, some of them don’t. Jack Hoffman’s run, and later remission, was a real-life miracle that can’t be overstated. Alex Henery’s 57 yard field goal was improbable sure, but also made even better because of how unassuming of a personality he is. Tom Osborne’s retirement and final home game last year vs. Minnesota was a moment/day that still gives me chills to think about. The “Wester-stache” or the “The Pass” or “Kellogg’s Corn Toss” or whatever you want to call it is among those moments for me. In some ways it may have been the most euphoric moment I’ve witnessed on the sidelines in my career. All of those special moments hold their own significance to me. However, the 180 degree flip in emotions on one play to end the game in the midst of a season that needed this win to maintain it’s goal will undoubtedly be hard to unseat. At least in terms of mass hysteria… I’m not sure anything could ever top it.

I honestly remember thinking as the ball was in the air, “Why not? It’s happened before.” I knew the second the ball was deflected, that Nebraska was the winner. I saw Jordan Westerkamp sneak in behind the scrum of Wildcats and Huskers and catch the ball cleanly. I was shocked that Ron Kellogg III could throw it that far, and put in the spot he needed to. Football is great isn’t it?

It’s been a tough year. A tough loss to Minnesota that no one saw coming, a tale of two halves versus UCLA that left us disappointed, barely holding on versus Wyoming are all things that have led to some frowns from Husker fans. This was a great moment to enjoy.

It’s important to note how many of these miraculous wins we’ve had under Bo Pelini. It’s the mark of a team that never quits…always believes it can find a way. Saturday the 2013 version of Husker football delivered it’s hallmark moment.

Kudos to the Husker defense. They lost their Blackshirts earlier in the week. Their egos had been bruised in the Twin Cities. They had a disastrous start to the game. Then something changed. They went back to their more base defense and they played arguably their best three quarters of football this year from the 2nd quarter on. They had a huge stop that will likely get overlooked as well. The goal line stand at the end of the game to force a field goal was the moment of the year for this young defense.

So what does this 27-24 win over Northwestern mean? Maybe nothing more than a W. Maybe something a lot more. One thing’s for sure: it kept the Husker right in the thick of the Legends division race. Confidence and momentum are a big thing in college football. The Huskers now have the most they’ve had in 2013.

Now, to go hand Brady Hoke his first loss at the Big House. It can be done. I’ve learned something over the years with Bo Pelini. Don’t ever count him or his teams out. They may just deliver a Hail Mary.

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