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UNIQUE POST-GAME ANALYSIS
Jeff Culhane provides a weekly look at Nebraska athletics. Installments of Jeff’s blog will appear on this page after each week’s gridiron contest.
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For a second straight year the Nebraska Cornhuskers would make the trip to the Capital One Bowl in Orlando. And for the second straight year Nebraska would face a top tier SEC school in the Georgia Bulldogs. Georgia was coming off a last second defeat to the Alabama Crimson tide in the SEC championship game. There was nothing last second about what happened to Nebraska in the Big Ten championship against Wisconsin in Indianapolis. The big question heading into this game, as with all bowl games, is: who would be most motivated? Georgia was the better team on paper, but would they want to be in Orlando? The Huskers returned to the same bowl site for the second straight year, but would their leadership emerge after a blowout loss in their previous outing?
Early it was special teams that cost the Cornhuskers. A blocked punt that resulted in a safety put Georgia on the board first. The Bulldogs would add another score on the ensuing drive, the first of Aaron Murray’s five touchdown passes to give Georgia a 9-0 lead. But the Cornhuskers would march right back down the field. Taylor Martinez and the Husker offensive line went right at the athletic Georiga defense and Martinez found Jamal Turner in the end zone for a score to get the Huskers on the board.
How would the defense respond? Very well, as Will Compton playing in his final game would pick off a Murray screen pass and head to the house for a pick six to give the Huskers a lead. Georgia would answer on the very next play, a 75 yard touchdown strike from Murray to Tavarres King to give the Bulldogs the lead right back. The huskers found themselves in a lot of these situations throughout the day: right there to make the play but unable to capitalize. It was that type of a first half – a back and forth affair with the Huskers leading at the break 24-23.
In the second half, Nebraska started with the football first and pushed Georgia up and down the field. The Huskers put together a 13 play drive that left the Bulldog defense grasping for air. The Huskers would punch it in from two yards out, and for the first time all day, you could feel Husker fans begin to believe that the Big Red would find a way to win up 31-23. But that belief was quickly stomped on by Aaron Murray and the Bulldogs. Five plays later with a two point conversion things were all tied up at 31. And as we’ve seen all year long, the Huskers would hurt themselves on the ensuing drive. Moving the ball down the field again Nebraska handed the ball to I-back Ameer Abdullah on third and two. Abdullah would have no problem picking up the first down, but just like a season ago, Abdullah would cough up the football at a critical point in the game and Georgia would recover. From there the bulldogs would tack on two more scores to pull away from the Huskers winning the Capital One Bowl 45-31.
In a lot of ways this one game had a little bit of everything from the 2012 season. A Husker offense that could be so good no matter who the opponent yet be its own worst enemy with penalties and turnovers. A defense that struggled to find its consistency yet could provide some relief from time to time. And another chance in a big game to build some momentum for the program only to come up short.
This team heads into the offseason with nothing to hang their heads about winning ten games and the Legends division. Yet there are still questions of how to get over the hump in big games. What do these players and coaches have to do to tweak a few things here and there to no lay the proverbial egg in big games like they did at Ohio State and against Wisconsin in the Big Ten title game? Nebraska played hard and right with one of the best teams in the country in the Capital One Bowl on New Year’s Day. But Husker fans would like to see those answers to the above questions sooner rather than later.
This was supposed to be the game for Nebraska fans that exercised the demons of the past 13 years. This was supposed to be the game that Nebraska fans looked at and said this was the day we returned to a BCS bowl game. It was supposed to be the game for Bo Pelini and his coaches that pointed to them getting over the hump and winning a big time matchup when they needed to most. But it turned out to be the game that added to the pile of frustration, disappointment, and despair for the entire state of Nebraska.
Nebraska entered the Big Ten Championship Game last Saturday as the better team. They were favored to win the game. The seniors on the roster had persevered through the transition with Bo and his coaches. They were his first recruiting class. It felt like they wouldn’t let down, that they had an “it” factor about them that had pushed them through close games and allowed them to rally no matter the circumstances. On Saturday night they had no answers. Wisconsin had a great game plan. Their offensive coordinator Matt Canada threw the kitchen sink at the Blackshirts. And did it ever work.
Wisconsin ran for 539 yards and eight touchdowns against Nebraska. Montee Ball and Melvin Gordon ran for over 200 yards a piece. James White ran for over 100 yards and four touchdowns. The Badgers attacked Nebraska on the edge early with Gordon’s speed. Bad angles and poor tackling plagued the Huskers. The offense came out and on the very first play Taylor Martinez through a simple hitch route to Kenny Bell, Bell stumbled and the ball popped right into the hands of Marcus Cromartie who took it easily to the house and just like that it was 14-0. But Nebraska had found itself in this place before right? Surely they would come out of it. And for a brief period it looked like they would. On the ensuing drive with the huskers at 3rd and 12, Martinez made one of the greatest plays I’ve ever seen. He had pressure in his face immediately forcing to elude not one, not two, but three different Badgers 15 yards behind the line of scrimmage. And then he took off, weaving his way through the defense. When he decided to get north and south and turn on the burners he eliminated all defensive angles. Martinez would take it 76 yards to the house but it seemed like he ran 150 yards on that one play. The Huskers would get within four at 14-10. But the defense had no answers all night. The Badgers would run right through the Husker defense only passing the ball 10 times with quarterback Curt Phillips only throwing it eight times. They used the barge formation with an extra offensive lineman and James White lined up at the QB spot and the Huskers couldn’t adjust. Everything worked for Wisconsin, and nothing for the Big Red.
Losing 70-31 to Wisconsin Saturday night was the last thing that any of us expected to happen. It might have been the most shocking outcome of a game I’ve seen ever. It certainly is right up there. And it leaves an entire month of questions and doubt. The Huskers will head back to Orlando to the Capital One Bowl to face the Georgia Bulldogs, who were seconds away from winning the SEC Championship and playing Notre Dame in the BCS title game. The Bulldogs will be favored and expected to win the game. It’s up the coaching staff and players to regroup and find a way to comeback from a loss that will sting for a long, long time.
Win out. The words of Nebraska Head Football coach Bo Pelini after the 63-38 loss at Ohio State. At that time Nebraska sat 4-2 and there were plenty of questions about this Husker football team. Some were calling for Pelini to be fired. Others said be patient and give this team and coaches time. It was at that time that this team took a look in the mirror and realized changes needed to be made. They watched the film and became brutally honest with each other. They made adjustments to fix the problems they needed to fix. Coaches tweaked the way they approached their schemes to help it fit the personnel better, and this is where the win out mentality began for the Cornhuskers and six weeks later Nebraska accomplished that feat.
Friday Nebraska needed a win on the road at the Iowa Hawkeyes to punch their ticket to the Big Ten Championship Game in Indianapolis. Iowa came into this one 4-7 and many were wondering how much they would have left in the tank. But it was easy to see early that Iowa wasn’t going to go away. The Hawkeyes with a 25 mph wind at their back took it right to the Huskers on their first drive. A steady dose of Mark Weisman on the ground led to a James Vandenberg QB sneak for a score and Iowa let the Huskers know early that they were here to play a full four quarters.
The weather was brutal on Friday. By far one of the coldest games of the past five seasons and a wind that made the passing game impossible for two of the four quarters. The Husker offense was looking for a spark. And they got one from their senior leader. Rex Burkhead had not played since the first quarter of the northwestern game. Nobody knew if we’d see Burkhead from week to week. But with his team down at the half and looking for the spark Burkhead went to Bo Pelini and said he was ready.
Rex came out of the tunnel in the second half and carried the load, literally. On mulitple runs Burkhead showed grit. He carried two and three Hawkeye defenders when Nebraska needed extra yards, and he scored the go-ahead touchdown to give Nebraska the lead for good at 13-7. Burkhead proved once again why he is one of Husker fans favorites on Friday.
It wasn’t all about Burkhead on Friday. The Blackshirts were put in tough situations as well. But guys like Eric Martin, Damion Stafford who picked off his fourth interception in five games, and Ciante Evans rallied the defense and shut down a Hawkeye offense that didn’t have much firepower on the field or in the booth as well.
It’s been this teams goal to win a Big Ten Championship. It’s what they’ve talked about all season long. Now they have their shot as they will head to Indianapolis and Lucas Oil Stadium on Saturday to face the Wisconsin Badgers, a squad they beat back in September in Lincoln. The Badgers come into the game losers of three of their last four but no doubt will be ready for the Huskers, considering how they lost the game in Lincoln. Husker fans are ready as well. They are no doubt proud of this team for a 10-2 season and winner of the Legends Division. But fans are starving for a Conference Title and BCS Bowl game. A win in Indy on Saturday would put Husker fans at ease and for some, completely on board with this entire football program.
On a side note if you are planning on heading to Indianapolis for the game this weekend join us Friday night at Cadillac Ranch as we will be there live from 7-10pm Eastern Time with our show “Sports Nightly.” It is the place to be Friday night in Indianapolis for all Husker fans as we will put on a show that you’ll enjoy and get the party kicked off right for the weekend. I hope that we see you all there at Cadillac Ranch Friday night for “Sports Nightly.”
What a day Saturday at Memorial Stadium; a lot of different emotions flying around. It was Senior Day for the Big Red as 29 seniors played their final game in front of the sea of red at Memorial Stadium. Each was announced individually and each received a loud applause from the Big Red faithful as they ran out of the tunnel. And then the tunnel walk. Each tunnel walk is special. Every time the Huskers pop up on the video boards as they head out of the locker room to the field its instant goosebumps. But this tunnel walk was different. When the screen showed the team heading out of the locker room there was the Head Coach Bo Pelini as always in front, but this time someone else was next to him. And that man was Tom Osborne. For the final time Coach Osborne would be officially affiliated with a Nebraska football game at Memorial Stadium. Shawn Eichorst takes over as Athletic Director at Nebraska on January 1. And for one final time Husker fans would see coach walk out of that tunnel. It was a moment that no Husker fan will ever forget. Complete goosebumps took over my body – a very emotional scene to say the least. And oh yeah, there was a football game to be played.
Bo Pelini’s bunch came out and played the game that you were all hoping to see. A dominant performance from the start. Nebraska looked crisp on offense. Taylor Martinez was in control. Getting his guys lined up correctly and into the right play, the Husker offense looked like a well-oiled machine. The passing game was rolling. Kenny Bell and Jamal Turner would have big days; Bell with 9 catches for 136 yards and two touchdowns while Turner is really coming into his own at the wide receiver position. He finished with 6 catches for 83 yards. Martinez on the day was smooth 21-29 for 308 yards and two touchdown passes against the 7th best passing defense in all of college football.
On defense, the Big Red were dominant. The Blackshirts made life difficult on true freshman QB Phillip Nelson. Nelson was accurate early, but the secondary played tight coverage all day and didn’t allow Nelson much of a window to make anything happen. Stanley Jean-Baptiste would take an interception to the end zone for a score and the defense looked like a confident group.
It was the type of game that all fans were hoping and expecting to see. The Huskers controlled things from the start and looked the part of a very confident team that was hitting their stride at the right time of the season. Next up for the big is Iowa on the Friday after Thanksgiving – the first trip to Iowa City in the Heroes Game rivalry. A win and Nebraska secures its place in the Big Ten championship game. A loss and Husker fans would be glued to their TV screens for the Michigan-Ohio state game Saturday in Columbus hoping for a Buckeye win. But this group looks very focused right now and has the feel of a team that knows what it wants and, for the first time in a long time, knows how to get there. All in all it was a fun day to be a husker fan on Saturday, as we honored a legend, said goodbye to 29 seniors, and watched this football team take another step in the right direction.
One thing is for certain: every time you watch the 2012 Nebraska Cornhuskers, you’re going to get your money’s worth. Once again on Saturday Nebraska started out slow. Once again Saturday Nebraska hurt themselves with turnovers and penalties. Once again on Saturday Nebraska found themselves down double digits in the second half. But once again Nebraska figured it out, and found a way to come from behind and win another game.
The first half was all about Penn State. They scored on their first drive of the game. A 50 yard touchdown run by the second coming of John Riggins, Zach Zwinak. Defensively Penn State was in the face of Taylor Martinez and forced him out of the pocket and out of his comfort zone. The tempo that Penn State used provided Nebraska with a ton of problems which caused the Big Red to be out of position and unorganized on defense. Penn State ran the show and left Husker fans looking around and saying, “Here we go again.” Nebraska trailed at the half 20-6 and the idea that Nebraska could do it again – that they could come from behind another time – seemed much more difficult this time around.
But when the Huskers came out of the locker room in the 3rd quarter, they were a completely different-looking team. Six running plays and two passes, one of which held a lot of luck, pushed the Big Red into the end zone just like that and brought Memorial Stadium back to life. The Blackshirts came out and were physical. The combo of Nebraska’s defense and the crowd noise rattled Penn State qb Matt Mcgloin and he threw only his fourth interception of the season to Daimion Stafford. The turnover led to a second Imani Cross touchdown and six minutes into the third quarter we had a tied ballgame.
But Penn State is a resilient bunch. They’ve showed that all season. The Nitanny Lions would fight the Huskers all the way to the end. Jamal Turner would grab his second go-ahead touchdown in as many weeks. Couple that with a controversial fumble call near the goal line and another mental mistake by Mcgloin and the Huskers would survive and win 32-23 Saturday night.
I have no idea what the answer is for this team’s slow starts. I’m not sure even the coaches and players can pinpoint it either. But what I do know is this group is tough. They are tight and believe in one another. And they don’t quit. You can see the talent on the field that is team has and another question fans ask about this group is, “How good would we be if we didn’t make all of these mistakes on the field?” It’s a very good question. But with two games remaining against very winnable opponents, we know this team is definitely good enough to make a trip to Indianapolis and possibly beyond.
Let the nicknames begin. I like the “Cardiac Cornhuskers.” I know, it’s not very creative, but I’ve never claimed to have a huge creative streak. It happened again Saturday; not the way everyone would’ve liked the game to play out, from the standpoint of keeping your blood pressure sky high. But in the end the result was indeed what you were looking for. A win, and a win on the road in conference play, in the Legends Division. Nebraska came from behind from ten points down to beat the Michigan State Spartans on the road in East Lansing 28-24.
Saturday was Taylor Martinez to the core. He had a huge day. Martinez ran for over 200 yards against the big ten’s best rushing defense. He led Nebraska on two 4th quarter scoring drives including the game winner with :06 seconds left against a defense that had only given up two touchdowns in the second half all season long. He was full of big plays: a 71 yard touchdown run, another run for 60, and the 35 yard touchdown run to pull the Huskers within three points. And those plays were only with his legs. But Martinez also had three interceptions, one in the first quarter where a Husker wasn’t in sight, another inside the Spartans five yard line that some thought sealed the win for Michigan State. He’s not your typical Husker QB. He’s just Taylor. Martinez also broke Eric Crouch’s all time total offense mark at Nebraska during the game needing only 114 yards to do so. He accounted for 364 yards and four touchdowns. A season ago Martinez wouldn’t have been able to recover from his mistakes. Saturday he was the man and deserves all the credit in the world.
It’s hard for some fans to latch on to this team. Husker fans want perfection. They want dominance. They yearn for the days of 60-3 and three national championships in four seasons. They’re not used to winning games this way. Coming from behind? Who does that? The answer: the 2012 Nebraska Cornhuskers led by Bo Pelini and Taylor Martinez, both of whom have had to deal with their share of criticism and skepticism. This team is not a dominant group. But Nebraskans should value the traits of this team. Hard work, never giving up, the amount of heart this group plays the game with. Nebraska is the only team in FBS college football to come from behind and win three games down double digit points in the second half. Even for some that won’t be good enough. But even in this wild, unpredictable season of the Big Ten Conference, the Huskers have everything in their grasp to make a trip to Indianapolis. One thing is for certain, this team will make things interesting, and you’ll get your monies worth watching them.
Saturday was a man’s game: players leaving the wild due to the physical play left and right. But in the end, the Big Red prevailed. Next week is Penn State at Memorial Stadium. Expect another exciting game, with ups and downs. Would you have it any other way?
We always here about the term Bo Pelini calls “the process.” Taking the season one day at a time. Not doing yourself a disservice by looking past the next game. It’s been his motto as the head football coach at the University of Nebraska. Michigan was the next game in “the process” Saturday night. But if Nebraska didn’t win, the next months’ worth of games wouldn’t have the same meaning. Playing for the Big Ten championship would be, for the most part, out of the question.
The challenge was right there in front of this group. Try to stop Michigan quarterback Denard Robinson. Everything went through Denard for Michigan on offense. And the Huskers had their issues with dual-threat quarterbacks. Braxton Miller diced them up pretty good at Ohio State. But this defensive group had come together. They had been coached up and matured. Last week at Northwestern Kain Colter, a dual-threat quarterback, wasn’t a threat at all. Now time for Denard.
Nebraska was very businesslike in their approach. They were very sound and disciplined. They didn’t allow Denard to bust the big play. And then late in the 2nd quarter, the worst thing possible happened to the Wolverines: Denard went down and didn’t bounce back up. He stayed down for a long time. And the game completely changed for that point.
It wasn’t Russell Bellomy’s, Denard’s backup, fault. But when you’re a freshman behind one of the greatest quarterbacks in the history of the program, playing time isn’t the first thing on your mind. The Huskers didn’t allow him to get comfortable. They blitzed him. They hit him. Any semblance of offense for the Wolverines was on the sideline. With Bellomy at QB, Michigan ran 30 plays for 44 yards and was 0-5 on third downs. That lack of success would eventually trickle down to their defense.
Nebraska on offense executed when they needed to. Taylor Martinez found Kenny Bell for another touchdown pass. Those two are starting to become one of the best combos in the Big Ten. Ameer Abdullah filled in well for Rex Burkhead carrying the football 24 times for 101 yards and the final touchdown that put the nail in the coffin.
But the night was about defensive domination. Only allowing 188 yards against any offense no matter who the quarterback is makes for a solid night of work. The linebackers played fantastic and Sean Fisher may have played his best game of his career. And finally the secondary found their interceptions. Only three total for the season, they equaled that vs. Michigan Saturday night.
This was the next game on the schedule, but it was more than that. It puts Nebraska in the driver seat to win the Legends Division and makes the road to Indianapolis very clear. Take care of your business and you’re in. Lose in the final month and you need some help. Michigan State is next in East Lansing. It’s the next game up in “the process.” But it wouldn’t have had the same meaning if the Big Red hadn’t taken care of business vs. Michigan Saturday night.