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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).

GAME SEVEN VS. NORTHWESTERN

Finally! Finally Nebraska and Northwestern didn’t play a game that came down to the final minute. It was nice to sit back and enjoy a comfortable lead in the 4th quarter against the Wildcats. Although we should never be upset with the incredible finishes we’ve seen in this series, comfort should be appreciated!

Nebraska did much of what I expected on Saturday night, especially in the 2nd half. They shut down Northwestern’s offense (28 yards on 26 snaps), and earned their points but were efficient enough to put up 38 points on the road.

I really respected the game that Tommy Armstrong put together. The sophomore was efficient and pretty much mistake-free. That’s how you win games on the road from the quarterback position: You take care of the football and you make the plays that are in front of you. I thought he did exactly that. This kid’s toughness never fails to amaze me. He is a natural leader, and it shows up on the field in the 4th quarter every week.

Ameer Abdullah didn’t look as comfortable on the wet grass at times, but he hung in there. He eventually (along with his offensive line) wore down that Wildcat front and saved his best for last. Nebraska was the stronger team at Ryan Field.

I really felt like Nebraska sent a statement to the rest of the West Division in this game. They served notice that despite what Minnesota has done or Wisconsin and Iowa haven’t done, the Huskers are the team to beat in this division.

It was great to see Demornay Pierson-El get more involved on offense. He caught a slant and took it down the field for an explosive play. He threw a touchdown pass to Tommy Armstrong on the famous “Black 41 Flash Reverse” play that Mike Stuntz and Eric Crouch had previously made so famous. Pierson-El is a difference maker. The Huskers are lucky to have him. He’s worth an extra win or two on your schedule with the way he can impact a game. Here’s hoping his increased role continues.

I think this team is ready to get back home and play in front of its home crowd. It’s been awhile! There are five games left. The Huskers goal is to win them all and see what happens in Indianapolis. IF the Huskers can accomplish that, EVERY goal for this team may still be out there. Next up? Rutgers.

GAME SIX VS. MICHIGAN STATE

Well, if you do the job I do long enough you realize that no two games are the same. In fact, some games feel like they have two different games in them! That’s how Saturday felt in East Lansing. The first game included the Huskers with chances and opportunities that they failed to capitalize on, while their defense hung tough against one of the nation’s top offenses. The result was a 27-3 deficit. The second game was a flurry of heart and toughness that nearly overcame that 27-3 deficit and had the Spartans leaving the field asking themselves what had just happened. Nebraska lost this game 27-22. The Husker will get infinitely better from this experience though.

Let’s breakdown what went wrong first. I’m not sure you need to be an expert analyst to understand that the biggest problem was the inability to block up front. Nebraska’s offensive line just flat out got outplayed by Michigan State’s front seven. Tip your cap to the Spartans, as I’m not sure their linebackers missed a run-fit all night long. There was literally nowhere for Ameer Abdullah to run, and virtually no time for Tommy Armstrong to throw. That’s a bad combo. On top of that, when the Huskers had time to throw, the Big Red receivers had a hard time getting free. The result was 3+ quarters of very little offensive success.

Defensively, Nebraska created turnovers and held the Spartans down for the majority of the night. They got bit by three big plays – two involving future NFL wide receiver Tony Lippett and the other a long TD run by Jeremy Langford. Otherwise I think you’d have to tip your cap to the Blackshirt D. That’s a good offense they faced, and they gave their team a chance in this game despite the offense’s inability to sustain drives.

So what happened in the 4th? How did Nebraska not only make Mark Dantonio’s team nervous, but downright panicked? How did Nebraska overcome a 27-3 deficit in the 4th quarter to have the ball on the Spartan 37 with :42 seconds remaining with a chance to win the game? The answer, although a bit corny, is heart. This team has great leadership. It has a strong drive. They have a toughness about them. They have heart. They put it on display and nearly pulled off the most incredible comeback in school history. Tommy Armstrong took hit after hit and yet came back into the game and got his team back in it. Ameer could have pouted about his numbers, but instead he did everything he could with what he had and pushed into the endzone twice. DeMornay Pierson El quieted the fans in the stadium with another electrifying punt return for TD. Alonzo Moore caught a pass down the Husker sideline to set up what seemed to be fate; a Husker winner. Later Armstrong would connect with Moore in the endzone… if for only a moment. Moore couldn’t possess the ball long enough for it to be a catch. If he had, Nebraska would be a Top 10 team today. The ball popped free. The next play was a pick. The Spartans took a knee. Game over. It was another classic game between Nebraska and Michigan State. Here’s hoping we get to see another in December.

GAME FIVE VS. ILLINOIS

You can’t be 6-0 if you’re not 5-0. Nebraska did what it needed to remain unbeaten and keep climbing in the national rankings with its 45-14 dismantling of Illinois. The “Fear Ameer” campaign fared well also. The senior running back continued to prove to the rest of the country that he belongs in the Heisman campaign with 196 yards on the ground at the half! He finished with 208 yards and essentially didn’t play in the 2nd half outside of a couple of snaps. Ameer, quite frankly, could have run for 400 yards Saturday night. Nebraska has bigger goals than just padding stats though: they want a championship.

When you looked at the schedule before the season, you probably said to yourself, “Hey, let’s get to 5-0 and see what happens in East Lansing.” Miami last week felt like a big game. It was a tone setter for this team and this program for the season. However this week, with Nebraska preparing for the Spartans, feels like an absolute monster matchup. I’ll be honest: I cannot wait for this game. But first, let’s dissect the Illinois matchup some more.

The offensive line picked up right where it left off, and for that matter so did Tim Beck. The Huskers did whatever they wanted in the run game, with Tommy Armstrong and Ameer Abdullah toting the rock. Imani Cross got in on the action and cracked 100 yards himself. The Huskers didn’t need to pass, but were able to hit Kenny Bell on a deep ball for a 63 yards strike for a TD also. The only negative: two turnovers. Big Red can ill afford to turn the ball over against Sparty. There’s just not enough room for error in that matchup. We learned that last year.

Defensively, I know that the head coach wasn’t pleased with the way his group played in the first half. While they settled down and really dominated the game in the 2nd half, the Blackshirts have to find a way to start strong right out of the gate. You have to believe Bo will have this group ready to set a tone early against MSU. He told me at halftime that he was tired of watching opposing teams have early success against his defense. Again, spotting Michigan State an early lead is a bad recipe (although Oregon overcame that very formula). Still though, you need to tip your cap to Randy Gregory and the havoc he is wreaking in the backfield right now. Also, the Husker secondary is making plays on the football and creating turnovers. That’s a sign that this group is playing faster and more confidently than earlier in the season.

Can Saturday in East Lansing get here soon enough? Not for this sideline reporter. The Huskers haven’t been 6-0 since 2001. They played for a National Championship and produced a Heisman winner that year. Just saying.

GAME FOUR VS. MIAMI

Well, what an atmosphere at Memorial Stadium on Saturday night. For the younger generation that has “heard” a lot about those classic Miami games and didn’t maybe live them, this was a nice taste of what those games felt like. It’s incredible that these two programs hadn’t played since January of 2002 and yet they picked up right where they left off. If you were lucky enough to be in the stadium on Saturday, you experienced one of the best atmospheres for a home game I can remember in the last five years.

It’s almost a crime that I’ve been typing this long and not yet discussed Ameer Abdullah. His performance on Saturday night was the best I’ve seen from a Nebraska running back in my lifetime. All do respect to Calvin Jones and Roy Helu, who both had record breaking days during my time as a fan, but this one was on another level in my opinion. The intensity of #8 and the physical nature in which he finished every run was something I’ve never really seen before. He’s on another planet when you compare him to most other running backs. Then again, you probably already knew that.

Tommy Armstrong continues to improve and his ability to keep teams honest in the running game should not be overlooked. His quickness and physical running style are the ultimate compliment to Abdullah. Nebraska’s offense was as good as anyone in the country on Saturday night. Tip of the cap to Zach Sterup too. The Hastings native had an incredible game at right tackle.

Defensively, Nebraska made the adjustments necessary to stop the Miami offense. The Huskers bottled up Miami running back Duke Johnson very well and dared the young freshman Brad Kaaya to beat them with his arm. While the youngster impressed at times, he ultimately made too many mistakes and the Huskers made him pay for it. Forcing turnovers changes games. The Blackshirts did more than their part under the lights.

This game got chippy. I thought the Huskers did their best to try and stay above it and beat the Hurricanes on the field. Kudos to the coaching staff for getting the players to the locker room so quickly after the final seconds ticked off the clock. Sometimes you can’t control what the other guys is going to do or is willing to do when they are frustrated. It’s best to remove yourself from those situations as quickly as possible, which Nebraska did.

A big win for the program and a 4-0 start: can’t ask for much more. Now on to Homecoming and the Illinois Fighting Illini.

GAME THREE VS. FRESNO STATE

Excuse me while I rub my eyes, stretch my arms, and yawn. What a 48 hours it was from Friday afternoon to Sunday morning for the Nebraska football team. Board a plane. Fly three hours west to the middle of California. Go to bed. Wake up and hurry and wait for a 9:40 Central kick in 100 degree heat in the desert. Dominate a nearly 4 hour long game. Fly home. Watch the sun rise as you carry your bag(s) into your residence. Try to not be a zombie all day long on Sunday. Obviously, that’s not your normal 48 hours.

So it was for the Huskers. They handled it all like a mature football team should. Nebraska jumped on Fresno State early with big plays, and this game was never really in question. The Bulldogs returned 16 starters from last year’s 11-2 squad. They haven’t acted like it yet, however, as they’ve been thoroughly dominated by USC, Utah, and now Nebraska. The Huskers handed them their first home loss in 13 games. Nebraska outclassed Fresno State in virtually all facets of the game. So let’s dig in, shall we?

Offensively, if you studied this matchup even a little bit, you knew that there would be chunk yardage out there for Nebraska to get. Explosive plays have been the Bulldogs’ Achilles heel so far this year, and it was no different Saturday night. It started with a 70-yard strike from Tommy Armstrong to Jordan Westerkamp to put the Huskers on the board first. It continued with a 57-yard TD run by Ameer Abdullah on the next possession. Nebraska racked up 562 yards of total offense and also racked up 140 punt return yards in route to a 55-19 victory. The Huskers hit the big play when they needed it. It is becoming clear that opposing defenses are going to do whatever they can to take Ameer Abdullah away from the Huskers. That’s not an easy task. However, it should continue to free up big yards in the QB run game for Tommy Armstrong, and he seems just fine with that (65 yards on 9 carries on Saturday). It also should continue to provide opportunities in the passing game. Nebraska has faced a back-to-back blitz heavy defensive schemes which should only benefit Tommy Armstrong and his offensive line’s pass pro down the road.

DeMornay Pierson-El is pretty fun to watch, huh? Nebraska had 73 punt return yards in 2013. Pierson-El had 150 on Saturday night alone! He’s a difference maker in Special Teams. So is Sam Foltz (5 punts for a 47.2 average with two inside the 20) by the way. The big leg was there a year ago but inconsistent. He’s been one of the best in the country through the first three weeks of the season.

Defensively, you should be very excited. Randy Gregory still probably isn’t 100% but he made his presence known. The secondary did a very good job and tackled well in space. The linebackers took better angles and weren’t chasing the play. The front four was the most active that they’ve been all year. This group is not elite yet…but they are going to be. I have raved about this core group of young players since the start of last season, and there’s been nothing to change my mind on it at all. This group is the reason I feel Nebraska can absolutely capture hardware this year. It could be a top 10 unit nationally in my opinion.

It was a long hot night in the San Joaquin Valley, but to take down another team and get to 3-0 felt good for this squad. Now on to the premier non-conference game on the schedule against Miami. So much history between these two programs. This should be fun. We’ll talk to you then!

GAME TWO VS. MCNEESE STATE

Too close for comfort? Yeah, that cliché applies to Saturday’s win over McNeese State at Memorial Stadium. I’ve thought a lot about this game since walking out of the stadium late Saturday afternoon. I’ve watched the game a 2nd time in my living room (disclaimer: I’m no football coach.) This game was curious in more than one way.

Let’s start with the stuff that Nebraska needs to fix or clean up after the 31-24 victory. There is plenty that Nebraska put on film that will be coached up moving forward. What I saw offensively was a group that enjoyed success in the 1st half. Remember, Nebraska had over 300 yards of total offense in the first half. They didn’t finish a drive (the pick 6 thrown by Tommy Armstrong to Aaron Sam) and they turned it over on downs on their opening drive. However, they still moved the ball pretty effectively in the first half. Good enough for 15 first downs. This was not the case in the 2nd half. The inability to move the ball in the I-back run game is tough to explain. Yes, McNeese had loaded the box and yes, almost every “hat” was keyed on Ameer Abdullah on every snap, but I really thought Nebraska would be able to power it at them anyway. What did work was the quarterback run game. Tommy ran decisive and looked quick. In fact, he needed to keep it a few more times than he did in Zone-Read, they left some yards on the field in this respect.

Tommy throws a very impressive deep ball. Without Kenny Bell, and to some degree Jamal Turner, it really changed what Tommy’s options were in the passing game. However, he will have to develop in the intermediate and underneath routes for Nebraska to progress as an offense. If he can’t effectively and consistently make these throws, then opposing defenses will continue to load the box with 8 or even 9 on first and second downs. If Nebraska wants balance on offense, they’ll need to get better in this respect.

Defensively, I thought Nebraska was okay for most of the day. They gave up an early touchdown on a short field and remember 7 of the points were courtesy of a McNeese State defensive touchdown. There were times though that it appeared Nebraska’s front 7 took bad angles in pursuit of Cowboy skill players, specifically back-up quarterback Daniel Sams. After watching the game a 2nd time… I think these issues were not as much physical as they might have been mental. Ball fakes, motion and misdirection can really stress a defense. It’s important for Nebraska’s defenders (specifically on the edge) to understand their keys and not allow the opposition to get to the corner. I think that will definitely improve moving forward.

It was perhaps one of Nebraska’s more complete games in Special Teams. Sam Foltz was special, booming punt after punt and doing it a few times with some pressure on him. Demornay Pierson El has a change to be a dynamic returner. I liked Nebraska’s willingness to put Abdullah deep on the kick return late. No need to put him back there every time…but when the situation calls for it, you bet. Drew Brown once again looked solid knocking a field goal through the uprights and Mauro Bondi is a weapon as the kickoff guy.

Finally, the play that won the game for Nebraska by Ameer Abdullah was as good as I can remember. It’s a highlight that will be shown for years and years and years. Let’s hope that Ameer continues with a campaign that will give him more and more run for national awards. If we ever doubted that he deserves all the credit he gets… shame on us. Fear Ameer!

This game could very well be the best thing that could happen for the 2014 Huskers. Bo Pelini should have no issues getting his teams attention this week as they prepare for a road test against struggling Fresno State.

GAME ONE VS. FLORIDA ATLANTIC

Well, that was fun. Dominating anyone, regardless of whether they are a Power 5 conference team or another school in a smaller league, is a great deal of fun for fans. Sure, we long for the big ones (i.e. October 4th at Michigan State), but we should also enjoy all wins of all different styles. Husker fans “get it,” enjoying the blowouts right along with the nail biters. Husker fans long for the 3rd string quarterback handing it off to a walk-on from Nebraska during the final moments of a 55-7 season opening victory. They love to see what’s coming up through the pipeline.

Obviously Saturday provided this. Honestly, unless you are a coach with cut-ups from the game and the knowledge of the individual players’ assignments, you can’t find a ton to critique while dissecting the win over FAU.

Yes, Nebraska committed some penalties in the first half offensively. However, they were aggressive penalties and not procedural penalties. There is a difference and coaches, I assure you, are more tolerable of the previous than the former. Nebraska’s special teams will still need to improve as the season moves forward, but who has perfect special teams on week 1? No one.

I can write all day long about Ameer Abdullah’s 232 yards and incredible vision and burst. He’s special. You already know this.

I can praise Tommy Armstrong for his efficiency and ability to throw the deep ball. How about Armstrong’s improved quickness? Or his improved footwork? There is plenty to praise with that offense. I thought the offensive line had a bigger push than any game I can remember in recent memory (outside of maybe Idaho State in 2012).

The largest praise you’ll get from me, however, is the defense. Without it’s best player. Without multiple other veterans that have played in the past. This unit bowed up after allowing an opening drive TD and allowed just 51 yards from that point until the 4th quarter. That defense pitched nine three and outs. That’s tough to do, regardless of the competition. That means this team is mentally ahead of about any group in the Bo Pelini era at this juncture in the season. That means that this group is mentally tough. That means it’s okay to get excited about this unit’s potential. The good news is that Randy Gregory is going to be back in the next few weeks. When he does come back, Nebraska will be a defense to be feared.

Optimism usually abounds after a season opener. In the case of Saturday, it is warranted. Talk to you next week after Nebraska’s 11:01 am matchup with FCS McNeese State.

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