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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 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.

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.

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