Normally when I write these things I’m drawing my opinions based on fan buzz, stats, rosters (some of which are occasionally out of date, oops), and local beat writers. It’s always a bit of a gamble trying to write about a football program from the outside, but I try my best. With this one, however, I write as an insider with all the jaded perspective (read: bias) that comes with it. Nebraska Football, you miserable old crone: I have followed you from the age of five, and in doing so I have loved you, hated you, and hated to love you, jubilated with you and sobbed over you.
So while stats and numbers will be referenced, for this one, I write from the heart.
[slow, deep breath]
Lord knows it hasn’t been easy to be a Husker fan in recent years, and it’s been tough not to let some of the appeal wear off, especially when elite-level teams (like 2009 and 2010) and middling teams (like 2012 and 2013) still finish 9- or 10-4. And 2013 was no different.
It wasn’t supposed to go this way. The Huskers, in head coach Bo Pelini’s sixth year, were supposed to take an elite offense led by billionth-year senior Taylor Martinez and finally show the Big Ten that Nebraska was back where it belonged. Local beat writers were prognosticating the return of the 1983 “Scoring Explosion,” who lit up opponents to the tune of 50.3 points per game. I personally projected an 11-1 regular season and a conference title. Sure, the defense was going to be a bit raw at first, but that didn’t temper expectations. A little youthful exuberance is good every now and then, right? They’ll have time to gel before conference play.
Things didn’t exactly go as planned.
Initially the offense clicked as expected, but defense started spectacularly bad. Lowly Wyoming threatened in week one, taking NU to the task at 8.1 yards per play in a 37-34 scare. After leading #16 UCLA 21-3 midway through the second quarter, the Huskers allowed 38 unanswered points to lose in a 41-21 embarrassment. And even in a 59-20 win, NU still allowed 6.9 yards per play to South Dakota State (at an alarming 6.0 yards per rush and 8.2 yards per pass).
Martinez got hurt. Freshman Tommy Armstrong Jr. and senior third-stringer Ron Kellogg III took over against South Dakota State and held serve decently. Nebraska ground out a win over Illinois, blasted Purdue, and escaped Northwestern. Martinez returned for Minnesota but was clearly not 100%, and Minnesota stole an upset win . . . and Martinez never again took the field.
Nebraska needed a miracle to beat Northwestern, and a last-minute score to beat a Michigan team that couldn’t run the ball. Michigan State turned five Husker turnovers into 24 points in a 41-28 game that Nebraska actually managed to keep pretty close until late. NU escaped Penn State in overtime and got blasted at home by Iowa. Pelini practically begged the university to fire him. They didn’t.
While the season was able to end on a high note (Nebraska upset similarly upset-decimated Georgia in the Gator Bowl), it sure didn’t feel like there was much worth salvaging.
Average score, vs. F/+ 59th or worse: Nebraska 40.7, Opponents 19.6 (7-0)
Average score, vs. F/+ 55th or better: Opponents 31, Nebraska 21.7 (2-4)
I was glad to see 2013 go, frankly.
So heading into 2014, who are the Huskers?
Martinez and Kellogg are gone, so it’s Armstrong’s show now (though early reports from fall camp indicate that Ryker Fyfe and Johnny Stanton are pushing him). Armstrong feasted early upon miserable South Dakota State and Illinois defenses but came down to earth against Purdue, throwing three picks, and then played the worst game of his short career against Michigan State, accounting for three of the five turnovers. He was hurt and barely played at Penn State, didn’t play versus Iowa but returned to lead the Huskers to a Gator Bowl win, hitting Quincy Enunwa for a 99-yard touchdown that proved to be the game winner.
Armstrong is like a shotgun: all arm strength and little accuracy. He was bailed out often by theatrical catches by Enunwa and Kenny Bell . . . but made clutch throws when called upon, like the aforementioned 99-yard Gator Bowl bomb, or a fourth-down connection to Bell to extend the game-winning drive against Michigan.
And while you’ll never see any Taylor Martinez-style theatrics from Armstrong, he is capable of extending plays with his feet every now and then, and also runs a decent option. With Martinez, the Huskers were a spread team; with Armstrong, they look a little more pro-style and don’t move as fast, but use a lot of the same wrinkles.
One of those wrinkles is named Ameer Abdullah. Abdullah returns after a 1,700 yard junior season when his number was called often to relieve the quarterbacks, and only failed to break the 100-yard barrier twice (and was the only back all season to rush for more than 100 yards against the vaunted Michigan State Spartan defense). It’s no homerism to say that Abdullah is one of the best running backs in the country and while he doesn’t have blinding speed, he runs with purpose and usually brings a few tacklers with him. Backing him up is Imani Cross, a bruiser who combines enough brawn with enough speed to be both thunder and lightning. With these two Nebraska is well-established at running back, even with the loss of Adam Taylor to a broken ankle.
On the perimeter, we’ll miss Enunwa. Over the course of 2013 he developed a great relationship with both quarterbacks, his NFL-ready size and hands allowed him to overtake Bell on the stat charts in 2013. He’s gone to the NFL, leaving Bell as the main target along with the ever-dependable (at least for catching and route-running) Jordan Westerkamp returns (80% catch rate, and the hands that caught the Hail Mary game-winner against Northwestern). Fall camp reports indicate Westerkamp has the slot position locked up with speedy Jamal Turner backing him up. Walk-on Brandon Reilly’s speed impressed in the spring, but I fear that without a target with comparable size and strength to Enunwa Armstrong will struggle in the passing game. Taariq Allen is a junior who hasn’t made his mark yet, but is the only receiving option on the team who might come close to filling Enunwa’s shoes.
And dang if I wouldn’t love to see something like this again before Bell graduates.
While the Blackshirts began 2013 on a miserable note, they smartened up and looked almost like an elite unit by the end of the season. After getting gashed to start the year, the secondary stepped up and started preventing the big plays, and defensive end (and projected first overall 2015 NFL draft pick, who saw THAT coming?) Randy Gregory became a force to be reckoned with up front, sacking the quarterback ten times, recording 16 tackles for loss, and even picking off a pass.
But while the mid- to late-season Blackshirts handled the “don’t break” part of “bend but don’t break” with aplomb, they definitely bent. Teams knew they could run, and opposing running backs were able to grind out gains, which turned into drives, which turned into scores. Michigan State’s Jeremy Langford rushed for 4.7 yards per carry and scored a backbreaking touchdown in the fourth quarter, and Iowa’s Mark Weisman and Jordan Canzeri lumbered for 4.3 yards per carry and a pair of scores. Those averages may not look great on their own, but seeing as how Nebraska was frequently in second- or third-and-short, it was more than enough.
Nebraska’s front seven in 2014 looks to be potentially elite . . . but not very deep, which could pose a problem against offenses similarly devoted to the run. Vincent Valentine, Maliek Collins, and Aaron Curry return (along with the aforementioned Gregory), but behind them there isn’t much. At linebacker, David Santos and Zaire Anderson both return, leading a unit that has had rotten luck in recent years (case in point: Michael Rose is already out for the season with a knee injury).
At secondary, Corey Cooper returns to lead a strong unit. The post-spring transfer of Harvey Jackson to BYU will sting, and Ciante Evans and Stanley Jean-Baptiste will be missed (have fun in the NFL!), but Josh Mitchell and Nathan Gerry are more than capable of picking up the slack. With any help from the front four, they’ll be just fine. Pelini has a habit of calling the occasional safety or corner blitz so watch for these guys in both backfields.
NEBRASKA SPECIAL TEAMS
2013 was possibly the ugliest special teams unit I’ve ever seen the Huskers field. Pat Smith is gone, and even though Mauro Bondi can kick a touchback with ease, he can’t hit the short stuff (see his missed PAT in the spring game). Incoming freshman Drew Brown will almost certainly be handling the placekicking duties.
And about that punting unit. Dear lord. Can Nebraska please put someone back on punts who can at least catch the ball cleanly and maybe, heaven forbid, run forward? Jordan Westerkamp cannot be the best option we have (for how solid his hands are catching passes, he’s shaky as heck fielding punts). Kenny Bell has stated this fall that he wants the punt return duties and I sure hope he earns them. Nebraska could use someone with his speed and shiftiness.
Bad news for a fanbase hoping to notch fewer than four losses: you play Michigan State, Wisconsin, and Iowa all on the road. Factor in trips to salty Fresno State and a Northwestern school that NU has needed nothing short of magic to beat twice, and you’ve got a vicious road slate. At home, NU fans have circled that September 20 matchup with onetime regular Orange Bowl date Miami, but beyond that, the schedule is pretty unexciting: Florida Atlantic, McNeese State, Illinois, Purdue, Rutgers, and Minnesota come to Lincoln. The Huskers had darn well better go undefeated at home in 2014, because the road slate is vicious.
But as usual, the question going into the fall is whether these Huskers can step up and play like the team we know they could be. Each year under Pelini the Huskers have lost a game they had no business losing, and a matchup against an even-or-better opponent usually results in a loss (oftentimes of the “blowout” variety). But heck, Pelini survived the 2010 and 2012 season-ending meltdowns, plus 2013’s leaked audio scandal, swinging a hat at a referee, cursing in a postgame press conference, and the whole “if they want to fire me, go ahead” thing . . . if Nebraska hasn’t fired him yet, I’m not sure what it’ll take.