Preaching patience is one thing. It’s patience “execution” (Bo’s favorite “E” word) that gets tough.
It sounded so reasonable, didn’t it. You were actually going to give the “Blackshirts” some time to figure things out in 2013. You would lower your standards — at least initially — in order for all those young guys to get their feet wet.
Sounded reasonable until Brett Smith went out and played like Colin Kaepernick. Until the Huskers allowed a 30-point underdog to take them to the final horn. Until the Cowboys’ final yardage exceeded 1/3 of a mile.
Saturday’s win, especially the back half of the fourth quarter, was tough to watch. But I was blown away by the negativity emanating from (relatively) rational fans Sunday and Monday.
Look, I’m not gonna make excuses for Bo Pelini. I’m not gonna sugar-coat that performance. It stunk. But I also told myself I was going to give these guys time to figure things out. Look at the schedule, folks.
Nebraska’s defense could give up 34 points each of the next six games and STILL be 6-1. UCLA is a big game, yes. But October is the longest bye week in college football history (Illinois, at Purdue, Minnesota). The meat of this schedule doesn’t come until Nov. 1. Which means Pelini and John Papuchis have some time here to let Nate Gerry and Mo Collins and all the other young guys breathe a little bit.
I won’t tell you that Bo has a grand plan — I think he’s hoping as much as anyone else. I won’t tell you to stop freaking out — 602 is hard to stomach whether you’re playing Wyoming or Oregon. I’m just saying the defense Wyoming sees isn’t necessarily the same one Northwestern will see. And the one Northwestern sees is what really matters.
Now, if this happens again versus UCLA, it’s reasonable to raise a red flag. And if it happens versus anybody in October, you can take that red flag and wave it violently. But for now, it’s too early for doomsday talk. I’m more interested in the following two numbers:
7.3 and 1.
The first is Wyoming’s average yards per rush. The Cowboys ran 30 times for 219 yards. Brett Smith’s eight carries for 92 yards includes a 47-yard scamper. Shaun Wick’s 12 for 101 was more consistent. Remember those old days when Nebraska tried desperately to make teams one-dimensional? Well, Wyoming did basically whatever it wanted on the ground, which is just as alarming as what it did in the air.
Bo Pelini must find a way to stop the run. “Critical” isn’t a strong enough word, because it’s a pattern. Way too often the past two years, most notably in the Big Ten championship game, Nebraska’s defense has yielded big yards on the ground. Look at the rushing yards in recent losses:
Georgia: 38/162 (Not bad, actually)
Wisconsin: 50/539 (Whoa)
Ohio State: 48/371 (Yikes)
UCLA: 56/344 (Holy cow)
South Carolina: 40/121 (Excellent)
Michigan: 61/238 (61 attempts?!?)
Northwestern: 54/207 (All I remember is the final drive)
Wisconsin: 50/231 (Bad)
Total up those numbers. That’s 5.57 yards per rush. Way too much.
There are at least three solutions: One is bringing up a safety in run support (increasing the chance of a big pass play). Two is going to bigger personnel (not the wisest move when an offense like Wyoming is four wide). Three is my preference.
It’s really complicated and it goes like this: Somebody in the first two levels, preferably a defensive lineman, needs to man up, shed a block and make a tackle.
One — the number I mentioned earlier — represents Nebraska’s tackles for loss Saturday. One! Against Wyoming. Pathetic. (Six tackles for loss, by the way, is considered average).
Say what you want about scheme (I’m not letting Bo off the hook). But good grief, at some point it’s not about mathematics and making sure you have a tackler in every gap. It’s about beating your man and getting to the ball carrier, whether it’s the quarterback or running back. I know that makes me sound like a caveman (see ball, get ball!), but 11 guys aren’t going to be technically perfect every play. Your athletes have to bail you out sometimes. Get the opponent in second-and-14 occasionally. That’s the surest way to get stops.
The Blackshirts didn’t demonstrate much athleticism Saturday night. They let themselves be blocked. A lot. And when somebody did get into the backfield, he whiffed. Until that changes — until Nebraska’s defense creates more negative plays — offenses will continue to march up and down the field.
* * *
>> I don’t imagine my opinions on Nebraska’s defensive meltdown will completely satisfy your craving this week. So here’s John Papuchis. The Nebraska D-coordinator answered questions for 30-45 minutes Tuesday night. I was probably responsible for 15 minutes myself (If Papuchis doesn’t have time to study film this week, you can blame the media). Here’s a few sound bites:
The topic: Stopping the run/making teams one-dimensional
JP: “Our approach is take away what they do best or at least the specific player that is their featured guy. That’s kind of always been our thought. I don’t know if that necessarily makes somebody one-dimensional, but at least take away the few things they hang their hat on.”
Balanced teams like Wyoming, Papuchis said, are hardest to defend because they’re dynamic at all the skill positions. But the strategy has worked in the past. Look at 2011 against Michigan State.
“B.J. Cunningham is their all-time leading wideout. We went into the game and said, ‘OK, he’s not going to catch the ball.’ And he didn’t catch the ball. We played well that day. We took away what they did best.”
Wyoming ran the ball better than Papuchis expected. “Subtle things on our part” would’ve helped. On Brett Smith’s 47-yard run, for instance, the middle linebacker followed the motioning back, leaving the middle wide open.
The topic: 602 yards
JP: “One of things I looked at and shared with our guys is when you broke the game down and looked at it from our perspective, 11 plays went for 327 yards, which is mind-boggling and ridiculous. But 63 plays went for 295. I can live with that. So the question to our guys was, what do we gotta do this week to take those 11 explosive plays down to five, then down to three, then down to two, then down to zero where we can play with that consistency that we showed over 63 plays?”
“This is gonna sound crazy. I tried to look at the film as objectively as I could. Take the good and the bad and not get emotional about it. And not get angry about some things that happened. Use it as an opportunity to teach and for our guys to learn because we got a long season ahead of us.”
The topic: Youth
JP: “Being realistic, we needed to go in there and play a lot of young guys. We were conscious about our rotation. We played all of our freshmen D-linemen, which I expected to do. We played our freshmen backers. They’re going to be really good players, I think. But they need an opportunity to cut their teeth a little bit. I’m not saying a year or two years. I’m saying they need a week or two weeks.”
“Honestly, and I’m just speaking as a human being with no coach-speak, if the game ends with 8 minutes to go or 7 minutes to go, I probably feel, ehh, OK, not even close to perfect, but we made some strides. … What taints the perception obviously is the finish. There’s so many valuable lessons that can be taught from that experience.”
The topic: The public response to a poor opener
JP: “I try to shelter myself as much as possible from anything outside. The Twitter feedback was interesting and creative. …
“Fans should have a high expectation. That’s what fans are. They’re passionate about the program and they want us to do well. I get that. It doesn’t bother me. Some of the personal attacks are a little bit strange at times, but that’s OK, that’s part of the passion that makes people fans. It doesn’t bother me. I just hope it doesn’t affect our guys.”
It’s hard not to check his Twitter “connects” because it’s how he talks to recruits, Papuchis said. “I’m not looking for the information, but sometimes you see the information.”
“It’s the double-edged sword of any high-profile program. You love the fact that people are passionate about everything that we do. That’s part of what makes Nebraska special. There’s a good side and a rougher side to that, but if you want the good, you gotta take the bad.”
The topic: The easy schedule and its impact on the learning curve
JP: “I don’t know if it’s as much the schedule. Having a veteran group on offense was gonna help us develop early as a defense. By the time we get to November, we better be clicking on both sides of the ball. We can’t be one-sided going into the November stretch.”
I mentioned 2008 to Papuchis, when Nebraska’s D was terrible through most of September and October, then performed well most of November and in the Gator Bowl. Papuchis agreed.
“I hope that it doesn’t take that long. I think this is a much more talented group.”
The topic: The biggest improvement from week one to week two
JP: “I think communication for the veteran guys. But for young guys, I just think having gone through it now once, having done the Tunnel Walk, having stayed in the hotel, having done the weekly preparation leading up to a game, they’re going to be better just for that. There were a lot of guys who had a lot of nerves in their stomach, you could just tell when we were in the locker room before the game.”
>> OK, Nebraska isn’t the only story in sports. Trainers are butting heads with football coaches — and losing. Alarming story.
>> The NFL concussion uproar has probably reached its peak — at least for a while. But the focus on concussions in youth football may just be starting.
>> Sideline reporter Pam Oliver suffered a concussion from this incident. Scary stuff.
>> Florida State QB Jameis Winston is a heckuva quarterback. But Jeff Passan examines his baseball gifts and why he might be better on the diamond.
>> Adam Rittenberg calls out Michigan State and Iowa for sticking with an offensive system that doesn’t work with mediocre talent.
>> Clay Travis calls Johnny Manziel a Rorschach test. Your opinion of him says more about you than it does him.
>> Brian Kelly insulted Michigan (sort of).
>> Would coaches like Kelly and Nick Saban get head coaching jobs as easily if the major conferences created a “super division?”
>> 10 things Scott Pioli learned as an NFL GM. Caution, Chiefs fans. This might make you vomit.
>> In case you missed it, a revealing profile of the NFL’s dirtiest player — Richie Incognito.
>> A whole “Hard Knocks” season without a quote from Rex Burkhead? Some day we’ll get to the bottom of that. HBO spent considerable time on the fullback competition, when the fight for the final tailback spot (Burkhead v. Dan Herron) would’ve been more intriguing.
That said, I promise it’s not why “Hard Knocks” left me disappointed this year. There were too many minor characters that were hard to distinguish. And the major characters (Lewis, Dalton, Harrison, Green) were never developed. Has Hard Knocks jumped the shark? I sure hope not.
>> Tommy Morrison died in denial, writes Tom Friend. Sad, sad story.
>> OK, so the Royals (who refuse to completely go away) are 4.5 games back with 24 remaining. They need to jump Cleveland, Baltimore, the Yankees and Rays (or Oakland).
Let’s assume Tampa finishes 13-12. And the best of those other teams goes 15-10 down the stretch. Kansas City would need to go 17-7 to tie the wild card. Impossible? No. But highly unlikely considering the upcoming schedule (Detroit, at Cleveland, at Detroit, Cleveland, Texas).
>> For the NFL, we’re gonna try something new in the Chatter this fall. It’s a pool. No entry fee is required. But at the end of the season, I’ll buy the winner a prize.
Maybe a gift card to your favorite restaurant (I wonder what $5 buys at the Drover). Maybe a few movie passes. Maybe something that enhances your understanding of the world (ahem, World-Herald subscription). We’ll see. Anyway, here’s the contest:
You’ve seen those bowl confidence pools, where you rank your bowl winners on a scale of like 1-40. Well, we’re gonna do the same thing with NFL playoff qualifiers. I challenge you to rank your predicted NFL playoff teams on a confidence scale, 1-12.
So if you’re 99 percent sure New England will make the playoffs, they should be a “12” on your list. If you can’t decide between the Giants and Cowboys for the last NFC wild card, that should your “1.” The tiebreaker? In addition to the 12 qualifiers, give me your Super Bowl pick.
Deadline is Sunday at noon (you can scout the Broncos and Ravens tomorrow night if you wish). I’ll post my confidence picks in Monday’s Chatter.
I’ll tell you my Super Bowl pick now. The guys in Vegas keep calling because they want to know. The ESPN analysts keep calling me because they want to know. I told ‘em “Sorry, I was saving it for Mad Chatter.” Last year, I’m pretty sure I had Baltimore over San Francisco. (Wait, I didn’t? Are you positive?)
This year, give me Atlanta over Houston. Matt Ryan gets the monkey off his back.