All season, former Husker and NFL linebacker Jay Foreman will be breaking down games for HuskersIllustrated.com on Monday mornings. This week, Foreman tackles Nebraska's win over Northwestern. Try HuskersIllustrated.com FREE for the rest of the year
Well, I must say there is never a dull day in Husker football. Needless to say that was the most exciting two minutes the Huskers have played in awhile. This game can be a huge building block for a team whose mental state is fragile at best. The game was very physical and hard-fought and that's encouraging after being beat up and embarrassed by Minnesota. Over the last few years Husker teams have struggled with success and adversity. This game had a little of both.
First, like most games, the Huskers jumped up and looked to have control of the game. After a slow start, Northwestern came back and looked to be ready to bury Nebraska in the second half. Both teams took turns not cashing in on mistakes and executing poorly. I couldn't tell if both defenses were playing that well or the offenses looked that bad. I think the Blackshirts played their best ball – regardless of opponent and injuries – of the year in the second half. It's not even a question about that. The team needed a lift when down seven points in the third quarter, and Avery Moss made a huge interception to take back momentum. These are the type of things Husker fans want on a weekly basis, but also against better opponents. The defense stopped Northwestern 12 straight times, and that might be a record, but its pretty impressive considering the way college football is geared for offenses to put up points at record rates.
The biggest series of the season was the series of the fourth quarter when the Blackshirts held Northwestern to three points after a crucial interception by Tommy Armstrong was returned deep into Nebraska territory. This young defense very easily could have given up, and to be honest, most were expecting them to do so. Giving up seven points at that point in most cases was a forgone conclusion. Some coaches would have instructed their defenses to just let Northwestern score so their offense would have more time to drive down and tie the game or win with a two-point conversion.
Bo Pelini made a decision that could be season-defining, by deciding to play it all they way through. He did two things: he taught the defense that no matter what they can't give up and need to play to the end and also showed them confidence that they could stop Northwestern and essentially win the game. This stop, along with using the clock, proved to be crucial for the Huskers as history was made in the next series on offense that reminded people of the 90's (but I guess like always we can reference greatness only when it has to do with present teams as well).
With every win there still are some season-long questions. Some of these questions can only be answered by the people who make the decisions and that's what they are paid to do. The biggest question mark on defense is the linebacker unit. From my view point, these guys are mentally shot. Every single one of them is either snake bit or gun shy and you can't play quality football like that. I say snake bit because they are so scared of being yanked and put on a milk carton that they play way too tentative and end up giving up a big run or pass. After a big mistake they are removed and very rarely put back in the game. With young players this can hurt their long-term development because they sometimes never recover. I'm not saying play them when they are playing poorly, but even if they are "pulled" they deserve to play themselves out of it or prove they can bounce back.
I think if you are a starter, regardless of playing time, you are looked at as the best and playing time should go along with that. We are eight games into the season and we still don't have a set rotation or groupings for various packages. Obviously the coaching staff knows its players better than all of us, but it'd be hard to convince me that they don't know who they can depend on 2/3 of the way through the season. I think some of the lack of consistent starters has led to some of the struggles in the run game. Playing good run defense is an art, it's not just being in the right place. Lining up and being in your gap is one thing, but doing your job and then going and playing football is another. The Blackshirts need to just get to the point where they can go and just play football. These last four games, teams are going to see if Nebraska has fixed its run defense and if the Huskers haven't, they could be in trouble because you can't expect to win with a Hail Mary pass every week. The rest of season will hinge on two things: run defense and quarterback play.
– I think Ameer Abdullah has established himself as the best player on offense and that he can carry the pill. With the quarterback position in transition at best, I look for Tim Beck to lean on Abdullah more in these last four games.
– A freshman quarterback starting needs a totally separate playbook and play calls. More run-oriented and power football approach takes pressure off Tommy Armstrong and eats up clock and field position at the same time.
– Look for Corey Cooper to establish himself as a leader that will continue into next season. He set the tone in the first half with his physical play.
– Look for Terrell Newby to get an expanded role, his speed will be an asset late in November.
– Randy Gregory in the second half made his presence known without getting a sack. He played hard in the run game and also got some big hits on the quarterback.
– Mobile quarterbacks continue to hurt the defense because second level defenders have their backs to the ball. That means they aren't able to see the quarterback scrambling and therefore can't react quick enough.
– I liked how they went back to Ron Kellogg III even after he threw a crucial pick. You can tell Kellogg has the confidence of his teammates when it comes to the passing game.
– The blitz and pressure packages worked for the Blackshirts. Look for it to continue the rest of the season.
– I saw a few more run blitzes. Some were effective and some weren't. I like them because they take the guessing away from younger players and gets them active early in the game.
– How long will Taylor be considered the starting quarterback? Even after throwing three picks the offense still runs better under Tommy Armstrong.
– The way they used Armstrong this game was similar to previous games, but they let him keep rolling before inserting Kellogg.
Overall, it was a good win and a win that was needed for this team. At the end of the day they don't ask how you won. This next game against Michigan will let us know exactly what Nebraska has as a team. Michigan isn't very good this year, but this is a road game in a hostile environment with a freshman quarterback playing. Fundamentals will be key this game as always. It will be interesting to see if this win will be this year's rallying call. An even better question is who is the team rallying behind at quarterback.
Jay Foreman spent eight years in the NFL with four different teams, and starred at Nebraska as a four-year letter winner who played on Nebraska's 1995 and 1997 National Championship teams. For more takes and opinions from Foreman, check out Jay's Blog or follow him on Twitter.