How do you explain 2-0? How do you explain upset wins at Indiana and Maryland, two of the Big Ten’s best programs, immediately following a disastrous three weeks that threatened to derail the whole Nebrasketball season — and Tim Miles’ job security?
Well, there's the leadership of senior Tai Webster. There’s the toughness of two Chicago sophomores, Glynn Watson and Ed Morrow. There's the emergence of two Husker freshmen, Isaiah Roby and Jeriah Horne.
It’s hard to put your finger on one factor, isn’t it. But let’s try. Let’s zero in on Nebraska’s offense in the clutch.
For years, that’s been a sore spot for Husker hoops. Take the Clemson loss, for example. Nebraska took a 44-39 lead with 14:31 left, then scored 14 points the rest of the game. The higher the stakes, the more NU struggles to score.
So when Indiana and Maryland went on their big second-half runs to grab leads, the Huskers looked doomed again. This is not a team built to rally on the road. They did. Twice. And as good as the defense was, Nebraska's offense was the bigger surprise.
Check out these numbers:
At Indiana, the Huskers had nine possessions in the final 4:09. They scored on all nine.
At Maryland, they had seven possessions in the final 4:32. They scored on all seven.
I had to double-check it, but it's true: 16 for 16 to slam the door. Not a single empty possession. With this team’s reputation of offensive problems, that’s almost inconceivable.
Here’s the breakdown of those 16 possessions:
4:09: Tai Webster’s layup cuts IU’s lead to one, 73-72.
3:10: Glynn Watson’s layup (And 1) gives NU a 75-73 lead.
2:14: Nebraska misses two shots, but Michael Jacobson and Ed Morrow get offensive rebounds. Morrow’s bucket makes it 77-73.
1:33: Watson misses a 3, but Morrow snatches another board and scores. 79-76.
0:38: Webster makes one of two free throws. 80-78.
0:23: Isaiah Roby makes two free throws. 82-78.
0:14: Watson makes one of two. 83-78.
0:07: Watson makes two. 85-80.
0:01: Watson makes two. 87-83.
Nine possessions, 17 points.
4:25: Watson drives and assists Morrow’s dunk in traffic, cutting Maryland’s lead to 65-56.
3:56: Watson makes two free throws. 65-58.
3:19: Nebraska misses two shots, but Morrow and Jacobson secure the rebounds. Jacobson makes two free throws. 65-60.
2:32: Webster drives for a layup. 65-62.
1:34: Webster with the left-handed scoop. 65-64.
0:30: Watson misses a jumper, but Morrow grabs the board, leading to Webster’s go-ahead layup. 66-65.
0:17: Webster makes one of two free throws. 67-65.
Seven possessions, 13 points.
To put it in perspective, Nebraska opened Sunday’s game with seven scoreless possessions. It went another seven scoreless trips midway through the second half, assisting Maryland’s 17-0 run. For this team to score seven straight isn’t normal. Yet Nebraska did it two straight games, on the road, in the clutch.
Who’s making the plays? Of those 30 total points, Watson and Webster each scored 10. Those are obviously the go-to guys. But look at Morrow’s contribution. He gets two offensive rebounds against Indiana and finishes both. He gets two more offensive boards against Maryland, leading to two buckets. He saved four of the 16 possessions.
One other stat to note: Nebraska made 9 of 11 free throws in the final four minutes against Indiana. It made 5 of 6 against Maryland. Good teams know that late in games, you don’t rely on heroic jump shots, you take care of the ball, attack the rim and get to the foul line. The Huskers did it both games.
They weren’t better than Indiana and Maryland the first 35 minutes. But with the game on the line, against two Big Ten bullies, Nebraska couldn’t be stopped.
That’s a sentence I guarantee I've never written before.
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>> Speaking of good offenses at crunch time, Villanova. Wow.
Creighton played the No. 1 team in the nation dead even — 66-66 — for 35-plus minutes. Then the Jays couldn't get a stop. Jalen Brunson and Josh Hart were too skilled, strong and savvy.
The loss does little to deflate the Jays' hot start. Yes, there are a few flaws. Creighton's excellent depth at the start of the season doesn't look so deep anymore — seven guys isn't gonna cut it the rest of the way. There's too much defensive and rebounding responsibility on Justin Patton. Marcus Foster's trigger is too quick sometimes. But overall, I think most people watched Creighton on Saturday and thought, "OK, these guys are legit."
They said it primarily because of Patton, who had a breakout game. His offense was good, his defense was better. It's amazing how far the 7-footer has come in two years. It's scary how good he'll be two years from now — he'll surely be in the NBA then. But there's a window here where Creighton's potential is almost unlimited.
The Jays won't win the Big East; Villanova is headed for its fourth straight. But they're still good enough to make the Final Four. With a little luck, they're good enough to win a national championship, too.
>> I’m planning a longer post on the Music City Bowl for later in the week. There are plenty of big-picture topics worth discussing — Sam McKewon’s Rewind addresses some of the biggies — but one thing bothered most Friday: missed tackles.
Identifying missed tackles is a subjective exercise, kind of like marking down dropped passes or judging errors on the baseball diamond. But I studied the DVR and tried to be as conservative as possible — the NU coaches may have marked even more.
I spotted 15 missed tackles on 10 different plays. Tennessee’s collective yards after the missed tackles: 130.
No specific Husker stood out. Several players missed two: Dedrick Young, Michael Rose-Ivey, Josh Kalu, Lamar Jackson, Aaron Williams and Kieron Williams.
On which plays did missed tackles do the most damage?
5 — On the game’s first drive, Josh Dobbs fakes a give to his tailback and keeps around left end. Lamar Jackson has a chance to stop him for a short gain, but Dobbs eludes him and goes 29 yards.
4 — Tennessee’s first touchdown run. Kalu misses John Kelly at the 26-yard line and the UT tailback goes the rest of the way down the left sideline.
3 — Third-and-10 just before halftime. Dobbs checks down to Kamara at the Tennessee 46. Rose-Ivey and Kalu have chances to stop him shy of the sticks. They can’t make the play. The Vols go on to score.
2 — Young loses containment on a second-quarter blitz, allowing Dobbs to convert a third-and-9. Young had the quarterback at the 39-yard line; Dobbs ran all the way to the NU 15.
FYI, this was the only time I charted a missed tackle when a Husker defender didn’t make contact with the ball carrier. It was bad enough, it’s hard to ignore.
1 — Gang (mis)tackling at its most severe. Late in the third quarter, en route to another touchdown, Aaron Williams, Kieron Williams and Dedrick Young all bounce off Jason Croom at the 29-yard line, giving the Vols another 20 yards.
Some of those mistakes obviously are a product of Tennessee’s talent. But the Blackshirts, similar to the Iowa loss, looked uninspired too often.
>> Kudos to the Kansas City Chiefs, who got a little help from their buddies in Denver and locked up a first-round bye. I think Chiefs-Steelers at Arrowhead on divisional weekend has a chance to be special.
But aside from a few potential matchups, this is a ho-hum playoff bracket (and I’m not just saying that because I’m a Redskins fan). Seriously now, the Wild Card weekend is pathetic.
Miami isn’t winning at Pittsburgh.
Oakland-Houston is a QB nightmare.
Detroit isn’t winning at Seattle.
The only game of intrigue is Giants-Packers at Lambeau. Cheeseheads, still hurting from 2012, won’t sleep all week thinking about Eli coming to town.
>> Tweet of the day from Andy Masur: “Fun fact...Cubs & Indians had more W's in the WS (Cubs 4, Indians 3) than the hometown football teams did this year! Bears 3, Browns 1.”