Teeth were chattering. Toes were blue. The moment called for a tough, solid football team. And Nebraska didn’t produce it.
Husker fans wanted this one. Badly. Not just to quiet Hawkeye fans in their neighborhood and their offices, but because victory represented hope for the future. 6-6 never would’ve felt so good.
Instead, NU is 5-7 and there is so much to ponder over the next nine months.
The three biggest questions that come to mind:
1. Who’s the starting quarterback? I wrote about it for Saturday’s paper. Reminds me of Jammal Lord vs. Curt Dukes in 2003. Will Patrick O’Brien be more ready than Dukes was?
2. Can Mark Banker repair the defense? It starts with pass defense. He needs to find/develop pass rushers and cornerbacks.
3. How significant is player attrition? If you’re Mike Riley, you can’t afford to have guys on scholarship whom you don’t believe in — or who don’t believe in you.
(The fourth storyline is probably the running game. This was the least reliable Nebraska ground attack I can remember. That has to change.)
I still think 2017-18 are the must-win seasons for Riley, but he won't get there if he goes 5-7 again. There are dozens of variables involved (injuries, margin of defeat, big wins, etc.), but my guess is Riley needs to go 7-5 to demonstrate sufficient progress. That’s no sure thing.
On Nov. 30, 2014, Shawn Eichorst stood at a podium on Memorial Stadium's sixth floor and announced that he had terminated Bo Pelini. He was setting a new course for the program. Now Eichorst's vision is under even greater scrutiny than it was a year ago.
Riley deserves a mulligan for the 2015 season. A reset button. But fans aren't going to be so kind if 2016 goes south, too.
It's going to be a very interesting offseason.
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>> The best game of the weekend, with apologies to Broncos-Patriots, was Stanford-Notre Dame. My goodness, what a spectacle.
The offense was gorgeous (prolific but physical). The stakes were high (Notre Dame’s last gasp for a playoff berth). And the ending was stunning (I was certain David Shaw had blown Stanford’s chance by refusing to call his timeouts earlier).
That wonderful game, however, leads me to a problem with a four-team college football playoff. Are you sure Clemson is better than Stanford? I’m not.
The Tigers’ only good win so far is over Notre Dame at home. It was a two-point game. Well, Stanford just did the same thing. (Clemson’s non-conference schedule consisted of Wofford, Appalachian State and South Carolina). Stanford clearly plays in a tougher conference. Why are we punishing that?
Shouldn’t we encourage teams to schedule aggressively in the non-conference like Stanford did? I’ve said it before, I’ll say it again. You win a major conference, you deserve a playoff spot.
>> Speaking of conference superiority, an interesting note here comparing the preseason and postseason rankings of Big Ten teams vs. SEC teams.
>> Nick Saban’s dominance is making life miserable for everyone else in the SEC, especially Mark Richt and Les Miles. Good column from Dan Wetzel.
>> Why do athletic directors fire head coaches in the middle of the season?
I’ve heard that question a lot this year. I didn’t have a great answer until Les Miles saved his job at LSU. If an A.D. wants a coach terminated, he must do it when public opinion reaches a low point. Or at least keep his mouth shut.
The primary difference between the Miles situation and the Richt situation? The LSU A.D. leaked his intentions. That’s a no-no. Fans will rally like crazy behind a sympathetic coach.
Andy Staples addresses that topic — and gives some love to The Drover, where he ate Saturday night.
>> I’m not saying that Shawn Eichorst should’ve given Bo Pelini another year. Not even close. But Richt would’ve been a very intriguing candidate at Nebraska. Perhaps even the best candidate. Classy guy with Omaha ties.
>> Here’s a really good look at how Miles went from target to martyr. Public opinion is a funny thing.
>> Goodbye Julie Hermann. Goodbye Kyle Flood. Rutgers cleaned house and, according to Steve Politi, it was the right thing to do.
>> Iowa State landed a big-time coach in Matt Campbell. I’m surprised he took it. ISU is one of the 5-10 hardest Power-Five jobs. If Campbell goes .500 there, he’s a success.
>> The new head coach at USC is .... Clay Helton! The interim tag is gone; Helton is the guy going forward. He was impressive this past month, no doubt. But that’s a huge job for a guy who’s never been a head coach. Too big, I’d argue.
>> I asked the question this weekend on Twitter: Do you ever recall a season with less Heisman buzz? The award has been in decline for years. But never quite like this. I imagine Derrick Henry will win. He’s worthy, but does anyone really care?
>> Nebraska basketball played pretty well in Brooklyn over the weekend, pushing Cincinnati and beating Tennessee. The big story, though, was Tai Webster, who scored 39 points on 14-for-25 shooting. Do you realize the last time Webster scored 39 points in a two-game stretch? Never!
He was in double figures just four times in 2013-14 and three times in 2014-15, never exceeding 25 points in a two-game span. This is a major development. Webster got to the rim. He made jump shots. He played with confidence.
If Tim Miles can get a third scorer to go with Shavon Shields and Andrew White, he has a chance to outscore opponents, even when the defense isn’t perfect.
Nebraska has a big game Tuesday against (surprisingly good) Miami. The Huskers need Webster to stay hot.
>> Meanwhile, Creighton basketball has its own breakout star. Geoff Groselle! The big redhead went for 20 points and nine rebounds against UMass in Las Vegas. Sunday night at CenturyLink, he put 17 and nine on Western Illinois. That’s in only 48 combined minutes.
Creighton has so many pieces right now, it’s hard to know where they’re all going to fit come January. But Groselle’s efficiency is exciting. He’ll definitely cause problems for Nebraska next week.
>> Huge wins for Husker volleyball (Penn State) and Creighton soccer (North Carolina) over the weekend.
John Cook’s team is playing well enough to make some noise and get to Omaha for the Final Four. And Elmar Bolowich’s team is one win from another College Cup. The Jays won in Chapel Hill, they can win at Akron.
>> Why did Mike Sherman, former head coach of the Green Bay Packers and Texas A&M Aggies, leave the big stage for high school football in Cape Cod? A beautiful piece from Joe Posnanski.
>> Minor league baseball in Cuba? Wouldn’t that be something. That is Lou Schwechheimer’s vision.
>> Hail to the Redskins! Hail Victory!
With five games left, the Washington Freaking Redskins are the favorites to win the NFC East! I say “favorites” because even though the Giants are also 5-6, New York still faces Carolina and Minnesota, while Washington’s toughest game is at Chicago.
Will it last? Will the Redskins actually host a playoff game? I highly doubt it. They’ve proven they can lose to anybody. But one week from tonight, I will be tuned in to Monday Night Football (Redskins vs. Cowboys) and cheering like I haven’t since the infamous playoff game when Mike Shanahan sacrificed RG3’s knee.
Remember the Mad Chatter playoff pool back in September? The tiebreaker in that pool was guessing Washington’s final win total. Safe to say most of you (ahem, most of us) predicted less than five.
>> The Carolina Panthers haven’t lost a regular-season game since Nov. 30, 2014. One year ago today! That is mind-boggling in the NFL, especially from THAT franchise. Can they go 16-0? What’s interesting is Carolina has four divisional games left, including two with the Falcons. I think one of its rivals knocks ‘em off.
>> Adrian Peterson has one of his vintage All-Day games Sunday in Atlanta. Got me thinking... The NFL has changed so dramatically in 20 years, especially for running backs. But all things considered, I’d be interested in your answer to this question: Who’s the best running back of the past 25 years? (Click the link and vote)
Emmitt Smith (second all-time in yards from scrimmage behind Jerry Rice), Barry Sanders (sixth all-time), LaDainian Tomlinson (fifth all-time), Marshall Faulk (fourth all-time) or Adrian Peterson (39th but moving up fast).
>> Kobe Bryant, like a lot of legendary athletes, has become easier to like in the dusk of his career. More human. More honest. Maybe a little more humble.
Kobe’s announcement that he’ll retire at season’s end isn’t surprising — he doesn’t have anything left. But his explanation for that decision Sunday made for a riveting 25-minute press conference.
>> When I think of Kobe, I think of his legendary work ethic as much as his skill. He might be the hardest worker of his generation. Unless it’s Kevin Garnett!
This story about KG is incredible. The T-Wolves have entrusted KG to mentor Karl Anthony-Towns. Hopefully Garnett doesn’t destroy him in the process.
>> So Jahlil Okafor is acting like a total knucklehead in Philadelphia. I’m guessing he wouldn’t be doing this stuff if KG were yelling at him everyday.
>> For the most part, I think college basketball’s officiating changes have improved the game — I especially like the 30-second shot clock. Tom Izzo, on the other hand, voiced his displeasure with touch fouls 30 feet from the rim.
It’s a reasonable argument, but I’d rather have officials call it too tight right now (then relax a little bit in conference season) than swallow their whistles now and watch the game turn into a street fight in March, as it does every other year. If the game is ever going to improve offensively, defenders must learn to keep their hands off the guy with the ball.
>> Let’s end where we began. Huskers-Hawkeyes.
This job was hard enough with Ohio State and Michigan in the East. The last thing Mike Riley needs is a resurgent Iowa to deal with. Can Kirk Ferentz keep this going in 2016 and beyond? Is Iowa set to replace Wisconsin as Nebraska’s target the next few years? And if so, how does that intensify the Nebraska-Iowa rivalry?
Nebraska fans scoff at the idea. You gain Nebraska’s respect with longevity. You become a rival of Nebraska’s when you rip their hearts out over and over and over. Iowa isn't even close to that point.
But Friday at Memorial Stadium was a good start. The lasting image for me was hundreds of Iowa fans celebrating in the southwest corner of the stadium. "Let's go Hawks!" they screamed. They gained some national respect Friday. And they quieted their neighbors to the west.
“A lot of Nebraska fans are still living in 1995," Council Bluffs native Sean Trotter told me before the game. That's true. But one more win and Hawkeye fans are gonna be living in 2015 for a while, too.