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C O M M E N T A R Y
T A D    S T R Y K E R
October 24, 2009

 
Well, at least nobody overreacted.

After all, let’s not blow this out of proportion. This was just a loss. A 9-7 home-field loss to Iowa State, a team that had a 15-game losing streak in Big 12 road games.

There were a school-record eight Nebraska turnovers, and none by Iowa State. I’ve never seen any team, anywhere at any level, lose four turnovers inside its opponent’s 5-yard line, but Nebraska did it Saturday against the Cyclones.

Niles Paul inexplicably fumbled in the second quarter at the end of what should have been a 73-yard touchdown play. Nobody laid a hand on him; he simply lost control of the ball as he neared the goal line. Roy Helu fumbled the ball into the end zone to end another drive. A fake punt set up Iowa State for its only touchdown of the game, which came on its only impressive offensive play of the game, a 47-yard pass thrown by a backup quarterback who had never tossed a touchdown pass in his entire career. It was downright eerie.

There was no torrential rain during the game to blame the miscues on. There was no booing by the crowd, which sat in stunned silence for much of the time as it watched the erratic Cornhusker offense self-destruct, over and over again. Nebraska committed turnovers on seven of its last 10 series and went an unbelievable minus-eight for the game.

Minus-eight in turnovers? That’s a bad season in itself, let alone a single Saturday’s work.

But hey, let’s not overreact.

There was no leadership — at least on offense. This is a unit full of players who are all hopefully looking for someone else to step forward and provide a spark.

There was no one stepping forward after the game taking the blame for the way the offense played. Except for coach Bo Pelini in his postgame press conference.

“(Iowa State) did what was necessary to win the football game,” said Pelini. “We didn’t. I’m disappointed in our football team. I’m disappointed in it. It starts with me.

“We had a chance to have a boatload of points on the board and we put the ball on the ground. We were lucky to be in the football game."

Right now, Shawn Watson’s offense is simply a vacuum. A vacuum of leadership, a vacuum of point production. There was no rhythm or consistency on offense, although the Huskers outgained the Cyclones by a large margin. That was a case of Iowa State’s offense being even worse than Nebraska’s.

It’s obvious that the coaching staff does not think Cody Green is ready. Pelini and Watson were united in their stance that Zac Lee is much better prepared to quarterback the Huskers than Green.

Watson said that, based on his performance in practice, Green is not ready.

“He gets into a two-minute drill and something new happens to him,” said Watson. “He gets into a red zone drill, and something new happens to him.” Green is learning the playbook well, Watson said, but his problem is “the management aspect, you know, understanding how to convert downs, what to do in the red zone, what to do in the two-minute. I mean, he’s really improving. He’s really getting good.”

But not good enough, in Pelini’s and Watson’s minds. So there you have it.

In fact, Pelini didn’t blame Lee — who completed 20 of 37 passes for 248 yards, with no touchdowns and three interceptions — for Nebraska’s poor point production.

“I thought (Lee) played well,” said Pelini. “I don’t think we played well around Zac. I think Zac was the least of our problems today.”

It was the strangest thing. Nobody really had any success at defining what the problem was. None of the coaches, none of the players.

The problem on offense seems to be that everything goes well in practice, but very little goes right in games. Pelini said that there were no turnover problems when the NU offense went against the Husker defense in practice.

Maybe it was just bad luck. Several Iowa State fans walking to their cars outside a dreary Memorial Stadium readily recognized that their team had been handed a giftwrapped victory. When offensive tackle Mike Smith left a downcast locker room to face the media, he said the players were all frustrated by playing as hard as they could and having nothing to show for it. “It seems like the luck’s not going our way right now,” Smith said.

Nobody would say it, but it’s obvious that the offense is pressing, and out of rhythm. And it’s obvious that the offense is leaderless right now.

The defense has Ndamukong Suh, who is much like Eric Crouch in that he is not a verbal leader, but leads by example. And it’s obvious that the defense is not the problem this year for the 4-3 Huskers.

If Nebraska wants to avoid a second-half collapse, it will have to find a few leaders on offense. Just one would be a help. After Tuesday’s practice, Watson was asked who his leaders are on offense. He quickly singled out senior center Jacob Hickman, as well as Roy Helu and Niles Paul. He did not mention anyone else’s name. He said the NU offense is “talented, but we’re young, just like the defense last year.”

That may be true. But the defense started to show progress in the second half of last season. The second half of the 2009 season is here, and it’s time for the offense to show progress.

Hickman left the game early against Iowa State and sat out most of the contest. Cotton said his injury was not serious, but that the coaching staff wanted Mike Caputo at 100 percent instead of Hickman at less than his best.

Paul and Helu did not step up and provide leadership on the field. Helu had 24 yards rushing and 11 yards receiving, and coaches said his health was not an issue. The most leadership on offense seemed to come from true freshman I-back Dontrayevous Robinson, who rushed for 77 yards and scored Nebraska’s only touchdown. Robinson had one of NU’s four fumbles inside the 10-yard line which came when he was fighting for extra yardage and was stripped of the ball just before hitting the FieldTurf at the 5.

Pelini and offensive line coach Barney Cotton have promised a more physical offense. That’s not happening yet, in my view. But no one, including Pelini, Watson and Cotton, would say that the offensive line was at fault. Nobody was overreacting to being outrushed by Iowa State, 137-114.

“The way I judge offensive football is how many points you put on the board,” said Cotton. “It’s not whether you run or whether you pass, it’s how many points did you score? We were trying to be positive on the sideline. We were searching for a way to stem the tide, but there was no stemming it today. We turned the ball over from the beginning of the game to the end of the game.”

“We’ve just got to take care of our business and do the little things right,” Watson said. “We’ve got a younger group of guys and we’ve got to bring them to detail. It’s really that simple. We’ve got to keep coaching.”

It looks like Pelini and Watson are satisfied with a game manager at quarterback. Maybe that’s the best approach, although I get the feeling that Green could give this team a spark and provide a running threat that the Huskers desperately need. But it’s true that if Nebraska could simply have held onto the ball inside the 10-yard line once or twice and allowed Alex Henery to boot a field goal or two, Nebraska would have emerged from the game with an ugly victory.

Right now, there are no consistent playmakers on this offense. For awhile I thought that Paul was going to be a playmaker. Maybe he will be in the future, but for now, he’s simply too erratic. He’s had two momentum-killing fumbles in two consecutive home games, and nobody seems to be able to pick up the slack.

Helu was not a playmaker against Iowa State. And no receivers stepped up and made any great catches that would have given the team a boost. In fact, one of Lee’s interceptions bounced off the hands of a Nebraska receiver.

Maybe the best thing the Huskers can hope for the rest of the season is having Lee the Game Manager try to avoid mistakes and hopefully take advantage of great field position that the Blackshirts generate.

That would mean that the NU defense must start forcing turnovers once again at some point. It looked like the Blackshirts had gotten the knack when they started picking off Blaine Gabbert passes and turning them into points, just like they did against Louisiana-Lafayette on the night of NU’s 300th consecutive sellout.

That seems like a long time ago.

But on the bright side, you’ll be happy to know that nobody in the Husker football program is overreacting to this loss. No sir.

There were no tirades like Tim Tebow went on in a postgame press conference last year after Florida lost a home game to Mississippi. No player made any promises to take the team on his back; there were no vows that this team would not be outworked or outplayed in the future.

There were just a lot of unanswered questions. And a season that is very much in jeopardy.

 

Formerly the sports editor at the North Platte Bulletin and a sportswriter/columnist for the North Platte Telegraph, Tad Stryker is a longtime Nebraska sports writer, having covered University of Nebraska and high school sports for more than 25 years. He started writing for this website in 2008. You can e-mail him at tad.stryker@gmail.com. | Archive