Randy York's N-sider
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Lawrence, Kan. - Welcome to Nebraska Football Anatomy 101, where we will dissect a 2009 Husker football season a little differently than anyone else.
To join this class, there is one mandatory requirement. Forget about that 9-7, eight-turnover loss to Iowa State and how it affected the way this state, this conference and the national media chose to view Nebraska ... as a bit of a non-factor in a game where the Huskers, last time I checked, still rank among the top five college football programs of all time.
When the media would rank the Huskers as low as ninth among the league's 12 teams in weekly assessments, they all seemed to be saying the same thing - Nebraska, you have definitely improved, but you still have a long way to go.
And that may well be true, but today's "lecture" isn't looking at every rut in the road or every flaw on the stat sheet.
No, today we have chosen to focus on how Nebraska's coaches and players - and all those who support them - reacted to perhaps the strangest game in the history of Memorial Stadium.
Are you a Bo-liever?
Fortunately, they Bo-lieve in the Pelinis and the Process, and when the football gods took one away from them inside Memorial Stadium, they replaced that upset to Iowa State with one of their own against Oklahoma.
You could see some throwback offense in that OU game, but when it was done more for field position than points, people still found a way to grouse about an offense they thought was on a different planet than the Blackshirts.
Well, guess what? In a 31-17 win here Saturday night over Kansas, Nebraska's offense saved the day, scoring a pair of touchdowns and converting a two-point conversion after KU took a 17-16 fourth-quarter lead.
"We've bailed them out and today they bailed us out," Husker linebacker Phillip Dillard said.
If anyone knows the importance of character, it's Dillard, who had to scale his own mountain just to get the chance to play as a senior.
Now that the offense has seen what creativity and chemistry can do when it's combined with character, watch out. Nebraska just may have found the balance needed to excel in all three categories it takes to win - offense, defense and special teams.
Maybe it's time to focus on what Nebraska has instead of what it doesn't have. With that mind, here are 10 reasons that are enabling Nebraska to become a force to be reckoned with:
1) Bo Pelini's ability to peak Nebraska at the right time. Let's see. Nebraska is 2-0 in November this year and 6-1 in November in Bo Pelini's career as head coach. With Saturday night's nationally televised Nebraska-Kansas State game at Memorial Stadium and the following week's nationally televised regular-season finale at Colorado, both November games, you have to like Nebraska's chances. Oh, almost forgot. Win the K-State game Saturday night, and the Huskers are in Cowboys Stadium Dec. 5 for the Big 12 Championship, most likely against Texas. Maybe it's time to point out that Pelini also has led Nebraska to a December win over Michigan State in a 2003 Alamo Bowl as an interim head coach and a January win over Clemson in the Gator Bowl.
2) Shawn Watson's willingness to tap into a Hall of Fame coach's playbook. You should have seen how emotional Nebraska's offensive coordinator was outside KU's Memorial Stadium after the Huskers played their most complete offensive game in a 4-2 conference start. Watson teared up a bit describing the help he received incorporating a power formation that includes an I-back, a fullback, two tight ends and a wide receiver - a formation that enabled Zac Lee to impersonate three former Husker quarterbacks (Tommie Frazier, Brook Berringer and Scott Frost) on a 37-yard pass to Niles Paul. Lee sprinted left on an option play, pulled up and pivoted backwards, then found Paul behind two safeties for the pivotal completion. Credit Nebraska Athletic Director Tom Osborne for dropping off an old tape for Watson to consider. Watson choked up talking about having a Hall-of-Fame coach one floor up from his office. "He's a beautiful human being. I love the guy," Watson said after several reporters went on to their next interview stop. "Coach Osborne never imposed anything. He just gave me some tape for us to think about. That's the beauty of the man. He lets us figure out on our own how to make it work."
3) Watson's and his staff's decision to simplify the offense and maximize its playmakers. Osborne isn't the only one who has helped Watson modify an offensive game plan that may have been conceptually sound when the season started, but changed dramatically when first-year quarterbacks struggled, an offensive line battled nagging injuries, the top two running backs went down (forcing a new starter to surface from the Scout Team) and the receiving corps needed to learn the playbook and how to block before they could be difference-makers on the field. "It took humility for Coach Watson to throw out what he planned and concentrate on what we could get done with what we have," said NU Tight End Coach Ron Brown. "We all had to get out of our comfort zone," Watson said. Brown added: "It really was like a scene out of the move 'Apollo 13' when the minds at Mission Control had to come up with more creative techniques to get the space shuttle home. We had to figure out a way to move the ball and win some games. We hope this puts us on a different path to deal with all the trials and tribulations we've had." Added Watson: "It's taken some perserverance and a lot of hard work, but we got our mojo back."
4) A "team first" relationship between quarterbacks Zac Lee and Cody Green. "Zac came in and managed a good game against Kansas," Watson said, "but you know what? When Cody was the starter for two games, Zac was his biggest supporter and did everything he could to help Cody. The same is true of Cody. When we put the ball back in Zac's hands, Cody has done everything he can to support him. They have great respect and admiration for each other. They both want to win, and they'll do whatever it takes to help us win." Head Coach Bo Pelini said Lee "played very well" against KU. "He ran well, he threw well, and he was very efficient," Pelini said, adding that the offensive game plan was sound and balanced.
5) The acceptance of Roy Helu Jr. and Jacob Hickman to put this offense on their capable shoulders. Forgive the pun, especially when you see a giant ice bag on Helu's sore shoulder at Saturday night's press conference while he's trying to describe his 156-yard, three-touchdown performance against KU. It's interesting that the fortunes of NU and KU dipped when Helu and Jake Sharp battled injuries. Sharp didn't bounce back, even though he claimed he was 100 percent. Helu has recovered with back-to-back stellar efforts against OU and KU. "I don't know how he does it," center Jacob Hickman said. "You know he's hurting, but he'll still fly over everybody if he has to, to get what we need." Same could be said for Hickman, the up-front leader who had an ugly hip pointer when he tried to block OU's Gerald McCoy a week earlier. With a bruise that swelled to the size of a small bowling ball, Hickman could barely get out of bed a week earlier. Yet he battled gallantly again Saturday, setting the tone for an offense that continues to find and define its niche. "I thought Roy played a great game," Watson said. "He's been unbelievable for us the last two weeks. He's shown a lot of courage and really given us a lift."
6) The emergence of Niles Paul as one of the Big 12's foremost playmakers. You all saw it on ABC. Paul catches four passes for 154 yards. The effort includes catches of 35, 37, 37 and 45 yards - the sixth highest total in Nebraska history. His first reception set up a touchdown and his third and fourth receptions set up a pair of field goals. Paul's confidence may have been momentarily shaken in that Iowa State game, but he is back with purpose and passion. Saturday night, he had a career-high 244 all-purpose yards. His 44-yard return of a pooch kickoff after KU took the lead for the first time in the fourth quarter is certainly one of the game's most critical plays. No one's comparing Niles Paul to Johnny Rodgers yet, but he's building a resume that could make him a similarly crucial all-purpose component on a championship-contending team. "He's one of the toughest players we have on this football team," NU Receiver Coach Ted Gilmore said Saturday night. "We all knew he could catch the ball, but we've challenged him to become a physical blocker. He's taken on that challenge, and it makes him more dangerous as a playmaker." Being a dual threat receiver/blocker makes defenders guess, and sometimes they guess wrong like they did when Paul was the benefactor on that "new" wrinkle from option days past.
7) Carl Pelini's desire to push the refresh button on a talented, but physically drained defense. No one will understand the physical and emotional investment Nebraska's Blackshirts made to hold Oklahoma to three points in a game the Huskers needed to transform their season. A week later, Nebraska's defensive coordinator didn't have to be prodded to make an observation. "We looked tired today," he said after the KU game. "Bo and I talked after the game. It's late in the season, and we have to rethink how we need to prepare this team physically for Kansas State. We have to make sure we're fresh." The good thing is the Husker defensive staff isn't facing what stared the offensive staff in the face. There will be no Apollo 13 scene to deliver this solution. A national championship defensive coordinator, who is now a head coach, will meet with his brother and other members of the staff and find a way for the Blackshirts to be the Blackshirts again. It is, after all, Saturday Night Live in Lincoln, and ESPN's national cameras will be there. (By the way, a week after NU shut down OU, the Sooners scored 65 points and accumulated 640 yards of offense against Texas A&M).
8) The magic in Alex Henery's right leg. It's November, isn't it? Time for the nation's best field goal kicker to warm up his leg to put points on the board and pin teams inside their own 20. Saturday night, Henery connected on all three field goal tries - a 25-yarder in the first quarter, a 33-yarder in the third quarter and a 38-yarder in the fourth quarter. All boomed like a cannon through the uprights and would have been good from much longer distances. Henery is a powerful weapon who is now 15-of-18 on field goals this season and 41-of-47 in his Husker career. "I thought I'd have another one there at the end, but I was glad we got another touchdown," Henery said, preferring to see a new spark to an offense that finished with 214 yards rushing, 196 yards passing and 410 yards total.
9) A road warrior mentality on this football team. Coaches and players can't look past K-State to a road game in Boulder, another one at Cowboys Stadium or a third one in San Diego, Dallas or somewhere else. But you can. This team has a knack for playing well on the road. The Huskers now have four straight road wins in the Big 12. Here's the question of the week: How many of you last summer envisioned losses in Columbia and Lawrence this season? We know. We know. You didn't have back-to-back losses at home figured in either. But football is a crazy game, and it requires a survivalist mindset. Nebraska has that mindset.
10) The greatest fans in college football. Do any interview with any Nebraska player or any Husker coach, and one thing you know they all count on is you. Win or lose, they know you will support them like no other team gets supported in college football. So get your game face on. Saturday night's crowd needs to mirror the electricity that you plugged in for Oklahoma. Bo said it was the best he'd heard since he's been here. Can you top it for Nebraska against Kansas State for the Big 12 North title? A proven, always prepared veteran, Bill Snyder, matching strategy with Bo, a passionate, always improving leader. In his second year as head coach, Pelini is a master at resiliency and resolve, and that plays heavily in Nebraska's commitment to an allotment of 12,000 tickets if the Huskers make the Big 12 Championship game. Deadlines are looming for that, and bowl plans are part of the mix. Right now, the possibilities range from the Holiday to the Cotton to a BCS date. They will rise or fall accordingly, based on the outcomes of the last two regular-season games.
One thing is certain. Nebraska is much better than the ninth-place team in the conference. The big question is, do you think the Huskers are emerging as a force to be reckoned with?
Respond to Randy
Voices from Husker Nation
Being a former player and supporter for years, the biggest thing I've seen in this team lately is attitude!! You see it in the guys' eyes. They are expecting to win no matter who it is they're playing. Finding ways to win and making things happen is the right way to respond when things go bad. They truly believe they're going to win every time they walk on that field and that, my friend, comes from the coaches creating an attitude and a will to win ... just like the old days. Great article! Jeff Carpenter, Dallas, Texas (linebacker, 1975-76-77)
This team is back! They mirror the old Osborne/Devaney teams. The Pelinis are a natural fit for NU ... blue collar people, hard-nosed football. I have been a fan since I was four (1971) and have never wavered. However, it feels great to be able to talk it and walk it again. Thanks for the column. Jeff Michaels
I think we all have to give Zac Lee some props. I know, I know. We've struggled as an offense a little lately, but that's to be expected. How many seniors do we have on offense again? Juniors even? Zac did a great job and stepped up to the challenge of being a leader. It may have taken him a while, but he did it. Most young men his age can't say that. I think all of those guys out there on the field finally realized that they play for NEBRASKA and had a little fun doing it. They played with passion, and that says a lot to me. Great article, and yes, I think Nebraska is becoming a NATIONAL POWER again. This article has me convinced. If all we do is look at the negatives of our team, then the result will be negative. Thanks for giving me a positive look at our 2009 Huskers right before Ndamukong and the senior class play their last game at Memorial Stadium. The timing is perfect. Haley Cox
When I was in Lincoln in 1997, Coach Osborne got his split national championship, retired as a coach and started his political career. At that time, the Big Red Machine and the Blackshirts were a menace to the college football world. Just ask Peyton Manning. After Eric Crouch's flash of brilliance, Big Red went the opposite direction, giving up the tradition that "Defense wins Championships" in favor of a West Coast experience. I think this is the year for the Huskers to shock the world. I believe they are even better on the road than at home. So beat down the 'Cats, stuff the Buffs and smack the Horns! James Zhou, Shanghai, China (Chinese Huskers Say Go Blackshirts!).
I bleed RED everyday working here in France, and the 10 reasons story was great. Thanks for writing it. To me, though, there are only three words to describe it ... GO BIG RED! Robin Simmons, Pierrevert, France
Thanks for a great article. I moved to Oklahoma in May after attending 111 of the 300 consecutive sellouts in Lincoln, not to mention many away games and bowl games. As someone who began this journey as a 10-year-old in 1970, I believe this program is on the cusp of greatness. My advice is to jump on board now. Don't wait. Steven Rasmusen (NU Class of 1983)
I like your articles and pro-Husker point-of-view. I am and will always be a Husker fan, even during some past "down" years. Bo and current coaches are certainly passionate. The only complaint I have ever had about "the greatest fans" in college sports is the infrequent calling heard from a few "boo-birds." There is no worse feeling than to be "booed" in one's home stadium. I much prefer the positive reinforcement of the "GO BIG RED" chant or the emphatic call for "DEFENSE" as it resounds over the field. Ron Thom
Great article! That pumped me up! Thank you for that! I will proceed to intensify my "cautious optimism" about the Huskers. If you know of any other Husker fans in Hawaii (more specifically, Kauai), this misplaced Cornhusker would love to launch the Kauai Cornhusker Club. Or maybe the Kauai For the Cornhuskers (KFC....Ha!). As an Emergency Room physician, I have been a member of Coloradoans for Nebraska, Arizonans for Nebraska and even part of the Nebraska Society of New York when I lived in Brooklyn. Most recently, I was a Californian for Nebraska. But there is no Hawaii Cornhusker Club! I guess it's on me. The timing seems right because Nebraska is indeed becoming a force to be reckoned with again in football. Go Big Red! "Big Wave" Dave Gregorius, Kapaa, Hawaii (on the island of Kauai)
Yes, NU is improving since Bo and company arrived. It is great that they have Tom Osborne as athletic director, and he is there to help. The team is better. They don't give up, and that makes me, as a fan, want to continue to cheer them on. The atmosphere in the stadium for the OU game was amazing. People were on their feet for much of the game, yelling and cheering on every play. Keep up the good work! Lennae Seevers, Omaha, Nebraska
Enjoyed the article. I think fans need to realize how close the Huskers are to a single-loss season. Iowa State and Virginia Tech losses were flukes and would not happen again if they played nine more times. Not exactly chopped liver for a second-year head coach. This team will learn how to win the close ones. So darn proud. Stephen Johnson
I totally agree with you that Nebraska is again becoming a force to be reckoned with. Unlike the past three years, there have been no major blowouts. In two of our losses, the margin was very small. In all three losses, we only have ourselves to blame. I thought we would have folded after the Iowa State loss. The Baylor game looked a little better, but not by much. Oklahoma was supposed to be a loss, and I was gladly wrong. Then we almost lost against a struggling Kansas team ... wrong again. Our defense has been very good, and our offense seems to be improving with a healthy Helu. If we finish the season well, I would think we will give Texas a good fight. William Babcock
Love your article and love the way you see things unfolding and believe you are dead on. I can see us running the table all the way to the big 12 title game. The way I look at it, any team that consistently runs plays out of the shotgun plays right into Nebraska's hands. First, we play one linebacker. Second, we have the best front four in the nation. Third, our secondary is playing great. Coach Bo and company can stop any team, and with our new offensive identity, we can move the ball. How satisfying would it be for us to ruin Texas' season just like they ruined ours in the first Big 12 championship game in 1996? All I have to say is what goes around comes around. Get your dancing shoes on, people. It's payback time. Jason Gustason, Omaha, Nebraska
I believe the Huskers are on a comeback! I never lost the faith! Dale Streufert, Spencer, Iowa
Your 10 reasons for this team's success was well conceived and well written. I just have one issue. Our last two opponents (OU and KU) have thrown 99 passes in the past two games, and there has not been one holding call on the opposing offense. No wonder our defenders are tired. Roy L. Miller, Lakewood, Colorado
Heck yes, Randy. Huskers rule! Joe Mansour, Methuen Massachusetts
I could not be more proud of our football team. I am one of the fans that roots loud with passion and love even when we are struggling through a loss. My job transferred me to Iowa where teasing and being poked fun at as a Husker fan is a daily thing. So staying loyal and proud is the norm for not only me, but my whole family. As a matter of fact, my son and I are the only Father-Son joint recipients of the HOT DOGS of the game (Michael & Bradly Scott). Whether our faces are painted or not, win or lose, good times or bad, we always support the Nebraska Cornhuskers. Quality coaching, competitive talent, noticeable dedication will bring this wonderful program back to national respect. I am one fan that can see it coming, and we are loving every minute of it. GO BIG RED! Michael Scott, Kimballton, Iowa
If we play smashmouth football, and our defense plays like it can and has, look out Texas! Paul Bonertz, Seattle, Washington
I really don't care if the national media thinks NU is average. I like being under the radar. I used to listen to everything that anyone said about the team. Now I hardly listen to any of it. We will win the KSU and CU games. Watch out Texas. M. Kicklighter
I believe that with a little more exploration of the Tom Osborne play book and the use of a fullback, Nebraska's offense can keep defenses guessing "What's next?" We are what we are. We run well and then we play-action pass. Then, with this defense, we are a very dangerous team that can play with anyone. Mike Trumble