How did Nebraska lose that game?
This was the single thought I could not get out of my head Saturday night. Even a few days later, I still don't fully understand it. Sure, I know the key bullet points: zero points in the first half, a defense that looked worn down in the second half, some….um…. curious calls by the officials, a soul-crushing fumble. As Scott Frost likes to say, we've seen this movie before.
But this one felt different.
We all knew Michigan is a good team. Nothing they did Saturday changed that perception. But this felt like Nebraska's moment. The Huskers have shown their potential and their improvement. Now they had another opportunity to put it all together. This was supposed to be the time Charlie Brown kicks the football.
Instead, it got pulled away at the last moment. Again.
Things I believe
Nebraska should have kicked the field goal on their first drive. I understand all of the counter arguments: NU's field goals have been a crapshoot, you need to be aggressive to beat a top-10 team, and it is easy to second guess a decision like this in retrospect. But in the moment, I was saying "take your points", and I still feel that way.
The field goal would have been like a PAT, which would give Connor Culp some much-needed confidence. I also think that when you're playing a top-10 team, you need all the points you can get. While it is true that 7 > 3, it is equally true that 3 > 0.
Did this decision cost Nebraska the game? No. But I wish Frost had taken the points. Maybe he will next time.
This loss is not on Adrian Martinez. Yes, Martinez fumbled on a critical 3rd and 1 - a brutal snatching defeat from the jaws of victory outcome that joins Terrence Nunn and LeKevin Smith in Husker agony. But I don't want to hear anybody blaming Martinez for this loss.
Martinez outplayed Michigan's Cade McNamara, making some beautiful throws all over the field. While Martinez did not run as much as he usually does, he was effective on the ground.
If you want to argue that Martinez should have followed Travis Vokolek's block to the outside, I'll listen. If you want to argue that the play should have been blown dead sooner, I'll nod in agreement. But saying Martinez lost the game isn't an argument - it's just wrong. The fumble was a killer, but the overall reason Nebraska was in a position to win that game was the play of Adrian Martinez.
There is no conspiracy against Nebraska. Two things are true: 1) Nebraska was impacted by some horrible officiating Saturday. 2) The referees and/or the league office are not conspiring against the University of Nebraska football program. Period.
Oh, those refs. There were several questionable calls, missed calls, and many times where the refs appeared as if they were hired off of Craigslist an hour before kickoff. Disconcerting signals? Joint possession? Does "0" on the play clock actually mean 0? I've seen enough freeze-frame posts, Zapruder-esque film analysis, and the like to last me the rest of the season.
But none of this means the Big Ten, Kevin Warren, or anybody else has a secret cabal with the intention of keeping Nebraska from winning, 5 or 10 yards at a time.
Such a conspiracy would require either coordination from the league office and/or the conference's officials, real-time knowledge of just how many calls to make in order keep some semblance of impartiality, and complete confidentiality from everybody involved.
If you seriously think the Big Ten brass or referees are competent enough to pull that off, you are clearly overestimating their abilities.
Things I don't know
Where were the playmaker receivers? Zavier Betts played 10 snaps against Michigan and was credited for one carry for minus-1 yard. Omar Manning had fewer snaps (31) than Levi Falck* (35), with Manning recording two catches for 20 yards. One of Manning's catches was a big 4th & 6 grab on Nebraska's first possession. On the final, do-or-die drive, both Betts and Manning were on the sideline.
*To be clear: I'm not being disrespectful to Falck. He had a good game (3 catches for 31 yards, and a TD), is having a nice season, and has proven himself as a reliable target. Maybe I'm wrong, but I don't view him as a big-play threat.
I've heard the supposed concerns about practice habits, playbook knowledge, and the like. Maybe those are legit, maybe they're not.
All I'm saying is if Nebraska wants to beat top-10 teams, or succeed in must-score situations, it would be beneficial to have proven playmakers on the field - even if they are banged up and acting as decoys.
Did "Thunderstruck" hurt more than it helped? For the second straight week, Nebraska used the gap between the 3rd and 4th quarters for their "Nightmare Mode" light show. Everybody turned on their phone flashlights, everything went red, and "Thunderstruck" played while the fire cannons bellowed in the end zones. It was just as awesome as it was against Northwestern, and it looked amazing from above.
It is a ridiculously cool experience that had to knock the socks off of any Husker fan or recruit.
But there are two things worth noting:
- When it started, the Michigan bench went nuts. They were jumping and dancing out on the field, near the hash marks. At one point it looked like the Sharks and Jets were about to dance themselves into a rumble.
- Michigan had the ball to start the 4th quarter. They went 65 yards in 8 plays, scoring a touchdown to regain the lead.
For the sake of discussion, let's presume a key purpose of these "Jump Around" moments is to give the home team a boost and/or intimidate the opponent. If so, I think it is fair to ask if "Thunderstruck" backfired.
Who knows? Maybe we should credit Michigan's culture. Maybe we should give Harbaugh credit, as it certainly appeared his team was prepared for the moment. Maybe Nebraska should have waited a week to break out the Nightmare Mode. Maybe we should recognize that almost any song* meant to inspire the team on the east sideline will also inspire the team on the west.
*I say "almost" because I have a hard time picturing the Wolverines get 'turnt' to "The Cornhusker (Come A Runnin' Boys)". Actually, I can imagine it, and it would have been hilarious.
To be clear, I'm not suggesting that Nebraska ditch their new night game light show, nor am I suggesting replacing it with "The Cornhusker". While I love that song, and see its potential, I'm not dumb enough to die on that hill.
But I would hope we can recognize that any intimidation or adrenaline boost failed.
What obscure penalty call will come next? There is no way that anybody* could have predicted a "disconcerting signals" call against Nebraska. Ditto for "joint possession".
*Nobody except for Kevin Warren and his secret mafia of vigilante referees, obviously.
So my question is what other obscure, never-seen-THAT-before calls are out there? Here are three contenders from the depths of the NCAA rulebook:
- Illegal batting a backward pass in flight (rule 9-4-2): A backward pass in flight shall not be batted forward by the passing team.
- Invalid fair catch signal (rule 2-8-1-d). “If the receiver shades his eyes from the sun (while attempting to catch a punt) without waving his hand(s), the ball is live and may be advanced.”
- Helping Runner (rule 9-3-2-b): It is illegal to pick up a ball carrier or pull him forward.
5 things I loved
- Rahmir Johnson. Nebraska's best all-around back had his best all-around game. Johnson rushed for 67 yards on 17 carries - often into the teeth of the Michigan defense. He also caught six passes for 105 yards and a touchdown.
- Cam Taylor-Britt. After a slow start to the season (by his high standards), Cam Taylor-Britt showed his difference-maker potential. Eleven tackles, including a big third down stop where he came from the opposite side of the field. His three pass breakups were a season high, and helped limit Michigan's downfield passing.
- William Przystup. Four punts, a 47.5-yard average, and two downed inside the 20. Even in a good special teams year, you can't ask for much more from a punter.
- HuskerVision. The men and women of HuskerVision had a great night. They had excellent camera angles on two back-to-back goal line plays in the first quarter. Their replays on the big screens played a big role in getting the calls reviewed and ultimately overturned, which led to a Michigan field goal instead of a touchdown.
- Inside linebackers. Stop me if I sound like a broken record, but Nick Henrich and Luke Reimer had another strong performance. The dynamic duo combined for 27 total tackles - almost one third of NU's tackles. As always, the defensive line deserves recognition too.
Honorable Mention: Nebraska fans still regaining their voices, Deontai Williams, Austin Allen, Adrian Martinez, JoJo Domann, Punt & kickoff coverage units
5 areas for improvement
- Third-down conversions (offense). The Huskers were just 3 of 11 converting third downs. The Huskers had 3rd and 4 (or shorter) five times Saturday. The results: no gain, incomplete pass, no gain, 5-yard Martinez touchdown run, and a 3-yard Martinez run and fumble. It is worth noting that Jaquez Yant had zero carries on third down, and came out of the game so Rahmir Johnson could run up the middle on 3rd and 1. Rahmir was stuffed for no gain.
- Third-down conversions (defense). For the game, Michigan converted 6 of 15 third downs. I'll take my chances with that. But five of those six conversions were on Michigan scoring drives, leading to 26 of Michigan's points. The Blackshirts played hard, but they struggled to get off the field in key moments.
- Red Zone defense. Michigan had six trips into the Nebraska red zone and scored on all six. I'll gladly note that four of those were field goals, but the Blackshirts can be better at turning back scoring opportunities.
- Option pitches. If Nebraska is going to continue to run the option - and I hope they do - they need to be better with both ends of the pitch. The Huskers are averaging a fumble a week since they started running more option.
- Michigan's "Get Back" Coach. Every team has a guy whose sole job on game day is to keep the head coach from going out on the field. Michigan's guy clearly had a rough day as Jim Harbaugh spent more time on the field than some of his starters.