Report Card: Huskers 28, Michigan State Spartans 41

Eric Francis

Yet another frustrating loss for the Huskers. But this one was different, and most fans recognize it as such.  The boat races by Wisconsin, UCLA, and Ohio State had a common theme with the defense failing on a massive scale.  Defensive breakdowns didn't help against South Carolina, Georgia, or Minnesota either.

At its core, recruiting failures on defense in Bo Pelini's first three seasons were exposed, leading some to conclude that the Emperor had no clothes.  Some defensive genius, they said.  What they missed was that the fixes were already in progress at that time.  This season, we saw the youth taunt us with their talent, then frustrate us with their inexperience against UCLA.  But the last three weeks, we've seen the defense step up and make the plays to win games against Northwestern and Michigan.  Against Michigan State, the defense kept Nebraska in the game because the offense kept trying to give the game away.

And let's be specific here:  it was freshman mistakes that resulted in five turnovers.  All in Nebraska territory; twice inside the Nebraska ten yard line. Mostly unforced by Michigan State, the Spartans were the beneficiary of 24 gift points.  One or two turnovers, Nebraska might still win.  Three made it really tough.  Five made it impossible.

After the game, I didn't sense the outrage, unlike the past losses. Some people misconstrue it as resignation or acceptance.  I disagree.  I think it's a recognition that the defense isn't the problem now.  That was the vibe outside the stadium, and the vibe on Facebook.  Yes, some want Pelini fired, but I don't think the size of that group changed much.

Most fans went into this season expecting the defense to be a work in progress, and would need the offense to carry them.  Hopefully it would be better by November for a run to the B1G Championship Game. Well, the defense IS better. The problem is that the offensive struggles we expected in 2014 are occurring a year ahead of schedule, now that senior all-American offensive guard Spencer Long and all-Big Ten quarterback Taylor Martinez are out for the season.  The backups are gaining valuable experience, but like any premature development, the issues become magnified.

This shouldn't be read as an indictment of the freshmen who turned the ball over against Michigan State.  Hopefully they learn from the mistakes.  They still have a lot of time to improve.  And that's why some fans aren't quite as up in arms over this one.  If anything, I think people are actually feeling better about the program now.  Nobody likes to lose, but there were a lot of things for fans to feel optimistic about.

Except for the turnovers.

QB: We always start with quarterback play, and that's where this game was lost.  Husker fans have dismissed some of those off-target pitches all season on the option because (a) Tommy Armstrong looks so smooth doing it and (b) Ameer Abdullah always seemed to snag it.  But on the third play of the game, Terrell Newby couldn't corral a pitch at head level.  And it was downhill from there:  an interception thrown right at Spartans safety Kurtis Drummond.  A fumble just before halftime.  And a botched snap on the goal line.  And it wasn't just turnovers that hampered Armstrong.  Errant throws all day, missing wide open receivers.  I'm curious why Nebraska didn't turn to Ron Kellogg III in the second half until the game was locked up.  Grade:  F

RB: Despite the doubts of ESPN's Desmond Howard, Ameer Abdullah rushed for triple the Spartans' rushing average. Is that good enough for all-Big Ten?  Some think a little higher:

As good as Abdullah was, he could have been better.  Several times, he darted out of bounds to avoid contact.  Once on second down, he darted out a yard short of the first down marker.  He did convert the third and short on the next play, but that play shouldn't have been needed. Perhaps the coaching staff wants him to avoid contact to keep him on the field. Maybe that's necessary, but if it's so, that's unfortunate.  Imani Cross showed nice burst on his 51 yard run; he certain deserves a few more touches.  Terrell Newby might not get some touches for a while after that fumble, though.  The missed yardage and the Newby fumble make it impossible for me to award an A.  Grade:  B+

WR: Big game for Kenny Bell, but man, the 'Fro might have to consider leaving early for the NFL if Armstrong doesn't stop hanging him out to dry.  Sam Burtch also with a nice game.  On the other hand, Quincy Enunwa needs to come up with those catches.  What's up with Jordan Westerkamp's difficulty in fielding punts now?  And would a tight end might catching the ball once in a while?  Grade:  B

OL: All week long, we were told that Nebraska couldn't run the ball on the 1985 Bears, errr...Michigan State.  Especially with four offensive linemen down.  Well, Jeremiah Sirles bounced back as a surprise starter, so it was only three down.  Still, the big guys up front pushed Sparty around.  Grade: A

DL: Remember when the defensive line was the weak spot?  Now it's a strength.  Jason Ankrah broke up two passes; wish he could have corralled one of them.  Randy Gregory with four quarterback hurries and a sack; he's likely the B1G defensive newcomer of the year.  If you can't see the progress up front on defense, then you are simply being ignorant.  Grade: A

LB: The linebacker rotation seems to be settling in nicely with Michael Rose, Zaire Anderson, and David Santos.  Santos is clearly more comfortable out of the middle.  If anything, I think Nebraska was a little too tentative in blitzing this game. Clearly, Connor Cook was less effective when he was being pressured.  Grade: B

Secondary: Another big game from Ciante Evans and Corey Cooper.  There were some blown coverages, both early and then at the end of the game.  Not to mention some really poor tackling on that Jeremy Langford touchdown just before halftime.  I can't help but wonder if Nebraska doesn't complete the comeback if Stanley Jean-Baptiste maintains possession of that Cook interception at the end of the third quarter.  Grade: B

Overall:  C- This would have been a B+ performance with an average performance by a Nebraska quarterback.  Unfortunately, five turnovers turned a Nebraska win in which Nebraska was winning on both sides of the ball into a Nebraska loss. If Nebraska was lucky to win some of those great comebacks, then clearly all that luck swung back against the Huskers in this one.

Elsewhere in College Football

West Virginia F Losing to Kansas and Charlie Weis is almost grounds for immediate dismissal barring an outbreak of typhoid.

Auburn:  A "A Miracle at Jordan-Hare!"  You've got to be kidding me... on fourth down, this happens?

Michigan/Northwestern:  F A game so captivating and well played, they just couldn't bear to stop.

Nebraska Students:  A I've criticized the students for not showing up to games. But the student section filled up just before kickoff, and more importantly... they stayed to the end.  Unlike many others, especially the ones in the big money sections.

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