It was the best of times, It was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness....
You know how it goes, Charles Dickens' opening line in a Tale of Two Cities. It fits the 2011 Husker football season pretty well. The best of times - Nebraska joined a whole new conference, played a whole new set of teams, and we all met a whole new set of fans. The worst of times - two of those teams beat the living snot out of us, while another set of brainiacs won just because that's what they do from time to time - beat teams they're not supposed to beat.
Wisdom - Dickens' opening line is about dichotomies, how the world could be so full of evil yet simultaneously hold such virtue. If there was an example of that this season, it came from Bo Pelini. Pelini, who's portrayed by some Nebraska media members as a bully, gave one of the better post game speeches in recent memory after the Penn State game. It was such a good speech, it brought together two words no one thought possible - "Pelini" and "eloquent". (I'm sure that Pelini didn't find any of this wisdom on his own, however. All of it had to come from Tom Osborne, the only wise man in the state.)
Perhaps Pelini's reaction after Penn State is the true nature of the man when he's not being repeatedly asked the same question by a bunch of reporters (60% weasel) already bent with the attitude that he's not going to tell them anything, and their best shot at a tasty story is in getting any reaction out of him even if it's a bad one.
Consider this - the situation at Penn State that week was one in which any misstep during the post game conference could have had far-reaching implications to the point of possibly costing Pelini his job. At the worst of times, Bo Pelini was at his best. Isn't that what you want out of your head football coach?
Foolishness - first of all, what the hell am I doing quoting Charlie Dickens (far too high brow for this place), and what the hell were all of us Nebraska fans thinking in the first place that we'd join a new conference with a new offensive coordinator, new defensive position coaches and win the Big Ten in our inaugural season.
Mike: In my opinion, the best has to the comeback against Ohio State. Certainly that was in part due to Braxton Miller's injury, but it all started with Lavonte David's strip. We saw Taylor Martinez come of age in that game.
Cheeseandcorn: Michigan State. Easily the most complete game of the year. Not only was this the best team the Huskers beat this year, but they flat-out throttled the Spartans. This was a team that took Wisconsin to the wire twice, beating them once - and they lost to no one else in the B1G but the Huskers. This was the one game that truly showed what the Huskers were capable of.
Jon Johnston: I'm going with Ohio State, mostly because it was a shocking turn-around after I'd already resigned us to a loss. It wasn't the best overall game we played - Cheese has that correct with Michigan State. It was the most fun game of the season, however, because of the swing of emotion, and what else is college football but about the emotion (good, bad, or in my case, sometimes homicidal) we feel as fans when our team is doing well or otherwise.
Lavonte David's hit and subsequent ball strip had to be the play of the year, but that's the kind of dude David was.
Andy K.: I can't be the cool guy with a different opinion here. It's Ohio St. I actually had the night free & bellied up to the bar with a laptop. Booze was flowing, drunks were falling off stools, and magic happened. It may not have been pretty at times, and as it turned out, Ohio St. wasn't really Ohio St., but damn, that was fun.
Mike: From my perspective, the worst has to be the Michigan game. Yes, the Wisconsin game was bad, but Wisconsin is a pretty good team. And Nebraska showed that the Huskers could play with Wiscy for 20 minutes or so. Still think they could, if the defense could have covered Wisconsin's receivers... (And if Tim Beck didn't panic just before halftime...) But against Michigan, the Huskers were outplayed from start to finish.
Cheeseandcorn: I would probably be inclined to say Michigan too, but I (fortunately) didn't see that one, so I'm going to go with Northwestern. In retrospect, beating Northwestern wouldn't have changed the final result of Nebraska's season much (they'd probably still be in the Capital One Bowl, thanks to the Michigan loss), but it was just insanely frustrating to watch the Huskers waste one of the best performances of Taylor Martinez's career with offensive and defensive incompetence against a mediocre team at home.
Jon: I've gone back and forth on this one. Which is worse - being blown out by two "name" teams in our first year in the Big Ten, or losing to Northwestern, a team we had no business losing to? It wasn't that the Wildcats beat us badly, it's that the players had no sense of urgency, and the coaching staff acted like all they had to do was show up and Northwestern would fall over begging for mercy. Maybe the debate team should have taken the field instead of the football team.
Worst game, though? Wisconsin, mostly because I paid for tickets and cousin Todd got the hotel room, and they were pretty damned expensive. At least I didn't see the Michigan game in person, and I could leave home and go to the beer store for some relief. At Wisconsin - just when I thought Tim Beck wasn't stupid enough to come out in the second half and start throwing the ball again, he did. The whole "wear black and stand out" thing - that really worked out, didn't it? I don't care that Wisconsin won the conference - it was a crappy crappy game, the crappiest game I can remember seeing in person in a long time.
Andy K.: Wisconsin, without a doubt. I was coaching during the Michigan game and only saw about 10 minutes of that shit stain, but the Wisconsin game blew my wiring, because it was a game we could have won. Yes, I've gotten that look on your face from others, but I believe it. We were winning that game early and it wasn't through trickery or flea flickers. OUR LINE WAS SHOVING THEM AROUND. We know what happened next - rookie Tim Beck decided it was time for 14 of 15 straight passing plays. When the dust cleared, the Badgers had turned three interceptions into TD's and the wind was out of our sails. I was watching that one alone in the basement trying to keep from cursing around the kids. Still my single-night record for most F-bombs dropped in texts.
Mike: I think I have to go with I-back. Rex Burkhead isn't a game breaker, but he's solid and remarkably consistent. Ameer Abdullah showed sparks of what he can do, as did Aaron Green. And Braylon Heard had a couple of plays that make me think he can be the best of the bunch, if given the opportunity when he's healthy.
Cheeseandcorn: Ditto Mike - the running backs were the most consistently strong position on the team this year (honorable mention to Brett Maher), and I'm even more excited to see what they can do next year.
Jon: Special teams! One of the biggest worries coming into the season was "Who's going to replace Alex Henery?". It didn't take too long to get over that, did it? Take Brett Maher's success and pair it with true freshman Ameer Abdullah's returns, and you saw what everyone thought was the weakest link turn into the biggest surprise of the season.
Andy K: I've gotta split this into offense and defense. On offense, it's Sexy Rexy Burkhead. And I'd like to start a contest to find him a new nickname, even if we steal "Wonder Dog" from Rex Hudler. Sexy Rexy just sounds wrong when being screamed by a 280 lb. cow farmer with a brat hanging out of his maw. On D, it's got to be Lavonte David. Is he Nebraska's best linebacker ever? Maybe.
Mike: I go back and forth between the secondary and the offensive line. The secondary was inconsistent, and when they were bad, they were REALLY bad. (See Wisconsin and Michigan.) I don't understand the issue here, because it's not like Nebraska hasn't been recruiting players here. They just haven't panned out. Or maybe it was a conflict between the styles of Marvin Sanders and Corey Raymond. I mean, where the heck did Courtney Osborne disappear to?
And the offensive line? Sometimes good, but sometimes just plain bad.
Cheeseandcorn: I'd agree with Mike on the secondary, especially on the feast or famine aspect. No unit looked as bad at any point during the season as the secondary did. They came back and redeemed themselves a bit in several games later in the season (especially the Michigan State game - that was an absolutely phenomenal performance), so there's hope for next year - they just very obviously had problems putting everything together for much of this year.
Jon: Offensive line, because I'm an offensive line kind of guy. The secondary really struggled, the defensive line suffered a lot of injuries, but once again, at the end of the year, we're looking at an offensive line that's no where near what Nebraska's offensive lines used to be.
Maybe that's not entirely fair considering the offensive line entered the season with only one returning starter in Mike Caputo. The rest - Spencer Long had a good season, Tyler Moore had the most starts of a true freshman lineman in school history, Seung Hoon Choi played well but not well enough that everyone can spell his name without looking it up, and Jermarcus Hardrick had a decent, but not spectacular season.
The injury excuse only goes so far. It should be expected. Take a couple bulldozers and smash them into each other repeatedly, something is going get broken. The depth wasn't there (largely because they won't rotate guys as much as they need to) but maybe next year Nebraska will finally have the kind of depth that's needed for consistency throughout a full season.
Andy: I can't go along with the line, I saw too much improvement this year from a young group that shoved D-lines around at times for the 1st time in recent memory. I'd have to go with wide receivers. It wasn't a disaster - for the first time, there were hints of playmaking ability and Quincy Enunwa brought physicality and attitude back to the position. But the drops, oh my effing God, the drops. Seriously.
Coach of the Year
Mike: I'm torn between Ron Brown and Rich Fisher. Brown gets it for dedication, and the development of the young backs. (Fewer dropsies this year, for example.) And let's not forget that stirring pre-game prayer at Penn State. Fisher, meanwhile, has taken one of Nebraska's achilles heels - receiver play, and turned it into a strength. Kenny Bell has turned into one of Nebraska's most reliable receivers, and if he can get Jamal Turner to play consistently, the Huskers will have the most feared receiver combo in the B1G.
Cheeseandcorn: Ron Brown, no doubt. He inherited a coach's dream in Burkhead, but we also saw a ton of development over the course of the season from the three freshmen, and, as Mike noted, helped cut way down on fumbles. And that's before we even start with the Penn State prayer - one of the most positive public off-field impacts you'll ever see an assistant coach have.
Jon: It has to be Ron Brown if for no other reason than by process of elimination. Carl Pelini will never receive credit for anything - which is one reason why he left to taking a head coaching position. Barney Cotton, well, one more year and if the line isn't darned good, he needs to be replaced. Tim Beck was too inconsistent and tended to get stuck in a rut, although he improved as the season went on. I don't think I need to mention Corey Raymond's secondary. Ross Els did okay (Will Compton had a pretty decent season along David taking all those tackles), and I'm not as sold on Rich Fisher as Mike is (too many drops). Maybe John Papuchis deserves a mention since he actually earned a pretty decent promotion.
Andy K: Ron chucks a mean prayer, but I can't go with him - I can't give him him credit for Burkhead and after the 1st 4 games, the three freshmen basically disappeared from games except for the occasional carry from Abdullah, so who knows how development played out until they actually see the field for meaningful carries? Defense took a little step back, so it's probably coming from the offensive side of the ball. Beck made some rookie mistakes, see above for WR drops, I can't hand it out for special teams...who does that leave? That's right, everyone's favorite whipping boy, Barney Cotton.
I know that's not popular, but the offensive line made its first real strides in years and began the task of reassuming an identity of punishing other teams. Did it do it all the time? Of course not, but it did start to happen. I'm very excited about the position given the young talent here and recruits potentially coming in. I'm telling you, stay tuned - these guys are going to be something over the next few years.