Sunday School: The Big 12 Championship

It’s a shame.

In perhaps the greatest defensive effort in Nebraska football history – considering the circumstances – the Cornhuskers lost to Texas in the Big 12 Championship.  But let’s face it, the real champs got no trophy, they’ll get no trip to a BCS bowl.  The real champs will only have their Blackshirts and their memories and that will have to suffice.

It’s a shame because an effort like that does not result in a victory.  I know the words on the stadium.  Not the victory but the action; Not the goal but the game; In the deed the glory.  That’s all true.  The way the Husker Blackshirts played Saturday night, they honored those words and they should bask in the glory of the deed.  But they cannot.  They are hurting.  Because they did not come to Arlington, Texas just to show up.  They didn’t come just to earn respect.  They came to win, because they believed they could and they did not.

It’s a shame because while we witnessed a defensive performance for the ages, we also saw an offensive performance for the ages……the STONE age.  Nebraska managed five first downs and 106 yards on offense.  Think about that for a moment.  Five first downs.  You can get five first downs on ONE drive.  You can gain 106 yards on two drives.  Nebraska got that in 60 minutes.  Pathetic.  Despite the awesome performance of the Blackshirts, the Longhorns doubled the yardage and tripled the first downs.  And Nebraska started three first half drives inside the Texas 45 and managed one first down and six points on two long Alex Henery field goals. 

Thanks to Niles Paul, NU got a chance for a touchdown with a first and goal at the 10 – and gained nothing.  Two line plunges and an incomplete pass.  The imagination in play calling was breath-taking.

As was the decision to pull Zac Lee and insert Cody Green at the one yard line only to return Lee to the game on the next series.  Another brilliant “let Lee see the game from the sidelines to get his head cleared” ploy.  Nevermind that the ball was on the Nebraska ONE YARD LINE and all it took was one poor exchange with a new quarterback from center to turn the game upside down.  I’ve got no problem with Green going into the game – it needed to happen much sooner – but to put Green in at his own ONE only to pull him is nonsensical strategy.

And that’s a shame.

Then you have the end of the game.  Those final few moments will haunt Bo Pelini, the Husker players and the fans for a long time because the game was won.  Yes, the kick out of bounds by Adi Kunalic was a punch in the gut (remember the 1994 Orange Bowl?.)  But the thing that burns, the thing that should gall anybody who considers them a fan of college football was the arrogance and stupidity that Texas showed in the final 12 seconds.  The fact that Mack Brown is the coach of the year in the Big 12 is laughable.  How do you let your team run a play instead of just running down the clock, calling your timeout and kicking the field goal?  If the football gods believed in justice, they would have let the officials call the game right there.  Brown reminds me of Inspector Jacques Clouseau.  He bumbles and stumbles through a three-hour (four, if televised by ESPN) game with his coaching gaffes and then it all seems to come together at the end through some amazing set of comedic circumstances.

That coaching decision at the end of the game ranks as one of the dumbest I have ever witnessed, yet Mack Brown’s dumb luck (like Peter Sellers’s movie character) paid off again.

And that’s a shame.

Officiating.

Count me among the conspiracy theorists who felt Nebraska was not going to get a fair shake in this Big Texas Conference championship.  I will also say, today, that officiating did not lose this game and it was a mostly well called game by the men in stripes.  While I had a problem with a couple of the pass interference calls, I also understood them considering the angles with which the defensive backs were in relationship with the receiver.  And color me shocked when Texas got called for not one, but two chop blocks.  If you would have told me that the Longhorns offensive line would be penalized for anything beyond a false start before the game, I would have questioned your sanity.

But onto the big issue at hand – the decision to put one second back on the clock at game’s end.  It is going to take awhile to convince Bo Pelini, the team and most of Husker Nation that the Huskers werent victims of poor officiating at best or a grand conspiracy at worst.  However, research of the NCAA rule book found this under Rule 12-3, Article 6: the replay official may correct egregious errors, including those involving the game clock, whether or not a play is reviewable.  That was the rule quoted by Big 12 Supervisor of Officials Walt Anderson.  It was perfectly legitimate to review the play and I agree with the replay officials that the ball clearly hit the ground (not the rail as Anderson erroneously stated) with one second remaining.

Meanwhile, the Omaha World Herald documented the postgame drama involving the Pelinis, Tom Osborne and Big 12 Commissioner Dan Beebe.  It’s an interesting read.  I hope this calms down the anger towards a properly executed decision by the officials and turns our attention to what needs to be fixed.  Because the bottom line is, if Nebraska had an offense, the Huskers would have blown Texas out of the barn last night and no amount of final second reviews would have changed that.

Tough Choices

Just like the 1976 Oklahoma game, the 1982 Penn State game, the 1994 Orange Bowl and this season’s Virginia Tech game, life will go on.  The team will pick up and move forward.  They will learn lessons, make adjustments and try to do better next time.

However, in order to do that, some tough choices will have to be made.  I believe Bo Pelini has a decision to make on the fate of Shawn Watson.  I know that players make plays, but coaches have to assess the talent they have and what they can and cannot do.  It is hard for me to believe that Watson didn’t know he had a problem with the personnel on offense and their inability to run last year’s system before the season started.  Why it took to the midpoint of the season to realize this and make changes is beyond reason.

If this is the offense that Pelini wants – and there were some indications that this ball control style is more preferential to him – then the question needs to be asked: Is Watson the right man for the job? 

Statistically, the 2009 offense is the worst at Nebraska in over four decades.  Frankly, the Huskers won in spite of their offense on far too many occasions and they should have won Saturday night, even with a mediocre offense.  That kind of performance is just not acceptable and usually results in significant changes.  Watson may deserve another year though the leash is short.  But I would also understand making the change now.  Remember, Bo inherited Watson and it is understandable if his patience is short considering that a championship effort by the defense resulted in a loss in the championship game.

A Green Friendly Month

The offense, as it is currently designed, is not an offense for Zac Lee to be running.  The reads in the passing game are not that complex and having Lee running any semblance of an option is an insult to the scheme.  It’s not his game.  His body language on those plays – and whenever he is forced to run – tells us that.  So why make him do it?  It’s the number one issue I have with Watson’s play calling. 

Of the current quarterbacks Cody Green should be running this offense, if that is the offense you are building towards.

With some much-needed time to rest and step back and take a long, hard look at the offensive situation during this month of December, I think one decision can be made immediately.  Cody Green needs to be handed the reigns of this offense.  No more competitions, no more in-practice tryout.  Physically, Green is the better choice to run this offense as it currently stands.  The mental part is harder for those of us outside the program to assess, but that’s why you have the next three weeks to work with him.  This bowl game is just as much a cap to this season as it is a primer to 2010.  The Huskers should be prime contenders to return to the Big 12 title game next season, but it is all going to ride on how the offense finds a way to dramatically improve.  The Holiday Bowl is the first game of 2010 for the Nebraska offense and it is time to start building towards that.

Recruiting

No matter what offense the Huskers build towards, another thing remains clear; The Huskers desperately need playmakers.  The current roster does not provide enough to make any offense work and looking at the current verbal commitments, the Huskers have only six of the 16 listed as offensive players.  Unfortunately, this class is all but complete so there likely isn’t going to be a mass infusion of talent from the 2010 recruits.  There is some hope that freshmen like WR Antonio Bell, OL Brent Qvale, QB Taylor Martinez, and OL Jeremiah Sirles can develop and help.  But the Huskers are going to need a better effort on the recruiting front finding offensive players.

The Final Word

The 2009 Nebraska football season is not going to rank with the program’s best.  But it sure is going to provide some long-lasting memories that will rate with the famed seasons of 1971, 1994, 1995 and many others.  A 300th sellout celebration.  Two unbelievably painful last second losses with unique circumstances.  A comeback from the blue at Missouri.  The eight turnover disaster.  The gritty performance vs. Oklahoma.  And, of course, the Blackshirts.  Led by the indomitable Ndamukong Suh.

The last two seasons Suh found ways to stick out like a pine tree in the desert from a position that rarely gets noticed for its play-making ability.  Saturday night in Arlington was just a cap on a brilliant career.  While Suh’s first couple of seasons showed small glimpses into his greatness, his final two – especially 2009 – was so dominate, so spectacular that I cannot help but say his entire body of Nebraska work makes him the best.

It doesn’t matter if Suh is invited to New York next weekend.  Heisman voters are too star-struck by flashy numbers and stuck in tradition of always handing the award to an offensive player.  But Suh’s Saturday night performance made even those voters take notice.

He won’t win the Heisman, but he’ll win everything else a defensive player can.  He’s already won over the hearts of Husker fans – forever.  And he has won this declaration from me.

Ndamukong Suh, greatest Blackshirt.  Ever.

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2 Responses to Sunday School: The Big 12 Championship

  1. Ken Svoboda says:

    Despite the disappointing loss on Saturday evening, I will forever be grateful that Ndamakong Suh will win many well-deserverd awards and every highlight reel will show Suh throwing McCoy 5 yards like the little wimp he is. Go Huskers and Bama

  2. housewench says:

    I have heard your advertisements for this column all season long, John. Sorry I didn’t check it out sooner. EXCELLENT ARTICLE!

    I have to agree, Suh, at least to this point, is the greatest Blackshirt ever. Any Husker fan knows that’s saying alot. One vision of Suh that will stay with me for the rest of my life was him pushing a Texas lineman out of his way with just his left arm, and at the same time grabbing and pulling down McCoy with his right arm. I have a feeling though, that the Pelini boys will be taking many “good” defense players like Suh was before they arrived, and turning them into something special in the future. He should at least get invited to the Heisman ceremony. If he doesn’t, it’s a shame. They should just name it the “Heisman best offensive player of the year” then.

    I hear people saying that Texas didn’t “deserve” to win the game. You can make that argument. I’ll make the argument that Nebraska didn’t “deserve” to win the game either. Unfortunately for the Blackshirts, it’s a team game. The Husker offense has been stinking it up all year long since the Sunbelt season ended.

    I agree with your views on Watson. I would be surprised if Pelini cuts him loose after this year, but I wouldn’t have a problem with that. Craig Bohl was fired from the other side of the ball for a performance that I believe was better than Watson’s this year.

    Good luck to Texas in the championship game. I will be rooting for them, just because a Texas victory will make the Huskers look a little better in my mind. Unfortunately for the Longhorns though, Nebraska exposed them. Nick Saban and the Crimson Tide will take full advantage of that.

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