Published Sunday, November 24, 2013 at 10:38 pm / Updated at 12:12 am
McKewon: Is it grittiness or sloppiness? In Huskers' case, answer is yes

INTERSTATE 99 NORTH OF ALTOONA, Pa. — And for about 30 seconds, I can't see anything in front of me except a couple of red taillights glowing in a flash blizzard.

We're driving away from that Siberian isolation chamber known as Penn State, toward Pittsburgh, in the mountains, five guys in a red minivan, none of us sure of the lines on the road. Storms often rise up and break apart like this in the Allegheny Mountains, so 15 minutes later, we're in the clear. The moon hides behind small, golden clouds. Altoona rises up on both sides, silent, quiet.

It's time to find out whether Nebraska's coaching staff is in a short squall that's bound to clear, or if the storm is enduring, if the white noise swallows them whole in the coming weeks.

Getting out of Penn State, cold, miserable, can-we-never-come-back-here Penn State — with a 23-20 overtime win that took every turn of the coaching wheel. Players are liable to remember it as a real adventure, the latest in the last two years. Fans? Depending on your vantage point, you either saw Saturday as another triumph over bad officiating, adversity and ill-informed critics of Bo Pelini, or you saw it as NU unnecessarily sweating out a Penn State team gutted by NCAA sanctions.

I saw a Husker team turn down a makeable fourth-and-goal to tie the game at 20, then try, minutes later, to go 70 yards, into the wind, for a game-winning field goal. Quarterback Ron Kellogg threw a pass that fell just off the fingers of a Penn State linebacker. How many times has that play gone Nebraska's way in recent years?

But I also saw a kick return for a touchdown just when the Huskers needed it, from a unit that had struggled in recent weeks. That perfect execution speaks to perseverance.

Nebraska fumbled away a touchdown and gave Penn State its own score with a touchdown. But it also forced just enough drops from Nittany Lion receivers to end drives. It couldn't slow Penn State's vanilla power running game very well — until it had to stop it in overtime, and did.

Point, counterpoint. Point, counterpoint. The Husker coaches insist: They're doing the best they can with what they've got. I asked offensive coordinator Tim Beck what his critics would think if they were in his shoes. His answer was blunt and emotional.

“It doesn't matter,” Beck said. “It doesn't matter. It doesn't matter. They can say what they want, do what they want, write what they want. I'm proud of our guys. I go to work every day. I work as hard as I can to put together the best game plan I can. That's all I can do.”

All he can do in four days, until Iowa, which seems to carry unusual weight as Athletic Director Shawn Eichorst's silence continues.

And you thought Huskers-Hawkeyes wasn't a meaningful rivalry.

On with the Rewind.

I see you

» Running back Ameer Abdullah: I like how Beck and running backs coach Ron Brown are using Abdullah. Instead of loading him up on drive after drive in the first half, they make sure Abdullah has a fourth-quarter burst. Abdullah's long fourth-quarter run — in which he had to break through a tackle and accelerate on a gimpy ankle — was a byproduct of being fresh enough to run it.

» Quarterback Ron Kellogg: Hearty debate in our minivan about whether Kellogg should have been playing over Tommy Armstrong for several weeks. I'm more inclined to say yes. Poor first-half possessions against Northwestern and Michigan were small sample sizes, and Beck simply needs an efficient throw game to use his best offensive players. Armstrong, at least right now, doesn't deliver that. The option didn't look much different with Kellogg on Saturday than it did with Armstrong, whose ankle injury makes it hard to run that play at his best.

» Defensive end Randy Gregory: Didn't have a sack or a hurry, but eight tackles aren't bad, and he stayed home on Penn State's third-down rollout pass in overtime.

» Cornerback Stanley Jean-Baptiste: Won his share of battles against Penn State receiver Allen Robinson, who could enter the 2014 NFL Draft and be a top-round pick. I still think some NFL team takes a chance on Jean-Baptiste and his impressive length.

» Wide receiver Kenny Bell: The junior's big on loyalty. Talks about it a lot. The best loyalty he could show Saturday was to trust the middle return on his 99-yard kickoff return for a touchdown. Bell did, found the seam, and his athleticism did the rest.

» Linebackers Michael Rose and David Santos: Overpursued too much against PSU's stretch plays, but they fought back against the flow in the second half, slowing Nittany Lion running back Zach Zwinak.

» Penn State linebacker Glenn Carson: Ten tackles. Strong game. Ditto for Nittany Lion defensive lineman DaQuan Jones, who had seven tackles. Several Husker running plays were blown up before they started.

Three concerns

» Offensive line injuries: Notice I didn't write “depth.” The Huskers actually have good depth when redshirt sophomores are the emergency players. I don't want overstate Nebraska's troubles. Yes, the Huskers have lost some starters and had to bring an extra walk-on lineman to work on the field goal team. But there are 100 players on the roster for a reason, and just because the situation isn't ideal doesn't mean it's the equivalent of Napoleon's army in Russian winter. But you hope the injured Huskers' zeal to play through serious pain doesn't translate into missing bowl games and, for those players returning, spring practice. Ryne Reeves, Givens Price and Zach Sterup have been in NU's program for nearly three years. If they have to play, they have to play.

» The bubble screen: Great play for September and a bowl game, when warm, moist air makes every part of the play design just a little easier to execute. When it's cold, windy and dark, throwing the ball to a stationary receiver while defenders in rock-sharp pads run full speed at him is a recipe for screw-ups and short gains. Penn State's tunnel screen was similarly awful. It's Big Ten in November. Put the play away.

» The potential for Big Ten night games in November: For TV purposes, in early November, maybe it's worth it. But as I walked from Penn State's ancient, rickety, freezing press box to an empty field to fetch our rental car, I took note of the wind piercing my eardrums and thought: Who wants to play in this if you don't have to play in this? Iowa State tried playing Kansas Saturday night with 8-degree temps. The stadium was half-empty and the game was a blowout.

Five stats

» 15: Lost fumbles for the Huskers. That's tied with Tulsa for 123rd in the nation. Second to last. Both of Nebraska's lost fumbles Saturday can be chalked up to trying too hard and not knowing the situation well enough. Abdullah had a first down on his direct-snap run near Penn State's goal line, but stretched for the touchdown and lost the ball. Kellogg held onto the ball too long on a third down play near his own end zone, and paid for it. Kellogg has good awareness otherwise; he felt pressure well most of the day. So he had to know the pass rush was bearing in.

» 10-1: Nebraska's record in Big Ten games decided by 10 points or fewer. The lone loss was a 28-25 setback to Northwestern in 2011. NU's played 24 Big Ten games if you count the 2012 title game, so 45 percent of its games have been decided by 10 points or fewer. Pelini spent his first three years at NU in the Big 12; NU finished 7-6 in games decided by 10 points or fewer. You have to ask yourself: Is the Big Ten worse? Or has Nebraska improved in winning close games? The Big 12 teams had a combined record of 101-65. The Big Ten teams' combined record is 75-61.

» 38: FBS teams that have returned a kickoff for a touchdown. Nebraska's now one of them. NU ranks 22nd nationally in kickoff return average with 23.79 yards per return.

» 29.41 percent: Opponents' third-down conversion rate against the Huskers. Penn State finished 2 of 14 in part because the Nittany Lions didn't make the tough catches Michigan State's receivers did one week before.

» 374.7: Yards Nebraska's defense is giving up per game this season. In Big Ten play, that number is 323.8 yards per game.

Join the conversation on the Big Red Today Facebook page.

Facebook feedback

On my World-Herald Facebook page, I ask fans to submit comments after each game and post select responses here.

“Very proud of the coaches, players and, above all, playing through adversity. We showed real heart and grit. We won that game three times. I would like someone to show me or tell me who the penalty was on in overtime on the first field goal try. We had defensive linemen blocking for that field goal, that's how many injuries we have.” — Jeff Hamburger

“The future is bright for this program. When 41 out of the 70 who traveled today are freshmen and sophomores and there are freshmen redshirting with huge upsides, when the players fully support their head coach, when these players proudly and honorably represent the university, the program is on solid ground. Bo has improved every year. The weaknesses he showed in previous years are being corrected. I think he continues to improve.” — Jeff Kirshenbaum

“Who put the program in the position of 'youth' that it is in now? When did 'gritting out' a win against an average team, with scholarship limitations nonetheless, become an achievement? I'm glad these players continue to play hard and glad they got the win, but it's all smoke and mirrors. What exactly has this staff achieved that would lead the fan base to Bolieve that there are improvements coming?” — Chad Asher

“Not a take on the game per se, but I'm beginning to turn around on this coaching staff. I really started hating their performance at last year's B1G Championship and absolutely loathed Pelini, and wanted him fired after the recording was released earlier this year. But what I've seen since is leading me to think maybe one more year wouldn't be such a bad thing.” — Tim Boukal

Opponent watch

Aside from Michigan State, Iowa is the most sound, physical team Nebraska's played in the Big Ten. The Hawkeyes were besotted with injuries last year and still took NU to the wire in the blistering cold. Look for a healthier Iowa team to do that — and perhaps more — Friday. Iowa runs the same stretch play Penn State does. Its front seven on defense is experienced and well-coached. Quarterback Jake Rudock is smart but error-prone, like Iowa quarterbacks have been for years. Iowa's inability to recruit a top-level quarterback is what continues to hold back the program.

Iowa's lost four games to teams with a combined record of 41-3. It was competitive in all but one of those games, a 28-9 loss to Wisconsin. Nebraska will get all it wants here.


Windy on radio airwaves, Internet message boards and in my email inbox.

* * *

Video: NU kicker Pat Smith after the Penn State game:

Video: NU coach Bo Pelini after the Penn State game:

Video: NU quarterback Ron Kellogg after the Penn State game:

Video: Postgame analysis with Sam McKewon:

Contact the writer: Sam McKewon    |   402-219-3790    |  

Sam McKewon covers Nebraska football for The World-Herald. Got a tip, question or rant? Good. Email him. Follow him on Twitter. Call him.



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