Hello again everybody...
First off, sorry for getting this up so late in the day. It was a whale of a trip to Nebraska this weekend and that included a couple of long car trips and a couple of restless nights (I never sleep well in a hotel), so I was pretty zonked by the time we got back to Minneapolis on Sunday.
Instead, then, of cranking this column out on Sunday afternoon/evening like I usually do, I waited til today to write it and the whole process took longer than I planned.
In any case, it was a memorable weekend and I can't wait for you to get to read about it, so let's get on with it already!
Right after the quote...
“Seek simplicity, and distrust it.”
- Alfred North Whitehead (1861 - 1947), English mathematician and philosopher
Everything was set up for a big win by the Huskers over their hated rival Texas, but I knew better than to trust it!
Running Game Commentary XIII: Nebraska vs. Texas
Lon in Forest Lake has been one of my dearest friends for well over 20 years. We met in 4th grade when he and his family moved to Minnesota from Nebraska. One of the first things anyone who gets to know their family learns is their love for Husker Football.
So I've heard for many years about trips to Lincoln and Memorial Stadium and all the pomp and circumstance which surround game-day in Nebraska. But I'd never experienced it.
Then I started writing a blog which extolled the virtues of baseball, college football and hockey. They are, in that order, my favorite sports. Instead of boring the pants off of people by just talking about them when in group settings, I decided to additionally bore the pants off of those folks and others by writing about the things I'd usually only talk about and posting it on the internet for the world to see if they so chose.
Apparently, I struck a chord with some of the people I know. Lon's dad, Larry in Maple Grove, became an avid reader (my term, not his) of the blog. I'm not sure how much he enjoys the baseball portion of it, but I know he's a hockey fan as well as a rabid college football fan.
That brings us to about a year ago, when he told me how much he'd like me to get to see what a game is like in Lincoln. I knew his family back in Nebraska had season tickets and that he got to go a time or two per season, but I never seriously thought I'd get the invitation. Until a few months ago when he told me he had tickets to a game, and would I like to go?
“What date are they for?” I asked.
“October 16th”, he said, “It's the Texas game.”
“Nebraska vs. Texas?!” I replied, “When are you picking me up?!”
That turned out to be this past Friday when Larry, Lon and his brother Joe in Plymouth, picked me up at my apartment and we headed out on the road for Omaha where we made a stop at Larry's sister's (Lori in Omaha) house for dinner, before heading on to Lincoln and our hotel room.
As I alluded to earlier in the column, it was a long drive. Not so much on the way down there, because there was the excitement of the trip, and the newness of not really knowing where I was going. On the way back - when you're just longing to get home - that was a different story.
All in all, the drive went without incident and other a few minor hallucinations at various points in Iowa (apologies to Jeff and Cat in Des Moines, but wow, there's virtually nothing there...), it was rather harmless.
So we safely arrived at the hotel in Lincoln, bunked down, watched the end of Game 1 of the ALCS (freaking Yankees), and prepared for the Husker game the next day.
We got up bright and early - for me anyways - on Saturday and headed down to campus. Larry had his parking spot all planned out and wanted to get there early enough so we were assured a good spot. Plus it gave us ample opportunity to walk around the stadium/campus and soak in the experience.
I can't say that the University of Nebraska campus is markedly different from other campuses I've been on. But I can say that most of the universities I've visited have had outstanding atmospheres and Nebraska's no different.
It's hard to put into words, but there's just a unique energy that college campuses possess and other places don't - especially when there's an important athletic contest to be decided.
We spent a solid four hours traipsing around the area, checking out university bookstore where I picked up a Nebraska coach's hat (I needed something to fit in, and I'm pretty sure Lori in Omaha was set to hunt me down and plant a Nebraska hat on my head if I didn't take care of it myself), getting lunch at an Old Chicago and walking a circuit around the stadium itself.
Memorial Stadium, like many others, has been renovated over the years, yet has managed to retain a classic feel while providing spectators with many modern amenities. One of the coolest parts of our pregame wanderings was touring the “Traditions Lobby” where they've collected all sorts of memorabilia from Nebraska Football's storied history. My favorite was a telegram which contained the name and home towns of literally thousands and thousands of Nebraska fans - and in so doing set a world record for the longest telegram at the time - which was presented as a pre-Bowl Game gift to the University of Miami.
There was also, of course, the “Heisman Room” where the replica trophies of those given to the Huskers three Heisman winners - Johnny Rodgers, Mike Rozier and Eric Crouch - are kept. We didn't stick around to see the accompanying video presentation, but it looked like quite an experience.
Finally it was time to make our way up to our seats. Larry warned me that they were a ways up, and while the climb was slightly taxing, it was well worth the view. We were seated on the North end of the stadium, slightly off to the side of the North endzone. The main video board was behind us to our left, so we could see it, but there were four other smaller boards that allowed us to keep tabs on things well enough.
One of the first things that struck me about being inside Memorial Stadium was the passion of the fans. Most college football fan-bases are passionate, but these folks are almost professional in their passion. I mean these folks in Lincoln were cheering warm-ups! And not just when the team came out on the field to warm up, like I've seen plenty of other places. No, when the kicker made a long practice field goal, there was a cheer. When the offense got done with its round of drills there was a cheer. It's almost as though Nebraska fans can't wait to demonstrate their love of this team and are ready to do so at any given opportunity.
Then, of course, there's the band. The Nebraska marching band is like many college bands I've seen - talented, well orchestrated, unfortunately attired, and instructed to play songs that seemed somewhat out of place. Not their fault, just the way these types of bands are run. What struck me during the pregame festivities was when they “welcomed” the visiting Longhorns by playing the Texas fight song, and 85,000-plus went dead quiet. No boos, no cat-calling, no unfortunate epithets, just complete silence.
Over each entrance to Memorial Stadium is the phrase, “Through These Gates Pass the Greatest Fans in College Football”. I've never heard an opposing school's fight song not get booed on some level. It was surreal and a treat to hear.
And then came the kickoff...
I couldn't have been more excited for the game to begin. Nebraska was ranked number five in the nation, they had a stud freshman quarterback who'd been running rings around defenses in previous weeks, Texas was on a two-game losing streak coming in and looked especially vulnerable and Nebraska was going to get the ball first.
15:00 - The opening kickoff sailed into the endzone for a touchback. First and 10 for the Huskers on their own 20.
A 2-yard rush, intentional grounding penalty and quarterback draw later, and the Huskers are punting. Not the opening drive we were all hoping for, but it's early.
14:18 - Texas returns the Nebraska 31 yards and opens its first drive on the Nebraska 47.
Okay, that wasn't good either.
The important point here though was... holy hell does Memorial Stadium get loud when the Huskers are on defense. I've been in stadiums before where fans try to get loud on one end or the other to disrupt an opponents offense, but each one of the 85,000+ in the stadium seems determined to individually wreak havoc with Texas' offense. Suddenly I'm thinking earplugs might have been a good pregame purchase.
Texas is able to move the ball to the Nebraska 10 before the defense finally stiffens and the drive stalls. Longhorns K Justin Tucker nails the 27-yard field goal and Texas leads 3-0.
The long punt-return doesn't cost Nebraska dearly. Now it's time for the Husker O to get moving!
9:58 - On first and 10 from their own 21, Nebraska gives the ball to RB Roy Helu who promptly fumbles to give the ball back to Texas deep in Husker territory.
Well, that's not good.
This time the Husker defense is unable to stop Texas's offense, and the Longhorns punch it in for a touchdown, making Nebraska pay for the offensive mistake. 10-0 Texas.
8:06 - Okay, now the Husker offense can get going.
What's that? Three and out, again?! Nope. Not good at all.
4:12 - And the Husker D gets a stop. Texas got a first down, but two unsuccessful rushes and an incomplete pass force them to punt. Now the Husker offense should get going!
3:25 - Okay, I don't want to bag on the Husker offensive coordinator too early in the game, but he's now run on first down in every single series and they don't have more than 5 yards total to show for it. I ask Larry if perhaps an early-down pass might be in order, which is immediately followed by a 15-yard run from QB Taylor Martinez. Thanks for not giving me the, “shut up and watch the game” look, Larry. I deserved it there.
End of the 1st Quarter: Texas 10, Nebraska 0.
Okay, not the start we were hoping for, but considering the mistakes that were made, it could've been worse. Plus, Nebraska has a drive going now. Surely their luck will change!
14:20 - What had been a promising drive for the Huskers stalls out on the Texas 28 yard line. Nebraska kicker Alex Henry makes the 45-yard field goal with little trouble and the Huskers finally get on the scoreboard, trailing 10-3.
13:22 - Texas's ensuing drive goes incompletion, short run, incompletion and I finally get to see my first example of “Throwing the Bones”. It's a Nebraska tradition when the defense holds the opposition to a “three and out” series, the players and fans raise their arms, making an X like the crossed bones on the pirate-logoed “Blackshirts” that defenders earn the right to wear in practice. Seeing nearly 85,000 fans do that is pretty cool.
11:16 - Unfortunately, Nebraska's next drive also goes three and out. They don't have a signal for that.
During said drive, we're informed that today's attendance is officially 85,648, which is a heck of an accomplishment given that official capacity for Memorial Stadium is 81,067!
9:40 - Texas QB Garret Gilbert hits WR Foswhitt Whittaker on a 41-yard play that takes the ball down to the Nebraska 10. It wasn't a deep bomb, however. Whittaker got open over the middle and the Husker defender who should've made the tackle tried the ever-popular “throw-my-shoulder-into-him-and-hope-he-falls-down” method. It didn't work. That's now the second time we've seen that method not work, as a matter of fact.
Three plays later, Texas scores to make it 17-3, Longhorns.
8:44 - Nebraska's next drive goes: rush on first down, pass for a first down, rush on first down again, rush on second down, rush on third down for a first, tackle for a loss on first down, incomplete pass on second down, incomplete pass on third down, punt.
I have no doubt the Husker staff has forgotten more about play-calling than I'll ever know, but would it kill them to throw on first down a little? I mean, if I'm spotting the pattern, and Texas is determined to contain Nebraska's rushing game, isn't throwing early the only/best option? I'm just sayin...
4:31 - Nebraska gets the ball back after another three and out from Texas. The crowd's not nearly as raucous about it this time though. Could the team be losing them this early?
2:54 - If they weren't losing them before, going: run for no gain, recover our own fumble, incomplete pass, and punt, sure isn't going to get the fans any more fired up. I even notice an exasperated sigh from Larry. Nope, this isn't going as planned at all!
End of the First Half: Texas 17, Nebraska 3
Okay, that was a lousy first half for the Huskers. Time to make some adjustments (Larry assures me head coach Bo Pelini is capable of making them) and come out fired up for the second half!
15:00 - Texas gets the ball to start the half, and while they manage to pick up a first down, they eventually stall and are forced to punt.
Okay, now let's see what adjustments have been made!
12:21 - I'm forced to shake my head a bit as the ensuing Nebraska drive goes: run, recover-our-own-fumble, run, punt, and get penalized on the punt, giving Texas great field position again.
Really, I'm not trying to get too down on the club. I'm a guest and it's only polite not to criticize, but if this is “adjusting to what Texas is doing defensively”, then the Huskers are in all kinds of trouble.
8:52 - Another penalty and a few inconsequential Texas plays later, the Longhorns hit their second field goal of the game making it 20-3, Texas.
At this point, it's a three-score deficit for the Huskers, and I have no clue where those three scores are going to come from.
8:00 - Nebraka's next drive begins with an incomplete pass.
I'll let that marinate for a moment.
By my notes, at 8:00 left in the 3rd quarter, Nebraska attempts its first pass on first down of the game. Look, I know the Huskers are a run-first offense, but given the fact that Texas has had eight defenders in the box on nearly every conceivable running situation, don't you think they should of tried this before now?
Sadly, “mixing it up” doesn't help and the Huskers are forced to punt again.
6:14 - More bones get thrown as Texas goes three and out and then...
“Good gawd, is that Zac Lee's music?!” (wrestling joke... if you don't get it, trust me, you don't want to.)
A huge cheer goes up from the crowd as senior QB Zac Lee (who was the starter last year) comes in to replace the ineffective Taylor Martinez. That's not an indictment from the crowd on Martinez, mind you. It's just a show of how badly these folks want to beat Texas.
Lee proceeds to engineer a 16-play drive including three 3rd-down conversions resulting in a 28-yard Alex Henry field goal with :30 remaining in the quarter to make it 20-6, Texas.
Still a two-score deficit, but it was nice to see the Huskers finally move the ball a bit!
End of the Third Quarter: Texas 20, Nebraska 6
If Nebraska's going to pull out a win, they'd better do something spectacular to change the momentum, and quickly!
13:00 - Nebraska forces another three-and-out on defense (throw them bones!) and Zac Lee starts another drive for the Huskers.
7:01 - Unfortunately, that drive ends badly, as another Husker receiver drops a pass (one of the themes of this game) on a fourth down play that would've given Nebraska a touchdown and trimmed the lead to a single score.
Texas takes over on downs, and I pen the following note, “Even the rabid Husker fan base heads for the hills when they know it's over.”
Regular readers know how I rail against baseball spectators for leaving a game early. Football is a different animal. The reason I get so rankled at a baseball game is because there's no clock. Until one team gets 27 outs with the lead, anything can happen. But when your football team is down two scores with seven minutes left, and their offense barely has a pulse, well, I can't say as I blame them.
Not that we were going anywhere mind you!
4:00 - And with good reason! After Texas' latest drive stalls at the Nebraska 32, the Longhorns get cute and line up in field goal formation, only to attempt a pooch punt.
I say “attempt” because the kicker's punt didn't go out of bounds and Texas was forced to try and cover it without the aid of their standard punt-team personnel. They paid dearly for that mistake as Eric Hagg fielded the punt and returned it 94-yards for a Husker touchdown! 20-13, Texas.
3:02 - Time for the crucial onside kick...
Which is promptly fielded cleanly by Texas at the Nebraska 42 yard line. Dammit. If the exodus wasn't on before, it sure as hell is now!
1:20 - On a critical third down and one play for Texas, Nebraska jumps offside, giving the Longhorns a first down and allowing them to run out the rest of the clock.
Final: Texas 20, Nebraska 13
Well, that sucks!
I point out to the guys for the upteenth time that I didn't pick this game in my Wednesday column, and am fondly reassured that I'm not being blamed for the loss. Whew!
The game came down to what I termed the “Three P's”: Penalties, Poor Tackling, and Pass Drops.
In total, the Huskers were penalized 20 times for a total of 202 yards. That's a jaw-dropping number. Even more so when you compare it to Texas' 6 penalties for 80 yards. Granted, at least two of Nebraska's 20 flags were on awfully questionable pass interference calls, but still, when you get flagged 20 times, something's amiss that can't be blamed on the officials.
I mentioned it earlier, but there were far too many examples of poor tackling for a team to expect a win. The “throw-my-shoulder-into-him-and-hope-he-falls-down” method that I criticized earlier can work, but only if you get the guy low enough to make sure he goes down. Too many times we saw the Huskers hit a guy high, only to have him bounce off and continue running.
On the day, Nebraska quarterbacks were 9-for-22 throwing the ball. That translates to a 41% completion rate. Even for a run-first team, that's pretty lousy. The 13 incompletions can't all be blamed on the quarterbacks however. I don't have an exact count, but I'm willing to bet that close to half of those were passes that could have - perhaps even should have - been caught by Husker receivers. At least two of the drops would've resulted in Nebraska touchdowns. That's not to say those two plays specifically cost the Huskers the game, but the way it played out would've been dramatically different if even one of them had been caught.
Kudos to the Longhorns. They won, and they certainly deserved it, but I can't help but feel that Nebraska let an opportunity for a huge win and perhaps a top-3 ranking slip through their hands.
Needless to say, the walk back to the car was fairly somber. That is, until we ran into the guys selling the “Horns Down” t-shirts while calling out, “Texas still sucks... get your 'Horns Down' t-shirts!” That got a pretty good chuckle.
Shortly thereafter we waded through a tailgating area where I noticed that somebody had a satellite dish hooked up and was watching the Wisconsin/Ohio State game that had begun a little bit ago. Naturally, I dashed over to check out the score... 13 (soon to be 14) to 0, Wisconsin?! Oh my!
After realizing that every eating/game-watching establishment in the area was packed full, we went and got the car, tuned in the Wisconsin game on satellite radio and headed back to the hotel where Lon, Larry and Joe eased their troubled minds with some pizza and pop, while watching the Badger game with a crazed Wisconsin fan (yours truly) as Bucky beat the number one team in the nation, Ohio State, 31-18.
Not a bad way to cap off a memorable day.
I'm not going to pretend that "20-13 Texas" wasn't something of a buzzkill, but it certainly by no means ruined the trip.
I had a blast experiencing a new college football atmosphere with three of my favorite college football fans. It was an awesome experience and one I won't soon forget.
So to Larry in Maple Grove, Lon in Forest Lake and Joe in Plymouth, I say, thank you! I had a ball and can't possibly thank you enough for the opportunity. Hopefully we'll get to do it again some day!
Maybe, say, on a trip to Camp Randall in Madison, Wisconsin, for a Badger/Husker game?!
That's going to wrap things up for today. Thanks again for your patience, but as you can see, there was a lot to describe and I wanted to get it as right as I could. Hopefully I succeeded.
I'll be back on Wednesday with more college football goodness.
Until then, thanks for reading!