Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Q&A Time: Nebraska

First off, congrats are in order to the new look Kansas Jayhawks for their exhibition win over the Washburn Ichabods last night. Looking forward to many more. Quickly, I didn't think this deserved it's own post, but I had to link to Tim Griffin's latest, where he says, "[the corner changes have] moved up former backup Darrell Stuckey to the starting job at free safety." I know he's covering 12 teams and can't be expected to know everything. But to not know the guy who has been the best defensive player on the team this year and started every game at strong safety a year ago (which is where he's still playing) is just ridiculous. For those curious, Philip Strozier has replaced Thornton at free safety. But to the task at hand, we have this week's Q&A for you, with answers courtesy of Husker Mike and Corn Blight from the sterling blog, Corn Nation.

1. I'm sure you'll love me starting with this, but I figure why not get it out of the way early. What were your thoughts during last year's game? Were you just numb at that point or was it pretty painful to watch?

Husker Mike: Disbelief, numb, surreal. Take your pick. The first half was painful, but the second half was downright bizarre.

Corn Blight: By that time it wasn’t painful anymore because it was a foregone conclusion that Bill Callahan was going to be fired. It was sad more than anything - I felt bad for our players more than anything. On defense, they were being thrown onto the field much like French generals ran their man straight into machine gun fire in World War I. There was little regard for them anymore, coaches were lost and trying anything they could, regardless of what happened.

2. Onto this year, give us your thoughts on Bo Pelini. Obviously it's too soon to know exactly how things will go, but optimism generally seems high. Are you in that camp or are you reserving your judgment?

Husker Mike: I'm in that camp. I don't know how you define “it”, but no matter who you talk to, Pelini seems to have what it takes to be a successful head coach.

Corn Blight: [No answer given. I take it that means he's reserving judgment.]

3. As outmatched as Nebraska has looked against their better competition, there is a good chance a win this week will propel them to 8-4 for the year and a likely destination of something resembling the Alamo or Sun Bowl. I have to imagine that's as good as or better than any rational expectations. Am I right?

Husker Mike: Actually, many fans thought that Nebraska could go 8-4 and 9-3 this season. Myself included. Now, whether that's rational or not is up for argument. But what happened in 2007 was so absurdly awful, that I felt that it wouldn't take much to improve the team.

Corn Blight: I figured we’d be about 7-5 or 8-4. What I want is a bowl game - any bowl game to continue to build the program with extra practice time.

4. On that same note, how long are you willing to wait before expectations are back to Nebraska caliber? Or do you think they ever will be?

Husker Mike: Well, five years ago, Nebraska fired a coach who won 75% of the time. So I'm hoping that fans will be a little more patient. I think that as long as Pelini shows signs of progress and a reason to be optimistic, I'll be patient. But at some time, the inevitable comparisons to the mid 90's are going to be made, which is going to be very unfortunate. 60-3 is something that nobody is going to replicate.

Corn Blight: I think it’ll take at least three or four years to get back to winning the Big 12 North. Nebraska will be back because we have a commitment to a good program and we have a tradition. The powerhouses in college football haven’t changed much over the years - they’re the same schools who commit resources and demand excellence. Nebraska’s tradition of good academic support for athletes hasn’t wavered, and that’s another strong advantage.

5. Quick aside, I read something recently where our new defensive coordinator (Clint Bowen, who played for KU in the 90's) thinks that if Nebraska had stuck with the option attack in this spread age that they would have a tremendous advantage over other teams. His reasoning was that it's something entirely different to prepare for in a week's time and because the recruiting competition would be less as other teams are looking for guys to fit the spread. With the success Paul Johnson is already having at GT, this seems like a legitimate point. Your thoughts?

Husker Mike: CornBlight and I have gone back and forth on this before. We were told the option attack was dead in the 80's. It wasn't. We were told the option attack was dead in the 90's. It definitely wasn't. Then we were told the option attack was dead this decade, and guess what. “It's not dead yet!” If you have the right athletes and right coaches, the option attack can continue to work. It'll require some freshening, such as what Paul Johnson is doing, to be sure. But it never stopped being a viable offense.

Corn Blight: I believe that, but it’s not just the option. I don’t think we have to run the option to be successful, but we do have to have a strong power running game. Today’s defenses are being prepared for fast, athletic offenses, not the kind that pound them into submission. Whether that’s with the option or elements of the West Coast Offense, I don’t care, but your defensive coordinator is correct about doing something different.

6. Sorry for all the broad questions. More specifically, talk about your offense. Everyone knows Ganz, Lucky, Swift, and Peterson. But I remember everyone being shocked to see Helu so high up on the depth chart in the preseason, but after 8 mostly average performances (despite good ypc #s) he erupted last week for 157 yards on 16 carries in Norman. Why did it take so long to get him involved and what exactly does he bring to the offense?

Husker Mike: I've been a big Roy Helu fan all season long. Lucky is a special athlete when he gets into the open, but I think he's playing out of position at I-back. But he's got the offense down, and he continues to get the majority of the playing time. Helu, on the other hand, though he's been impressive in limited playing time, is doing something to cause the coaches to look past him. Last week, Lucky got dinged up, and Quentin Castille was ineffective and once again fumble-prone. So Helu was front and center, and boy did he deliver last week.

Corn Blight: I disagree with Mike here because I believe Marlon Lucky is fine as a running back. Helu is explosive and fun to watch. He sees the field pretty well for a young guy and he doesn’t hesitate as much as Lucky and Castille.

7. I mentioned them briefly, but talk a bit about the core guys. What has been the key to Nebraska's ball control success the last several weeks?

Husker Mike: Really, it comes down to adapting a little bit of a spread look. Earlier in the season, the Husker offense was getting bottled up with too many men in the box. Safeties and linebackers were crowding the line, and we didn't have the gamebreakers to bust out of that mode. So Shawn Watson spread the field with three receivers, and force the defense out of that box.

Corn Blight: What Mike said. Nate Swift and Todd Peterson are two receivers who work very well together, and catch the ball when it’s thrown to them. Add to that the development of tight end Mike McNeill, and we’ve been able to mix up elements of the spread and West Coast Offense to have good short passing game. Add more with middle screens and just enough running combined with play action and the offense has been pretty decent.

8. I have to ask about the defense. I know this isn't a popular opinion (and the numbers don't support it), but is this year's defense any better than last year's? Much more importantly, what do they do well and where are they vulnerable?

Husker Mike: It's definitely better. Nebraska is now mediocre on defense, which is a huge improvement from non-existent. Last season's defense ranked in the bottom ten in several categories; this year, Nebraska is in the 60s to 80's. The biggest improvement is up front; the defensive line is getting a little bit of a push and sometimes actually gets some pressure against quarterbacks not named Daniel or Bradford. They are vulnerable in the secondary as the defense still makes way too many mental mistakes.

Corn Blight: Mike covered that pretty well. Ndamukong Suh is our best player in the middle of the defensive line. The d-line is the strength of the defense... because our back seven is sporadic at best.

9. For those of us coming to Lincoln, where do you recommend we spend the few hours prior to kickoff? What about post-game? We're thinking downtown, but where specifically (Misty's. Barry's, Haymarket)?

Husker Mike: Misty's is a great place to go Friday or Saturday night, but since it's in Havelock instead of downtown, it's not a great place to go pre-game or immediately post-game. Check out our travel guide. Barry's is a good place, but you might also want to see if you can get into the Sidetrack.

Corn Blight: We have a page for visiting fans available at Corn Nation - Corn Nation's Travel Guide to Lincoln.

10. Finish this sentence. Nebraska will win if…

Husker Mike: ...the offense returns to the ball-control, productive pattern they showed against Texas Tech, Iowa State, and Baylor. Keep the defense off the field, and put points on the board. That minimizes the number of times the defense has to stop Kansas.

Corn Blight: we eliminate penalties and turnovers.

11. And finally, the score will be?

Husker Mike: I'm hoping we can get a 50% reduction in Jayhawk points. So I'll go with NU 38, KU 31.

Corn Blight: Mike is close. I’ll go Nebraska 35, Kansas 31.

Thanks to Husker Mike and Corn Blight for their time and answers. here's to hoping they are both wrong when it comes to the outcome. Rock Chalk!

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