by Mark Solomon
I worked in medical research laboratories many years, and have been in financial services for the last several. In both settings, I've often been asked for my “best guess”, be it a timeframe for the completion of an experiment or the approximate income generated from a particular investment strategy. It’s not exactly a shot in the dark, as there is usually at least a brief surveying of the facts at hand, but neither is it a thoroughly-researched conclusion. I’ve always called such semi-educated guesses/sorta-hypotheses “shirttail estimates”, probably because my dad, a draftsman by trade, used the term often.
I guess when you’re flying by the seat of your pants, your shirttail is as good a barometer as any.
For the past week, there has been a lot of talk about shirts; Blackshirts, of course. The reason? They finally showed up in Game 8 of the 2011 season against Michigan State, The defense we’d all expected to be the anchor of the team to start the season showed up in a big way in what appears to have been (hopefully), the pivotal game of the season.
Sure, the Wisconsin game was big. Many thought it was a preview of the inaugural Big Ten Conference Championship Game. It turned out to be an embarrassing defeat on national television, knocking Nebraska out of the top ten, and showing the team as not being at all ready for prime time. NU seemed to find its legs, albeit a little past the halfway mark, the following week at home against Ohio State, staging the largest comeback in the school’s storied history.
After a timely bye week, those legs were off and running with very little opposition at Minnesota, (Oh, Hawkeyes! Really?), before heading home for their tilt with the Spartans. During that stretch, a lot of dominos fell. First, Michigan State won an ugly, rain-soaked game at Ohio State, knocked off their hated in-State rival Michigan for the fourth straight year, and with a ton of help from a suddenly turnover-prone Russell Wilson, two blocked kicks, and a Hail Mary that made it over the goal line by mere inches, managed to upset the then-4th-ranked Wisconsin Badgers at home in a thriller.
What these events added up to was a “must win” game for the Huskers, pure and simple. Lose, and MSU would have to lose three of their last four on the easiest stretch run among the three contenders for the Legends Division title; win, and NU would control its own destiny throughout the hardest 4-game season finale among the contenders. A hard run to be sure, but each win would be another tumbler snapping open to unlock the door to Indianapolis. Run the table, and nothing any other team did will mean a thing.
Nebraska’s running game had been refined since its inexplicable abandonment in Madison, and was chewing up yardage and wearing down opposing defenses with increasing ease as the line gelled and Taylor Martinez found his role redefined. Most pundits and fans believed that the Huskers would be able to pound away at the Spartans’ excellent-but-thin defense, but only if the defense gave the offense enough time. Through the first seven games, that defensive unit had not given a lot of reason to believe they were up to stalling the Michigan State offense, featuring senior quarterback Kirk Cousins and future NFL wide receiver B.J. Cunningham. It was a Spartan offense that had aided in the defeat of the previously-invulnerable Wisconsin Badgers, after all.
The Husker defense was without Jared Crick, their All-American Defensive Tackle, leaving a hole in an already-anemic pass rush.
And yet, there were mitigating factors in assessing the Defense’s chances against MSU. First, Kirk Cousins is a pocket passer, and a rather slow-footed one, at that. Second, the Spartan running game – once a hallmark of the team – had withered away to a token presence through the first seven games. Third, Michigan State’s offensive line is not built for speed, and aren’t particularly quick to the edge. Fourth, they were coming off arguably the school’s biggest win in decades the previous week, and were on Game 4 on a murderous stretch that included Ohio State, Michigan, Wisconsin, and Nebraska in successive games. Fifth, they were facing the Pelini brothers’ defense, fresh off essentially a two-week recharge/reload sabbatical; two weeks where they could devote a good deal of their time and their defense’s time preparing for what laid beyond the woeful Golden Gophers. Sixth, the game was in Lincoln, which despite some folks’ bellyaching, does, in fact, provide a considerable homefield advantage.
Well, the old gray lady was rocking last Saturday, as the Huskers stared down the dreaded “must win” situation – and didn’t blink. The offense did exactly what most everyone had anticipated; it ran the ball on the Spartan’s 2nd-ranked defense, forcing the MSU’s large – frankly, fat, if we’re being honest – interior linemen back and forth in pursuit, as well as their active linebacking corps, running east and west, rather than north and south.
Rex Burkhead was nothing short of magnificent, first chipping away at, then gashing a tiring Spartan front seven for 130 yards on an eye-popping 35 carries, with two rushing touchdowns and a touchdown reception, just for good measure. Taylor Martinez was solid, if not spectacular, shaking off a very slow start in the first half and going 6-for-7 passing in the second half, including several crucial 3rd-down conversions. What struck me most was the confidence with which Martinez appeared to be audibling, and the fantastic job he did in provoking several Spartan offsides penalties with a terrific hard count.
Of course, the big uglies up front did a great job at hammering away at the MSU defense, wearing them down and forcing them into the embarrassing act of faking injuries several times to temporarily escape Nebraska’s up-tempo onslaught as it became very clear which team was better conditioned.
All of this was expected, to one degree or another. What wasn’t predicted, because it wasn’t predictable based on past performances, was NU’s beleaguered defense absolutely shutting down Michigan State’s offense. Kirk Cousins suffered through his worse statistical outing as a Spartan, and wideout B.J. Cunningham’s streak of 41 straight games with a reception snapped as NU’s All-American lockdown corner, Alfonzo Dennard put on a clinic, secure in the knowledge that he had help over the top all day long, as NU was able to play primarily a Cover 2 scheme, allowing the secondary to double-up on Michigan State’s outside receivers.
Andrew Green showed why he’d gotten starts early on in the season, as both his coverage and his tackling were excellent, and he finally looked up to the task of playing Robin to Dennard’s Batman. It was a huge leap in both performance, and, I am certain, confidence for the young man.
There were two primary reasons this coverage worked. The first was that Nebraska’s front four provided pressure that they’d not shown all season, even before Jared Crick’s season-ending injury. The Husker’s employed a “Walkabout” defense in passing situations, with all four defensive linemen – often three or even four defensive ends – in a 2-point standing posture, shifting and feinting before the snap, then bursting upfield, exploiting gaps, and forcing MSU to abandon any pretense of disguising its intentions. They started leaving their linemen in two-point stances whenever they sought to pass.
Secondly, NU’s linebackers played easily their best game as a unit, with Lance Thorell manning the Buck position, often shifting to a defensive back posture. The fluidity of this shift seemed to further confuse Cousins, who looked to be getting more frustrated as the game went on. Thorell picked off a pass right in front of Cunningham on the Spartans’ first possession and returned it to their 25-yard line to set up NU’s first score of the day.
The linebackers also effectively closed down the short middle zone – usually one of the Achilles’ Heels of a Cover 2. Why MSU never tried to go deep- or intermediate-middle is a question I am sure their Offensive Coordinator had to answer last week.
LaVonte David was, his usual All-American, everywhere-at-once self, and Will Compton played easily his best game yet as a Husker, tracking down Michigan State’s uncharacteristically-ineffective running backs in the backfield on several occasions, and displaying surer tackling than he’d ever shown to date.
The NU defense was exceptional.
They were up to Pelni’s very high and thoroughly uncompromising standards.
They were Blackshirts.
It was one game – a fantastic effort on a gorgeous football Saturday in Lincoln. While that isn’t a huge sample, it did provide enough of a glimpse to make a little shirttail estimate, so here it is:
Nebraska’s defense, The Blackshirts, will not be embarrassed again in 2011.
Call it hope, call it a shirt tale, call it a prediction, but I don’t believe you’ll see that unit play tentatively or scared again this season.
A bravura performance like last Saturday’s instills confidence in college players, and confidence goes a long way in college football. They’ve always had the physical talents – speed, quickness, strength, superior fitness – but in beating down the Spartans, they actually saw what they could do against a top-flight team, and they’ll be hungry for it again.
Their first opportunity to feast again comes tomorrow, in the form of Northwestern. I will focus on the Blackshirts, because Nebraska will be able to move the ball practically at will against what may well be the worst defense in the Big Ten. I would look for NU to keep it on the ground, (particularly in light of predicted 30-40mph winds in Lincoln tomorrow), and to get Aaron Green, Braylon Heard, and Ameer Abdullah each some carried in relief of Rex Burkhead, who might well have 100 yards by halftime. I would also look for Martinez to rack up rushing yards against the Wildcats’ porous defense. It could and should get very ugly, very early for the folks in Purple.
No, the question tomorrow is whether the Blackshirts will be able to prove that last week’s performance wasn’t a fluke, and also that they remember how they played defense in the Big Twelve. Northwestern employed a spread-based offense, and NU saw plenty of those in their former Conference. The Pelinis know how to tear them apart, and should have been able to give their defense a quick refresher course over last week’s practices. Simply said, although Northwestern’s offense has proved effective on occasion, The Blackshirts faced much better spread-based attacks in recent years.
A lot has been made of Wildcat quarterback Dan Persa’s running ability, but with a still-healing Achilles tendon on one leg and a turf toe on the other, he isn’t nearly as dangerous as he was the last couple of season. His backup Kain Coulter, who Nebraska recruited once upon a time, is the more imminent running threat from the quarterback position. However, with the predicted winds tomorrow, the Wildcats will need to try to do it on the ground and on short, low-trajectory passing. The Blackshirts may well seek to take everything else away from Northwestern and dare their quarterbacks to try to beat them on the ground.
They won’t be up to the task.
Some have speculated that David or Thorell might be deployed as a “spy” on Northwestern’s quarterbacks, but I doubt that will happen unless the Blackshirts get gashed consistently early on. I look instead for the front four to seek to collapse the pocket outside-in, with the ends keeping their outside arm free to provide containment.
The kicking game is liable to be next to impossible in one direction tomorrow, and I am inclined to take Brett Maher’s leg over his purple-clad counterparts’, both punting and placekicking. I would also look for Burkhead to field most punts, as NU’s coaches opt for his sure hands over the explosive, but lately bobble-prone Abdullah.
But in the final analysis, Northwestern is 3-5 for a reason, and that reason is a terribly ineffective defense. Their offense might get some points on Nebraska, but I think at some point, you’ll see Persa and/or Coulter start to press, as NU’s rushing game scores points and debilitates the Wildcat defense with its fast pace – no other attack Northwestern has faced has tested them to the degree that tomorrow’s up-tempo barrage will present.
This is a game that Nebraska should win, and win going away. The only question should be the final spread. While NU could probably “hang half-a-hundred” and then some on the Wildcats if their starters played deep into the game, but since this game presents the last likely chance the Huskers will have to get their second team meaningful snaps before heading to Happy Valley and Ann Arbor on consecutive Saturdays. I believe it will be a priority to do so once the outcome is decided.
I look for a sound thrashing tomorrow, but probably a notch or two below the bloodletting it could be:Nebraska 45, Northwestern 20
Of course, that’s just another shirttail estimate.
Next week, things will look far more black & white.