The Winter of Our Discontent
by Mark Solomon
“Now is the winter of our discontent
Made glorious summer by this son of York;
And all the clouds that low'r'd upon our house
In the deep bosom of the ocean buried.”
-Richard the Third, Act 1, Scene 1
So opens one of Shakespeare’s two most prominent “Histories”, Richard the Third. (I quoted the “Band of Brothers” soliloquy from Henry the Fifth
in a past editorial). I quote this passage now because it’s one of the more famous and most often quoted Shakespearean passages, and because it is one of the most often misunderstood. The common misinterpretation seems sadly applicable to the current climate among a relatively small, but extremely vocal segment of the Husker fanbase.
This quotation is often taken as a dour observation of an impending doom, with “winter” taken as bleak, dark, cold, and somewhat hopeless, thus causing “discontent”.
So it has seemed since somewhere around mid-fourth quarter of Nebraska’s game against Northwestern on November fifth, the beginning of a cold front that really set in on a chilly afternoon in Ann Arbor, Michigan, two weeks later. It was a wintery chill that certainly fed into some fans’ discontent, and that discontent was enunciated passionately then, and incessantly since. It has been a relentless drumbeat, enveloping troubling matters at hand, spreading to perceived problems on the horizon, and finally spewing forth on practically every aspect of Nebraska football program; its Head Coach, coaching staff, the talent level of its players, the quality of its recruiting, the Head Coach’s and players’ demeanor toward the press, the handling of players’ misconduct, the worthiness of its coaching hires…even its eschewing of following current fashion trends in uniforms.
Some have attempted to draw comparisons with the Dark Ages of modern-day Husker football: The Bill Callahan years, trying to justify the unrelenting negativity they were espousing on the current Pelini regime as comparable to those Husker fans who were critical of the Callahan staff and the program’s direction during those largely directionless, futile years.
There is no honest comparison to be made. I won’t insult your intelligence by doing the simple math to illustrate the far greater levels of success the Huskers have experienced under Bo Pelini, but it is worth noting that the systematic dismantling of long-held traditions at NU during the Pederson/Callahan error, including the alienation of former players and the entire State’s high school coaching fraternity, along with the disillusionment of the fanbase who’d bought into the premise of a professional coach as having a leg up in terms of evaluating talent, developing that talent, and deploying that talent in advanced and proven schemes on both sides of the ball, all contributed to the Husker program being at its lowest ebb in 45 years.
Rebuilding a program on the brink of descending into mediocrity permanently – that was the task undertaken by Bo Pelini when he returned to Lincoln just over four years ago. All he’s done so far is to lead NU to season records of 9-4, 10-4, 10-4, and 9-3, with one game remaining in 2011.
It hasn’t been perfect of course, there were defeats along the way that should serve to remind us all of exactly how deep the hole was when they finally took the shovels out of Steve Pederson’s and Bill Callahan’s hands. Yes, each season has included at least one close loss where Nebraska should have by all rights won: Texas Tech in 2008, Iowa State in 2009, Texas A&M in 2010, and Northwestern this year. And three of the last four seasons has included at least one blowout loss: Missouri and Oklahoma in 2008, Texas Tech in 2009, (none in 2010), and finally Wisconsin and Michigan in 2011.
But the manner in which those blowouts occurred has changed. In 2008 and 2009, the blowouts started in the opening quarter and exploded from there. In 2011, against both the Badgers and Wolverines, NU was in the game, within a touchdown at halftime, only to see its own mistakes snowball, as they began to press, players, and at times, coaching staff.
Does it make the final score any better? Of course not. Losing by 25 or 31 points is never palatable, and never acceptable to any team or fanbase with an ounce of pride.
However, underneath it all, and the silver lining that a coach can use as motivation for himself and for his team is the knowledge that where the Huskers were all but helpless in their blowout losses during Bo Pelini’s first two seasons, getting snowed under, with the games decided before the end of the first half, in 2010, all Conference losses were close – 7, 3, and 3 points, and from the Holiday Bowl sleepwalk against Washington through all of 2011, it took NU shooting itself in the foot both to produce the close losses and for things spinning out of control in Madison and Ann Arbor.
The natives quickly grew restless, and after pausing for a moment at the sheer horror of the revelations that preceded the Penn State game, were poised to pounce if anything went awry at Michigan, and were as dogged and ravenous as a starving wolf when everything went wrong. Instead of dissipating over time, or pausing even momentarily as the Huskers dispatched Iowa in the season finale, that hunger, that need to find fault has only continued to grow in many, well beyond all reason for some, and these latter are the loudest and most relentless chorus.
The sheer volume of it, and the vacuity of the viewpoints being presented as Gospel were such that I found better things to do with my time for a few weeks, and did not submit an editorial after post-Penn State, pre-Michigan week. But then I decided it was foolish to let a few of the more incorrigible inmates rule the asylum unchecked any longer.
Of course, there is basis for criticism, even pessimism, to some degree, and many of this winter’s discontented Husker fans have been reasonable in their critiques. They flesh out their ideas and back them up by facts to support their viewpoint. They debate those viewpoints passionately, but don’t take it as an indictment of their intelligence, morality, or self-worth when another disagrees with their interpretation of the facts and offers an alternative viewpoint. This is where rational discussion and debate begins – and ends.
Sadly, that hasn’t been the case among a segment of Husker fans, and even more sadly, we’ve seen it play out on BHF, as the rot of unrelenting and incessant negativity threatened to drag this site down as it has so many others. It was only a few, perhaps 6 or 8 instigating, with another similar number joining in, though not as stridently, and not lighting the torch, just carrying it from time to time.
Still, it was enough to draw the attention of this site’s Administrators, and for actions to be taken. If you haven’t noticed those actions yet, you weren’t supposed to, as we have tried to be subtle and to to do only what was minimally necessary to keep BigHuskerFan.com from following other Husker sites into oblivion at the hands of a few malcontents. Suffice to say that it isn’t going to happen here. Period.
This is nothing new in human discourse, in sports fandom, or indeed, in Husker history.“Our people were not happy. I knew at some point we were going to win. It's a little unfair, but that's the reality. To some degree, it became a one-game season for some folks.”
That was Tom Osborne, after his team finally strung together a series of victories over the Oklahoma Sooners, and it’s just as true today, though expanded in scope and prominence by the 24/7 influences of cable sports and the omnipresence of internet-driven and –amplified news and opinion exchanges. Osborne never had to deal with those as a Coach, and he is no doubt grateful for that small mercy, even as he attempts to help his 4th-year Head Coach navigate these shark-infested waters.
Nebraska is now on television every week in autumn, with every game available to be picked apart like a post-Thanksgiving turkey, down to the last all-but-inedible morsel of gristle. Now, every week could be the one game on which the entire season hinges. Every week without a National Title seems to spur too many toward despair of it ever happening again. How quickly we forget that it took Bob Devaney nine seasons to get there, and then Osborne another 22 to guide NU back to the promised land. We also forget that Frank Solich got fired after winning around 75% of his games and revamping his entire staff, then Bill Callahan took the reins and took NU rocketing downward, well past the “mediocrity” that his AD Steve Pederson had promised to prevent gravitation toward. Such are the pre-Pelini memory holes that exist and color our present far more vividly than they should.
More contemporary, we forget that Pelini was unfortunately saddled with an Offensive Coordinator who specialized in an offensive system he by his own statements did not favor and a Wide Receivers Coach/Recruiting Coordinator who he did not know from Adam for his first three seasons, or that this fourth season included a new Offensive Coordinator, a new offensive system, four new Assistant Coaches, and – oh, yeah, an entirely new Conference.
Funny how such things are forgotten. Even more odd is that those who are often the most strident in their criticism of Pelini and NU in 2011 have also conveniently forgotten that they predicted 9-3 or worse before the season started. Oh, well, never let such details get in the way of a good rant, right?
The bottom line is easily summed up in a couple of questions:
1) Is Nebraska as good as it could
be in Pelini’s fourth season as Head Coach?
2) Is Nebraska as good as it should
be in Pelini’s fourth season as Head Coach?
If your answer to the first question is “yes”, then you probably need to pay more attention. I am as ardent a Pelini-backer as any, and even I can’t honestly answer that question in the affirmative. However, I can take a step back and identify several reasons – not “excuses” as self-proclaimed “realists” like to label any counter-argument that involves any circumstance as laying outside of the coaches’ control – as to why, at least in part, this simply is not so.
If your answer to the second question is “yes” or
“no” without qualification, then you are substituting your own subjective opinion for objective proof. Those that would subscribe to the affirmative might be labeled “Sunshine Pumpers” or “Kool-Aid Drinkers”, but they don’t tend to drag the discourse down, however rose-colored their vision remains. Unrelenting positivity is seldom offensive.
Those that subscribe to the negative are quite another matter. Many tend to unilaterally declare themselves “realists” or their stated opinions as “objective”, when the fact of the matter is they have an axe to grind – yes, an agenda
underlying their actions. Sorry that some folks can’t stand that word agenda
, but it is an accurate description of the core motivation of anyone trying to persuade others to their opinion, regardless of the direction of that persuasion.
However, the “axe-grinding” is the negative connotation for this group; the refusal to fully debate one area of criticism before moving on or expanding their focus to the next. This does drag the discourse down, and this is offensive to many, if not most, after it persists for weeks or months.
This is a winter that provokes discontent.
But that isn’t what Shakespeare’s Richard III was saying. By the “winter” of their “discontent, he meant the end of that cold, bleak season. “Made glorious summer by this son of York” The chill gray of winter exchanged for the green and warmth of summer, the clouds sunken into the sea to let the sun shine through clearly.
It’s a declaration of hope.
Hope that the hardship of winter has given way to the comfort and plenty of summer. And this is my hope for BigHuskerFan.com and for Husker fans everywhere.
2011 was disappointing to all; it’s only a matter of degrees that separate us – degrees of disappointment and degrees of optimism for the program’s future going forward. This is where we must agree, or at least to agree to disagree. If that most basic and minimal a common ground cannot be reached solely because of a refusal to entertain the possibility that the truth resides somewhere on that widened field, then yes, Virginia, you ARE
a “bad fan”.
It’s winter in Nebraska, though the temperature is more akin to early spring or autumn. In Florida, it’s closer to summer-like weather. It is my earnest hope that the “son of York” resides in Orlando tomorrow.
Nebraska ended its season with a victory, and entered winter with a healing and recovering team, a team that is keenly interested in being in Orlando this week, focused on the task at hand, and facing a team that it has no reason whatsoever to take lightly, in fact, they are underdogs, however slightly, and look at this game as a springboard for 2012, when they’ll return 16 of 22 starters and All-Big Ten selections at Kicker/Punter and Kickoff Returner.
That is the sort of team for which a little springboard can go a very long way, indeed.
In assessing tomorrow’s game, let’s start with Special Teams, where those two I mentioned above, Brett Maher and Ameer Abdullah, and their respective supporting casts, will be absolutely pivotal in deciding the outcome of the Capital One Bowl. Happily, this is also an area where Nebraska has a tangible edge over the Gamecocks. I believe Maher’s kicking is going to be good for 6-9 points on field goals, his kickoffs will save NU over 70 yards of field position, and his punting will buy another 100 yards of real estate that South Carolina will have to fight for, rather than inherit through the return game.
Abdullah will provide several more acres of Florida Bermuda grass, as he’s due to pop one for long distance, be it to the house or at least into the neighborhood.
Maher sticking South Carolina with a longer field, and Abdullah providing the Huskers with a shorter one, will be worth at least 13 points.
Nebraska’ offense is presumed to be the weak link against the Gamecocks, (no, I am not going to shorten the nickname), but that might well be an assumption with somewhat thin backing. NU rushes the ball like no one USC has played in 2012, with a combination of power, speed, option and multiple formations that they have not seen.
The Carolina defense is
good, but it was also buoyed by the absence of Alabama and LSU on its schedule. Navy ran the ball all over them, (274 yards, 5.8/carry), as did The Citadel – yes, The Citadel, (241 yards, 4.5/carry). Auburn ran for 246 yards, and won at Columbia.
Nebraska is as good or better on the ground than any of these teams, (though I have a soft spot for Navy’s Triple Option), especially with Rex Burkhead healthy and well-rested, and his Offensive line five weeks better-healed. Tweaks, bumps, and bruises are gone. Sprains, strains and pulls flare much less painfully than they did the day after Thanksgiving. This is no small thing.
Nebraska took minimal time off, and despite resting their walking wounded, were hip-deep in organized practices within days of their final game. South Carolina didn’t even start practicing until NU was well into its second week of late-autumn camp. Amazingly, USC’s Head Coach, Steve Spurrier, employed this same approach before the 1996 Fiesta Bowl, then swore he’d never make that mistake again after his Florida Gators were embarrassed as no other #2 has ever been by the #1 Nebraska Cornhuskers.
While no one is likely to mistake the 2011 Huskers for the 1995 squad, the 2011 Gamecocks of South Carolina are at least as far removed from that UF squad.
Nebraska will have more success on offense than most have predicted, for all the reasons listed above, and because they will want
it just a little more than USC. It won’t be easy, and it likely won’t happen right away – though I wouldn’t be surprised if NU’s Offensive Coordinator Tim Beck has a couple of aces up his sleeve for some early quick strikes – but the Huskers will where down the Carolina front four by early in the 4th quarter. If NU’s play-action passing and a couple of deep routes are on the table, it could happen sooner. Ben Cotton’s return could be huge to both the running and passing games, and Kyler Reed’s hamstring having had over a month to heal could open a couple of matchups and routes USC hasn’t seen.
I would be amazed if we didn’t see a lot of the “30” formation – or “Diamond” as most call it, or to see one or more of the frosh I-backs tote it a half-dozen times.
Lastly, I think Taylor Martinez will bust off one long-distance run tomorrow. No reason, just a feeling.
On defense, the Blackshirts are again due to have a stout day – such has been their pattern. USC’s quarterback Shaw is
technically a “dual threat”, but he is nowhere near Denard Robinson, Braylon Heard, or Cain Kolter in terms of his running ability, and that is what he would need to be in order to do similar damage to NU’s defense tomorrow.
Nebraska’s front four was a patchwork by season’s end, with some of those patches starting to wear very thin themselves. Five weeks will have done a lot to bring Chase Rome, Cameron Meredith, and Terrance Moore very close to 100%, which will be a huge factor in stuffing the Gamecocks’ running game and containing Shaw.
Nebraska’s beleaguered cornerbacks not named “Dennard” are no longer green, and should be healthy and eager to compete tomorrow. USC boasts one truly outstanding wideout. His name is Alshon Jeffery, he’s 6’4”, 230lbs, and he’ll be the property of Alfonzo Dennard tomorrow. I do not look for him to get open deep, and I do not look for him to get anywhere near the 100+ receiving yards he’d need to tilt the game in Carolina’s favor appreciably.
At linebacker Lavonte David is playing his last game as a Blackshirt, in his home state, in front of 50 or so family members and close friends. If he has less than 15 tackles tomorrow, it means NU blew USC out of the water, because the Gamecocks’ offense simply isn’t good enough to structure an entire gameplan that runs away from David – they don’t make football fields big enough to do that effectively, anyway. It will be a huge day for David, I have no doubt.
Will Compton has finally become the steady, strong presence in the middle we all thought he might be right out of the chute when he arrived in Lincoln. That trend will continue tomorrow, and he’ll be nipping at David’s heals to lead the team in tackles.
The other spot is something of a mystery, and an intriguing one, at that. Alonzo Whaley is reported to have finally surpassed and underwhelming Sean Fisher at the BUCK linebacker position, which would in and of itself be newsworthy, but several have reported that Corey Cooper has also found a home at the BUCK position, which would open up some very interesting possibilities for tomorrow’s game. While Cooper was not great in coverage at Safety, and even worse at Cornerback, he’s better than any linebacker on the team who isn’t Lavonte David.
A lot of folks have called for the Blackshirts to blitz more. Well, if you have Cooper and David at the outside linebacker positions, it would allow the Safeties to stay back in coverage to shore up man coverage at the corners, while either David or Cooper brings the heat while the other covers the short zone. If they run such a game from behind Meredith’s bull rush, I like the chances of flustering Carolina’s young signal caller, and of getting to him, both literally on the blitz, and more importantly in his head.
Nebraska’s Safety play has been perhaps the biggest disappointment on the defensive side, other than the injuries that decimated the interior linemen. Austin Cassidy was better overall in 2009, and Daimion Stafford has been inconsistent far too often. In the weeks since the Iowa game, I know that this has been a particular point of emphasis, both schematically, and fundamentally. Tomorrow may be a very big game for both of these young men, as Cassidy leaves a final mark on a program he’s loved and Stafford stakes an early claim to a dominant Senior campaign in 2012.
I don’t think that either offense is significantly stronger than the defense they’ll be facing, but I do think that the Husker’s offensive identity is a poorer matchup for USC’s defense than the Gamecocks’ offense without it’s starting tailback and with a freshman quarterback who can be rattled presents for the Blackshirts.
It is going to be a close game in all likelihood. However, I believe that with Abdullah setting the table for NU’s offense, with Maher extending their scoring range out to about the 33 yard line or so, with Burkhead healthy, the line and tight ends healthier, and the young I-backs 5 weeks better prepared, Nebraska will find the endzone enough to match USC’s scoring, and get close enough a few other times for Maher to be the difference.
On defense, Pelini will have schemed well enough to present South Carolina with some things to which “The Ol’ Ball Coach” won’t be able to adjust immediately, giving Abdullah a chance or two to flip the field early. Maher will make sure that USC doesn’t start a lot of drives outside their own 20.
Nebraska plays South Carolina just better than even into the fourth quarter, then pulls away with two scores in the final fifteen minutes to the Gamecocks’ one.Nebraska 27 – South Carolina 21
It should make for a glorious summer, and finally burn away the cold of this winter’s discontent.