Nebraska Cornhuskers: Tim Beck
LINCOLN, Neb. -- It got ugly on Friday. Uglier, perhaps, than those who have studied Nebraska football in Bo Pelini’s six seasons here imagined it might when everything reached a boiling point.
That moment is here. It’s D-Day at Memorial Stadium. Shawn Eichorst, you’re up; the floor belongs to Nebraska’s first-year athletic director. Time to throw your support behind the embattled coach, patch the wounds and commit to the future, or start over with a new staff.
Often on Friday during and after the Huskers’ 38-17 loss to Iowa in the regular-season finale, it felt like the end was near -- that it could arrive this weekend.
If this was it, the 45-year-old Pelini went out just as you’d expect, throwing punches, defiant and backed fully by his men.
Pelini took swipes at the officials and the media, his adversaries from the start. And the coach didn’t exactly endear himself to Eichorst and the Nebraska administration, either.
“They want to fire me, go ahead,” Pelini said. “I believe in what I’ve done. I don’t apologize for what I’ve done. I don’t apologize to you. I don’t apologize to anybody."
The media, he said, made a story of his job status.
“It’s impacted our football team,” he said, “and it’s hurt our football team. Let’s call a spade a spade.”
“My record, our record since I’ve been here, speaks for itself,” Pelini said. “And this program’s heading in a good direction. You choose not to think so, that’s your prerogative. All I know is myself, this staff, the people who’ve been associated with this program since I’ve been here can look themselves in the mirror and feel good about what we’ve done.”
He talked and acted like a coach who worried it was over.
From a flea-flicker pass to open the game to the ill-fated, third-quarter fake punt at Nebraska’s 32-yard line, a sense of doom hung in the air Friday.
Pelini drew an unsportsmanlike-conduct penalty for arguing against a pass-interference flag thrown on linebacker Zaire Anderson against C.J. Fiedorowicz in the third quarter. The coach swung his hat in the direction of an official’s face before the second flag was thrown.
“I thought that was a chickens--- call,” he said. “Excuse my language on that, but I’ve never seen anything like that before.
“I’ve done a lot worse than that. I saw Kirk Ferentz over on the sideline acting a lot worse than I acted. I didn’t see a flag come out on him. The bottom line is, they knew they blew the call. They blew it. They blew that call over there, and everybody in the stadium knew it. They didn’t man up enough to pick that flag up.”
Pelini at his ugliest is a sight to behold.
When it ended, he exchanged a moment with Ferentz, the longtime Iowa coach. Pelini then found his daughter Caralyn. They walked quickly toward the field’s northwest exit, where fans assemble to offer support as the Huskers depart.
As Pelini reached the edge of the turf, a few fans took pictures. One yelled encouragement. Most were quiet as the sizable contingent of Iowa fans on the opposite end erupted in cheer.
Asked later about the fan support, Pelini came up with two words: “It’s great.”
Meanwhile, his players went to bat for Pelini. Several described him as a “father figure."
“He changed my life,” receiver Kenny Bell said. “I would play for Bo Pelini against Satan himself and a team of demons at the gates of the underworld. I love Coach Pelini.”
Offensive tackle Jeremiah Sirles lobbied, too.
“I sure hope he returns,” said Sirles, one of 23 seniors honored before his final home game on Friday, “because this program can only go up. I hope he returns [so] in 10 years, I can bring my wife or my girlfriend, and I can say, ‘This is Coach Bo. This is who made me the man I am.’”
Sirles and Huskers, of course, view the situation through a different lens than Eichorst.
The athletic director is likely to consider the bigger picture. Nebraska, at 8-4, slumped to its worst regular-season record since Pelini’s first year. The Huskers were eliminated from contention for a conference title with two games left for the first time in his career.
Yes, the Huskers showed impressive resilience this year in fighting through injuries and adversity.
“It hasn’t been any easy year,” Pelini said, “from any stretch of the imagination.”
But will it matter?
“We’ve done the right things,” offensive coordinator Tim Beck said. “We don’t cheat. We work hard. We’ve got good kids. They represent the program well."
“If they want to let us go, they can let us go,” he said. “There’s nothing we can do.”
The man in charge may look at Friday as a microcosm of the Pelini era.
The Huskers committed three turnovers and a couple costly errors on special teams.
Iowa played a clean game. Pelini’s ugly side bubbled to the surface.
Let’s be realistic: The end, now or in 10 years, was never going be pretty. Pelini's personality and coaching style don’t allow for a moment in which he could walk into the sunset like Tom Osborne or gracefully bow out for a new job.
It was always going to be ugly. It was always going to look like Friday.
On one side stands the pro-Bo Pelini crowd.
They speak of Pelini’s improving defense, his 56 wins since 2008, the most of any coach hired that season, his excellent record in close games and how only Nebraska, Alabama, Oregon and Boise State have won nine games in each of the past five years.
The Huskers, at 8-3, can reach the mark again on Friday with a win at home over Iowa (noon ET, ABC).
On the other side lurks the anti-Bo crowd. It references the occasional blowout loss, the lack of a conference championship or BCS bowl game under Pelini, the recurring problems with turnovers and special teams and untimely penalties.
It talks of the four losses every season, recruiting missteps, a vanishing act from the national landscape and signs of general stagnation.
As the countdown reaches four days to the regular-season finale, the Pelini debate has grown red hot around Nebraska.
Factions on each side think the other is out of touch and unrealistic.
With every dramatic victory or heart-stabbing defeat, public opinion appears to sway. Really, though, the week-to-week events simply offer a revolving stage for each group to scream from the flatlands to the sandhills of this state. And loudly.
Yes, a figurative line has been drawn in the sand. It’s divisive and damaging, potentially long term, for a program whose foundation was built upon unwavering support.
Eloquent receiver Kenny Bell, who returned a kickoff 99 yards for a touchdown against Penn State, spoke passionately in defense of his coaches last week. Offensive coordinator Tim Beck, by all accounts, grew emotional on Saturday when asked the criticism.
Among some in the media, the tone has turned angry.
Eichorst sees what is happening before him. That much we know.
Nearly all else about the law-school-trained administrator, including his stance on Pelini, remains a mystery.
Eichorst came to Nebraska from Miami last year. He wants to stay out of sight and out of mind during the season. An email request for his comment on Monday was returned with a polite acknowledgement but no hint of his plans to talk on the topic.
Meanwhile, Pelini addressed the team last Thursday as rumors circulated about his job status, assuring Nebraska players that he would not quit on them.
“That’s the craziest thing I’ve ever seen,” the coach said on Monday.
After the victory at Penn State, veteran running backs coach Ron Brown told the Omaha World-Herald, perhaps directed at the administration, that he sensed common traits between this team and the Huskers’ 1992 and 1993 squads that set the stage for three national titles.
Nebraska recruit Peyton Newell shared on Twitter last week a private message from defensive line coach Rick Kaczenski, encouraging Newell to “look past the noise.”
“I can tell you this bro, if I’m ever going into a fight,” Kaczenski wrote, “and I could pick one person to stand by my side -- I’m picking coach Bo.”
Pelini on Monday said he’s not discussed anything with Eichorst about the end of this season.
“I’m not coaching to save my job or anything like that,” Pelini said. “At the end of the day, I want to be here. And I want to be here if [the administration wants] me here. If somebody doesn’t want me here -- and I’m not saying Shawn doesn’t -- if they don’t want me, then I’ll move on. I’ll go on my way.
He said he likes the direction of the Nebraska program.
"I like where we are," Pelini said. "I think the future is bright. I really do."
This fan meter on Pelini, if my gauge is accurate, is close to 50-50, minus the small cluster swayed week to week by the loud arguments of the group on stage. This week, the pro-Bo crowd is making noise.
Eichorst’s silence has placed him at the center of the storm. His invisibility causes more harm than good. It’s time to talk, unless, of course, he’s planning a change, because what does he have to say in that case before this weekend?
My hunch: Eichorst, in his first year, doesn’t want the blood on his hands that this kind of controversial firing would create. And the Huskers’ unwavering spirit must count for something.
Pelini may, in fact, be out, but only if Eichorst decided in September he couldn’t work with a coach who made the comments revealed on two-year-old audio tape in which Pelini was critical of the fans and suggested he was ready to leave Nebraska.
Outwardly, Eichorst appears the sophisticated type, riding shotgun with Chancellor Harvey Perlman -- whose own lawyer persona is at odds with the often-gruff Pelini. Will it matter?
Four days and counting to the end of this debate. For the sake of this program’s stability, it can’t get here soon enough.
With Nebraska’s five-turnover performance in a 41-28 loss to Michigan State on Saturday, the Huskers continued a disturbing trend.
Since 2008, under coach Bo Pelini, Nebraska is 104th nationally in turnover margin at minus-28.
Among the top-26 in winning percentage, only the Huskers own a negative turnover margin.
The average margin for the 10-most-winning-teams is plus-53 during that time. Again, Nebraska is minus-28.
That sticks out like a Big Red thumb.
The turnovers are a systemic problem in Lincoln, a byproduct of deep-rooted issues to which the Huskers, apparently, have no answer -- and worse still, little ability to identify.
The longer the turnover trouble festers, the deeper concern grows that Pelini and his staff can’t pull this program out of neutral and improve upon its year-after-year run of slight variations on the same nine- or 10-win, four-loss season.
The fumbles and interceptions are not a new thing, as Pelini suggested at his weekly press conference on Monday, saying that turnovers have “not been a huge problem this year.”
Even before Saturday, Nebraska ranked worse than all but three teams nationally at minus-8 in turnover margin over its previous four games. That the Huskers won three of those four, losing only at Minnesota on a minus-two turnover day, speaks to more of the resilience that enables Nebraska to win consistently in spite of its own mistakes.
I asked Oregon coach Mark Helfrich on Tuesday about the mentality that has allowed the Ducks to dominate the turnover game. Since Helfrich arrived from Colorado as offensive coordinator in 2009, Oregon leads the nation in turnover margin at plus-59.
“It’s something that you harp on every single day,” Helfrich said, “just like blocking and tackling and footwork. Like a lot of teams, we do a circuit of things both offensively and defensively.
“We try to hammer it home in every possible way.”
Nebraska, too, works on turnovers regularly.
Pelini said he couldn’t remember the last time that his quarterback fumbled a snap in practice. But that's what Tommy Armstrong did at the Nebraska 1-yard line on Saturday after the Huskers closed to 20-14 in the third quarter. He also said he couldn’t remember the last time that he saw an option pitch hit the ground in practice. That occurred on the third play from scrimmage on Saturday when Armstrong tossed the ball to Terrell Newby.
If it’s happening often in games but never or rarely in practice, perhaps it’s time to adjust the Sunday-through-Thursday routine to better simulate the game and create pressure situations.
If a drill existed to fix ball-security problems, offensive coordinator Tim Beck said the Huskers would have implemented it three years ago.
“I don’t know that there is one,” Beck said, “We just keep preaching it and coaching it and practicing on it, putting emphasis on it as much as we can.”
So is it a mental thing?
“I feel like I prepared the right way and my teammates prepared the right way,” Armstrong said, “so I don’t know what happened.”
Therein lies the bigger problem: The Huskers don’t know how to fix it.
A hard-to-accept reality for Nebraska is that it’s known by opponents as mistake-prone. The turnovers against Michigan State were largely unforced.
Errors on special teams nearly cost the Huskers a shot at victory over Michigan.
Jordan Westerkamp’s fumbled punt return last week handed the Spartans a short field en route to their first touchdown.
And none of this is new.
With each mistake-riddled loss, the unrest around Pelini’s program turns more intense. The Huskers must win out against Penn State on Saturday and Iowa next week to secure another nine-win season, the long-time standard for success at Nebraska.
But nine wins this fall, even amid a mountain of offensive injuries and promising youth on defense, won’t satisfy many.
Will it satisfy the administration? Pelini’s job security has become a popular topic of late. Rumors and the names of replacement candidates are bandied about in conversation around the state.
The fact is, nobody outside of a theoretical small circle possesses a speck of insight into the mind of first-year athletic director Shawn Eichorst. He’s mum on all matters football-related. And don’t mistake his sealed lips for dissatisfaction.
By all accounts, this is his style. Eichorst is consistent, for sure, if not a bit maddening.
Meahwhile, Pelini is unwavering.
“My job is to win football games,” he said. “That’s my approach. I’m not changing my approach. Regardless of what position we’re in, I don’t change my approach in how I do my job.”
Pelini was hired six years ago, known to Nebraskans for the merits of his 2003 showing as defensive coordinator, when the Huskers set a school record with 47 takeaways, including 32 interceptions.
Interesting that a decade later, his struggle to regain control over turnovers has left Nebraska, presumably in danger for the third time in 10 years, of even more turnover.
You saw it in the final minutes last week as the Huskers rallied behind him to beat Michigan on the road.
You hear it as he talks. Armstrong’s confidence, for a redshirt freshman thrust into a starting role, is unusual, even striking in how it resembles a Nebraska legend.
Of Michigan State, which enters Memorial Stadium on Saturday with the nation’s No. 1-ranked defense, Armstrong said, “they can be beat.”
Sure, but beaten by injury-plagued Nebraska, which has sputtered in recent weeks against defensive units far inferior to the Spartans?
“Our offense,” he said, “when we’re clicking, I don’t think anybody in the country can stop us.”
Armstrong turned 20 last week. He has much to learn about the Big Ten and college football. But this much we know, after five starts: The kid commands respect. His presence instills a belief among teammates.
He embraces leadership. Armstrong carries himself like a veteran. He said he feels like a captain in his first season of action.
Armstrong, according to offensive coordinator Tim Beck, has the “it factor.”
“How do you describe that?” Beck said. “How do you describe that he has that instinct for running the option? How does he have the instinct for making that calm throw? How does he have the instinct to check to the right play?”
“He has it,” Beck said. “It just applies to all the things that he does as a player and as a person.”
Listen to the Huskers.
“He’s mature beyond his years,” senior offensive tackle Brent Qvale said. “No situation is too big for him. It’s something you need in your quarterback. I love his poise. I love how he handles himself.”
Said junior I-back Ameer Abdullah: “He isn’t a young guy any more. He’s a leader. … He says the right things when they need to be said.”
And from senior fullback C.J. Zimmerer: “We trust him with everything now. He’s our guy, and we’re going to go with him ‘til the end.”
Armstrong inherited a difficult situation, taking over for injured senior Taylor Martinez, the starter since his redshirt freshman year in 2010. Fellow senior Ron Kellogg III, seemingly a friend to everyone, including Armstrong and Martinez, eased the transition.
But Armstrong made this work.
A week after he threw a costly, fourth-quarter interception against Northwestern, Armstrong watched Jordan Westerkamp -- the hero alongside Kellogg against the Wildcats -- drop a punt in a moment similar to Armstrong’s mistake.
Armstrong said he rushed to Westerkamp on the sideline. The quarterback told him the Huskers would get it done, that they would drive for a winning score. After a Michigan field goal, Armstrong made good on his word.
He completed 5 of 7 passes for 59 yards on the final march. He checked to a fourth-and-2 throw that gained 26 yards. He improvised an option call at the goal line, cooking up a 5-yard touchdown pass to Abdullah for the winning points.
So what happens against Michigan State?
“Tommy Armstrong is not going to be intimidated,” Nebraska coach Bo Pelini said. “That much I know.”
Armstrong has given his teammates reason to follow him.
He’s had help, for sure, but only two other Nebraska quarterbacks won their first five starts -- Martinez and Brook Berringer, who won nine straight as a junior after playing behind Tommie Frazier for two years.
Frazier, in fact, was the original cold-blooded Nebraska quarterback.
He won national championships. The talent around him was remarkable. He was a once-in-a-generation combination of skill and savvy, determination and confidence.
And of all who played the position over the past two decades in Lincoln, Armstrong’s athletic and intellectual makeup appears to resemble no one more closely than Frazier.
It’s not a fair comparison, Tommy and Tommie.
Gotta figure the kid likes it.
Asked Monday about whether Martinez can return this season, Nebraska coach Bo Pelini said, "I don't know if the chances are really good. It's not a good injury to have."
It appears as though we've seen the last of Martinez in a Nebraska uniform. If so, he finishes his career with several notable team records, including career passing yards (6,591), career total offense (9,449 yards), career touchdown passes (46) and career starts by a quarterback (39). He helped Nebraska to a pair league championship games – and maybe even a third this season -- but struggled at times on the biggest stages.
Today's roundtable looks at Martinez's unique career for Big Red.
What is Taylor Martinez's legacy at Nebraska?
Adam Rittenberg: It’s definitely a unique one as Martinez had so much production, provided so many highlights and endured so many extremes, both positive and negative. He never led Nebraska to a championship and had some big-game blunders, which are part of his legacy. But he also improved significantly from his sophomore to his junior season, and he showed resiliency in leading many comebacks during his career. Like his coach, Pelini, Martinez struggled at times to connect with Nebraska’s fan base. He leaves a mixed legacy and an incomplete one because of his injury issues this season.
Brian Bennett: Ultimately, you're judged on championships at Nebraska, and Martinez didn't deliver so much as a league title during his four years (sure, it's still possible this season, but it won't be because of him). And that's a little unfair, because although Martinez struggled with turnovers in big games, he also often had to try and make things happen himself because his defense let the team down. But even with all his records, Martinez will not be remembered as an icon in Huskers history like Tommie Frazier, Turner Gill or Eric Crouch. Respected, yes. Revered? No.
What could Martinez have done this season if healthy?
Bennett: I was convinced Martinez was due for a fantastic senior season. He did lead the Big Ten in total offense in 2012, after all, and this was his third year in Tim Beck's system. By all accounts, he was in total command of the offense in the spring, and he finally seemed comfortable -- or at least at peace -- with being the face of the program. Unfortunately, his season never really got going, as he looked tentative in Week 3 against UCLA and afterward clued us in to his problems by wearing a walking boot. He was a shell of himself at Minnesota. I think Martinez would have made a serious run at Big Ten offensive player of the year honors this year had he been healthy.
Rittenberg: Martinez could have had a monster senior season, especially looking at how much he improved from 2011 to 2012. The turnovers still would have cropped up, but he had a strong supporting cast of receivers and an excellent backfield mate in Ameer Abdullah, not to mention a solid line. Pelini was very excited about Martinez’s potential as a passer before the season, and Martinez’s explosive running ability added another threat to the offense. Unfortunately, it never came to fruition.
Sherman: Everything set up well. Teammates trusted him and looked to Martinez for guidance. He had more talent around him than at any point in his career and more capable backups than since 2010. Abdullah and the receivers would have helped shoulder the load, and Beck could have taken more risks with his QB because of the depth. All of it may have contributed to a consistently explosive element to his game, last seen in the first half of his freshman year. More motivation for Martinez existed, too, to shape that aforementioned legacy.
Where does Martinez rank among Nebraska's top quarterbacks:
Rittenberg: He never won a championship, so he’s a notch below players like Frazier, Gill, Scott Frost and Crouch. But he played in two different offenses and put up record-setting numbers. Although his passing motion often sparked ridicule, he made tangible strides as a junior, improving his completion percentage by six points and throwing 10 more touchdowns. Martinez was more of a complete quarterback than Nebraska typically has, but he struggled at times with decision-making.
Sherman: He didn’t earn a seat at the table among the greats. That requires, at minimum, a conference championship. Athletically, few to play the position at Nebraska matched Martinez’s skill. He was likely the most dangerous dual threat in program history, but his supporting cast paled in comparison to many predecessors. And unlike the championship-era quarterbacks, Martinez often struggled to improve the productivity of those around him.
Bennett: In the top 10 all time, but not in the pantheon with guys like Frazier, Gill, Crouch or Frost. Those guys have the hardware.
What will you remember most about Martinez's time in Lincoln?
Sherman: The excitement that surrounded his torrid start as a freshman. His performance in wins at Washington, Kansas State and Oklahoma State were electrifying. Just as impressive were the string of comeback wins last year and the Ohio State victory in 2011. The meltdown that same year at Michigan was equally memorable. But more than anything, I’ll remember that by the time Martinez finally meshed with the Nebraska football culture, his career was well on its way to a premature ending.
Bennett: When he turned the corner and took off, it was a thing of beauty. Few players could cover as much ground as quickly as Martinez. I'll remember the comeback he led at Michigan State in 2012. And though it was in a losing effort, the insane scramble for a touchdown in the Big Ten championship game. Martinez was rarely ever boring to watch.
Rittenberg: I found the dynamic between Martinez and Nebraska fans really interesting. He took a lot of abuse at times and probably didn’t help himself by being so reserved, although he opened up more toward the end of his career. Just when everyone was ready to write off T-Magic, he'd lead a comeback like Ohio State in 2011 or Northwestern and Nebraska last year. This might have been a year where Martinez won over more Husker fans. Unfortunately, we'll never know.
Nebraska, as it heads to Michigan on Saturday, holds something akin to a royal flush.
The Huskers hope the feelings persist. Their plan for success at Michigan Stadium? Keep it going.
“Honestly, that may have just defined the rest of our season,” senior offensive tackle Brent Qvale said. “It’s given us great motivation to move forward and be able to continue into this week and for the rest of the year.”
As a result of the victory over Northwestern, the Huskers remain in control of their destiny in the Big Ten's Legends Division. Nebraska needs a win on Saturday, two years after losing 45-17 at the Big House, then a victory next week over division leader Michigan State to remain in good position.
“It’s just like last year,” junior I-back Ameer Abdullah said.
A year ago, momentum carried Nebraska from one comeback win to another. The Huskers staged rallies from double-digit, second-half deficits against Wisconsin, Northwestern, Michigan State and Penn State to reach the Big Ten championship game.
Adding to the momentum factor, Michigan is reeling after a 29-6 loss to the Spartans that all but eliminated it from Big Ten title contention. The Huskers are not expecting to find a troubled opponent, though. Not in Ann Arbor, where the Wolverines seek a 20th straight victory under third-year coach Brady Hoke.
“They’ve got a good scheme,” Nebraska offensive coordinator Tim Beck said. “They’re well coached. It’s going to be a dog fight.”
Abdullah agreed. And he’s not expecting an environment hospitable for Nebraska's momentum surge to continue.
“It’s going to be fun, man,” he said. “The Big House two years ago, they killed us up there. ... Michigan fans are nasty. They are ruthless. That’s Big Ten football. We’ve got a lot of young guys, and we’ve got to bring them down to planet Earth and make them realize just to stay with your techniques and do what you’re taught, and we’ll like the results.”
Last year, after the string of dramatic wins, all momentum disappeared in the title game as Wisconsin throttled Nebraska 70-31.
The cards can turn that fast.
Here’s what we'll be watching:
The return of Tommy Armstrong: Every discussion about this roller-coaster ride of a season for the Huskers seemingly starts with the quarterback position. This week, Taylor Martinez is out, and the redshirt freshman Armstrong is back for a fourth start, marking the first season since 1999 that two Nebraska QBs will have started more than three games. A sense exists that if Armstrong and his backup, senior Ron Kellogg III, enjoy success on Saturday, the move away from Martinez, regardless of his health, might turn permanent.
Leadership on defense: It’s safe to say the Huskers are continuing to search for answers on the defensive side. After the Gophers gouged Nebraska for 271 yards rushing, the Blackshirt jerseys disappeared from practice in Lincoln this week. Two starters were replaced in the heart of the defense. Perhaps freshmen linebackers Josh Banderas and Michael Rose can provide the necessary spark for this unit to regain some of the energy it displayed against Illinois and Purdue, but they’re young, obviously, as is so much of that front seven.
Northwestern’s state of mind: Since a 4-0 start, the season has turned disastrous for the Wildcats. They’ve lost four in a row and played large stretches without star running back Venric Mark and play-making quarterback Kain Colter. Mark might try to take a redshirt. Colter, instrumental two years ago in his team’s win in Lincoln, returned last week in the Wildcats’ overtime loss at Iowa, but he’s still limited by an ankle injury. So will Northwestern look at Saturday as an opportunity to get well against another wounded team, or have the Wildcats lost their way in this difficult stretch?
It’s that time of year: Coach Bo Pelini’s teams have traditionally played their best football in November. The Huskers are 16-4 in the final month of the regular season in five seasons under Pelini, including perfect Novembers in 2009 and 2012 to earn division championships. The calendar flipped just in time for Pelini, who might feel the walls closing in a bit as the margin for error in this season has grown thin. A poor performance against Northwestern would threaten to send the Huskers into a tailspin, facing a trip to Michigan next week, followed by a visit from Legends Division front-runner Michigan State.
The Gophers rushed for 271 yards, a season high against Nebraska. More than that, Minnesota sent numerous Huskers walking slowly to the sideline. The Gophers, in winning 34-23, owned the line of scrimmage.
“You have to be physical all the time,” Nebraska coach Bo Pelini said. “You can’t pick and choose. There were some times when it hurt us. It was a guy here or a guy here. It was a breakdown here or there. That’s not the standard that I want these guys to live by."
So on Sunday as the Huskers returned to practice, guess what awaited? Not the helmets and shorts of a normal day-after-the-game workout; rather, Nebraska broke out the shoulder pads. Two days later, gone from practice were the Blackshirt practice jerseys -- a symbol of defensive excellence at the school -- worn since August by much of the first-team unit.
As the Huskers prepare for a visit on Saturday from Northwestern, their plan for success calls for increased physical play. It’s a staple of Nebraska football that must remain consistent, players and coaches said.
"We have a standard that we want to live up to here,” defensive coordinator John Papuchis said. “Certainly what we put on the field Saturday wasn’t up to that Blackshirt standard. I don’t wear a Blackshirt, but if I wore a Blackshirt, I would take mine off too.
"We didn’t play good enough and we didn’t do anything well enough to warrant them."
No one gets off easy in this area. Nebraska surrendered four sacks, more than the Huskers’ first six opponents combined.
Offensively, Nebraska attempted 30 passes and rushed 30 times -- nice balance, but likely not the most favorable breakdown, considering the blustery conditions and the fact that I-back Ameer Abdullah averaged 8.7 yards on 19 carries.
Too often, the Huskers went for the big play in the passing game. Yes, Minnesota dared Nebraska to throw, stacking seven or eight defenders near the line of scrimmage. But when the Huskers ran, they usually ran well.
Still, offensive coordinator Tim Beck preferred balance.
"We need to execute,” Beck said in reference to the running and passing games.
The Huskers stand behind their play-caller.
"You can’t just pound the rock every play,” left tackle Jeremiah Sirles said. “You can try, but if there’s nine people in the box, we need to get the ball to our playmakers on the outside.”
Offensively and defensively, a focus lasted through the week in Lincoln to get more physical as a tough November schedule awaits.
"That's definitely our No. 1 (objective) right now,” defensive end Randy Gregory said. “I don't think we've ever had a problem playing physical, but I think (last week) just showed we need to bring our level up a little bit more than it is right now. The games are only going to get tougher.”
- Greg Mattison says "enough is enough," and the Michigan defense needs to turn the corner.
- Michigan State linebacker Max Bullough is confident going against the Wolverines, saying "we should win this game."
- Last year, Ohio State had trouble stopping the big running play. This year? The Buckeyes are better at that than any team in the country.
- Nebraska offensive coordinator Tim Beck has a big challenge when he draws up his Northwestern game plan.
- A frightening scene at Camp Randall Stadium 20 years ago today led to many changes and safety improvements.
- Iowa fans have reason to envy Wisconsin, Pat Harty writes.
- Penn State might be struggling, but this week's opponent, Illinois, is in even worse shape, David Jones writes.
- Jerry Kill will resume some coaching duties, but Minnesota will stick with what has been working for now.
- Indiana's young offensive line has persevered through injuries.
- The Ohio State game will have a little extra meaning for a couple of Purdue coaches.
To the sixth-year Nebraska coach, for instance, if you're not with the Huskers, you're against them. If you're not getting better, you're getting worse.
Why, then, does the same principle not apply to his starting quarterback?
Taylor Martinez is not helping Nebraska win.
Pelini's methodology would seem to suggest that he helped the Huskers lose on Saturday. In his first action since Sept. 14, the senior quarterback hobbled through a 34-23 loss at Minnesota, often appearing out of sync with teammates. From start to finish, the offense operated in disjointed fashion.
When one quarterback struggled, the other guy played. It's a strategy with flaws, for sure, but it worked.
Apparently it's not an option the Huskers want to explore with Martinez at the helm.
Why the double standard, a practice that seems so at odds with Pelini's overriding approach to the game?
The coach said after the game that Martinez was "the least of our problems."
"Let's not go there and act like Taylor Martinez lost this football game for us," Pelini said. "Our problems today were far beyond who our quarterback was."
He's right that the Huskers had big problems against Minnesota – the inability to win the line of scrimmage, poor tackling, mental errors, dropped passes, questionable distribution of the football, two turnovers lost and none gained.
But if Pelini really believes that the quarterback ranked as the least of Nebraska's problems, he's failing to pay attention or just trying to protect Martinez.
His play on Saturday, at a minimum, fits squarely in the middle of the items that require attention.
It's easy -- and typically too convenient – to blame the quarterback when things out of his control go awry. The quaterback makes an impact on every offensive play, so he gets too much credit and too much blame.
But Nebraska needs its quarterback to do more than avoid losing. When the Huskers built this team over the offseason and into August, it expected to rely on a quarterback who could win games, especially with a defense that needed time to mature.
It expected a guy like South Carolina senior Connor Shaw, who rallied his team from a 17-point deficit on Saturday to beat Missouri after the Gamecocks' win probability fell below 3 percent in the third quarter.
It expected Martinez to play the way he did last year in the Big Ten, leading four second-half comebacks from double-digit deficits.
He's not there. The Nebraska coaches must know it. And the statistics show it.
Total QBR is an ESPN-calculated metric that accounts for a quarterback's overall execution – a Pelini buzzword -- in relation to his team's performance. It rates quarterbacks on a zero-to-100 scale.
A score of 50 is average.
Martinez's QBR on Saturday was 19.6, the sixth-lowest single-game figure of his career. His opponent-adjusted QBR against the Gophers was 14.6, better only in his 43 career starts than against Michigan in 2011, a 45-17 Nebraska loss, and a 13-7 win over Iowa in 2012, a game played in horrendous weather conditions.
The least of Nebraska's problems?
That would be laughable, if not so painful for the 20,000 Huskers fans who converged on Minneapolis over the weekend.
And the decisions of Pelini and offensive coordinator Tim Beck are more puzzling in light of the performances over the past three games of Armstrong and Kellogg.
Against South Dakota State, Illinois and Purdue, the two quarterbacks combined to produce a QBR of 78.9, the 17th-best figure nationally over that time.
Good quarterbacks win games, period. The top five QBR figures of 2013 belong to Marcus Mariota of Oregon, Bryce Petty of Baylor, Jameis Winston of Florida State, Johnny Manziel of Texas A&M and Georgia's Aaron Murray.
Nebraska thought it had a quarterback in that category this season. They coached on Saturday as if they had a quarterback in that category. Clearly, in his current state of health, Martinez is not there.
Lest we forget the context, Martinez returned Saturday from six weeks off. Pelini has said since September that turf toe kept the quarterback out.
Martinez, after the game, disputed the assessment, describing the problem as a separate ailment to his foot in addition to a shoulder injury. He said he wasn't 100 percent, which was obvious, despite the insistence from Pelini and Beck that Martinez would not return until completely healthy.
Together, they're delivering a message about as muddled as the offense was disconnected on Saturday.
And now Pelini has this to consider: Among the masses in Minneapolis who watched in disappointment sat Chancellor Harvey Perlman, first-year AD Shawn Eichorst and many other figures important to the athletic department, including hundreds of the program's top donors who traveled on a once-a-year, school-planned trip for Memorial Stadium suite-holders.
Most will return to watch the Huskers on Saturday in Lincoln against Northwestern, which has lost four consecutive games.
For Nebraska, again, there's no gray area: Win this week or face the darkest hour in Lincoln since 2007, the season before Pelini's arrival as head coach.
The media is tired of asking about it.
The fans are tired of hearing about it.
Still, it persists. The conversation won’t die until stability returns at QB.
While Nebraska has played well on offense in Martinez’s absence, defeating South Dakota State, Illinois and Purdue, the musical chairs at quarterback threaten to pose a distraction.
The Huskers plan for success by trying to block out the talk, though it gets more difficult as the uncertainty creeps closer to November.
This week, as a Martinez return appears imminent, the questions have grown more pointed:
• How will the Huskers again handle change at quarterback?
• How will Tommy Armstrong Jr. handle a return to the bench, if it’s this week or later?
• Are Martinez’s teammates excited for his return?
For the most part, the Huskers have offered the right answers -- answers, at least, that indicate they’re focused on Minnesota, not the identity of the Nebraska quarterback on Saturday.
“I would love to have Taylor back,” receiver Kenny Bell said. “I have always wanted Taylor as our quarterback, but at the same time, I have just as much faith in Tommy and Ron (Kellogg III). They have been playing good football for us.
"Whoever is going to be healthy is who I want out there on Saturday.”
Beck, interviewed Tuesday after the Huskers’ second practice of the week, selected his words carefully. If Martinez makes it back, the coach said, he had not devised a plan on splitting time at the position.
"I think both have earned the right to play,” Beck said, “but you can only play one guy at a time. We’ll cross that bridge when we get there, but we’re going to play the best guy, the healthiest guy and the guy that’s going to help us win.”
Martinez has declined interview requests over the past six weeks.
Armstrong, for his part, said this week that he understands the dynamic at work. The freshman described himself as “the future.”
"But at the same time,” Armstrong said, “you just have to understand that this guy has been here for four of five years, and he has done a lot.”
Through four games before Saturday, the Nebraska junior performed well, no doubt. He topped 100 yards three times and fell 2 yards short of triple digits in the Huskers’ Sept. 14 loss to UCLA.
That all changed on Saturday.
Abdullah torched Illinois for a career-high 225 yards on 20 carries in the Cornhuskers’ 39-19 win at Memorial Stadium. He ran for a pair of touchdowns, including a 43-yard scamper in the fourth quarter that featured a slick cutback in front of the Illini bench.
“Boy,” Nebraska offensive coordinator Tim Beck said, “he played well.”
This comes a year after Abdullah, in place of injured I-back Rex Burkhead, made his mark in the Big Ten with four consecutive 100-yard rushing days.
“Last year a lot of his yards were tough yards, particularly in the Big Ten,” Nebraska running backs coach Ron Brown said.
Many Big Ten teams widen the alignment of their defensive ends against the Huskers to keep Abdullah from trying to bounce outside, where he’s considered most dangerous. He hurt the Illini on Saturday inside and out.
“More so the O-line than me,” Abdullah said. “They were all in sync. And the receivers don’t get as much credit as they should for blocking on the perimeter.”
He continued with the deflection of praise, complimenting Nebraska’s fullbacks.
Before the long run on the opening possession of the second half, Abdullah hobbled off the field. He showed no effects of the ding, though, upon his return as he took the football from quarterback Tommy Armstrong and followed his blocks to the right. When he ran out of room, Abdullah cut back to the middle of the field.
He ran about 75 yards to gain 43.
“Really, the guys were just busting their butts and getting downfield for me,” Abdullah said.
Brown said he noticed nothing before Saturday that made him believe his top back had lost a step from last year. Abdullah started September with consecutive 114-yard games against Wyoming and Southern Miss. He gained 139 against South Dakota State.
“He’s been pretty good across the board,” Brown said.
Make no mistake, Abdullah was better in the Big Ten opener. His 30-yard run on the opening possession revealed Nebraska’s plan of attack -- a heavy dose of the Husker ground game.
Maybe part of it was the weather. The temperature hovered near 45 degrees for most of the game, with a cold wind howling out of the southwest -- a great day to run the football, even for a guy from Homewood, Ala.
Abdullah continued to gain big chunks of yardage deep in the second half, going over 200 yards with a 22-yard run on the first play of the fourth quarter.
Credit the line and the receivers and, as Brown mentioned, the quarterback play of Armstrong and Beck’s play-calling. But Adbullah deserves some of the recognition, too.
“That’s a huge day,” receiver Kenny Bell said. “Good for him. He works hard enough that he deserves every good thing he’s got coming his way.”
The production on Saturday moved Abdullah to sixth nationally in rushing yards. He’s gained 690 this year -- an average of 136 yards per game. His 11 yards per carry on Saturday pushed Abdullah to 19th nationally in that category, and his 130 receiving yards rank No. 19 among running backs.
If Saturday served as an indication of what’s to come in the Big Ten, you can forget any talk about a sluggish Adbullah. The electricity is back in Nebraska’s backfield.
Right now, it’s all roses. Redshirt freshman Tommy Armstrong Jr. started and starred in his second straight game on Saturday, a 39-19 Cornhusker victory over Illinois in the Big Ten opener for both teams. Record-setting senior Taylor Martinez remains out with turf toe, but his return is looming.
Maybe it’s next Saturday at Purdue. If not, he ought to be ready for Nebraska’s Oct. 26 trip to Minnesota.
And then what?
“Taylor’s earned it over a long period of time [so] when he’s ready to go,” coach Bo Pelini said Saturday, “he’ll be the starting quarterback.”
Sounds simple. But it never is.
A groundswell of support for Armstrong has already begun to form. So far, there’s no decision for the coaches to make. At least, not a real decision.
Pelini and offensive coordinator Tim Beck insist that Martinez, who was clearly bothered by the injury to his left foot through portions of September, must return to 100-percent health before he gets back on the field. Interestingly, that’s never been the standard previously with Martinez, a tough guy who has played through injuries for the better part of his three-plus years as the Nebraska starter.
Asked last week to pinpoint Martinez’s proximity to 100-percent health in the Huskers’ 20-point loss to UCLA on Sept. 21, Beck couldn’t do it.
This is not Braxton Miller, returning on a white horse to reclaim his spot. Despite his statistical genius, Martinez is rough around the edges. He has not led the Huskers to a conference championship. A faction of Nebraska fans question whether he could do it this year.
To compound matters, Armstrong has been pretty darn spectacular. He took to the Big Ten on Saturday like it was no big deal, completing 8 of 13 throws for 135 yards and two touchdowns. In two starts, he’s 20 of 28 for 304 yards, three TDs and no interceptions. His Total QBR index is 94.8, a figure that ranked second nationally this season through the early set of games on Saturday.
“He just went out there and did his job and did it well,” said receiver Quincy Enunwa, who caught a first-quarter TD from Armstrong.
The kid is enjoying it, no doubt. He said with a smile that people around Lincoln have started to recognize him. He chooses mainly, though, to stay at home with roommates Jordan Westerkamp and Imani Cross.
Armstrong’s voice drops a bit as he talks about the inevitable, that Martinez is going to retake the position.
“He’s the guy for this offense,” Armstrong said of Martinez. “I’m going to be patient. If it’s next week, if it’s in two weeks, three weeks, I’m just going to prepare myself the right way.
“I’m just going to keep doing what I’m doing. It’s going to be my time. My number’s going to be called every game next year. I’m just preparing the right way.”
Armstrong threw off his back foot in the first half as he tried to navigate balls through a 25 mph wind. The offense got sloppy in the second half. He misfired a few throws, including on the spectacular, one-handed, leaping grab by Kenny Bell that went for a 37-yard touchdown in the third quarter.
“I told him thanks for saving my butt,” Armstrong said.
Mostly, Tommy just clicks.
He and receivers Bell and Enunwa have developed a nice chemistry. Same with I-back Ameer Abdullah, who ran for a career-best 225 yards against the Illini. The O-line, too, has appeared to mesh with the freshman QB.
As for the fans, well, know this: Armstrong is a savant when it comes to running the option. He froze a defender in the second half Saturday with a pitch fake 5 yards past the line of scrimmage, harkening memories of Tommie Frazier.
There’s no path more immediate into the hearts of Husker fans than by running a smooth option play.
Yes, the time is coming, like two trains on a collision path under the night-time sky.
It’s going to get uncomfortable.
- The team-first approach is working wonders for Northwestern as it prepares for the biggest game on its campus in years. Wildcats receiver Tony Jones is ready to measure himself against All-American cornerback Bradley Roby.
- Ohio State is putting on an aerial show early in the season, and the spread offense is well ahead of pace to shatter school records. History seems to be repeating itself as the Buckeyes try to manage their depth at running back, keeping both Carlos Hyde and Jordan Hall involved in the attack.
- The ground game could help take pressure off Devin Gardner, and Michigan is ready to get Derrick Green involved to help do it. As for Gardner, he understands the public criticism that comes with the position and is just ready to play another game.
- Positive reviews are rolling in for the Michigan State offensive line, which might be playing its best football in years just as it's needed most in time for a physical battle with Iowa. The chance to play defense helped Jamal Lyles pick between the Spartans and the Hawkeyes, but now he's embracing a role at tight end.
- Jerry Kill isn't keeping his plan at quarterback a secret, but it's at least a possibility that Minnesota might play two of them at Michigan. Ra'Shede Hageman is finding other ways to evaluate his performance beyond just making sacks for the Gophers.
- Carl Davis and Louis Trinca-Pasat have faced some adversity at Iowa, but the defense is better off with the defensive tackles around doing some heavy lifting in the trenches. The Hawkeyes have cut down on their penalties, becoming the more disciplined team they had set out to be.
- Both father and son are grinders, though Donovonn Young gets to do his work on the football field carrying the football for Illinois. Working with one coordinator this season appears to be paying off for Nathan Scheelhaase.
- Both Penn State and Indiana can put the pedal to the metal offensively, and the Nittany Lions know how critical shoring up their tackling will be this weekend. Controversial cut blocks are catching the attention of DaQuan Jones as he watches film of the Hoosiers.
- Robby Howard wonders when "we don't leave" will be true for Indiana football fans. Cornerback Michael Hunter flashed on the scene then disappeared, but now he's back bigger and stronger for the Hoosiers (subscription required).
- Nebraska offensive coordinator Tim Beck goes way back with the coordinator calling the plays for Illinois this week, with mutual respect with Bill Cubit forged under hard-nosed coach Lou Saban. Randy Gregory is still waiting for a black shirt to show up in his locker.
- Danny Etling is now the guy for Purdue at quarterback, and he's got one goal with his name on top of the depth chart. The two arrested Boilermakers are facing suspensions from coach Darrell Hazell.
- Just midway through his junior season in high school, Wisconsin commitment Austin Kafentzis is already drawing comparisons to Johnny Manziel and Russell Wilson.
LINCOLN, Neb. – Nebraska coaches continue to plan for the absence on Saturday of Taylor Martinez.
The senior quarterback again did not practice on Tuesday as the Huskers resumed preparations for Illinois after an off day on Monday. The school’s career leader in total offense whose streak of 32 consecutive starts ended two weeks ago, Martinez is out with a turf-toe injury.
Offensive coordinator Tim Beck reiterated the Monday comments of coach Bo Pelini that Martinez must reach “100 percent” to get back in the lineup.
“He’s got to be healthy,” Beck said. “He’s got to say he’s healthy. He’s got to compete like he’s healthy. He’s got to play like he’s healthy.”
Redshirt freshman Tommy Armstrong and senior Ron Kellogg III split reps on Tuesday. Beck said the dual-quarterback system, which worked well on Sept. 21 in the Huskers’ 59-20 win over South Dakota State, remains a good option.
“If it helps us win games,” Beck said. “I think those guys are very compatible with each other. They do a good job, and I think it doesn’t really affect our team.”
Martinez likely must practice Wednesday or Thursday in order to play this week. He was not available Tuesday for interviews.
“We’re just getting him ready mentally right now,” Beck said, “making sure he understands the game plan. He’s played a lot of football around here. If there’s a guy who can miss a couple practices, it’s probably him.”
Armstrong completed 12 of 15 passes for 169 yards and one touchdown in his starting debut against South Dakota State. He said on Tuesday that Martinez has stayed supportive of the other quarterbacks.
“Mentally, he seems like he’s ready,” Armstrong said.
And the freshman?
“I’m going to prepare like I’m going to play every game,” he said. “I’m going to stay mentally focused and whenever my number’s called, that’s when I’m going to be ready.”