Huskers Win Battle Of Top Defenses

  • Tuesday, November 10, 2009 2:14 PM
  • Written By: Jonathan Crowl

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Oklahoma's visit to Nebraska represented the top two defenses in the country taking on offenses with more than their fair share of offensive struggles. The Sooners' issues are well-documented: the careers of Sam Bradford and tight end Jermaine Gresham were prematurely ended by injuries, putting a freshman quarterback behind a sub-par offensive line. Nebraska's woes are largely from a tactical point of view -- they haven't settled on a starting quarterback because neither is able to move the ball down the field, though that assignment has grown tougher as the season has progressively neutered the running game. First Quentin Castille was dismissed for failing his fifth drug test, and then Roy Helu Jr., probably their best offensive weapon, is hampered by a shoulder injury that's reduced his effectiveness and caused him to miss snaps.

So there shouldn't be much surprise that the game was low-scoring, a 10-3 Nebraska win, given their offensive reputations. Oklahoma finished first nationally in scoring last season, averaging more than 51 points per game. The Huskers scored 35.4 points per game and were ranked 25th nationally.

The game was also significant in regards to the disparity between the Big 12 North and South Divisions. Nebraska's win was the first time since 2007 a Big 12 North team beat Oklahoma, and the first Nebraska win over the Sooners since 2001, when Eric Crouch caught a touchdown pass on his way to a 20-10 win and a Heisman.

It's a down year for Oklahoma, but if the North wants to rebuild its reputation, games like this must be won. Nebraska can rest easy, now that it has a signature win under coach Bo Pelini.

This week: 3-3 overall, 2-3 Big 12

Overall: 55-23, 22-9 Big 12

Hits

Oklahoma State 34, Iowa State 8: Keith Toston is a nice storyline in the Big 12. The senior got his chance to start after running back Kendall Hunter went down injured in the second game of the season. He had his day in the sun against the Cyclones, rushing for 206 yards and three touchdowns.

Kansas State 17, Kansas 10: Manhattan and Lawrence are only a few hours apart, but they might as well be at the North and South poles. You'd think they're cashing each other's checks every weekend, with the Wildcats soaking up all the success the Jayhawks were supposed to have and KU wallowing in KSU's shoulda-been failure. Back to the same old mantra for Kansas: When does basketball start?

Texas 35, Central Florida 3: I can't help but feel that a game against Central Florida after a schedule featuring Oklahoma State, Oklahoma and Texas Tech has to feel like a vacation. I doubt Jordan Shipley would disagree. The wide receiver decimated the school record for receiving yards in a game, finishing with 273.

Misses

Nebraska 10, Oklahoma 3: How many teams can upset a ranked team with only 39 passing yards and seven first downs? About as many as can boast the top defense in the nation. Nebraska's offense was completely inept, but it took care of the ball and did what it needed to win. Best stat: The lone touchdown drive was one yard long.

Colorado 35, Texas A&M 34: There's just no telling what these teams will do. A&M had the win and was running away with it, but they tripped over themselves and let Colorado surge back for the win.

Baylor 40, Missouri 32: I can tell you Gary Pinkel's having trouble sleeping. This was supposed to be the Tigers' "let's get back on track" game. Instead, Baylor quarterback Nick Florence turned it into the "who's Robert Griffin?" show. Next up for Mizzou: Kansas State. Uh oh.

Iowa State: Not the Cyclones We Know

  • Monday, October 26, 2009 6:12 PM
  • Written By: Jonathan Crowl

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Paul Rhoads probably knows his Iowa State team got lucky at Nebraska. But you can bet he doesn't care.

How bad is Iowa State? It's coming off a winless conference season in 2008, after which its touted coach left two years in, leaving an unapologetic mess in his wake.

And then comes Rhoads, who brought optimism, understanding and energy to the sideline. Suddenly, Iowa State knows how to play football.

Four games remain on the Cyclones' schedule. With one more win, they're bowl eligible and likely bowl-bound. They pushed Kansas to its limit. They beat Nebraska at its own game -- defensive fortitude. And maybe they needed a trick play to extend a drive that led to their only touchdown, and maybe Nebraska's eight turnovers were unprecedented, but it doesn't matter.

Iowa State isn't an easy place to build a program. It's got all the attraction Nebraska does, minus the program prestige -- which is to say, none. Jack Trice Stadium is small and the athletics department doesn't have much money. But when you have a good coach, you can usually get things done, at least in the short term. Right now, there's no question Rhoads is doing just that.

This week: 4-2 overall, 4-2 Big 12

Overall: 46-20, 14-6 Big 12

Hits

Texas 41, Missouri 7: Everyone's saying that Colt McCoy returned in this game after struggles with illness and injuries earlier in the season. Missouri pulled quarterback Blaine Gabbert midway through en route to its first 0-3 conference start since 2002.

Oklahoma 35, Kansas 13: How awful did Todd Reesing look? Three interceptions on the first three drives is no way to start a game against the Sooners. Of course, he didn't get much help from his offensive line, which gave up three sacks and let OU get to Reesing all day.

Oklahoma State 34, Baylor 7: No intrigue, no surprise. But OSU hosts Texas next weekend in possibly the only legitimate game standing between Texas and a BCS Title Game appearance.

Kansas State 20, Colorado 6: What a contrast of coaching jobs. Kansas State is on an absolute roll right now. Meanwhile, the Buffs have to go 3-2 to finish with a 5-7 record. It seems even my five wins prediction was above and beyond Colorado.

Misses

Texas A&M 52, Texas Tech 30: Cyrus Gray had a field day against Texas Tech, scoring four touchdowns. Texas Tech can't be feeling good about losing by 22 to the team that Kansas State railed 62-14. It was a much-needed win for Texas A&M, which is still in pretty poor shape but at least won't feel as much heat this week.

Iowa State 9, Nebraska 7: Had I waited a week to write my midseason coaching review, Bo Pelini's efforts this season would place him solidly at No. 10. Losing to Iowa State, at home, via eight turnovers, by a score ofnine to seven no less, is among the ugliest home losses in Nebraska football history. This team has struggled from the get-go with its personnel, which lacks a serious playmaker. But credit to Iowa State: it looks like it has found a quarterback, and there are a lot of reasons for that program to be optimistic.

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Big 12 Midseason Review: Coaches

  • Tuesday, October 20, 2009 5:29 PM
  • Written By: Jonathan Crowl

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What I love about college football is the emphasis and control coaching has. There aren't GMs or contracts to blame. Coaches build their teams, select every player. Coaches develop players. Coaches win games. Coaches. In the NFL, mediocre coaches can make it to the Super Bowl when they have a good team -- Sam Wyche, Jim Fassel and Bill Callahan are sterling examples -- but few coaches in college football reach the highest levels of achievement by accident.

Credit the slim margin of error. You can lose seven games in the NFL and win the Super Bowl. In college football, you might be able to withstand two losses, but you'll need a lot of upsets, a tough conference to play in and hype.

I've never been a huge fan of midterm grades -- they've always woken me from a daydream in which I believe I'm doing well in school -- but when it comes to coaching, I inhale them. I put a lot of emphasis on the direction a school seems headed, rather than where they stand. It's not the records that matter, it's the progress of rebuilding schools and the standing of established programs in regards to their expectations.

And since nothing makes or breaks a program like coaching, there's no better way to forecast a school's future. So here you go -- the best coaching jobs in the Big 12 this season:

1. Bill Snyder: I'm not afraid to say I love this coach. I love his dedication to his school, I love the charred remains of a football team he inherited, and I love that he has them chugging along like the tortoise vs. the hare. Kansas State seems to get better every week -- remember, it lost to Louisiana-Lafayette 17-15 earlier this season. Now the Wildcats are dropping 62 on a Big 12 school? Part of it is that the depth chart is sorting itself out, but make no mistake: This team has tons of momentum. They're better than everyone thought. They're probably better than Snyder thought. But he's a legendary coach who made a career out of achieving unexpected things. He's doing it again.

2. Paul Rhoads: Let me reiterate what I've said in past blogs: Iowa State could so easily be 3-0 in Big 12 play. The Cyclones missed an extra point at the end of the game with Kansas State. A game-winning touchdown pass against Kansas sailed just beyond an open receiver. They're playing good defense, and they're doing it with a roster that Rhoads has admitted to be too thin and weak for the Big 12. Plus, Rhoads was an assistant under former ISU coach Dan McCarney. He was already familiar with the school, brought a ton of energy, and got his players to commit to his style. They've accomplished more halfway through the season than I thought they would all year.

3. Mack Brown: You could do a lot worse than being undefeated and in the heat of the national title race, so it's hard to discredit Brown's coaching efforts. But even then, Texas hasn't exactly blown anyone out. The Horns beat Texas Tech and Oklahoma by a combined 10 points, struggled at Wyoming and were down 14-3 to Colorado at one point. But as unimpressive as they are, they've still passed two huge tests, and they're in the position every team America covets. Besides, it's tough to please people when you're in the Longhorns' shoes. They can't go anywhere but down, yet despite everyone's best efforts, they remain at the top.

4. Mike Gundy: They've drifted into obscurity after their loss to Houston, but Oklahoma State is still plugging away, undefeated in conference play, and is one upset of Texas away from being in the division driver's seat. It handled Missouri well, stands a good shot against Texas Tech and Oklahoma this season, and currently has a Top 10 recruiting class coming in next February.

5. Art Briles: That Baylor program is changing, and Briles is the catalyst. Never mind if the Bears lose the rest of their games this season (they won't); if they hadn't lost their starting quarterback -- arguably the brightest star in Waco since they joined the Big 12 -- we'd be hearing and fearing Baylor's resurgence. Briles shouldn't be faulted for an on-field injury. And aside from Robert Griffin, the coach has assembled a decent defense and is developing his talent -- a key for the only Big 12 South school outside Scout.com's current Top 25 recruiting classes for 2010.

6. Mike Leach: People had middling expectations about Texas Tech, and the results have been equally middling. So placing Leach smack in the middle of this list seems appropriate. He does seem to have found a solid option at quarterback, and the Red Raiders' two losses are by a combined eight points. Leach makes the top half by virtue of a win over No. 7's program.

7. Bo Pelini: I've always thought Pelini was a sure thing. He seems poised for success, and he's got a coaching staff with an offensive background that nicely complements his strengths as a defensive coach. And even though I think Pelini will eventually put together a power program at Nebraska, the results this season have been sub-par. The offense is struggling, the defense is good but prone to big errors, and the Huskers followed up their first big win of Pelini's era with a letdown at home. We can talk about being headed in the right direction, and it seems the Huskers are. But they're also good enough that they should be producing now, and they're faltering.

8. Bob Stoops: Landry Jones is a good quarterback. So as good as Sam Bradford is, I'm surprised that the Sooners have gone 3-3 to this point. I don't think the switch from Bradford to Landry can be entirely blamed, even if the Sooners have lost their three games by only five points. The reality is that the offensive line isn't what it was last year, and neither are the Sooners. They're better than their record shows, but this season is still a nightmare.

9. Gary Pinkel: Missouri started off fast, but Nebraska and Oklahoma State have cooled it quickly. This was a big year for Pinkel, who was supposed to show the country that his system was built to reload with talent every year, rather than wait for a few exceptional athletes to boost Missouri up into relevancy. Maybe that system is still in place, but they're not showing it. Missouri is the only Big 12 North team without a conference win, and there's still plenty of difficult season remaining.

10. Mark Mangino: Kansas is 5-1 and nationally ranked, so why would they be this low? Pure inference, my friend, and it goes like this: If we are to assume Kansas' record is weak, then we can assume that their record is not representative of their talent level. If we assume that Iowa State and Colorado are both bad teams, and we look at Kansas' record to discover that the Jayhawks lost to Colorado and were lucky to beat Iowa State, then we can conclude that while anything can happen in one game, two games goes a long way towards identifying a trend. And the trend I'm seeing is that Kansas can't play defense well, and its offense isn't what it used to be. That they are nationally ranked blows my mind.

11. Mike Sherman: Remember my general inclination to appreciate everything Bill Snyder does? I have a similar inclination to assume Sherman will fail at Texas A&M. It's nothing personal. He was a fine NFL coach, but many NFL coaches struggle to acclimate to college football, and I've always expected Sherman would struggle to adapt. He's got a strong roster, he's got good recruits coming in, but he just isn't a college football coach. I don't blame him for trying, but like 98 percent of romantic comedies, we know how this one will end. I'm already looking ahead to the next guy.

12. Dan Hawkins: Now here's a guy you blame for his own predicament. I'm talking more about the 10 wins prophecy that is currently being supplanted by the seven losses reality, but that has more to do with public embarrassment than job security. In fact, the statement suggests that Hawkins himself understood the urgent need to win and rolled the dice. Nevertheless, this program is mired in a free-fall, and Hawkins has been there long enough to absorb complete blame. I don't see a future in which he's not the next Big 12 coach fired.

Big 12 Preview | Oklahoma No. 2

  • Wednesday, September 2, 2009 7:05 PM
  • Written By: Jonathan Crowl

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2008 record: 12-2 overall, 7-1 Big 12 Conference, Big 12 Champions

2009 projection: The Sooners will be in the thick of the national title race until the very end, but they might only be the second-best team in their division.

Reason to get excited: Great coach, great program, Heisman-winning quarterback, high preseason ranking ... what's left?

Reason not to get worked up: Let's face it -- at this point in the rankings, there's no reason not to get worked up.

The gist: Sam Bradford returns as Oklahoma's quarterback, but his spot may not be as comfortable as it was last year. DeMarco Murray and Chris Brown return at running back, and Jermaine Gresham is one of the nation's best tight ends, but the offensive line loses four of its starters from last season. Tackle Trent Williams is the only returner, though he was arguably the best of the lot. None of the wide receivers is exceptional, but they're good enough. The defensive front seven is as strong as any other group on the team, led by defensive tackle Gerald McCoy. Linebackers Ryan Reynolds and Travis Lewis lead a strong second line, of defense, but pass defense remains a question mark. If teams go into four- and five-receiver sets, OU's depth at defensive back beyond Dominique Franks could be exposed.

Rallying point: Is a Heisman Trophy winner ever NOT the rallying point? It's Bradford.

Cover your eyes: At Nebraska and Kansas. Both teams have quarterbacks with arms and balanced offenses that could cause trouble in the Sooners' secondary, and both have improved defenses. Losing to either could kill OU's BCS title hopes.

For what it's worth: Making the BCS title game two years in a row is a tough order, but expecting Texas to beat Oklahoma twice in a row isn't much easier. Nebraska over OU is a trendy pick, maybe because of NU coach Bo Pelini's familiarity with OU after one season as a co-defensive coordinator in 2004. I'd expect OU to beat Texas but stumble elsewhere later in the Big 12 season.

Big 12 Preview | Nebraska No. 4

  • Sunday, August 30, 2009 7:05 PM
  • Written By: Jonathan Crowl

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2008 record: 9-4 overall, 5-3 Big 12 Conference, co-Big 12 North champions

2009 projection: 10 wins and division supremacy, but NU will need another season to climb back among the elite.

Reason to get excited: The defense made a huge leap in Coach Bo Pelini's first year, cutting its average yards allowed by more than 125 yards per game, and finished the season on a 6-1 tear.

Reason not to get worked up: The secondary will have to prove it can defend against big arms.

The gist: Nebraska is ranked in most everybody's preseason Top 25 with an unknown, unproven quarterback. Offensive coordinator Shawn Watson raves about quarterback Zac Lee's abilities, and he has the arm strength and passing abilities that Joe Ganz lacked last year. He's also got a bulked up Roy Helu Jr., who looks ready to become a star all-purpose back. Fellow running back Quentin Castille's dismissal from the team will put more pressure on Helu, but the impact of his loss on the run game has been exaggerated. The offensive line loses Matt Slauson and Lydon Murtha but reloads to form one of the strongest O-lines in the Big 12. The receivers are loaded with talent but a little light on experience. Defensively, Ndamukong Suh is one of the best players in the country. He led or was tied for the team lead in sacks, tackles and interceptions last season, and leads a strong defensive line. The Huskers' secondary and passing game is the point of concern. Even with senior safety Larry Asante and returning cornerback Anthony West, Nebraska might struggle if the passing defense can't get stops -- and picks.

Rallying point: Suh. They're already engraving his name on the Lombardi Award trophy.

Cover your eyes: If Helu's hamstring troubles put him on the bench.

For what it's worth: The only game on Nebraska's schedule that is a highly probable loss is Oklahoma. The division is getting better, but NU is getting better, faster. They've got Texas Tech at home, and the game at Virginia Tech looks much more winnable with Hokie running back Darren Evans out for the season. Watch out on the road at Baylor and Kansas, but if they win every game they should, Nebraska will end the regular season will 10 wins, maybe 11.