Saturday, July 25, 2009

Huskers need to conquer road challenges to return to elite

With all the good things that the Nebraska football team did in 2008 under first-year head coach Bo Pelini, some people have their expectations tempered by the team having to break in a new starting quarterback (most likely Zac Lee) and losing wide receivers Nate Swift and Todd Petersen to graduation.

“Expectations” are certainly a word that will likely be uttered often as Big 12 Media Day begins Monday in Dallas. Defensive end Ndamukong Suh, running back Roy Helu and offensive guard Jacob Hickman will make the trip with Pelini.

The Huskers, who went 9-4 in 2008, are tabbed a slight favorite to win the Big 12 North with Kansas being the team’s biggest threat but I would not sleep on Colorado or Missouri just yet either, especially the former.

Omaha World Herald columnist Tom Shatel addressed in his recent column that the Huskers status as “favorite” to win the Big 12 North might be by default as much as anything based on the team’s aforementioned situation at quarterback and wide receiver. Shatel reasoned that Nebraska’s defense should continue to improve in Pelini’s second year along with the fact that the team should be a solid running team on offense. Shatel also added that every other Big 12 North team has its issues as well.

The biggest reason to hedge slightly on expectations for the 2009 Huskers is their recent history as a road team. Since the infamous Black Friday 62-36 loss at Colorado, the Huskers are 16-25 away from Memorial Stadium (neutral site games included) and 13-21 in non-neutral site games.

That stretch has included its share of decisive losses (two defeats by 40 or more points, six by 30 or more, 11 by 20 or more, and 16 by 10 or more). True the loss in 2006 at USC (28-10) was no disgrace. After all, the Trojans went 11-2 that year finished as the No. 4 rated team in the nation. However, the embarrassing defeats were not just against quality teams like the 2004 and 2008 Oklahoma Sooners, whom Nebraska suffered 30-3 and 62-28 defeats to in Norman. Both years, the Sooners reached the National Title game only to lose. In 2007, Nebraska losses 41-6 to a Missouri team that finished the season ranked No. 4 and 76-39 to a Kansas team that finished year rated No. 7. And we won’t even begin to address the 70-10 debacle at Texas Tech in 2004. The Red Raiders finished the 2004 season rated No. 18.

The Huskers also got their doors blown off by mediocre to crappy teams. In 2002, the Huskers lose 36-14 to an Iowa State team that went 7-7. In 2004, Nebraska loses 45-21 to a sorry ass Kansas State team that goes 4-7. In 2005, the Huskers lose 40-15 to a pretty average Kansas team that went 7-5. In 2006, the Huskers allow a 16-0 lead to an ordinary Oklahoma State to slip away into a 41-29 loss. To quote legendary Green Bay Packers coach Vince Lombardi, I say, “What the hell’s goin’ on out here!”

Very few of the 13 wins have come against quality foes. The Huskers scored come-from-behind wins at Texas A&M in 2002 (38-31) and 2006 (28-27). The former Aggies club went 6-6. The latter went 9-4, finishing the year ranked No. 24. There’s two ways to look at those wins. One, those Texas A&M teams were fairly ordinary but it also takes some moxie to go into College Station to win because the crowd noise creates a home field advantage that is among the best in the nation. There’s a reason why their crowd is referred to as “the 12th man.”

In 2004, the Huskers scored a 24-17 win at Pittsburgh against a Panther team that went 8-4 and finished ranked No. 24. In 2007, Nebraska went into Winston-Salem, North Carolina and beat eventual ACC champ Wake Forest 20-17. OK, two wins against good clubs but it’s not we went into Tuscaloosa and beat Alabama.

In 2005, Nebraska’s 30-3 win over Colorado in Boulder was a big win at the time in the Bill Callahan era because it was shocking and unexpected but the fact that the win was part of a four-game losing skid by Colorado took some of the shine out of that win.

Point being, as much as Nebraska improved last season, it still lacked a quality “true” road win. The Huskers went 2-2 on the road last season (3-2 away from Memorial stadium. Beating Clemson 26-21 in the Gator Bowl was impressive since Jacksonville, Fla., is near the Tigers home turf in Clemson, South Carolina but there were plenty of Husker fans in attendance.

Nebraska defeated Iowa State (which finished 2-10 in 2008) 35-7 and Kansas State (which finished 5-7) 56-28. The wins count, no doubt, but the Huskers should win those games whether they are played in Lincoln, Ames, Manhattan or the North Pole. You can make the argument that Nebraska was a play or two away in losing 37-31 in overtime against Texas Tech team that went 11-2. True but if Pelini won’t accept moral victories why should we? Also, losing 62-28 at Oklahoma is one thing but the Huskers need to at least look like they belong on the same field as the Sooners.

If the Huskers want to take a step forward and improve on the 2008 progress – it will have to gain no worse than a split in their road games at Virginia Tech, Missouri, Kansas, and Colorado. Even Baylor won’t be a sure thing.

Good teams win, period, no matter where they're playing. It's always a challenge to win consistently on the road. It's definitely one of the best feelings a team can have -- go into someone else's place and come out with a win, but that is what the good teams do. Being able to win on the road is what sets teams apart.

However, it isn't only intangibles that make for successful road teams. It also is not just a lack of character that accounts for bad road performances. There is a football element involved, too, and that should not be overlooked.

Good road teams that run the ball well tend to be success. Why? Because even in an era of highly sophisticated passing games and spread offenses, running the ball is the surest recipe for victory. On the road, it often takes the home crowd out of the game because, for fans, there is nothing more energy-sapping than watching the opposition's offense monopolize the ball. Teams that win on the road tend not to panic and abandon their game plan if they fall behind early, and they find a way to hang in against adversity. And they don't turn the ball over -- a transgression in any contest, but particularly in road games.

Generally, teams that succeed on the road are simply good teams but they are also teams with collective will, resilience and staying power, and those are traits only the best teams possess.

1 comment:

  1. I sent this idea in a Big Red Network but don't think anybody really talked about it, and maybe it's not a big deal. But do you suppose that Pelini, coming into a completely new conference with new coaches, new O-coordinators to face, and new stadiums to prepare for, made some headway by coming into contact with those teams last year? Shouldn't that be a learning experience that he and his assistants can draw from?

    I always thought that was what made bowl games so fantastic...usually the teams haven't played anyone like their opponent all year because of the styles that different conferences have, and meeting on a 'neutral' field can really show what a team is made of. As you mentioned, that spells good things for DONU if one looks at the gator bowl. GBR!