For Nebraska football fans, Michigan State’s win over Ohio State in the Big Ten Championship Game was exciting but also just the slightest bit galling. After all, it was a five-turnover performance by Nebraska against Michigan State in Lincoln that opened the door for the Spartans to win the conference title.
So what must Nebraska do to walk through that door, bring home the Stagg Championship Trophy and put a number after the lonely “1999” on the West Stadium sign for conference titles? Here are five things that need to change for Nebraska to lift that trophy in December 2014.
All stats from cfbstats.com.
In the last three games of the 2013 season, Nebraska turned the ball over 10 times. Those turnovers, more than anything else, were what turned the tide in Nebraska’s two losses in their final three games, killing any chance it may have had to play for a conference championship.
Nebraska ended the season No. 120 (!) nationally in turnover margin. The new B1G champion Spartans? No. 7 nationally. As the light bulb commercial says, "if you argue with math, you will lose."
There are times when a problem becomes so bad that it becomes a parody of itself. Nebraska’s punt return game reached that point when, against Iowa, returner Jordan Westerkamp was so focused on the Hawkeyes’ downing of a punt at the NU 1-yard line that he successfully fielded a fair catch of the next punt.
At the Nebraska 3-yard line.
Nebraska is never going to have the kind of elite athletes to compete on a level footing with the best teams in the country. It needs an edge, and one of those edges can and should be on special teams.
Rather than surrender yardage on every punt (Nebraska was No. 123 nationally in punt returns in 2013), Nebraska should be focusing on being one of the best in the country and stealing yards—and therefore points—in the return game.
The only upside to the comedy of errors that was Nebraska’s punt return game in 2013 is that it was so bad that the need for change is obvious. Ross Els is currently Nebraska’s special teams coordinator. And the linebackers coach. And the recruiting coordinator.
Perhaps more focus on the punt return game will yield better results.
Redshirt freshman Tommy Armstrong and senior Ron Kellogg did admirable work in filling the shoes of four-year starting quarterback Taylor Martinez after his injury. But there is little doubt that the offense Nebraska ran in 2013 was designed for Martinez.
Watching Kellogg run an option (hide your eyes, children) is proof enough of that thesis.
Next year, Nebraska will be blessed with a number of options at quarterback, with Armstrong competing against Johnny Stanton, Zack Darlington and Ryker Fife (seriously!) for the starting job.
Each player has his own particular strengths and weaknesses, and it will be up to offensive coordinator Tim Beck to tailor (or, to continue the pun, un-Taylor) Nebraska’s 2014 offense to match up with those strengths and weaknesses.
For a season that started with huge questions about the defense, Nebraska ended the 2013 season ranked No. 34 in total defense. Take a look at this table, showing how the Blackshirts improved throughout the campaign in terms of total yards allowed.
|Opponent||Total Yards Allowed|
|South Dakota State||504|
Nebraska’s front seven, with the return of defensive end Randy Gregory and the continued development of a young linebacker corps, should be a source of strength for NU in 2014. If the Blackshirts can continue the trend from the end of 2013, a trip to Indianapolis is a realistic expectation.
Next year, with the addition of Rutgers and Maryland, Nebraska’s divisional home will change. Gone is the “Legends/Leaders” monikers, replaced with easier-to-remember “East/West” names (although the “B1G East” might cause some confusion with a few basketball fans). More importantly, though, Nebraska’s divisional rivals will change.
Gone will be the annual games against Michigan, Michigan State and Penn State. In their place will be annual matchups with Purdue, Illinois and (most importantly) Wisconsin.
Nebraska heads to Madison on Nov. 15, 2014. Sure, to win a title Nebraska will have to beat Minnesota and Iowa (which it could not do in 2013). But if Nebraska has any designs on winning a B1G title, it has to figure out how to deal with its new divisional rivals as well.
Or, you could always use the Twitter machine to follow @patrickrunge.