So whose fault was this one?
Niles Paul? The defense? The coaches?
Regardless of whom you cast the blame on, Nebraska's narrow 31-30 overtime win over scrappy Iowa State was a stressful game if there has ever been one.
Before I begin, I think we all need to tip our hats to the Cyclones. There wasn't a team they wanted to beat worse than Nebraska, and they took the Huskers to the wire.
Iowa State isn't a very good team in terms of consistency and overall talent level, as evidenced by two lopsided losses to Utah and Oklahoma, but there isn't a team in the nation that played with more heart on Saturday.
When it looked like the Huskers had the game in the bag, up 24-10 in the fourth quarter, the Cyclones battled their way back with two touchdowns and gave Husker Nation a huge scare.
With that being said, Nebraska should never have given Iowa State that chance.
When the Huskers went ahead 24-10 in the third quarter after going into halftime down 10-7, it looked like they had finally come alive and were on their way to a comfortable win.
Alas, complacency got the best of the Big Red.
After some sloppy defensive play allowed the Cyclones to pull back to within seven, Niles Paul took the kickoff out instead of kneeling in the end zone. Not only did Paul not get to the 20, he fumbled the ball away and gave the Cyclones a 1st-and-10 inside the red zone.
Talk about a momentum shift.
After an alarmingly easy touchdown from Austen Arnaud to Alexander Robinson, the game was suddenly tied, and all the momentum was on the side of the home team.
Give credit to the defense for stiffening up and forcing the game to overtime after the Husker offense stalled several times, but this game should never have gone to overtime in the first place.
After an easy Rex Burkhead touchdown on the Huskers' first overtime possession, it became quite clear how much the Huskers missed their stud cornerback Alfonzo Dennard when Arnaud hit a touchdown pass against Anthony West, Nebraska's third stringer.
Where second stringer Ciante Evans was is still a mystery to me, but had Dennard been healthy enough to play, he would've broken that pass up or even intercepted it.
When Iowa State predictably decided to fake the extra point and go for two, peso back Eric Hagg saw it coming and made a heady, game-saving interception for the Huskers. Only then were Husker fans able to breathe a huge sigh of relief.
Nebraska's offensive MVP was Burkhead, who took 20 carries for a tough 129 yards and two touchdowns and ran the wildcat very effectively in the absence of Taylor Martinez. Roy Helu Jr. also had a nice game with 98 yards and a touchdown on 22 carries.
Defensive MVP honors go to Hagg, who had two interceptions, including the game-saver on the two-point try. Lavonte David had a decent game as well, and Prince Amukamara was his usual self in shutting down his man all day.
Throughout this game, it was pretty clear to see that the Huskers sorely missed their starters at quarterback and cornerback. On offense, Burkhead and Helu combined for twice their normal number of carries. While a big reason for that was a wind factor, which seemed to dictate who had the momentum, the Husker coaches obviously have a lot more confidence turning Taylor Martinez loose than turning Cody Green loose.
Green didn't play a bad game, but he only attempted 12 passes and nine rushes for a total of just 88 yards. Needless to say, Martinez brings an element to the offense that Green just doesn't have yet.
With Dennard out as a result of a concussion, the pass defense struggled. True freshman Ciante Evans started the game in place of Dennard and was replaced by senior Anthony West later in the game for reasons I don't know. Both players had touchdown passes caught against them.
The significance here is that both of those touchdown passes were scores that Dennard would very likely have prevented. One can only hope that the Huskers' best cornerback (yes, Dennard is better than Amukamara—I may have just opened a huge can of worms, but I'm sticking to my claim) comes back at least for the Texas A&M game.
While it's hard to blame anything but the Huskers' complacency and the lack of Martinez and Dennard for the scare, the officiating was, of course, nothing short of pathetic.
Didn't I just write, "Get used to it, Husker fans" in my last article?
Yes I did, because it's obvious, not because I'm any smarter than anybody else. The Big 12 officiating is pretty poor in general, but it'll be worse for Nebraska.
One astonishing call that stood out in this game was Helu's "fumble" in the second quarter. While there wasn't enough video evidence to overturn the call on the field, as the ball was obstructed by the bodies of several players, the call should never have been a fumble in the first place.
You couldn't see the ball anywhere until Helu had been on the ground for about three seconds (after his forward momentum had been stopped and he had been held up off the ground for another three), which means the ball was probably in his arm the whole time.
Helu knew it wasn't a fumble, and you could tell when the Huskers got the ball back. But when the officials got their chance, they gave ISU the benefit of the doubt. No surprise there. The Cyclones capitalized on the "fumble" with a touchdown.
The other call that really stood out was maybe one of the worst calls I have ever seen.
With the Huskers leading 17-10 and knocking on the door, Burkhead pounded the ball in for his first score of the game. When an Iowa State player grabbed Burkhead by the bottom of the helmet and started wrenching his head backwards in an attempt to force him back out of the end zone, a flag was called.
Facemask, right? Personal foul? Something?
Yeah, it was a personal foul—but not on Iowa State. It was on Husker fullback Tyler Legate—for giving an ISU player a little shove.
First of all, to flag a player for a light push is bad enough. In goal line scrums, there is shoving going on all over the place, in every game, at every level. That's part of football. Guys are trying to get other guys off their teammates. It is just inconceivable that they would throw a flag on that.
But what's worse, they missed a clear personal foul against Burkhead in a situation that reminded many of the infamous facemask against Eric Crouch in 1999, in which a Kansas State player nearly tore Crouch's head off. Burkhead's head wasn't quite as twisted around, but it was unnecessary and dangerous nevertheless.
This stuff is really getting old. What Nebraska needs to do is feed off it. The Huskers make a living on the "us against the world" attitude. If they can channel their emotions into this type of mindset, they could conceivably go out as the last Big 12 champion in a year where the Big 12 itself went out of its way to keep that very thing from happening.
Talk about killing two birds with one stone.
But before that can happen, the Huskers must regain their focus, prepare for a Kansas team that will scrap just as much as Iowa State and play their remaining three games with discipline and urgency.
The Big 12 championship is out there for the taking.
Will the Huskers seize it?
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