Elf on the Shelf 2014 – Day 2

If you haven’t heard about the Nebraska Cornhusker football team firing head coach Bo Pelini, I’d wager to bet you’re either living a quiet life off the grid surrounded by miles of undisturbed nature or you somehow spent the past three days lying unconscious in a bathtub filled with ice.

Better check those kidneys.

But seriously, let’s face it…there’s not a whole lot of news that comes out of Nebraska. With the exception of a lovely little story about a woman trying to run over a couple who unknowingly stole her parking spot in the local Wal-Mart lot that made national news last month, you’ll find very few mentions of this quaint little section of the country making headlines.

Then we fired our football coach, and all hell breaks loose.

I’ll freely admit it. I’m a big fan of Bo Pelini. I’ve liked him from the very first game of the very first season. I like his passion. I like his focus. I like the fact that he doesn’t mince words or put on a fake smile or allow the frenzied media to back him into a corner. I like the fact that in addition to being one helluva football coach, he also cares very deeply that those boys who march onto the football field on Saturday also excel in their academics, give back to the community, and learn how to be humble and gracious beneath the weight of the one of the most loyal and passionate fan bases on the planet.

I like to see my favorite team winning championships as much as the next guy. But I don’t believe in compromising morals or values or the futures of those young men on the field just to claim a shiny trophy at the end of the season. I’d much rather support a coach like Pelini–a coach who believes in building a solid foundation off the field first. So yes, I’m sad to see him go, because of the wonderful things he’s done here, and for the things I believe he was going to do if he’d been granted the same tenure as our beloved Tom Osborne. I have no doubt that he will go onto greatness somewhere. And I know there are a lot of folks around here who are wishing him well, and who will never forget him.

So things are a little crazy here in Nebraska right now, as we’re caught in this strange spot at the end of the season, waiting to play in an undetermined bowl game, and waiting to see who will be chosen to step into some very big and empty shoes.

Seems the news made it all the way to the North Pole, because we found Cosette this morning giving our disheartened mascot, ol’ Herbie Husker, a little pep talk.

Sweet little elf. She’s part of the Husker family now.

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Go Big Red! And godspeed, Mr. Pelini. You’re a great coach, and one helluva human being. You’ve officially made it onto my “People I Want to Have a Beer With” list. Thank you for all that you’ve done. I’m happy that you will always be part of our Husker history.

365 Project – Day 315 – Why I Am Proud to Be Nebraskan

If you’ve turned on the television or radio, or opened a newspaper in the past five days, you’ve probably heard at least a little something about the sex abuse scandal going on at Penn State. Our media has been doing what they do best this week–taking a negative story and horrifying the general public with all sorts of speculations and worst case scenarios while reporting just enough of the truth to keep everyone tuning back in for more.

Yes, there were unspeakable crimes that took place at Penn State, and I truly believe that these initial allegations are only the tip of the iceberg. But I don’t believe that the 24/7 media coverage is doing anyone any good. Instead, it has only managed to create an atmosphere so unstable that students ended up rioting and some peoople were speculating whether Nebraska players and fans should even travel to Pennsylvania for today’s matchup between the Huskers and the Nittany Lions. Hell, some people even questioned whether the game should be played at all.

But personally, I am glad that the game was not canceled. Like the first Major League Baseball game played by the New York Mets following the 9-11 tragedy, the Penn State family needed something that could bring them together and start them on the road to healing. And today, I believe they found that something.

Husker fans arrived in Happy Valley, not quite knowing what to expect, and yet they did what Husker fans always do…they greeted their hosts with warmth and humility and looked forward to a day of football. Even from my seat here in my Lincoln living room, I could feel the emotion as the Penn State players started their slow march onto the field. And then, something extraordinary happened.

This first YouTube video was captured on the cell phone camera of a Penn State fan attending the game…

And here is a video a clip of what we saw on the televised broadcast, as the players and coaches and staff came together on the field before kickoff. And for those of you who don’t know the man leading the prayer, that’s Ron Brown, Nebraska’s Running Backs Coach. Not only did he share a very powerful message with both teams before the game, he also wore blue to support the Penn State “Blue Out” to raise money and awareness for child abuse.

And finally, a clip from one of the AP reporters who got close enough to record some of Ron Brown’s inspirational words as he shared them with the players, coaches, cheerleaders, staff, and press that gathered around him at midfield…

And if these links done work or for some reason you can’t view the videos, just go to YouTube and search “Nebraska Penn State pregame prayer” and you’ll find them.

Today, more than any other day, I watched my team with a renewed sense of pride. Ron Brown was right. All eyes were on this game today, and both the Huskers and the Nittany Lions played their hearts out on the field and showed everyone who was watching what being an adult and being a team is all about. Growing up is about learning to face what life throws at your with grace. It’s about doing what’s right, even when what’s right is not popular. It’s about doing what you can to help others in need and standing up for what you believe in. It’s about overcoming obstacles, facing adversity, and never, ever giving up.

It’s hard to hear everything Brown said in that short video, but a few of the reporters that spoke with him afterward asked him if he could relay some of his message, and he said:

“I said ‘Why us? Why us, lord? Of all the years. Joe Paterno left Brown University and came here in 1950. Nothing changed here forever. Then all of a sudden, it all changed this week. Why this week? Why Nebraska? Why this Penn State team?’ We can’t control those things. What we can control is our attitude, our spirit, that we bring to this game. There are a lot of little boys out there, watching this game, trying to make sense out of life. They are asking, ‘What is manhood?’ May we demonstrate to them what manhood is, to come out and play the game of football, with ferocity, with passion. I thanked God for choosing our teams to play this game. We were the little boys who grew up playing football. This was our moment to show the world. There are a lot of issues out there, a lot of questions, regarding child abuse. What we can do, on this field, is show them what respect is, respect for each other, respect for God. And then I asked God for his hand of safety. A lot of people didn’t know what was going to happen today. They saw people rioting the other night. They wondered what might happen today. They thought this place might explode. I felt like God held his hand of healing over the stadium today. I know some people may not understand that, but I think there was a reverence in the crowd today. A respect for one another, for the players, for the game. I think that’s what we saw today.”

Like Bo Pelini said in his postgame interview, what is going on at Penn State is much bigger than football, and a lot bigger than the game that was played on that field today, bigger even than the moment when the two teams came together and bowed in prayer and the more than 100,000 fans in the stadium fell silent. I may not be an overtly religious person who goes to church every Sunday and prays on a regular basis, but I know the hand of God when I see it. Something happened in Pennsylvania today. An important lesson was learned. A ray of light began to shine in the darkness. Today, like every other day, I am proud to be Nebraskan.

365 Project – Day 273 – What’s Wrong with the 2011 Cornhusker Football Team?

So, I would be lying if I said that I wasn’t a little nervous about the Huskers being officially welcomed to the Big 10 tonight by the Wisconsin Badgers. I mean, we Husker faithful have been glued to every game since week 1, and well, we’ve definitely seen some things that made us worry–missed tackles, a bumbling secondary, and a whole lot of fumbles. But perhaps it is the three things that we haven’t  seen a lot of that should be greater cause for concern–those signature Taylor Martinez running plays, some solid Blackshirt defense, and a red-faced Bo Pelini yelling on the sidelines.

I’ll start with Martinez. Here is a kid that I honestly feel has a whole lot of potential. He’s got a good arm, and you’d be hard pressed to find a quarterback playing college ball right now that could beat Martinez in a foot race. Better yet, he’s not just fast, he’s elusive. He can duck and juke and and slip through almost nonexistent holes in the line and make it look like child’s play. We’ve been watching this kid for a year now, and there’s a reason that we fans got excited when we saw what he could do on the field. There’s only one problem though–everyone else was watching too, and it didn’t take our opponents long to start fighting back.

The problem I see with Martinez is a lack of maturity and confidence on the field. There is no doubt in my mind that this kid has the talent to be a really great quarterback, but first he needs to decide that he actually wants to lead this team. Football has always been a game of momentum. Great plays lead to greater plays. Big tackles lead to bigger tackles. And hard fought victories lead to truly amazing seasons. Martinez took Husker Nation (and the rest of the nation) by storm when the 2010 season began, putting up big numbers and showing off his speed and agility. Then, he got cocky and downright farsighted in his approach, like he was striving to be a hero instead of the leader the team really needed. When an unfortunate injury put a noticable chink in his armor, everything just started to fall apart.

Watching Martinez through these first 5 weeks of the season, something just isn’t right. Moments of greatness are followed by moments of glaring inconsistency. We’ve seen long accurate passes followed by inexcusable fumbles, amazing scrambles for long gains followed by sloppy sidearm passes that are picked off with ease by the opposing defenses. In tonight’s shellacking by the Wisconsin Badgers, I watched Martinez throw three gut-wrenching interceptions, and it was like deja vu–Martinez drops back, scrambles, starts to run, then apparently changes his mind and heaves the ball across his body without taking the split second he needs to set his feet, and suddenly the ball is in the hands of a member of the Wisconsin secondary. Had Martinez committed to the run, I’m certain that he could have broken the line and run for a first down, if not more. Had he committed to the pass and taken a moment to set his feet and square his body, I think the he would have been rewarded with a number of completions and quite a few more points on the board.

And perhaps that is Martinez’s biggest problem this year–his lack of commitment. Just as there is no crying in baseball, there is no hesitating on the football field. Know your plays, know your teammates, and know your options, because as soon as that ball is snapped you’ve got one Mississippi, two Mississippi, three Mississippi to make a decision and stick with it. It’s do or die out there gentlemen, and tonight we didn’t see a whole lot getting done.

And while we’re on the subject of a whole lot not getting done, it’s time to talk about the Blackshirt defense. The tradition behind the Blackshirts is a rich one, and I encourage you to read more about it if you’re unfamiliar by clicking HERE. For over 40 years now, Nebraska’s Blackshirt defense has made a name for itself as one of the most dominant in college football. Even when we have had some really tough years offensively, our Blackshirt defense has made Nebraska a force to be reckoned with.

This year, however, I’m not sure whether our defensive players have really even earned their black shirts. In just 5 games, Husker opponents have scored 160 points. That’s an average of 32 points a game.

32 points!

This isn’t the NBA people. Allowing the opposing team to score an average of 32 points a game is pretty much committing defensive sucide in most sports, football included. Between the missed tackles and our opponent’s receivers having enough space to show off their ballroom dancing moves in our secondary, it’s a wonder that we’ve actually been able to keep our average points against at just 32.

Don’t get me wrong, I have an enormous amount of respect for our defense and for the vital role they play in each and every game. I’m not ignorant enough about football to believe that any game can be won by the offense alone, but I have to admit that what I am seeing from Nebraska’s Blackshirt defense this year is starting to scare me. Something just isn’t clicking out there, and it’s resulting in a whole lot of preventable touchdowns.

The way I see it, playing good defense is all about learning to read your opponents and learning to listen to your intuition. No matter how good the opposing offense is, it is always possible to stop them, but first you need to settle down and start paying attention. A fine-tuned offense is a lot like a symphony being played renowned orchestra. There may be some changes in rhythm or some pauses along the way, but there is always a pattern. There is always a somewhat natural progression of notes and chords and cadence. Learn to recognize the rhythm and you can find a way to disrupt it. Learn to anticipate the changes and you can write your own melody.

I think the biggest mistake defensive players can make is to simply react. If that’s all you’re doing when you take the field against your opponent, then you have already lost. Instead of simply reacting, good defensive players must follow Ghandi’s advice and “be the change [they] want to see”. Forcing fumbles, stopping runs, and intercepting passes are not reactions, they are actions. Good defensive players don’t just sit back and wait for things to happen, they make things happen. They incite. They ignite. And, most importantly, they light a fire beneath the rest of the team.

And if there is anything the 2011 Huskers are missing, it’s that fire.

That being said, it’s time to talk about Bo Pelini.

There are few people in this world who can get more visibly fired up than Bo Pelini. If I were making a Top 5 list, Pelini would rank right up there with Lewis Black, MeatLoaf (after being locked in room with Gary Busey), a ‘roid-raging Danny Bonaduce and Adolf Hitler.

The thing that sets Pelini apart, though, is that his rage is always justified. See, Pelini is a guy who loooooooves football. For him, it’s not just about winning. It’s about going out there and giving it absolutely everything you’ve got, and then some. If Pelini is giving one of his players a verbal bashing on the sideline, then you can be sure that player deserves it. Maybe he wasn’t paying attention and ended up jumping offsides, or maybe he was too busy planning his route to run for the touchdown before he’d even made sure that he caught the ball. See, Pelini knows that ridiculous, careless mistakes can be the difference between a win or a loss that week, and when he catches one of his players making one, it’s his job to get that player’s attention and make sure he doesn’t do it again.

And yeah, maybe Pelini has done his fair share of yelling at the referees too, but I doubt he has ever said anything to those officials that you or I haven’t screamed from our living rooms as we watched blatant holds get overlooked or a magic second get added to an expired clock in a conference championship game.

If you ask me, guys like Bo Pelini are what real coaching is all about. As a coach, it is your job to motivate and inspire, to counsel and critique, to teach and correct. As a coach, it is your job to help an otherwise ordinary player tap into his potential and to mold an immature squad into a fine-tuned machine. You don’t forge steel with gentle nudges and delicate hands–you use force and fire. And you don’t lead an army to defeat an enemy with smiles and a soft-spoken request to “do your best”–you train them and test them and push them to the very edge before you can finally be sure that they are ready to be unleashed and hold their own in the battle. Anything less and you might as well just tied them up, blindfold them and lock them in a room with a pack of hungry wolves.

Sadly, this season, Pelini seems to have lost a bit of his fire. Maybe he is just a little reserved as he focuses on assimilating our Huskers into their new conference. And maybe he is still feeling the sting of being publicly admonished for a few rather candid displays of emotion during nationally televised games last season. Whatever the issue, I hope he clears it up fast, because our Huskers need someone who can light a little fire beneath them this season if we hope to make more than just a lackluster debut as the newest member of the Big 10. Come on, Pelini, let’s get this party started!

We Huskers have a long season still stretching out before us, and we have far too much talent and determination and pride to let it end the way it did tonight in Madison. So, let’s learn our lessons from this loss and head into this next week of practice with a renewed sense of ourselves, our strengths, our weaknesses and our goals. Let’s go, Big Red! We’re all right here behind you.