It’s a new season, and that means there’s a lot of heavy lifting to be done in Nebraska.
Football: What’s in a Name?
That includes, of course, for the Nebraska Cornhuskers themselves: three consecutive three-win Big Ten seasons and a peak of 5-7 overall in 2019 leave a lot to be desired, of course. While quarterback Adrian Martinez has had his moments—and we’ll get to the latest hilarious chapter in the Luke McCaffrey saga tomorrow—on offense and the Huskers have enjoyed offensive production from playmakers like the now-departed Wan’Dale Robinson, though, no one has doubted Big Red’s ability to put up points.
The problem has been, overwhelmingly, the defense.
At best, under now fourth-year defensive coordinator Erik Chinander (himself an Iowa Man), the Huskers have been a middle-of-the-pack offering on defense — by S&P+ 63rd in 2019 and 38th in 2020, but by FEI 83rd in 2018, 45th in 2019, 62nd in 2020.
In Big Ten tradition, it’s easy (perhaps lazy, though you know the site you’re reading, so you don’t get to be surprised) to place those issues at the feet of the defensive front: while the Huskers have improved their stuff rate, their sack percentages have ranged from 50th (at best, 2019) to 93rd (in 2020), though both are up from an initial 103rd-best performance in 2018.
As our friend Jon Johnston over at Corn Nation noted, though, this could be the year the Huskers put it all together on defense: 9 of 11 defensive starters return, including acrobatic DB Cam Taylor-Britt, run-stuffing nose guard Damion Daniels, and hybrid playmakers like JoJo Domann. There’s potential, but we’ve yet to see UNL put it all together: for most, there are a lot of “could bes” qualifying the Husker defense’s shot in 2021.
Of course, that’s more than enough for some like Sam McKewon of the Omaha World-Herald, who has pronounced Chinander a “keeper” based on...uh...a few guys sticking around?
That’s it! We’ve got “seasoned Blackshirts” — nothing more to ask here, no sir. Sam’s gonna get his scoops, damnit, and he’ll carry as much water as it’s required to get them.
(We were also given this hilariously titled or hilariously sad—you can choose!—YouTube video back in 2019:)
Yes, that title IS “THE Blackshirts are Back! Nebraska’s Defense vs South Alabama 2019!” I’m amazed Ol’ Sam didn’t edit it himself...though perhaps Chinander’s dry-cleaning was ready. Tough to do both these days.
Here you go, writers:
(1) Is a “seasoned” (or at least “could-be”) defense enough to get Nebraska over the line to relevance in the Big Ten West? How do you see the Husker D finishing in 2021?
(2) What’s an outdated or no-longer-relevant point of pride, a la “Blackshirts”, that your school, team, or fanbase is hanging onto?
(3) Feel free to name and shame your team’s “homer” journalist—yes, WSR, even you. Not everyone in the Twin Cities hates the Gophers like Reusse.
MNW: I think even “competent” gets Nebraska into a bowl game in 2021 — losses like Northwestern and Purdue and 2018, Colorado and Purdue again in 2019, Illinois in 2020...all preventable. Easily. That depth—along with a DB transfer in Ohio State’s Tyreke Johnson (which I thought was bad, transferring, but what do I know—despite the loss of senior LB Will Honas to injury should result, if the spring game was any indicator, in a Top 50 defense.
Does that feel damning with faint praise? Sure! But when a bowl game is your goal, that’s enough.
Northwestern is hanging onto the point of pride that we used to suck, and thus that everything ought to be excused. Hell, I’m partially of this mind — I’m a moron screaming if there’s a 3-9 or who demands 10-win seasons or FiRe FiTz...but neither am I just shrugging casually if the ‘Cats are bad. I got the response I wanted with Mick McCall’s firing, though, and think that middle ground could hold a little longer.
There aren’t enough Northwestern journalists—the Chicago Tribune doesn’t have an assigned beat writer!—to pick on anyone, though in the blogosphere and commenting world, uh…
WSR: Outside of a complete lack of an offensive line not made of traffic cones, the one consistent of Nebraska football under Scott Frost has been bad defense. Between players that aren’t good enough and Chinander’s “coaching,” I’m not going to be sold on this group being anything more than mediocre until after I see it. One of the most important things I’ve learned is that bad players don’t automatically get better, they just get older. Nebraska’s defense is definitely older this year.
You know, I’m not sure if there’s another one to add that’s not hockey-related, but I have a tradition that we should absolutely embrace. Minnesota was far ahead of the curve on integration and have done absolutely nowhere near enough to acknowledge that Sandy Stephens was the first African-American All-American QB. If we’re going to try to hype up everything around the Gophers football program, let’s go overboard on something that’s worth overhyping.
The Gophers don’t have anyone in the media that carries water for them. The Strib only cares about getting a Pulitzer for uncovering a scandal like the Pioneer Press did with the basketball team, and the Pioneer Press has 17 employees left (most of whom work in ad sales, I believe). Sports radio spends every non-commercial moment of airtime talking about who will be the last 4 men cut from the Vikings roster, and TV news is spent covering actual news.
Green Akers: Well, the last two Dantonio teams taught me that a huge volume of returning experience doesn’t necessarily mean you’re getting the breakthrough you expect, but I am fairly optimistic about Nebby’s defense, if only because it would be hard for the offense to turn the ball over as often as they did last season.
Right? Right?!? Yessir, I’m tying this aspect of the team as well to the issue of whether Frost’s staff can get Year 3 Mostly-Starter Adrian Martinez to take better care of the ball. The thing about Nebraska’s defense is there’s plenty of room to improve while still being bad, which is always a fun sensation (glances at MSU’s offense).
I’ve made this case before so I’ll be quick about this: Tom Izzo’s long pedigree of tournament magic abruptly ran out in 2015. Gotta stop saying Mr. March until he takes another team deep without a generational point guard (or just gets another generational point guard, that’s fine too). One early flameout is perfectly excusable, two is concerning, but I’m personally at a point where I can’t help but wonder if he’s still got the postseason touch.
(1) What do we mean by relevance? Playing spoiler to a would-be division contender? Sure, I can see UNL reaching that level, provided the defense takes a step forward. For them to do that, having some consistency and experience certainly seems like a prerequisite. Though, you’d think that there would have been at least some evidence before now. So….I guess call me skeptical it actually happens until it does.
(2) Two things jump to mind with this. We constantly get told by announcers that haven’t done an ounce of research that Iowa is a good running team. There has been so little evidence of that for the majority of the last decade. Sure Iowa’s had some bright spots here and there and some good individuals, but the running game as a whole is pretty bad.
Also, as much as it pains me, ANF has been completely co-opted by the Iowa Farm Bureau, a lobbying firm for large scale factory farms that has completely gutted family farms and gone against everything it once stood for. It’s embarrassing and infuriating.
[ed. note: Stew is absolutely correct; in fact, “ANF” was a convenient lifeline for the Iowa Farm Bureau right away in 1985 as they struggled with a huge image problem—the National Farm Bureau president, an Iowan, had gone to Honolulu for their yearly conference as Iowa fans went out of business by the hundreds! Later that year, the Farm Bureau watched gleefully as the 1985 Farm Bill set us on a decade-long road to the Freedom to Farm Act, which has destroyed family farming AND the environment, so great job all around, folks. In 1990 Hayden Fry got an honorary Farm Bureau membership for his water-carrying, too.]
(3) The worst offender is Pat Harty who mostly just writes whatever the AD tells him, and he’s not particularly great at that, either.
However, I feel the need to briefly mention Scott Dochterman, now with The Athletic. He’s a damn fine reporter and writer, who has broken a few stories at the conference level as well, and does good research. But it’s become obvious that he has some sources high in the AD, and that it has affected some of the slants on stories in the last couple of years. And I don’t really blame him with the way the industry has gone. He’s got a good job and good sources and he’s not going to lose those by being overly critical.
1) I kind of hope a seasoned defense can be good even if it never has shown much cromulence up to this point. Have I mentioned that Illinois brought back 21 super seniors, more than any team in the country?
2) Illinois has FIVE national title in football! Red Grange! Dick Butkus! I mean, I make fun of nebraska for talking incessantly about their relevance from 20 years ago, but Illinois’ time on the scene as a serious national title contender is approaching it’s centennial.
3) Rees Woodcock, his “writing” is as bad as his name is awesome.
1) Every year at least a dozen P5 teams set themselves up for disappointment by just counting returning starters and assuming a certain level of improvement out of them. Until Nebraska’s defense doesn’t suck, I’m going to assume that it does suck.
2) I was in the stands the night the “Jump Around” tradition started. I think it’s awesome. If you don’t agree, I get that. It’s been over 20 years, and it’s been duplicated enough that most people don’t even know where it started at this point. I hope it continues, but unless you ask me, I won’t bore you with the origin story anymore—though Drew Brees did attempt 83 passes that night.
3) I don’t live near Madison anymore, but since Andy Baggot went from the local paper to working for UW, he strikes me as a pretty sound answer.
Beez: (1) Nothing short of canning Scott Frost will get Nebraska back to relevance in the West, which is really saying something! This is a division that’s ripe for really anyone to be relevant in. Frost isn’t gonna do that.
(2) Wisconsin needs to let go of the belief that its student section is raucous or some sort of advantage. It’s a perfectly average student section, beginning in the mid-2nd quarter.
(3) I don’t know anything about local Wisconsin reporters now, and I don’t think I ever did. The most “homer” “journalist” I know is probably one of the other Wisconsin “writers” on this site, I guess?
[Thank you for playing, wisconsin fans, but we were looking for “Jeff Potrykus.” “Jeff Potrykus.”]
Food: Let’s carry some (Elk Creek) water
I know I’ve brought it up before, but one of my favorite nights in Lincoln was after the 2011 Northwestern victory — the UNL fans were overwhelmingly gracious, even as we were out drinking on the town that night. At one point we wound up in Sandy’s on O St. (I was much younger, Husker readers, lest you judge me), where one of our already-inebriated friends managed to sneak away inside the bar…
...cue us finding him, 10 minutes later, with two pitchers of the (in)famous Elk Creek Water, a straw in each, and both in his mouth.
Not quite a screwdriver, if the copycat recipes are to be believed, Elk Creek Water is essentially OJ with a wider range of booze. And it is, if my addled brain has held onto it over the last 10 years, definitely worth a try. You could even get it to-go during 2020! (Or you could try one of BRT’s probably infinitely-classier recommendations for visiting Nebraska…)
So tell me, writers:
(1) Elk Creek Water. Wouldja?
(2) Any stories from a visit to Lincoln or visit to Nebraska that we should know about?
(3) Give me a popular—and preferably local—mixed drink from your college days or wherever you are now.
MNW: I have, and I would again.
The only other thought I have is RIP to The Spigot, a bar that we stumbled into later that night because downtown Lincoln was getting too rowdy for us. Sitting at a dirty table in the main area of the bar, suddenly our ears caught some, uh, suggestive lyrics from the sound system: “Two in the pink / and one in the stink…”
That was the night I learned of Steel Panther.
Our mixed drink of course in the Northwestern Marching Band was “Wildcat Spritzer”: you would “borrow” a Gatorade cooler from the band staff and fill it with Everclear, generic vodka and silver rum, pour a bunch of two-liters of lemon-lime pop in there, and then dump in a couple canisters of purple Kool-Aid. Couple proprietary rituals later, and voila! You’re gonna be sick tomorrow.
WSR: Would I? Jesus no. I have a family. I mean...that’s what I should probably say, but my tune would almost certainly change if one were set in front of me.
Yes, but I’m not sharing. I’m an idiot, and Lincoln can be a fun place.
Sorry, wouldn’t know. I’m boring. I’ve been drinking beer and whiskey since I was...well, I’ve been drinking beer and whiskey for a very long time.
Green Akers: As long as we’re not in Chicago, I’ll try whatever your local drink is once. And yes, my road trip squad and I made the trip to Lincoln in 2018 to watch the most Late Dantonio game I can come up with, where both offenses were flat out trash and a blizzard moved in at halftime so my friends and I got to stand there and watch our team lose a field goal contest in a near-whiteout. Lincoln seemed cool though, and BRT is right that Honest Abe’s kicks ass.
As for mixed drinks, on the days when I would be dragged into the Whiskey Barrel in East Lansing, people swore by the Blue Motorcycle, which as near as I could tell was just a huge mug of vodka and blue curaçao. But that fit just fine, because if you wanted me to line dance, that’s about what would have been necessary beforehand.
- Absolutely, I would. The only hesitation I have when it comes to trying adult beverages is when Jager (or Jager adjacent) is involved. So yes, I would definitely down a pitcher of Elk Creek Water with whomever.
- In college I was on the cross country team and we would always take a week long trip to Rocky Mountain National Park to begin our season before school started. My senior year we were headed home and the car I was traveling broke down outside of Kearney. Ended up needing a new transmission and we were stranded there for 2-3 days while it was getting fixed. I can’t tell you much of anything about Kearney except that you definitely do not want to get stuck there for a few days.
- Jungle Juice was a popular drink at house parties in college. It’s essentially mixed fruit juices with several different types of alcohol, typically with cut up fruit in it. We’d make it with a 1.75 each of white rum, vodka, gin, and a fifth each of triple sec and everclear. We’d mix with Hawaiian punch and frozen concentrated juices (lemonade, limeade, orange, grape, and apple juice).
1) I’m not a huge fan of sugary drinks, but of course I would do it once. I’ll try most anything once.
2) I went to a convention in Omaha once upon a time. We went to eat at a steakhouse that specialized in martinis. Being a rube from central IL, I had never had a martini, but certainly wanted to try it. But there are so many variations and as I kept trying to find out which martini would be my favorite, I didn’t realize just exactly how potent they were. I had at least six before settling in on a stirred, dry, dirty martini with bleu cheese stuffed olive as my martini of choice. When I stood up to leave, I realized that I could barely stand up. As I was heading to my room, a friend said he had some drinks in his room and as I generally make poor choices in such scenarios, I decided to go have a drink. The drinks turned out to be Fireball, which is never a good idea. Next thing I know, a janitor is waking me up at 6 AM on the floor of the elevator.
3) I fondly recall the sticky floor of Kam’s and their Jagermeister on tap from my Champaign days.
1) I would probably try Ek Creek Water once (as in take one sip, not order one for myself). I’m not young and the mornings after are more consequential than they used to be. No need to compound that with sugared rotgut. [See 3)]
2) As a kid, the spider monkeys at the Henry Doorly Zoo were memorable. Camped for a weekend in Ponca once. Less memorable. The trip a couple of buddies and I took to Lincoln for a UW/Nebraska game proved just how nice Nebraskans are. The only cross words we heard were from the cabbie at bar time and, to be fair, we probably earned those. Oddly one of the things I most recall was there was a big balloon release in the stadium before the game started. Subsequent commentary: [Friend 1]: “Oh that’s great. Now all the balloons will end up in the water and kill ducks or sea turtles.” [Friend 2]: “What water? It’s fucking Nebraska.”
3) If it’s Madison, you’re probably talking the Fish Bowl at Wando’s. However, like WSR (who, I find, I am agreeing with way too much), I just want to drink my beer in peace, so I gravitate to places that do NOT feature any special drink. [In younger days, the sort of Everclear concoction that Stew speaks of may or may not have ruined multiple of my Saturday nights. Fortunately, that was before digital cameras, so you can’t prove anything about the flaming shot of 151.]
Beez: (1) Yeah I’d drink that for sure. Or at least try it.
(2) I drove through Nebraska a few times on the way to/from Colorado. It seemed nice enough and had gas stations.
(3) The fish bowls have been mentioned. Wisconsinites love their Old Fashioneds, which are a garbage drink made worse by the bizarre substitution of brandy for bourbon. Locally...I’d say Cheerwine mixed with really any booze would be delicious and local. Also Cheerwine is fantastic if you’ve never had it.