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Monday, January 15, 2007

Big Red Roundtable #1

Today we have the first edition of a new feature here at DXP, the Big Red Roundtable. The concept of the Big Red Roundtable is to garner the insights and opinions of Husker bloggers on a variety of Nebraka or college football-related subjects. The Big Red Roundtable will include DXP, Big Red Network, Corn Nation, and Husker Mike. Today's edition includes a series of questions developed by me concerning the recently completed 2006 season. You can find my answers below, and the answers from the other participants will be linked to when available.

Husker Mike's answers are here.
Corn Nation's answers are here.
Big Red Network's answers are here.

1. As a Nebraska fan you no doubt had a well-conceived set of expectations for the year. How did the 2006 Nebraska season jive with your preseason prospects?

Going into the 2006 season, my goals for the Huskers were to win 9 games and to capture the Big 12 North title. Early on, I had penciled in losses to USC and Texas. In addition, I predicted we would lose one unexpected game on the road against an opponent that we were capable of beating. I also assumed we would fall to the South champ in the Big 12 title game. Given these assumptions I really thought we would be 9-4 going into a bowl game. I somewhat overestimated our ability to prepare for a quality bowl opponent and really thought most match-ups favored the Huskers. That being said, I have a hard time being disappointed with the way the season played out, as it was almost completely in line with my expectations.

2. Given the long-standing success of Husker football how does losing five games influence your overall evaluation of the 2006 season? In other words, do the losses keep you up at night? Are you comfortable rationalizing them in some way? Or do you take the optimistic perspective of focusing on the left hand of the W/L column rather than the right hand?

I’ve heard from a number of Husker fans who are uncomfortable attempting to rationalize a five-loss season. Many fans deem this type of season “unacceptable”. Whether it is being optimistic, or making an attempt to rationalize, I think it is important to attend to the quality of opponent that Nebraska fell to 2006. The only game that we weren’t particularly competitive in was the USC game, and one could argue that we still looked better against the Trojans than did a Michigan squad that many believed should have been playing for the national title. Costly turnovers did us in against Texas and Oklahoma, but at times in both of these games, Nebraska looked like the better team. The one loss that does keep my up at nights is the Oklahoma State game. As I commented shortly after that game, it looked as if we laid down for the Cowboys in the second half. Our effort and execution bottomed out and for the first and only time all season, I questioned the progress the program was making.

3. Now that the season has come to a close we know that Coach Callahan will go over all areas of the team with an IRS auditor’s attention to detail. Help him out by offering a brief assessment of the 2006 offense, defense and special teams.

I was generally very pleased with the offensive performance of this year’s team. Finishing 14th nationally in total offense and 17th in scoring offense is testament to the continued progress of Callahan’s “O”. I was more than impressed with the improvement in the running game. It is hard to argue with going from averaging less than 3 yards/carry in 2005 to finishing 23rd nationally in rushing offense. I would still love to see more consistent play from the offense in “big” games. At times we have sputtered and almost seem to lose our offensive identity when facing speedy and talented defenses. I am also looking forward to the days of dominating offensive line play. Although the 2006 line was much improved, this area still seems like a work in progress.

Defensively I also saw a lot to be impressed with. I tend to still feel as though we have more talented athletes on the offensive side of the ball. Because of this, Cosgrove has had to make due with what he has available. Clearly losing Bowman and breaking in two new safeties impacted the play of the secondary. When I look back at the disappointments of the 2006 season they mostly involve players out of position, or unable to make plays in the secondary. This is an area that must improve, and actually should if our recruiting classes the last few years are as good as advertised. Philosophically I’m still not sure I always understand Coz. He’s shown the ability to plan an attack that at the very least keeps us in big games. At the same time, however, overmatched opponents have often found ways to gash our defense for big plays. Overall, I was very pleased with 2006 Blackshirts and hope to continue to see the defense improve.

One area that Callahan and Co. have not found a way to improve is our special teams. Our return games are anything but dangerous. While we improved in 2006, we seem to have a long way to go before we are breaking games open with our special teams play. Our 2006 kicking game was pretty mediocre. Dan Titchener seems to be a capable punter, but Jordan Congdon certainly did not build on his freshman All-American campaign from 2005. Now that he is out of the picture our kicking game has only become more muddled. One thing I will note, however, is that I actually like our strategy on kickoffs. I think we will soon see more and more teams adopt the strategy of trying to place kickoffs between the hash and the sidelines inside the 10-yard line. I like forcing the opponent to field the ball cleanly and to protect it, while sending our kickoff team down with the idea of stopping the return inside the 20.

4. No post-season assessment would be complete without handing out some hardware. Who are your 2006 Nebraska offensive and defensive MVPs and why?

My offensive MVP is Brandon Jackson for a number of reasons. The first of which is that the team just seemed to click when he was in the line up. He gave us a back that could go the distance on any play, was capable of getting tough yards between the tackles, and also seemed to do the best job of picking up blitzes. After averaging just 2.7 yards per carry, a year ago we knew Nebraska emphasized the running game in the off-season. BJax was able to return from injury and take the running game onto his shoulders. In 2005, Nebraska had just 1152 net yards of rushing. This season Jackson produced 989 yards rushing on his own, despite starting just 9 of 15 games. BJax also led the team with 1459 all-purpose yards, a 5.3 yard/carry average, was third on the team in receptions and led the Huskers with 10 TDs. I think these numbers speak for themselves and my biggest regret from the 2006 season was that Jackson had just 2 carries against USC.

My defensive MVP is Adam Carriker, although he did not quite have the year I had expected. With that said he still finished the year with 52 tackles, 16 TFL, 7 sacks, 11 QB hurries, one blocked kick and an interception. Carriker was enough of a threat to cause teams to account for his presence on each play. In addition, his play helped clear the way for the emergence of Jay Moore on the other side of the defense. It will be interesting to see how Carriker develops in the NFL.

5. For something completely different. If you had to name a coach of the year from the Nebraska staff whom would you select? This can be based on any number of things, including performance of a particular unit or the improvement of a particular aspect/unit over previous seasons.

My Husker coach of the year is defensive coordinator Kevin Cosgrove. Despite all of the negative attention he has received, his gameplans kept us in every game we played this season. Clearly there were two disappointing games from a defensive standpoint (Kansas and OSU), but I worried less and less about the defense as the season progressed. Cosgrove also gets my vote for his work with a relatively inexperienced defense and for having to adjust to the loss of Zack Bowman. Coz had two new and unproven DTs, first-time starters at both safety spots, a midget at one CB, and an untested JUCO at the other CB spot. Folks will point to some defensive statistics and where we stack up nationally to vilify Coz, but in the last two games of the season I had much more faith in our defense than our offense.

6. And finally, bust out your mental scrapbook. What is your favorite/most impressionable or defining memory of the 2006 Husker season? This can be a play, a game, a thought/image, or in CBS March Madness terms – “One shining moment”.

My biggest memories of 2006 still come from the Texas game. A lot of this might be because it was the only game I managed to see in person, but it certainly had a lot of other variables in its favor. The early kickoff meant a “kegs and eggs” start for Husker Nation as Big Red faced a Top 5 team at home. Chilly temperatures and unexpected snow only added to an electric atmosphere in Memorial Stadium. With our front four making plays and Steve Octavien flying around, one couldn’t help but flash back to the Blackshirts of the 90s. Offensively we saw an amazing catch and score by Purify, absolutely tremendous effort from BJax to find the endzone on the shuttle pass, and a halfback pass to give us the late lead that was absolute perfection. The late fumble dampened the overall mood, but by season’s end served only as a reminder of how close we just might be.

Please feel free to post your answers to these questions in the comment section.