Nebraska Athletics: Momentum in the Right Direction
by Drew Guiney
Depending on whom you ask, a number of words could be used to describe the 2013-14 Husker athletic year. Surprising. Exhilarating. Confusing. Disappointing. Redeeming. Some might even give you their graduate-level dissertation on exactly what went wrong, at what exact time, and how the situation could have and should have been handled differently. And, for the most part, no one would be wrong. 2014 was a wild ride for Husker fans, one that left plenty to be excited about next year. Let’s recap.
There’s no doubt that expectations were high for the Husker football team coming into the 2013-14 season. The Huskers looked poised to have a breakout year with a potent offensive attack anchored by senior and four-year starter, Taylor Martinez. However, a nagging foot injury severely limited Martinez for much of the season. Martinez started only four games, including two disappointing losses to UCLA and Minnesota.
Despite his limited playing time, Martinez was able to set Nebraska football records for total career offense, passing yards, completions, and touchdown passes. He also set records for offensive yards and touchdowns in a season, as well as single game completion percentage.
After Martinez’s injury, Nebraska handed the reins of its high-powered offense to redshirt freshman Tommy Armstrong and redshirt senior Ron Kellogg III. Over the course of nine games, the quarterback tandem led the Huskers to a 7-2 record, including an overtime victory at Penn State and an incredible, game-saving Hail Mary in the final second against Northwestern.
The Huskers capped off the season with a victory over Georgia in the Gator Bowl, winning their first bowl game since 2009. Although some fans viewed the season as a bit of a letdown, the Huskers were able to end on a high note. With many key players returning on both sides of the ball, the team is already feeding off of that momentum rolling into the 2014-15 season.
The 2013-14 season was Tim Miles’ second season as head coach at Nebraska. After saying goodbye to the Devaney Center in Miles’ first season, the Huskers moved over to the brand new Pinnacle Bank Arena (PBA). Season tickets in the new arena sold out long before the first exhibition game tipped off, as Husker fans were eager to get a look at the new program in its new arena.
After finishing non-conference play with a record of 8-4, the Huskers were off to an abysmal start in Big Ten play. The team won only one of their first six games, leveling their record at 9-9. After their slow start, the Huskers recommitted themselves on defense, which paid dividends down the road.
The Huskers were ranked 12th in field goal defense in Big Ten when conference play began, but, after the slow start, they picked up the defensive intensity and never allowed an opponent to shoot more than 50 percent from the field in the final 16 games of the season. In one eight-game stretch, they held every team below 40 percent.
The surge in defensive pressure paved the way for an impressive 10-2 finish to the regular season. After the Cinderella-like run, the Huskers were officially on the bubble to make the NCAA tournament. The “Nebrasketball” movement swept through the state, and a record crowd of 15,998 showed up to cheer the Huskers on to victory against the No. 9 Wisconsin Badgers in the final game of the regular season. The win gave the Huskers sole possession of fourth place in the Big Ten. The Huskers later earned a trip to the NCAA Tournament, their first since 1998.
Nebraska set a school record for attendance, averaging 15,419 fans per game. It ranked fourth in the Big Ten and 13th nationally in attendance. The team rewarded the fans’ loyalty by going 15-1 at home, their best record since 1983. Tim Miles was named 2014 National Coach of the Year, earning the Jim Phelan Award. During his ceremony, Coach Miles highlighted the team’s success and reinforced the change in culture, stating, “It was an honor to be a finalist with some of the great coaches around the country. Hopefully it is a sign that people around the country are taking notice of what we are doing at Nebraska.”
Husker legend Darin Erstad has made significant strides in his first three seasons as the head coach of Nebraska baseball.
Once again, the Husker lineup featured one of the Big Ten’s top offenses, ranking 19th nationally in hits, 31st in triples and 31st in batting average. However, Erstad’s commitment to defense was arguably more impressive. In 2013, the Huskers ranked second nationally in fielding percentage (.981), which set both a school and Big Ten record. The Huskers had another solid year defensively in 2014, with a fielding percentage of .976 behind four new starters.
Nebraska pitchers also put together an impressive year on the hill. The pitching staff posted a 3.50 ERA, the team’s lowest since 2006 and the second time since then that the team ERA has been below 4.0.
With a conference record of 14-4, the Huskers finished second in the Big Ten. Nearly 20,000 fans were on hand to see the Huskers take on the Hoosiers in the Big Ten Tournament Championship, held at TD Ameritrade Park in Omaha. Aside from the College World Series, it was the second-largest crowd for a college baseball game in 2014. Unfortunately, the Huskers fell to the Hoosiers, finishing second for the second-straight year.
The Huskers returned to the NCAA Tournament with an at-large bid to the Stillwater Regional. They went 1-2 in the regional, falling twice to perennial powerhouse Cal State Fullerton. The Huskers finished the season with an impressive 41-21 record.
Although fans can describe the 2013-14 athletic year in number of ways, I think they can all agree on one thing—it was a positive step in the right direction. Young, intelligent, vibrant coaching staffs have given their teams a spark and built roadmaps to success. Sure, it’s been an uphill climb back to greatness, but it sure feels like we’re nearing the top. And, in a university steeped in a tradition of excellence, maybe this little push was all we needed.