Washington is a good team, one that will almost definitely make a bowl game. It is possible that with some improvement and luck, they could finish in the top four of the Pac 12, but I'd put my money on another 6-6 or 7-5 season. Of course, being one or two touchdowns better than a mid-level BCS team doesn't tell us a whole lot. As Nebraska heads west for their final tune up before entering the B1G meat grinder, we're starting to get a better idea of who this team is, and what they can be.
Just what can they be? First of all, if you're still clinging to the notion of an undefeated, national championship season, it might be time to put down the Big Red Kool-Aid. Unless there is drastic improvement (and a ton of luck), Nebraska fans will not be headed to Bourbon Street this January. I still like our chances to get to the program's standard for a successful season: 9 wins. And make no mistake: 9 wins would be a successful season. The difference between 9 wins and 13 wins comes down to how this team matures, executes, and stays healthy. Just don't expect to have the picture become clearer next week unless something catastrophic happens (knocks on wood).
So what did we learn?
Nebraska can get a 1st down on their opening drive. Nebraska has gone three and out on their opening drive in both of the first two games. On Saturday, I was rather surprised when Nebraska won the coin toss and opted to take the ball (instead of deferring to the second half like every other coach in the nation). Technically, Nebraska only ran two plays on their opening drive, but those two plays - a play action bomb to Kenny Bell and a fullback flat pass - resulted in a touchdown. I'm okay with a two and out when it results in a touchdown.
The offense can put together a sustained drive. Don't get me wrong, I love the big plays, I really do. But I have been wondering if Nebraska was capable of putting together a long drive without the benefit of a big play. Consider this question answered with an exclamation point. Nebraska had five scoring drives of six plays or more, covering an average of 51 yards. I cannot underestimate how important this skill will be in October and November when the Big 10 defenses take away Nebraska's big play ability.
The offensive line can control a game. There are still breakdowns, blown blocks, and various bumbles, but this performance was a positive step forward. NU had over 17 minutes in time of possession in the second half, which is huge considering this team consistently snaps the ball with over 20 seconds left on the play clock. The 300+ rushing yards put a big smile on my face, and it should silence some of the critics for a few days.
So what don't we know?
Can the defense shut down an opponent? For the second straight week, the defense allowed 28+ points, 250+ passing yards, and let a RB gain over 130 yards. And for the second straight week, there were receivers running wide open, huge holes up the middle, as well as a mix of long, sustained drives and short, quick strike drives. Obviously, Bo and Carl have more than earned the benefit of the doubt when it comes to running a superior defense. But let's be honest: if we were playing a top 10 team next week, how many of you would like our chances to hold them under 35 points? What about in two weeks?
Can the kick and punt coverage units avoid big returns? I didn't say anything about the punt return TD in the Fresno game, because sometimes the stars align and an average returner takes one to the house. It happens, and you move on. But when the normally solid kickoff unit gives up 187 yards on 7 returns (one of which was a 1 yarder), there is cause for concern. Yes, Eric Martin was his beastly self on a couple of tackles, and the hustle of Matt May and friends led to a cheap score, but remember it took a Brett Maher tackle to save a touchdown.
How will Nebraska play away from home? Next week, Nebraska dusts off the red pants and travels to Mountain Time to take on the Wyoming Cowboys. I like how the schedule is set up to allow a road game test run in a relatively non-hostile environment (look for a lot of red in Laramie) before the big trip to Madison. However, I'm curious to see how Martinez audibles with crowd noise and if the team is looking forward to Wisconsin. Nebraska has much more speed and talent than the Pokes, but it remains to be seen how they'll play on the road.
5 Players I Loved
- Offensive Line. They have been knocked around, abused, and disrespected - and that is just from their own fans. Playing without Andrew Rodriguez, I figured the backs were in for a long day at the office. Instead, the O Line led the way to my favorite statistical milestone: a 300+ yard rushing day. When NU gets 300+ rushing, you can almost always count on a win. You'll notice a trend with the next three guys on this list, and they all have the O Line to thank for their success.
- Rex Burkhead. I had Sexy Rexy penciled into the Top 5 after his back to back 1 yard TDs gave him 12 carries for 82 yards. But his work in the 4th Quarter, when he almost single-handedly drove NU down the field, etched it in stone. Nebraska fans know and appreciate hard, tough running and Burkhead brought the Memorial Stadium crowd to their feet multiple times with his efforts. You have to go back the mid-90's glory years to find a back as consistently good at getting the extra yard as Burkhead.
- Aaron Green. I am not a recruitnik. I do not spend my time drooling over grainy YouTube clips of high school kids tearing up the competition, nor do I get too concerned over the latest 4 star Nebraska is pursuing. With that said, I can see what the hype was about for Aaron Green. His TD catch was a thing of beauty, but the real artistry came on his multiple carries in the 4th Quarter. He showed a patience and willingness to let the play develop that you do not see from a true freshman, and then he turned the corner with excellent speed. Honorable mention to fellow freshman Braylon Heard for a nice performance too.
- Tyler Legate. Three touches for the fullback? What in the name of Makovicka is going on here? The little pass from Martinez on the opening drive was a good play call, as Washington was not expecting it. An even better call was the fullback dive in the 3rd that gained 36 yards and caught everybody off guard. You may have noticed that the longest run of the day was not by Martinez, Burkhead, or any of the dynamic freshmen, but by a humble fullback from Neligh.
- Tim Beck. Nebraska's offensive coordinator had the best play calling day of his short career. From the opening snap bomb to the fullback trap to the Martinez QB keeper rolling out around the left end after Burkhead had been pounding it up the gut, Beck consistently had kept Washington off-balance and on their heels. Since Beck is also the QB coach, I'm giving him credit for the way he is protecting the franchise QB. Martinez has been fairly willing to run out-of-bounds this year, and on Saturday, he slid safely after several of his scrambles, avoiding big hits. While sliding and running out-of-bounds is not in the textbook definition of "Husker Football", credit Beck for remembering how poorly the team played last year when Martinez was hurt.
5 Areas for Improvement
- Pass Coverage. I thought about calling out one particular individual (hint: his little brother is listed above) but the entire secondary has ownership of that performance. There were Husky receivers running open all game long. If Washington QB Keith Price was a little more accurate on his throws, we could have been looking at a much different result. Nobody knows what is wrong with Alfonzo Dennard, but he needs to get better in a hurry.
- Pass Rush. Part of the blame for the 274 passing yards allowed on Saturday lands squarely on the shoulders of the front seven. Yes, the secondary is struggling, but it is pretty tough to cover somebody for an extended period of time. Nebraska is not generating anything resembling a pass rush, and the QBs from Fresno State and Washington had all kinds of time to find an open receiver. When somebody has gotten pressure, they are failing to make a play. Will Compton should have had two sacks, but instead he came up empty.
- Taylor Martinez's option decisions. He keeps when he should pitch, and he pitches (and sometimes wildly) when he should run. Obviously, nobody becomes Tommie Frazier, Eric Crouch, or Scott Frost in a single offseason, but it some more fine tuning is in order here. If not, nobody will respect the pitch and Martinez will take an additional pounding.
- Penalties. By the previous standards of the Pelini era, seven penalties for 60 yards would be considered a good day. But coming into the Washington game, Nebraska had only committed six penalties for 58 yards, so NU doubled their penalties and yardage in a single game. I'm not terribly concerned about the penalties at this point, but this team cannot afford to relapse into old habits.
- Mother Nature. Was it mid-September or early November? Temps in the 50s with a cold mist in the 4th Quarter that did more to send the faithful for the exits than the scoreboard. Somebody owes me a shirt-sleeves game down the road.