And just what will happen under the bright lights at Camp Randall, in front of a national audience, likely with the ESPN Gameday crew there to over-analyze every last nook and cranny? Will Nebraska be exposed as the overrated pretender? Will NU put together the first true signature win of the Pelini Era (OU in 2009 was big, but a top 10 team on the road, at night with all of the hype and build-up would be epic). How much will it truly matter if NU loses? Will all of the Husker fans with tickets really wear black? Are the wild internet rumors of black helmets true? So many questions, so few answers.
Whenever I'm asked how I think NU will do in a big game against a tough opponent, I never predict a score, say we will win, or forecast a loss. I simply say, "I do not see any reason why we cannot win". And that same politician-approved answer holds true here. I know many people have grave concerns about what happens this week in Badgerland, but I don't. Yes, there is much to improve and clean up, and yes a repeat of the 2007 USC nightmare is not out of the question, but I think this team and their coaches are capable of getting the job done. But before we look ahead too far, let's take a look back at a fun night in Cowboy country. The Bobfather would have been proud of his former programs.
So what did we learn?
The offense can still put up big numbers without Taylor Martinez dominating. One of the knocks on Nebraska has been that so much of the offensive production was going through Taylor Martinez, either running or throwing the ball. Against Wyoming, Martinez had a mortal 12 rushes for 37 yards. His longest run was 9 yards. Last year, that would have been cause for panic. However against the Cowboys, Martinez seemed to channel his inner Joe Ganz. He managed the offense, led long drives, and completed over 50% of his passes to 8 different receivers, and let other make plays. He wasn't the star, nor did he need to be. The maturation of Martinez continues.
The O Line gets stronger as the game goes on. First things first: as the Versus TV crew pointed out, Nebraska's O Line enjoyed a 50 point per man advantage over Wyoming's defensive line. That said, the line play in the first half would not have earned the Milt Tenopir Seal of Approval. Going into the second half, there was some concern over how the line would play as fatigue from the 7,000+ foot elevation started to set in. But once the second half started, the line started to take over the game, leading to a 4th Quarter where NU rolled down the field using little more than simple toss sweeps. Let's put it another way: here are the rush yards gained by quarter against Wyoming: 1st: 54; 2nd: 59; 3rd: 87; 4th: 133. When the defense is struggling to close out games, it is reassuring to know the O Line is capable of taking big chunks of time off the clock.
Tim Beck gave Wisconsin something new to look at. The Rex-cat formation made it's 2011 debut in the second half, with excellent results. I was a little surprise that it came out this week, as it might have been a nice - and unexpected - change of pace next week in Madison. But then again, I've always been more checkers than chess, and now Wisconsin has something new to prepare for. I'll wager a jumbo order of cheese curds that there will be more wrinkles coming out next week. A Jamal Turner pass off of that WR screen, perhaps?
So what don't we know?
How long will growing pains of youth last? This is a very, very young team. In a quick scan of the roster, I counted 18 guys who are sophomores or younger that played a lot of snaps last night before the game was decided - and that is probably low. On one hand, this is excellent because a) it is great to develop depth, and b) some of those young guys - Corey Cooper, Thad Randle, especially. - show signs of being dominant players. But on the other hand, at times the abundance of youth was very obvious. Mental breakdowns, sloppy technique, and general mistakes that one would not expect from a more seasoned player. I completely understand the Pelini philosophy that players need to make mistakes to truly learn, but with the exhibition season over, it is time to start growing up - and quickly.
Will Bo hand out Blackshirts this year? In the first few years with Bo in charge, I didn't really like his approach to handing out the coveted Blackshirts. I preferred the McBride method of giving the Blackshirts during fall camp, and I even liked the idea (from Bohl? Cosgrove?) of making the jersey presentation into something of a ritual ceremony. But I get it now: Blackshirts are EARNED, not given. The question is, will this defense ever earn them? I think the answer is "yes", but I am not going to venture as guess as to when that might be. It definitely won't be before Saturday.
Where are the big plays on defense? An insight to my Husker passion: usually by this point in the season, I have soreness in my forearms from "throwing the bones" after big defensive plays. That soreness (and occasional bruising) usually goes away in early February. This year, my forearms are pain-free from a lack of sacks, interceptions, fumbles, big pass break-ups, and tackles for loss. Against Wyoming, the sacks and TFLs were there for the taking, but most ended with a Husker defender grasping at air. The closest thing to a big play was a PJ Smith interception - which I'm discounting because the Wyoming receiver was open by a good ten yards in any direction.
5 Players I Loved
- Rex Burkhead. Another dynamic performance from Rex. He showed speed on his long TD, elusiveness on his Rex-cat runs, and power on almost all of his other touches. With Rex, Roy Helu, and Brandon Jackson before him, and the freshman trio coming up, we could be in the middle of a golden age of Nebraska I-Backs.
- Tyler Legate. Go back and watch Burkhead's 45 yard TD run again (I'll wait). Did you notice the amazing, diving block by Tyler Legate that was the difference between a 15 yard run and a 45 yard TD? That block was a thing of beauty, and that block alone is worth of inclusion here (honorable mention to Quincy Enunwa, another personal favorite, who also had an impressive block on that run). Throw in another solid night of being the lead hammer for Rex and the Freshmen (Rex & the Freshmen. I think my Dad had that album from the 50's) and Legate played a huge roll in Nebraska's 333 rushing yards.
- Brandon Kinnie. I, and many others, have been critical of BK for his untimely drops thus far in the season. On Saturday, BK came up with some big catches, and showed great effort getting extra yards after the catch. While my boy Quincy Enunwa has overtaken Kinnie for the title of "best blocking WR", BK still holds his own and uses his size very well. Here's hoping Kinnie's confidence is back and carries over next week.
- Brion Carnes. It was nice to get the freshman some reps after his shaky performance against Chattanooga. But he is on here for a single play: an option he ran with Austin Jones late in the 4th Quarter. It may have been mop-up duty, but it was the single best option play Nebraska has run since 2002. Carnes took the snap and ran parallel down the line (not bubbling backwards like Martinez likes to do). Carnes engaged the end, got him to commit, gave a great waggle juke move, and executed a perfect last second pitch to Jones, who scampered off for a 22 yard gain. Simply gorgeous.
- Western Nebraska. One of the many amazing things about Nebraska's 314 game (and counting) sell out streak is the large number of fans from Western Nebraska who come to each and every game (and my Lincoln/Omaha friends, when I say "Western Nebraska", I'm not talking about Grand Island, or even Kearney. I'm talking Mountain Time). These people are driving 4+ hours each way for a 3 hour game, and even farther for any road game outside of Colorado. At $3.50+ per gallon, that level of commitment is not to be taken lightly. Therefore, it was wonderful to see NU schedule a game just down the road in Laramie so some of these dedicated fans could see their beloved Big Red up close and personal. NU fans showed up big in Laramie.
5 Areas for Improvement
- Run Defense. Yes, Wyoming only ended up with 137 yards rushing, but there are still far too many yards being gained right up the gut of NU's defense. The best of the Blackshirt defenses followed a simple plan to dominance: stop the run, make 'em one dimensional, then pin your ears back and go have some fun. Until Nebraska can shut down the run game, a very green secondary (pun not fully intended) will be at risk of being exploited for big plays.
- Pass Defense. It was great to see Alfonzo Dennard back on the field (but what was up with the cheap shot personal foul? Dude, you know better). Unfortunately, teams are having far too much success throwing the ball against Nebraska. With my relatively untrained eye, I'm seeing two key issues: 1) a pass rush that is either not getting pressure or is allowing the QB to scramble long enough to find an open receiver, and 2) breakdowns in coverage by younger corners and safeties. I think both of these are correctable, it would just be nice to see that correction happen. Meanwhile, you'll notice that Bo and Carl are trying out different combinations of players in the secondary looking for a good fit. Memo to the Pelinis: Conference play is typically not the best time for auditions.
- Fumbles. On Saturday, Nebraska fumbled it four times, losing one. This brings the season totals to 13 fumbles with 2 lost. By comparison, Nebraska's opponents have fumbled only six times and lost it twice. One of the biggest culprits has been Taylor Martinez, who was responsible for two fumbles on Saturday, and several more so far this year. Ball security hasn't cost NU...yet, but I think we can remember how costly it can be.
- Taylor Martinez's passing. Let me make one this clear: I love T Magic as a QB, and I think he brings a game-breaking quality that the QB position has lacked for years and years. I am convinced that NU will be more successful with Martinez as QB than they would be with any other available QB (and I'm including Cody Green, Bubba Starling, Jamal Turner, and the injured Kody Spano). That disclaimer out of the way, I'm getting downright scared over what a good secondary will do to NU's passing game. Of biggest concern: the short throws that are behind receivers, and the long throws where I'm quite certain he yells "500!" as he lobs it down the field.
- Ticket Express. Those of us who could not score a Wyoming ticket got to watch the game on Versus, which did a pretty good job with the game. The problems came during the commercial breaks, especially when an old Husker nemesis reared its head: gawd-awful commercials for Ticket Express. A year or two ago, the first TE ad debuted, featuring a semi-attractive gal in a jersey dress who is not pleased because her seats are not in the club level. Where to start? You know she's trouble because the jersey dress is from the dreadful 2002 Denver Broncos-wannabe collection, and anybody who complains about having Husker tickets needs to be "Facebook. Deleted." This same lady was back in two new spots: one which was rather forgettable - our heroine "Ticket Express Girl" sitting in a coffee shop sending an email to B1G commish Jim Delaney ($20 says that ends up in his Spam folder). The other is certain to be a classic, taught in advertising schools across the country: Ticket Express Girl was dressed up for Halloween as an inappropriate police officer. Why? I saw the ad three times and I really couldn't tell you. All I know is it was a train wreck of an ad and Ticket Express Girl should find a new agent.