In 1983, the Scoring Explosion scored 84 points against Minnesota. At halftime, the 2011 Huskers were on pace for 68 points. As improved as the offense is, nobody is confusing Taylor Martinez, Rex Burkhead, and Kenny Bell with Turner Gill, Mike Rozier, and Irving Fryar. Let's be honest: Minnesota is a bad team. Not only that, they are the type of bad team who helps you beat them with penalties, turnovers, and a host of other mistakes.
But by any standard, this was a successful W. Nebraska got in, took care of business early, and got out before anybody (to my knowledge) got hurt. This was win number six, so the NU bowl streak is guaranteed to hit four this December or January. And we can turn our attention to the meat of the schedule starting with a very, very big game next week.
So what did we learn?
Big Red can take care of business against an inferior opponent. Even the most casual fan could see the talent gap between Nebraska and Minnesota. But in the past, Nebraska has been guilty of play down to the level of their opponent (see also: South Dakota State, 2010). Nebraska was coming off of an open week and playing an inferior opponent in a stadium that had big pockets of open seats. Throw in a big showdown next week against Michigan State and one could see Minnesota hanging around while Nebraska worked out the kinks. So it was very nice to see Nebraska get after it and put the Gophers away early. NU scored on their first five possessions, and had this one in the bag before many of the players broke a sweat.
Tim Beck is finding ways to make his QB better. Against Wisconsin, Tim Beck called plays as if he had Tom Brady under center, trying to throw deep and intermediate passes that fell behind receivers or were caught - by the other team. In short, it didn't work - and it didn't play to Martinez's strengths. Against Minnesota, Beck called a number of short out routes, quick hits, and screen passes. The two screen passes were perfectly timed and caught the Gopher defense off guard. Martinez is not going to win games as a classic drop-back passer, but Beck has enough passes in the playbook to make Martinez look really good.
The defense can find the end zone too. Six games into the season, and the artists usually known as the Blackshirts had not yet had one of their own put points on the board. It was nice to see Austin Cassidy make a scoop and score (with some dandy footwork to boot). Here's hoping that the defense can continue their scoring ways in the weeks to come.
So what don't we know?
What does the offense do when defenses stack the box and NU can't connect on the long ball? In the second half, Minnesota packed in their defense to slow down Nebraska's run game. Tim Beck countered by dialing up some deep passes designed to a) exploit one-on-one match-ups and b) make the defense back off the line of scrimmage. That correct response is play-calling 101. But here's the problem: On one series, NU attempted three straight deep balls, which resulted in three straight incomplete passes and a missed field goal. Michigan State has a much better defense than Minnesota, so it stands to reason they will try the same thing: pack the box and make Nebraska beat them over the top. What can Beck do to move the ball?
Where was Kyler Reed? The good news is Martinez completed passes to eight different receivers. The bad news is none of them had "REED" on the back of his jersey. I'm pretty sure Reed made the trip to Minnesota (I think I saw him on TV at one point), so who knows why he was seemingly MIA from the offense. Reed has good speed, good hands, and creates mismatches for defenses. That sure seems like somebody who should be getting the ball more.
Can the Memorial Stadium crowd impact the Michigan State game? On Saturday, Nebraska plays Michigan State in a huge game. Win and they are in the driver's seat for the Legends division title. Lose, and NU needs three MSU losses for a shot at the title (with one of those losses coming from Minnesota or Indiana - in East Lansing). Nebraska can definitely win this game, but they will need some serious help from the fans. Not just the students, not just a handful of fans scattered throughout the stadium, everybody. Kickoff is at 11:00 am, which is typically not condusive to a loud, boisterous crowd. If you have a ticket, do what you need to do to make sure each and every defensive snap is as loud as can be. Make a difference.
5 Players I Loved
- Taylor Martinez. Give the QB his due: he managed the offense well, created when he needed to create, and had very few errors. His stats were not eye-popping, but they didn't need to be - and were it not for a number of drops, they would have been better. Martinez is maturing into an offensive distributor. In my opinion, that makes him much more dangerous than being a threat to take a zone read keeper 80 yards. T-Magic is great, but this team can win with T-Manager.
- Austin Cassidy. Yep, the first defensive touchdown of the season will get you into the Top 5. Bonus points for his sideline tip-toe act to get in the endzone. Maybe this week we'll see the former high school QB come up throwing from the holder position on a fake field goal...
- Kenny Bell. Remember back in the summer when everybody was concerned about our receivers? With the play of Jamal Turner and Kenny Bell, NU looks set for years to come. Bell is becoming Martinez's favorite receiver, and he showed some serious wheels on his reverse run. I had to drop him for his handful of dropped passes, but I bumped him back up because of his sweet hair. The Top 5 is fickle like that.
- Quincy Enunwa. Q, you were absolutely robbed on your holding penatly. The blocking on that play was a thing of beauty. Simply gorgeous. Don't ever stop blocking like that.
- The officials. Raise your hand if you know the correct call on the 4th down play where Aaron Green bobbled the option pitch out of bounds. I didn't, ABC didn't, and I'm guessing you didn't either. But the officials quickly and correctly referenced a fairly obscure rule and made the right call. No officiating crew is perfect - heck, just look at the alleged holding called on Enunwa - but give them credit for getting it right.
5 Areas for Improvement
- Kickoff Coverage. On many of NU's kickoffs, it looked like the Minnesota returner was close to breaking a long return. Combine that what had to be Nebraska's first touchback free game since before Adi Kunalic came to campus, and that means good field position for the opponent. I think we all can agree that Nebraska cannot afford to give up field position to good offenses.
- Defensive Tackle play. Crick is done for the year, and now it is time to see who steps up and takes his place. Chase Rome got the start and played so-so, including a cheap shot personal foul. The other linemen didn't exactly set the world on fire either. The pass rush is still non-existent at times and the run defense isn't so hot either.
- Defensive consistency from a defender not named Lavonte David. If you go back through all of the games this year, you'll notice a trend: two or three defenders have excellent games. One of those players is always Lavonte David. The other player(s) is different almost every week, and is rarely the same player twice. I'd like to see defenders step up and play at a high level week to week.
- Dropped passes. Nebraska's receivers left a lot of yardage and points on the field due to some dropped passes. Yes, we all know that their QB is known for throwing behind his receivers, but let's face it: many of the dropped balls were not Martinez's fault. Hopefully this is just a one game blip and not the start of a trend.
- People who overuse the term "Sparty". I'll admit, I enjoy it when ESPN's Rece Davis refers to Michigan State as "Sparty". It is fun and rather catchy. Unfortunately, everybody, their uncle, and their dog has gotten on the Sparty wagon. Sparty this and Sparty that. On Saturday, we're not playing the Michigan State Spartans, we're hosting a Sparty Party. Give it a rest people. We're still the new kids on the B1G block, let's give it a few more years before we start referring to everybody by their nicknames.