Instead, I'm going to tweak my usual format to take a look back at the 2012 season as a whole.
So what did we learn in 2012?
Nebraska's offense has a lot of weapons. In 2013, Nebraska's offense will return the vast majority of their offensive yards and touchdowns from 2012. How much, you ask?
- 81% of rushing yards.
- 85% of rushing touchdowns.
- 71% of rececptions and receving yards.
- 67% of receiving touchdowns.
- 99.6% of passing yards.
- 100% of passing touchdowns.
And while the 2013 offense will also return 100% of the interceptions, and almost all of the fumbles lost, I think there is a good chance the offense can be even better this fall.
There is not a lot of middle ground with Taylor Martinez. Love him. Or hate him. He's the reason we win. Or he's the reason we lose. T-Magic or T-ragic. Martinez is one of the most explosive athletes in college football, capable of scoring from anywhere on the field. Martinez is a destructive force, leading the nation in fumbles lost. Again. Martinez's passing mechanics are greatly improved. Martinez still looks like a shot putter being knifed in the back when he throws. There have been other Huskers who have had more detractors than Martinez, but I can't of many who have such a polarizing split of opinions. I'm guessing that won't change in his senior season - especially if Tommy Armstrong has a good showing in the Spring Scrimmage.
There is middle ground with Bo Pelini, but it is shrinking. And speaking of polarizing figures...In an Omaha World-Herald poll conducted in September, Pelini had a 78% approval rating. But - take a closer look at the numbers: only 29% identified themselves as "strongly favorable", while a similar amount (26%) said they were "neutral" or "strongly unfavorable" on Pelini. Keep in mind - this was before ugly losses to Ohio State and Wisconsin, and a bowl loss to Georgia. After the Big Ten Championship game, the anti-Pelini crowd became a little more vocal and the expectations for 2013 got a little higher.
So what don't we know?
What happened on defense? At many points during the season, the defensive performance was embarrassing: big plays, poor tackling, shoddy fundamentals, bad angles, little pass rush, and yards (and points) in big, big chunks. In NU's four losses, the defense gave up an average of 53.5 points and 595 yards of offense - and that is not a typo. The big debate is why: is it defensive talent (or lack thereof) or is it scheme? Is Bo still the same defensive genius he was in 2009, or did players like Ndamakong Suh make him look better? Personally, I think it is a combination of both. As others have noted, it is not likely that any of the eight senior Blackshirts will be drafted in the first three rounds. I also believe that the transition from the wide open spread offenses of the Big XII to the grinding, pro-style offenses of the Big Ten has impacted both scheme (replacing the "Peso" defender with a slower, less athletic linebacker) and talent (thin ranks at linebacker, recruiting a different type of athlete while shifting focus from Texas to Ohio). For the record, I'm optimistic about 2013 when an influx of young talent should begin to blossom into the play makers that Nebraska's defense has been missing.
What happens if Taylor Martinez gets hurt? In August would anybody have wagered that Taylor Martinez would not miss a snap in 2012 due to injury? Hell no, talk about a longshot wager. And good thing too - no disrespect to Ron Kellogg III, but there is no way Nebraska wins 10 games this year if Martinez gets hurt in October. Bo Pelini cannot afford to make the same wager in 2013. He must - MUST - have a capable, competent backup QB who is ready to play at a moment's notice. This backup must get a decent amount of practice reps each week, but more importantly, they need to get on the field - and not with a 28 point lead and four minutes to play. I'm talking about giving a first half series to the backup QB, so he can lead the team, feel the intensity, and actually be able to do something other than hand-off to the 4th string running back.
How much longer will the sellout streak last? The sellout streak at Memorial Stadium reached 325 games this year. This fall, the East Stadium expansion will bump Memorial Stadium's capacity to around 92,000. A waitlist for the new seats has started, with a minimum suggested donation of $150 per seat to have a chance at tickets. So you'd think the streak is pretty safe, right? But...for most of the home games (pretty much every one except for the season opener and Wisconsin) there were lots of tickets for sale outside the stadium and throughout downtown Lincoln. The economy still isn't all that great, but everything involved with going to a game (tickets, donations, parking, concessions, and pre/post game activities) are not getting cheaper. With the Big Ten Network, every game is televised in quality high definition, I wonder when season ticket holders will abandon their tickets in favor of watching at home.
5 Players I Loved (All Season)
- Taylor Martinez. You would have to be blind (or extremely biased) to not see his improvement in passing, running, decision making, and mastery of the offense. Martinez is already atop the all-time charts in many categories, and with a strong senior season, he could put up numbers that will last for decades. Of course, his legacy will be defined by whether or not he ends the 2013 season with a ring. If we've learned anything about Martinez in the last three years, it is that you bet against him at your own risk.
- Ameer Abdullah. When I think about Abdullah's 2012 season, I can't help but think about Ahman Green's 1995 season. Both were fairly raw talents who were backing up franchise running backs (Rex Burkhead and Lawrence Phillips, respectively). When the #1 guy was unable to play, they each came in and performed better than anybody expected, dazzling fans with their speed, power, and vision. This isn't to say that Abdullah is going to follow Green's career path as one of the greatest backs in school history, but that Ameer did a wonderful job of easing the impact of Burkhead's injury.
- Kenny Bell. In 2012, Kenny Bell went from being "that skinny kid with the big Afro" to one of the most complete wide receivers in a long, long time. He can make tough catches on 3rd down, stretch the field, get open, pick up yards after contact, and developed into a fierce blocker and team leader. Expect big things out of Bell in his final two seasons.
- Ciante Evans. Arguably the best defender on the team. While he's not yet the complete package (see how Georgia attacked him in the bowl game), he's equally adept in coverage, run support, and is one of the better open-field tacklers on the team.
- Cam Meredith. I thought his seaon at Defensive End was somewhere between forgettably adequate and unremarkably average, but Cam makes this list for his efforts at Defensive Tackle when Baker Steinkuhler went down. We all know that Cam would have been an ideal tackle - in 1985 - ,but he is quite undersized today. I have a lot of respect for guys like Meredith who are willing to play out of position - and take a beating in the process - to help the team win.
Honorable Mention: Rex Burkhead, Jack Hoffman, Eric Martin, Justin Jackson, Andy Janovich, Brett Maher, Will Compton, Ben Cotton
5 Areas for Improvement
- Special Teams. How bad were Nebraska's special teams? The defense gave up buckets of yards and loads of points, and it was not the worst unit on the team. For example: In the first quarter of the Ohio State game, Ameer Abdullah returned a punt 43 yards. The rest of the season (eight full games, 35 quarters of football) Nebraska had a TOTAL of 22 yards on punt returns, with a long return of 19 yards by Tim Marlowe in the Michigan State game. For 2013, the special teams lose their most consistent components in kicker/punter Brett Maher, long snapper P.J. Mangieri, and holder Jase Dean. Many of the inconsistent components return.
- Defensive Line. Even before Baker Steinkuhler's injury, this was a weak spot on the team. Yes, the D-Line had their moments, but consistency was a big, big challenge. The lack of able (or capable) bodies really hurt NU. I truly believe that a defense is only as good as the front four, and if you look at NU's four losses, you won't see a lot of good line play.
- Pass Rush. On a related topic, for most of the season, NU a consistent pass rush. Aside from Eric Martin and the occassional corner blitz, there was little pressure on opposing QBs. Many of the sacks NU picked up in conference play were because the secondary provided great coverage, not because the tackles and ends got great pressure. The bowl game provided a great example of what a pass rush (or lack thereof) can do to a team. NU was able to flush Georgia's QB out of the pocket a few times, but he had all day to throw bombs downfield. Meanwhile, the Bulldog pass rush in the second half rattled Nebraska's offensive, causing sacks, penalties, and rushed throws from Martinez.
- Offensive Line. Once again, the line was The Good (creating decent - but not consistent - running lanes for Burkhead and Abdullah), The Bad (leaky pass protection), and The Ugly (false start penalties galore, and tackles who could not keep up with strong or speedy defensive ends). This is where Cubs fans and Barney Cotton supporters say "Wait 'til next year".
- Preventable Mistakes. I'm working on a season ending recap of the Three Keys I've been tracking this season: Penalties, 3rd down conversion, and turnovers, and hope to publish it soon. But here is a little preview: the preventable mistakes (i.e. penalties and turnovers) continued to wreak havoc on this team. Nebraska did improve in being able to overcome their own mistakes, as the 6 game winning streak proved. But it would be nice to have a game against a ranked opponent where NU didn't have to keep digging out of a hole.
Dave Feit is a freelance writer living in Lincoln. Additional thoughts on the Huskers (and everything else) can be found on his blog (www.feitcanwrite.wordpress.com). Follow him on Twitter at @Feitcanwrite