I'm going to be straight with you, my fellow Husker fans: after Saturday night's game, many of you will say things that sound good like “We need to see them against better competition” and “You can't make conclusive judgments off one game”, that are excuses for not making an honest assessment. Last year, you could have seen Nebraska's whole season in the Southern Miss game. The offense could spread the ball around and make big plays, the defense was going to give up yards and didn't have a single impact player, and the special teams were weak. Looking at Nebraska's schedule, you knew they were going to win a lot of games because most Big 10 offenses couldn't score enough to keep up and/or exploit Nebraska's weaknesses on defense, and that is pretty much what happened.
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Let me be clear here: I'm not saying you will make completely definitive statement about the season's final record, or anything else, based on Saturday night. What matters extremes, both good and bad, and even more so, attitude and body language, and using those to gauge what kind of season it's possible for Nebraska to have. With that being said, here's what I will be looking for this Saturday night to make judgments for the rest of the season.
First, I will be judging the offense's assertiveness. The juniors and seniors on Nebraska's offense should know they can be off the field early if they do the right things. Will Taylor Martinez be jumping to snap the ball with 23 seconds on the play clock, or will we see Nebraska's track guys waiting for Wyoming's secondary to wear down so they can get their numbers? If Jamal Turner believes they can average fifty points a game, they better get to 35 or 40 by halftime, 60 by the start of the third quarter.
Second, I will be looking for playmakers (or at least one playmaker) on defense. The defense does not have to be great, and it will look a lot different when it has to go against Big 10 offenses. But is there a player out there with fire who goes out and makes a jarring hit in space, ALA Damion Stafford two years ago? And if there is not, will we at least see some players who look to be getting the most out of the talent they have?
Third, I will be watching for situational defense. While last years' defense was, at its worst, horrendously awful, it was very good in situations and got huge stops in each of the four double-digit comebacks after Nebraska's offense had cut into a lead. How the Blackshirts do on third-and-long could show how ready this defense will be when, down four on the road with two minutes to go, they need a stop on third and five.
Fourth, I will be looking for even marginal special teams and return game improvement. Nebraska may not have needed comeback drives against Northwestern and Michigan State last year if they had more than three combined drives in those games that started beyond their own forty, and one of those was off of a fumble. In the last two years, I can just remember two Brett Maher punts that had huge impacts. Overall, poor special teams probably cost Nebraska five to seven points a game last year, but if the Huskers can get one huge punt per game and one return of at least fifteen to twenty yards, they'll be in much better shape.
Special teams matter more in the Big 10 because of low-scoring games. If you are anticipating being in low-scoring games whether because of a grind-it-out offense (Michigan, Michigan State) or because your talent level is lower (Northwestern), you're going to work harder on special teams than Big 12 teams with their video game offenses. But Nebraska has too many quick guys (Ameer Abdullah, Jamal Turner, Kenny Bell, Alonzo Moore) not to have success in the return game.
A very good thing that Bo Pelini has already said is that a lot of players will play. I always thought one of the keys to last year's success was that, in the opener against Southern Miss, fifteen different players had a carry or a reception on offense. Some of those players contributed as the season wore on and some didn't, but getting more players involved creates an environment where everyone believes they have a chance, which goes toward making a better team.
In my final assessment, I think Saturday will be a crowd-pleaser for the neighboring fan-bases, as there will be many big plays on both sides. Nebraska will jump out to a 28-7 lead by halftime, and the final score will be 55-28, as Dave Christensen tries to make up ground in the second half and Nebraska's defense struggles to keep up. A good to sort-of great start, after which we will all be crossing our fingers.
Derek Johnson is a Seward, Nebraska native who works for his family's organic farm seed company, Blue River Hybrids, and is a freelance writer and commission photographer. He has been a contributor to Husker Max since 2013, and is a former contributor to the website Husker Locker. Visit his blog, derekjohnsonmuses.com, and follow him on Twitter @derekjohnson05 for regular updates.