In that vein, I'm optimistic about what the month of October has in store for the Cornhuskers. Let's start with the game against the Fighting Illini: it was never ever in doubt. Nebraska kicked off, forced a rare three-and-out, marched down the field to score, and never looked back in a 39-19 win that wasn't even that close. It was a pleasant surprise; warm sunshine on a chilly Saturday morning.
Could that be how the rest of the month goes? The schedule is certainly set up for it. A road game at 1-4 Purdue, another off week, and a trip to face a Minnesota team that likely will be coming off of their third straight division loss. Neither Purdue nor Minnesota are known for an intimidating home field advantage, and it is likely that large portions of both crowds will be wearing red.
It should be a quiet month in Husker land, with only a media-manufactured quarterback controversy to keep us buzzing. Frankly, after the Wyoming escape, the ugly UCLA loss, and the Pelini audio leak, I'll take it.
But with a daunting November stretch run on the horizon, we need to ask: will October 2013 be remembered a rest and regroup period before a memorable November? Or will it be the brief calm as the eye of the hurricane passed over us, giving us false hope before more damage occurs?
So what did we learn?
Nebraska is a good first quarter team. Nebraska has scored 73 first quarter points this year, an average of 14 per game, the most in any quarter. While first quarter success didn't carry over in the UCLA loss, fast starts were decisive in the wins over Southern Miss and Illinois. The fast starts are even more impressive considering that the home crowds have been flat to start some of the games with early kickoffs.
I firmly believe that a fast start - and early success - is crucial for this team. The offense needs the confidence that they can move the ball, and the defense will take the extra cushion. Most importantly, Nebraska has yet to put themselves in a first quarter hole.
Pelini and Papuchis will let players prove themselves on the field. Lots of new faces got extensive playing time on defense, notably Jared Afalava, Michael Rose, and LeRoy Alexander. Okay...that is a bit of a positive spin. The glass-half-empty crowd may see it as two defensive coaches desperately looking for somebody who can get the job done. Regardless, I like it when guys get an audition for more playing time. Despite the best efforts of any coach, there is a difference between practice and games, and some guys just perform better in games.
The caveat here is to make sure the guys who saw their snaps decrease (notably, Josh Banderas, Nathan Gerry, and Harvey Jackson) don't pout, become a distraction, or mail it in.
There is still no quarterback controversy. Taylor Martinez sat out his second straight game with a bum toe. Tommy Armstrong, Jr. started and played a good, but not great game. His passing numbers (8-13, 135 yards, and 2 TDs) look pretty good considering the gusty wind. But take away Kenny Bell's catch for the ages and that stat line turns into 7-13, 98 yards, 1 TD, 1 INT. Again, not bad considering the conditions, but I don't know if it is head and shoulders better than what a healthy Martinez can do.
No disrespect to Ron Kellogg III for not including him in this conversation, but I haven't heard too many people say that he should be the starter going forward.
So what don't we know?
Why was Ameer Abdullah still in the game with a 24 point lead? Ameer Abdullah had himself a great game on Saturday, putting up over 200 yards and two touchdowns. But I have no idea why he was still in the game with five minutes to go in the 4th, when Nebraska had the game comfortably in hand. I could maybe - maybe - see it if he was close to a record or a personal milestone, but that was not the case. I get that backup Imani Cross was having an off game, but that would be a great situation for Terrell Newby to get some carries.
Bottom line: Nebraska may be able to ride Abdullah to Indianapolis, but not if he gets banged up during meaningless garbage time snaps.
What was the deal with the 12 men on the field penalties? Nebraska was flagged four times for "substitution infractions", wordy way of saying NU had too many guys on the field. Other times, there were NU defenders streaking off the field just before the ball was snapped. In one of the more comical moments in recent memory, defensive tackle Thad Randle was late coming in to defend on the goal line. By the time he got out there, the Illinois linemen were getting in their stances, so Randle had to hurdle the center and guard to get in position.
I get that Pelini and Papuchis want to match their personnel and scheme to what the offense shows. I've made my peace with the patented Bo Pelini Defensive Timeout™. I can even forgive a 12 men penalty or two over the course of a season, but not four in one game - or two on the same drive. I don't know what the source of the confusion is - players not ready to go, Bo and Papuchis disagreeing about scheme/strategy, or what, but that is not something that should be happening in Week 5, especially coming off of a bye week.
Where are the students? I've got some expanded thoughts on this topic that I'm hoping to get out this week, but it is disappointing to see large chunks of the student section empty. I feel like I can see both sides of this debate, but this is something that needs to get addressed before 2014.
How Full Is Your Glass?
Given the divide I’m seeing between the “Pelini Apologists” and the “Bo Bashers”, I’d like to provide a stat, quote, observation, or factoid that best illustrates the position of these two diverse groups.
Glass Half Full: Illinois came into the Nebraska game averaging 40 points a game. Nebraska held Illinois to half of that, which included a safety, and a late touchdown against the reserves. The defense may not be fixed, but it is improving.
Glass Half Empty: Pelini should send Tim Beckman a thank you card for keeping QB Nathan Scheelhaase locked in the pocket. Had Scheelhaase used even a tiny bit of his mobility it could have been another 40 point, 500 yard day.
5 Players I Loved
- Jason Ankrah. Ol' Jason had a very good day on Saturday. He got a sack, an interception, and another tackle for loss. I've been critical of Ankrah in the past, so I want to make sure that I'm recognizing his good moments. Hopefully this is the start of a big senior surge.
- Ameer Abdullah. Abdullah had a career best 225 yards rushing with two touchdowns and another 15 yards receiving. He showed balance, power, vision, and speed - usually on the same run. He had a lot of help from his fullbacks, line, tight ends, and receivers, but that was an all-conference performance.
- Kenny Bell. You saw that catch right? I have been trying to think of a better catch at Memorial Stadium (regardless of team) in the 20 years I've been going to games, but none come to mind. An amazing play. Additionally, it should be noted that before the game Bell dedicated his performance in honor of NU gymnast Emily Wong's father who passed away last week. For me, Kenny's talents (and amazing hair) will forever be overshadowed by his class and caring nature.
- Quincy Enunwa. His receiving day was pretty good: 80 yards and a touchdown (although he dropped a second TD). But Q is on this list for his work as a perimeter blocker. He simply manhandled the Illini defenders, pushing them wherever he pleased, and helped Abdullah put up a career best rushing total. Enunwa is becoming the entire package.
- Offensive Line. Let's recap: Over 300 yards rushing (again). No sacks - heck, barely any pressure allowed (again). No penalties (other than a chop block call against Sirles that many refs would let go). Maybe it is a "level of competition" thing, but the line is quietly becoming a strength of the team. Additional recognition for center Cole Pensick: typically, line calls are made by the center, and the results speak for themselves. Plus,Nebraska runs a lot of their offense out of the pistol or shotgun, and Pensick's snaps are usually perfect.
Honorable Mention: Mauro Bondi's kickoffs,Randy Gregory, Michael Rose, Jared Afalava, Ciante Evans, The guy carrying the giant "N" flag in a 30 mph wind.
5 Areas for Improvement
- Tim Beck. Beck has been doing a better job of limiting the playbook, and playing to the strengths of his players, but he still has moments where he can't help himself. Example 1: The Imani Cross safety. I'm not opposed to a sweep in that situation (3rd and 11 from your own 3), but Cross is not the back you want running that play (give me Abdullah, Newby, or even King Frazier). I'll concede that Cross should have known to go down at the one instead of in the end zone, but don't put him in that position. Example 2: The halfback pass. Let's reset the situation - 2nd quarter, 17-3 lead, 2nd and 4 from the Illinois 21. With the offense moving, that is a silly place for a trick play. When you factor in the swirling, 30 mph wind it becomes a stupid play. You may have noticed that on 3rd and 4, Beck called an option which picked up 12 yards. Don't outsmart yourself, Tim.
- Imani Cross. I love me some Imani, so it pains me to have to put him on this list. But his very forgettable day (two fumbles, one lost, and a safety) gets him here. Yes, he ended up with 76 yards on 15 carries, but after three quarters he had 10 carries for 18 yards and looked like he was running in mud. I know he will bounce back.
- Fumbles. Nebraska put the ball on the turf three times on Saturday, losing one. While I'm sure at least two of those fumbles can somehow be blamed on Taylor Martinez (he typed sarcastically) it is too many.
- Punt Returns. Since Nebraska appears to be employing a punt return strategy of "let it roll where it rolls and we'll play offense from there", maybe Ross Els should consider pulling his return man up closer and going for some punt blocks. Or maybe Jordan Westerkamp can take some homework out there so he has something to do.
- ESPNU. I didn't watch their broadcast, but I am aware that they showed a Nebraska player relieving himself on the sideline. I've made it a long time without needing to consider that nature calls players during the middle of a game, and I didn't really need to have that ignorance blown away - nor do we need to give Deadspin another cheap Nebraska headline.
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.com). Follow him on Twitter or on Facebook.