So what did we learn?
Nebraska is capable of putting away inferior opponents early. For the second straight week, Nebraska started the game like this: Kickoff, force a 3-and-out on defense, march the ball down the field, and score on their first possession. By the end of a fairly sloppy first quarter, Nebraska was up 14-0, and never looked back.
The absolute worst thing a team can do when playing an obviously lesser team is to let them hang around and gain confidence. By jumping on teams early, Nebraska establishes a level of dominance that is tough for bad teams to overcome. A fast start won't always work out (see also, UCLA), but it is a trait that good teams possess.
The targeting rule - and especially the enforcement - must be fixed. I disagree with the officials' decision to flag and eject Stanley Jean-Baptiste for "targeting". That statement is not necessarily in regards to the question of if SJB hit the Purdue player with his helmet, or if he did so intentionally or maliciously, but rather the incredibly inconsistent manner in which that penalty is called.
Case(s) in point: a) A few minutes after Jean-Baptiste was ejected, Harvey Jackson tackled a Purdue player in the middle of the field. From the live action, Jackson's hit looked identical (same body position, same point of contact) as the hit that got SJB tossed. No flag was thrown. b) Earlier in the quarter, Jean-Baptiste blitzed Danny Etling, but couldn't quite get him down for the sack. Instead, SJB picked up Etling and threw him down for no gain. That tackle was far more intentional and unnecessarily violent than the hit that got him tossed. c) Throughout the rest of the day, Husker fans undoubtedly saw bigger hits from other games (and conferences) that were not called or enforced the same.
If you want to make a case that SJB led with his helmet, and made first contact with the Purdue player's helmet, be my guest. The video evidence may just prove you right. But if you need to slow the replay down to super-duper-slo-mo to determine what happened (i.e. you cannot see it with the naked eye or a regular speed replay), then I question if you should throw a player out of the game. Some hits are violent and intentional enough to warrant a 15 yard penalty and immediate ejection. This tackle was not. I'd like to see the replay official issue a 5 yard penalty and a warning to Jean-Baptiste that another similar hit will get him tossed.
Tommy Armstrong is not invincible. Ever since the South Dakota State game, many fans and media members have placed backup quarterback Tommy Armstrong on a pedestal. Breathless praise, mythical accounts of his accomplishments (Nebraska never punts when he is in!), comparisons with Tommie Frazier (they both took over mid-season!) - in short, a whole lotta hype for a kid who had who faced some below average defenses.
And then, Saturday happened. Six of 18 passing for 43 yards. Three interceptions. Four rushes for five yards. Senior Ron Kellogg III was clearly the better player on Saturday, and by a wide margin. Suddenly, Taylor Martinez wasn't so bad after all.
In Tommy's defense, it was his first road start. And I'm guessing Tim Beck is probably the only person in the state who sees a clear benefit to having Kellogg play every third series. Finally, it remains clear that Tommy Armstrong, Jr. is the future of the program*.
*Unless Johnny Stanton looks really good in the 2014 Red-White Scrimmage...
So what don't we know?
How much of the defensive improvement is due to growth/scheme/execution - and how much is due to the opponents? Over the last two games, the Blackshirts have given up a total of 24 points and 588 yards. Throw out the late touchdown for each game (a 75 yard drive by Illinois against Nebraska's reserves, and a 55 yard touchdown by Purdue with 39 seconds left, and the defensive performance improves to 10 points and 458 yards total over two games. That is impressive, especially considering that Nebraska allowed more yards and way more points in three non-conference games.
But why the improved numbers? Is the defense growing and maturing? Are new players mastering Bo Pelini's schemes? Has John Papuchis found the right mix of players? Or is it more about the swirling 30 mph winds that Illinois faced as well as the offensive impotency of Purdue? My hunch is it is a little bit of both: the defense is playing better than they were against Wyoming and UCLA, but those teams would put up yards and points on Nebraska.
How beat up are the Huskers? Purdue may be one of the least respected teams in the conference, but they sure played a physical game. Guard Spencer Long is done for the year with a knee injury. There were many Huskers who had to be helped off or didn't return to action, including Kenny Bell, Jamal Turner, Josh Mitchell, Thad Randle, and a few others who I'm forgetting. That doesn't even mention starters Taylor Martinez and Jake Long, who both sat out.
This is where the second bye week is ideal, as it can give players a chance to rest and recuperate. And they'll need it before the November stretch drive.
Was Tommy Armstrong's bad day orchestrated to make Taylor Martinez look better? In the week leading up to the Purdue game, a couple of Lincoln radio hosts were trying to make sense of why Ron Kellogg was getting reps when Tommy Armstrong, Jr. is clearly the better QB. One of their theories was that it was "political" - the coaching staff had so much invested in Martinez that it was vital to them that he remain the starter when his toe heals - even if there is a better option.
So assuming their grassy knoll theory to be correct, it stands to reason that Armstrong was either coerced to throw three interceptions or Beck and Pelini conspired to make sure Armstrong would have an outing so poor the fans would realize that ol' Taylor isn't so bad after all.
Yeah, that's got to be it. It surely cannot be the coaches who watch and grade every rep from every practice know more about where their players are at than us armchair coaches with a radio show, video blog, or a column on a Husker website (*ahem*).
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: With back-to-back stellar defensive performances, the Blackshirts are back. And they mean business.
Glass Half Empty: Even Purdue's mediocre defense could shut down their inept offense. The defense is waiting to be exploited by the next good offense.
5 Players I Loved
- Randy Gregory. Knowing that Gregory was twice committed to Purdue, seeing his talents in person had to be painful. Two sacks, a fumble recovery, and a safety is just salt in the wound. He put a move on a Boilermaker tackle that was as good as anything you'll see on Sundays.
- Ameer Abdullah. It doesn't matter who is taking snaps, Abdullah is the hub of Nebraska's offense. If he goes, the offense goes. And when he goes for 126 yards (and over six yards a carry), the offense is going to go very well. His 33 yard touchdown run was a thing of beauty.
- Quincy Enunwa. I am loving the senior season that Q is putting together. Aside from being a picture perfect blocker, Enunwa is also a go-to receiver capable of making the tough catch. His highlight was a 35 yard reception that had almost everything you could want: speed, strength, a nifty spin move, leaping over defenders, and a devastating stiff-arm.
- Ron Kellogg III. The old adage is that the #2 quarterback is the most popular guy on the team. Apparently, that doesn't necessarily apply to the guy is quarterback 2b. Regardless, Kellogg just keeps on going. He's not flashy, nor does he have the highlight reel potential of Martinez or Armstrong, but he is simply consistent in what he does.
- King Frazier. I'm always thrilled when a career backup or player deep on the depth chart finds their way into the end zone as Frazier did against Purdue. Such a great reward for all of their hard work and dedication.
Honorable Mention: Jordan Westerkamp, Leroy Alexander, Aaron Curry, Greg McMullen, Husker fans who took over another stadium.
5 Areas for Improvement
- Tommy Armstrong Jr. Say what you will about how the QB rotation impacts him, but Tommy had a rough day. Now let's see if he learns from it, and improves. I'm willing to wager that his good games will far outnumber his bad games.
- Dropped Passes. A notable number of passes were dropped in this game. We can debate if the passes were poorly thrown or if the receiver is at fault, but this is something that cannot be allowed to continue.
- Punt Returns. Jordan Westerkamp had a seven yard punt return. That is the second longest punt return of the season. I'm starting to accept that this staff cares more about safely catching the ball than advancing it up field. Fine. Whatever. But there were a couple of Purdue punts where a NU defender potentially could have blocked the kick - or at least put a scare into the punter - but instead held up. I get that a 15 yard roughing penalty is an absolute killer, but I'd like to think that the possibility for a block, or even a punt that is shanked by a punter under pressure, is worth the risk - especially if you're abandoning the return game.
- Sam Foltz. I had no issue with Sam Foltz's performance - 43.8 yards per punt is a fine average. But I do have issue with the workload that Foltz endured. Six punts? That's far too many in a game that ends up 44-7.
- Chuck Long. I enjoyed listening to Kevin Kugler's call of the game on BTN. But I was not nearly as impressed with color commentator Chuck Long. Aside from his style (monotone and rather lifeless) he didn't provide a lot of knowledge - unless you did not know that a "50/50 ball" is one that could be caught by the offense or the defense. Enlightening.
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.