Time to Cross 'Em Up
Nebraska would have been better off playing at Michigan this week instead of hosting Northwestern. If Nebraska were playing in the Big House against the mighty Maize and Blue, they could go in with an us-against-the-world mentality, like they did at Texas in 2007, when they almost upset the Longhorns. Instead, Bo Pelini gets another chance to be out-coached by Pat Fitzgerald and his band of over-achievers. But, if you could choose among Nebraska's remaining opponents, Northwestern could offer a remedy to Nebraska's ailing offense.
Does Tim Beck need to be more committed to the run game? This week, he does. Let me admit a bias: I am reticent to criticize play-calling, mainly because I feel it is what fans (and certain sportswriters and critics, for that matter) rush to deride when they don't want to admit that their team does not have great talent. Even if fans and sportswriters watch their team every week, an offensive coordinator watches hundreds of hours of footage of the opponent and knows more about what's going to work and what's not going to work.
While I wrote on Saturday that Nebraska could have run the ball a few more times, I don't think that it would have automatically insured a win. While Nebraska's run/pass ratio was 26 runs to 34 passes, they ran the ball on 18 of 29 first downs, and on 11 of those first-down runs, they either got 4 yards or a touchdown. Considering they were behind most of the game, that's not bad. They also ran the ball on all eight first downs of their final three drives before Minnesota took a two-touchdown lead. They were committed to the run game, even when they were down, and if they'd converted more first downs, they would have had a better run/pass ratio. What's more important is who did not get carries.
Against Northwestern, Beck should turn to Imani Cross. Cross had 61 carries in Nebraska's first six games, and only two against Minnesota. While Ameer Abdullah is going to lead Nebraska in highlight-reel runs, Cross can be the set-up for Nebraska's offense, getting tough yards inside and keeping defenses honest. Now is the time for Cross to become a co-feature back for the Huskers and get more than twenty carries in a game.
Minnesota may have robbed Nebraska of its physical confidence, but the Huskers can retake it against the Wildcats, who are playing their second road game in a row and heading into a bye week. There's no secret on how to beat Northwestern the last two years: overcome them physically, like Ohio State and Wisconsin did. Beck needs to use Cross the way Ohio State used Carlos Hyde against the Wildcats, and, unlike last week when Minnesota ate clock, he should have enough plays to do so.
Are Kenny Bell and Quincy Enunwa as good as we thought? Questioning these two before the season would have seemed absurd, but the pair's drops the past two weeks say a different story. Enunwa has an NFL frame, and Bell has great ball skills, but I can't think of many times this year when either of them were streaking down the field unguarded or just beat a defender at the line of scrimmage, even against lesser teams. An elite receiver better make fools of defensive backs on a regular basis, and these two haven't. In the duo's defense, Nebraska has not exploited the middle of the field, with Jamal Turner nursing injuries, Jake Long out, and no one stepping up at tight end.
Should there be a quarterback rotation? If Pelini and Beck plan to give Tommy Armstong a series, they should do so regardless of the game situation. Did it undermine Armstrong when Ron Kellogg came into the games against South Dakota State? If the answer is no, then it should not undermine a fourth-year senior starter like Martinez.
Is Beck creative enough on offense? My biggest problem with Beck's offense is that it does not get players in places to make explosive plays. Some of this may go back to the talent not being what we thought it was, but as I watched UCLA tear Nebraska up, I marveled at how easy it seemed for the Bruins to get their players in situations were they could beat one Nebraska defender and make a twenty-yard gain. Outside of play-action passes, the Huskers seldom get their quick receivers running sideline-to-sideline and blowing past defenders up-field. Last year Nebraska burned Minnesota with quick receiver screens to the outside, but Minnesota limited those same plays again this year, perhaps indicating that Beck hasn't tweaked his offense as much as he should.
To me, what sums up Beck's offense right now is the obliviousness Nebraska showed to the power of its tempo on a third-and-three in the second quarter last Saturday. Nebraska was all set and lined up, ready to quick snap while the Gophers were frantically rushing personnel onto the field. In such a situation, Martinez should have the option of a one-word play-call so he can snap while the opponent is still trying to set up and communicate. Even if the play is not successful, Nebraska would have won simply because they had sent a message: change at your own risk. Instead, Martinez waited for Minnesota to get lined up and audibled, and the result on the play was a sack. (Nebraska did gain a first down on the play due to a penalty.) If you are waiting for your opponent to show its cards so you can get into the right play, you have a really high opinion of yourself as a coordinator.
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.