A nasty defensive unit that can flat-out shut down an opponent when it feels like it, but may be successfully attacked on occasion with straight-ahead power running. Check. An inconsistent offense with communication problems in the o-line, some speed and big-play ability in the backfield but very little dependability at wideout. Check. A top-notch kicking game worth at least 10 points a week. Check and double check.
So maybe you noticed something familiar about Nebraska’s 40-7 win over Tennessee-Chattanooga Saturday at Memorial Stadium – the Cornhuskers’ NCAA-best 26th consecutive season-opening victory.
Did you see much that wasn’t familiar? Besides the fullback running the ball. Anyone else feel like Nebraska started the 2011 season exactly the same way it started in 2010? After hearing about how many changes we would see on offense, nothing really seemed much different.
Still, there was a lot to like in NU’s first football game as a member of the Big Ten. The most notable improvement over last season was that Nebraska didn’t hurt itself as much as it has been prone to doing.
The Cornhuskers committed only three penalties for 33 yards, which was one of the most encouraging signs all game long. The only better news was the performance of junior kicker Brett Maher, who hit all four of his field goal attempts, including a 50-yarder into the wind on his first try, while averaging 52 yards on four punts, including two inside the Chattanooga 20-yard line.
The Blackshirts gave up just seven points, and that touchdown was set up by a questionable roughing-the-passer penalty. Junior college transfer Daimion Stafford provided a couple of big hits from his safety position and forced a fumble in his first outing for the Big Red. Stafford is one more impressive piece in what will be a deep and talented secondary after the return of Alfonzo Dennard.
The defensive line appears to be every bit as deep and talented as advertised. Junior defensive end Cameron Meredith had two sacks and intercepted a pass that was deflected by Jared Crick, setting up an easy Husker touchdown.
The linebacking unit was good, although Sean Fischer looked a step slow his first time back after missing 2010 with a broken leg. The Huskers got an excellent performance from Trevor Roach, who trailed only Lavonte David with seven tackles, including two for losses. Roach, a 6-foot-2, 235-pound redshirt freshman walk-on from Elkhorn, looks like he will be the first linebacker off the bench this fall for NU.
Then again, there was enough to keep a Husker perfectionist grumbling until at least midnight.
There were too many dead plays on offense. Seven of Nebraska’s 41 first-half plays went for negative yardage. The Huskers did increase the tempo on offense as advertised, but didn’t sustain a lot of drives and still had just 68 snaps.
There was a lot of confusion in the offensive line. Part of that was due to three first-time starters, including Tyler Moore, who became the first true freshman ever to start the season opener in the offensive line for Nebraska and the fourth to ever start any game in the o-line. It was pretty much the same theme as last season, but at least there is reason to expect improvement from such a young bunch.
The much-heralded big three freshman I-backs carried the ball a combined nine times for 20 yards, and nobody emerged as the clear backup to Rex Burkhead, although Alabama native Ameer Abdullah had a nice 28-yard punt return.
Dropped passes? Yes, they were still a big part of the Husker offense.
There was plenty about the offense that did not go as advertised. Offensive coordinator Tim Beck apparently has not yet decided how he will go about simplifying the offense, which he said he would be doing this fall. We still saw elements of the West Coast horizontal passing game, plus some power-I, the pistol, a variety of spread sets and increased use of the option game. So if you were hoping to see the Huskers quickly and decisively establish their identity on offense, you came away disappointed.
Frankly, there was a lot the same about the offense – including the explosive running ability of a healthy Taylor Martinez, his lack of pocket presence, the lack of dependability in his passing arm and decision making. Martinez went 11-for-22 for only 110 yards, and 31 of them came on one catch by Quincy Enunwa, who showed the best hands of any receiver. If T-Mart has gained anything as a passer, he didn’t show it. Frankly, he looked much better against Washington and Oklahoma State last year, before his well-documented ankle and foot injuries. The Big Ten Network’s analyst was rather unimpressed with Nebraska’s pass receivers, although Jamaal Turner did make one big play, turning a simple two-yard spot pass into a 19-yard gain by cutting back across the field and showing some burst.
Still, a defense that commits itself to denying Nebraska any big plays, emphasizing a bend-but-don’t-break philosophy could completely frustrate the Huskers, especially if they return to their penalty-prone ways of the past three seasons.
So nothing much different to report from last season – at least, not yet. Nebraska has a championship-caliber defense and kicking game once again, but there’s no evidence that it will produce enough on offense to play in a BCS bowl. Good thing the season is young.
Formerly the sports editor at the North Platte Bulletin and a sportswriter/columnist for the North Platte Telegraph, Tad Stryker is a longtime Nebraska sports writer, having covered University of Nebraska and high school sports for more than 25 years. He started writing for this website in 2008. You can e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org