Yes, we all knew about Fresno State and coach Pat Hill - their reputation for being giant killers, taking on all comers, and playing tough, physical football. But at the same time, the popular opinion was the Huskers should have a fairly easy night, allowing the out-of-town fans a chance to beat traffic and arrive home before midnight. I don't think too many people without the green "V" on their helmet thought this was going to be a struggle that would be in doubt deep into the 4th Quarter. I know I didn't.
Now, since I'm fairly new around here, let me make a couple of things clear right out of the gate. Overall, I was disappointed with the performance of several players and units (see below for more on that) but the performance I saw last night has not filled me with panic, nor am I going to be calling for any coaches to be fired or players to be benched. And I will not be predicting a 6 loss season ending in the TicketCity or Little Caesar's Pizza Bowl. I don't believe in knee-jerk reactions. Instead, I try to look at a bigger picture.
First off, give credit to Fresno State. Name a team whose play has been more representative of their name than the Bulldogs. Nebraska faced a talented and well coached team on Saturday, playing for the upset. That is a dangerous combination to face. Meanwhile, I think Nebraska's coaches were initially trying to win the game on the Tennessee-Chattanooga model: keep it pretty basic, don't show too much, don't get anyone hurt, and see you next week for Huskies-Huskers III. Obviously, we saw how that worked out, which is why there were more wrinkles shown in the second half, when Nebraska came from behind and won.
So if the Fresno State game is causing you panic attacks, nasuea, chest pains, dry mouth, or anything lasting more than four hours, my recommendation would be to take a deep breath, relax, and consider the fate of rivals past (Mizzou) and future (Iowa) who both lost to inferior teams this weekend. It could be a lot worse, and the final score will be deceptive enough to hide a flawed performance from the voters. Let me repeat the same thing I said last week: "Don’t worry – it’s early. If we’re seeing some of these things in the Ohio State game, then we’ll talk."
So what did we learn?
Nebraska is capable of coming from behind. Hold on tight, I'm going to apply some positive spin: while the game itself was likely a disappointment to most fans, players, and coaches, those last two groups should take solace that this team is capable of facing adversity, a 3rd Quarter deficit, and an opponent who does not quit, yet still finds a way to win. I don't think it is a huge stretch to say that there have been several team in the past decade (even under Pelini) who would have lost this game. Finding a way to win is a skill Bo's teams have not always possessed, so it's great to see that trait come out before we get into the meat of the B1G schedule.
We are only scratching the surface of what the offense can do. In my opinion, the overall offensive performance was not up to par. As I mentioned above, I felt the offensive game plan was rather vanilla during the first half, and Fresno State was not interested in vanilla. After halftime, we got to see some of the other flavors in the offense: a formation with four receivers split left that led to a quick screen, the long ball to Jamal Turner, and more. I think starting next week, Beck will truly open up the playbook (and push the tempo), and the results should be good.
Nebraska has a legitimate home run threat returning kicks. Ameer Abdullah did not return punts and kickoffs like an 18-year-old true freshman. He played more like a seasoned upperclassman. We saw a flash last week, and this week the potential was shown. His kickoff return for a touchdown was a great combination of blocking (he had huge holes most of the night) and running ability to make people miss and to find the end zone. No offense to Timmy Marlowe, but who else is excited about the potential of Abdullah and Jamal Turner returning kickoffs together?
Nebraska can "Own the Fourth". Prior to the start of the 4th Quarter, the student body tried out their new thing ("Can't Be Beat"/"Won't Be Beat" chants - a nice idea, but can the rest of the stadium play too?) and the ribbon boards displayed a simple message: "Own the Fourth". How did they do? Let's see, in the 4th Quarter, NU:
- Outscored Fresno State 21-9.
- Scored on their first three possessions of the quarter, and ran out the clock on their fourth.
- Put up 142 yards of offense (not including Abdullah's 100 yard kickoff return)
- Had their best rushing success of the evening (and probably the season) between the tackles.
- Stopped a Fresno State 2-point conversion, and held them to a field goal - on what were essentially back to back possessions thanks for the kickoff return touchdown.
If Nebraska can "Own the Fourth" like that every week, you have to feel pretty optimistic about where this team can go.
So what don't we know?
Can the Offensive Line block anybody? I said above that I prefer to look at the big picture. Unfortunately, the picture we're seeing of the 2011 O-Line is not that pretty so far. The shining moment of the game was the 4th Quarter drive where Rex Burkhead had six straight carries for 34 yards, and most of the credit there goes to Burkhead as the holes he ran through were not exactly gaping. Overall, there were far too many running plays where two, three, or four linemen were standing around watching Burkhead get tackled for a 2 yard gain. In fairness, from my seat in row 47, I saw Yoshi Hardrick come off the field with a wildly dislocated pinky (it was pretty much perpendicular from his other fingers), only to return to action later on - so I know the issue is not toughness. But at Nebraska, not picking up a 4th and 1 (like what happened early in the 2nd Quarter) is inexcusable. Period.
Can NU consistently gain yards between the tackles? By my quick (and probably not 100% accurate) analysis, Nebraska ran the ball between the tackles 21 times for a total of 55 yards (not counting the three kneel downs at the end of the game). Meanwhile, Nebraska ran the ball outside the tackles 10 times for 172 yards. As Nebraska sees better (i.e. faster) defenses, those long runs around the end will likely shrivel up. Aside from one drive in the 4th Quarter - where the bulk of the credit goes to Burkhead refusing to be tackled - the up the middle rush game leaves a lot to be desired.
Can the offense put together a lengthy, sustained drive? I am conflicted. The fan in me loves the big plays - such as Taylor Martinez's 46 yard burst in the 4th Quarter to seal the game. But at the same time, I find myself not liking those plays because I want to avoid a repeat of 2010. Far too often last year, Nebraska's offense was either big, explosive plays - those 80 yard touchdown runs, or the long passes - or a three and out. On Saturday, Nebraska's five touchdown drives averaged almost 75 yards, but NU covered that distance in an average of 5 plays. In other words: on the scoring drives, each play gained an average of 25 yards. I don't hate the big plays, but before the conference schedule starts, I would like to feel confident that Nebraska can make that 80 yard march in 10+ plays, picking up key third downs, burning the clock, and allowing the defense to rest.
5 Players I Loved
- Ameer Abdullah. A school record for return yards in his second game? Definitely his blockers should get a fair amount of credit, but a lot of those yards came through instinct, speed, and a get-up-the-field now mindset that you love to see in a kick returner. You'll also notice that he was the only of the three freshman RBs to play. A potential rising star.
- Lavonte David. I realize that 15 total tackles (six solo) is just another day at the office for David. But given the difficulty in which the Blackshirts had in a) finding and b) tackling Fresno's Robbie Rouse, David's ability to do both should not be overlooked. (Honorable mention to Will Compton and Daimion Stafford for doing the same throughout the game).
- Brett Maher. On a night where the offense struggled, Maher did an excellent job of pinning the Bulldogs deep. Five punts for a 50.8 yard average, with two inside the 20. And at the end of the 1st half, I felt as if there was a legitimate chance that Maher was going to take a shot at a 62 yard FG. The Hail Mary was probably the safer play for Bo to call, given Fresno's two blocked kicks in week 1, but I would have given Maher 50/50 odds on making it.
- Jamal Turner. On the big list of reasons why Taylor Martinez needs to stay healthy all season, one of the top slots goes to "It allows Jamal Turner to be on the field as a WR, and not on the sidelines as Brion Carnes's backup". Turner led the team in receptions and showed great speed on his deep ball. Simply put, they are obviously trying to get the ball in his hands, and it is easy to see why.
- Quincy Enunwa. Even without the 16 yard TD reception and strong downfield blocking, Q would be on this list solely for the hustle play and bone jarring hit that turned an interception into a retained possession. Never quitting on a play will always earn you respect here.
*Extra Credit: On eve of the 10th anniversary of 9/11, special recognition should be given to the numerous ways UNL paid tribute. From the pregame flyover, scrolling the names of Nebraskans lost during 9/11 and subsequent wars, the band's halftime show, recognition of different military personnel, and a tear inducing message from a soldier in Afghanistan to his wife and kids on the field, I greatly respect how Nebraska recognizes the men and women who serve our country. NU does an excellent job of reminding us what the "Memorial" in the stadium's name truly stands for.
5 Areas for Improvement
- Offensive Line. Their performance was so ugly, I'm tempted to put the O Line at #1 and #2. Things get interesting if performance does not improve dramatically.
- Taylor Martinez. Yes, I'm putting a guy who accounted for 385 yards on this list. Why? Let's start with the three fumbles. Way too many. I'm willing to let the interception at the end of the half slide, but the first pick he threw was a bad throw. Speaking of bad throws, more INTs could be coming soon if he doesn't stop throwing off of his back foot all the time.
- Brandon Kinnie. Dude. Catch the ball. Seriously. Don't make me put you on this list next week.
- Tackling. Fresno's Robbie Rouse is a nice back, but there is no way he should have rushed for 169 yards against NU. Fresno's punt return for a TD was a clinic in arm tackling.
- State Senator Deb Fischer. Her Senate campaign provided rosters outside the stadium. And though I'm thankful for candidates who give me a free roster in exchange for name recognition, Sen. Fischer gave me the least helpful roster I've ever seen. Instead of listing the players by number (you know, like every other roster in the history of rosters), Sen. Fischer's roster listed the players alphabetically. And while that's great if I want to know whose name is first alphabetically (Ameer Abdullah) or last (C. J. Zimmerer), or how many players have a last name starting with M (21), it was incredibly unhelpful scanning through the list trying to figure out who a particular number is.