Saturday was the second time that I entered Memorial Stadium for a game without having to pay for a ticket, the other being Iowa State 2007 (thanks, Callahan). Fan enthusiasm for the annual exhibition appeared reasonably lower than in years past: no quarterback competition, a lot of skill players who fans have known for two years, no reason to think the defense will be any worse than last year. That said, the athletic department had to be thrilled that 60,000 people showed up, even if many of the attendees were using spring game tickets from last year. The game on the field was (hopefully) a deception.
Last week, deep within their coach's lair at 600 Stadium Drive, Bo Pelini and defensive coordinator John Papuchis came up with a grand scheme: instead of a typical, well-thought-out defensive game plan, they would tell their defenders to let receivers run free and not to hustle to the ball. That way, when the season began, opponents would underestimate Nebraska's defense.
I wish I knew that was the plan on Saturday. It probably wasn't.
As in most games last season, there wasn't a single defensive player who stood out Saturday. Colby Starkebaum, a MIKE linebacker who I didn't know before the game, had eight tackles and two sacks. I had to read a Journal Star article to find out who he was.
At least all of the offensive players everyone wanted to see delivered. Tommy Armstrong and Ron Kellogg III were near perfect through the air. King Frazier showed some moves. The touted young receivers, Alonzo Moore and Jordan Westerkamp, made plays. The skill position where Nebraska lost experienced playmakers, tight end, featured Sam Cotton, Jake Long, and David Sutton showed upside. Even forgotten fullback C.J. Zimmerer busted loose down the middle of the field for a long touchdown catch. But I can't remember an inter-squad scrimmage this one-sided. Not a good omen.
Not all the mistakes were the defense's fault. They played vanilla schemes, and Kellogg was blitzed three or four times (a coach's test of a backup quarterback), and beat the blitz each time. Long's third down conversion on the first drive resulted after Kellogg started to run and then pulled back, an excellent play on his part. But Nebraska's offense was pretty basic too and looked like they were playing in a 7-on-7 drill. Entertaining results, but concerning nonetheless.
If this is what Nebraska is, they would be best trying to be what Texas Tech was under Mike Leach: a chuck-the-ball-around-the-yard offense that tries to win by outscoring their opponents. It is a workable strategy going against a league where everyone else huddles and tries to eat clock, putting pressure on offenses that take fewer snaps and are ill-equipped to come back. Michigan State and Iowa probably don't have four players that can get a twenty yard run or reception, and Nebraska has at least seven based on Saturday (Martinez, Abdullah, Bell, Turner, Enunwa, Moore, and Sam Cotton). But this strategy probably wouldn't put the Huskers past Michigan on the road, and fans can forget about beating the Big Ten's General William Tecumseh Sherman, AKA Urban Meyer. Here's to hoping a 10-2 season will put Nebraska in the Fiesta Bowl against Oklahoma.
That leads us to Jack Hoffman, and Pelini reminding us what a spring game is all about and what place sport should have in our lives. Between this moment and the pregame prayer at Penn State, the Huskers have given us two great moments that were above sports in the last year and a half.
Sports can be a good part of a life, but they are just that: a part of life. Pelini said when he was hired that one of his most important goals was to make sure all of the young men who went through the program had a positive experience and went into their lives better prepared for what they had to face. Hoffman's run exemplified this. It gave a great experience to someone who will remember it for the rest of his life and supported a child who needed it. Find someone in your life who you can pick up, as Nebraska has with this child.
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 HuskerMax since 2013, and is a former contributor to the website Husker Locker. Visit his blog, derekjohnsonmuses.com, and follow him on twitter @derekjohnson05 for regular updates.