Avoiding A Wiscy Hangover

2 Oct

Dear followers, regular readers, and people who ended up here by accident,

You hopefully know the drill by now:  This post is also available at HuskerMax.com.  And since I get paid per page view, I’d greatly appreciate it if you read this fine article on HuskerMax



In the hype-fueled lead up to Nebraska’s Big Ten Conference opener at Wisconsin, one of the main storylines was the commonalities between the rise of Wisconsin (Devaney disciple using local talent to fuel a potent offense) and Nebraska (Devaney using local talent to fuel a potent offense).  The similarities are striking, from friendly fans proud of their ag roots all the way down to the nearly identical adidas uniforms. 

In this relationship, Nebraska is the big brother – the five time champion, dominator of previous conferences, and the obvious model for what Barry Alvarez built in Madison.  Wisconsin is the little brother – the (relative) newcomer to the elite program level, but a definite power player in their conference.  Their Devaney has moved into the AD’s box, and time will tell if he has been replaced by their Osborne – or their Solich – but the early returns look good for the former.

Saturday night, big brother went up to little brother’s house for a good old-fashioned backyard brawl.  And for the first 15 minutes, it was shaping up to be a back and forth epic, where the team who had the ball last would be the victor.  But then, little brother stepped up and punched big bro square in the jaw, and by the time he knew what happened, little brother was toying with him. 

It was tough to see Wisconsin “out-Nebraska” Nebraska, but as I wrote before the game, the only thing this loss does is put a huge damper on Nebraska’s national championship hopes – and hopefully we can all agree those hopes have been gone for a while.  Everything that Nebraska wants – a division and conference title, and a BCS bowl game – is still very much in reach.  Obviously, there is a lot to clean up, but from the early returns of the Legends division, NU is still one of the favorites to get to Indy, provided they can put this game behind them and move on.

So what did we learn?

The defensive issues are for real.  Looking at this game during the spring and summer, I think everybody assumed the defense would put on another dominating performance, and the biggest challenge would be finding enough offense to win a 10-9 game.  Throughout the non-conference schedule, several leaks sprang up throughout the defense, but the common belief was those would be patched before conference play began.  But last night, the entire defense took on water at a very alarming rate.  The pass rush is either non-existent or slow to develop, teams are finding big chunks of yardage right up the gut, and receivers are running free in a very porous secondary.  The defense is playing alarmingly poor at all levels.

Nebraska should be able to run on anybody.  Nebraska ended up with 159 yards rushing last night (174 if you look past the sacks).  While that is a big step down from the 300+ yards in the last two weeks, there were big chunks available when Nebraska went to their power running game.  The offensive line is coming into their own, and Burkhead is running at a very high level.  Tim Beck would be wise to make the power run game the foundation of every game plan from here on out.

Despite all of the offensive improvements, Nebraska cannot overcome 1st & 15.  NU had four drives start with a penalty on first or second down.  The results?  One touchdown (thanks to a 29 yard completion on 3rd and long), a missed FG (which was set up by a 25 yard completion on 3rd and long), and two 3 and outs.  Offensive penalties are lethal to this offense.

So what don’t we know?

Can Beck find a short to intermediate passing game that plays to Martinez’s strengths?  We don’t need to rehash Martinez’s shortcomings as a passer.  The time has come embrace what he can do and mold the passing game around it.  What about some screens or shovel passes?  I trust Martinez to make those throws, and good things should happen with Rex Burkhead, Jamal Turner, Kenny Bell, Ameer Abdullah or others getting the ball in space.  Surely that would be a better option on 2nd and long than drop back, lock in on a single receiver, and throw it behind him.

Are the issues in the secondary due to youthful inexperience or the loss of Marvin Sanders?  One of the things that I absolutely hate is fans who suggest a coach should be fired at the drop of a hat.  If anything, I’ll defend a coach even after most everybody has turned on him (see also:  Solich, Callahan, Watson, etc.), so let’s be clear:  I am not calling for Corey Raymond to be fired.  But I wonder if the challenges in the secondary are due to the new coaching style of Raymond, which relies more on technique than the physicality Marvin Sanders preached.  I’m willing to put some of the blame on the youth and the obvious step back they would take without Prince, Hagg, and a fully healthy Dennard, but there is a part of me that wonders if the DBs are thinking too much. 

How will Nebraska bounce back?  In the Pelini Era, NU has been a mixed bag after their first loss.  In 2008, a tough loss to Virginia Tech was followed by a home loss to Mizzou.  In 2009, NU demolished Louisiana-Lafayette after another painful VaTech loss.  Last year, after the Texas debacle NU went to Stillwater and picked up a big win.  There is definitely the potential for a hangover carrying into Saturday night’s B1G opener against Ohio State, but frankly I worry more about mistakes from trying too hard to help Bo beat his alma mater than a flat performance.  It is also worth noting that NU has lost back to back games in all three years under Pelini.

5 Players I Loved

  1. Rex Burkhead.  Mr. Consistency picked up 98 yards on the ground, most of them in big chunks.  The biggest shocker from Rex’s night was seeing him lose yardage on a carry.  That almost never happens, as he has a gift for churning, spinning, and squirting free for extra yards on every carry.  Quite simply, Rex is rock of this team.   
  2. Jamal Turner.  Far and away the leading receiver (5 for 84 yards), but what impressed me most is how he refused to go down.  When he gets the ball, you hold your breath a little bit because he’s a threat to score from anywhere.  I really liked that side pass they used in the 2nd Half to get him the ball in space.  More, please.
  3. Ameer Abdullah.  The good news is Ameer had another excellent night returning kicks, racking up 187 return yards and a long of 38 yards.  He consistently put NU in good field position.  The bad news is Abdullah got to return seven kicks.  Far too many opportunities.
  4. Lavonte David.  The defensive version of Mr. Consistency.  I put out the call for more defensive plays and David apparently was the only one who listened – 2 sacks, and 3 tackles for loss.  (P.S. – thanks for reading, Lavonte!).  Plus, David is one of the surest tacklers on the team; he rarely whiffs or arm tackles.
  5. Offensive Line.  I’ll admit it:  the O Line is getting the nod here because I’m not really sure who else to put in.  Overall, they did have a pretty good night.  Decent rush production, and most of the sacks appeared to be due to receivers not getting open instead of a blocking breakdown.  That said, even though the game was long decided, they needed to punch in the touchdown in the final seconds of the game.

5 Areas for Improvement

  1. Third Down.  Nebraska converted 5 of 12 3rd downs (42%).  Wisconsin converted 8 of 12 (67%).  Even without three interceptions and a bunch of untimely penalties, it is tough to win when you cannot get the other team off the field.
  2. Penalties.  Nine for 80 yards is bad enough, but most were flags that stalled offensive drives or extended Wisconsin drives.  Nebraska is not good enough – on offense or defense – to overcome that many penalties.  On a related topic, how many more meltdown free games does Bo need before ABC stops zooming in on him after every penalty?  I don’t recall seeing a close-up of Bret Bielema after any of Wisconsin’s four flags.
  3. Daimon Stafford.  I’m not going to call him out for his coverage (mainly because he was not the only one who had a rough night).  But I am going to call him out for his sloppy tackling.  Stafford has been one of the best tacklers on the team, and he picked a bad time to have an off night.
  4. Sean Fisher.  A baseball writer I like often defends Carlos Beltran by saying casual fans are disappointed by his performance because he is so naturally gifted and just “looks” like an athlete that they don’t realize how he makes difficult things look easy.  I want to apply that same concept to Fisher – he looks like he should be a dominating player, and it is quite likely that I do not appreciate the things he is doing – but I still find myself underwhelmed by his play. 
  5. Brent Musburger.  I know a great many Nebraska fans cannot stand Muss.  I usually do not mind him, but in the 3rd Quarter he really got on my nerves with his non-stop, over the top, praise for Badger QB Russell Wilson.  Yes, Wilson is a good player, who played an excellent game.  But Musburger’s 15 minute solioquy made Wilson sound like a combination of Peyton Manning, John Heisman, and Mother Theresa.  At one point, I’m pretty sure I heard Tim Tebow say “Jeez, the incessant hype is a little much.”  Brent, I’m sure it is tough to fill time during a lopsided game, but give it a rest.

What do you think?

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