I’ve Been (Southern) Missing You

4 Sep

To my followers, family, Facebook friends, and anybody else who ends up here:

Thanks for stopping by!  I appreciate you taking the time read this.  But I’d greatly appreciate it if you read this fine article on HuskerMax.com, as I earn a fraction of a penny per page view – and I’m hoping to earn enough this year to buy my wife a steak dinner – and I’m guessing she’d rather go to Misty’s over Steak ‘n Shake.

Sincerely,

FeitCanWrite

I don’t know what exactly why, but the first game is one of my favorites of the season.  The anticipation, the excitement, putting on the new Husker shirt, enjoying pregame festivities, seeing old friends, learning a new roster, discovering which returning players have improved and which new guys will make an impact, checking out the new Tunnel Walk, enjoying the majestic strains of March Grandioso, and so much more.  And it sure doesn’t hurt knowing that Nebraska hasn’t lost a home opener since 1985.  A beloved old friend is back in town, and you can’t wait to relive and recapture the glory days of your youth.  It’s Football Saturday, and there is no place like Nebraska.

As is quickly becoming my opening game tradition, a word of caution for my fellow fans:  beware the quick conclusion.  It is easy to look at a 29 point win over a team that went 12-2 last year and believe that big things are in store.  And it could be a special season.  As fans, we want to believe the quarterback with the awkward mechanics and tendency to do too much is now “fixed” after throwing for 354 yards and five touchdowns.  Maybe he improved that much.  You can look at the kicker who had a stunningly bad day and write him off for the year – despite his impressive resume from 2011.  Could that magical season have been a fluke?

Don’t give into the temptation.

There is so, so much we do not know about the season yet.  I guarantee there is somebody who played a limited role on Saturday but will be a big contributor come November.  Southern Miss could prove to be the worst team (not named Idaho State) that Nebraska plays all year.  That last sentence could be dead wrong and Idaho State plays like South Dakota State (or Iowa State) did a few years ago.  We just don’t know yet.

And that’s what I love about the first game.  The hope, the promise, the excitement are still very much alive.  The key is to enjoy the optimism without getting drunk on the Kool-Aid.

So what did we learn?

Nebraska’s offense shows no signs of slowing down.  Last year, the big talk during fall camp was the “Oregon-like” pace of Nebraska’s offense.  During the 2011 season, there were times when NU brought out the quick pace, but it slowed down after the Wisconsin loss.  This year, not much has been said about the pace Nebraska would run at.  I was impressed to watch the offense in action.

As you know, the 40 second play clock starts when the previous play is whistled dead.  On Saturday, Nebraska was consistently getting lined up and ready to go with 27 – 32 seconds to go on the play clock, which I would say is a solid five seconds faster than last year.  That faster tempo creates advantages by limiting defensive substitutions, wearing out a defense, and allowing Tim Beck to exploit personnel groupings.

Nebraska has a deep receiving corps.  I’ll admit it:  I was rather skeptical of the reports that said NU has the best WR/TE group in the conference.  Personally, I took it to mean that this is a down year for receivers in the Big Ten – not that NU’s group is loaded with talent.  The returning guys (Kyler Reed, Quincy Enunwa, Jamal Turner, and Kenny Bell) all looked good, but the guys making their first receptions (such as Jake Long, Steven Osborne, Tyler Evans, and the fun-to-say Tyler Wullenwaber) were equally impressive.

A cautionary disclaimer:  Before I get on-board with the “Best of the B1G” title, I’m going to need to see some consistency.  Over the past five or so years, NU has had a bad habit of guys getting a reception in the season opener and disappearing for the rest of the year.

The fullback dive lives!  Mike Marrow and C.J. Zimmerer combined for 5 carries for 19 yards coming on fullback dives or traps.  That may not sound like much, but consider this:  in the last eight seasons (2004 – 2011) NU fullbacks have combined for 12 carries.  You have to go back to Judd Davies (against Colorado in 2003) to find the last time a NU fullback got more than three carries in a game.  Why does it matter?  Aside from appeasing me and other aficionados of the Cory Schlesigner Society (motto:  “In Makovicka, We Trust”) it gives Tim Beck another weapon in his arsenal and forces defenses to account for another variable.

So what don’t we know?

What is Rex’s status?  How bad is it?  When will he return, and how productive will he be?  Rex Burkhead’s left medial collateral ligament is quickly going to become the most talked about ligament of the last 10-15 years (I fully expect Rex’s MCL to have a Twitter account by the end of the week).  Based on what we saw Saturday, you have to feel fairly comfortable with Ameer Abdullah carrying the load (with support from Braylon Heard, Imani Cross, and Mike Marrow).  But let’s not kid ourselves, if Nebraska is going to entertain serious hopes of winning the Legends Division, they need a healthy and productive Burkhead – not one who is slowed, tentative, or in street clothes.

Is Ron Kellogg strong enough #2 to turn Martinez loose in the running game?  Here’s the conundrum Tim Beck is facing this week:  his best back is out with a sprained MCL, but he has a speedy QB who is a proven running threat.  However, should Martinez get hurt in the course of getting 10-15 carries a game is Ron Kellogg III (or Tommy Armstrong or Brion Carnes) good enough to lead the team to victory against Arkansas State?  What about Wisconsin?  Kellogg got four minutes of action, but did little more than hand it off to Imani Cross and get out of the way.  I would have liked to see Kellogg come in on the previous series and attempt a pass or two.  If Kellogg is good enough to run the team, then Beck should allow Taylor to run free (and not have to slide or duck out of bounds).  If not, then Beck and assistant Joe Ganz need to get a back-up ready for prime time, pronto

What is the best strategy for the new kickoff rules?  Watching the game, I got the impression that Nebraska’s coaches are not sure how to handle the new kickoff rules (the kick is moved up five yards, but touchbacks come out to the 25).  They seemed to be experimenting with a) the lob that comes down inside the 5, b) the pooch into the corner, and c) booming it through the end zone and taking their chances from the 25.

As we saw, the lob didn’t work (returned for a touchdown), the pooch didn’t work (kicked out of bounds), and booming it through the end zone was inconsistent (some touchbacks, but other kicks landed short).  I’m undecided too, but my intuition say the lob – combined with improved coverage – may be the best method.  That said, I anticipate Special Teams Coordinator Ross Els to use some different strategies based upon situation (wind, field conditions, return men, etc.)

Where are my Keys?

At the beginning of the season, I laid out three simple keys for Nebraska to have a strong season:  1) Win the turnover battle, 2) Own 3rd Down, 3) Limit penalties.  Throughout the year, I’ll be tracking Nebraska’s progress:

Penalties Penalty Yds. 3rd Down Conv.   (NU) 3rd Down Conv. (Opp) Turnover Margin
So. Miss 2 30 80.0% 50.0% 1
2012 Per Game 2 30 80.0% 50.0% 1
2011 Per Game 7.2 57.3 42.3% 40.2% -1

I don’t care if you’re playing Southern Miss, Southern Cal, or the Wymore-Southern Raiders – if you can convert 80% of your 3rd downs, be +1 on turnovers, and only commit two penalties, you are going to win.  Period.

5 Players I Loved

  1. Taylor Martinez.  If he threw every pass underhand, Martinez would still be at the top of this list.  Five touchdowns and 354 yards of passing make that an easy call.  While I was impressed by his improved throwing motion and quicker release, it was his patience in working the offense that really stood out.  Martinez routinely went through his progressions looking off different receivers before finding an outlet for the short gain.  Were there times that he did not see wide open receivers?  Yes.  Is anybody going to mistake his new mechanics those of Aaron Rodgers, Drew Brees, or any of the Mannings?  Nope.  But even the harshest of Martinez critics (and you know who you are) should be able to acknowledge improvement – even considering the play where he locked on to his receiver early and threw what should have been a Pick-Six.  The next test is consistency – replicating the better mechanics, the smart decisions, and the control of the offense – while facing a better defense.
  2. Ameer Abdullah.  Back in 1995, after Lawrence Phillips was suspended, there was concern over how the offense would function without a back of L.P.’s abilities.  In the first play of the Arizona State game, Clinton Childs ran 65 yards for a TD,  but it was Ahman Green who stepped up and made folks think “ya know, I think we’re going to be all right.”  The circumstances here are quite different (injury vs. suspension, and Rex Burkhead is as celebrated for his off-field deeds as Phillips is reviled for his), but I think the analogy holds true.  We knew Abdullah was a good back, but his performance on Saturday (15 carries for 83 yards, 4 receptions for 39 yards and a TD, plus another 41 yards in punt returns) proved that Ameer can be a very good feature back.  As with Martinez, I want to see the consistency.  Abdullah has a great opportunity to carry the load and establish himself as a star for 2013.  I hope he takes advantage like Ahman did.
  3. Baker Steinkuhler.  Baker had what I would call a “quietly dominating” day:  eight total tackles, two tackles for loss, and he shared a sack with P.J. Smith.  He didn’t have a lot of highlight reel plays, and he wasn’t living in the backfield like Suh used to do, but you’ll notice that a lot of Southern Mississippi’s rushing yards came around the edge – not up the middle.  I strongly believe this defense is only as good as the front four, so I am optimistic that Steinkuhler’s day is a sign of things to come.
  4. Will Compton.  On Saturday, I was guilty of comparing Compton’s play to the standard Lavonte David set last year, which is not fair to Compton.  Upon further review, Compton had a strong performance, leading the team in tackles and recording a big sack.  Compton is a different player than David, with different strengths.  Compton is more likely to fill a gap and take on a ball carrier, while David was more likely to go around the end to make a diving stop.  Like with Steinkuhler, I see the potential for big things out of Compton as he settles into his role as the leader of the defense.
  5. Imani Cross. Yeah, most of his 11 carries for 62 yards came in 4th Quarter garbage time, but Cross did not look like a true freshman – in his performance or physical appearance.  What impressed me most was how he ran to (and through) contact.  I’m hoping there are some big 3rd and 4th down conversions in his future.

Honorable Mention:  Red Cross workers, water and soda vendors, fans on the sunny side of the stadium who stuck it out until the end of the game.

5 Areas for Improvement

  1. Brett Maher.  Of the 85 players on scholarship, I probably would have used 84 guesses before I predicted Maher would top this list.  Here is recap of his Saturday:  two missed field goals, a shanked punt, a kickoff returned for a touchdown, and another kickoff out of bounds.  Even the poster child for underwhelming NU kickers (Jordan Congdon) never had a day like that.  But I’m not going to lose sleep over Maher’s performance.  He has more than proved himself to be an excellent kicker.  Finally, a direct message to the guy in my section who yelled “Get him off the field!” after the second miss:  Seriously?  You, good sir, are a moron.  Do us all a favor and don’t renew your tickets.
  2. Justin Jackson.  From the practice reports, Jackson sounds like a great choice to anchor the offensive line:  smart, bulldog tough, with just enough of a mean streak to be a leader for a line that could use some nasty.  But many of his snaps were quite low (unless he thinks Martinez is 5’2″). He needs to get that ball up so the QB isn’t starting a play looking at the ground.  Once that happens, look out.
  3. Blackshirts.  John Papuchis’s first game as Nebraska’s defensive coordinator probably won’t go in the scrapbook.  Yes, the defense held Southern Mississippi’s QB trio to a combined 7 of 19 passing for 75 yards (and a TD), but the rush defense was a different story.  Nebraska allowed 185 yards on the ground, including 84 to QB Anthony Alford – many of them seemingly on the same play.  I’d hope to see more of an adjustment to shut down the play during the game.  With NU facing another mobile quarterback in Pasadena this week, the rush defense (and tackling) need to be shored up quickly.
  4. HuskerVision.  Brett Maher is having a nightmare of a game, and yet somebody still pushes play on the “Nebraska Kicking Tradition” video showing all of the NU kickers in the NFL, along with an interview with Maher?  Did you also direct one of the cameramen on the sideline to pour salt on his wounds?.  Somebody in the booth should have called an audible and saved the kicker video for a different day.  The corny, yet amusing Tim Miles commercial is the only thing keeping HuskerVision out of the cellar.
  5. Nebraska Weather.  All Nebraskans know the adage about our weather:  if you don’t like it, wait five minutes and it will change.  Unfortunately on Saturday, the only change was the temperature getting hotter and sun shining brighter.  The guy sitting next to me described the North Stadium concourse as a “refugee camp” at halftime as dozens of people sat on the floor in the muggy (but shaded) concourse, choosing to watch one of the TVs on the wall than brave the heat.  It was stunningly hot, and I hope everybody who needed medical assistance is feeling better.  Hopefully next year’s opener will go back to being a night game – or the East Stadium project will include a retractable roof.
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