Mike McNeil shows off his athleticism during Nebraskla's win over Washington.
Alright, it's time to talk about Nebraska again. Technical, pay-per-view-related difficulties prevented me from watching their victory over Idaho, but I got to settle in on Saturday afternoon for their demolition of Washington. Judging from the comments here and elsewhere, a good number of Horns fans got their first look at Nebraska, and those who weren't already familiar with freshman QB Taylor Martinez surely are now.
Nebraska Offense vs Washington
Quarterback: Ho-hum, another 100-yard day for Taylor Martinez. Following his 19-carry, 137-yard afternoon against Washington, Martinez has 421 rushing yards on the year, 7th most nationally, and his 10.53 yards per carry leads all rushers with a minimum of 20 carries. He also scored three touchdowns, giving him 8 on the year, second-most in the country. Are you impressed yet?
You should be, especially after Martinez turned in his best effort as a passer against the Huskies, completing 7 of his 11 passes for 150 yards, 1 TD, and no interceptions. Martinez isn't going to light many teams up through the air, but he's not making many mistakes, either, which is exactly what Nebraska needs from him: just enough to make a difference, and keep defenses honest. His arm strength is solid, and while his delivery is a little long, he throws a nice spiral from a high release point of an over-the-top motion.
Most encouraging from the Nebraska perspective is the improvement Martinez is showing in progressing through reads. They're still keeping this relatively simple, but as Martinez is becoming more comfortable in looking at his options, the availability of passing off the rush game is beginning to open up. The temptation is to pidgeonhole the Huskers offense as one-dimensional, but that's increasingly an oversimplification, and they're right on track in terms of progress that needed to be made by October 16th.
Nor should Texas fans giggle at the prospect of Martinez having to take blows from a hard-hitting defense like Texas. In the first place, like so many great rushers, he's nimble and quick in ways that allow him to avoid taking too many big, direct hits. And second, while he went to Nebraska because he was promised a shot to play QB, Pete Carroll recruited him to USC... to play safety. Let that sink in for a minute.
The impact of having Martinez on this offense simply cannot be overstated for the match up with Texas.
Running Backs: The coaching staff has wisely been bringing Roy Helu Jr. along slowly this year, limiting him to 5 carries in the opener, before feeding it to him 9 times against Idado, and 10 this week. They need him healthy and fresh for the long, brutal slag that is conference play, and preserving him in the early going is smart management. Helu has looked good as ever in his limited appearances, and again went over the century mark this week, racking up 110 yards and 2 TDs on his 10 carries.
Rex Burkhead was very good again, as well, picking up 104 yards on 13 carries, with 1 TD, and Nebraska continues to demonstrate an excellent grasp of how to use these two in tandem with their quarterback. We're seeing Nebraska use a lot of zone read, which they're blocking effectively and running complementary plays off of very well. Their offense is "multiple" in a lot of the ways that Texas' was under Vince Young. Nothing complicated, or particularly fancy -- but diverse in a meaningful, coordinated way. They make defenses think out on the field, and that's a big part of the endgame.
Receivers: Brandon Kinnie continued his breakout, hauling in 5 Martinez passes for 105 yards, including a 55-yarder that he took all the way down to the 1. He's got a pretty funny-looking gait when he runs, but his strides are really long and he's getting better and better at using his long frame to his advantage.
We also saw this week the reason converted-TE Mike McNeil is a player who can hurt you if you sleep on him. McNeil's not exactly fast, but he's athletic, moves well, and has great hands. If you've seen him play, you might have found yourself reminded of the Colts' Dallas Clark. Nebraska uses him the same way.
Offensive Line: From the Longhorn perspective, the play of this group was the most frightening development to see. The guards were really impressive, and particularly Ricky Henry, who wrecked purple defenders with purpose from start to finish. D.J. Jones is really rounding into form at right tackle, and both Sirles and Yoshi Hardrick are making progress on the left side. Mike Caputo is undersized and I'm interested in seeing him work against someone like, say, Kheeston Randall, but he's at least firing quickly and appears to have strength that plays.
All in all, the offensive line is much further along than I expected, and remember, this is after they lost Mike Smith for the season in August.
Nebraska Defense vs Washington
Defensive Line: I'm sure a good many Nebraska fans want to resist this conclusion, but the defensive line is a borderline weakness. That's arguably an overstatement, but my feelings are as lukewarm after this week as they were after week one. And just as there's a limit to the value of pointing to past successes to explain away current problems with the Texas offense, there's not much about last year that speaks to what I see on the Nebraska defensive line this year.
It's substantial, and I don't see much to believe it's going to be a whole lot better than it is right now. Jared Crick is having no impact when double teamed, but surprising is how little he's doing against single blocks. Meanwhile, Baker Steinkuhler still looks more like Frankenstein playing football, and while it's an impressive site for the eyes when he makes a play, he's not doing that very often.
As for the ends, I thought Pierre Allen played better this week, and Cameron Meredith is coming along, but neither is a difference maker, and there's nothing behind them worth mentioning.
The good news for Nebraska is that... well, you saw the Texas Tech game. We have a nasty habit of making superstars out of defensive linemen, and we're not showing any ability to run the ball up the middle consistently, which it's looking more and more like an opponent will have to do to have success against Nebraska.
Linebackers: I remain impressed with Lavonte David, and expect him only to continue improving throughout the season. He's physically impressive, has very nice speed, great toughness, and good instincts. At this point it's a matter of learning where to be, and when to get there. David came into the season with a good bit of fanfare, but I'd imagine Huskers fans are pleasantly surprised by the rapid development of sophomore Eric Martin, as well. He's built like a truck, but really moves quite well.
Depth is a problem here, but the top two are performing well and will continue to get better. Neither of these two is a strength in pass coverage -- although David's got plenty of speed -- but that's the least important thing they're asked to do, and isn't really material to evaluating the overall strength of this defense.
Secondary: Another really impressive showing from this group, which is strong and getting stronger. Ricky Thenarse looked much better this week than he did in week one, forcing a fumble and generally being disruptive. DeJon Gomes has occasional plays where he looks lost, but there are going to continue to be fewer and fewer of them, and the talent is real. Gomes has very nice speed and a playmaker's instincts. His transition to safety has been a terrific success. The corners -- Dennard and Amakumara -- are superb, of course, although I caught Prince taking a few plays off on Saturday. He was probably bored, and I don't much blame him. He's still one of the nation's very best, and he and Dennard allow Carl Pelini to do a lot of different things without worrying much about getting burnt through the air.
Big Nickel/Peso-back/LB-DB Hybrid Eric Hagg had a very nice game Saturday and continues to remain on the field for the majority of snaps. He's a great fit for the role -- active playing the run, with enough speed to run and cover.
Overall, the defense is better than the sum of its parts, thanks in part to the strength of the secondary, an emerging linebacking corps, and the ability to be flexible & multiple.
I'm off to hop on a plane to Dallas, so I'll leave it at that. OU remains our most important game of the year. I'm pretty sure Nebraska's our most challenging.