I'll be tracking the Nebraska Cornhuskers each week of the season leading up to the big game in Lincoln -- and, perhaps, beyond, if a Big 12 Championship Game rematch looks likely. For more on the Huskers, head over to SB Nation's superb Nebraska blog, Corn Nation.
Admittedly, it's a little odd to be devoting so much attention to a single opponent, and one who doesn't even appear on the schedule until mid-October, at that. This is, of course, a Texas Longhorns blog, and we've barely spoken a word about Wyoming, this Saturday's upcoming opponent.
With that said, there are three reasons why I wanted to cover Nebraska on a weekly basis this year:
First, same as Oklahoma and Texas A&M, prior to the season it was easy to identify Nebraska as one of the three most interesting, down-the-road opponents likely to define Texas's 2010 season. The Huskers appear not only at a critical juncture of the schedule, but represent the consensus choice to win the Big 12 North.
Second, as saturated as is the coverage of our beloved Longhorns, there's meaningful value in this exercise. Between what we all see living and dying with every snap, in conjunction with the extensive coverage at BON, Barking Carnival, the Statesman, and message boards... if anything we wind up knowing too much about our own situation. At least in my view, some perspective helps, and in covering an opponent in depth it's not as though anyone's getting shortchanged their Longhorns coverage. Meanwhile, the exercise not only illuminates an upcoming opponent but helps shed light on the evaluation of our own team.
Third and finally, there's a reasonable chance that Texas' trip to Lincoln will represent the regular season game of the year. Like last season -- when prior to Bradford and Gresham's injuries the Red River Shootout looked like an utterly epic showdown -- circumstances may neuter that possibility, but it is at least foreseeable that Texas and Nebraska could square off in Lincoln undefeated, with both teams ranked in the top five. Combined with everything else related to these two programs, should such a contest take shape, it would be one of the most impossibly exciting, contentious match ups in recent memory.
In other words, at a minimum Nebraska represents our toughest road game of the year and -- it seems likely -- a defining benchmark for the progress of this year's team. And depending what happens between now and then, it's possible that Texas at Nebraska will be the must-see game of the 2010 regular season. Oklahoma is still the most important game on the schedule, but if Texas manages to clear that hurdle along with all the rest in the early going, the trip to Lincoln could be a match up for the ages.
(Also, my DVR wasn't working in time to record the Texas game, but I got Nebraska on film.
Nebraska 49 Western Kentucky 10
For the most part, the Cornhuskers started their season the right way, with a 49-10 thumping of Western Kentucky in Lincoln. The game box score is here. Bo Pelini's post-game quotes are here. Corn Nation's post-game report card is here.
And after the jump, an in depth breakdown of Nebraska's performance in week one.
While heading into the game most Nebraska fans voiced their expectations that senior Zac Lee would be named the starter. I explained why I thought it would be the redshirt freshman, Taylor Martinez:
Nebraska's goals this season are, first, to get to 6-0, and second, to beat Texas in Lincoln. And just like Texas is betting the farm on Cody Johnson because of what it needs against the top defenses it will face, I'm wondering whether Nebraska's coaches aren't thinking about giving Taylor Martinez every chance to be the team's quarterback this year because of what they need to play Texas. (Think about why Jerrod Johnson made A&M such a tough out last season and you'll arrive at the same conclusion.) Nebraska won't sacrifice an early-season loss to get there, but if they can get to 6-0 with Martinez, he may be the better play against the Longhorns. And that could be decisive.
The thing is that Martinez only has to be the equal of Zac Lee as a passer to be more valuable to the offense, because while Lee isn't immobile, he's not a rushing threat. Martinez most certainly is, and would meaningfully boost Nebraska's ground game, which will be the focal point of the offense in any case. That, combined with Lee's inability to win the job outright by now, suggest to me that Martinez will be given every chance to prove himself ready. Don't be surprised if he starts on Saturday.
Bo Pelini apparently agreed, as Martinez did in fact get the starting nod on Saturday. It would have been the right move even had the freshman struggled, but Martinez shone in exactly the ways that make him the Cornhuskers' best play for this season... and for beating Texas.
Quarterback -- The freshman finished the game completing 9 of 15 passes for 136 yards (no TDs or INTs), but he was dazzling on the ground, leading the team in rushing with 129 yards on just 7 carries, including 3 scores. We saw against Rice the reason I thought the Cornhuskers would and should go with Martinez, and as you can see, the zone read is his bread and butter:
Overall it was a spectacular debut for a redshirt freshman debut, giving Nebraska precisely what they needed: a rushing threat to diversify and make more dangerous the offensive attack. Martinez didn't look great as a passer, but he didn't need to, and most importantly, he didn't make any mistakes. Again, the bar here is a low one -- Martinez need only equal Lee as a passer to be a clearly better overall option. Martinez showed adequate arm strength, decent accuracy, and solid enough decision-making. He'll improve the latter two as the season progresses, and even though the opponent was truly terrible, after week one it's crystal clear the coaches made the right decision.
Running Backs -- Nebraska didn't feature the tailbacks much, but the top two -- Helu Jr. and Burkhead -- were both solid when they were in. I wrote in the season preview that the coaches would likely try to limit Helu Jr.'s carries against weaker opponents to keep him fresh for games in which he'll be leaned upon more heavily, and that appeared to be the strategy against the Hilltoppers. After all that patting myself on the back, it's only fair that I note that, at least after one week, I was dead wrong about Dontray Robinson perhaps sneaking past Rex Burkhead as the No. 2 tailback. Robinson picked up just 7 yards on 4 carries late in the game, while Burkhead was featured throughout and played well, picking up 57 yards on 5 carries (1 TD) and hauling in a pair of passes for another 47 yards. He's an excellent athlete, gets going in a hurry, and is a versatile threat who can be used in a lot of different ways. A really nice player to have.
Receivers -- I liked Brandon Kinnie to have a breakout season, and he was a factor in game one, hauling in a team-high six receptions for 59 yards. Other than a lost fumble, Niles Paul was typically strong, picking up 92 yards on just 5 catches, including one for a TD. For the most part, Martinez didn't really work through any progressions, targeting his top two receivers when he dropped back to pass, with the exception of a really nice, patient read in which he let Burkhead slip out of the backfield and hit him on a delay over the middle for a nice gain. This is likely to be the story for Nebraska all year, but I like both Paul and Kinnie enough not to see it as a problem. Look for Martinez to start working in the tight ends to the passing game as he gets more comfortable.
Offensive Line -- Western Kentucky's front presented absolutely no threat whatsoever, but there was more to like than not about the Nebraska offensive line. The guards Williams and Henry were good, and both Jones and Hardrick looked promising. It's hard to project too much given the opponent, but I thought the performance was encouraging, especially given the offense Nebraska is going to be running with Martinez. There's a lot of athleticism on this line, and they did an excellent job moving their feet well and giving Martinez time to make plays. Whether they can clear out and move a stout front remains to be seen, but the extra dimension Martinez adds as a rusher means they won't always have to for the Huskers to be successful.
If the Nebraska offense was better than expected, the defense was disappointing relative to expectations, giving up 4.8 yards per play and struggling to dominate Western Kentucky up front. That said, if one unit had to struggle while the other shined, better this than the alternative. Bo Pelini's defenses always improve as the year goes on, as will this one; far more important that the offense got off to a good start.
Defensive Line -- It's not saying much to say Jared Crick is no Ndamukong Suh, but... Nebraska fans expecting dominance even in the same zip code need to adjust expectations. Now, let's be clear about this: Crick is a good tackle. He's got great strength and above average quickness. But as I wrote in the preview, the critical questions were (1) how much he benefited from playing alongside Suh, (2) whether Crick could be similarly effective against double teams, and (3) whether his second tackle would be as helpful to him as he was to Ndamukong Suh. And at least after one game my answers are: (1) a lot, (2) not even close, and (3) not yet.
Crick was his usual excellent self when blocked one-on-one, but he struggled to separate from double teams and become a disruptive presence. He's strong enough that he can power through, and quick enough to avoid getting locked up, but my perception is that he lacks the agility to control double teams as the high-elites do. He's excellent enough to warrant extra attention, but whereas Suh was able to be disruptive even when doubled, Crick's value is tied more to his ability to occupy two blockers.
To the extent that's correct, heading into this season Nebraska was looking for sophomore Baker Steinkuhler to take a similarly big step forward as Crick did last year. To be sure, the sheer magnitude of Steinkuhler's physical presence presents problems all its own, but as I wrote in the season preview, "he's got a lot to prove, and the long-armed prospect still played too upright last year." Based on his week one performance, while his promise is still considerably higher, Steinkuhler still looks to me more physical specimen than effective tackle.
As for the ends, Pierre Allen and Cameron Meredith got the majority of the first team snaps before Meredith left with injury. Both were adequate, but neither stood out as a difference maker, nor did anyone behind them on the depth start. That was the story of the defensive line, really: if the first game is any indication, this unit is solid, but may lack difference-making potential. Good, not great.
Linebackers -- Shifting to more positive news, Lavonte David was every bit as impressive as his hype suggested he could be, showing superior quickness and a tenacious nose for the ball in racking up 13 tackles on the evening. He's definitely still a bit raw around the edges -- his overaggressive play on a 3rd and 1 allowed the WKU tailback to sprint free for a 46 yard gain that should have scored 6 -- but his weaknesses are of the kind that can and will improve in-season under Pelini's tutelage. In any event, he was the most impressive player on the defense. With Compton and Fisher out injured, sophomore Alonzo Whaley gave the Huskers solid snaps at the Will position, flashing really nice speed that will play well in their scheme as he improves his mental understanding of what's happening in front of him and his role within it.
Secondary -- I flagged the safety position as a question mark heading into the season, and neither Rickey Thenarse nor Eric Hagg impressed me on Saturday. However, converted corner DeJon Gomes very much did (his goal line strip was brilliant), an important development that portends well for the rest of the season. Similar to Texas with Gideon, Scott, and Vaccaro, Nebraska just needs two to emerge as playmakers, and based on what I saw from Gomes, at a minimum I like Nebraska to be fine.
Remember, thanks to the otherworldly abilities of the Huskers' corners -- Prince Amukumara and Alfonzo Dennard -- the safeties' most important responsibilities relate to playing smart and physical run support defense. That's a far more developable, coachable skill than being a sideline-to-sideline menace to the air game (a la Earl Thomas), making the outlook here bright enough. An injury to one of the star corners changes the dynamics significantly, but so long as they're healthy, the situation at safety looks good enough, and will continue to get better.
I suppose total dominance would be preferable, but again: if there had to be disappointment on one side of the ball, Nebraska fans should be happy with the win over Western Kentucky. Yes, the defense looks like it might be a notch below last year's, and has a good deal of work to do, but there are good reasons to think believe in improvement, while disaster on offense would have cast a much more ominous shadow.
In that light, I think the debut of Martinez is the storyline of greatest importance, and while his development will be critical to the Huskers achieving their highest goals, his debut was more than encouraging in terms of validating Nebraska's top-end potential. As for the defense, my sense after one game is that this group has little-to-no chance to be as dominant as last year's, but... with every reason to expect meaningful improvement, it's not unreasonable to believe that the defense "merely" will develop into a very good group.
If that's right, the offense needn't be world-beaters for Nebraska to have a shot at an undefeated season. They'll need only to be potent, and by starting Martinez the coaches have given themselves the best chance of achieving that goal. If things break right, Nebraska is capable of contending for the conference (and possibly national) title. That's all you can really ask for.
Looking ahead, Nebraska hosts the explosive offense of Idaho on Saturday, in a game which should be both interesting and telling on a number of levels. The Vandals are a pass-dependent offense who will face a challenge from the corners unlike anything they've seen before, giving us observers a chance to see whether the rest of Nebraska's defense is capable of taking advantage. It'll be a bad sign for Nebraska if Crick and Steinkuhler struggle to create pressure, if NU's defensive ends don't get at least a half dozen good licks of the quarterback, and if the safeties look bad in coverage. Likewise, it'll be a bad omen if Martinez and Nebraska don't rack up big yardage against another subpar defense.
Most interesting to me is the match up of the Nebraska defense against the Idaho offense -- a spread-'em-out, wide-open attack not dissimilar to Texas' last year under Colt McCoy. If the Huskers struggle to slow Idaho down, we'll have an interesting, useful data point with which to compare this and last year's defenses.