LINCOLN — You're a Big Ten defense. Do you want any piece of Nebraska's offense right now?
No. You don't. Maybe Michigan State's fast, nasty bunch relishes the challenge. But that's it.
Offensive coordinator Tim Beck's attack leads the Big Ten in yards, scoring, rushing yards, passing efficiency, first downs, 10-yard plays, 20-yard plays and every 10-yard interval up to 90. It's second to Purdue in third-down conversions.
There's no stat for tempo, but the Huskers likely top the league in that mark, too. NU leads the league in kick returns and is second in punt returns.
Pressure. Pressure. Pressure. That's what Nebraska can do.
Even if its four nonconference opponents couldn't stop three coins from falling in a fountain — and statistical evidence suggests they can't — the Huskers pass the eye test.
Receivers catch the ball and block like bullies; Rich Fisher's done a terrific job. The offensive line doesn't get great push, but does protect and pull effectively. Nebraska's top four running backs form the Big Ten's best unit. Quarterback Taylor Martinez is back to full speed, and he's shown good game management skills this first month.
This offense can win the Big Ten title. It'll probably have to, as well.
Only one league defense — the Spartans — puts the same amount of speed, quicks and experience on the field as NU's offense. And Michigan State quarterback Andrew Maxwell can't throw over two leaf bags. It doesn't matter what the Huskers might do to Alabama, LSU or Florida State. They're not playing those teams.
Outside of Michigan State:
>> There isn't a secondary that can consistently cover Kenny Bell, Quincy Enunwa, Kyler Reed and Jamal Turner.
>> There isn't a front seven that can swarm Martinez and his backs.
>> NU will face defenses with good-to-great coaching but limitations somewhere — either in size, speed or smarts — that Beck can exploit.
Now — can Beck and Martinez bring it home? It's on them, just as the second half at UCLA was theirs to seize. They had to learn a lesson in the Rose Bowl about patience and confidence, about falling into the patterns of 2011, when both pressed beyond the natural advantages they had on the field.
The Huskers will not run their way to a crown. This irks NU fans who have 400-yard ground games in their bloodstream. But it's not 1986 anymore, when the Huskers dueled with Oklahoma weekly for the nation's best option game. Beck said as much last week.
“If you have a good running team, you're able to control the game, but most of the time, you've got to win it with your throwing,” he said. “You make your big plays and your touchdowns. It's hard to go 18-play drives every time you get the football.”
It falls to Martinez's arm and the hands of Bell, Enunwa, Reed and Turner, his top targets. Beck can do more with the screen game. And more with the diamond formation, too. But the building blocks are there.
Nebraska's defense inches toward improvement. Zaire Anderson's season-ending injury won't help, and Big Ten teams will identify a Husker defensive line vulnerable to the power run. Wisconsin's offense is running at half mast, but don't be stunned if the Badgers crack open some big holes this week in their all-white tights. Do be stunned if Martinez and Co. can't answer.
Before the year, I picked Michigan to win the Legends Division. I'm wavering on that, because the Wolverines' offensive line can't protect. NU doesn't have to wait until 2013 for a good path to the Big Ten title game. It has one now. Tough schedule and all. Just know the Huskers butter their bread on offense, which has produced entire seasons of discontent under Bo Pelini.
I see you
>> Running backs Rex Burkhead, Ameer Abdullah, Braylon Heard and Imani Cross: That's one heck of a quartet, and each brings a different flavor. Watch out for more from Heard, who hits a hole fast and seems to be gaining confidence. He's the most gifted athlete of the bunch.
>> Bell: The receiver made another big play on his 68-yard touchdown and had three great blocks that I saw.
>> Linebacker Sean Fisher: He's looked a little rusty and late to the ball — overthinking it? — but NU will need him in Big Ten play.
>> Fullback Andy Janovich: That Nebraska's willing to burn his redshirt speaks to the Gretna freshman's progress — but also the lack thereof among his teammates at the position. Janovich looked like the best of them Saturday. Certainly the most athletic.
>> Cornerback Stanley Jean-Baptiste: Even though one drew a personal foul, he laid a couple of impressive hits.
>> Defensive end Eric Martin: Boom or bust pass rusher. He either gets there and leaves a mark, or he doesn't and leaves a nice lane for the quarterback to run through. What role can he play vs. Ohio State and Michigan?
>> Martinez: He's back to playing a defense with a pulse, since Arkansas State (66th in total defense while playing Alcorn State) and Southern Mississippi (104th) don't exactly rate. Husker fans judge their quarterbacks by conference titles, then stats.
>> Cornerback Josh Mitchell: Quietly doing his part. Teams aren't picking on him much yet.
>> Defensive tackle Kevin Williams: Both in his initial push and lateral pursuit, he's starting to live up to the impact that former defensive coordinator Carl Pelini thought Williams would make. Not big, but forceful.
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>> Penalties: Bo Pelini's comfortable with the occasional pass interference call. On slant routes? Sure. Stay aggressive there.
When it's an over-the-top post or fade route — which Nebraska still struggles to cover — it suggests NU corners are out of position. Wisconsin should test the Huskers deep early and often. It's the best pass UW quarterback Joel Stave makes.
>> Coverage units: Carrying this one over from last week, since Idaho State stopped trying to return kickoffs in the second quarter.
>> Fumbles: The Huskers are tied for third nationally in fumbles lost (one behind Navy and Maryland).
NU's had seven takeaways. Pretty good.
And nine giveaways. Poor.
>> Why are coaches getting so perturbed with the media these days? The latest episode of immaturity came from Michigan State's Mark Dantonio, who knew his team stunk up the joint in a 23-7 victory against winless Eastern Michigan, said so, and still treated the press to a series of one-sentence answers and a mocking statement about how “great” the questions were.
Dantonio's usually pretty smooth. USC's Lane Kiffin — who uttered “gotta go” to an injury question last week and fled — is not.
What gives? Two things.
The first is money. Coaches make a lot of it, and those millions force many of them to keep midnight-oil hours which adds pressure, compresses free time and makes any outside distraction and momentary dissent a threat to the program.
The second pits this particular generation of secretive coaches against the information age, which operates with a 24-hour-a-day, need-to-know engine. A desire to withhold meets the desire to turn over every stone. One ethos is too protective of phantom controversies. The other ethos can erect strawmen to fill the void of hard news.
When I hear questions like “Can Nebraska ever win a national title in our lifetime?” I'm at a loss. Could rib-eye steak ever be free down at the butcher's market? Could my kid become a firefighter?
>> Is the Big Ten better than we suspect? The league's taken a beating for its nonconference play through four weeks. Iowa deserves every last bit of criticism.
But step back from the ledge for a second. Alabama, Notre Dame, UCLA and Oregon State — which have six wins against Big Ten teams — have one loss among them, and that's only because the Beavers beat the Bruins. Losses to Ohio (which beat Penn State) and Louisiana Tech (which beat Illinois) look bad until you recognize that both teams might win 11 games this year.
That's eight of the 13 losses.
What I've learned in four weeks: The small-conference teams are stronger and better than ever. Spread offenses have democratized the game. You don't need great offensive and defensive lines anymore to pull a mild upset. You need a hot-handed quarterback and fast skill players.
>> Is this the biggest recruiting weekend in recent Nebraska history? Yes. The Huskers intend to make a big splash with the night game, the alternate uniforms, the works. Recruiting coordinator Ross Els is putting the NU chips on this game and the Oct. 27 Michigan game. Both are 7 p.m. kickoffs, which allows prospects a full day to enjoy campus and pregame festivities. For now, 15 high-profile targets plan to officially visit for the Wisconsin game. I expect that number to go down a little. They're kids. They change their minds.
>> Fifth: Nebraska's national rank in sacks. Thanks for the bump, Idaho State. Given that Wisconsin's Stave couldn't see a 12-ton truck if it roared off the blind side, NU should stay in the top 10 after this week, too.
>> Three: Teams with perfect records in the Big Ten: Minnesota, Northwestern and Ohio State. My money is on the Wildcats as the last undefeated team. If the Gophers beat Iowa this week for a third consecutive win in the Floyd of Rosedale series, Hawkeye fans may refuse a pint at one of Iowa City's 4,563 bars in protest.
>> 29.23: Percentage of third downs that opponents are converting against Wisconsin. Nebraska's offensive conversion rate is 56 percent, good for fifth in the country. Something has to give.
Wisconsin's offense took baby steps in a 37-26 win over UTEP, even as running back Montee Ball sat out most of the game with a head injury. The Badgers used third-team running back Melvin Gordon — fast enough to be a slot receiver — as a motion man running across the formation. Gordon took the jet sweep a few times; on other plays, he was just a decoy. He finished with eight carries and 112 yards. But this motion helped loosen up UTEP's defense, and by game's end UW's offensive line was opening bigger holes.
Stave is a statue in the pocket, but he didn't panic, vacate and ruin the routes like Danny O'Brien can be prone to do.
Meanwhile, the Badgers' depth at defensive end is nonexistent. According to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, two of UW's top three ends missed the UTEP game while starter David Gilbert got hurt.
Nebraska has a good package of running plays that can attack a defense's flanks.
Note: If Ball suffered a concussion in the game — coach Bret Bielema said doctors would decide — it would be his second in two months. The first was a result of the off-the-field beating he took Aug. 1.
Bo Pelini will tell us he couldn't care less about Nebraska's alternate uniform, though he could. And some fan will bray about NU's lucrative contract with Adidas, because Nike apparently designs a better uniform.
If that's true, what are those little claw marks around the neck of NFL uniforms?
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