LINCOLN — As Nebraska’s football program emerges from a one-week hibernation to present at least a theory on solving the problems that plagued it in two losses, I’ll resist the urge to muck around the past.
Let’s spin the story forward and look at the stretch run of 2012. The final six regular season games. What do we know about them already?
>> Nebraska finished 4-2 against these same teams last year. Losses to Northwestern and Michigan. Wins over Iowa, Penn State, Michigan State and Minnesota. Should the Huskers post 4-2 again, the odds of making it to the Big Ten title game are remote.
>> But the Huskers do not have to “win out” to reach the Big Ten title game. Coach Bo Pelini put that on his team — perhaps as a calculated dare, perhaps because, in his mind, he believed it to be true — but, should NU lose just once, its odds of heading to Indianapolis aren’t bad. And if Nebraska loses just once, Pelini will admit that to his team and reporters.
>> The remaining six teams have a combined turnover margin of plus-16. Burn that number into your brain. Nebraska is last in the Big Ten in turnover margin — 104th in the nation — at minus-6. More on this in the “three concerns” section.
>> NU will face three quarterback-centered spread offenses and three play-action, pro-style offenses. Nebraska traditionally has more success against offenses like the ones at Michigan State, Iowa and Penn State — they scored 24 combined points against the Huskers last year — than it does against spread attacks. Michigan, Northwestern and Minnesota scored a combined 87 points on NU last year.
>> In terms of yards per game, only one of the remaining opponents has a passing offense ranked in the nation’s top 50. That’s Penn State, at No. 48. In terms of passing efficiency, none of NU’s opponents is ranked in the top 50.
So let’s be clear: Nebraska’s defense has to stop the run far more than the pass in the next six weeks. NU ranks 91st nationally in run defense. Nebraska fans should hope Pelini and his crew spent the bye week on tackling, run fits and sniffing out play-action passes and zone-read looks. Stop the run, stop the run, stop the run — and stop the pass off of the run.
>> Every team remaining has allowed fewer yards and points a game than Ohio State. Of the six, Michigan State is statistically the best — 14th in scoring defense, seventh in total defense — and actually the best, in terms of talent, playmakers and emotion.
And yet Nebraska can win in East Lansing. The Spartans are 2-3 at home this year and haven’t scored more than 23 points in any home game. Anywhere Iowa can carve out a win, NU can. You might have identified the road game at MSU as a likely loss before the season. It isn’t now.
>> Nebraska has not lost a night game at home since Missouri on Oct. 4, 2008. In that 10-game winning streak, the Huskers staged two of the biggest comebacks in school history. NU hosts Michigan, at night, Oct. 27.
>> Conversely, the Huskers have not gone undefeated at home since 2001. So the Penn State and Minnesota games are definite upset alerts.
>> Ohio State and Penn State are Nebraska’s best friends. The Buckeyes can put a loss on Michigan’s board at the end of the year, and PSU can dole one out to Iowa next weekend. They’ve already knocked off Michigan State and Northwestern, respectively.
Based on those numbers and conclusions, here’s a winning formula:
Protect the ball fiercely on offense — even at the expense of explosiveness. Devise a combination of scheme and personnel that stops the run and protects against the long play-action pass. Take away the running threat of mobile quarterbacks, and maintain defensive strength against pro-style offenses.
In short: Play Big Ten football. Nebraska joined this bunch, after all. Now it has to win on blustery afternoons in the upper Midwest.
On with the Rewind.
Midseason I See You
Running back Ameer Abdullah: Quiet, driven and tough on himself, Abdullah ranks fifth nationally in all-purpose yards per game with 184.33. And he’s sharing carries.
Wide receiver Kenny Bell: His speed is still great, his route running is better, and Bell blocks well enough to stay on the field every down. Arguably the best underrated recruit of the Pelini era.
Nickel Ciante Evans: He’s played well so far. He’ll have to find another level in the second half of the season.
Wide receivers coach Rich Fisher: His guys block hard, they catch, they run well, they stiff-arm and they don’t fumble. Fisher has talented players, yes — but he’s coaching them well, too.
Cornerback Stanley Jean-Baptiste: He’s covering well. He could stand to tackle better.
Kicker/punter Brett Maher: Still the Big Ten’s best. And he may have to prove it with a late-game field goal down the stretch. His 29 touchbacks on kickoffs rank fourth in the nation.
Defensive end Eric Martin: He can go get a sack once a game. For Nebraska, that’s improvement over last year, when it took a blitz to get one.
Quarterback Taylor Martinez: Quarterbacks throw interceptions sometimes. All of them. But they can’t lose four fumbles in four weeks. While dropping back to pass. Aside from that, Martinez looks better as a runner and he’s generally making sharp audibles at the line of scrimmage.
Guard Cole Pensick: Could see him start in the second half of the year. After losing the starting center job, he rebounded with character and became a valuable backup.
Three Midseason Concerns
Inconsistent safety play: NU’s tried three options back there — seniors Daimion Stafford and P.J. Smith, and sophomore Harvey Jackson — and all three have made a few good plays in run support or pass coverage. But they’ve bit on some play fakes, too, and the short swing pass — of which UCLA made great use — might be in their heads a little. An opposing Big Ten offense will take shots at this trio. They’ve been hot and cold thus far in their response.
Turnover Margin: Flash back to 2009. What were two of the biggest plays in Nebraska’s five-game winning streak to end the regular season?
DeJon Gomes forcing a fumble on Kansas wide receiver Kerry Meier as Meier was darting into the end zone. NU recovered.
Larry Asante doing the same to Kansas State running back Keithen Valentine at the Husker 1.
In those five wins, Nebraska enjoyed a plus-9 turnover margin. And not because the Huskers were playing turnover-free.
NU’s defense has to force more takeaways. It’s a field position thing. It’s a psychological thing. Do brain freezes over scheme prevent the kind of speed of play required to knock balls loose?
Coverage units: The Huskers rank 96th in kickoff coverage yards and 115th in punt coverage yards, but if the stats don’t tell the story, your eyes will when you attend a game. Opponents appear close to breaking a big return on every other kick. This is another frustrating trend. In 2011, NU ranked 104th in kickoff coverage and 105th in punt coverage. In 2010, those numbers were 97th and 78th. What isn’t working here?
Three Midseason Questions
Who’s the Big Ten favorite now? In the Leaders Division, it’s Wisconsin, easy. Purdue, Illinois and Indiana — the only other eligible teams in the division — already have two losses each. The Badgers will likely have the tiebreaker over all three. It’s good to be Bret Bielema.
In the Legends, stick a fork in Michigan State, which dropped a home game to Iowa and seems unlikely to upset Michigan in Ann Arbor. Iowa’s all the way in it. So are the Wolverines, and Nebraska-Northwestern looms as a knockout game. (Though it wouldn’t be for the Huskers, if they ripped off five straight after that).
Right now, Michigan, which has outscored its first two Big Ten opponents 89-13, gets the slight nod over Nebraska. The Wolverines’ ship seems righted. NU still has to do that.
How does a reporter spend the bye week? This particular reporter cooked a late breakfast, raked some leaves — feeling like Sisyphus with his boulder — and watched a ton of college football.
I mourned another wretched phase of the Red River Rivalry. I noted, with appreciation, how Kansas State quarterback Collin Klein does a lot with a funky throwing motion. I noticed Alabama is still Alabama, LSU at home is still LSU at home, spread offenses like West Virginia’s always seem to hit one pothole, Michigan State is wasting a great defense on lousy wide receivers and Notre Dame has yet to waste a great defense on lousy quarterbacks. and there could be four SEC jobs open in the offseason (Auburn, Tennessee, Kentucky and Arkansas).
Just 12 undefeated teams remain. One of them is Frank Solich’s Ohio team.
What of the Heisman race? Check back in late — and I mean late — November. ESPN fobs this Heisman conversation off on fans for the network’s own benefit; fans take the bait. It’ll come down to the final weeks, and some player will surge from the pack to contend or even win. And remember the Notre Dame factor: The longer the Irish stay undefeated, the longer linebacker Manti Te’o stays in the conversation as the unquestioned leader of that defense.
15th: Nebraska’s rank in pass defense.
1,292: All-purpose yards by Northwestern running back Venric Mark, who’s an All-Big Ten-caliber weapon through half the season. NU has to mark him on kickoff and punt returns.
26.3: Quarterback Taylor Martinez’s fourth-quarter completion percentage. He’s connected on 5 of 19 passes.
Denard Robinson is trying to finish his career with a flourish. In lopsided wins over Purdue and Illinois, he rushed for 363, passed for 264, and had to throw only 27 passes over two games. If the Wolverines stick to this offense, they’re tough. But it’s a risk, because a zone read-heavy attack exposes Robinson to potential injury. UM doesn’t have much waiting in the wings.
Partly sunny. Not sure yet if rain is in the forecast for the weekend.
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