>> Video Below: Bo Pelini, Taylor Martinez and others after the Penn State game
* * *
LINCOLN — It's a number too good to leave to the stat section.
Nope, 412 gets front-row seating.
That's the average number of yards per game that Nebraska gained against Michigan, Michigan State and Penn State.
Combined, those defenses give up an average of 312 yards this year. And 17.7 points per game. NU's scored 27.7 points per game in the last three weeks.
Ten points and 100 yards per game more than the league's stingiest defenses normally give up. That's a good picture of the Huskers' offense this year. And offensive coordinator Tim Beck is earning the $365,000 Nebraska pays him to run the “O.”
Before the season began, the Rewind told you it would rest on Beck's shoulders. That the Husker defense would take its lumps — which it has — and the offense would have to be a 400-yard, 40-point-a-game bunch.
The numbers so far: 482 yards and 37.4 points per game. Pretty close. Only Ohio State (445.3 and 39.9) is comparable in the Big Ten. And remember, the Buckeyes have an offensive head coach in Urban Meyer and two offensive coordinators who, combined, make $770,000.
Beck — the cool, analytical, philosophical obverse of go-with-your-gut coach Bo Pelini — has an embarrassment of riches to work with. But all his accumulated talent — quarterback Taylor Martinez on down — poses a challenge, too.
“It's so hard to explain,” said Beck, who did anyway. “To figure out how teams play Ameer Abdullah, Jamal Turner, Taylor Martinez, Ben Cotton, Kyler Reed. How do they play them? Nobody has the kinds of weapons we do offensively. You watch film on somebody and figure 'oh, that's what they're going to do.' They don't do that against us. Because you can't.
“Some games, you might as well not even practice.”
So Beck has to shift on the fly. And Penn State gave him a lot to decipher. The Nittany Lions' defensive coordinator, Ted Roof, who won a national title with Auburn in 2010, had more creativity in his plan than any other coordinator NU's faced this year. Roof's plan worked well in the red zone. And had Martinez not escaped a bunch of jams in the first half, the Huskers' halftime deficit might have been far worse.
Beck used that toss play so often in part to keep Nittany Lions honest while revealing some of their tells.
“(Penn State) had some neat things,” Beck said. “It took us awhile to figure it out. And you gotta pound it to see how they're playing it. It's tough in three plays. You got to see them a little bit. And that takes time.”
By the third quarter, Beck had clarity. He started with two toss plays — one to each side. Then a zone read that mirrored Martinez's 71-yard touchdown run last week. Then a hitch to Kenny Bell. An option pass. Another toss. Option, quarterback draw.
It's what Abdullah calls “stretch and puncture.” Get the linebackers moving laterally, then challenge them vertically. Sound basic? It is. And when you have the talent, it should be. Let the defenses scheme. Certainly Pelini does, and his first-half blitzes and twists mostly backfired. While Roof's curls and twistaroos had Nebraska on its heels for a half, Beck and Martinez untangled the knot.
On with The Rewind.
I see you
>> Abdullah: The running back quietly toted the ball 31 times for 116 yards. I'd still like to see Braylon Heard spell Abdullah more often. As Abdullah points out: “A 100 percent Braylon is better than a 92 percent Ameer.”
>> Linebacker Will Compton: Huge pass breakup in the third quarter held Penn State to a field goal. His facemask deflected a Matt McGloin pass late in the game, as well.
>> Running back Imani Cross: Great forward lean, hard worker in practice, tough as a rusty nail. Needs to learn a little more about running the ball more efficiently with better vision. Given Cross' desire, he will.
>> Martinez: The quarterback is back to running the ball with abandon this year. He smells a title. And he's more sure of how to read defenses. His 5-yard touchdown pass to Turner was a sidearm, flat-footed whip of a pass. No great mechanics on it. But he read the blitz right, stepped away from the extra rusher, and threw it where only Turner could haul it in.
>> Penn State linebackers: Great, physical guys who combined for 34 tackles. But they weren't the fastest. Abdullah and Martinez frequently got to the second level and beyond by running around them.
>> Reed: Big fourth-quarter grab for the second week in a row for the tight end.
>> Linebacker David Santos: His closing speed is what made the controversial fumble even possible.
>> Safety Daimion Stafford: His sideline chat with Pelini was interesting and animated. Watching the ABC replay of it several times, Stafford appeared to be making a point about Penn State's 10-yard touchdown pass, and when Pelini admitted in his press conference that he'd hurt his own defense on that play, maybe Stafford's point had sunk in. Stafford declined to comment after the game.
It's here where I'll address Pelini's exchanges with players, knowing some of my colleagues — and some fans — take stronger positions on either side: It's two guys arguing with colorful language. It's not even PG-13. Is it authentic? Yes.
Good neighbors can disagree on Pelini's comportment toward his players. But if you connect his style to NU's undisciplined play on the field (penalties, turnovers, blush-worthy defensive gaffes) you must connect that same style to Nebraska's tough-as-rusty-nails response to adversity. They're two parts of a whole. So it is in most families.
How does it play with recruits? That's a fair question with a deeper, more divided answer than most people who pose it — Pelini's strongest critics — would admit.
>> Penn State running back Zach Zwinak: Cross should watch video of the 6-foot-1 232-pounder. Zwinak, who's less talented than Cross but probably better at this stage, wastes no motion getting downhill and rushed for 141 yards. Never lost a yard, either.
>> Punt return: Penn State punter Alex Butterworth averaged 32 yards per punt heading into Saturday. He booted three for an average of 47.7 yards because the Huskers couldn't field those kicks, much less return them. NU chooses to put little to no pressure on the punter, but also drops just one returner back to field the kicks.
Pelini needs to get more involved in special teams. Transfer some of the fire he has for the defense to the third phase. Aside from fine individual performances this year from Abdullah, Turner and occasionally Brett Maher, the Huskers have been below average.
>> Defensive team speed: If you saw two linebackers converge toward Zwinak — only to grasp at his feet as he ran for a 50-yard touchdown — you know what I mean. This will change in 2013. But the defense will lack experience, too.
>> Pass protection: In the throwing game, Martinez didn't get much help Saturday from his offensive line, which struggled to slow Penn State's front four. Martinez ran and threw his way out of trouble, as he has done often in 2012.
>> What did I say last week about mobile quarterbacks? Oh yeah: They democratize college football. Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel beats Alabama.
>> Is it still Notre Dame for the Rose Bowl? Alabama's loss actually made that a little less likely because Kansas State is now No. 1 in the BCS standings. Which means the Fiesta might get first dibs to replace the Wildcats with the Fighting Irish. KSU either needs to lose or Oregon needs to make a charge to No. 1.
The Rose Bowl can turn to Oklahoma, which played in the 2003 Rose Bowl. Match made in NU-OU heaven. The other option, should the Sooners lose, is Clemson. Or a one-loss Florida team. Or two-loss Texas A&M.
>> How hard will it get for Penn State? Hard. Really hard. Don't kid yourself. With several NFL-caliber players leaving after this year, the Nittany Lions' defense will frequently be helpless. Bill O'Brien's offense — however advanced and clever it might be — will have a year of tape for defenses to study, and no senior like McGloin to run it. Scholarship reductions will hurt depth at the places where a team needs it: offensive and defensive line.
I appreciate O'Brien's notion that walk-ons can help the cause. But it's one thing for a walk-on to play at Penn State and eventually win a scholarship. It's another to know that there might not be a scholarship available. Kids won't see the Nittany Lions as a charity case worth $100,000 in tuition, room and board.
>> 63.27: Percent of red zone drives that Nebraska has converted into touchdowns. On 49 drives, the Huskers have scored 31 touchdowns. That rate is 49th in the nation. NU is 67th nationally at home. Some of that is facing Michigan and Penn State in Memorial Stadium. And some of that is Beck not finding the right calls inside the opponent 20.
>> 46.4: Completion rate of opposing quarterbacks. That's No. 1 in the nation, and if the rate holds, the lowest completion rate since 2007, when Arkansas held opposing quarterbacks to 45.4.
>> 44.44: Nebraska's third-down conversion rate. NU converted 50 percent vs. Penn State.
Minnesota qualified for a bowl game Saturday after beating Illinois 17-3. Under coach Jerry Kill, the Golden Gophers — who rank 25th in total defense but 78th in rushing defense — play with more discipline and poise than they ever did under Tim Brewster. But Minnesota's still a team looking for an offense, as true freshman quarterback Philip Nelson tries to learn the ropes late in the season.
Look: The Gophers lost to Wisconsin and Michigan by 25 and 22 points, respectively.
Cold and windy with an 80 percent chance for Indianapolis.
Contact the writer:
402-202-9766, email@example.com, twitter.com/swmckewonOWH
* * *
>> Nebraska coach Bo Pelini after the Penn State game:
>> NU's Taylor Martinez after the Penn State game:
>> NU's Brett Maher after the Penn State game:
>> Rich Kaipust's postgame analysis: