LINCOLN — Remind me to request more access to next year's Nebraska football training camp. The 2013 version apparently went so well that the Huskers extended it by a week.
Was that the Wyoming game or Wednesday walk-through? The widespread inconsistency, the penalties and mental miscues, the pilot light blinking on and off — Nebraska made a meal fit for early August, not opening night. Because the Cowboys tried a boneheaded trick play that resulted in an interception, it gets chalked up to a 37-34 win and a “learning experience.”
Husker coaches can freely sit in the classroom's first row. Bo Pelini hired and stuck with these guys through peaks and valleys. His loyalty went unrequited Saturday. New season. Same stumbles.
Forget offense and defense for a second. Head to the punt return unit.
NU allowed Wyoming freshman walk-on punter Ethan Wood — who according to the Casper Star-Tribune fumbled the snap of his only career punt attempt in high school — 4 seconds to prance around, load up and boot the ball end over end like a fifth-grade goalie playing sandlot soccer. Husker returner Jamal Turner appeared ordered to fear the bouncing ball as if it were a Yellowstone puma.
Wood could have been forced into a shank or a fumbled snap. According to cfbstats.com, Wyoming has attempted at least seven punt fakes in the past four years, but there has to be a difference between a “punt safe” return and Nebraska's “punt stay away” approach. It looked like a drill.
That lack of urgency bled into an absence of precision on offense, a lack of basic discipline on defense and a near-collapse once, in the words of cornerback Stanley Jean-Baptiste, “we lost focus.”
Nebraska's offense killed two of its drives with needless presnap jockeying — which led to two false start flinches — on third-and-1 plays. Offensive coordinator Tim Beck spent much of one drive — with the game still in doubt — using second-team skill players while quarterback Taylor Martinez played with an injured non-throwing shoulder. Even Pelini wondered about the running back rotation. Pelini and wide receiver Quincy Enunwa also demurred on the conservative nature of Beck's game plan.
There were other small inefficiencies. With Martinez's left shoulder bruised, why is he sneaking the ball on fourth-and-short? How does a running back not stay inbounds on a late fourth-quarter run? Why is the big back — and not the small, quick back — catching a swing pass on third-and-5? Why call a shortside power toss inside the Wyoming 10, with two wide receivers as on-the-line blockers?
The newly minted Blackshirts made some predictable errors of execution — missed calls, confusion in coverage, assignment busts, like the one that led to Wyoming quarterback Brett Smith's 47-yard draw — but never offset it with great playmaking. Smith seemed to be engaged, again, in a drill: He's good, but not so good that he can just weave his way in and out of traffic. He made some terrific throws in the second half, but he found a rhythm with swing passes. NU had the same missed tackles and the same too-late pursuit angles.
Pelini and defensive coordinator John Papuchis tried plenty of creative things — turning the defensive end into a spinner, line stunts, blitzing corners — but little of it worked. I'm not sure some of it, like the play where tackles line up as ends and ends line up as tackles, could have worked. Husker defenders outside the secondary only occasionally seemed certain what they were doing, and they miss former middle linebacker Will Compton as much as any Pelini defense at Nebraska has missed any one player.
On Twitter, I posted a BTN broadcast shot of four defensive coaches — Pelini, Papuchis, defensive line coach Rick Kaczenski and defensive graduate assistant T.J. Hollowell — clustered in a circle, trying collectively to decipher Wyoming's personnel and match it with their own. That's a lot of cooks in the kitchen.
Nebraska did force a missed field goal on that drive, but somewhere in the midst of the chaotic chess match, the Huskers lost their edge. This is not an observation; several players said so. Jean-Baptiste, easygoing and honest, said NU “relaxed” once it got a 16-point lead.
“On the sideline we kept playing around and weren't taking everything seriously,” he said. “We just lost focus and they battled back.”
Again: Young teams lose focus. But Pelini installed captains and assistant captains and then handed out Blackshirts before the season for the first time in his tenure, all to guard against “playing around.” At the dawn of camp, he brushed off any hint of concern about his own defense. It was the media worried about that unit. Not Pelini.
“They're going to be playing good football when they kick it off,” he said in early August.
Thirty-four points and 602 yards later, Nebraska starts its season against Southern Mississippi.
It's good to get a do-over. Iowa, Iowa State and Kansas State sure wish they had them.
On with the Rewind.
I see you
» Wide receiver Kenny Bell: Made a big tackle as a punt coverage gunner, averaged 36 yards on two kick returns and caught seven passes. His postgame comments were spot on. The kid's a keeper.
» Punter Sam Foltz: He had a net 43 yards per punt, terrific hang time, and a good pooch punt at the end when NU needed it.
» Jean-Baptiste: The cornerback ended three Wyoming drives. One with an interception, one with a pass breakup and one with a very good tackle on a third-and-short pass. The Cowboys didn't test him because they had too much fun nicking the rest of NU's secondary.
» Running back Imani Cross: He ran for 105 yards, including a 31-yard highlight reel touchdown rumble, with better balance and wiggle. He's still not a high-level, pass-catching threat.
» Running back Terrell Newby: You get why Nebraska was so excited — and thus relatively quiet — about his potential in training camp. He has moves and rocket speed.
» Defensive end Randy Gregory: He never quit motoring at Smith, however inconsistent as he might have been. Gregory should have had a sack, but officials bizarrely flagged him for wrapping his arm too violently around the Wyoming quarterback.
» Smith: Carved up Nebraska's defense with aplomb. He said after the game he knew what was coming and he looked like it. He's slight, but Smith just walked onto NFL scouts' radar.
» Wyoming wide receiver Dominic Rufran: Abused NU's dime corners with sharply run routes and sure hands.
» Wyoming defensive end Eddie Yarbrough: He had 13 tackles — two for loss — and generally gummed up a number of Husker running plays.
» Martinez's left shoulder: The TV broadcast doesn't lie: Martinez twice landed hard on his non-throwing shoulder. He hasn't missed a start in more than two years, and I'll be surprised if he does against Southern Mississippi. But his postgame silence was surprising and notable. He hasn't done that since 2010 — when he was badly hurt.
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» A pattern of bad fourth quarters when ahead: This near-collapse can be attributed to a young team, but the bottom dropped out at Iowa State in 2010 and vs. Washington in 2011. Are the Huskers in good enough condition? They seemed mentally and physically gassed Saturday night, and far too slow to reignite on defense until the Cowboys cut the lead to three.
» More sideline chaos: Wyoming's offense consistently moved as fast as any Pelini has faced, oh, since Art Briles' Baylor bunch in 2008. As Dirk Chatelain's Sunday sidebar reported, the Huskers preferred to adjust on the fly rather than play a vanilla base defense. That's fine — and good practice for UCLA in two weeks — but when four coaches are bunched up in a 5-yard space, sometimes discussing what to do just seconds before the snap, it makes NU look confused and out of position, occasionally thwarting the Husker pass rush.
» 1 — Husker tackles for loss. Wyoming had eight. The defensive linemen tried hard but rarely seemed in sync with one another. Once, Gregory and defensive end Jason Ankrah — playing tackle again, an experiment that should be stopped — both attacked the same gap and the same Wyoming lineman. They ran into each other.
» 35 — First downs for Wyoming, a Husker opponent record. The average length of Wyoming's five touchdown drives: 1:14. Average plays: Five. Could Beck perhaps have been running the ball so much to save a defense offering little resistance to the Cowboys? Perhaps. Beck needs to resist that urge and play NU's game.
» 15 — The collective touches of Enunwa, Bell and Turner. Newby had 15 carries by himself. That's lopsided, the definition of imbalance. Newby's good, but the receivers need the ball, in space, far more often.
I've added a new section to the Rewind. On my World-Herald Facebook page, I'll ask fans to submit comments after each game and post select responses here.
» Michael Kearney: “What I worry the most is that other offensive coaches have figured out the Pelini scheme on defense and he hasn't adapted. Or is it that he doesn't have the talent or can't communicate the process to run it effectively?
» Fred Farrell: “D will be fun. Lots of promise. Offense, for all of its talent, needs to be able to run the ball when it HAS to run the ball. Too cute at times.”
» Chip Duden: “Tim Beck still out-thinks himself, and Bo is only a defensive genius when he has NFL talent.”
It takes a special kind of ineptitude to outgain a Sun Belt opponent by 185 yards and still lose by a touchdown, but Southern Mississippi achieved it, losing 22-15 to Texas State for its 13th straight defeat. Golden Eagles quarterback Allan Bridgeford — a Cal transfer who is not mobile — threw for 377 yards on 53 attempts. USM gained 23 yards rushing and lost four fumbles.
“We earned that one,” new coach Todd Monken said afterward, according to the Hattiesburg American. “You can't drop footballs and you can't turn it over. You're not going to win, I don't care what level you're at. We ended up with six turnovers, I mean, holy cow. That's about as bad as it gets.”
Cooler weather and a colder shoulder from Husker fans. They will pile into Memorial Stadium next week expecting results. As they should. It's their money.