LINCOLN — The key numbers — 490 yards and 42.7 points per game — are right about where Nebraska’s offense would have hoped to be halfway through the year. Some of the efficiency numbers are impressive, too, like a 50 percent third-down conversion rate and a 74.19 percent red zone touchdown rate.
But the Huskers reached those totals through the trainer’s room.
Instead of four-year starter Taylor Martinez having his best season yet, he’s been hurt for the past three games with a turf toe injury on his left foot. Backups Tommy Armstrong and Ron Kellogg took the reins and produced three wins. Tight ends and wide receivers have fought injuries throughout the first six games. Pulled hamstrings. Dinged-up shoulders. And now top offensive lineman Spencer Long has been lost for the year with a knee injury.
Despite the maladies, NU’s offense has remained high-octane, though not always high-tempo. It’s run for 285 yards per game and thrown for 205. While the Huskers have faced only two defenses in the NCAA’s top 50 — Southern Miss and UCLA, which shut down Nebraska for a whole, mind-numbing half — NU has nevertheless handled playing two new Big Ten opponents, Illinois and Purdue, relatively well.
Much better defenses await — Michigan State, Iowa and Michigan among them — and it’s not clear when Martinez, still the best quarterback on the roster despite impressive flashes from Armstrong, will be ready to roll. And it’s not clear if NU can handle losing one of the best linemen in the past decade in Long. And it’s not clear if offensive coordinator Tim Beck’s slimmed-down playbook is good enough to finish off the top teams of the league, or merely the bottom dwellers.
What has been clear, thus far, is the value of a healthy Ameer Abdullah. He’s on pace for a 1,600-yard campaign, one of the best in Husker history, and he’s shown few signs of slowing. Another truth: The Husker wide receivers, a few drops aside, have been as advertised, real weapons in an opposing secondary. Kenny Bell and Quincy Enunwa are finally that 1-2 punch that even top defenses fear. And both are good blockers on the perimeter.
And, if nothing else, Beck has shown himself capable of adapting to problems as they arise. After watching his offense fall apart in the second half against the Bruins, he and coach Bo Pelini watched tape of the game and noticed that Beck called far fewer plays than NU had practiced. So he agreed to pare down his game plan and practice fewer plays more often.
It’s helped. Nebraska’s offense looks smoother, more efficient and more organized. It ran without much of a hitch in Martinez’s absence.
How will it run upon his return? That’s a question Nebraska and its fans want to see answered.