Published Friday, October 25, 2013 at 12:01 am / Updated at 3:37 pm
football
Shatel: Big Ten's real show is about to start for NU
Nebraska at Minnesota
When: 11 a.m. Saturday
Where: TCF Bank Stadium, Minneapolis
TV: ESPN
Radio: 1110 AM KFAB

Wow, that was some bathroom break.

Nebraska football seasons have intermissions now. This is life in the Big Ten, where they have more bye weeks than fight songs. But you wonder if someone at NU had a hand in this schedule, too.

The UCLA game seems like it happened a year ago. Nebraska hasn't missed a tackle in three weeks. The Huskers have played only two league games and are tied for first place in their division, ahead of Michigan and Northwestern.

There's your key to the second half of the season: more bye weeks.

Now, some new guy named Taylor Martinez figures to play quarterback today at TCF Bank Stadium.

Welcome to the second half of the season. Now we get to the good stuff. If that's what you call Michigan State's offense.

Three roadies, three home games, stacked one after the other in perfect symmetry. Six games that Nebraska could win or lose. Games at Michigan's Big House and the Lion's Den at Penn State.

Michigan State, the team tied with NU, coming to Lincoln.

A potential division-clinching game against Iowa on Black Friday, with a Hawk team that looks a lot more like a handful this time.

It starts today, with a Minnesota team sailing in off an emotional win, and the reason for that emotion, coach Jerry Kill, attending today's game in the press box.

Any chance Josh Freeman will play quarterback for Minnesota?

A return trip to Indy, the minimum requirement this year for NU, is there for the taking. Here's a six-pack of things that will be required these last six weeks.

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1. The new guy at quarterback. Martinez is expected back today. There will be some rust when he returns. He'll have to get that timing back with his receivers. This shouldn't take long.

What will be more of interest is how Tim Beck treats Martinez's return. In the senior's absence, Beck streamlined the offense and his play-calling. It looked good. Having less to focus on enhanced the execution. Will Beck do that with Martinez back? It sure seems like the way to go.

What I think will be worth watching is how Martinez plays. Will there be more energy, more urgency, more efficiency, now that he's closing in on the finish line of his Nebraska career?

2. Offensive identity. To follow up on the last point, it would be very, very tempting to put Nebraska in full-rush mode, stand back and admire.

That's what this offense does well. It's the strength. Ameer Abdullah has emerged as a big-time threat, inside and out, and he's got backup singers. Even with Spencer Long's injury, this offensive line can move people. The receivers are go-to guys, but they block as well as they catch. That sort of edge is invaluable.

I'd like to see Beck return to a serious quarterback run game with Martinez. Not the option. That's not Taylor's thing. But the zone read, those straight-ahead runs, the kind he burned Michigan State on in the fourth-quarter comeback last year. That's where No. 3 is most dangerous. That's a dimension that puts this offense over the top.

The run game is an easy call here. But Beck's philosophy is to let the passing game set up the run. There are two stats that will tempt him to put the ball on Taylor's arm.

One: the average number of rushing yards allowed by the remaining six defenses is 114.6. Two: the average number of passing yards allowed by the six defenses is 226.

NU is averaging 284 yards on the ground and 205.3 in the air. I'm a ground guy. But I can see where Beck might feel like the pass is there. In any case, NU will probably need to do both and do both well.

3. This team needs an edge. I think it needs a new energy. Often, that can come from an unexpected impact player, someone who lights a fire.

Here's a couple of candidates: a healthy Jamal Turner and David Santos. The Blackshirts are going to see a whole different level of offense this second half; they'll need to step up their improvement. I think Santos could be the guy flying around making plays, especially against some of the mobile quarterbacks and run games they're going to see. That guy could be Randy Gregory, but he's more of a pass rusher. Santos could light that spark at linebacker.

Turner has the game, but too often he hasn't had the confidence, health or reps. It might be too much to ask for him to make a huge impact with Quincy Enunwa and Kenny Bell out there. But he's the kind of guy who can change a game like a lightning bolt.

What about returning punts? Jordan Westerkamp showed steady hands at Purdue. But this is where Turner could change a game. Remember when the Huskers used the punt return game to set up the offense at midfield or even score off a return?

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I know, punt returns are so yesterday in this world where offenses score and score some more. NU has eight returns in six games, with a 3.2 return average. It's got to get more out of that. Think about what a blocked punt or a big return could do against Michigan or Penn State? It could turn the game for NU.

Did I say block a punt? Maybe the second coming of Barron Miles is what this team needs.

4. Get out of your own way. NU hasn't been terrible with turnovers, actually standing at a plus-4, with 14 takeaways and 10 giveaways. Martinez is probably going to throw a pick or two, but six fumbles lost is too many. And too many Nebraska losses in big games have turned because of a fumble.

Also, cut down on penalties. Nebraska ranks 11th in the league with 43 penalties in six games (7.1), for 398 yards (66.3 per game). Only MSU is more penalized (47). That's too much. NU is on pace to match last year's total of 88. Cut the penalties in half the next six games.

5. Stop the run. Nebraska's young defense has struggled to stop the run, which is not necessarily a new thing with Bo Pelini's defenses. The Blackshirts rank eighth in the Big Ten in rush defense, allowing 945 yards, or 157.5 per game and 4.3 yards per rush. And that's against a schedule that includes Illinois (10th in Big Ten rushing) and Purdue (12th) along with Wyoming and Southern Miss.

Here comes late season in Big Ten Country, when Big Ten offenses do what Big Ten weather tells them to do: tuck it and plow ahead. NU's next six opponents average a combined 184.50 yards per game on the ground. The Blackshirts need to make some stops. If they're on the field letting the other guys run up and down and control the clock, that's a formula to get beat.

6. Find a way to go 5-1.

I'm not saying 6-0 is impossible. Nebraska did that a year ago. But the Huskers had Michigan and Penn State at home. The trips to the Big House and Happy Valley make this task tougher.

Get a split there and win your home games and I think Nebraska is back in Indy, swinging away as the heavy underdog to Urban Meyer and the Bucks.

This will be easier said than done, of course. Northwestern and Iowa will be particularly dangerous in this race. If the Wildcats get healthy by next week, they may have nothing to lose.

The good news is Pelini's history. In five seasons at NU, he's a combined 15-4 in November. And he's 25-5 in the last six games of the regular season, including 5-1 in 2008, 2009 and 2010 and 6-0 in 2012.

This is going to be wild. This is going to be fun. Grab your favorite snack and settle in. Choose wisely. No more bathroom breaks until December.

Contact the writer: Tom Shatel

tom.shatel@owh.com    |   402-444-1025    |  

Tom Shatel is a sports columnist who covers the city, regional and state scene.

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