NU blended controlled fury with smart plan

SAM MCKEW0N


COMMENTARY

LINCOLN — Nothing unites Nebraskans — both natives and transplants — quite like big-city bad manners spawned by arrogance and oversight.

The Huskers had most of the advantages Saturday night. A crowd as lively as I've seen since the 2009 Oklahoma game. The more experienced quarterback. An NFL first-rounder on defense. The 1994 Nebraska team in the house to pump them up.

Yet, in that setting, Nebraska had the chip on its shoulder. Fans yelled and cheered like they had it, too. Like those Oklahoma games in the 1990s, when the Sooners weren't who they'd been under Barry Switzer, Miami is a mere echo of those great Hurricane teams. But the 'Canes had a quarterback who could spin it, their usual complement of skill studs, and, like OU once did, Miami brought its old attitude and attempts at intimidation.

So a hunger ran through the joint for "more." More points.

More momentum. More of this, for one night. And Nebraska responded with a mixture of anger-driven insecurity and physical fury that delivered "more." It was a chess match, sure, but more than that, it was — as coach Tom Osborne said in the hours after he fired Bill Callahan — a "spartan game."

"We came out and we played as Nebraska plays," left tackle Alex Lewis said. "A nice, sound team, a good team. We knew Miami has a history, but we just played as Nebraska plays."

And Miami's defense wasn't up for the fight. Nebraska's defense might not have been, either — there were leaks all over the Blackshirts — but offensive coordinator Tim Beck made sure the Huskers possessed the ball and willed a win.

Beck has called his share of gems in three-plus years, but none will probably be as satisfactory to fans as Saturday night. Watching the game twice more, here's what I saw from the man who didn't talk after one of his top triumphs.

• A strategy to negate Miami's active, physical inside linebackers and take advantage of their average defensive ends. Something on the Hurricanes' tape must have indicated that middle linebacker Denzel Perryman cleans up a lot of messes, because Nebraska's offensive linemen were climbing to him quickly. Perryman played fine, but hardly dominated with six tackles.

Meanwhile, Miami's ends and hybrid defenders were slow to react and close on zone-read plays — no Randy Gregory in that bunch — which made it easy for the Huskers to run their bread and butter: Tommy Armstrong and Ameer Abdullah taking turns reading and burning the defense. Beck called outside runs for Abdullah, inverted veer plays for Armstrong — where he guts the middle of a defense instead of sweeping around it — and even dialed up the Wildcat with Abdullah for a few plays.

• A creative use of tight ends. Beck cleverly deployed Cethan Carter and Sam Cotton as extra physical blockers, often on linebackers or safeties. Though both tight ends occasionally lined up next to tackles, they also worked as H-backs, arcing around a Miami defensive end — who was left alone to be read by Armstrong — so they could wall off pursuit in case Armstrong came running their way. But a few times, those tight ends served as true lead blockers, bolting through to surprised linebackers who, by then, were probably looking for the arc block.

Carter and Cotton have improved — vastly — as blockers. As Big Ten defenses watch them on tape, Beck will likely devise plays that get defenders thinking "block" when the tight ends suddenly bolt on a pass route. That's a good thing for Nebraska.

• A firm trust in Abdullah: This was a night for No. 8 to pick holes and push piles. His backups — Imani Cross and Terrell Newby — can make that first cut pretty well. They don't yet know how to make two, three, four, five cuts. Abdullah is playing jazz out there. It's a rarer trait than it appears, and Abdullah had little interest in tapping out. Beck had little interest in getting cute.

Miami's offensive game plan? It was pretty cute. But it worked. Big Ten teams that can actually throw the ball — not all of them can — should go to school on the Hurricanes' tape, because it exposes several of the Huskers' weaknesses.

The Hurricanes spread out NU to empty the box behind the line, then ran Duke Johnson into the middle of the field for big chunks. Miami then sent its wide receivers downfield, isolating Johnson or running back Joseph Yearby on a linebacker. Josh Banderas and Trevor Roach lost those matchups, but NU's secondary couldn't cheat much, since Miami was successful enough on quick wide receivers screens that the Huskers had to cover them.

Miami should have run Johnson more, frankly, and might have if Johnson hadn't fumbled late in the third quarter. But Illinois, which possesses similar offensive strengths, may mimic Miami's game plan.

So long as Beck keeps battering away at Illinois with a power running game, the Huskers should be heading toward a statement game in East Lansing.

On with the Rewind.

I see you

• Abdullah: The running back absorbed a lot of hits through four games. It takes superior conditioning to hold up under it.

• Armstrong: His toughness and instincts as a runner are his best assets. Put 96 more yards on the board for him. He always throws a mean pass right up the seam.

• Gregory: Get used to the cut blocking, No. 4. It's a twisted sign of respect. And it's how things go in the NFL. The defensive end still made a big sack when the Huskers needed it.

• Wide receiver Alonzo Moore: Just three catches, but they were in key spots, and none was easy. Coaches have kept their faith in Moore. He rewarded them Saturday night.

• Wide receivers coach Rich Fisher: Down two of his better blocking wideouts — Sam Burtch and Brandon Reilly — the Nebraska position coach got a strong blocking performance out of his bunch. Especially Kenny Bell.

• Guard Jake Cotton: His best game. Cotton had to move around a lot — pulls, climbing to linebackers, etc. — and he did that, plus the usual power plays.

• Roach: He struggled in coverage almost as much as Banderas, but the senior from Elkhorn tackled better in the box. Will he get a chance to start in Big Ten play?

• Cornerback Josh Kalu: Fits right into NU's pass defense. Nebraska's consistent ability to identify high school defensive backs and plug them into the game continues.

• Linebacker David Santos: His interception was the best play of his career, and just about the only time any Husker successfully covered Miami tight end Clive Walford.

• Walford: After seven catches for 80 yards, see you in the NFL, pal.

• Johnson: Very similar to Abdullah. Tough, fast, dynamic. And, much like Abdullah did in previous years, Miami's back had a costly fumble fighting for extra yards. He'll learn from it. Abdullah appears to have learned.

Three concerns

The Huskers will have the same three standing concerns all year: turnover margin, special teams and four quarters of good, sustainable football.

The Huskers won the turnover battle 3-2 and could have won it 4r2 if not for a questionable roughing the passer penalty on Vincent Valentine. NU's final takeaway, a Kalu interception, came after one of Pelini's patented defensive timeouts. Given where Kalu was on the play — in a shallow drop in front of a comeback route — it's fair to say Pelini played a hunch right.

Special teams were mostly a wash thanks to the favorable "doink" Drew Brown got off the bar on his second field goal. Brown's tendency is to pull it a bit, but he did more pulling from the right hash than the left hash in fall camp. Abdullah got poor blocking on kick returns, averaging 20.25 yards per tote.

NU scored well in the sustainable football category. The Huskers' run game saved a weary, struggling defense that couldn't consistently cover Miami's skill players; that defense, in turn, made a few plays when the offense left it in the lurch. The early 25 yards in offensive line penalties didn't help, but the Huskers didn't take on water with negative plays.

Five stats

• 58: First-down carries for Abdullah. That's tied for second in the nation, behind Pittsburgh plowhorse James Conner (62). Abdullah has gained more yards on first down — 391 — than any other back in the nation, and 41.4 percent of NU's first-down plays have been Abdullah runs. TWelve of those 58 runs — or 20.6 percent — have gone for at least 10 yards. Abdullah is averaging 212 all-purpose yards per game, good for third in the nation. It's an All-America/Heisman campaign so far.

• 25: Total yards lost on negative plays through four games. Only two spread passing teams — Baylor (11 yards lost) and Texas Tech (22) — have lost fewer yards so far. Given the kind of blitzing defenses Nebraska has seen, that's excellent work from the offensive line and Armstrong, who, if nothing else, doesn't hold on to the ball too long.

• 20 percent: Nebraska's fumble recovery rate so far. NU has forced five fumbles; cornerback Josh Mitchell returned the lone recovery for a 57-yard touchdown. There is perhaps some art to forcing fumbles — having a "nose" for the ball and/or knowing how to strip — but recovering them is often luck based on where and how the ball bounces. Michigan State, incidentally, has recovered all five fumbles it has forced. And Illinois has lost five of its nine fumbles.

• 5.01: Yards per play that Nebraska's defense has given up on first down. That's 5.55 yards per pass and 4.5 yards per run. That's leaky. Only 17 teams have faced more first-down passes than Nebraska thus far, though several teams have played three games and TCU and Cincinnati have played two.

• 82-46: The margin by which Illinois has been outscored in the first halves of its first four games. The Illini's only half-time lead thus far was a 7-6 cushion over Youngstown State. Illinois quarterback Wes Lunt has been terrible in the first quarter — a 51.4 percent completion rate and 4.65 yards per attempt — but nails in the fourth quarter, where he's completed 82.4 percent of his passes for 11.4 yards per attempt.

Opponent watch

The whole Big Ten West won Saturday. About time that side of the league had a clean sheet.

In its 24-7 win over San Jose State, Minnesota passed for 7 yards with backup Chris Streveler. The regular starter, Mitch Leidner, has turf toe. Streveler ran for 161 yards, while running back David Cobb ran for 207. The Gophers visit Michigan this week, where they could put a nail in Brady Hoke's coffin.

Minnesota's defense has been on the field a lot; 315 plays in fact, which is stunning considering the Gophers have a plodding, ball-control offense. The defense is better than folks might think; let's see if it can stuff Michigan. Look for a 9-6 score.

Forecast

Sunny skies. The Huskers haven't always handled that well; NU has been 5-0 once in the Pelini era. And that 5-0 team, in 2010, didn't get to 6-0.

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