The Huskers won this week, and despite a poor fourth quarter effort by the Blackshirts, looked fairly impressive against an AQ team. What does it mean? Probably nothing in the long run, but in the moment this game shows that Nebraska can score in bunches. Here is a fun statistic, Nebraska has not scored 40+ points in their first three games since the 95 season. You know, the team that gave the Huskers their FOURTH out of FIVE NATIONAL CHAMPIONSHIPS (as a sidenote, that team was really good... I wish we could have joined the B1G straight out of that run). Another fun stat? Nebraska is averaging over 250 yards rushing per game. This is what Husker fans like to see.
With that said, it was kind of a bad week in Big Ten country. Ohio State, Michigan State, and Northwestern looked dismal in losses, Penn State and Iowa looked... um... interesting in wins, and the bottom half got some moral victory wins (special shout out to Minnesota, I doubted them with everyone else and they pulled off a win for Kill). Outside of Wisconsin, apparently the B1G is down. At least that's what the media would like you to believe. All that said, I present you with Nebraska - a team that is probably better than it has looked to this point, and the team that is most likely the best in the conference.
As you have all probably heard to this point, Nebraska is playing second fiddle to Wisconsin by a wide margin. In fact, many of the comments on the threads, blogs, WWL message boards, etc., have started to argue that Illinois is the second best team in the B1G and that Nebraska doesn't stand a chance in Big Ten play. So why do I bring any of this up? Well, there is a good chance that most of you have only seen bits and pieces of Nebraska play this year. Here are three reasons I think Nebraska is better than you think.
1. Taylor Martinez Slides!?!?!:
I am sure that Michigan fans can relate. Your super fast and much too important Quarterback sees an opening and hits it like a bat out of hell. Before you know it, every defender has managed to close the lane he thought he saw and the impending doom is certain. All of a sudden your QB1 is on the ground writhing in pain and your offensive plan is up in smoke. This is something Husker fans have kind of gotten used to over the past year with Taylor Martinez. It is cringe inducing, and despite wanting to ignore reality, our offense will rise and fall on the back of T-Mart.
Some funny things happened this week, though. We started the game with an option playaction pass, we gave the football to the fullback, we remembered that we have speed four levels deep at the skill positions, and Taylor Martinez learned to slide. Wait, what? That's right, T-Mart slid... twice. For Non-Husker fans, this seems ridiculous to point out, but last year most every Husker fan was screaming at the television pleading for Martinez to run out of bounds or go down as everyone chased him around the field trying to kill him. He never did, and as a fan you were perplexed by his decision making. This week, Martinez made smart choices, threw the ball away , avoided unnecessary hits, slid twice, and looked like a leader. It was surprising to say the least, and even though we have talked negatively about him in the past, he proved a lot of fans wrong. So big ups to Taylor Martinez this week. If he plays like this every week, we will always be in the game.
2. The Reports of the Nebraska Defense's Death are Greatly Exaggerated
Look, I know the stats. We are 66th in scoring defense and have given up lots of points to Fresno State and Washington. Our secondary spent lots of time looking confused last week and our vaunted D-line has looked mediocre. On paper, this looks troubling going into B1G play. Many Husker fans have started calling for the heads of anybody in the Nebraska program who thinks we're good, even going as far as asking for Pelini's head on a silver platter. This is ridiculous, and I think there are some things we are forgetting.
First off, Nebraska might look a little rusty on defense right now, but losing your entire secondary to graduation and a hamstring injury does that to you. I promise things will look better with one sturdy and smart CB. This is where Alfonzo Dennard comes into play. He's going to be back this week in partial duty and hopefully full strength next week. He helps direct the young guys and can shut down any WR (see Blackmon in the OSU game last year). With the ability to rely on the secondary more, the LB crew will be free to cheat up and stop the run and the line will be able to go all out towards the Quarterback. I know this sounds like supposition, but trust me on this one - Nebraska will look tenfold better on defense when Dennard is back.
Second, Nebraska spent the entire offseason studying the B1G. In past seasons, you are able to scheme for your non-con opponents because you have a general idea of what is going on in conference play. Since this is such a big undertaking, I have a feeling the likes of Fresno State and whatever new wrinkles Washington would have were second concerns for Bo and his staff. I don't love this hunch, but when you hear things like, "They threw out a whole bunch of formations we have never seen," over and over, you start to think that Nebraska was looking ahead. Bo and Carl know how to get defenses motivated and in place. If I am Wisconsin, I would be nervous that Nebraska has an entire defensive scheme prepared they have never seen. If you don't believe me, watch Missouri last year. They thought the defense was down as well. It didn't end well for them.
I have mentioned speed in the threads a few times. I am not a believer that speed in and of itself wins championships. If one more SEC fan tries to convince me that they are better because they have speed that you can only find in the South, I'm going to do something crazy. If speed was the only factor to a championship, Oregon wins the title last year. They didn't. With that in mind, I firmly believe Nebraska is utilizing their new speed better than they have since the days of Tommie Frazier and Lawrence Phillips (with apologies to Eric Crouch... he was fast, but nobody did a lot to help him out).
I was skeptical of Nebraska's skill positions coming into this season. We have been recruiting speed and talent for a while, but these guys generally disappoint. If you don't know the new speedsters' names yet, you should start practicing - Jamal Turner, Kenny Bell, Ameer Abdullah, Braylon Heard, and Aaron Green. Adding five speed guys to the team has really opened up Martinez to play smarter. Look, I know he can't pass pretty, but if he can get the ball there, maybe it doesn't matter. Add that to speedy TE Kyler Reed, WR Quincy Enunwa and Mr. Clutch himself, Rex Burkhead, and you have a formidable offense. Speed doesn't win championships , but used correctly, it can setup a team to be pretty damn difficult to contain. Finally, don't underestimate how speed is changing special teams. I always wanted a guy who could break a TD return every time he got the ball. Nebraska has that in Abdullah. That makes me happy.
I don't know what the B1G is all about this year. Fans of Wisconsin think they are invincible, but their opponents' cumulative record isn't flashy. Do we know if Wisconsin is really good or if their opponents are really bad? As for Illinois, they look good so far, but do we think Zook will manage to not screw this up? As for Michigan... well, they are undefeated, but if we're nitpicking, can you really trust that defense yet? You think Nebraska looks down, I still can't get the images of that ND-Michigan 4th quarter out of my head. I guess all I'm saying is that when you look at the overall landscape of the Big Ten at week 3 (which is entirely way too early to start doing this) Nebraska might be the best Big Ten team this season. We have a great offense, amazing Special Teams, and a defense that will gel soon. I guess we'll find out a lot more in two weeks.