No. 5: Nebraska
By Paul Myerberg // Aug 28, 2010
Give me a second, Nebraska, and let’s commiserate over what’s gained, what’s lost, what’s to come and what will never be the same again. You’ve gained an even playing field, fair and balanced ground where all teams are created equal. This should count for something. What have you lost, Cornhuskers? You’ve lost Kansas, your century-long partner which never complained, merely bided its time until basketball season, when it returned the favor. You’ve lost Colorado, an on-again, off-again rival whose fickle fan base was nothing if not confusing — “Why don’t they care more?” You’ve lost Kansas State, the little brother that hit the weights, went out running and finally caught up — at least somewhat — with its big, bad, bullying older brother. And you’ve lost Oklahoma, your nemesis and best friend for more than 40 years. No more man, woman and child in the aisles, no more fans tore loose from their shoes, my goodness. No more asking how many tackles one man can break, even if we still don’t know the answer. No more Game of the Century, no more kicked ball turned touchdown, no more reverse pass for a score, no more Big 8, no more Big 12. I hope this works out, Cornhuskers, because you’ve thrown aside pieces of your meaningful past for a brighter future — or for what you hope to be a brighter future.
Big 12, North
16 (10 offense, 6 defense)
Last year’s ranking
- Sept. 4
- Sept. 11
- Sept. 18
- Sept. 25
South Dakota St.
- Oct. 7
at Kansas St.
- Oct. 16
- Oct. 23
at Oklahoma St.
- Oct. 30
- Nov. 6
at Iowa St.
- Nov. 13
- Nov. 20
at Texas A&M
- Nov. 27
Last year’s prediction
Nebraska is my pick as Big 12 North champion, based on an expected improvement from the defense and the recently splendid play of the offense. The schedule shapes up for a good level of success, though the Huskers must take on its three prime North division rivals on the road. Nevertheless, I feel secure in putting Nebraska in the Top 25, and am not very far from predicting a 10-win finish for the Big Red; in that case, Nebraska would lose to only Virginia Tech and Oklahoma. I can’t got that far in 2009, seeing that I believe N.U. will lose one of its three road games against its division, but that’s all: 9-3, 6-2 in the Big 12, and back atop the North.
In a nutshell With this offense, 10 wins was a miracle. With this defense, 10 wins might have been a disappointment. Nebraska turned back the clock, dominating opponents with a Blackshirt defense worthy of any Nebraska unit in school history. The story was Ndamukong Suh, of course, but he was just one cog in the nation’s best attack: he was joined up front by three similarly aggressive linemen, with one of the nation’s best pass defenses benefiting tremendously from the pressure brought nearly single-handedly by the front four. So how did the Huskers lose four games? One was self-inflicted; Nebraska turned the ball over eight times against Iowa State. Another came on a last-second heave by Virginia Tech, one that gave the Hokies enough life to pull out a narrow home win. A third came against Texas, with the controversy over the final second the impetus behind Nebraska’s bolt for the Big Ten. What was the defining thread throughout each loss? A horrendous offense, one that finished the year ranked 99th nationally in total yardage and 75th in scoring. If Nebraska could have combined its 2008 offense with last year’s defense, well, it would have played Alabama for the national championship.
High point A 10-3 win over Oklahoma on Nov. 7. The game featured the loudest crowd in Lincoln in recent memory – maybe since the 2001 game between the Huskers and the Sooners. The fans knew what this game meant: with a win, Nebraska moved to 5-3, 3-2 in the Big 12; a loss w0uld have been devastating. It keyed a stretch of six wins in seven games to end the season. The year ended in San Diego, where Nebraska took out if Big 12 title game frustrations by humbling Arizona, the second-best team in the Pac-10, 33-0.
Low point Pelini deserves an enormous amount of credit for how he dealt with a trio of heartbreaking losses. The three contenders: one, a 16-15 loss at Virginia Tech, where blown coverage in the secondary allowed the Hokies to connect on a miracle 80-yard throw to set up the winning score with 21 seconds left; two, a 9-7 loss – at home, no less – to Iowa State, which featured eight Nebraska turnovers; and three, a 13-12 loss to Texas in the Big 12 championship, one that featured a controversial extra second. So which one is it going to be?
Tidbit I think this is a telling tidbit, so I hope you don’t me reusing it for another year. The Huskers have won at least nine games in every season since 1962 but six: 1967-68, 2002, 2004-5 and 2007. Just as a comparison, let’s hold the rest of college football’s historical elite to the same standard. Alabama has 18 such seasons, if you include 1993, over that same span; Georgia has 22; L.S.U. 18; Michigan 27; Notre Dame 21; Ohio State 29; Oklahoma 25; Penn State 30; U.S.C. 23, if you include 2005; Tennessee 23; and Texas 28. Over the past 47 years, Nebraska’s five Big 12 North division brethren (Colorado, Iowa State, Kansas, Kansas State and Missouri) have combined to win at least nine games in a season a grand total of 28 times out of 240 potential years, with all but seven of those seasons coming from Colorado and Kansas State.
Tidbit (finishing edition) Nebraska has closed strong under Pelini, finishing each of the last two seasons with six wins its final seven games. The last time Nebraska did that? In 1996 and 1997, Tom Osborne’s final two seasons: the Huskers went 6-1 down the stretch in 1996, a perfect 7-0 in their final seven during the title-winning run in 1997.
Tidbit (100-word preview edition) Unfortunately, there’s no Jim Narby in this space. I’ve reached out to Mr. Narby, but he hasn’t been able to put something together in time for the preview. My plan is to give him his own post, space where he can stretch his legs and voice his shocking opinions about his hated (beloved?) Cornhuskers.
Former players in the N.F.L.
36 DT Titus Adams (Cleveland), S Larry Asante (Cleveland), DE Ryon Bingham (San Diego), CB Zack Bowman (Chicago), LB Stewart Bradley (Philadelphia), K Kris Brown (Houston), K Josh Brown (St. Louis), RB Correll Buckhalter (Denver), S Josh Bullocks (Chicago), DE Adam Carriker (Washington), LB Phillip Dillard (New York Giants), LB Cody Glenn (Indianapolis), OG Russ Hochstein (Denver), OG Richie Incognito (Miami), RB Brandon Jackson (Green Bay), LB Chris Kelsay (Buffalo), P Sam Koch (Baltimore), OT Lydon Murtha (Detroit), OG Carl Nicks (New Orleans), WR Terrence Nunn (Tampa Bay), S Matt O’Hanlon (New York Giants), LB Steve Octavien (Dallas), OT Chris Patrick (San Francisco), TE Zach Potter (Jacksonville), WR Maurice Purify (Cincinnati), C Dominic Raiola (Detroit), LB Barrett Ruud (Tampa Bay), LB Scott Shanle (New Orleans), OG Matt Slauson (New York Jets), DT Le Kevin Smith (Denver), DE Ty Steinkuhler (New York Jets), DT Ndamukong Suh (Detroit), DE Barry Turner (Chicago), DE Kyle Vanden Bosch (Detroit), CB Fabian Washington (Baltimore), LB Demorrio Williams (Kansas City).
Arbitrary top five list
Worst teams in Nebraska’s modern era (since 1962)
1. 2007: 5-7.
2. 2004: 5-6.
3. 2002: 7-7.
4. 2005: 8-4.
5. 1968: 6-4.
Bo Pelini (Ohio State ’90), 20-8 after two full seasons in Lincoln. Pelini was 1-0 when he took over as the Nebraska head coach, having replaced the fired Frank Solich for Nebraska’s 17-3 Alamo Bowl victory in 2003. That game concluded a one-year stint in Lincoln for Pelini, who was hired earlier in the year as the Huskers’ defensive coordinator after nine seasons coaching in the N.F.L., most recently with the Green Bay Packers. Pelini also coached with the 49ers (1994-96) and the Patriots (1997-98) — both times alongside former U.S.C. coach Pete Carroll — before taking on a job with the Packers, coaching the linebackers, from 2000-2. Pelini might not have had the same impact on the Nebraska defense in 2008 as he had as the defensive coordinator in 2003, when he helped the Huskers finally rebound from its devastating finish to the 2001 season: late-season losses to Colorado, 62-36, and to Miami, 37-14. His defense ranked second in the F.B.S. in scoring defense and 11th in total defense that fall, and made Pelini the fan’s choice to replace Solich. Pelini’s effect on Nebraska’s defense in his second go-round has been equally impressive: last season’s group was the most well-coached defense in the country. Spurned by the former athletic director Steve Pederson in his search for Solich’s replacement, Pelini spent the 2004 season as the defensive coordinator at Oklahoma before taking the same position at L.S.U., where he spent three seasons (2005-7). Louisiana State’s defense finished among the top five in the F.B.S. in each of his three years at the helm; in 2007, the national title-winning Tigers finished third in the nation in total defense (288.8 yards a game) and takeaways (36). Now entering his third season as the full-time coach, Pelini still has some aspects of the assignment to work on, most notably his temper — he’s more Bob Devaney than Tom Osborne, to put it mildly — and the team’s recruiting, though the latter has recently picked up. Still, it’s hard to imagine Nebraska doing a better job in finding Bill Callahan’s replacement.
Players to watch
The biggest storyline on offense is the competition at quarterback, which I’ll touch on below. If Nebraska can find an answer under center — find the right answer — this offense will be vastly improved. This is due to several reasons, beginning with the deepest Nebraska offensive line in nearly a decade.
The line has depth even without last year’s starting center, Jacob Hickman, and one of this season’s likely starters, senior Mike Smith, who suffered a season-ending injury during fall camp. Hickman will be supplanted by junior Mike Caputo, a former walk-on who spelled Hickman a season ago. Smith was an option at this spot, but Caputo becomes the clear answer with the senior gone for the year. He’ll be flanked by two strong guards in seniors Keith Williams and Ricky Henry, with the latter one of the Big 12′s best run blockers on the strong side. Marcel Jones returns at right tackle, as does his reserve, D.J. Jones. JUCO addition Jermarcus Hardrick has been viewed as Nebraska’s blind side protector since signing with Nebraska earlier this year, though he’s struggled in the transition to the F.B.S. level during fall camp.
Most importantly: minus Smith’s injury, this offensive front seems healthy. This was a major issue a year ago, with Williams, for example, playing 11 games despite a painful pectoral tear, and Marcel Jones sent to the sidelines late in the year with an ankle injury. Keep an eye on several youngsters coming off redshirt freshmen campaigns, such as Brent Qvale and Jeremiah Sirles. The latter is a definite option on the blind side, while Qvale should earn significant time at both guard spots in 2010.
Injuries also decimated the backfield, with Roy Helu’s shoulder injury limiting his availability for a portion of the season and Rex Burkhead’s broken foot costing him significant time. This pair showed what they’re capable of in Nebraska’s Holiday Bowl win, combining for 154 yards and 2 scores — with Burkhead pulling off yards in bunches out of the Wildcat formation. Injuries to this pair forced sophomore Dontrayevous Robinson into the mix, perhaps a year early; he responded well, however, fighting back from a dreadful performance against Iowa State to rush for 165 yards and 2 touchdowns. Look for Helu to again crack the 1,000-yard mark — particularly with a clean bill of health — with Burkhead playing a major role and Robinson contributing when called upon.
Keep an eye on Nebraska’s Niles Paul, who despite lacking marquee numbers might be the most physically gifted receiver in the country. He’s extremely productive when given the chance: he made 40 receptions for 799 yards last fall, averaging a Big 12-best 19.9 yards per catch. Paul is also valuable as a runner out of the slot and in the return game, both on kickoffs and punt returns. While his numbers won’t allow him to do so, Paul’s an all-American caliber pass-catcher. He’ll be joined in the starting lineup by senior Brandon Kinnie, a former JUCO transfer still learning his trade on this level. Senior Mike McNeill moves from tight end into the slot, where Nebraska hopes his solid route-running and good size will provide mismatches with slower linebackers and smaller defensive backs. Sophomore Ben Cotton, who’s earned raves for his development this summer, will step into the starting role at tight end. Depth will come from receivers Curenski Gilleylen, a speedster, and Khiry Cooper; junior Ryan Hill and sophomore Kyler Reed will provide depth at tight end.
Life without Ndamukong Suh won’t be that bad, believe it or not. Now, the all-American — and most dominating collegiate defensive lineman I’ve ever seen — will be missed, of course. And no, this year’s defense won’t be five times better than last year’s group, as Pelini stated in the days leading up to last year’s Holiday Bowl. It will be damn good, however, and will benefit from a slight tweak in its base philosophy.
Nebraska will eschew the long-standing 4-3 base look that has defined the Blackshirts for a generation, opting instead for a scheme they’ve called the Peso: five permanent defensive backs. It’s not such a change, as Nebraska spent a large percentage of its time in such a set in 2009. The transition, as small as it might be, will allow Nebraska to keep senior Eric Hagg on the field on nearly every down, a wise move by this staff: Hagg is the Big 12′s best nickel back, a strong, agile defender equally comfortable lining up over a receiver or at the back end of the defense. He’ll be joined in the secondary by the sterling cornerback duo of Prince Amukamara and Alfonzo Dennard, the conference’s best starting pair — if not the country’s best. Amukamara is in the mix for all-American accolades and some serious national hardware.
The Huskers have plenty of options at safety: P.J. Smith and Austin Cassidy were projected as the 2010 starters at the end of last season, but Nebraska has since moved cornerbacks DeJon Gomes and Anthony West into the mix. Gomes will certainly start, as he was a revelation as a JUCO transfer last fall, and West is more comfortable at safety than cornerback, where’s he started in the past. Nebraska can go at least four deep at safety — a fifth might be true freshman Corey Cooper — an improvement on last season’s depth. When taking into account the overwhelming talent at cornerback, it’s clear why many view this secondary as the nation’s best.
So what of this new defensive front? In addition to Suh, Nebraska must replace end Barry Turner. This will be easily done, as sophomore Cameron Meredith steps into a starting role after outplaying Turner a season ago, by and large. The opposite side will be manned by all-conference candidate Pierre Allen, now a senior. Sophomore Josh Williams and redshirt freshman Jason Ankrah will provide depth, with Ankrah a future star.
The new Suh, if there is such a thing, will be junior Jared Crick. He benefited greatly from Suh’s presence last fall, as did the rest of the defense, but such a statement belies the impact Crick had along the interior of the Nebraska line: he took advantage of his chances, and then some. His numbers speak for themselves: 73 tackles (15 for loss) and 9.5 sacks. He’s Pelini’s next all-American defensive lineman. Sophomore Baker Steinkuhler holds a slight edge in the race to join Crick at tackle, though you can’t discount junior Terrence Moore and redshirt freshman Thaddeus Randle.
The new base defense limits the need for three starting linebackers, which might be a good thing. The Huskers are relatively untested on the second level, particularly following Phillip Dillard’s graduation and the season-ending leg injury recently suffered by Sean Fisher. The two starters are likely Will Compton and Lavonte David: Compton’s a returning starter, David a JUCO transfer. Depth remains pretty good despite lacking Fisher, with a second line constituted of former walk-ons like Thomas Grove and Mathew May and sophomore Eric Martin. Don’t take your eyes off Martin on special teams, as the head-hunting linebacker is a sight to behold on kickoff coverage. Once he puts his mental game together, Martin will be impossible to keep out of the starting lineup.
Now, the move to the Peso might be a bit overblown. Nebraska, as noted, spent much of last season utilizing a five-defensive back set, if not six-back sets. If anything, the move will have the Huskers lining up with two linebackers, not one. It takes advantage of Nebraska’s breadth of talent in the secondary, which is a great thing. And a sign that Pelini is the premier defensive mind in college football, one who tailors his attack to his personnel instead of putting square pegs into round holes — keeping the status quo without getting his best players on the field.
The Huskers have another weapon in Alex Henery, an all-American kicker who doubles as Nebraska’s punter. You’d say this was not a perfect situation — having your kicker double as your punter — if not for the fact that Henery consistently plays a major role in helping Nebraska win the field position battle as punter. As a kicker, Henery is nothing if not automatic: on any kick within 45 yards, at least. He’s a better kicker than punter, but as noted, he’s a weapon at both spots.
Position battles to watch
Quarterback What were you expecting? Pelini has yet to play his hand, maintaining the competition remains a three-man affair: Zac Lee, Cody Green and Taylor Martinez. Lee is the most experienced, an 11-game starter a year ago, but injuries prevented the senior from playing up to his full potential: it began as a wrist injury, one that led to a severe tendon tear in his throwing elbow. That should tell you what you need to know about Lee: he was not treated well by Nebraska fans last fall, but he took every hit, gutted out every throw despite playing in significant pain each week. His teammates know what Lee fought through — he has their respect, to be sure. Green, a sophomore, started two games in Lee’s stead in 2009: at Baylor, where he played every down in a sloppy win, and against Oklahoma, a game where he was pulled before the end of the first half. Then there’s Martinez, the people’s choice and a fast-rising prospect at the position. What does each bring to the table? Green has the most potential as a passer, thanks to a powerful arm and his high school experience throwing the ball in a spread offense. Martinez is the most athletic, a guy who can allow the Huskers to tend even more towards a zone read or run-first spread attack. Then there’s Lee, who has the experience; he also combines a strong arm — he’s shown no lingering effects from elbow surgery — with pretty good running ability. To me, the easy answer is Lee. Don’t underestimate Martinez’s chances, especially following some of the rare reports from Nebraska’s fall camp. Green is running third, with a redshirt season potentially in the cards. When will we know the answer? Think late this week, perhaps not until Saturday. This is the biggest, most important position battle occurring anywhere in the country.
Game(s) to watch
Texas, Oct. 16. If last year’s Oklahoma game was loud, this one will be off the charts. As we’ve seen throughout the spring and summer, Nebraska believes this game will make its season. And for good reason, perhaps, though the year will be decided in the Big 12 title game — a potential rematch with the Longhorns, though I like Oklahoma coming out of the South. A trip to Washington is intriguing, even though I’m less high on the Huskies than most. Of course, Nebraska will face Kansas, Kansas State, Missouri and Colorado for the final time during the regular season, barring a future non-conference affair.
Season breakdown & prediction
In a nutshell Nebraska’s season hinges on Pelini’s decision at quarterback. If he opts for Martinez, Nebraska will be good, still the Big 12 North champs, but will not reach its full potential. Will installing Martinez under center this fall pay dividends in 2011 and 2012? Yes, undoubtedly. Therein lies the question: is a bird in the hand really not worth two in the bush? Lee gives Nebraska its best shot at a national title — which should be this program’s goal every season, particularly given Nebraska’s recent resurgence under Pelini. In fact, the only reason I don’t have Nebraska higher than this spot is my sinking feeling that Pelini will go with Martinez, valuing potential and running ability over experience. I like the running game, with three capable backs and a very good offensive line, but I don’t think the ground attack is good enough to offset another season of poor quarterback play. On the other hand, while the defense won’t be five times better than last year’s version, it will be equally good. Even without Suh, Nebraska has a top-tier cornerback duo — secondary in general, in fact — which will keep the pass rush running at full tilt. Don’t underestimate the importance of another season in this system, even if Pelini and his staff are tweaking the scheme somewhat in 2010. All told, I’m extremely high on the Cornhuskers. If Lee earns the starting nod, the sky is the limit — I could very easily see Nebraska playing for a national championship. I hate to harp on it, but in my opinion, Pelini would be doing this team a disservice by going with untested athleticism under center rather than a steady, healthy senior. Again, if I knew that Nebraska was going with Lee, not Martinez, I’d have the Huskers higher than fifth.
Dream season Nebraska’s back: 13-0, playing for the national title.
Nightmare season Pelini’s decision to go with Martinez backfires, as the offense continues to struggle. Anything less than 10 wins would disappointing; an 8-4 finish would be horrific.
In case you were wondering
Where do Nebraska fans congregate? An overwhelming number of options. Independent message boards can be found at Husker Board, Husker Max and HuskerPedia. To catch up on Nebraska recruiting, check out Huskers Illustrated and Big Red Report. You can find additional coverage at CornNation.com and the Web sites of the Lincoln Journal Star and the Omaha World-Herald. For an overview of everything to be found at each of these sites, check out Huskers Gameday.
Who is No. 4? Tomorrow’s team hasn’t been outscored in a season since 1998, though it was outscored in each season from 1994-98.
You can also follow Paul Myerberg and Pre-Snap Read on Twitter.
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