It’s been an interesting year in Lincoln.
Coming into the 2011 season, expectations were kept at bay by the Nebraska Cornhuskers brass, mostly as a result of the uncertainty that preseason injuries tend to create. Before a single ball was snapped in the new year, the offensive line was broken up due to injuries and the already weakened secondary experienced another blow in the form of Alfonzo Dennard getting hurt.
Further complicating matters was the new offense that new offensive coordinator Tim Beck promised to implement. It was said that this new, speedier scheme would capitalize on quarterback Taylor Martinez’s inherent tendency to take off running in the face of defensive pressure and, running back Rex Burkhead’s propensity for pulling out tough yardage. It would, in theory, mask Martinez’s weaknesses as far as passing goes and also simultaneously limit the pressure on the offensive line because of all the athletes on the field opposing defenses would have to account for.
And, finally, the cherry atop the mountain of question marks that was the 2011 season was guessing how the Huskers would transition to playing in the Big 10 – having previously made their bones as the big bad tough guys in the marshmallow soft Big 12.
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So, what ended up happening? A little bit of everything. Because no single fragment of any unit can win or lose the game by itself, it’s important to gauge the offense, defense and special teams units as wholes. A great performance by the offensive line is meaningless if Martinez and Burkhead don’t capitalize. Marquee showings by the linebackers are irrelevant if the cornerbacks give up a score on third down.
Here are the midseason grades for the offensive, defensive and special teams units through six weeks of play:
Martinez, Burkhead and Beck -- the three most recognizable faces behind Nebraska’s offense -- have gotten their fair share of praise and blame throughout the early going.
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In the beginning, with Burkhead underachieving and unable to surpass the 100-yard mark against the Chattanooga Mocs and Fresno State Bulldogs, it was Martinez heralding most of the acclaim as he systemically destroyed opposing defenses with his quick feet and understanding of defensive schemes.
Then, against the Washington Huskies and Wyoming Cowboys -- particularly against the latter bunch -- it was Burkhead who bounced back strong and helped carry the offense through some especially rough patches. That excellence would continue for the rest of the first half of the year, even when he was being totally underutilized by Beck in the Huskers’ loss versus Wisconsin Badgers and ineffective in the first half -- with only 10 yards -- of what would ultimately be a historic victory over the Ohio State Buckeyes.
As it stands, with 635 yards and 9 touchdowns on the season, Burkhead is currently the top running back in the run-heavy Big Ten.
The wide receivers, be it because of Martinez’s problems or their own inability to break free, haven’t been great in 2011. Even though Brandon Kinnie was billed as the leader of the pack in the preseason, it’s actually been Quincy Enunwa who has emerged as the pass game’s knight in white satin armor with 176 yards and 10 scores on the year.
Also worth noting is that whenever Martinez wants to air the ball out -- which seemed like the entire game vs. Wisconsin -- he turns to speedsters Jamal Turner and Kenny Bell. Although the season totals don’t reflect it, both have been huge for the Huskers in 2011 – if for no other reason than forcing opposing defenses to account for them even though they realize that Martinez’s arm isn’t a legitimate threat.
The offensive line, the group that most (incorrectly) dubbed the big question mark coming into the new year has consistently improved with each passing game. In Mike Caputo and Spencer Long, Nebraska found cores to establish the rest of the unit around and, to date, it’s worked. The reason that Burkhead has been so productive for large portions of the year has been precisely because of how surprisingly solid his protection has been.
Based on expectations going in and what ultimately ended up happening on the field, the Huskers offense earned a legitimate B. You could very easily make the case that in the face of an underachieving defensive unit, it’s been this unheralded offensive group who has withstood against the criticism and consistently performed better than most expected they would.
The Nebraska defense was always a constant. All talks centered around the points that if the offense improved and if injuries didn’t hamper the squad too much, then they would be able to capitalize off of Bo Pelini’s brilliant defense and make some noise in the Big Ten. The loss of key secondary components to the 2010 NFL Draft, the loss of Dennard – none of that seemed to resonate in the early going, and nobody thought that those things would seriously hamper this unit.
In retrospect, that was obviously a huge mistake.
From the very beginning, Nebraska’s defense just wasn’t right. Against Chattanooga, a clearly substandard opponent, the Huskers secondary (read: Ciante Evans) gave up a score late in the game to keep it from being a shutout. No big deal in the grand scheme of a season, clearly, but a preview of what would come later.
Then in the second game of the year against Fresno State, the rest of the unit decided to underperform. For two halves versus the Bulldogs, the defensive line was absolutely awful – putting zero pressure on an injured, inconsistent Fresno State offensive line. The secondary was terrible in that game too, but unlike what would ultimately be the case later in the year, this time the defensive line disappointed as well.
As a whole, through six games, the Huskers are tied nationally for No. 92 in sacks and tied for No. 68 in interceptions. They’re No. 66 in opponent’s yards per game and No. 99 in opponent’s time of possession. They’re No. 90 in opponent’s rush yards per game and No. 95 in opponent’s passing yard percentage.
Numbers don’t lie.
Linebacker Lavonte David has been an absolute beast in the early going, and undoubtedly one of the lone bright spots in this otherwise underachieving unit. He leads the team in total tackles with 58, and will now need to shoulder even more responsibility with defensive leader Jared Crick out for the year.
Although Crick didn’t exactly live up to lofty expectations in his 2011 Nebraska campaign, he consistently freed up the other playmakers on the unit due to the sheer fact that offensive lines always had to account for him. He ended the year with 22 tackles, but he still leaves behind a gaping hole that the defensive line must patch up if it hopes to have any success throughout the rest of the year.
Unquestionably, the biggest problem for the Huskers thus far has been the play of the defensive backs. They’ve struggled, struggled and struggled. First, in the absence of Dennard, they seemingly couldn’t get anything in the way of pass protection going – giving up the most blatant of bombs to opposing wide receivers with impunity. Then, when Dennard came back, Wisconsin and Ohio State simply avoided throwing in his direction and continued to exploit the weak secondary.
Only with the emergence of Stanley Jean-Baptiste late in the win versus the Buckeyes did the Huskers finally find a potential weapon with whom they could potentially shore up their most gaping weakness. Will he consistently be the difference-maker he was a week ago? Only time will tell.
The Nebraska defense has been embarrassingly bad in the first half of the season and, really, they should be thanking their lucky stars that the offense has stepped up and kept them in contention this long.
Unfortunately, special teams doesn’t much matter unless your group is horrendously bad or astonishingly good. Even though Brett Maher has filled in quite nicely for Alex Henery and Ameer Abdullah has pulled off some impressive returns, this unit just doesn’t make a blip on the radar in the big picture of this team’s year.
They’ve exceeded expectations and done everything expected of them. Too bad these players’ impact is miniscule in comparison to the guys on offense and defense.