With a week of rest under their belt, the fresh-legged Nebraska Cornhuskers will look to begin the second half of their 2011 campaign in a much more dominant fashion than they ended their first. They’ll put aside the train wreck of a game against the Wisconsin Badgers and the emotional ride that was the victory over Ohio State – and begin anew with the clear and concise goal of ending the year with only one loss.
The first post-break challengers that the Huskers will face are the Minnesota Gophers. Fortunately for Nebraska, Minnesota is a pretty awful group in its own right. The Gophers are struggling this year with a 1-5 overall record and an 0-2 showing in the conference. In theory, at least, the Huskers should have no problems exerting their dominance over this group and establishing a certain precedent for the rest of the season.
That being said, Nebraska has shown a certain propensity this year (see games vs. Fresno State, Washington and Ohio State) for making life a little harder that it needs to be. Because of this they, the Huskers will need particularly strong efforts out of three of their more important players from beginning to end to ensure that the season’s lone disappointment starts and ends in Madison.
Here are three players to watch this Saturday when these two teams do battle:
Taylor Martinez – Say what you will about Tim Beck’s strategizing, Rex Burkhead’s running and the offensive line’s blocking. The most crucial piece to the Huskers’ offense, though, always has been and, for the foreseeable future at least, will be the quarterback. On the season Martinez is absolutely destroying defenses with his feet to the tune of 5.2 yards per rush, 519 total yards on the ground and nine touchdowns.
Martinez’s contributions on the ground alone are impactful enough to lead the offense to victory so long as he doesn’t mess it up with interceptions and/or fumbles. Through the air, the Huskers’ much-maligned passer has thrown six touchdowns and six interceptions on 54 percent efficiency – numbers that make it explicitly clear that throwing is not his strength. Even though Martinez has shown time and time again that he can make throws in some tight spots -- bad mechanics and all -- when the situation calls for it, throwing is still not his strength.
If makes plays with his feet, opens the offense up a bit for the running backs and doesn’t make mistakes – Martinez will end up doing precisely what the squad needs of him versus Minnesota.
Rex Burkhead – All Nebraska needs from Martinez is for him to not mess up. That means the onus is on Burkhead to carry the offense, something he’s done in spades for most of 2011. With nearly six yards per carry, 618 total yards and nine touchdowns on the year – the Huskers back has fairly consistently proven himself to be the marquee rusher of the Big Ten.
The few times that Burkhead hasn’t been especially effective in 2011 have been the direct byproducts of bad line play (see: Chattanooga and Washington) or not getting the ball enough (see: first half of Wisconsin). However, when his number is called and the line does a sufficient job of protecting, Burkhead typically shines.
Look for him to explode against a porous Gophers defense that can’t really stop anything.
Lavonte David – With Jared Crick officially out for good, Crick is now dubbed the official leader of the defense – even if he was serving in that capacity all along. As good as Crick was at distracting the opposition and bringing a lot of attention on himself, there is no getting around the fact that he didn’t have the year that he or others predicted in the early going.
David, meanwhile, has been absolute stud all season long. He leads the team with 58 total tackles and has been a speedy, athletic presence that’s disrupted opposing offenses all year long. Even before he reclaimed momentum for his squad with a clutch takeaway in that Ohio State win, he was seemingly the only guy on the field actually trying to keep up with the Buckeyes. Whether it’s because he was that good or the rest of the unit was just that lackadaisical is anyone’s guess.
Either way, though, with that one takeaway, he showed just what a difference maker a guy on defense can be when the situation demands it.
Look, the change won't happen overnight. As per our “Midseason Grades,” piece, this is where the Huskers defense currently stands:
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.
David can’t single-handedly change those totals. But he can continue to be an impact player, just like he was versus Ohio State, just like he’ll need to be versus Minnesota, and just how he’ll need to be for the rest of the season.