The Nebraska Cornhuskers' season hasn’t gone exactly according to plan thus far. Through six weeks of play, they’ve put together a 5-1 record – but that total doesn’t tell the whole story.
Aside from their first game -- which they won in dominant fashion -- against Chattanooga, the Huskers have been legitimately challenged by everyone -- except Wyoming, really -- on a weekly basis. Some of it was the byproduct of quarterback Taylor Martinez’s mistakes and a lackadaisical offense but, by and large, the defense was the root of the problem. This was the main cause of concern after Fresno State, Washington, Wisconsin and even Ohio State.
Yes, Nebraska’s offense isn’t blowing anyone away – but nobody was expecting it to. Going into the year, the belief was that Martinez and his shaky offensive line would hold firm and not lose for the squad. Then, obviously, the defense would swoop in and win the game. What’s transpired has essentially been the exact opposite. The offense has overachieved in many cases and the defense has staggered.
Fortunately, after that historic 34-27 victory over Ohio State last weekend, Nebraska gets a week off. Here are three holes that they need to fill going into next week’s showdown versus Minnesota:
Find a way to compensate for the weak secondary. Nebraska’s secondary, as a result of a preseason injury to Alfonzo Dennard and the loss of key contributors to the NFL, has been horrendous in 2011. Ciante Evans and Andrew Green have proven themselves entirely incapable of covering, well, anyone. Mind you, coming out of last week’s game, the Huskers have allowed 28 third-down pass conversions. That means out of 42 totals third down conversions given up, substantially more than half have come through the air. Nebraska is getting opportunities to stifle opposing offenses -- hence the third downs -- but, then the secondary just gives all of it back via one big play.
Heck, even against Chattanooga who the Huskers blew out – the one score that poor, overwhelmed offense was able to put on the board came via an Evans slip. Little did we know that would serve as a preview for what would lay ahead throughout the rest of 2011. Bo Pelini and Co. have to make a decision: either start bringing more pressure on quarterbacks to force them to get rid of the ball faster or, be prepared for the inevitable screw up by the secondary that will ultimately need to be saved by someone else.
Get Stanley Jean Baptiste ready to go. The lone defensive bright spot -- aside from the obvious Lavonte David takeaway -- of the second half for Nebraska was undoubtedly the emergence of a possibly very potent secondary weapon in Jean-Baptiste. Talk about making an impression – wow.
Upon entering the game, Jean-Baptsite made an immediate impact. He swatted the ball away on what looked to be a surefire completion and then actually intercepted an ill-advised pass in the fourth quarter to seal the game for the Huskers. His only error of the night, if you even want to call it that, was earning an untimely unnecessary roughness penalty that, in reality, he didn’t even deserve.
Despite that bad call, he pumped some much-needed life into an otherwise dead unit and it’ll be interesting to see if he can come up with encore showing when the squad takes on Minnesota.
Replace Jared Crick, mentally and physically. Look, obviously Crick didn’t have the All-American campaign everyone was thinking he would coming into 2011 – but that doesn’t make losing him for the season sting any less for the Huskers. Both mentally and physically, losing such a key figure in the locker room, such a leader, to a torn pectoral muscle was no doubt startling for the team on every level.
And just because he underachieved in the early parts of the year, doesn’t mean that Crick wasn’t productive at all. For the season, he racked up 22 tackles and one sack. He was ranked No. 7 overall on the unit in terms of tackles. Big picture, he ranks No. 8 on the all-time Nebraska list with 20 sacks over the course of his career so, there’s no reason to assume that he couldn’t have regained some steam later in the year if given the opportunity.
Now, the onus falls on Terrence Moore and Chase Rome to step up and fill a gaping hole. They’ll handle the physical responsibility of losing Crick – but the coaches -- namely Pelini -- will have to make sure that there are no residual emotional effects in the locker room -- particularly on the defense -- that are natural after losing such an integral part of the team.