The Nebraska Cornhuskers opened up their 2011 campaign like only they can. Despite a 30-plus point victory over their helpless opponents, the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga Mocs, many were left feeling underwhelmed at the way the Huskers won. That queasiness coupled with the undeniably lofty expectations everyone had for Nebraska this year has spilled over into what can best be described as skepticism regarding what’s on the agenda for this Saturday.
For better or worse, the Fresno State Bulldogs are next on the schedule, and they have something to prove coming off of a tough-to-swallow defeat to the Cal Bears. Although they are widely regarded as one of the most mentally tough road teams around, the Bulldogs, perhaps, are the ideal challengers for the Huskers at this point in time.
They haven’t lost the first two games of the year dating all the way back to 2000, they work hard and are no strangers to upsetting squads with championship aspirations. They just good enough to knock some sense into Nebraska and make them have to work hard (unlike Chattanooga) but, not good enough to beat the Huskers if the latter group plays up to their skill level.
In order to beat Fresno State, Nebraska will have to make three major adjustments from last week. So long as the Huskers can fill these gaps from Week 1, they should be in perfect position to walk away with a 2-0 record come end of Saturday.
The offensive line must step up. There are just no ands, ifs or ors about this one – the protection must get better when Fresno State comes to town. Sure, the Huskers have been hit by an unfortunate series of injures and had to make do with what they have. Yes, Tyler Moore, Spencer Long and Andrew Rodriquez are no doubt trying their hardest. However, the stats from the last game told a sad story, and one that is not conducive to the group’s championship plans.
Quarterback Taylor Martinez looked uncomfortable standing in the face of the opposition and passing all game long. Too often, he was forced to take off running and create a play from scratch due to insufficient blocking up front. Granted, he was able to rack up three touchdowns and more yards with his feet than his arm, but that’s not a formula for success. When you take into account that this is a guy who is coming off an injury that robbed him of a lot of athleticism last season, you see why the situation becomes even direr.
Similarly, running back Rex Burkhead simply cannot do anything if he doesn’t get room up front. The one big 52-yard run that he was able to break free for against Chattanooga was largely a result of his own ingenuity, not anything the guys up front did. Which brings us to the next key to success…
The star running back need to demand the ball. This all starts with Burkhead, who many (read: us) picked to be one of the most crucial pieces of the puzzle to the Huskers’ 2011 championship aspirations. It’s absolutely ludicrous that somehow, with a running backs coach at the helm calling plays, Nebraska couldn’t get their guy more than 11 carries for the game. Basically, Burkhead got just as much action in the first game of the year against substandard, second-rate opponents as he did on average as a backup in 2010.
Now, to be fair, the offensive line isn’t giving the guy much to work with. They created very little room for him to run and, as a result, Burkhead’s efficiency was sliced in half. Keep in mind, as a backup he averaged over four yards per carry. In 2011, as a starter, if you take away that one breakaway 52-yard dash – he barely averaged over two yards per rush against Chattanooga.
Of course, despite the inadequate blocking from up front, maybe Burkhead would have a little more success if he got a little help from another valuable skill position.
The quarterback has to take the reins. Martinez looked dazzling at certain points of Saturday’s game. He’s an undeniably magnificent athlete and now that he’s finally healthy, he’s showcasing just how much of dual threat he truly is. Despite all of the noted problems from the game versus Chattanooga, somehow, Martinez consistently found ways to create something out of nothing to the tune of 3 touchdowns on the ground.
On the ground.
Unfortunately, Martinez is doing neither himself nor his team any favors by constantly resorting to the run. A lack of fluidity in the passing attack was obvious to anyone who watched the game, but what really pounded the message home was the fact that sophomore Quincy Enunwa was somehow the team’s leading receiver with only 58 yards on four catches. The player who most assumed would be Martinez’s go to guy, meanwhile, Brandon Kinnie, only caught two passes for a grand total of seven yards.
And while it’s true that it’s on the receivers to get open and put themselves in position to catch the ball, the amount of times that Martinez threw behind his guys or out of their line of sight was too frequent for comfort. The air attack needs work, and the longer Martinez goes trying to convince everyone that it’s not a problem, the more he’s setting himself up for disappointment. Sure, ultimately the Huskers converted on half of their third downs, but that was against the Mocs defense.
Martinez’s line isn’t giving him a lot to work with, but being the dual threat that he is, he must learn to create time to pass with his feet – not just more and more rushing yards.