It was plain as day to all observers – the Nebraska Cornhuskers had one big problem against the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga Mocs this past Saturday.
A very big problem.
Coming into this 2011 campaign, all eyes were initially on quarterback Taylor Martinez, who was returning from an inconsistent freshman year during which he showed a ton of promise in the midst of some very questionable play. After him, attention shifted to running back Rex Burkhead – the player deemed key to Husker contention in a major BCS Bowl games given the way his style so closely resembles the run attacks implemented by most Big Ten schools.
What everyone seemed to forget about, however, were the guys up front who made it all possible – the offensive line.
Things didn’t exactly get off according to plan in the preseason for Nebraska, as they watched their already questionable line get hampered by a rash of injuries before they could even play a single down. As a result, younger players were asked to step up and fill larger roles and, certain responsibilities -- i.e. protecting the skill position stars in a newly-designed, faster offense -- became mandates that guys had to overcome despite their inexperience.
On Saturday, after the line got an opportunity to show what they were made of, the results came back mixed. The run game staggered all day long, with Martinez needing to break free moreso as a result of his own athleticism than anything else to rack up three rushing touchdowns on runs of 7, 43 and 47 yards. Seemingly for the entire game, the young passer was given no chance to stand and read the defense -- though some of that was probably by design -- and had to constantly abandon searching for open receivers in favor of taking off to secure whatever gain he could.
Martinez threw the ball 22 times and connected on only half of those passes. At least half of those misfires, though, could be directly attributed to not getting enough time to scan the field because protection failed him. In fact, the longest pass of the day for Martinez came on a 31-yard lob to Quincy Enunwa, who surprisingly led all other wide receivers with four catches and 58 yards for the day.
Similarly, Burkhead couldn’t seem to get any separation as he tried to run through the tackles – looking far less effective against a hapless Chattanooga defense than he had all 2010 in a backup capacity racking up roughly the same amount of carries -- on average -- that he got on Saturday. He wrapped up the day with 11 rushes for 75 yards, but 52 of those yards came on a single breakout carry in the first half.
Tyler Moore, Andrew Rodriguez and walk-on, Spencer Long, all did the best they could throughout the day, but their inability to handle completely overmatched competition was startling. If they couldn’t noticeably win the trenches battle against the hapless Mocs, what’s going to happen when they square off against the Wisconsin Badgers or Ohio State Buckeyes?
Nebraska has a lot of promise, this much is undeniable. But in college football, a solid offensive line is a key component of any championship campaign and, if the Huskers don’t figure out a way to get theirs performing up to stuff, things could get messy in 2011