Saturday’s battle between the Nebraska Cornhuskers and University of Tennessee at Chattanooga Mocs proved to be a very educational one for the home team. They won in eye-popping 40-7 blowout fashion -- as expected -- but, they also revealed some glaring holes on the side of the ball that will ultimately determine their 2011 fate.
Going into this game, all attention was on the offense. New offensive coordinator Tim Beck promised a speedier, no-huddle gameplan that would ideally catch opposing defenses out of position and unable to respond to the Huskers’ aggressive attack. The team’s quarterback, Taylor Martinez, would theoretically thrive in this kind of system given his unparalleled athleticism and knack for finding holes in defensive units. And, of course, whatever Taylor wouldn’t be able to do, running back Rex Burkhead would notionally compensate for.
That’s sort of what ended up transpiring on Saturday.
In the midst of all of the short passes and triple-options, Martinez found opportunities to break free against Chattanooga. All in all, he ran for 135 yards and three touchdowns on the ground. He exploited a Mocs defense that looked slow in comparison all day long, until he got his well-deserved break in the fourth quarter. Martinez was also more or less efficient through the air, racking up 116 yards on 11 of 22 passing.
More or less.
Of course, generally speaking, the key to success for a given championship contender isn’t the quarterback looking more like their running back than their quarterback. Whereas completing half of your passes is good, picking up less than 120 yards in the process leaves something to be desired.
To be fair, he didn’t get much help from a line that hadn’t played together all preseason and had been hit by the injury bug from the getgo. That, coupled with the fact that the team seemed unable to run effectively between he tackles made Martinez’s job a lot harder. In fact, if you take out his one 47-yard touchdown rush in the third quarter, the Huskers averaged a mere two yards on first downs.
Burkhead may end up catching some unfair slack for this, but in reality, this was more of a problem with the line than with him. The team’s starting running back ran for 75 yards and one score on 12 carries Saturday, but 52 of those 75 yards came on a single play – one that didn’t involve him running through the tackles up the middle. He would put up only 2.3 yards per carry on his other 10, a far cry from the 5.5 yards he’s averaged during his Nebraska career prior to this outing.
The Huskers put themselves in tough situations all game long, situations that they won’t be able to get themselves out of against teams like the Wisconsin Badgers. On 14 of their 18 third downs for the game, they needed at minimum six yards to convert. And while they were ultimately able to convert on half of their third downs, they needed to make up at minimum 10 yards seven times.
When it was all said and done, everyone saw areas that needed improvement. Martinez needed to be more accurate with his passes and buy himself extra time to throw, rather than taking off at the first sign of trouble. The wide receiving core needed to step up, particularly veteran Brandon Kinnie who dropped two passes. Protection needed to get better, with the offensive line progressively getting healthier and learning to play with one another. The running attack, spearheaded by Burkhead has to improve and figure out a way to make dents between the tackles, not just along the sidelines.
And, even offensive coordinator, Beck, needs to fine tune a few things.
"I did some things during the game, pounding my head against the wall saying we're going to work on a certain play and I just kept running it because I want live work at it,'' he told reporters after the game. "It probably wasn't very smart on my part, but I'm stubborn sometimes and I said we're going to run this play.”
The season is young and there is still time to make changes. Opponents like Chattanooga are scheduled for the kickoff game for precisely this reason – to identify the holes and to patch them up as quickly as possible.
Nevertheless, this game should go some ways in tempering expectations. 2011 will be a grind, a slow and steady build to what is hopefully a championship campaign. Nobody will hand the Huskers anything and there will undoubtedly be bumps in the road. Knowing Bo Pelini, though, he probably wouldn’t want it any other way.