It was a tale of two units for the Nebraska Cornhuskers on Saturday, much as it has been ever since head coach Bo Pelini re-arrived on the scene in 2008. On the defensive side of the ball, the Huskers dominated their opponents – the hapless University of Tennessee at Chattanooga Mocs.
On offense, however, they looked sporadically discombobulated and unsure of what do next, a sight all too familiar to those who have watched the team consistently falter on that side of the ball.
Which is why, despite their 40-7 dominating victory, Nebraska has a lot to work on in the coming weeks.
Yet again, the Huskers proved that they are one of the finest defensive clubs in the nation when they terrorized an offensive unit in Chattanooga that had no place being on the same field as them. In the first half alone, Nebraska allowed a mere five downs and 74 yards of total offense to their counterparts. The defensive line in particular was impenetrable, holding B.J. Coleman’s unit to just 15 yards on 19 carries.
Junior safety, Daimion Stafford dominated all day long, racking up six tackles and forcing a fumble. Between him and defensive ends Cameron Meredith and Jason Ankrah -- who combined for three sacks in the first half -- the Chattanooga O-line never even stood a chance.
Unfortunately, the offense didn’t bring the same caliber of excellence when it came time for them to take the field.
In a testament to how lackadaisical the offensive line looked on Saturday, the only times quarterback Taylor Martinez -- a notable dual threat -- and running back Rex Burkhead looked explosive carrying the ball was out of the option, when they could use their athleticism and ingenuity to break free. Aside from that, it was all minimal carries for small gains between the tackles – a recipe for disaster when the Huskers meet some of the more gritty defenses that their new conference has to offer.
If you were to remove Martinez’s 47-yard touchdown run in the third quarter from the equation, Nebraska’s run average on first downs for the game would be a paltry two yards. Along the same lines, if you take away Burkhead’s 52-yard explosive rush, he racked up 23 yards on 11 carries – in other words 2.3 yards per rush for the entire outing. When you compare that to the nearly six yards per carry he put up in 2010 as a backup getting a carry total similar to what he got versus Chattanooga, you immediately see that there is a cause for mild concern.
The reality of the situation is that the offensive line holds the keys to Nebraska’s success in the coming year. If get healthy, mesh together and offer the type of protection that championship offenses require – then the Huskers are golden. If, however, they present more shotty efforts like the one thrown together this past Saturday, this team could be in trouble.
That’s not to say that Martinez and Burkhead are innocent parties in all this. Martinez needs to stop putting his club into third-and-long situations and, Burkhead, for all of the praise he’s consistently been getting, needs to find a way to be more effective between the tackles. However, if the aforementioned players don’t get adequate protection up front, both of those goals suddenly become a lot less viable.
The offense has consistently been the anchor weighing this Nebraska team down for the last few years and clearly that isn’t going to change any time soon.
Next week’s showdown versus Fresno State will be very telling, as it sets off a chain of difficult games to come over the next month. If the offense looks improved on September 10, then everything is all good.
If there’s trouble yet again, though – this might end up being a long year for Husker faithful.