The guys over at Corn Nation were kind enough to take a crack at some of my questions regarding this year's Husker team, what to expect, and what makes the gameday atmosphere in Lincoln special.
So far this season the Big Ten has been a colossal disappointment. The conference's record over the first month was abysmal as nearly every team lost non-conference games to teams it shouldn't. Nebraska is sitting at 5-2; the same record as Michigan. Tell me why this season has (or hasn't) been a disappointment to Husker fans thus far.
Aaron: A little of both. Disappointed in the loss to UCLA and the way the defense/special teams has played. The OSU loss wasn't surprising, but the blowout was disappointing. On the other hand, Taylor (and the whole offense) has looked a lot better if they keep mistakes down. Still a ways to go before we decide on how this season will be remembered, though.
David McGee: It's been a disappointment because the Huskers aren't undefeated. Much like Michigan, the expectations are absurdly high even though reality dictates they're just not at that level right now. When Nebraska fans see that helmet bouncing around the field or on their television screens, they irrationally see Tommy Frazier running around and Cory Schlessinger plowing through line backers and rumbling into the endzone vs. Miami. So, they've lost twice and both times it was a pretty rough go and that's been a pattern for the scarlet and cream for the past few years. That has people pretty wrankled.
Brian: I think this has been a season that has been what we thought it would be, minus the injury of Rex Burkhead. The UCLA and Ohio St. losses were things that as so goes our defense, so goes Nebraska's chances. Last week was a pretty pleasant surprise in that as much as Nebraska gave it away to Northwestern, NW didn't take advantage of it and the Huskers came from behind for the victory. This game is big for both teams, as the winner basically has to stay upright to win the B1G West (at CornNation, we call it the East And West division) while the loser has a November full of what could have been as they try to get to Orlando or Jacksonville.
Nebraska is struggling mightily on defense. The Huskers are in the bottom half of the conference in rushing defense (10th), scoring defense (9th), and total defense (7th). What has been the problem so far and how do you see things playing out against a pretty good run based Michigan attack on Saturday. What hope do you have that this doesn't turn into the OSU or UCLA games?
Aaron: Just a lot of head scratching with the defense this year. They are capable of being in the top half of the Big Ten in defense, but stupid decisions and poor fundamentals have caused a lot of problems. When they clean things up, they can look really good (see 10+ 3-and-outs against Northwestern). Lack of turnovers have really been a problem too. I lost count after the fourth dropped interception during the Northwestern game.
DM: Lots of theories here. Is it a talent/recruitng problem? Is it a coaching problem? Is it something else? It looks to me that it's a talent issue. They don't seem to have talent like they've had even three years ago. The 2009 defense featured as many as 7 guys currently in the NFL. In 2010 they added two more to that group after losing some guy named Ndamukong. You may have heard of him. That talent isn't there right now. It's not even close. There might be a couple of guys that get a look and a couple of young guys that might develop into something but there are a lot of experienced players seeing a lot of time and not many of them will have significant careers professionally.
Brian: I am a firm believer that the front 7 of Nebraska doesn't have much talent, with the least talented group being the D Line. The linebackers haven't been great, but there has been a few guys like Will Compton and David Santos who have had moderately good performances. The secondary is a little bit better than we thought they would be, as they are in the top of the list in pass defense efficency.
On the other side of the ball, the offense has been the best in the conference thus far this season while gaining over 500 yards per game and scoring over 41 points per. Is this a function of some significant development by Taylor Martinez? How do you think Nebraska's offense will be able to play against the best defense it has faced to date?
Aaron: Nebraska's offense has improved a lot since last year. We still see missed assignments along the line, but the playmakers are looking real good. Taylor has improved a lot and is makign a lot better decisions. It's hard to say how they will do against Michigan. The Wolverines have looked great, but they haven't really played too many great offenses this year either. This game will be a good test for them.
DM: The development of Martinez has absolutely contributed, but so has the development of several guys at the other skill positions. Wide recievers are deep and talented, so are the running backs, even without Rex Burkhead healthy. It's also that this is the second year of Tim Beck's system and even though Nebraska fans don't understand all of his decisions, it has developed and evolved considerably since the start of last year. The only thing missing is a dominant offensive line. Even a decent one would take it to the next level. The line plays ok at times, but not consistently and they still find ways to put points on the board. I think they will on Saturday as well. While NU hasn't faced a defense as stout as Michigan's, the Wolverines hasn't faced an offense as explosive as the Huskers. It should make for an intriguing matchup when those two units are on the field. I think both sides will have success. NU has a propensity to put the ball on the carpet. If they can avoid that on Saturday, I like Nebraska's chances.
Brian: Echoing Aaron and David, the skill positions are, as a group, one of the best ones that has been in Lincoln for quite some time. Arguably, this is the best WR group in school history, only rivaling the 2004-06 group of Nate Swift, Todd Peterson, Maurice Purify and Terrance Nunn. Kenny Bell and Quincy Enunwa are two backs that showed last week that they are the real deal, with Bell being the better pass catcher and route runner of the two. Enunwa should play in the league with his size and his downfield blocking. Add on Kyler Reed who was hurt most of last season with Jamal Turner and his seemingly untapped talent, and it's easy to see how just a small improvement in Taylor Martinez has made this group one of if not the best in the Big 10 conference.
The Big Ten Legends division looks pretty wide open at this point. Michigan is on top with a 3-0 record, but both Iowa and Nebraska sit at 2-1. All three teams still have to play each other plus another tough game (UM has OSU, Nebraska has Penn State, and Iowa has justNorthwestern). How do you think the Legends division shakes out over the final month?
Aaron: I think Michigan will end up representing the division even if Nebraska wins this weekend. Iowa is a pretender and they will still have to beat Northwestern. But, Michigan avoids Penn State and Wisconsin and by the time "The Game" rolls around, Braxton Miller may not even be standing up. I think Nebraska will slip up at some point the rest of the way, but that's why they play the games.
DM: If Iowa can't figure out this whole AIRBHG thing, they'll fall by the wayside shortly. That makes Saturday's game all the more important. Nebraska still has MSU and Penn St. to come. Michigan has...Ohio State. This is a massive game for Nebraska. If they lose, it's all but over.
Brian: No way in hell do I trust Iowa to do much after what Penn St. did to them in Kinnick. As I said above, the winner here punches his ticket to Indy and a chance to play Wisconsin (cause it ain't gonna be Purdue) for the Rose Bowl berth.
Last year's UM-NU game in Ann Arbor went south quickly in the second half as Nebraska succumbed to a series of fumbles. With the team's turnover margin currently at -1.29 (110th nationally) I have to ask: is this more a product of the Huskers' offense struggled at all with ball control this year, or the defense failing to force turnovers?
Aaron: We are good for a few fumbles per game. Ameer is a great back but he seems to put it on the turf at least once. If the line isn't blocking well, Taylor has a propensity to fumble if he gets blindsided. And our special teams...oh our special teams. It seems every week that we give our opponents the ball in the red zone due to a muffed punt return.
DM: It's a mental game for Nebraska on the offensive side of things. They've got a case of the dropsies and there seems to be no cure. On the defensive side of things, I can think of no fewer than 8 opportunities where NU DB's or LB's have had their hands on the ball for a relatively easy INT's, four last Saturday alone. Both sides of the ball have contributed (or not) to this statistic.
Brian: How about both? Nebraska seemingly has forgotten how to create turnovers on D the last few years, while the offense leads America in fumbles lost. There's no really good reason for it other than, say, coaching or something mental? When you all find out, let us know and we can tell the team. It's an issue that has cost Nebraska all year, and almost cost them last week in Evanston.
What are your predictions for the game? Do you see it turning into a shootout or staying a relatively (in the 20s) low scoring affair. What defense has more luck containing the other team's quarterback, and who wins the turnover battle? What do you think the final score ends up at?
Aaron: I really think the two teams match up well. It comes down to how clean the Huskers play and they haven't done that in a long time. I'd be nice if they could get some turnovers from Denard, but our DB's seem to drop all of their pick chances. I don't see a shootout, though. We expected it last week against Northwestern and it never evolved. Nebraska likes to control the tempo on offense and they are good and quick strikes or nice long drives, whichever is more appropriate at the time.
DM: This is going to be fun. Prime time, the crowd will be revved up, they're giving towels to wave at the game. There will be enough electricity in the air to power a small country. Nebraska hasn't always handled that atmosphere well early in games. If they can do that better and not let the game get away from them early, this should be a very entertaining game. I think would like to keep this game at 24 points or under. If they can do that, I like Nebraska's chances. I'll say Nebraska feeds off the energy and holds off a late Michigan charge to win 23-22.
Brian: Denard will score, and the D will give up points and yards. What I am hoping is that Nebraska can find the magic against this Wolverine defense and get the ability to throw the ball around a touch that will open up a running game. Even with no Rex Burkhead, this rushing attack of Ameer Abdullah, Braylon Heard and Imani Cross has shown to be good when the offensive line has their ducks in a row.
Bonus: For those of us uninitiated in the wonders of the Nebraska game day experience, tell us a little about what makes it so special.
Aaron: I'm sure being at the stadium in Lincoln is similar to your experience in Ann Arbor. I think what makes it special here is that EVERYONE in the state comes together for the games. We have no little brother and no bad blood with anyone. Yea, we were pissed at Texas, but that was because they weren't "team oriented". Also, that Urban Meyer seems a bit smug. We didn't care much for that last TD with 90 seconds left in the game this year. Any more of that and he might end up on a few dart boards at some of the local bars. There are no other major sports in this state. We have Kansas City to the south, Minneapolis to the north and Denver to the West. Though we may be Chiefs fans, or Royals fans, or Broncos fans or Twins fans, we are all Husker fans.
DM: I've had the great fortune to visit some of the best venues in college football, not all, not even close. The most notable I've been to are Texas, Oklahoma, USC...and Michigan last year. Of those, Michigan was clearly the most comparable to what I experience at Memorial Stadium. Both fanbases have a healthy respect and knowledge of the game with a dash of arrogance. The in-stadium atmosphere's are similar. Perhaps it was because it was because Nebraska was the new kid in town and there was still this honeymoon stage, but I felt welcomed, not exposed or in danger, even when we got to our seats and away from the safety of or tailgate with our friends. That hasn't always been the case in some of the other places I've visited. If you come to Lincoln for the game, you'll get a very similar welcome. Nebraska fans will welcome you. Give you a nasty red hot dog or runza, a watered down beer if you're close enough to the drinking age and a warm welcome. We'll be friendly with a dash of arrogance that they'll try to disguise with midwestern hospitality. It will be fun. There really is nothing like getting together two of the best schools in college football history.
Brian: Ah yes, a home game weekend in Lincoln is unlike what many people will ever experience. Whether you're flying into Omaha or Lincoln or driving in from anywhere, do your best to arrive early Friday as the anticipation takes over the downtown area and campus. On Friday, it's a great opportunity to walk around the campus and the Haymarket area. Check out the Pinnacle Bank Arena, the new city/UNL owned arena that will host Nebrasketball next year. For dinner, the alumni and such head to the original Misty's in the Havelock area. Bring your appetite for thick prime rib and hearty food. When you get back to downtown Friday night, head down O Street and take in all the downtown bars and atmosphere. On Saturday, check out all the tailgates across Interstate 180 under the bridge and check out all the friendly folks that will welcome you there. And, during the game, consume Runza's and Valentino's Pizza as the locals do. Remember, Nebraska wants to win the game, but won't sacrifice making the visitors feel welcome.
Jon: The other guys have described what makes Nebraska's game day special overall. I'll take a slightly different approach.
It's special because it's mine. It is my home state. It is my school, where I spent seven years getting a four-year degree, and met all sorts of people who had a huge influence on my life. When I go back there I get to see a lot of those people again. It's like old home week.
All three of my teenagers have been to a game in Lincoln, along with some of their friends. It is pretty cool having one of your kids look up at you, their eyes widening as they start shaking because they've never heard anything that loud in their lives and never seen that many people moving in one metaphorical direction.
I'm sure that's true for a lot of alums, especially Michigan men, but it's still pretty damned special to me.
I sure as hell hope I get to see us play in Ann Arbor before I die.