Nebraska had a better outing in its sophomore Big Ten campaign, winning the West division, going to the BTCG, and making it back to the Capital One bowl. However, in the team's highest profile games it struggled mightily, losing a premiere non-con matchup at UCLA, getting stomped by Ohio State in Columbus, and then receiving a pretty hearty beat down from Wisconsin in the BTCG. What was it about this team that caused such pronounced struggles at times when it was still good enough for 10 wins?
Jon Johnston: (Note that I changed the division name since CN does not recognize the idiotic division names originally chosen.)
All-around inconsistency. The offense was very good but Nebraska was 108th in turnover margin. The defense was all right... okay, that's a lie, the defense sucked. Nebraska was 35th in total defense nationally, but 92nd against the run. They had serious issues on the defensive line and then they added being undisciplined.
Special teams - if we had an coach in charge of creating aneurysms, that sunofabitch would have received an enormous pay raise.
David McGee: They were able to overcome it because the offense was able to mask some of their shortcomings in other areas of the field. They lacked depth on defense and they lacked a plan in the return game. They did have some poise in close games as noted by the comebacks vs. MSU, Northwestern and PSU but when it came to trying to match up with teams with elite talent on the lines, they couldn't overcome the talent gap there.
Brian Towle: It's incredible how lucky Nebraska was last year to get to the B1G title game. A phantom PI versus Michigan St that allowed them to go for a TD instead of a game tying FG, at Northwestern where a game winning FG by the Wildcats sailed wide, having Denard Robinson go down when Michigan came to town (although I think Nebraska would have won that game regardless). The defensive line was an atrocity, which put so much damn pressure on the back 7.
Nebraska already had arguably the best offense in the conference last season, and it really only loses Rex Burkhead, who was sidelined for a large portion of the season. Do you think the offense can take another step forward, and what do you expect to see from the unit this season?
Jon: I expect the offense to score 60 points a game so that the defense isn't an issue, so yeah, the offense will take a huge leap forward.
DM: I don't expect you'll see a gigantic step forward, but I do think you'll see some improvement which should be expected from year to year and if Martinez can get to that 70% completion mark he's talked about, it could be one of the all time offenses in school history.
If there's an area that you could see marked improvement it's on the line. The rhetoric every year out of camp is that it's the best unit we've had under Pelini, talented, deep, yada yada...You'll hear it again. We know Spencer Long is one of the better linemen in the country and if you see improvement from his line mates, then we're talking about an offense that should be able to score on any defense in at minimum the Big Ten. That's basically my expectation. There will be teams that shut down them for a quarter, maybe two, but it's going to be very difficult to do it for 4. If they want to, they could put up some rather impressive numbers this season.
BT: More specifically on what David said, it's not like Nebraska was terrible on the offensive line, but pass blocking seemed to be a travesty at times. Nebraska will also need to develop some depth at the Running Back position. There are only 2 guys (Ameer Abdullah and Imani Cross) with true experience, and there will be 2 true Freshman (Adam Taylor and Terrell Newby) who will be focused on in fall camp. One will be redshirted, the other one will be used as much as Cross and Ameer, that will probably be the one who can pass block the best.
Mike: Besides the pass protection, another area that could use improvement with NU's offense is ball security. Martinez's issues with turnovers are well documented, though some of that is the result of pass protection issues. Still, he drops the ball occasionally and forces the ball into coverage in spots when he really shouldn't. And it's not just Martinez; Abdullah coughs the ball up too often as well, such as in the third quarter of the Capital One Bowl. The Huskers had Georgia on the ropes, at that point.
Nebraska has long been known for its defense and Bo Pelini is a defensive guy, but last year's D gave up 70, 63, 45, and 38 points in losses. What happened in those games and what will be the key to closing up that defensive hole?
BT: Three of the four losses (UCLA, Ohio St, Nebraska), the rushing numbers were a travesty and a half. Against Georgia, Aaron Murray destroyed the secondary for 427 yards. Brett Hundley did throw for 300, but the entire UCLA effort was just terrible.
Is it talent? Is it scheme? Ability (or lack thereof) to adjust to what the other team did? Honestly, it's a combination of everything. Defensive line depth up to this year was a running joke, and the internal DL is still not up to snuff. Sometimes, it seemed like Nebraska was hell bent on doing something to shut down one part of the opposing offense and would get burned defending anything else. Against Wisconsin, it seemed to be one play (jet sweeps) that just confused the defense the whole night, and THAT was beyond maddening.
Jon: Part of it is the offense. Nebraska offensive coordinator Tim Beck wants to have an up tempo offense that wears out opponents, but when you go three and out and don't run any clock while you're doing it, you're going to give the other team the opportunity to run more plays. Case in point - UCLA ran 94 plays to Nebraska's 67.
The Ohio State game was the result of Nebraska's defense not making plays, i.e., missed tackles and poor position in space, which is not uncanny when you are trying to tackle Braxton Miller.
The B1G title game was the result of lousy planning. Wisconsin ran an offense unlike they'd run before, and Nebraska flat out didn't adjust to it. They were confused, taking HORRIBLE angles, and when they got behind, Tim Beck wanted, again, to run his up tempo offense, and in the second quarter, stopped gaining first downs, allowing Wisconsin more opportunities to rip apart a confused defense. At that point, I think Nebraska's defense just gave up. People don't want to hear that, but tough shit.
Mike: Bottom line to me is that Nebraska's front seven had issues dealing with speed, for the most part. The linebackers simply couldn't contain UCLA's Johnathan Franklin, Ohio State's Braxton Miller, or Wisconsin's Melvin Gordon. And in the B1G title game, the safeties simply misplayed Gordon on those jet sweeps. So how does Pelini fix this? The hope is with an entirely new set of defensive linemen and linebackers. Last year, Pelini redshirted almost all of them, in hopes that the seniors could muddle through 2012. They didn't in those games. So now the youngsters get thrown into the fire, but the big question is whether these guys are the answer. They're all unproven and inexperienced. Could they be better? They'd better be.
What is Nebraska's strongest position group? What is the one that has the most questions surrounding it?
DM: Wide reciever is the strongest, on paper, fairly easy decision there. Secondary on the defensive side.
Defensive line, heck, the whole front 7 is littered with question marks. The narrative is that they'll be much more athletic, something I've heard almost unanimously from people who have seem practices, the talent should be there, it's just a matter of turning that into production on the field.
Jon: Strongest - all the offense. Taylor Martinez is seasoned and should stop making silly turnovers. Kenny Bell has the skills to be Nebraska's first 1,000 yard receiver, but he'll be splitting receptions with strong, possession guy Quincy Enunwa and another explosive playmaker Jamal Turner. Whether Nebraska's offense can actually score 60 points a game will be determined by how well the offensive line pass blocks.
BT: Agree with David, Wideout group should be the best in the entire conference. D Line could be the weakest, but I would argue it could also be Tight End. Nebraska lost Ben Cotton and Kyler Reed last year, and Jake Long is the best thing there right now unless Quincy Enunwa gets moved there. There is wonder in how OC Tim Beck is going to treat that position, given what TE recruiting has been the last year and half, but that could very well be the weakest position on the whole team, and that's saying something with the DL issues.
Did the spring game answer any questions other than OH MY GOD THE POROUS DEFENSE LET A 7-YEAR OLD CANCER PATIENT SCORE ON THEM LOLOLOL (but seriously, that was one of the cooler things I've seen in a while, and my hat goes off to whoever in the program came up with that idea). But yeah, anything interesting come out of spring practice?
DM: You may have seen a porous defense that let a 7-year old cancer patient score on them, I saw an up and coming running back with a bright future make a play in crunch time. Might have been the greatest goodwill event for the athletic department that I can think of.
BT: I think one of the bigger things (besides the Jack Hoffman thing) was seeing what was behind Taylor Martinez in Tommy Armstrong (for a preview of the future) and seeing what younger players were going to step up, like Vincent Valentine on the DL and Jared Afalava and Michael Rose in the defensive backfield.
Jon: Uh... they played fun games at the spring game, making linemen catch punts and a manly manly game where one guy had to get away from two others or something like that. That and Tommy Armstrong can play quarterback.
Of all the Big Ten West division teams, Nebraska might have the easiest path to the BTCG. Ohio State and Wisconsin move off the schedule, Northwestern and MSU visit Lincoln, and the four road games include Purdue, Minnesota. Do you think Nebraska will be able to shore up its defense enough to make it back to the BTCG? If the Huskers falter again this year will the pressure start to turn up on Bo Pelini?
DM: To answer the last question, I'd hope the pressure turns up if they can't get to at least the conf. game, you can bank on that happening from CN. Frankly, this season should be Rose Bowl (or better) or bust.
If the talent is better defensively like we've been told, then the schedule, with two byes before November, is set up as well as the Huskers could ask for. All their toughest tests in conference play come after Nov. 1 with UCLA in mid Sept. to help them diagnose where they need to shore up in the meantime.
The main contenders in the West basically play a round robin on November. That's going to be fun to watch.
BT: Even with the ease in schedule, I still have this gnawing thought that it's whomever is victorious in the Michigan/Nebraska game in Ann Arbor that will be going to Indy to try to beat Ohio State. The signs are all there for a big run; a SR quarterback with a high octane offense, a favorable schedule just under the radar, a lot of home games... but that defense though. As that D gets better, Nebraska will have an idea what it has. Northwestern isn't a walk in the park, neither is Minnesota on the road, because the more we convince ourselves as a fanbase that they are cakewalks, bad things happen.
Mike: The pressure is already on Pelini. For some fans, ten wins is good enough, but for others, the 0-for-3 championship game record isn't acceptable. Neither is getting 70 hung on his defense. I do think the West division comes down to the Nebraska/Michigan winner, with Northwestern having an outside shot.