Week two has come and gone. What did Nebraska fans see from Pelini’s crew? It was a mixture of growth and disappointment. The defense showed that it might not be as strong as in recent years. Taylor Martinez proved to be just as fast as he once was, but the offense itself was sluggish.
Fresno State exposed many problems that the Huskers need to correct before Washington comes to Lincoln next Saturday, let alone by Big Ten conference play. Let’s examine the areas Nebraska fans were watching intently:
1.) Offensive Line
The line showed progress under the lights on Saturday. While not perfect, the big men up front often provided an adequate pocket for Martinez, allowing him the time to step up and throw. It wasn’t until the fourth quarter that the line provided too much push for Fresno State’s defense, proving that young talent can mature. The performance wasn’t Pipeline-caliber, but it was a step in the right direction.
If they continue to gel, the future looks promising for the young line. With Yoshi Hardrick leading the pack, Nebraska fans don’t need to spend too much time worrying about this area of the offense. For those who missed it, Hardrick severely dislocated his finger Saturday night, requiring surgery Sunday morning. It went largely unnoticed because Hardrick finished out the game with his finger taped. If that doesn't speak to the dedication of Nebraska’s linemen, nothing will.
The wide outs were out to prove themselves on Saturday, and did just that. Quincy Enunwa continued to display his talents, with both Kenny Bell and Jamal Turner providing strong support. The group of young receivers made big catches and showed maturity beyond their years. It was a promising sign for Husker fans that have been very concerned about Martinez’s passing abilities.
Progress was shown, but there were still some rough spots for the receivers. Martinez continued to throw balls five yards too far or too low for receivers to catch. Senior Brandon Kinnie missed a few opportunities, resulting in furious yells from the crowd. However, promise shined through the struggles.
Martinez’s passing was far more impressive against Fresno State than against UTC. While Kinnie didn’t have his best game catching passes, the senior provided blocks that helped to provide successful plays for others. He also never stopped supporting and cheering for the younger players as they succeeded. If the entire Nebraska team can learn one thing from the receiving corps, it’s teamwork.
Against UTC, Nebraska fumbled four times, recovering two. Ball control was again an issue for the Cornhuskers last Saturday as they lost hold of the ball three times. While Nebraska recovered all three, the fact that they’ve produced seven fumbles in two games is concerning. For an offense that is trying to find its identity, fumbles aren’t helping the process.
Ball protection is going to be vital for the Cornhuskers going forward. Against a team like Wisconsin, Nebraska won’t be able to get away with putting the ball on the ground often. Fresno State showed that the Cornhuskers’ struggles against UTC weren’t a one time thing. Offensive coordinator Tim Beck and running backs coach Ron Brown both need to make ball security a priority.
4.) Brett Maher
Rest easy, Nebraska fans – Brett Maher is already building his legacy. Stepping out from behind the shadows of Alex Henery and Adi Kunalic, Maher proved his leg wasn’t one game wonder. In fact, Maher showed maturity when placed in Fresno State’s end zone. Punts resembled those familiar to Cornhusker fans and kicks sailed above defenders’ hands. Maher was in control Saturday night, and he never once let the Bulldogs take that from him.
As of Saturday night’s game, Fresno State had blocked an impressive 59 kicks since 2002. Two of those came during the Bulldogs’ season opener against California. Maher made it impossible for Fresno State to block his kicks, again showing how he earned his spot.
The only disappointment regarding Maher was when Coach Bo Pelini opted against the junior kicker’s attempt of a 62-yard field goal. It may have been a tough kick, but many fans legitimately wonder if Maher could have made it.
5. Leadership on Defense
“This is the worst the defense has looked since Callahan was here,” one fan cried midway through the third quarter. Frustration filled Memorial Stadium last Saturday night as the defense failed to make tackles, appearing slow and unmotivated. Had it not been for Lavonte David’s constant jumping and arm motions, you’d think that the defense was unaware that the game was being played.
More importantly, a huge piece of the puzzle was missing again - defensive leadership. When the Bulldogs’ offense began to open holes and push Nebraska’s defense back, there was no one trying to motivate the team. Between plays, the unit looked disorganized. It’s never been clearer just how much of an impact Alfonzo Dennard has through both leadership and skill. His absence was felt for a second week.
The Cornhuskers’ defense is one of great talent. The defensive line has both power and depth. Unfortunately, this group is playing as individuals instead of as a team. Just like the offensive line, this is something that can change in time and with experience. Regardless, it’s clear what needs to happen – the defense needs to find its’ leader and voice.
This week, Nebraska faces Washington for the third time in a calendar year, but fresh faces are on the field for this game. No doubt the Cornhuskers will address the problems that cropped up against UTC and Fresno State. What should Nebraska fans look for against the Huskies? We’ll examine that later this week.
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