Sparty Party

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I love college football.  Saturday provided numerous examples of the things I love about this great game.  A crisp fall morning meant pulling out the thick sweatshirt and gloves to keep the pregame beverage from making my hands cold.  The campus is beautiful with fall colors, fans ready for a big game, and visitors coming in to experience one of college football’s Bucket List stadiums.

The game itself was great:  a collection of big plays, surprising domination, and great performances played out under sunny skies and serenaded by a boisterous crowd and tri-tom drums.  After the game, walk out of the grand old stadium, chat with some friendly rival fans, and head out to celebrate a win.  It is a shame we only get to do this seven times a year.

Oh yeah…the game.  The game was pretty darn good.  Nebraska came out and took control early and never looked back.  The offensive and defensive coordinators earned their paychecks, and several players had an excellent game.

So what did we learn?

The rumors of the Blackshirts’ demise have been greatly exaggerated.  Wow.  That was impressive.  NU shut down a very good offense, rattled a senior QB, and held an excellent WR without a catch.  Nebraska was a dropped INT away from a shutout.  Bo and Carl brought out some new tricks and looks, such as having four defensive ends in the game at once.  Instead of being a three-point stance, they were standing at the line of scrimmage, each looking like they were going to blitz, which obviously impacted Kirk Cousins.  The coverage was great, the pressure was much improved, and they even did a good job of stopping the run.  I was very glad to see the pictures of Carl Pelini holding up Blackshirts in the locker room after the game.  That performance definitely lived up to the Blackshirt standard.  Now…do it again.

Tim Beck is hitting his stride as a playcaller.  It only took one play to see that NU was going to have a good day on offense.  After the Lance Thorell INT, Rex Burkhead got 8 yards up the middle, running through a huge hole.  Against the nation’s #2 defense, Nebraska did an excellent job of controlling the line of scrimmage, moving the chains, and catching MSU asleep for big plays.  Beck is showing an excellent knack for play calls that perfectly attack a defense, such as the Tim Marlowe end around from the Rex-cat formation, the 3rd & 10 screen pass to Kenny Bell, and the wheel route TD to Burkhead.  In addition to the big plays, he did a good job of calling the plays to control the clock and grind out two long 3rd Quarter scoring drives that sealed the game.

Nebraska controls their destiny for a trip to Indy.  Due to the ease of Michigan State’s remaining schedule, this was a must-win game for Nebraska to have a shot at winning the Legends division.  Check.  Nebraska is firmly in the driver’s seat for a chance to win the division, win the conference, and ring in the new year in Pasadena.  That is the good news.  The bad news is due to MSU’s schedule, NU cannot afford to lose another conference game.  The game at Michigan will be huge, as will a visit from JoePa.  Plus, I don’t think NU can afford to just show up and expect to beat Northwestern or Iowa.  They are all pretty much “must win” games from here on out.

So what don’t we know?

Why were Martinez and Burkhead still playing late in the 4th Quarter?  With 7:29 left in the 4th Quarter, Nebraska got the ball back after the Blackshirts stopped MSU on 4th down.  Up by 21 with the defense playing their best game of the season, I figured we’d see Brion Carnes get some snaps, and I knew Burkhead’s amazing day was done.  So I was shocked that not only did both come back onto the field, but Burkhead got four carries (one wiped out by a penalty).  Bo, Beck, Ron Brown – I don’t know whose call it is, but you have got to get your franchise RB off the field there – especially when he’s already put up 30+ carries and had to be helped off the field by the training staff.  Also, get Carnes some work, it’s pretty obvious that he needs the reps.  If they fail and MSU gets a quick TD or two, then bring the starters back in to ice the game.

Has Taylor Martinez lost a step?  In the early games of his career, when Martinez got to the corner, or broke into the secondary, it usually meant a long touchdown run.  Over the past 4-5 games there have been times where Martinez has gotten loose and has been caught from behind or forced to duck out of bounds.  In short, it looks to my untrained eye like he is not quite as fast as he was last year (or even at the start of this season).  As I noted last week, I’m liking the transition from T-Magic to T-Manager, where the offense is not relying on him breaking an 80 yard run.  But I’m curious if he still has the wheels for that 80 yarder.

Is this a peak, plateau, or the start of something great?  This was easily Nebraska’s most complete game of the year, and one of the best team performances of the Pelini era.  What happens in November?  Do they keep improving, stay the same, or regress?  The answer to that will have a lot to say about which bowl city Husker fans invade this winter.

5 Players I Loved

  1. Rex Burkhead – At some point, it all starts to sound like something out of a movie.  He carries it 35 (!) times for 130 tough yards.  Three plays after being helped off the field to a hero’s ovation he comes back and catches the nail-in-the-coffin TD pass.  After the game, he rescued a family from a fire, and spent the night building the East Stadium addition with his bare hands, while curing cancer.  I read that Chuck Norris is planning to change his name to Rex Burkhead.  But in all seriousness – when we’re up 21 with 7 minutes left, get Rex out of the game before he gets hurt, because that would not be funny.
  2. Alfonzo Dennard – Dennard put on a Cornerback clinic on Saturday.  He applied Spandex coverage on his receivers, and broke up three passes.  The only thing missing from his day was an interception, which he almost had a few times.  Nebraska picked up its first coverage sack of the season, which was due to the work of Dennard and the secondary.  It is quite obvious that Dennard feels 100% healthy, and it couldn’t come at a better time.
  3. Andrew Green – Through seven games, Andrew Green has been known for a) being Aaron’s big brother, and b) playing a rather timid and uninspired cornerback.  That changed on Saturday.  Andrew came out and played the game of his career.  He was solid in pass coverage, and was even better coming up to defend the run, including two tackles for loss.
  4. Eric Martin – Who doesn’t love them some E-Mart?  For three years, we’ve watched him play Human Bowling Ball on kickoffs, and have fed off of his raw energy.  He didn’t blow anybody up on kickoffs this week (bummer), but he is starting blossom as a 3rd down sack specialist.  Two big sacks, and another QB hurry are huge for a defense that has – to be blunt – absolutely failed to get any sort of pass rush.  I loved his second sack where he stunted and came right the gut into Cousins’s face.  I don’t care how seasoned of a QB you are, that would be a scary sight.
  5. Taylor Martinez – Once again, Martinez on this list for the little things instead of the big plays.  For example:  not taking sacks, managing the offense, and making good decisions in the running game (mostly – some of those option pitches were rather risky).  Twice, he drew MSU offsides with a hard snap count.  Instead of proceeding with the called play, or taking the 5 yards and moving on, he launched passes down the field.  Both times, MSU committed pass interference, turning a 5 yard penalty into a 15 yard penalty.  One favorite moment:  when center Mike Caputo went down with an injury, Martinez immediately went to the sideline to take snaps (under center, shotgun, pistol) from backup Cole Pensick.  That attention to detail helps to eliminate costly mistakes.

Honorable Mention:  Will Compton, Lance Thorell, Daimion Stafford, Secondary, Offensive Line.  Lots of great performances on Saturday.

5 Areas for Improvement

  1. Dropped passes – on offense and defense.  Once again, there were a plethora of dropped passes on offense, which led to NU going into halftime with zero passing yards.  Some were on Martinez, but most were the fault of the receiver.  Defensively, the Blackshirts let a couple of interceptions slip through their hands.  On both sides of the ball, they seemed to be looking at open field before securing the ball.  I was a backup offensive lineman on an average high school team, but even I know the fundamentals:  Catch.  Then run.
  2. Before the snap penalties.  I love Nebraska’s tempo on offense – if they are moving well they are usually lined up with 25 seconds to go on the play clock (which was typically when previous teams would be just starting to huddle).  Therefore, it was stunning to see a delay of game penalty – coming out of a time out.  In addition there were some sloppy false start penalties in the 3rd quarter.  NU did a good job of overcoming these penalties, but they should be cleaned up.
  3. Uneven officiating.  I’m not really sure what happened on the pass interference penalty in the end zone where the ball was 15 yards away from the receiver, and the ball was spotted in two different places.  Frankly, I’m not sure the officials knew either.  Burkhead’s second touchdown was almost a complete officiating failure as they failed to notice the 12th (and possibly 13th) MSU players still on the field when Martinez took the snap.  Thankfully replay came in to save the day and prove that Burkhead does not fumble.  Finally, stop calling holding penalties on Quincy Enunwa.  He is just that good of a downfield blocker.
  4. Coordination of pre-game flyovers.  I appreciate that getting multiple military aircraft to go zooming over a stadium just as the band plays the final notes of the Star Spangled Banner is not an easy task.  But in the last few years, the band finishes the anthem and is well into the next song when the plane(s) come flying by.  At this rate, it won’t be long until the pre-game flyover occurs in the second quarter.  (You can tell that Nebraska played a very good game, because I ran out of room for players to recognize for good performances and I’m reaching for things to criticize here.)
  5. The lady who brought her vanity pet to the game.  On Saturday, I sat up in the East balcony, right about the band.  At halftime, I was walking back up to my seat and passed by a lady who was holding a tiny little dog (wearing a red sweater) in her arms.  I’ve seen almost 125 games in Lincoln and have never, ever seen that before.  Let’s be clear:  I truly love dogs (even dogs like this one that look a feather duster minus the stick), but unless it is a service animal, leave Fifi Cuddlington at home – or stay home with her.  Also, I’d like to send a very sarcastic “Good job!” out to the security guard who let this lady in.  That makes me feel very safe.

What do you think?

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