We Don’t Need No Stinkin’ Badgers

To my followers, family, Facebook friends, and anybody else who ends up here:

Thanks for stopping by!  I appreciate you taking the time read this.  But I’d greatly appreciate it if you read this fine article on HuskerMax.com, as I earn a fraction of a penny per page view – and I’m hoping to earn enough this year to buy my wife a steak dinner – and I’m guessing she’d rather go to Misty’s over Steak ‘n Shake.



Remember after the Southern Miss game when we talked about not drawing too many conclusions from a single game?  I’d like to revisit that as we dive into the first week of conference play.  Coming into the season, Nebraska was a popular pick to finish third in the Legends division behind Michigan and Michigan State.  But after an ugly, uninspiring, and somewhat embarrassing non-conference season, the Big Ten looks seriously flawed, and the local experts are saying the conference is Nebraska’s to lose.

And while that might be the case, I’d caution against drawing too many conclusions.  Yes, teams like Michigan and Iowa each have two losses, but you should also note that Michigan has lost to two top 10 teams, and Iowa is 1-0 in the conference with what appears to be one of the easier schedules.  Michigan State lost a close game to Ohio State, but many (myself included) feel they have the league’s best defense.  Northwestern is still undefeated, and they know they can (and did) beat Nebraska.  Minnesota and Penn State are both playing better than anybody expected.

Bottom line, while you should like Nebraska’s chances to make it to the conference championship game (to face Wisconsin, Purdue, or maybe Illinois) don’t expect victories just because Nebraska shows up.  The rest of the league is arguably going to improve as the season goes on, and Nebraska is still one of those teams that usually gets an opponent’s best shot (in other words, don’t expect too many teams to overlook NU).

Go ahead and book your hotel rooms for Indianapolis if you like, but it might not hurt to look at the cancellation policy first.  There is a long ways to go before the conference season is decided.

So what did we learn?

Nebraska’s resiliency is improving.  We all remember the meltdown in Madison.  After a strong 1st quarter, Nebraska threw back to back interceptions, the defense collapsed, and Wisconsin rolled to a big lead.  This year, things felt different.  Even when Nebraska was down 14-0, 20-10, or 27-10, I never felt panic coming from the field (the jerk behind me was a different story, but we’ll get to that later).  Tim Beck stayed to his offensive game plan, establishing a running game, mixing in the pass, and running a brisk (but not break neck) pace.  The offensive execution improved, the defense bounced back, and the fans realized what the team already knew – they would win this game.  I’m not ready to say that Nebraska has figured out who to avoid the snowball moments that turn a few mistakes into a 21 point swing, but this was encouraging – even if it was against a surprisingly average Badger team.

Nebraska can win when Martinez has a bad game.  I know some of you are questioning my logic for saying that Martinez had a bad game, so hear me out.  What was Taylor’s worst game of 2012?  Right, UCLA.  But compare his stats from the UCLA and Wisconsin games:

UCLA:  17-31 passing for 179 yards, with 0 TD and 1 INT; 13 rushes for 112 yards and a TD.  Lost by 6.
Wisconsin:  17-29 passing for 181 yards, with 2 TD and 0 INT; 13 rushes for 107 yards and a TD.  Won by 3.

And let’s face it, neither of these really constitutes a “bad” game – just not up to the level Martinez has played at so far this year.  In reality, I’m trying to make two key points here:  1) the public perception of Martinez is much higher when the defense isn’t giving up 653 yards and/or leads the team to victory, and 2) even on his “worst” days of the season, Martinez has been pretty good.

The Memorial Stadium faithful can still bring it.  Quite often, the “greatest fans in college football” are criticized for sitting on their hands and not providing an intimidating environment to rattle opposing teams – and some of those criticisms are valid.  But with 45 minutes until kickoff, I could tell this would not be another quiet night.  My apologies to anybody hoping to find a ticket outside the stadium.  You either left empty-handed or made it in with an empty wallet; available tickets were few and far between.  Once inside the stadium, the stands were mostly full with 30 minutes to go – a polar opposite of the Idaho State game.  And while things got rather quiet after NU fell into a 14-0 hole, it got pretty loud in the 3rd and 4th quarters during Nebraska’s rally.  Pat yourself on the back Husker fan – and bring that same energy to the rest of the home games.

So what don’t we know?

What the heck happened in the first quarter?  In the first eight minutes of the game, Nebraska ran four plays on offense (for a total of 10 yards), turned it over once, and was down 14-0.  The big question is why?  Did Nebraska get too jacked up?  Were there flaws in the initial game plan?  Or is it simply what should happen when you put the ball on the ground twice in four snaps?  We can all have our theories, but it is imperative that Nebraska fixes whatever needs fixed before the next B1G challenge.

Wisconsin could not run the ball against NU.  Does credit go to the Blackshirts, or does blame go to Wisconsin?  Wisconsin had 41 rushes for 56 yards.  2011 Heisman finalist Montee Ball had 32 rushes for 90 yards, and was not the game-changing wrecking ball that many expected.  Shutting down a traditional rushing team like Wisconsin and containing a back who rushed for 1,923 yards and 33 touchdowns a year ago is an impressive feat by a Nebraska defense that has struggled against the run in the past few seasons.

Or is it?  Wisconsin fired their offensive line coach after two games.  I was surprised that Ball played the whole game after suffering a “head injury” a week ago.  And for reasons unknown, Wisconsin has been surprisingly mediocre at running the ball in 2012.  I’m willing to give NU credit for stopping the Badger running game – especially on the 4th & 1 that won the game – but I’d caution you from reading too much into it.

Can Nebraska replicate the strong defensive performance against a mobile QB?  A key factor in why Nebraska held Wisconsin to 155 fewer rushing yards than the 2011 game is the difference between QBs Russell Wilson and Joel Stave.  Wilson was a dynamic running threat that Nebraska had to account for (part of the reason that Ball had 151 yards last year).  Stave?  I’m not convinced he’d win a foot race with coach Bret Bielema.  So with Nebraska heading to Columbus to meet Ohio State’s Braxton Miller next week, the pressure falls on the Pelini/Papuchis defense to shut down a mobile QB the way they contained Stave.

Where are my Keys?

At the beginning of the season, I laid out three simple keys for Nebraska to have a strong season:  1) Win the turnover battle, 2) Own 3rd Down, 3) Limit penalties.  Throughout the year, I’ll be tracking Nebraska’s progress:

Penalties Penalty Yds. 3rd Down Conv.   (NU) 3rd Down Conv. (Opp) Turnover Margin
So. Miss 2 30 80.0% 50.0% 1
UCLA 7 60 9.1% 45.0% -1
Arkansas St. 4 34 76.9% 37.5% -2
Idaho St. 9 104 45.5% 13.3% 2
Wisconsin 6 70 38.5% 26.7% -1
2012 Per Game 5.6 59.6 52.4% 35.0% -1
2011 Per Game 7.2 57.3 42.3% 40.2% -1

The numbers for the whole game do not paint as good of a picture as the numbers for each half.  Notably:

First Half:  Nebraska only had two penalties, but one extended a drive after a 3rd down stop.  The other (roughing the kicker) renewed a drive that ended in points.  Nebraska was 1 for 5 (20%) on 3rd down and allowed Wisconsin to convert 37.5%.  NU’s one fumble turned into a Wisconsin touchdown.  Nebraska went into halftime down by 10.

Second Half:  Nebraska had four penalties (including the first one I’ve ever seen by a team in the Victory formation) that did not do too much damage.  NU converted four of eight 3rd downs (50%) and allowed only one of seven by Wisconsin (14%).  Wisconsin’s lone score of the half came off of Nebraska’s fumble.  Wisconsin’s fumble was on a critical 4th down stop that sealed the game.  Nebraska outscored Wisconsin 20-7 in the second half and won the game by three points.

5 Players I Loved

  1. William Earl Compton III.  I enjoy how Compton introduces himself during pregame warm ups (he’s from “THE Bonne Terre, Missouri”, by the way), and I really enjoyed his play on Saturday.  He was excellent in stopping Wisconsin’s run game, had two pass breakups, and a big sack before Nebraska’s first touchdown drive.
  2. Taylor Martinez.  Much to David Gilbert’s glee, Martinez had one of his worst nights of the year throwing the ball, missing a number of open receivers despite limited pressure from Gilbert and his buddies.  But here’s the thing Mr. Gilbert doesn’t know:  even if Martinez’s passing isn’t improved (and I’d argue that it is) it is undeniable that Taylor has made big strides leading and managing the offense.  Aside from the sack and fumble (by Gilbert, of all people) Martinez made smart decisions throughout the game.  He added a great dimension to the offense with his running, made several big throws, and prevented an Abdullah fumble from becoming a turnover by following the play and scooping up the ball.  Taylor may skip rocks, but he does it in a way that wins ball games.
  3. Baker Steinkuhler.  At halftime, I was prepared to put Baker on the other list, as he was virtually non-existent (one assisted tackle) in the first half.  In the second half, Steinkuhler elevated his play.  He started to control his man, disrupted the Badger running game, and played a big role in holding Montee Ball to 31 yards on 15 second half carries.
  4. Ameer Abdullah.  We’re getting to the point where you can plan on an Abdullah big play at some point in each and every game.  The trick is predicting where that big play is going to occur:  running the ball, blocking, receiving, punt returns, or somewhere else.  This week it was a long kickoff return to provide some much-needed energy to a team that was shaken.  Abdullah’s ability to come in and provide a spark is a trait that you don’t see that often.
  5. Team Jack.  As you likely know, Jack Hoffman is a football loving six-year-old kid who has an inoperable brain tumor.  He is also a huge Rex Burkhead fan.  Rex (and the team as a whole) have graciously welcomed Jack to the football family, and have done a lot to raise awareness for pediatric brain cancer.  Recently, Team Jack has been selling t-shirts to raise funds, and a grassroots effort was made to have Husker fans wear their Team Jack shirts to the Wisconsin game.  And Husker fans responded in a big way.  I saw hundreds of fans wearing Team Jack shirts, which was very cool.  But the highlight was seeing Jack (and his buddy Isaiah – another kid facing a similar prognosis) leading the team out of the locker room during the Tunnel Walk.  Burkhead and Quincy Enunwa lifted the boys up so they could touch the lucky horseshoe, and there were not many dry eyes among those who know Jack’s story.  A big bravo to Rex, Bo Pelini, and the entire athletic department for making a positive impact on this boy and his family.

Honorable Mention:  Steven Osborne’s block on Martinez’s TD run, Brett Maher, Andy Janovich, Rex Burkhead, Alonzo Whaley

5 Areas for Improvement

  1. Secondary.  The cornerbacks and safeties had a pretty rough outing against Wisconsin.  There were too many times where the coverage looked passive and disinterested – especially in the first half.  Jared Abbrederis is a good receiver, and he will get his receptions, but I’m not sure he’s the all-conference performer Nebraska made him look like.  The secondary had been the best unit on defense, but they’re going to need a bounce back performance to regain the title.
  2. Finishing drives.  Nebraska’s offense has done a very good job of moving the football this year.  Where they need improvement is getting the ball into the end zone.  Against Wisconsin, four NU drives ended with field goal attempts.  I can’t put my finger on what is causing the drives to stall out.  I don’t think it is play calling, as Beck is using a mix of run and pass prior to the FG attempts.  And aside from an illegal block before the final field goal, penalties have not played a factor.
  3. Ben Cotton.  In the 3rd quarter, Nebraska ran what I call the “Colorado” route – a pass play where the tight end is wide open on a 15 yard out pattern (so named because Colorado used to run it all day long against NU).  You made a nice catch and cut up the sideline turning it into a big 26 yard gain.  So far, so good.  But, you make this list for what happened at the end of the play:  you ducked out of bounds.  C’mon Ben – you are 255 pounds, the son of the offensive line coach, and a player on a Pelini coached team.  You don’t run out of bounds, you lower a shoulder and run through somebody, picking up an extra three yards.
  4. Fair-Weather Fans.  I had a real piece of work sitting behind me on Saturday.  He started to get very negative (and very vocal) with Wisconsin’s first score, and it just kept getting worse.  Nothing – and I mean nothing – was good enough for this guy.  He criticized players, coaches, scheme, execution.  Maher was a bum because he missed a 51 yard kick.  Abdullah stunk because he didn’t score on his 83 yard kick return.  Compton couldn’t tackle (aside from his team leading 10 stops).  Martinez couldn’t throw.  Beck is an idiot.  Bo should be fired.  Fisher should have his scholarship revoked.  The kid selling concessions is a disgrace to Runza.  And on and on.  But by the 4th quarter, he was cheering like nobody’s business.  Look:  I get it.  You paid a lot for the ticket.  You remember how easily things came in the glory days (even though I’m guessing you questioned many a fullback trap or option to the short side of the field).  You think you have a right to be critical.  And you do.  But if the on-field performance is so utterly disappointing to you, then just go home.  Nobody is forcing you to watch.
  5. The Alternate Uniforms.  I’ve been fairly vocal in my opinions on the uniforms (as you can see here, here, and here), as well as the fancy schmancy shoes, but I have been dreading this game for a while.  As I was walking up the tunnel towards my seat, I told myself to keep an open mind and to give the unis a fair chance in person.  And I can honestly say I did that.  And I still dislike them.  Yes, the old fogey in me did not like seeing the all red getup or the black helmets.  But my real issue what with the numbers (or lack thereof).  The combination of black numbers on a red jersey and very small number on the front made it practically impossible to know who was on the field, who was making plays, or any of the other things I take for granted in a normal game.  I have pretty good eyesight, but I had to rely on other clues (i.e. black guy vs. white guy) to know what was going on.  When adidas convinces Nebraska to do these alternates again (and now that the door has opened, it will be a “when” and not an “if”) please for the love and respect of fans (as well as the defense), put some damn numbers on them that can be read by somebody sitting higher than row 12.

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