Nebraska Football: Winners and Losers from the Big Ten Championship
Saturday night was an embarrassment to Nebraska football in every sense of the word. Finding any positives from a 70-31 throttling at the hands of the Wisconsin Badgers is close to impossible.
The offense consistently turned the ball over, the defense set records for ineptitude, and the coaching staff seemed completely outclassed. Put simply, the entire Badger team was the winner and the Huskers were losers.
But let’s twist the dagger, heat the burn, and salt the wound, examining the individual winners and losers of Saturday’s beatdown at Lucas Oil Stadium.
Winners: Braylon Heard and Imani Cross
In a game where it was tough to find any “winners,” Heard and Cross may be as good as it gets for Nebraska. Neither saw significant time on the field with the return of Rex Burkhead, who even stole most of the carries of previous starter Ameer Abdullah.
However, when Heard and Cross’ numbers were finally called once the game was out of reach for Nebraska, they responded well. They both ran hard, found the holes and scored relatively long, albeit inconsequential, touchdowns. The success they both found on limited carries was encouraging since they will form much of the Huskers’ future rushing attack.
Winner/Loser: Taylor Martinez
Taylor Martinez should be recognized for registering the play of the year for Nebraska. Despite its ultimate insignificance considering the final score, his 76-yard scramble for a touchdown was an absolutely incredible individual effort. Without this play, Nebraska would have been out of the game within the first quarter instead of the second quarter.
Yet, outside this play, it was just a poor performance from Martinez. Just as his problem has been throughout his career, his awful ball security reared its ugly head again. His turnovers were crucial for Wisconsin as they put the game out of reach. And this is not to mention the numerous passes he one-hopped to open receivers.
Loser: Daimion Stafford
It is a little harsh to point fingers at individuals after such a collective defensive meltdown. But Daimion Stafford unfortunately deserves some mention here.
Despite having a great senior season for the Huskers and earning some deserved all-conference mention, Stafford was the victim of many of the Badgers’ early breakout plays. Particularly in the first quarter, Stafford failed to take proper angles on Wisconsin’s perimeter running plays and missed a few crucial tackles that let the game get out of hand.
Loser: Offensive Line
The offensive line will not bear a large amount of the criticism following this game, but its performance was still far from stellar. Even though it had to fight through the loss of Justin Jackson, it still fell well below expectations.
In the run game, the line did an alright job as Nebraska’s backs averaged 6.4 yards per carry. But its main problems were clearly in the passing game. Time and time again, Taylor Martinez could hardly make his first read, nevertheless multiple reads, before he was under pressure. Luckily for Nebraska, he turned one into long touchdown run. But more often than not, the result of this pressure on Martinez was much, much worse.
Loser: Defensive Line
This is probably the biggest “loser” of the entire game. One can blame the loss of Baker Steinkuhler, who had really come along as the season progressed. One can blame the linebackers for also getting devoured by Wisconsin blockers. One can also blame the Nebraska secondary for failing to make tackles at the second level. But it all started with the defensive line’s complete inability to compete with the Badger front.
Wisconsin’s offensive line simply had its way with Nebraska’s defensive line. It consistently opened up enormous holes for Montee Ball, James White and just about any other player who cared to stroll through the Blackshirts’ defense. Certainly the tackling was atrocious. But stopping the run starts up front.
If one had to compare this embarrassing defensive performance to any others in Nebraska football history, the 2001 loss at Colorado and the historic 70-10 loss at Texas Tech come to mind. Despite the very different circumstances surrounding each of these games, they are strikingly similar in Nebraska’s seeming ill-preparedness for the opposing offense.
Perhaps the most surprising part of Saturday night’s game was the lack of improvement in Nebraska’s defense. Frequently this year, Nebraska’s defense has struggled in the first half only to go into the locker room, fix the problems and play a much stronger second half. But in the Big Ten title game, nothing seemed to change in the second half.
Loser: Wide Receivers
The Husker receivers, often touted as one of the best corps in the entire conference, did not help the team’s struggles. Every major target contributed with at least one drop. But none was more costly than Kenny Bell’s.
With the defense having quickly handed them a seven-point deficit, the high-powered Husker offense took the field hoping for an answer. Taylor Martinez, on his first attempt, gunned the ball wide to Bell on a quick out route. But the ball sailed straight through Bell’s hands, landed perfectly in the defensive back’s stomach, and Wisconsin was off to a two-touchdown lead after little over two minutes. It is hard to imagine this drop could have helped stymie Wisconsin’s barrage of scores in the long run. But you never know.
Loser: Husker Nation
While watching such an awful display of football, one thought prevailed in my mind: Nebraska fans deserve better than this.
Nebraska prides itself on having some of the best fans in all of sports. Cite Nebraska’s record number of consecutive sellouts. Look at pictures of Northwestern and Iowa’s stadiums this year that were filled with red. Pick up the Omaha World-Herald in April and see that the front of the sports page is covered in spring practice reports. All signs point toward a state that is borderline obsessed with this team.
In a small state with enormous pride and no professional teams in any sport, all focus and energy gets placed on Nebraska football. During the games, the streets are near empty, and the grocery stores are vacant after a virtual rush hour in the moments preceding kickoff. Weddings are scheduled around Husker games, and Nebraska shirts are cause for greetings between complete strangers all around the world.
One of my earliest memories is watching Tommie Frazier drag half of the Florida Gators’ defense down the field en route to a touchdown and a national championship. As a kid, I knew Nebraska’s head coach before I knew the president of the United States. And for the rest of my life, I will rave about how if Ndamukong Suh did not deserve the Heisman, no defensive player ever will.
This is the Husker culture. It may be over-the-top. It may be an almost unhealthy level of attachment to a school’s football team. But it shows how much this team means to the people of Nebraska. And what occurred in Indianapolis on Saturday night simply does not do the fanbase justice.
A Nebraska football blog recently posted a poll question asking its readers if they would cut off a finger if it meant the Huskers would win the Rose Bowl this year. An overwhelming majority responded, “Yes, give me a knife.”
While this survey is obviously hyperbolic, it demonstrates the commitment and devotion Husker fans have to their team. After horrific defensive displays like Nebraska’s games against UCLA, Ohio State and Wisconsin, I start to wonder whether the players and coaches share that passion.