Nebraska football fans were delighted when September* arrived and football season returned. Nebraska navigated its nonconference season at 3-1, with an ugly collapse against UCLA and some unexpected drama against Wyoming and South Dakota State.
So what have we learned during the first quarter of the 2013 season? Here are five of the biggest takeaways from the Cornhusker September just past.
* Yes, I know that technically Nebraska played its first game in August. Work with me here.
Coming into the 2013 season, Nebraska fans knew that the defense was NU’s weak link. But with an influx of young talent, fans were hopeful that a new season and a renewed focus in the offseason would bring the Blackshirts back to glory.
Then Wyoming happened. And the UCLA collapse. And—of all things—South Dakota State.
Let’s put Nebraska’s defensive performances into perspective. Against Nebraska, in Lincoln, the FCS Jackrabbits rushed for 277 yards. Against North Dakota State the following week—two-time defending champions, yes, but still an FCS defense—the Jackrabbits rushed for negative 32 yards.
So apparently North Dakota State’s rushing defense is (punching numbers into a calculator)…well, let’s just say it’s better.
One-fourth of the way into the season, it might be a little late to be hoping for a miraculous turnaround defensively. Brandon Vogel of Hail Varsity took a look at the numbers and found there was little hope in looking to history when determining if a historically bad defense can get better over the course of a season.
Sure, there’s a lot of youth on the team. And sure, Nebraska has to run freshmen and sophomores in at middle linebacker. But don’t be surprised if the 2007-Cosgrove-like defensive numbers continue for the Blackshirts in 2013.
Ameer Abdullah was a known quantity coming into the season, having rushed for 1,137 yards in 2012 while spelling Rex Burkhead as the starting I-back. Imani Cross had built a reputation as a short-yardage back, and two talented freshmen (Terrell Newby and Adam Taylor) had just arrived in Lincoln.
So Abdullah’s success—465 yards, 6.28 yards per carry and three touchdowns—is not a big surprise. But Cross looks much more like an all-purpose back rather than just a short-yardage specialist, gaining 198 yards on 6.6 yards per carry with five touchdowns.
And Newby, the true freshman who won a spot on the field, has taken full advantage of his opportunity. Newby has gained 210 yards on 5.83 yards per carry and scored two touchdowns.
So Nebraska’s offense, which has struggled some in other areas (see the next slide for details), does have a deep backfield to lean on.
Coming into his senior campaign, big things were expected of quarterback Taylor Martinez. And while his numbers have been respectable, a turf toe injury against UCLA meant he had to miss his start against South Dakota State.
And while the coaches insisted otherwise, it looked pretty obvious against UCLA (particularly in the second half) that Martinez wasn’t himself. You could see that Martinez was not running as decisively as he had previously, which in turn made it more difficult for Nebraska’s passing game to be effective.
Against South Dakota State—yes, an FCS program—redshirt freshman Tommy Armstrong gave fans a glimpse of the future. Perhaps more importantly, Armstrong showed that Nebraska might have a capable backup should Martinez not be able to play. Bo Pelini said, according to Brian Christopherson of the Lincoln Journal-Star, as much when he indicated that Martinez would not practice unless he was 100 percent—something he clearly was not against UCLA less than two weeks ago.
Quarterback controversy at Nebraska? No. Or perhaps more accurately, not yet.
It continues to amaze that such a critical area—punt returns—can continue to stymie Nebraska. This year, the alma mater of Santino Panico is averaging five yards per return, placing them No. 94 nationally. For the first two weeks, rugby-style kicks were preventing any kind of return whatsoever and costing Nebraska critical field position.
It looks like Nebraska has shifted from Jamal Turner to Jordan Westerkamp as its primary punt returner, and has at least displayed the option of putting a second returner back if a team is deploying a rugby-style punt. Whether this shift in personnel will address the ongoing problem, though, remains to be seen.
Oh, yeah, and there was this little kerfuffle after the UCLA game when Deadspin released an audio tape of Pelini from 2011 expressing his displeasure with what he called Nebraska’s “fair-weather” fanbase, and using some colorful metaphors to do so.
Many around the country thought that the release of such an inflammatory audio, combined with another embarrassing blowout loss, would threaten Pelini’s future in Lincoln.
But apparently the audio was not enough to turn the fans against Pelini. Most fans who filled Memorial Stadium after the release of the tape were supportive of their coach, according to Christopher Burbach of the Omaha World-Herald, and athletic director Shawn Eichorst said the matter was put to rest without further discipline for Pelini, according to Scott Gleeson of USA Today.
In a perverse way, the release of the tape may have helped take the attention off Nebraska’s disturbing habit of folding and succumbing to ugly losses on national television. And Nebraskans, a fair-minded and conservative group, in general, were clearly uncomfortable with the manner in which the tape came to light.
But there are more tough spots for Nebraska this season. The first may be an Illinois squad which seems to have found some mojo with quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase, coming into Lincoln at 3-1 and averaging 42.75 points and 478.5 yards of total offense per game.
We learned in September that fans will forgive Pelini for cursing them out behind closed doors. What we may learn in October and November is whether fans will forgive Pelini if he can’t stop the blowouts and get Nebraska back to national relevance.
All stats courtesy of cfbstats.com.
Or you could always use the Twitter machine to follow @patrickrunge.