Nebraska Cornhuskers Roll into Blacksburg: Are They Ready for the Spotlight?

Bugeatersteve StuchlikCorrespondent ISeptember 17, 2009

Huskers fans have seen this same scenario over the past four years.

There were the Texas and USC games in 2006, USC again in '07, and then Virginia Tech last season in Lincoln, all with the same result: the “Nebraska not ready for primetime players.”

The last time the Huskers beat a ranked opponent on the road was in November 2006, when Nebraska topped then-ranked No. 24 Texas A&M, 28-27, in College Station.

But that was a different time, a different coach, and, for the most part, different players.

Everyone knows that when you play a Frank Beamer team you can expect good execution on both sides of the ball, plus impressive play by special teams. They showed that again in their first game this season against Alabama.

The Crimson Tide outgained the Hokies by an almost two-to-one margin, but were only ahead by a field goal late in the fourth quarter because of a kickoff return for a touchdown.

The one thing that Husker Nation has noticed with this year’s team is that the missed assignments and out-of-position plays have all but disappeared. There is less thinking on the defensive side of the ball and, as a result, more plays are being made because the players are reading and reacting instead of thinking.

Also gone are the stupid things, like the late hits and the losing control in critical situations.

Gone are the practices where one day everything ran like clockwork, and the next day the hands on the clock were spinning so fast they flew off.

Head coach Bo Pelini now sees a team that completely understands the meaning of “a hard day’s work.”

This year, the team understands what it takes to be successful. It knows what its identity is on both sides of the ball.

“Our offense has come a long way since that point,” Pelini said. ”It was when we were still in the infant stages of developing what our identity was going to be...I think we’re much more prepared at this point to face a defense like that.”

To emphasize this point, let’s look at one of the biggest concerns for the offense coming into the 2009 season: the quarterback.

Juco transfer Zac Lee was named the starter after taking exactly four snaps last season, so you had a complete unknown.

That has translated into a 74 percent completion percentage with six touchdowns against a single interception and 550 yards passing. The junior from San Francisco is managing the game like a veteran, an element essential for success in coordinator Shawn Watson's offense.

“He's been 100 percent in his checks,” Watson said. “He's gotten us into good plays. He's ahead of where I thought he would be.”

According to Lee, 90 percent of offensive snaps require a Nebraska quarterback to do little more than manage the game.

“Get the ball to the guys who make plays,” Lee said, “or hand it off to the running backs so they can make plays.”

Lee describes the other 10 percent—maybe six to eight plays a game—as “outside the box.”

“Hopefully that's when you go from a manager to a playmaker,” he said.

The running game suffered last week against Arkansas State, as they put eight men in the box. Lee lit them up for more than 340 yards passing as a result.

Beamer’s defense won’t be so one-dimensional on Saturday, especially playing at home.

Virginia Tech will mix things up on the defensive side of the ball in an attempt to confuse Lee. It will be up to Zac to make his reads and make the correct check-offs to catch the defense in the wrong formation and create a big play.

I really do believe that the Huskers have now turned the corner, and have the right players in the correct positions to pull off their first big road victory in three years.

I see the Huskers winning a low-scoring, tight contest in overtime by a 27-24 score.