Nebraska Midseason Report Card: Suh-Led Defense Earns High Marks
Crazy how time flies, isn't it? We wait for months through spring and summer for football to finally come back into our lives, but then when it finally arrives, we don't properly savor it. We spend so much time analyzing and agonizing about every game that all of a sudden we take a step back and half the season is gone.
Which is exactly where we find ourselves now. Halfway through year two of the Bo Pelini era, Nebraska stands at 4-2, and while that may be a one-win improvement from last year at this point, many questions remain.
A 4-1 start with a heart breaker to Virginia Tech and a comeback victory against Mizzou gave fans hope that 2009 may be more than just a stepping stone to a big 2010 season, but that momentum came crashing down in a lethargic and head-scratching loss to Texas Tech.
With six regular-season games remaining, it's time for a midterm report card.
Well, um.....can I give an "Incomplete" grade? If Nebraska was in the Sun Belt conference, this would be an A+, but alas, that's not the case. As spectacular as Zac Lee was against those also-rans, he has been equally mediocre against everyone else. The more I watch him, the more I recall Sam Keller, who would stand in the pocket too long, freak out, and then dump it off to a guy in the flats for three yards. Or get sacked.
Nebraska now stands mired in a quarterback controversy, pitting a beleaguered Lee against true freshmen Cody Green, who has won the hearts of Husker fans with some spectacular mop-up duty and the fact his name isn't Zac Lee.
One thing is certain: whatever the outcome of the competition, it will determine whether Nebraska is playing in a New Year's Day bowl or the Alamo Bowl. For now though, the grade on this position is just barely passing.
This position, led by Roy Helu, has been the one dependable group on the Nebraska offense. Another pleasant surprise was just how effective Rex Burkhead was in his first season of college football.
Unfortunately, the running backs have also had the most difficulty staying on the field. Between Helu's banged-up shoulder and Burkhead's broken foot (that will cost him the next six weeks), the Huskers have been stretched thin at the position. You think Bo might be regretting booting Quentin Castille right about now?
But this report card isn't based off of what-ifs or injuries, it's about grading the results, and so far, these guys have done a great job.
Wide Receivers/Tight End
What's that? Oh, I'm sorry, I wasn't aware these guys were in class this semester. Or perhaps they've just been truant a lot. Either way, this was a group that, while admittedly a question mark in camp, had given Husker fans a lot to expect due to the amount of physical talent they possess.
As we've seen though, talent doesn't always translate to results. Niles Paul looks like Randy Moss for spurts, and then disappears faster than beer at a frat party. Curenski Gilleyen is equally inconsistent. And the most consistent performer among them is senior Chris Brooks, who was all but written off before the season started but has emerged as the most sure-handed of the bunch.
Then there's the tight ends. All through camp, there was so much sunshine being blown about this group that you'd have thought KC and his band had taken up residence in Lincoln. We all knew about Mike McNeill, but then we kept hearing about Kyler Reed, Ben Cotton, and Dreu Young, and how the coaches were scheming to get them all on the field.
But like their fellow receivers, these guys have been missing in action. The question is, how much of it can be traced to the inconsistency at quarterback? If Joe Ganz was still in town, would these guys still be having such run-of-the-mill seasons? It's doubtful.
Grade: C- , only because the Sun Belt games boost them up.
The performance of Shawn Watson mirrors that of his unit. He is at times brilliant, mixing a concoction of diverse plays out of multiple sets. Yet, that very word, "multiple," makes me want to vomit. All through the season, we've heard that his offense is striving to be "multiple."
How is it then that it can be so damn predictable most of the time? As I said in my Texas Tech article, there are times where it seems as if this offense only has two plays, and that, as much as the inconsistent quarterback play, is what is holding the entire offense back.
Ahh, something actually fun to talk about.
Downright dominant. Ndamukong Suh is an absolute beast, and he recently moved to #1 on Mel Kiper's big board for the NFL Draft. In his shadow, Jared Crick is playing spectacularly well, and he's been getting better with each passing week.
Due to the scheme that Pelini has employed (keeping quarterbacks in the pocket, not letting his d-ends get too far upfield), Pierre Allen and Barry Turner have been somewhat quiet this year, but against Tech, Allen had two sacks and I could see both of these players having a big second half. Even younger guys like Cameron Meredith and Baker Steinkuhler were doing pretty well in the Sun Belt slate.
The bottom line is that without this defensive front, who knows where the defense would be at this point. It is far and away the strength of the entire team.
Grade: A- ........and it only got a minus because I'd like to see more sacks. But that's nitpicking at it's finest.
The big question mark of the defense going into this season; this unit is long on talent but short on experience. The names Will Compton and Eric Martin may already be household names, but it's mostly because of hype, not results. Sure, they've made a few nice hits, a few nice plays.
But when the mistakes came, the experience came back to the forefront. Phillip Dillard, who was two tiers down the depth chart before the season started, worked his way back into the starting lineup and has become a calming presence in the middle of the Nebraska defense, even notching 12 tackles last week against Texas Tech. While the play of this group looks to improve, it's still very much a work in progress.
This was supposed to be a pretty decent unit, and while it has shown flashes of great play, it also has a few examples of truly bone-headed brain farts: the blown coverage by O'Hanlon in Blacksburg, several costly dropped interceptions by Larry Asante (seriously, at what point do you find some Stickum for this guy?), missed tackles by Prince Amukamara against Texas Tech.
No player is entirely at fault, as obviously the play of these guys is determined by the defensive call. That said, there have been many times where the secondary has been in position to make a game-changing play, only to blow it and see it carom off their outstretched fingertips.
Before the season, I thought the Blackshirts would be getting a lot of interceptions, but through 6 games they only have 4 picks, and that has to change, especially in light of how poorly the offense is playing. The offense needs more possessions, and if the defense doesn't start forcing more turnovers, it could spell trouble.
Like seemingly every other unit on the team (excepting the defensive line), the secondary has to play more consistent if Nebraska hopes to have a big second half of the season.
Looking at the numbers, Nebraska has improved by leaps and bounds from last season:
Rushing Defense: 16th in the country, 96.5 yds/game
Passing Defense: 23rd in the country, 174.5 yds/game
Total Defense: 12th in the country, 271 yds/game
Scoring Defense: sixth in the country, 11.83 points a game
And while I'm overjoyed at the vast improvement, the thing that stands out to me isn't the dominance 85 percent of the time, it's the other 15 percent, the one polluted with breakdowns, blown tackles, and schematic screw-ups.
Bo has preached all season about living up to his lofty expectations, and it's these mistakes that he is referring to. Playing excellent ALMOST all the time isn't going to win championships. It'll win you a lot of games, and it'll get you to a decent bowl every year. But if this program is going to get over the hump and rejoin the nation's elite, it is these screw-ups that must be fixed.
And it's Pelini's job to keep on the players until they get it right.
Grade: B+ (This is downgraded from an A due to sideline antics and evisceration of refs...that stuff is OK, but not so often.)
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