What a difference a week makes in the world of college football, particularly in the Big Twelve. The Texas Longhorns were riding high after getting out of Lubbock, Texas with a 24-14 victory over Texas Tech. Will Muschamp's unit was especially impressive, holding the Red Raiders to 144 total yards.
Flash forward to Saturday, where that Longhorn defense was nowhere to be found. UCLA gashed the 'Horns for 264 yards on the ground, en route to a 34-12 embarrassment in Austin. Granted, the defense isn't the only serious concern for Mack Brown. His downhill running game, that he promised would be on display this season, has yet to be seen, and we've only seen the Garrett Gilbert that was a completely outmatched freshman in the first half of the BCS Championship from last January.
All of that luster that was supposed to be October 16th, a day that has been circled in red since December of 2009 for Husker Nation, will take an even bigger hit when Oklahoma beats Texas in the Red River Shootout on Saturday afternoon. What was supposed to be the biggest game Memorial Stadium had seen since Oklahoma came to town in 2001, it has turned into a no-win situation for Huskers. Win, and all it means is that you took care of business against an unranked team at home. Lose, and the season goes down the drain.
Enough Texas talk, this Nebraska Cornhusker football team has enough issues to keep themselves plenty busy until their October 7th ESPN Thursday night matchup at Manhattan. Here are my five biggest issues regarding the Huskers going into Big Twelve play.
Taylor Martinez: The Quarterback
It took him four weeks, but Taylor didn't have the "Magic" in him for the first time all season. After losing a fumble at their own 25 yard line on the first offensive play for the Huskers, Martinez continued to struggle against the 1-AA Jack Rabbits. His first half went relatively well throwing the football, as he connected on two long pass plays. One to Mike McNeill for 64 yards that went down inside the five yard line, and another for a 33 yard touchdown to Kyler Reed. On the touchdown pass, Martinez escaped the rush and got outside of the pocket before hitting a wide open Reed, allowing the speedy tight end to walk into the end zone.
Martinez's last throw in the first half resulted in an interception, his second of the season. After a few first downs, the Huskers had the ball in South Dakota State's territory. It seemed the Huskers were ready to put another touchdown on the board before heading into the locker room for halftime. The interception wasn't pretty, as he missed a wide open Reed on a comeback route in the middle of the field.
Martinez, and the rest of the offense as a whole, struggled mightily in the second half. Martinez threw another god-awful interception on a third and long. He severely under threw Brandon Kinnie early in the fourth quarter, as the pass attempt wasn't even close. If this team has Big Twelve, and even National Title aspirations, Martinez needs to significantly improve his accuracy and decision making. This is a major concern heading into conference play.
Where is Niles Paul?
Throughout the offseason, all Husker Nation kept hearing about was how great of a playmaker Niles Paul was going to be for this 2010 offense. There's no way to sugar coat this, as Niles Paul has been completely nonexistent for the offense thus far. NIles didn't record a reception against South Dakota State, and for the life of me, I can't even remember Martinez targeting the senior receiver out of Omaha North.
There are plenty of differing opinions of Mr. Paul, but I'm in the camp that believes that he can be a real talent. I don't know what seems to be the problem, as it could be one of many different things.
Is the revolution of the run game with Martinez at the helm affecting Paul's status as a playmaker for the offense?
Is Shawn Watson not getting him involved in the offensive game plan as much as we would expect?
Did Brandon Kinnie close the gap on Niles this summer, and could he possibly have surpassed him as Nebraska's top receiving target?
Whatever the reason(s), this needs to be addressed, as I know it already has been amongst the coaching staff.
Honestly, this has been the biggest surprise of the season. Besides a few nice punt returns against Western Kentucky, and a late second half touchdown when the game was already out of hand, Niles has been a ghost. This offense needs him to be involved, as he could go down as one of the most talented receivers in Husker history.
It sure would be a shame to waste a talent like his.
Run Defense: A Suh-sized hole has been exposed
We already know who's missing from Nebraska's defense from a year ago. Baker Steinkhuler and Terrence Moore have been rotating to fill the void left by "House of Spears".
This defensive front seven hasn't been as stout at stopping the run as the Brothers Pelini expect. After allowing Western Kentucky to amass 179 yards rushing, the Huskers bounced back in week two, holding Idaho to only 60 yards rushing. Despite a near perfect performance at Seattle, the Huskies had their way with the Blackshirts when they decided to run the ball. The defense allowed 175 rushing yards, another total that should not be even close to attainable against a Bo Pelini defense.
Lastly, against the Jack Rabbits, the Blackshirts surrendered 141 yards on the ground. The Huskers have been exposed, as punching them right in the mouth with a power running game has seen too much success.
I think this problem is bigger than Bo dumbing down the defense until conference play. Our defensive line has yet to dominate, as they've been serviceable, at best. Lavonte David and Eric Martin have had their moments as first year starting linebackers, but they both have much to improve on. The return of Will Compton will tell us a lot about our run defense.
More on that later.
Is Cody Green really the best option as the backup quarterback?
With the amount of carries that Taylor Martinez will receive this season, the Huskers need to be prepared if/when Martinez goes down with an injury. Now I understand that the coaching staff has already established early on this season that Cody Green is their guy as the #2.
We've all seen the 2010 version of Cody Green. Now, how many of you believe Cody Green can lead this offense? Yeah, I didn't think so. I also know you need to build depth for the future, but there comes a time when enough is enough.
Is Zac Lee really that far behind on the depth chart? The last time we saw Zac Lee, he looked pretty impressive in that 33-0 whooping of Arizona in the Holiday Bowl. That quarterback was world's better than what we've seen of Cody thus far. I'll take the senior quarterback who started all of last season to be a better "game manager" than Green.
All I'm saying is that if Zac has a sliver of that ability left in him, he needs to be the backup. End of story.
Will Compton's return
Bo Pelini suffered a blow when sophomore linebacker Will Compton injured his leg days before the season opener before Western Kentucky. With Sean Fisher being lost for the year, the Blackshirts need Compton to step up and command leadership of the defense.
Lavonte David has struggled at times with pre-snap calls and getting the defense lined up properly. The big question is when do they expect to get Compton back? The word is that Compton could be back in time for the Kansas State game, and his performance will be vital for the rest of the season.
With Compton taking over the Mike linebacker duties, that will allow Lavonte more freedom to just go out there and make plays. Compton will play a huge role in determining the strength of this defense, and possibly shaping up that run defense.