The Nebraska Cornhuskers improved to 3-0 on the season with their 51-38 win at home over the Washington Huskies, and although the score may have indicated otherwise, the Huskers improved in nearly every aspect of their game from last week.
Nebraska's performance was very encouraging from several different angles, the lone concern being the defensive breakdowns in the fourth quarter, which can largely be explained by complacency following 24 unanswered points scored by the Huskers.
The overall success started with sophomore quarterback Taylor Martinez, who seemed to take a big step forward this week despite putting up less-than-gaudy numbers.
Martinez was 10 of 21 passing for 155 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions while rushing for 83 yards and a touchdown on 17 carries.
While these numbers, especially the rushing stats, aren't as eye-popping as the first two weeks, Martinez was much smarter overall when the football was in his hands. Whether it was throwing the football away, running out of bounds or sliding to avoid contact or simply making better throws and running the offense efficiently, the embattled quarterback had possibly the best game of his career when it comes to decision making.
Tad Stryker hit the nail on the head when he said, "Martinez deserves credit for the relatively clean game on offense. He didn’t pile up staggering numbers, but he didn’t give the impression that he was teetering on the brink of disaster for half the game, either. That’s a net gain, in my opinion. He passed well enough early in the game to make Washington respect his arm, which opened up Nebraska’s running game."
Nebraska's young receivers had another good game as well. Kenny Bell caught a 50-yard pass to put the Huskers in scoring position on the first play of the game after Ameer Abdullah zigzagged his way to the 45-yard line on the opening kickoff. Bell caught another pass for nine yards, while Jamal Turner finished with 34 yards on two catches, Kyler Reed had a leaping grab for 19 yards and freshman running back Aaron Green caught a 25 yard touchdown pass.
The running game finally started to resemble the days of old. Starter Rex Burkhead bulled his way for 120 yards and two touchdowns on 22 carries, while freshmen backs Aaron Green and Braylon Heard each had five carries for a combined 70 yards and a touchdown (Green).
Even fullback Tyler Legate got in on the action, turning two carries into 37 yards and catching a three yard touchdown pass on the second play of the game.
Behind all the offensive success was much-improved play from the young offensive line, which seemed to be much more cohesive and effective against a defense that was significantly better than either Chattanooga or Fresno State.
While the Husker offense seemed to take two big steps forward this week, the 38 points put on the board by Washington will lead many to be understandably concerned with the play of the Blackshirts.
Despite the point total, though, the defense actually took a step forward this week as well. After initially struggling in the first quarter, the Blackshirts tightened down and held the Huskies to 17 points until the fourth quarter.
At that point, Nebraska had jumped from a three-point lead to a 27-point lead in just over a quarter, and the defense visibly relaxed on the field, giving way to some big plays that turned into touchdowns. Despite a nerve-racking comeback attempt, Washington never had much of a chance.
When you disregard what amounts to a fourth-quarter anomaly, the Blackshirts performed much, much better than last week against a much better offense.
The Huskers finally started getting pressure on UW quarterback Keith Price, and Jared Crick and Cameron Meredith each had a sack despite Price's impressive ability to avoid the pass rush. I saw much better defensive adjustments as the game went along, as well as better coverage and tackling.
The secondary is still the weakest link of the defense, but the return of Alfonzo Dennard will be a huge boost. While Chris Polk had 130 yards and a touchdown, one must remember that Polk is one of the best running backs in the nation and got a lot of his yards later in the game when Nebraska had a big lead.
The Blackshirts also recorded two turnovers (the third was on special teams), something they weren't able to do against Fresno State.
While the defense still has a lot of work to do, their performance in the first three quarters was encouraging overall.
Nebraska's special teams units were very good for most of the day, the lone blunders coming when Ameer Abdullah fumbled a punt that resulted in a Washington score, and when the Huskies returned a kickoff past midfield that sparked the comeback attempt in the fourth quarter.
Abdullah redeemed himself later when he had a big kickoff return down inside Washington's 40 yard line that resulted in a touchdown.
The Huskers also recovered the ball on the one yard line on a third quarter kickoff when two Huskies couldn't get a handle on the kick, which resulted in two Rex Burkhead touchdowns within 10 seconds and spurred a dominant third quarter that took the wind from Washington's sails.
Kicker Brett Maher still hasn't missed a field goal or an extra point, and his continued dominance is making it much easier to move on from the legendary Alex Henery. Maher is only three games into his starting career and has already started etching his name into Big Red history.
While this game did end up being a dogfight, as expected, Nebraska's performance should be seen as a very positive sign in most aspects of the game.
The Huskers are a work in progress, but this game provided a lot of future promise.