Late in Nebraska’s win over Southern Miss two weeks ago, I saw a tweet from one of my followers (not directly at me) telling Nebraska fans to calm down, and that Taylor Martinez had let us down before. Post-UCLA, it’s easy for me to say he’s right, although I don’t think I read the team wrong that day. Remembering how Kevin Cosgrove’s defenses failed to adapt to spread offenses, I dreamed of Martinez and company blurring past oversized Big 10 linebackers on their way to the end zone.
But I did overestimate the confidence issue for Nebraska.
Let me be clear about something: I am okay with the toolbox Nebraska football has now. Nebraska is a totally committed program that isn’t fooled by a bad product (example, Bill Callahan), and they’ll get serviceable recruits every year, along with a handful of elite ones. Playing the schedule they will in the Big 10 for the next ten years, they are probably going to average seven to nine years a year, minus a win or two, and I’m okay with that. I have no problem admitting that today, Michigan State, Wisconsin, and Ohio State, are a definitively better program than Nebraska, and Michigan is only a hair better and should be solidly in a class with those other programs by the end of this year. Nebraska can still go to bowl games every year, and make a major bowl now and then. If they go 7-5 this year, I doubt I’ll be as disappointed as most fans.
But here’s the part of Nebraska’s personality that I have a problem living with: one little thing goes wrong, and the whole team just shuts down. That drives me crazy, and two weeks ago, when the team was going up and down the field on Southern Miss, I really wanted to believe that that flaw had gone away.
It hasn’t of course, and it probably won’t completely go away. But I’ll go back to what I wrote about in the immediately aftermath of the loss to UCLA: the second drive in the third quarter, Nebraska walks off the field after Kyler Reed drops a third down pass, and their body language goes from quite businessman to sad sack looser. While UCLA was the better team and was dominating the game, Nebraska, in spite of all its mistakes, was still in the game up until two minutes left in the fourth quarter. Remember when Zac Lee somehow muster two long plays after DeJon Gomes’ take-the-ball-away interception against Texas in the Big 12 Title Game in 2009? Neither does this team.
Roming for Greener Pastures?
Beyond these issues, there are specific areas in which Nebraska fans need to look at their team and say, “We should be better in this area”, mostly on defense. With Chase Rome bailing out on the team this week, a fan must wonder if Pelini has the Blackshirts headed in the right direction, a question unfathomable two years ago.
While some of last year’s deficiency can be chalked up to not having the depth to face the Big 10′s week-in-week-out physicality, in both the second game of last season and this season, Nebraska’s defensive line disappeared for long stretches. At least this year, the vanishing act didn’t happen against a team that would go 4-8 in the WAC. What’s really perplexing is why Cameron Meredith and Baker Steinkuhler, fifth year seniors who have started for two years and been significant contributors for three, are invisible on the line. Steinkuhler, who probably should have played offensive tackle, made one tackle against UCLA, at the end of a forty yard run. Wonder if Rome looked at Steinkuhler and thought, “There’s no way I’ll be used properly by these coaches.”
Pelini has been saying the right things about having depth on defense, but just rotating serviceable guys isn’t the answer. After Will Compton (24 tackles, 2 sacks through two games), no one on defense looks close to his potential. Of the players Pelini has been the primary recruiter, only his JUCO recruits (LaVonte David, DeJon Gomes) were raw athletes who could make plays. Mel Kiper Jr. and Todd McShay complemented Kirk Ferentz and Brett Bielema in their pre-draft coverage for producing technically sound players who are close to their maximum ability. You can’t say the same about Pelini now, and that’s what he’ll have to do to hang in the Big 10. By the by, Rick Neuheisel lost his job at UCLA because the good players who could have helped the team as true freshmen (like Brett Hudley) got redshirted because of serviceable seniors. For Pelini, that player might just be named Vincent Valentine, who the coaches praised early in camp and then decided to redshirt so he wouldn’t get to complacent.
In a vlog before the season, I said that after two games, you should be able to judge the ceiling and floor of your college football team. After two games, I have to conclude there’s a huge gap between Nebraska’s ceiling and floor. The good thing is, they have a modern college football offense and most of the teams in the Big 10 wouldn’t be able to pile up the points like UCLA did. The bad thing is, the defense is beyond horrid, and it will look even worse after it’s been through the physicality of a Big 10 season. Best case scenario for this season: Nebraska scrapes some wins together, takes advantage of an easy November, and goes into their bowl game and off-season with momentum. Worst case: they get bludgeoned on defense, can’t keep the ball on offense, get embarrassed at home by Minnesota for the Gophers bowl-eligibility win (third time that’s happened to Pelini), and Nebraska fans settle for a nostalgia match-up in the Texas Bowl against Iowa State.