Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Husker improvement needs to stay on course

Through the first three games of the regular season, most Nebraska fans and mainstream media types that cover the team daily have been reluctant to tab the 3-0 and No. 9 rated Huskers an upper-tier team mainly because Nebraska has not been overly impressive in any of its three wins.

The general belief has been, "well, if they don't improve, they will for sure lose to Wisconsin." The Huskers, however, have to beat 3-0 Wyoming in Laramie, Wy. Satuday before they worry about their Oct. 1 visit to No. 6 Wisconsin. The Cowboys are a scrappy bunch and could be more of a test than most people think.

The Huskers have shown a lot of improvement on the offensive side of the ball, and the defense has gotten stops when needed, but up to this point, the team is nowhere near where it needs to be. The irony behind that scenario is that suspect offense alone prevented Nebraska from winning the Big 12 title in each of the previous two seasons while the defense did the hheavy lifting. It was generally assumed that if Nebraska's offense could be middle-of-the-road at worst, the defense would remain stellar and the team would become a BCS Bowl Game level outfit.

Saturday represents the Huskers last nonconference tuneup before Big 10 play begins and if the team has visions of being a serious player in the BCS Bowl picture, the improvement needs to continue.

In Saturday's 51-38 win over Washington, quarterback Taylor Martinez might not have had an overly impressive game in terms of his statistics. He completed just 10 of 21 passes for 155 yards and two touchdowns but no interceptions. He ran 17 times for 83 yards and a score. Point being, Matinez's numbers were not Heisman trophy material but his decision making was much better in that he did not take the unnecessary risks he took last season. That maturation will need to continue as the Huskers will face better defenses.

When Martinez allows impact players like Rex Burkhead, Kenny Bell, Jamal Turner, Aaron Green, Braylon Heard, Kyler Reed and Quincy Enunwa to make big plays, it will become easier for Martiez himself to make big plays.

Even more important, Nebraska's young offensive line also showed significant signs of maturity against a Washington defensive front that is much better than what Fresno State or Chattanooga had to offer. That improvement too cannot just be a one time thing.

First-year offensive coordinator Tim Beck also seemed to take a big step forward in his role, which is significant because of how the offense had stretches of ineptitude the last two years. If the recent success continues against Wyoming, the hope for a championship season will be that much more legitimate.

Especially if the defense can iron out its issues.

Getting starting cornerback Alfonzo Dennard back in the lineup would be a huge help. Since emerging as an impact player in 2009, his importance cannot be understated when he is in the lineup. Dennard has missed the first three games with a quad injury and that loss has been glaring.

Ciante Evans has played well for a true sophomore, and Andrew Green has filled in admirably in Dennard's absence, but the defense as a whole has missed Dennard's prescence because teams have routinely picked on Green.

Since Dennard has the ability to blanket the opposing team's top receiver, it will allow for more safety help toward Evans' side of the field and also committ more safeties near the line of scrimmage to stop the run. The return of Dennard and his shut-down-half-of-the-field ability will allow the defense to give Evans a little more help on the other side and put more guys in the box to defend against the run, which will result in an improvement in both pass and run defense.

Since Dennard is a game-time decision as of Wednesday, the Huskers need to be prepared to go another game without him.

The defensive line, which was supposed to be the team strength, has been a disappointment and the linebackers have not filled holes with authority. There has also been a lack of pressure on quarterbacks and lack of takeaways, something that Bo Pelini defenses have had a knack for doing.

Nebraska does not necessarily have to pitch a shutout but another week of 28-plus points and 400-plus yards allowed won't cut it.

While Wyoming can be a pesky club for ranked opponents, the truth of the matter is Nebraska has a huge talent advantage and should win by three touchhdowns or more. However, with the Wisconsin game lurking one week later, Saturday represents the dreaded "trap game" label.

Translation, Nebraska cannot have South Dakota State revisited. Remember last year when the Huskers won 17-3 over SDSU with a lackluster performance? That won't do this week.

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