Saturday, September 3, 2011

Season opener tells little but important signs nonetheless

The 2011 college football season is here and not a moment too soon. As stated here on Wine Country Husker throughout the week, No. 10 Nebraska's 40-7 win over UT-Chattanooga is a game where you view the process more so than the result. Let's face it, if Nebraska beats, say, Wisconsin 10-7 and turns the ball over five times you won't care about the result.

Against a middle-of-the-road Div. I-AA team like the Mocs, however, the process tends to matter more. So what do we take out of Game # 1?

-- Quarterback Taylor Martinez looks to be back to full speed and I liked that he threw some passes away instead of enduring a sack. One of the things Nebraska fans were waiting with baited breath to see was whether Martinez would be back to something resembling the T-Magic of last season. In that sense, he didn’t disappoint, with touchdown runs of 43 and 47 yards. In offensive coordinator Tim Beck's first game in his new role, Martinez showed himself to be healthy enough to have Nebraska’s offense centered around him.

Whether that is a good or bad thing is a question that will divide opinion among Husker fans.

Days before the game, head coach Bo Pelini promised Nebraska’s new offense would be a combination of old-school NU football and the modern day spread. There was a lot of option football being played, warming the cockles of the experienced members of Nebraska’s fan base (say 35 or older).

Nebraska’s inability to consistently run the ball right at Chattanooga, however, will rankle that same fan base. As an example, Nebraska had the ball first and goal at the six-yard line and could not get in the end zone. We're talking UT-Chattanooga, not the UT Volunteers.

The truth of the matter is, a 40-7 rout may make things look good but Nebraska appears to still lack the ability to simply line up and run over teams (especially teams Nebraska has a clear athletic superiority over). That has to be cause for concern.

From what we saw of the Beck offense as opposed to former coordinator Shawn Watson, Nebraska’s offense will include a lot of option, a lot of quick passes and a lot of getting the ball to playmakers and letting them go. However, there were plenty of times where it was clear that not everyone was on the same page. On many occasions, players would run into each other in the backfield, or one player would look for another to see no one there. Against a team like Chattanooga, those types of miscues didn’t make a difference. Against a sturdier opponent, those mistakes could be fatal.

The offensive line, however, play improved as the game went along, and I thought Spencer Long looked pretty good and Andrew Rodriguez might be Nebraska's most phsicl offensive lineman.

Two of Nebraska’s biggest struggles in 2010 were fumbles and penalties. The fumbles were still an issue, although that had more to do with getting used to Tim Beck’s new high-tempo offense than anything else but Nebraska only committed three penalties for 33 yards, and one was an incredibly soft roughing the passer call on defensive end Josh Williams.

One particular bone of contention from last year was the play clock issue, which Saturday appeared to be a thing of the past. The new offense gives Martinez enough time to survey the defense, change a play and snap the ball before the play clock is even close to expiring. Gone seem to be the days of Memorial Stadium groaning in exasperation when a timeout is burned due to the play clock running down.

On the defensive side, Nebraska's line, as expeted looks deep and solid. Defensive end Cameron Meredith looks like he might have a breakout season, and defensive tackle Jared Crick was as advertised.

The linebacker play of LaVonte David and Trevor Roach looked great, and I thought Alonzo Whaley did a nice job too.

The secondary played without the servies of Alfonzo Dennard, who is out with a quad injury. As expected, his replacement (Andrew Green) had his peaks and valleys but the experience of Saturday will hopefuly be a huge difference. The biggest bright spot in the secondary, however, was cornerback Austin Stafford looks like he is going to be a stud. Stafford made tackles against the run and pass with authority.

Let's not forget the kicking game. Junior kicker and punter Brett Maher did his best to put the Alex Henery ghosts to rest in his first game as a starter. His first of four field goals was from 50 yards, into the teeth of a howling wind, with plenty of distance to spare. Maher also punted admirably, getting good height and distance even in a tough wind, and getting one punt downed inside the 10.

Going into the season, most observers (including yours truly) thought Nebraska would have a drop-off in production from the kicking game in 2011. After Maher’s performance, it appears that worry may have been unfounded.

So what does this mean in the big picture?

Ultimately, it’s not fair to judge Beck too harshly after the first game. Yes, it was rough in spots. Martinez doesn’t look all that comfortable running the option. Yes, receivers still dropped passes at an alarming rate but there was also a lot of youth that got game experience. The three freshman running backs (Ameer Abdullah, Aaron Green and Braylon Heard) all looked very good in their appearances. Jamal Turner, in limited playing time, still electrified the crowd and showed his incredible promise.

So there does appear to be a lot of parts in place for Nebraska’s offense to be successful. But, as a year ago, ultimately that success will revolve around the performance of Taylor Martinez.

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