Saturday, September 24, 2011

Tuneups are over, time for Big Ten play

Four up, four down for the No. 9 ranked Nebraska football team. The Huskers wrapped up the nonleague part of their slate with a 38-14 road win at Wyoming. Up next, the much anticipated Big Ten opener against the No. 6 rated Wisconsin Badgers in Madison, Wisc. Just my gut feeling but the Badgers, who rolled to a 59-10 win over South Dakota, are likely to be a slight favorite over Nebraska.

Though the Huskers clinged to a 14-7 halftime lead on Saturday, they were never in serious danger of losing as their depth and talent advantage wore down the Cowboys. The score very easily could have been 45-14 but Nebraska head coach Bo Pelini opted to take a knee in the final minute even though the Huskers had first-and-goal at the Wyoming 2. The Cowboys didn't do themselves any favors by committing seven penalties for 68 yards, 30 of which came on Nebraska's first drive of the second half, but the truth of the matter is the Huskers were the better team.

For the second time in as many weeks, the Husker offense take a quantum leap forward. This time thanks to running back Rex Burkhead's 170 yards rushing on 15 carries and two scores. Burkhead pounded the Cowboys into submission for most of the game. When Wyoming cut the lead too 31-14 midway through the fourth quarter, the Huskers turned to the speedy trio of true reshman running backs (Ameer Abdullah, Braylon Heard and Aaron Green). Abdullah had three carries for 36 yards. Green added 19 yards on three carries while Heard added 33 yards on nine yards including a touchdown. That power and speed approach to the running game is very akin to a hard throwing pitcher that can also change speeds.

While it is generally assumed that Nebraska will go as far as quarterback Taylor Martinez will take, Burkhead, however, might just be the hub of the offense's wheel because his reliability supplies the foundation for the offense.

Speaking of Martinez, his maturity is somewhat similar to a basketball player that has sacrificed scoring to become a more complete player to supply things like passing, reboundig and defense. Martinez's numbers Saturday look pedestrian on the surface. He was 12 of 21 for 157 yards, one touchdown and no interception as a passer. As a runner, he carred 12 times for 37 yards and a score. While Martinez is far from a finished product, his decision-making continues to improve and the fact that Nebraska can win a game without the benefit of Martinez lighting up the stat sheet is a huge plus because that was not the case last season.

Defensively, the Huskers were are from perfect in yielding 310 yards of total offense and 14 points but that's a huge improvement over the previous two games when they gave up over 28 points and 400 yards of total offense in each game. The Blackshirts are a far cry from the 2009 defense but on Saturday they also had to go without defensve tackle Jared Crick (concussion) and welcomed back cornerback Alfonzo Dennard to the lineup.

Though Wyoming quarterback Brett Smith completed just 17 of 33 passes for 166 yards, the Huskers had too many busted coverages that a better team would have capitalized on.

The Huskers got a lot of different players into the game so what does Saturday's win mean for the trip to Madison? Well, nothing really because every game is its own entity. The whole argument of "Well, if they play that way next week, they'll get beat" or "If they play that way next week they'll win" does not carry any weight.

Wisconsin has looked more impressive than the Huskers. As Pelini said in his potgame press conference, "There are no great teams." Nebraska does not need a perfect game to beat the Badgers but it needs to be on point more than it has all season.

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