Thursday, October 20, 2011

Second half look ahead

In two of Bo Pelini's first three seasons as Nebraska's football head coach, the Huskers had a penchant for being a strong second half team.

In 2008, the Huskers were 3-3 but finished the campaign winning six of their last seven games (including a 26-21 win over Clemson in the Gator Bowl) to conclue the season 9-4. In 2009, the Huskers were 4-3 but again finished the season with six wins in their last seven games (including a 33-0 Holiday Bowl win over Arizona) to finish 10-4. Last season, however, Nebraska was not a second half team. At least not in the final third. The Huskers were 9-1 at one point but lost three of their last four games (including a 19-7 loss to Washington in the Holiday Bowl) to finish 10-4.

As the Huskers begin the second half of 2011 with a 5-1 record entering Saturday's game at Minnesota, the question begs, which second half team will we see? 2008/2009 or 2010? Hopefully, the former. Since Pelini took over as the head coach, Nebraska is 15-3 in the second half of its regular season schedule but for that trend to continue the Huskers need to improve.

Despite the team's 5-1 record, many Nebraska fans have been disappointed in the team's play, so much so that they have referred to the team as overrated and has a bleak future. Overrated? Perhaps so. Bleak future? Get real.

True, Nebraska looked hoorible in a 48-17 loss to Wisconsin and in the first half of their 34-27 come-from-behind win over Ohio State but I believe Nebraska will have a good second half to the season. What it means as far as wins and losses? Who knows.

On the offensive side, the Huskers have had their moments of struggling but in general progressed ahead of schedule despite having a new coordinator (Tim Beck) and more collective yout than recent memory.

Through quarterback Taylor Martinez has the lightening speed, running back Rex Burkhead is the foundation of the offense. Burkhead could carry the offense if necessary but freshman Ameer Abdullah's speed is a nice compliment to Burkhead's steadiness. Since the days of 30-carry per game running backs are a thing of the past, having a good one-two punch becomes important.

Though Martinez will never be confused with Tom Brady as a passer, he is better than his critics are willing to acknowledge but for the Husker passing game to work, the ground game has to be on point.

While the Husker offense has improved, the defense has been the weak link and I bet you thought you would have never heard those words uttered about a Pelini coached team.

The Huskers will have to make due without defensive tackle Jared Crick, who was a preseason All-American. Crick will miss the rest of the season because of a torn pectoral muscle. His replacements (note the plural) will be Terrance Moore, Thad Randle and Chase Rome at defensive tackle in the second half of the season.

Despite losing Crick, I believe Nebraska will play much better defensively in the second half of the season. Pelini has been a great defensive mind his entire career and didn't suddenly become a dummy. Nebraska probably will not be the dominant unit it was in 2009 but I've got to think that a close evaluation by Pelini during the bye week will help this defense perform closer to the unit it was in 2009 and to a lesser extent 2010.

Cornerback/converted wide receiver Stanly Jean-Baptiste's interception led to the game-winning touchdown against Ohio State. The bye probably did him some good as well in terms of further adjusting to a new position.

Jean-Baptiste played in his first game as a cornerback against Ohio State. Jean-Baptiste played wide receiver for the first part of the 2011 season before switching to cornerback.

The Huskers, however, have a much tougher slate in the second half than they did in the first. Nebraska should win aturday's game at Minnesota going away. The Huskers then come home for Michigan State, who most people believe is the toughest remaining game for the Huskers. However, there are three things to keep in mind: a) The Spartans come to Lincoln, b) Michogan State will be coming to Lincoln after consecutive tough contests against Michigan and Wisconsin, c) Nebraska will have had a bye and a trip to Minnesota. Will those three factors translate into a Husker win? Who knows but they are no small advantages.

After Michigan State, Northwestern comes to town. Wildcats quarterback Dan Persa can be a headache for most any defense but given the fact that they rank 1-1st nationally in total defense, Northwestern will be hard-pressed to come into Lincoln and win.

Then, back-to-back road tests at Penn State and Michigan await. even though the former has looked suspect at times, they have a very stout defense. The latter meanwhile has a mobile quarterback in Denard Robinson, the type of quarterback Nebraska has had problems defending.

The Huskers then close the regular season at home against Iowa. The Hawkeyes have a terrible defense but a favorable remaining schedule of Indiana, at Minnesota, Michigan, Michigan State, and at Purdue entering the Nebraska game should keep them in the mix for a Legends Division title.

Many Husker fans had visions of a trip to the Rose Bowl in the team's first Big Ten season. That goal is definitely within reach but the Huskers are also flawed enough to have one or two losses.

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