Saturday, April 21, 2012

Can the defense sharpen its teeth?

While Nebraska was decent defensively in 2011, it was not the authoritative bunch that was on display in 2009 and to a lesser extent 2010. Part of that dropoff can be attributed to the season-ending injury to defensive tackle Jared Crick (torn pectoral muscle) in Week 5.

However, the Husker defense was having issues even before Crick was put on the shelf for the season. There were bright spots, most notably in a 24-3 win over Michigan State and the second half dominance that fueled a 34-27 come-from-behind win over Ohio State in addition to the unit’s outstanding effort in a 20-7 win over Iowa.

Nebraska did finish pretty well (Top 40) statistically but for much of the 2011 campaign, the Huskers were a pretty average club. Nebraska finished 37th in total defense and 42nd in scoring defense. The Huskers finished tied for 18th in passing defense and 34th in pass efficiency defense.

However, the Huskers were tied for 72nd in interceptions (with 10), tied for 84th in sacks (21), and 64th in rushing defense. Nebraska also finished with a minus-1 turnover margin with 18 takeaways and had 19 giveaways. This tells me they need to get far more pressure on opposing teams quarterbacks to force mistakes that lead to turnovers, and to increase sack numbers.

In Bo Pelini’s four seasons as head coach, there have been some dominant defensive players such as Ndamukong Suh, LaVonte David, Alfonzo Dennard, Prince Amukamara, Dejon Gomes, Phillip Dillard and Larry Asante. Only David was not on the roster for the Huskers 2009 defense that allowed only 10 points per game, best in the nation.

The defense was probably the best in the Big 12 in 2010, but a keen eye could see chinks in the armor. They had difficulty stopping a mobile quarterback. They relied too much on their potent, if inconsistent, offense to create plays.

In 2011, with Carl Pelini as defensive coordinator, Nebraska’s defense failed the team when they needed them most. Wisconsin and Michigan made the Husker defense look awful. In the Capital One Bowl loss to South Carolina, the Husker defense failed at crucial times. Despite losing key pieces like Crick, David and Dennard, 2012 has the potential to be a very good year for the defense.

Of course, some would see the coaching staff changes as a negative because change normally takes time to adapt.

After defensive coordinator Carl Pelini took the head coaching job at Florida Atlantic, Bo Pelini promoted John Papuchis from defensive line coach to defensive coordinator. He also hired Rick Kaczenski from Iowa to replace Papuchis on the defensive line. Kaczenski brought with him an impressive resume that included All-Americans during his time as defensive line coach for the Hawkeyes.

After Husker defensive backs coach Corey Raymond accepted the same position at alma mater LSU, Pelini scooped Terry Joseph from Tennessee to replace him. Joseph, cousin of former Husker Mickey Joseph, coached a stellar Volunteer defensive backfield for three years.

True, it takes time to get used coaches and their approach but these changes might be the shot in the arm the Huskers need. Kaczenski and Joseph inherit some pretty solid depth at their respective positions.

There is no Crick, David or Dennard but instead of leaning heavily on All-Americans, the Huskers will need to rely on each other and the scheme. However, it never hurts to have a game-changer.

Nebraska Will Repay the Favor to Wisconsin

Taylor Martinez is looking to perform better vs Wisconsin in 2012.

Almost exactly a year after Nebraska was humiliated in front of a national audience in their Big Ten opener, Taylor Martinez and the Cornhuskers will be better prepared to face a Wisconsin team without standout quarterback Russell Wilson and a defense not as talented or salty as they were in 2011. They will still have to stop running back Montee Ball, but, without a deep threat and somebody to throw it and take the pressure off the running backs, Nebraska will sell out and blitz over and over again.

The beating might not be as bad as the wood the Badgers laid to the Huskers in Madison in 2011, but it will be bad. Nebraska's defense will show up in a big way, Rex Burkhead will have over 150 yards rushing, and the Huskers will win by more than three touchdowns to start off their second season in the Big Ten with a bang.

Taylor Martinez Will Complete More Than 65% of His Passes

Taylor Martinez will fix this throwing motion
Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

Let's face it. Taylor Martinez's throwing motion reminds you more of Tim Tebow than it does any other quarterback in college of the NFL. If anything, this prediction is the hardest of all to imagine. The guy just doesn't throw very well or with any sort of accuracy.

There is good news, though. Martinez is dedicated to keeping his starting job. We know this because he spent his spring break not schmoozing with girlfriend and Nebraska volleyball player Lauren Cook but in California with a throwing expert (by the way, what's up with Nebraska football and volleyball players dating? I just heard Roy Helu and Dani Mancuso are getting married).

The best news on the planet for Taylor Martinez: the Nebraska running game will take pressure off him in the pocket. With Rex Burkhead, Ameer Abdullah, and Aaron Green forming a formidable backfield, Martinez will have more time to sit back and go through his reads on play action and straight passing plays. As he does this, he will make more throws on target and will complete 65% of his passes in 2012.

Rex Burkhead Will Win the Heisman Trophy

Rex Burkhead will run all the way to New York in 2012.
Eric Francis/Getty Images

Sexy Rexy.

He's Rexy and He Knows It. Heard the songs? If not, look them up on YouTube.

They are about Nebraska running back Rex Burkhead. My favorite line comes from "Sexy Rexy": "Calves defined like dictionaries, breaks through tackles on his carries."

In early odds, Burkhead is at 20-1 to win the Heisman Trophy. If you ask Nebraska fans, or anybody in the Big Ten footprint, that is far too low. Burkhead is the unquestioned leader of the team. He is the most popular player in Nebraska football since Brook Berringer. He is as much of an unstoppable machine on the field as he is a charismatic, humble man off it. Burkhead is what legends are made of at Nebraska, and the Heisman Trophy will be his crowning achievement.

What can Burkhead do on the field? Well he averaged 4.8 yards per carry and just over 104 yards per game in 2011. That's not bad. He will have to do better than that to have national recognition, though. His 21 catches for 177 yards and two touchdowns are nice. However, more than anything, he will need sophomores Ameer Abdullah and Aaron Green to step up and spell him when the time arises.

He will need big, and I mean BIG, performances in national games. He will need to run roughshod over Wisconsin and Michigan. He will need to will the team to victory.

More than anything, though, he needs the team to win. Nebraska needs to win the Big Ten Legends Division. He then needs to pull an Ndamukong Suh from the 2009 Big 12 Championship Game and just tear apart whoever Nebraska plays in the 2012 Big Ten Championship Game.

Nebraska can do that. They have the talent. Rex can as well.

Nebraska Will Win the Big Ten

This Trophy Will be in Lincoln in December.

Nebraska sort of stumbled their way through the 2011 football season. They were beaten badly by Wisconsin and Michigan and upset at home by Northwestern. They managed to overwhelm Michigan State and Iowa and also hung on at Penn State. Throughout the season, though, it felt as though they couldn't get their feet under them. In 2012, that won't be the case.

Nebraska's offense won't be forced in so many down-and-distance situations as they were in 2011 as a deep, talented offensive line will keep a Taylor Martinez and Rex Burkhead-led attack moving. Martinez has a new throwing motion that will help him improve on his 57% accuracy, a bevy of speedy, talented receivers to throw to, and the always steady Burkhead behind him. In short, this will be the best and most balanced offense Nebraska has seen since 1999.

The defense is going to come together and obliterate opposing offenses. Blitzes will come from every angle, the defensive line will push offensive lines back into their quarterbacks, and running backs will find no lanes to run. In short, this will be a defense to be feared.

The schedule doesn't do them any favors, but there is no team outside of Michigan as talented as they were in 2011. The Huskers get the Wolverines at home the last weekend in October. They welcome Wisconsin, Penn State, and Minnesota to Lincoln as well. They will have to battle past Ohio State and Northwestern on the road in consecutive games.

The Huskers won't have to win every game on their schedule to win the Legends Division, but they must avoid trip-ups in Evanston, East Lansing, and Iowa City to advance to the Championship Game. The good news is Nebraska will win the games they need to and will not lose to anybody they shouldn't. On December 1, the Nebraska Cornhuskers will beat the winner of the Leaders Division and will claim their first Conference Championship since 1999.

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Keep ReadingNebraska returns a majority of their starters on defense, but they will have a new defensive coordinator in John Papuchis who replaced Carl Pelini after he departed for FAU. Papuchis has instantly become the youngest defensive coordinator in the Big Ten and it'll be interesting to see how the players respond to the energetic coach.

He’s been on the Nebraska staff since 2008 and worked with the defensive ends and special teams before replacing Pelini. The defensive schemes should remain the same for the most part, but with a new guy calling the shots, it will be something that bears watching.

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