Bo Pelini. (Photo credit: Eric Francis/Getty Images)
Like every team aside from Alabama, there are a number of questions and concerns surrounding the Nebraska Cornhuskers heading into the 2013 season. As I’ve noted in a couple previous posts, as well as anyone who has written a story about the Huskers recently, their biggest concern will be their defense and whether it can improve upon an otherwise poor defensive season from last year while losing two-thirds of its starters. So for this piece, I will exclude their young, inexperienced defense from the list as a whole, but I will focus on individuals and position competitions as fall camp gets under way.
In addition to the defensive concerns, there are a number of other issues surrounding the Huskers, and here’s my list of five burning questions heading into the 2013 season.
1. Will the Huskers offense be able to hold on the ball?
As noted in my last article, Nebraska has a tremendous turnover issue. They were second in the FBS in turnovers with 35 and lost 22 fumbles. Those turnovers led directly to 18 opponent scores for an average of 8.5 points a game. Their turnover woes factored heavily into their games against UCLA, Ohio State, Wisconsin, and Georgia – all losses. They had a costly turnover late in the fourth quarter that won the game for the Bruins; gave up four turnovers against the Buckeyes that blew a competitive game wide open after three quarters; looked absolutely dreadful against Wisconsin, turning it over three times, including their first offensive snap of the game; and had another three turnovers against the Bulldogs, one late in the game with a tie score, that killed any Nebraska momentum.
If the Huskers cut those in half, or at least tried to limit the ways in which they give the ball up, the Huskers offense should be able to live up to the offseason hype. The Huskers under Bo Pelini are nearly undefeated when they win or tie the turnover battle, going 35-2, but it’s a completely different story when they lose the turnover battle, going 13-18 in those games. It’s worse against ranked teams – the Huskers are 0-11 in games the turnover margin is negative. They’re 8-1 in games when they have a positive or even turnover margin.
Ironically, the offense’s most important player, Taylor Martinez, is also the one who turns the ball over the most for the Huskers. While he has put the ball on the ground more than anyone in FBS has the past two seasons, I think the real issue is his interceptions, which leads directly to my next question.
2. Can Taylor Martinez take the next step and become a good passing quarterback?
No one will ever doubt Martinez’s ability to run defenses ragged and make plays with his feet, which has at times been the Huskers’ saving grace. But what nearly everyone who knows anything about the last three years for Nebraska is worried about is his (in)ability to pass the football. Like most dual-threat quarterbacks, the issue of being able to stand in the pocket and throw the ball consistently well is something Martinez struggles with. Many people point out his flawed throwing mechanics as evidence, but more so than his mechanics, I believe the issue lies in his decision making.
Since his freshman year, Martinez has steadily improved his passing game. He has improved his completion percentage (after a short drop his sophomore season), his accuracy, and even sometimes showed improvement with his mechanics, all of which make people less worried when he throws the ball downfield. What really makes people worried, however, is his tendency to throw the ball into crowded spaces under pressure, which usually result in interceptions. While I did say he has been more accurate, when defenses collapse on him, he usually just chucks the ball side-armed off his back foot, leaving the ball in the air way too long so defenders have time to snag it. He does this quite often, and in big games against teams like UCLA of Ohio State last season, it was the nail in the coffin.
It’s not unthinkable to imagine Martinez vastly improving his decision making this upcoming season. If he doesn’t have so many errant throws into tight coverage, and instead decides to use his feet to make plays, it could mean great things for the Huskers offense. He has a very strong corps of receiver at his disposal that can make plays, but they can only make plays if he gets them the ball. That’s if he gets them the ball.
3. Who will step up as leader on a young defense?
Their defense lost seven starters last season, and there is an obvious lack of experience heading into 2013. There are many players from last season who need to step up and take on the leadership role, especially with all the new faces up front. Unlike last season, where the undisputed defensive leader was Will Compton, this season’s Blackshirts will be lead more by committee. The returning players make up a bulk of that leadership, and they will be instrumental in the development and preparedness of the younger guys on the defense. Ciante Evans is the obvious leader of the secondary, and probably the most vocal leader among the defense. Senior defensive end Jason Ankrah and sophomore linebacker David Santos should step up as leaders for the scant front seven, although the latter only started one game last season against Michigan.
4. Which games present the biggest problems for the Huskers?
When thinking of the Huskers’ schedule, the first thing that comes to my mind is that they play neither Ohio State nor Wisconsin during the regular season, which should make things much easier on their B1G Championship Game prospects. While I think the Huskers schedule is not as tough as it has been in recent years, there are still a number of teams that have the ability to beat the Huskers and derail any hopes for a conference title. Four games stand out as crucial games in which the Huskers must win – UCLA, Northwestern, Michigan and Penn St. – although a loss to UCLA wouldn’t factor into the B1G championship picture.
September 14 vs. UCLA
The first big game of their five-game home stand to start the season is against the UCLA Bruins. Last year, the Bruins beat the Huskers in Pasadena in a shootout that saw them drop over 600 yards of total offense on the Blackshirts. Bruin running back Jonathan Franklin, who ran for over 200, is gone, but they bring back red shirt sophomore Brent Hundley, who should be dangerous passing the football. The Huskers will look to avoid an upset repeat from last season, although this year both teams are in the pre-season Top 25 coaches’ poll. The odds are in the Huskers favor, as they are nearly unstoppable at home, but with their questions on defense, the Bruins could crash the party early for the Huskers.
November 2 vs. Northwestern
As I mentioned in my conference schedule preview last month, this will probably be the marquee game on the Huskers schedule. These two teams have played hard-fought, come-from-behind games the last two seasons, with both taking a game on the road. This year both teams bring back their biggest weapons on offense and looked primed to have great seasons. The question for the Huskers will be whether they can slow down the two-QB system and keep playmaker Venric Mark at bay. This game also serves as a primer for the next week’s contest against Michigan.
November 9 at Michigan
Depending on where these teams are at this late in the season, this game can be one of the biggest games of the college football season, or at least for the B1G. Regardless of where they are, this game will no doubt have major conference title game implications and the winner will be the likely team to take home the Legends Division trophy. I can’t say how the Huskers defense will look by the time this game rolls around, but I can only hope they will have figured something out, because Michigan brings a lot of firepower with quarterback Devin Gardner and a talented recruiting class.
November 23 at Penn State
This is the last game in a brutal four game stretch (with Michigan State coming to Lincoln the week after Michigan) in which the Huskers should come out with no more than one loss. The reason the Penn State game is so crucial is because, depending on Nebraska’s record, this will be the last true test of the Huskers’ season, and one in which they could lose. If Nebraska enters the game with one or two losses, this game will have just as many B1G implications as the Michigan game, although not many expect Penn State to contend with Ohio State atop the Leaders Division. The Nittany Lions will be coming off an easy three-game stretch against Illinois, Minnesota and Purdue, which would seemingly have them feeling the momentum with Nebraska visiting town in a big showdown.
5. Should Bo Pelini be looking over his shoulder this season?
This offseason, there has been a lot of chatter about Bo Pelini and his head coaching ability. There are many Husker fans out there who think he’s not quite capable of getting the job done, although I’m not one of them. Under Pelini’s tenure, the Huskers have made three conference title games, and although they’ve lost all three, I think it’s a sign of a program vastly improving. Before Pelini, the Huskers only played in two conference championship games the previous 8 seasons, losing both. The Huskers have lost their last three bowl games, which have largely served to overlook otherwise good seasons by the Huskers. Pelini has won at least nine games in all of his seasons in Lincoln, including two ten-win seasons, which for any other program in the country would be more than enough. But Husker fans are getting more anxious with every year they don’t win a title, and point to their losses in big games as evidence for his inability to take Nebraska back to elite status. I don’t think his job would be in jeopardy after another 9-4 or 10-4 season, but it surely would start making people even more anxious.