It has been a tumultuous start to the 2013 season for the Nebraska Cornhuskers, to say the least.
After a very unimpressive win to open the season against Wyoming, in which the Huskers gave way too many yards to a subpar offense, the Huskers put a whooping on Southern Mississippi, a team that hasn’t won a game in its last 15 tries. Needless to say, that game wasn’t the best indication of this year’s Huskers. Although Nebraska kept the Golden Eagles under 300 yards of total offense and had two interceptions returned for touchdowns, the victory was overwhelmingly misleading because of what happened the weekend that followed.
Tommy Armstrong Jr. played well in the absence of Taylor Martinez against SDSU. (Photo courtesy: Eric Francis/Getty Images)
Of course, UCLA came to town that next weekend, and scored 38 straight points on the Husker defense after being down 21-3 in the first half to go on to win 41-21. While Nebraska started off the game looking like they would run UCLA out of the stadium, but the Bruins came roaring back to shut down the Huskers in the second half, outscoring them 31-0 en route to the blowout win.
Then, as I’m sure everyone is well aware of by now, an audio recording of a Bo Pelini tirade from two seasons ago went viral, adding an immense amount of scrutiny for the coach who has already been under fire for his underperforming defensive units. On top of that, Pelini got into it with former Huskers quarterback Tommie Frazier regarding Frazier’s comments saying Pelini should fire his defensive staff after the loss.
Amidst all that, senior quarterback Taylor Martinez is sidelined with a turf-toe injury that kept him out of last week’s contest with South Dakota State.
The SDSU game started off looking like all the off-the-field issues were getting the best of the Huskers, who went into the second quarter down 17-14 to their FCS foe. But it was all Nebraska from there on out, as the Huskers scored 38 straight points (sound familiar?) behind a pair of backup quarterbacks in Tommie Armstrong Jr. and Ron Kellogg III. Both quarterbacks played exceptionally well in place of Martinez as Armstrong was 12 of 15 for 169 yards and a touchdown and Kellogg was 8 of 9 for 136 yards and a touchdown on his own. In all, Nebraska finished with 645 yards, and for the first time in school history, the Huskers gained over 300 yards rushing and 300 yards passing in the same game.
Running back Ameer Abdullah also rushed for a career-high 139 yards and a touchdown, but was out-performed by his Jackrabbit counterpart Zach Zenner, who rushed for 202 yards and two touchdowns, good for tenth most given up by a Husker defense.
The game showed glimpses of what could be after Martinez is gone, but the Huskers did little to dispel all the concerns around their incredibly young and inexperienced defense.
The Huskers, aside from the second half against the Bruins, have little to no trouble moving the ball down the field, even with back-up quarterbacks. But it’s much harder to be as efficient as the offense wants to be when the defense can’t hold a team long enough to give the offense a break. As the old saying goes, “a good defense is a good offense.” Nebraska needs to figure something, anything, to slow down opposing offenses, and until that happens, there might be more games reminiscent of the UCLA meltdown.
But while the Cornhuskers are struggling early on this season, they are not alone in the Big Ten Conference, as many other teams have sleep-walked through their non-conference schedules. Northwestern has allowed incredibly subpar teams to compete with them; Michigan is undefeated but also allowed teams such as Akron and Connecticut to do the same, and is second in the nation in turning the ball over. Penn State last weekend was upset by Central Florida and Wisconsin was beat by Arizona State the week before. And Ohio State has done nothing but beat up on really bad teams that have a combined record of 3-10 and are from the likes of the Mid-American and Mid-Eastern Atlantic Conferences.
So as the Huskers are trying to work out the kinks, so seemingly is the rest of the conference, which is a good sign heading into B1G conference play after this weekend’s bye.
Nebraska gets Illinois at home after the break, followed by Purdue and Minnesota, so I see no reason why the Huskers shouldn’t head into their showdown with Northwestern at 6-1. Sure, Illinois and Minnesota are both vastly improved, but probably not enough to cause the Huskers serious trouble before they head into their stretch of Legends Division games.
Big Red has a number of things to improve, most obviously on defense, but I think they’ve played well enough to not cause an overwhelming amount on concern. The Illinois game will provide the Huskers with an opportunity to show their offense is as elite as everyone thought and that their defense isn’t as bad as everyone thought.