Nebraska Football: 5 Things Huskers Must Fix in the Bye Week
Nebraska could not have planned a bye week at a better time. Never has rest and a time to reevaluate been more important.
“We’ll find the right combination and we’ll find a way. I’ve always been able to do that. … I’ll get this fixed. Trust me there," Pelini said after beating South Dakota State.
Hopefully Pelini is right. As of now, the Blackshirts are giving up 10-plus yards for every 3.6 snaps. With that, Nebraska ranks No. 124 out of 125 FBS teams in plays that go for 10-plus yards. That has to be an alarming statistic for Pelini and staff.
However, Nebraska is still very much on track to win the Legends Division of the Big Ten. With other teams struggling, the Huskers' hopes of a return visit to Indianapolis are not yet dashed.
Pelini will still need to fix some major issues for the Huskers during the time off, though.
What are the top five things the Huskers must fix in the bye week?
Commitment to Running the Ball
This is going to be a tough sell considering the projected starting quarterback against Illinois is currently battling his way back from an injury that benched him against South Dakota State.
However, Nebraska must commit to running the ball.
Against South Dakota State, quarterback Tommy Armstrong ran the option beautifully. It was reminiscent of what Taylor Martinez was capable of prior to his injury.
Dealing with turf-toe, the four-year starting quarterback has found that the run is not coming as easily as it once was.
That doesn't mean there are not a lot of backs that can't supplement that area for Martinez. For example, I-back Imani Cross had 10 strong runs against South Dakota State for a total of 60 yards. Cross can be a workhorse if need be, similar to former I-back Rex Burkhead.
With the help of Cross, the Huskers had more than 300 yards rushing and passing in the same game for the first time in school history, as reported by the Lincoln Journal Star's Brian Christopherson.
Armstrong also showed exactly why running is so crucial for the Huskers. On the first snap of the game against the Jackrabbits, Armstrong and I-back Ameer Abdullah put their legs to use getting Nebraska to the 29-yard line on the opening drive.
From there, passing was just an added benefit. However, it was the run game that kept the momentum going.
Nebraska knows this, though. Martinez has always been known for his legs. However, if the veteran quarterback is limited by injury, it will be something the Huskers must address.
How exactly Nebraska addresses it will be something worth keeping an eye on.
Too many times, Nebraska defenders allow opponents to literally slip right through their fingers.
The UCLA game gets pointed to most but it's arguably the best example of Nebraska's missed opportunities. It's amazing how much could have been different had the Huskers not missed a tackle here and a tackle there.
For example, with only minutes left in the half, Avery Moss had UCLA quarterback Brett Hundley within his grasp. It was 3rd-and-12 and Nebraska desperately needed to get to halftime as the momentum was beginning to shift in the Bruins' favor. Had Moss just held on and managed to get the sack, the UCLA punt team would have most likely been out on the field.
Instead, Moss' missed tackle allowed Hundley to scramble and snag the first down. UCLA would then go on to score four plays later. The rest was really history.
Obviously, the loss to UCLA cannot be placed entirely on Moss. His missed tackle at a crucial moment was just a prime example, though, of what the Huskers need to work on in the bye week.
Confidence will be key. Nebraska's defense is young but still talented. Tackling is a fundamental part of the game and it should be a major focus from the defense before Illinois.
Improved tackling will do nothing but benefit Nebraska and stabilize the negative statistics a bit.
Get used to hearing analysts discuss Nebraska's "gap integrity."
Nebraska is currently ranked 83rd nationally in rush defense. Because of this, upcoming opponents are going to be focused on how the Huskers react to open gaps. To date, Nebraska hasn't handled the gaps well, which has led to many defensive breakdowns.
Grant Muessel of Hail Varsity did a fantastic job describing Nebraska's issue with the gaps. In a review of the Huskers' matchup with South Dakota State, Muessel said:
Simply put, the gaps between players on the offensive line of scrimmage are gaps A through C. A sound two-gap defense (like the one Pelini runs at Nebraska) reads the offensive blocking scheme and reacts, choosing which gaps to “fill” but leaves responsibility for linebackers and defensive backs in others. You might say the goal of a two-gap defense is to allow linebackers to make the plays, which in the case of Nebraska, might be two true freshmen most of the time.
Defensive coordinator John Papuchis said after studying Saturday's game film, the gap philosophy will need to be reconfigured.
South Dakota State running back Zach Zenner is the biggest reason Papuchis needs to take a hard look at Nebraska's gap integrity. During the first quarter of Saturday's matchup, Zenner ran for a 40-yard touchdown and another impressive 35-yard run, all in a matter of just eight minutes. These runs were both in direct response to busted coverage by the Huskers and large gaps made available for Zenner to run right through.
Unless Pelini and Papuchis can correct this issue quickly, future opponents will use it to their advantage time-and-time again.
More Pressure from Defensive Line
If the going gets tough for Nebraska, the pressure goes out the door. More specifically, when the defensive line lacks pressure, everything else seems to fall apart around it.
During the matchup with UCLA, Nebraska's young defensive line did a great job in the first half of putting Bruin quarterback Brett Hundley in many uncomfortable situations.
Hundley was forced to make quick plays that resulted in only a single field goal for most of the first half. Things began to shift when Avery Moss missed the sack on 3rd-and-12 towards the end of the first half.
From there, UCLA took control.
Defensive coordinator John Papuchis began to craft a more conservative and controlled approach to rushing the quarterback as a result. Unfortunately, this did nothing but allow Hundley more time in the pocket. The Nebraska secondary was then forced to cover UCLA's receivers for extended periods of time. Hundley took advantage of that and made the plays needed.
From there, the pressure from the Nebraska defensive line crumbled. The controlled rush led to player errors that were difficult to correct. Head coach Bo Pelini thought his team looked like it had seen a ghost.
By the end of the third quarter against UCLA, Nebraska very well may have. Small mistakes added up and Hundley was given all the time and room to make plays.
Going forward, Nebraska will need to bring the pressure up front. To accomplish this, leaders will need to step forward, something the Lincoln Journal Star's Steve Sipple recently commented on. In his article this week, he said:
In the absence of overflowing talent, a defense had better possess a killer instinct and at least a couple of forceful leaders. We’ve seen scant evidence of a killer instinct in Nebraska’s 2013 defense. Listening to coaches and players, forceful leadership (think Jason Peter and Grant Wistrom) also may be lacking.
The Nebraska defense has been getting burned. It's time for that to stop. During the bye week, Pelini and Papuchis need to address the lack of leadership and the lack of pressure. Without either, the Huskers will continue to crumble when the going gets tough.
If Nebraska wants to win, the team is going to have to start finishing strong.
Multiple times in non-conference play, the Huskers struggled towards the end. The numbers speak volumes.
According to TeamRankings.com, Nebraska's offense is averaging 15 points per first quarter, 9.3 in the second and third each and 4.3 in the fourth. That's a significant drop.
It can be pointed out that the Huskers had backups in during the second half for both Southern Mississippi and South Dakota State. While a fair point, the difference from the first quarter to the fourth should not be so significant.
As for the defense, TeamRankings.com shows that the Blackshirts allow 4.3 points per first quarter, 5.7 per second, 14 per third and 5.3 per fourth. This is a new problem, too. For comparison, Nebraska's defense gave up 7.7 points per first quarter, 9.6 per second, 6.1 per third and 5.8 per fourth in 2012.
That third-quarter number for 2013 should be alarming. It's proof that Pelini's defense struggles to get going post-halftime, something that was not an issue in 2012. This then sets the offense up to match the points allowed. However, based on the numbers from above, that's not happening.
The numbers for this season are slightly skewed thanks to the UCLA matchup, but it's not enough to ignore and not reevlauate how Nebraska is playing in the second half.
Going forward in Big Ten play, Nebraska will need to play consistent from beginning to end. This applies to both the offense and the defense as both are showing weakness in the third and fourth quarters. During the bye week, this will need to be addressed.