Nebraska Vs. Washington: Five Concerns and Five Strengths Going Into Week 3
Nebraska fans here we are again, 2-0 with the rest of the season ahead of us. It's happened before, many times before.
Since 2004 Nebraska has gone 2-0 in their first few weeks every year, but have only gone 3-0 twice in that span (2005 and 2009). Losses against the likes of Virginia Tech and USC were the reasons why then and now, it is the third game of the year and Nebraska hopes to break that trend against Washington in Seattle.
However, in order to do that the Huskers must fix a myriad of problems both on the offense and the defense. I've chosen five things to focus on in week three. Also, Nebraska must expand on those things that seem to be working and execute them better.
The following are five things I see that need to be addressed and five strengths that need to get stronger. Enjoy, and feel free to add, comment and like as needed.
5. The Passing Game (Concern)
The frustrating thing for Nebraska fans is that Nebraska has the talent and depth in the Wide Receiving corps to be dangerous this season, Niles Paul, Brandon Kinnie, Mike McNeill and even players like Will Henry and Quincy Enunwa, the problem is that their production has been inconsistent at best.
Much of this is due to a Redshirt Freshman quarterback in the first starts of his college football career. Things like poorly executed timing routes can be linked back to inexperience at the quarterback position and so can missed opportunities for big plays (i.e. a short armed pass for a sure touchdown to Mike McNeill in the Idaho game).
However, one thing that has plagued this receiving corps is the ability to consistently run good routes. Niles Paul can't run a consistent out route or come-back route to save his life and Brandon Kinnie does well on the short routes but not on the deep posts or in routes. Mike McNeill, arguably Nebraska's best route runner doesn't have break away speed but runs consistent routes.
The problem is that Mike is usually the third or fourth target in the progression and Martinez doesn't usually read that far. The running backs are running good routes and catching the ball which is a plus, but the wide receivers have to be more consistent if Nebraska wants to pull away from Washington early.
(The good with the bad: Nebraska's wide receivers are really good at blocking, just need to cut down on the holds)
4. Pass Protection (Concern)
Whether it's Taylor Martinez's pocket presence or solidifying the left tackle position Pass Protection is a worry going into the game against Washington. Even with Martinez's snake like quickness and ability to make tackler's miss he has been sacked a few times already this year against the likes of Western Kentucky and Idaho.
When Martinez has had time however he has done a great job of picking apart secondaries down field and making his reads. One thing I've noticed is that he has quelled his interest to take off at the first sign of pressure, which is good sometimes but other times I found myself just screaming for him to run. A mobile quarterback can really make an offensive line look good.
Ricky Henry should probably be demoted from his starting role given his propensity for dumb mistakes and Jermarcus Hardrick has most definitely shown me better ability in pass protection than Sirles. However, if you have both of the on the ends the entire game (RT and LT) they could become one of the better O-Line duos in the Big 12.
Nebraska's offensive line is still shifting trying to figure out its best mix, but come Saturday they better have most of that figured out.
3. Stopping the Run (Concern)
It's true, LaVonte David is a beast. He's good in coverage and quick to the ball but is he big enough to stuff the run week in and week out? That much we don't know.
Countless times against both Idaho and Western Kentucky I saw concerning gaps in our defense against the running game. Nebraska gave up 155 yards to the Hilltoppers' Bobby Rainey on the ground alone and gave up 107 yards combined to Idaho's Deonte Jackson and Princeton McCarty. However, because of sacks on Enderle the defense ended up only giving up 60 yards on the ground against Idaho for 1.6 yards a carry.
Make no mistake, Washington will try to exploit this in the coming week with one of the PAC-10's better backs in Chris Polk who gained over 1,000 yards rushing a season ago. This year Polk has carried the ball 36 times for 209 yards at 5.8 yards per clip. Take away a 52 yard run against Syracuse though and Polk's total goes to 157 at 4.48 yards per clip.
Nebraska front seven better be ready because Sarkisian's team will line it up and run it right at the Huskers for at least the first quarter. If Nebraska can stop that and force the game into the hand of Locker and Kearse it could be easy pickens again for the Husker's ball hawking secondary.
2. Penalties (Concern)
Mostly of the offensive variety Nebraska struggled with clippings, personal fouls, and holds in the Idaho game. Ironically the photo on this slide shows a hold that wasn't called against Western Kentucky, it also shows the sheer strength of Hardrick.
Nebraska had a near touchdown called back on a penalty against Idaho in their first drive, the Huskers then had to settle for a field goal. Later in the game Nebraska had a drive inside the twenty called back to the 40 yard line because of some penalties against the offensive line. Nebraska continuously shot themselves in the foot against Idaho and CANNOT continue to do so against the likes of Washington, Kansas State, Texas, and Missouri.
I'm sure Nebraska should be better going into Seattle this weekend, but my mind keeps flashing back to that first and goal opportunity against Virginia Tech that turned into a fourth and goal from the 40 with a punt that helped keep the Hokie's close enough to score that miraculous touchdown. Under Barney Cotton Nebraska's offensive lines have somehow forgotten how to operate legally in the Red Zone and that's something that cannot continue to be the case for the Huskers going forward.
1. Ball Securty (Concern)
Nebraska has turned the ball over six times in two games, luckily, Nebraska has turned the opposition over eight times in that same time span giving the Husker's a +2 in the turnover category.
However, Nebraska cannot continue to be careless with the football, we all saw where that leads last year against Iowa State. If Nebraska wants to have success, particularly success away from home, they must do better at ball security.
Here's looking at you Niles Paul.
Niles Paul has been personally responsible for two of Nebraska's six turnovers while PJ Smith fumbled an interception against Western Kentucky that would have probably given Nebraska a 56-3 win instead of a 49-10 win. The other three turnovers were on a sack in the red zone (T-Mart) and first and goal on the one yard line of Idaho (Trey Robinson) as well as an interception on a play where T-Magic was trying to be too much of a magician. Two of those three turnovers had an effect on the score of the game, two touchdowns were taken away from Nebraska in a game where the Huskers could have won 48-17 and solidified their number 6 spot in the poles while Idaho missed a field goal on Paul's fumble.
As you can see these turnovers did have an effect on the end outcome of the game, and this weekend we might need those extra 10 to 14 points to win.
5. Run Blocking (Strength)
This goes as Nebraska's number Five strength because there is definite need for improvement from the offensive line. In the zone-read and option-counter plays Nebraska's blocking has been serviceable if not outstanding. Nebraska has been able to break runs of over 50 yards for two games straight for the first time in recent memory.
In other words Nebraska's zone-blocking schemes are coming around quite nicely. However, there is room for improvement.
Late in the Idaho game you might recall Nebraska going for it on fourth and one, probably a test for the physicality of the guys up front. Rex Burkhead lost a yard on the play and the ball was turned over (yet another score off the board for the offense in that game). Also, on more than one occasion Ben Cotton was caught for clipping and holds were called on plays that should have been big gainers.
Nebraska has the quality and depth to be a great running team, now they just need to ratchet up the consistency.
4. Special Teams (Strength)
Special Teams makes my list at number four because ever since Alex Henery's 57 yard kick against Colorado he has become something of an enigma. The tall lanky body of Henery doesn't lend itself to the idea of power, but his ability to make clutch kicks and punts mixed with accuracy and power literally gives him a leg up on the rest of the kicker's in the country. So much so that Lee Corso cited Henery as the reason Nebraska has a shot at the national title this season.
Adi Kunalic is a weapon on kickoffs as well as he has the nation's leading touchback ratio. Not to mention that even if teams try to return his kicks the kick coverage unit is as tenacious as ever with players like Courtney Osborne, Eric Martin, and Austin Cassidy leading the way.
Niles Paul may not be able to hold onto the ball much on offense but he has vision and big play ability in the punt return game, however Tim Marlowe is fast becoming a household name in Nebraska for his ability to read blocks and get up field in a hurry. Marlowe probably lacks the speed to take one to the house but he can get one across the 50 a few times for you.
3. Pass Rush (Strength)
Much was said about Nebraska's front seven coming into this season, without Phillip Dillard or Ndamukong Suh people wondered if the Cornhusker's could apply enough pressure on opposing quarterbacks to make them uncomfortable.
The answer seems to have come earlier than expected. Pierre Allen, Baker Steinkuhler, Jared Crick, and Cameron Meredith have shown the ability to rush the quarterback consistently and effectively. The only thing missing, is that pass break up ability that Suh had. Nebraska hasn't tipped one ball at the line of scrimmage yet this season.
However with eight sacks going into Seattle and one of the most athletic front seven's in the country Locker will be in for a treat, or nightmare, against this unit. It's most likely safe to say not even USC as posed this type of threat to Locker before. It should be a great battle.
2. Big Play Ability (Strength)
Taylor Martinez has brought something to this offense that it didn't have most of last season: Big play ability. Nebraska's longest play from scrimmage a year ago didn't come until the Holiday Bowl on a 74 yard touchdown pass to Niles Paul in the fourth quarter.
This season Nebraska has already seen scoring plays of 46, 67, and 58 yards respectively thanks to the legs of Martinez. Last year no one held their breath when Nebraska's quarterback had the ball, this year everyone does. Martinez may be young and inexperienced but he's fast and already runs the zone-read better than almost anyone I have ever seen.
Because of Martinez's big play ability that opens up the way for players like Roy Helu, Rex Burkhead, and Niles Paul to make big plays as well. Nebraska has more weapons on offense this season because they now have a quarterback that must be defended both through the air and on the ground. That's something Washington's defense hasn't seen yet this year, and when they saw it last year against Oregon they got pummelled 43-19.
1. Secondary (Strength)
Nebraska has intercepted the ball six times in two games already and they show no signs of slowing down. Prince Amukamara is already solidifying his position as the best lock down corner in the country while PJ Smith and Ricky Thenarse are turning into ball-hawking safeties garnering three of the six interceptions in the opening two games.
Aflonzo Dennard has shown improvement and looks to be possibly the second best lock down corner in the nation, if not the Big 12 and Dejon Gomes is a pure play maker forcing a fumble to save a touchdown against Western Kentucky and returning an interception for a touchdown against Idaho. Nebraska's secondary is as deep, talented and knowledgeable as their is in the country and Jake Locker is going to have to make sure his throws are pin point accurate because these guys know how to take the ball away. Just ask Texas and Colt McCoy.
Nebraska's question position at safety isn't a question any more with players like Smith, Gomes, Hagg, Cassidy, and Thenarse taking the load. Look for these guys to be flying around on Saturday and they will make a few key plays either early, late or both during the game.