Tuesday, October 11, 2011
Midseason report: Nebraska
By Brian Bennett
Record: 5-1 (1-1 Big Ten)
In the preseason, we debated whether Nebraska winning the Big Ten in its first year as a member would reflect badly on the league. Up until the third quarter of last week's game against Ohio State, Huskers fans might have wondered whether they should have stayed in the Big 12. This proud program marched into the conference, confident it could compete with the Big Ten's best thanks to its defense. But the 2011 Blackshirts have intimidated people about as much as Seinfeld's Puffy Shirt so far, allowing more than 27 points per game and getting rolled for 48 in a 31-point loss at Wisconsin. Head coach Bo Pelini and brother/defensive coordinator Carl Pelini still are seeking answers, though the group showed signs of life in the second half of that season-saving comeback victory over the Buckeyes. Defensive tackle Jared Crick, No. 1 in our Big Ten preseason player rankings, hasn't lived up to advance billing (a head injury against Washington definitely didn't help), and the defense needs to improve up front. The offense has flashed serious big-play potential while averaging 37 points per game. But first-year playcaller Tim Beck seems to still be figuring out the best way to employ speedy quarterback Taylor Martinez, who drew heavy criticism after his three-interception disaster at Wisconsin. Running back Rex Burkhead has provided a steady presence both on and off the field for the Huskers, who also might boast the league's best group of special-teams performers. Nebraska is not the juggernaut import we thought it might be, and now we can consider this team as one of merely several that could win the Legends Division. The Huskers will still have a lot to say about how the 2011 season plays out, however.
Offensive MVP: Running back Rex Burkhead. He tops all Big Ten running backs with 635 yards, while averaging nearly 6 yards per carry. Burkhead's play powered the comeback win against Ohio State. Good things seem to happen when Nebraska feeds him. Burkhead has also showed strong leadership in the locker room, keeping the team together as Martinez faced a storm of criticism from fans.
Defensive MVP: Linebacker Lavonte David. Several Huskers defensive players have failed to perform up to their potential, but not David. A tackling machine, he got the Ohio State rally started with a key forced fumble. He leads the Big Ten in total tackles with 58, plus two sacks and an interception. Nebraska came into the season with three well-publicized stars in Crick, David and cornerback Alfonzo Dennard; David has clearly been the best of the bunch.