Saturday, September 17, 2011
Huskers winning with unexpected formula
By Brian Bennett
LINCOLN, Neb. -- Nebraska will officially introduce itself to Big Ten play in two weeks at Wisconsin. The league doesn't seem to be getting exactly what it bargained for in the deal.
The Cornhuskers were billed as a dominating defensive squad with a questionable offense. Hardly. They're winning via shootout, leading to this odd quote from linebacker Will Compton after Saturday's 51-38 victory over Washington:
"Thank God for our offense," he said.
The Huskies seem to bring out the schizophrenia in Nebraska, which played two mirror-image games against Washington last season. In taking the rubber match, Bo Pelini's team showed that it's not all about defense. In fact, sometimes that seems optional.
The Blackshirts ranked among the nation's best in most defensive categories the past two seasons, but they're not leaving too many people black and blue so far in 2011. They've allowed 67 points the past two games and let Washington score three fourth-quarter touchdowns on Saturday after the game looked well in hand.
Huskies players repeatedly broke tackles, and Keith Price became the second straight quarterback to bedevil the Nebraska pass rush with his mobility, as Fresno State's Derek Carr did last week. Though Pelini said he turned his defensive front loose after building a 44-17 lead, the Huskers managed only one second-half sack (granted, it was a big one, as Cameron Meredith tackled Price on a fourth down in the red zone).
"I wouldn't say it was tough for us to get pressure," defensive lineman Terrence Moore said. "We're keeping our eye out for a lot of things, like the quarterback run."
That raises an obvious question: if athletic quarterbacks pose this many problems, how will Nebraska handle Wisconsin's Russell Wilson in two weeks? The Huskers talked confidently in the preseason about roughing up the Big Ten with their defense, but they've gotten sliced and diced by two West Coast teams in the past two weeks. The defense will undoubtedly improve once star cornerback Alfonzo Dennard returns; he warmed up in uniform before the game and appears very close to overcoming a leg muscle injury.
Rex Burkhead scored two touchdowns and rushed for 120 yards on 22 carries as the offense carried Nebraska to victory.
Yet, as Huskers players gave interviews outside the new weight room Ndamukong Suh helped pay for, they knew guys like Suh wouldn't recognize what's going on.
"All those yards and points, that's unacceptable," Compton said. "We're not at all happy with that."
On the bright side, the offense continues to produce at high levels, and Saturday brought its most consistent effort of the young season.
In the first two weeks, Nebraska was as likely to go three-and-out as it was to score a 50-yard touchdown, and it did a lot of both. Quarterback Taylor Martinez had accounted for nearly 80 percent of the total yards.
Offensive coordinator Tim Beck used a more varied attack on Saturday, especially in the second half. Instead of just counting on Martinez to break one, the Huskers got key contributions from running backs Rex Burkhead (121 yards and two touchdowns), Braylon Heard (34 yards) and Aaron Green (36 yards in the fourth quarter). Green, a freshman listed fourth on the depth chart, had only two carries before Saturday.
"We're trying to take some of the load off Taylor," said fullback Tyler Legate, who had his own 37-yard run as well as a touchdown catch. "We have enough playmakers that he doesn't have to be the one."
The offensive line, which featured three former walk-ons in the starting lineup, helped establish a much-needed power running game in the second half. Beck said he kept calling the same run with Burkhead in the fourth quarter over and over again, because Washington couldn't stop it.
"I thought it was a good mix," Pelini said of the offense. "There was physicality. We ran the ball at them, we threw the ball, we kept them off-balance. If we execute like that, it's pretty hard to defend us."
Martinez continues to be hard to defend. He threw for 155 yards and ran for 83 against the Huskies, with three total touchdowns. Maybe most importantly, he didn't turn the ball over. Beck said he puts a lot on Martinez's shoulders, expecting the sophomore to change the cadence and tempo and read defenses at the line of scrimmage without help from the sidelines.
"He's done a fantastic job running our offense," Beck said. "I just think the media's been critical of him."
The defense is probably in for much more critiquing this week, especially from the demanding Pelini. But Pelini had mostly praise for his team after Saturday's win.
"We're nowhere close in any respect, in any phase of our game, of where we need to be to be a championship football team," he said. "But I think we're making progress."
Just maybe not the type of progress anybody expected.