Now that all the thrill and novelty of joining the Big Ten has worn off, maybe Nebraska can get back to the business of being Nebraska again.
While coach Bo Pelini didn’t seem to care a lick about the conference change and the players said all the right things but didn’t appear fazed, it was a storyline each and every week. From kicking of Big Ten life with a thud in a blowout loss at Wisconsin, to the gut-check win over Ohio State the following week, to the surreal and utterly creepy first game after the explosion at Penn State, the team was tested time and again.
The Huskers always took almost everyone’s best shot – Michigan State didn’t get the memo in a lifeless loss – and they’ll have to deal with that again with road trips to Ohio State, Michigan State and Iowa sure to jazz up the opposing fan bases, but unlike last year the team has to be on a more even keel. More important, they have to be able to show up against the better teams. They have to show the Big Ten that they deserve to be considered one of the league’s stronger programs.
The offense that looked like a potential juggernaut with 25 rushing scores in the first seven games fell flat with just six touchdowns on the ground over the final five games. With a lousy passing game unable to pick up the slack, the offense that scored 34 points or more over the six of the first seven games couldn’t come up with more than 25 over the final six.
No, this isn’t going to be 1997 Nebraska by any stretch and the expectations of the former superpower have slipped from national-title-or-bust to hoping for 10 wins, but the program still matters. It’s still going to be a weekly story throughout the Big Ten season because, yeah, Nebraska is still in a new world and it does still seem new and exciting. Now it’s time to establish its territory as a Big Ten power instead of looking like a faded Big 12 program in constant reloading mode.
What to watch for on offense: More from the passing game. Taylor Martinez was a good all-around playmaker in high school, but he’s a runner who makes the offense shine when he’s making things happen on the move. However, this offseason he spent time working hard on his mechanics – primarily getting the footwork right – to start adding more of a passing element to his game. He’ll never be a pro quarterback and he’ll never throw for 4,000 yards in a season as a Husker, but he should be able to do a bit more to boost the nation’s 104th-ranked passing game. The receiving corps is solid with the loaded tight end duo of Ben Cotton and Kyler Reed and speedy wideout Kenny Bell leading a veteran group of pass catchers. All Martinez has to do is start hitting on around 65 percent of his throws and complete more third down throws. He can do that.
What to watch for on defense: Will there be a pass rush? In 2009, Nebraska finished second in the nation in sacks, averaging over three per game and coming up with 44 on the year. Getting behind the line against wasn’t a problem, either, but it helped to ha Ndamukong Suh collapsing things from the inside. Partly because of the team’s aggressiveness up front, the D finished first in the nation in points allowed and seventh in total defense. In 2010 the Huskers struggled up front, finishing last in the Big 12 in tackles for loss coming up with just 60 tackles for loss. Last year, the pass rush was even worse with even few hits on the quarterback while finishing dead last once again the Big Ten in tackles for loss. The defense won’t be more aggressive this season, but it needs Cameron Meredith and Baker Steinkuhler up front to start making more big plays.
The team will be far better if: The running game rocks. For all the talk of a more balanced attack and for all the hopes of more big plays from the passing game, it’s still Nebraska and it’s still at its best when the offensive line gets to line up and blast away for the ground game. Nebraska went 9-0 last year when running for 155 yards or more, and 0-4 when going under the 155-yard mark. In 2011, the Huskers went 9-0 when rushing for 155 yards or more, and 0-4 when going under. The Huskers need to run effectively to win.
The schedule: The Huskers can be forgiven adding Idaho State to the non-conference schedule. There aren’t any real breaks with a sneaky-tough pre-Big Ten slate, with Conference USA champion Southern Miss to start, a huge game for the Jim Mora era at UCLA, and then a date with Sun Belt champ Arkansas State. And then the fun starts. The Big Ten slate couldn’t be harder getting the three best teams from the Leaders – Ohio State, Penn State, and Wisconsin – and going on the road to face the Buckeyes, Michigan State, and Iowa. Coming off a showdown with Michigan, the trip to Northwestern could be a landmine. While the Huskers won’t be at home once from Oct. 6 to mid-November, there’s a decent late stretch of three home games in four weeks before closing out at Iowa. Holding serve in Lincoln will be a must to have any dream of winning the Legends.
Best offensive player: Senior RB Rex Burkhead. How much more effective is Nebraska when it’s running the ball well? It’s 11-0 over the last 30 games when Burkhead runs for 100 yards or more. With decent size, breakaway speed and unquestioned toughness, he’s a workhorse who can occasionally hit the home run from time to time. He helped carry the attack in wins over Penn State and Iowa, and he barreled his way to a tough 119 yards against Ohio State and 130 against Michigan State. He might not have to run for 1,357 yards and 15 touchdowns again for Nebraska to win, but he can’t be far off.
Best defensive player: Senior DT Baker Steinkuhler. Linebacker Will Compton and safety Daimion Stafford could also be the team’s best defensive players. The new JUCO stars Zaire Anderson and Mohammed Sesay won’t be far off, but it’s Steinkuhler who needs to hold it all together. A steady performer over the last few years, he came up with 40 tackles with two sacks and five tackles for loss. This year he needs to be the anchor for an inconsistent defensive front that struggled after losing Ndamukong Suh a few years ago and wasn’t quite the same when Jared Crick was banged up. Steinkuhler is good enough to handle the work.
Key player to a successful season: The defensive JUCO transfers. There are only two, but they will be tremendously important. It’s always a risky proposition to ask any newcomers to make a gigantic impact right away, but that’s exactly what’s expected from Zaire Anderson and Mohammed Sesay. Linebacker Lavonte David made 133 tackles as the heart and soul of the defensive front, while Alfonzo Dennard, despite not making a pick, was the team’s top cornerback. Anderson has all the tools and all the talent to help pick up the slack for a linebacking corps that needs a new David, while Sesay showed this offseason that he can step in for Dennard without skipping a beat.
The season will be a success if: The Huskers win the Legends. It will take at least a split against Michigan and Michigan State in back-to-back weeks, and it’ll take another split over Wisconsin and Ohio State from the Leaders, but the team is just strong enough to get through road games at Northwestern and Iowa and should be able to beat Penn State and Minnesota. There’s no reason to go anything less than 4-0 in non-conference play, and a ten-win season should be expected.
Key game: Nov. 3 at Michigan State. The game against Michigan the week before could be more important, but that’s in Lincoln. Going to Ohio State will be tough, but that’s an interdivisional game. If the Huskers can hold serve against the Wolverines, then the date in East Lansing will probably determine – in some way – the Legends title, and it’ll also be at the end of a key stretch of three road dates in four games.