Is it just me or did this week take forever to get here? The 2010-11 season didn't end like many hoped. After opening up 5-0 the Huskers lost a tough one to Texas and lost again later at Texas A&M. Then the Huskers ended up losing in the Big 12 Championship game for the second straight year to Oklahoma only to face Washington for the second time in the same season in the same bowl game they played in the year before.
Yes, the season shined at times particularly in games at Washington, Kansas State and Oklahoma State and the home contest against Missouri are likely the games that pop into many Husker fans' heads when it comes to their favorites of last year. There was definitely a turning point in the season and it took place at home and you will see by the games that I listed that nothing shows up beyond the Missouri game.
The injury to Taylor Martinez's ankle during the Missouri game is something that changed the complexion of the rest of the season. Martinez missed the start at Iowa State and only took one snap that game. The Huskers went from averaging nearly 38 points per game through the first eight games of the season to just about 22 through the last six games. Martinez also did not score a rushing touchdown after the Thursday night beat down of Kansas State on national television in the fifth game of the season.
Martinez is supposedly healthy. Rex Burkhead returns. But, the story will once again be what offense will we see? Gone is Shawn Watson and Tim Beck assumed the offensive coordinator and quarterback coach duties. The defense should be rock solid again led by a pre-season all-American selection at each level of the defense in Jared Crick, Lavonte David and Alfonzo Dennard. Given that brief synopsis here is what I will be watching this weekend as Nebraska opens up the 2011-12 season in the Big Ten Conference.
1. What will this new offense look like? - Let me be the next to take a swing at it and give you the weakest answer. I will say we aren't going to know anytime soon. No way if there are real wrinkles in the offense that they will be busted out for UTC. I don't expect anything other than straight vanilla, game management and ball control offense that might be a little more up-tempo than what Husker fans are used to for UTC and likely for Fresno State, Washington and Wyoming too. If there are new wrinkles they will be broken out for Wisconsin on October 1. I will also be watching how much Taylor Martinez is the primary ball carrier in comparison to those first games last season and when will Brion Carnes enter the game.
2. Youth movement on offense - Jamal Turner was the talk of Husker Nation following an electrifying spring game performance when he affected the game from the wide receiver position and also in the return game. There is a chance that true freshman Tyler Moore will actually be starting along the offensive line on Saturday. Moore, like Turner, reported to Nebraska early to take part in the spring semester in Lincoln. There are three true freshmen Aaron Green, Ameer Abdullah and Braylon Heard who will all supposedly forego their redshirt seasons to play this year. I would also keep an eye on David Sutton and Taariq Allen too.
#10 Jamal Turner (Picture By: Josh Harvey)
3. Defense sets the tone - The offense this year might be exciting to watch, but like Bo Pelini's first two seasons in Lincoln as a head coach the defense will be the key to the success of the season. There are high expectations for the defense that was voted the best at each level by The Sporting News and has a pre-season all-American selections in Jared Crick, Lavonte David and Alfonzo Dennard. What's going to be interesting is the rotation that Nebraska is going to use at each level and who comes in.
Three things to watch:
1. Game plan to attack Nebraska's defense - In listening to the press conference for UTC head coach, Russ Huesman, he knows that his quarterback (B.J. Coleman) isn't going to have the luxury to sit back in the pocket against Nebraska and go through his progressions. That being said, look for UTC to use the screen passes a lot on Saturday which will test the Nebraska linebackers and secondary. Nebraska played well against these types of plays the past two seasons, but that was with players like Eric Hagg, Dejon Gomes and Prince Amukamara behind the defensive line. The Nebraska secondary is talented, but even with Alfonzo Dennard they still lack the type of experience Nebraska returned there last year.
2. Battle in the trenches - There wasn't a source for more inconsistent play last year than along the offensive front. There weren't a lot of games that Nebraska just seemed like a physical, top BCS program like they should and what makes you even more aware of this was the play last year against another FCS team, South Dakota State. It seems that Nebraska is going to have a generous size advantage on both sides of the line of scrimmage when it comes to the offensive and defensive lines. There won't be a lot that anyone can take away from dominating the game on Saturday, like they probably should, but a positive that you look to take away from it is no breakdowns.
3. Rotations - This is a weekend where Nebraska should be hopeful that they can get out to an early lead, hold UTC in check to where they never threaten to lead the game and that should allow Nebraska to go deep in rotational depth on both sides of the football. As stated before, I am going to be particularly interested when they decide to hand it over to Brion Carnes on Saturday. Also, I am interested out of the three freshman running backs which is the first one to come in for Burkhead? Are there any multiple running back sets or diamond-like formation plays? Wildcat? I also want to see guys like Josh Mitchell, Bronson Marsh, Terrence Moore, Josh Williams and the two junior college transfers Daimion Stafford and Joe Carter get some reps to see where they are at.
#2 Aaron Green and #8 Ameer Abdullah (Picture By: Josh Harvey)
If anyone thinks that this game is going to be a snoozer and is planning on washing the car or mowing the yard during this time, think again. The Jackrabbits from SDSU last year came into Lincoln and really pushed Nebraska around, physically, and got up for that game like it was the last game they were ever going to play. That game was really in doubt until the scoreboard read 0:00 in the 4th quarter. The key to that game for SDSU? Making Nebraska uncomfortable by forcing the turnover. SDSU picked off Nebraska twice and recovered one of the four fumbles that Nebraska had that day.
I don't look at this game as being a lot different. Chattanooga is going to want to slow down the pace of the game and try and force Nebraska to make some bad decisions and also get them to turn over the football. It's what you have to do as a FCS team coming to play at a big-time BCS school if you want to have any chance to win the football game. And given the changes that Nebraska is going through from last season to the this season in terms of coaching, system and personnel it's a real possibility for UTC to accomplish.
In the end though, it shouldn't be enough for UTC to win. The game isn't going to be crisp. It can get better for Nebraska, but there isn't a team nationally that can't improve from one week to the next. The Huskers will have things to work on next week, but they will have enough in the tank and enough polish already on the team to come out and win fairly convincingly. The bottom line for this game though will be that no matter how well Nebraska does that they will need to focus on the things and the plays that didn't go as they had hoped. Huskers allow double-digit total to UTC based on a bad turnover, 45-13.