When you look at the game this last Saturday, you could probably pick out the biggest areas that Nebraska needed to improve. While the defense seemed to dominate almost throughout, the offense was at times, it's own worst enemy and the passing game seemed all but ineffective for the majority of the contest.
With that being said, it wasn't necessarily a throwback game on that side of the ball because unlike last year, the offensive line was a different line than the season prior to this. "I think they played a very physical ball game." O-line coach and offensive coordinator, Barney Cotton said. "We went into the game thinking that we had to control the line of scrimmage and hopefully wear them down by game's end. They were successful in that endeavor."
Another issue outside of raw performance was raw stamina as well, the efforts of Brian Bailey being touted, but this game the first real opportunity to test how their attrition would be. Cotton seemed pleased with that as well. "Excellent stamina." he said. "I really intended to play a few more guys (but), other than two series by Brandon Koch, the 5 starters played the whole game and Richie played over 80 snaps and had to run down on 6 punts as well, so I think it really shows the conditioning effort they gave over the Summer."
One of the main down-sides to the day was penalties, all but one occurring on the offensive side of the ball. This included two offensive face mask penalties, a rarely called penalty that is said to be one that will be concentrated on more this year by referees. Those two personal fouls alone were frustrating enough, but the entirety of the mental mistakes was a glaring problem, especially since a great deal of them took place in or close to the "Red Zone". "You don't generally have two stiff-arms that turn into personal fouls." Cotton said of the penalties. "They were both good calls however and we deserved to get personal fouls on those."
Addressing the other penalties, Cotton said that any wasn't good, but within that there is a give and take. "You are going to get a holding occasionally and we'll take those as long as it isn't very many, but you hate to have a motion penalty when you are on the 4 yard line."
"A motion penalty that turns a 1st and 4 into a 1st and 9 and then a holding turns into a 1st and 19. A lot of times, the best thing you can hope for is a field goal and we were unsuccessful there, so (I) was very frustrated with the penalties."
The penalties went a long ways into marring what was an otherwise fairly dominate performance by the offensive line, the Huskers being able to move the ball on the Cowboys right away. The penalties however all but eliminated touchdown opportunities and turned them into special team chances, where NU also was lackluster, going 1 for 3 on field goals, one hitting the up-right and one being blocked by OSU. "1 of 3 is not going to get it done." Frank Solich said. "That's an area that we need to get consistent in."
The poor performance of Sandro DeAngelis was only compounded during the OSU game as Dale Endorf, the kicker that was doing the kickoffs against the Cowboys suffered a leg injury that was determined yesterday to be a season-ending injury. That loss puts the kicking unit as a whole under strain and puts true Freshman, David Dyches even more squarely into the realm of probable now, instead of simply potential in regards to seeing time early on this year. "We'll continue to look at David." Solich stated. "With Dale being available to us as well as Sandro, we thought we had two guys that were capable of kicking the ball off, two guys capable of going in there, kicking winning field-goals."
"With Dale not being in that picture right now, it really brings David much more into the picture."
The emphasis on special teams can't be understated, at least at Nebraska. A school that is infamous for good special teams, this year has had a shaky start, DeAngelis with the two misses and the almost always-dependable, Kyle Larson who actually shanked one punt.
The other shaky part was one that most hoped wouldn't continue to be that, this stemming from a less than sub-par performance last year and that of course was at QB. Jammal Lord threw for less than 50% on the season last year, but managed exactly half and half in the game against OSU. It was obvious though that there were passes that Lord made that weren't ineffective due to defense, rather they were just bad passes. Something Lord readily admits. "I threw some bad passes." he said. "Some easy passes I usually make in my sleep. I just threw some bad passes that didn't get there, (but) I have to move on and get better."
Better something Cotton agreed with, actually stating that he thought the passing game took a step back this last weekend instead of forward. "Looking at the film, we were 8 for 16." he said. "Very realistically, we should have been 12 for 16. Had we been 12 for 16, we may have thrown the ball a little bit more."
"I really thought training camp had prepared us better than what had showed on Saturday."
"Throwing the ball has to be a much bigger part of what we do."
The questions at QB inevitably led up to questions about the other signal-callers on the depth chart. As you would assume though, most of the questions were centered around true freshman, Joe Dailey. Coming off a game, such as it was in the passing department, Utah State would appear to be a perfect opportunity to get all the quarterbacks in the game. While Solich conceded the potential, he said the game itself would dictate if that would be realized or not. "(I) Very much would like to get that done." Solich said of getting both Stuntz and Dailey playing time against Utah State. "We'll see how the game goes. Ideally, you would like to get at least one of those guys some snaps in the first half in the rest of the games to be played, but we will only do that if the situation is called for."
"(But) We do need to start preparing our backup quarterback not only for this season, but for next season, so with that in mind, we are going to be forced to do some things where it may make you a little nervous as far as not having your number one guy in there, but through this first half, we'll see how it goes."
With all the question marks on offense, there seemed to be only exclamation points on defense, the Huskers holding the offensively-potent combination of Josh Fields, Rashaun Woods and Tatum Bell to anemic outputs. As a team the entire Cowboy offense didn't even manage 185 yards, so if anyone had questions about the blackshirts, to some extent, they were answered this last weekend. Of course, the satisfaction about the event for the coaches is over as the film has been reviewed and it's about what they didn't do, coach Be Pelini making it clear that his defense is capable, but not perfect by any stretch of the imagination. "There were a lot of good things." Pelini stated. "But, there are a lot of improvements that we need to make. A lot of little things and that's what's going to add up to making a difference between being good and great."
As with any coach, you would expect some very high standards, especially at a place like Nebraska. Add into the fact where Bo Pelini just came from, you don't minimize what lifetime collegiate coaches expect, but Pelini's point of view should be different, at least to an extent. Whether that contributes to his overall view of his defense or not, that's up in the air and he's not answering, but for him, there's a long ways to go before this defense is where it's supposed to be. "We haven't arrived by any means." He said. "We had a number of breakdowns and a number of things that didn't hurt us, that could of."
"I think our guys are excited and they are seeing progress, but they also know there's a lot of improvement to be made."
While Pelini was reserved in his comments about the accomplishments of the defense, Solich was more complimentary, if only slightly more. "We dominated things from the defensive end of it." Solich stated.
A 32 point underdog looks like little more than a speed-bump, even to a team still trying to find itself after such a tumultuous season. What the Aggies offer though is an opportunity to do a lot of things. What most people would assume first is that Nebraska will be able to play most anyone and everyone they haven't gotten a chance to play because of the way the Oklahoma State game went. While that's true, outside of David Dyches and Joe Dailey, Solich stated that he wasn't planning on putting any other true freshmen in this particular game.
Of course, that's all based on this game going as planned, something not all games do and Utah State while they don't present real competition from a man-to-man talent and speed standpoint, their schemes on both sides of the ball offer the coordinators for Nebraska some interesting if not frustrating challenges. "They are way unconventional." Bo Pelini said of Utah State's offense. "They do a lot of good things, but they are all over the place."
"It's a little bit different. It'll take some more from our guys' standpoint just so we don't give them anything."
On defense, Utah State is not outdone in that area as well, Solich remarking to the uniqueness of the scheme they utilize. "They've gone back to a "30" front." Solich stated. "That's a completely different look than what we faced against Oklahoma State. Barney Cotton reiterated those sentiments, stating, "It isn't a real traditional defense these days in college football." he said.
"So, we are going to spend a lot of time this week playing assignment football, getting our kids up to speed against a new front."
Utah State comes into this game 0-1, dropping their season-opener to Utah, 40-20. Utah State threw the ball 41 times in that game, while running it for a total of 77 yards. Last year, Utah State passed a similar amount, putting it in the air 44 times, rushing the ball 30 times, tallying 321 net yards in total offense, but managed only 13 points for the contest.
NU leads the series with Utah State, 7-0, last year's contest 44-13, which is remarkably close to the average score of the game throughout the series, it currently standing at an average of 46.7 points for NU to Utah State's 13.3 points per game over the 7 meetings.
Utah State's new defense will be looking to address the 475 yards per game it gave up last year in total offense, the Aggies giving up 382 yards in it's season-debut against Utah. 202 yards of that was on the ground.
The game is slated to go off at 11:40 a.m. and will be aired on the Fox Sports Network.
Steve Ryan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 402-730-5619