A step forward - A step back

Once, twice and even three times, I watched the Nebraska-Southern Miss. game. Not in-depth mind you, I was just wanting to see some things again, confirm some things and basically just get an idea of what had happened in that game. Did Nebraska get over some invisible hump or was this game a matter of things going well at the right time enough to make it look like that? For me, I have an idea.

Nebraska accomplished a lot down in Hattiesburg. The assumed-stigma behind road games and Frank Solich was for the moment, lifted. The doubt that NU could take USM out of the game quickly was just that quickly alleviated. And, the atmosphere of the crowd only seemed to give energy to an already energetic and at times, ferocious Nebraska defense.

Ok, now what Nebraska didn't do.

Granted, the two passes for touchdowns are nice and look great on paper, but Nebraska had only three drives that amassed over 5 plays, of those three, 1 ended up being an interception, 1 ended up in a punt and the other, a David Dyches field goal.

With that being said, NU was still able to score, which means for that to happen without putting a lot of plays together, NU either had the big play working or had the short-field to work with most of the night.

It was a little of both.

From the beginning, the Golden Eagles were on their heels, early mistakes digging a hole that they would not overcome. Their 1st and 3rd series on offense resulted in turnovers, each occurring deep in their own territory.

Thus, the short field.

And, yes, Nebraska had the big play as well, Isaiah Fluellen and Ross Pilkington each scoring on 40+ yard scoring strikes from QB, Jammal Lord.

I do have to go back to the drive chart however in reinforcing that had it not been for the field position and the big play, this would be a very different game.

I know, I know. You are saying that there are ‘ifs' and ‘would a' and ‘could a' to every game, this one no different. That's true and this game does follow suit in some respects to what has happened in each game for Nebraska prior.

What Nebraska has needed on offense, it has gotten. While the defense has been consistent as always, the offense has had to find itself each and every contest. The passing game being absent more often than not, the first three games required NU to be run-heavy and capable, something they proved to be.

With this game though, Nebraska's running game wasn't consistent at all, the offensive line encountering their first real resistance or in this case, successful resistance of the year. The Southern Miss. defensive line and linebackers playing expectedly close to the line of scrimmage were able to keep NU from making any consistent running-attacks almost non-existent.

Point of fact, NU's 141 yards rushing illustrates it enough by itself, but when you take into account that almost 50 of it came on a Robin Miller touchdown run when the game was already decided, you can see quite clearly just how tough it was for NU to run on Southern Miss. throughout the game when the game was still on the line.

One of Jammal Lord's passes came directly due to USM's intent to stop the run at all costs. Ross Pilkington breaking off into the clear wide-open, Lord was able to see him, hit him, Ross galloping into the end zone, almost by himself.

The second touchdown, well I have to say that when things are going right for you, you are going to find yourself fortunate in many cases, this being one of them. Lord put so much air under that ball that would eventually find Fluellen in the end zone, if I hadn't known better, I would have thought he was catching a punt. The cornerback was not able to adjust however, Fluellen shielding the defender off nicely to grab the ball for the score.

I would love to agree with the rest of the Husker-lovin world in how much positivity was taken from this game, especially in the area of passing. Jammal finally got two balls over the top, something NU desperately needed to get the defense out of the box, if just a little.

To be honest, I thought the best ball Lord threw all night was the one TE, Matt Herian short-armed, Lord only leading Herian just a tad too much. I thought that was a very catchable ball for the usually sure-handed Herian, one that would have been the biggest play of the game, at least yardage-wise.

And, Jammal did throw some good balls during the game, one of which was dropped by Fluellen, a comebacker that would have also been a significant play for NU.

Alas, most people are looking to two throws that in reality weren't all that good, but the end result is what matters.

On paper, NU passed for almost as many yards as they ran. If you had heard just that without hearing the actual numbers, you might beam with pride. The numbers do tell a little different story.

Lord was under 50 percent throwing, but I will acknowledge something I thought Lord did improve much upon in this game, especially considering the duress he was under.

The offensive line has been stout all year, the protection for the starting QB, efficient, excellent at times. In this game however, a line used to shoving everyone around was getting shoved around, the "pipeline" mostly ineffective for the game. It wasn't a collapse at all, but considering their effectiveness up to this game, you can see what lies on the horizon against other teams that will have some heavy defensive talent of their own. What I thought Lord did well was everything right up until he released the ball.

Lord's decision-making was much better I thought in this game and he is more than capable of leading his team down the field and into the end zone. And, Lord didn't hurt his team or not to any great extent. He was as efficient in what he did and how he did it as he was at any point this year. You are rolling the dice in the passing game though and that should be plainly obvious.

In Lord's defense, if he continues this maturation in how he runs the team while on the field and we don't concentrate so much on his overall efficiency in the passing-game, he's done what he's been asked to do.

I thought he made reads at the line of scrimmage well, made his reads well at times and as he always has, ran hard as can be and was equally difficult to bring down. Jammal in fact did everything well that he has done well and some things that were even in question. Lord did indeed improve. Ok, then the ball is released and that's where you start crossing your fingers. That's ok though. You take the good with the bad and in this case, the good outweighed the bad. Bottom line, it was a win.

A win brought to you by this year's version of the "blackshirts", one of the best versions seen at Nebraska in a few years. Realistically, if not for the late run of Damion Carter and his heroic, but futile efforts, the stats would have been far better for NU than their averages coming into the game. Carter almost amassed by himself half the entire yardage output of the Southern Miss. offense, all this coming after the game was decided.

Also to, a score, which hadn't came against NU in any second-half up to that point. Not an event likely to sit well with Bo Pelini, something I am sure the players will attest to as to his demeanor following Carter's ariel barrage on what was mostly a back-up unit.

The defense did exactly what everyone expected and perhaps even a little more. They gave a struggling offense turnovers and deep in the other guy's territory. Really, you could go on and on about that unit and not say enough about them individually and as a whole. They are the reason Nebraska is undefeated.

Kudos to the coaches though for throwing Dailey into the fire at a time where the game was still not decided. It didn't turn out real well overall for the freshman, but there's no price you can put on the experience (however brief) for heading out onto a field, amidst an overly hostile crowd, against a solid defense, the deficit on the scoreboard not even close enough to consider this contest over. Some might wonder if you could traumatize the young man in that case, but if Dailey had shined, everyone would be applauding the brilliance in timing from the coaches.

Dailey needed it, regardless of the outcome. If the freshman was not mature enough to handle what could happen out there, I am sure the coaches wouldn't have put him in the position to either succeed or fail. Dailey is the back-up. The only back-up. He needed the reps. Which in turn brings me to the question of why Dailey wasn't put back in the game at the beginning of the fourth quarter when the game was actually a foregone conclusion, but that debate is for another time.

Nebraska got exactly what they needed to win this game, to pound an already expressed point. One aspect didn't work, but Nebraska was able to get the other part of their game going, subsequently becoming the difference in the game.

So, what's next?

What is next depends on where you think NU is right now. If you think NU's offense is finally clicking, than it's only games that matter. However, if you take my belief in seeing this offense for still being more opportunistic than it is effective, this unit still has a ways to go.

Southern Miss. is a talented defense and they got some solid showings from the likes of Antwoine Cash and Derek Scott, that in addition to the expectedly solid efforts of Boley, Davis and Pruitt. All that amounted to frustrating any sort of sustained running game Nebraska was trying to mount. What they didn't have was an offense to help their cause. And, their offense not helped by the fact that Kyle Larson was booming the ball to a tune of 47.6 yards per punt, making sure that if the Eagles did get good field-position, it wasn't because of him.

All in all, Nebraska both took a step forward and back all in the same game in my estimation. Forward in that NU exemplified what a team has to, to win in the most challenging of games. They were opportunistic and anyone will tell you that you absolutely, positively have to take advantage of opportunities given to you and Nebraska did just that. The first 3 turnovers that Southern Miss had all resulted in touchdowns. That's big. No, that's huge. The difference sometimes between a win and a loss.

Nebraska took a step backward in that the offense was exposed to a certain extent. The depth on the O-line had never seemed so thin as it did against the Golden Eagles' ‘D'. The running game, never so typically un-Nebraska-like in sustained rives, time of possession and of course, total yards on the evening. They scored when they had the short-field, but not one single time with the ball were they able to put a drive together of over 7 plays and only just got over 4:00 in time of possession on one drive during the contest.

That just makes the Nebraska defense look even that much more special, as hard as that it so believe. The defense stayed the same, but if not for Carter's late-game heroics, it would have been another huge step forward. I think that Bo Pelini would agree that you don't want your defense to give up any sustained rives, much less a 17-play drive that resulted in a touchdown.

So, you take a step back and a step forward, where does that leave you? Yeah, right about where they were. And, could you seriously argue? Coming out of this game, the same questions exist as there were going in. How good is the offense? What about the passing game and, is Jammal Lord the one that takes NU all the way down the road?

Those are questions that haven't been answered thus far and they won't be answered in just over a week when NU hosts Troy State. The true tests start with another game on the road, this one against the almost-always ready, Missouri Tigers and Nebraska fans know how Missouri plays on their own home-field.

Nebraska beat a good team with a better than good defense. They got a couple touchdowns passing and perhaps the confidence of Lord will extend into being equally opportunistic in the future. They've also learned a few things about where they have yet to go before they are the Nebraska fans hope and they (the players) no doubt expect that they can be.

Hindsight shows that after watching the game three times, I didn't learn anymore than I did from the first time I watched it. Ferocious defense, Demorrio Williams is a freak and the offense still needs some work. The offense has time to get better. The defense, it's scary just how good they can be and overall, Nebraska is on it's way.

To what? We'll see, but it's not looking to bad right now.

Steve Ryan can be reached at huskerconnection@neb.rr.com or 402-730-5619

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