This weekend the true litmus test for Huskers

If you are five games into your season with the only loss coming to a top five team, that's not too darn bad. If you are Nebraska, though, even nowadays, expectations are a little higher. Now, take note that I didn't use the word ‘realistic', because that's not usually part of the argument. But reality says that while Nebraska is doing well, they have a lot of things to fix.

If you want to know where Nebraska is right now, you have to put some perspective on it. You know, a point of reference, which gives you a good foundation of just where this team is at right now.

We can't use year number one for a couple of reasons, but the biggest one is that obviously this coaching staff didn't even have a marginal number of the kind of players they felt they needed to get the job done.

So, let's use year number two, and it was a pretty good year in the end, the team finishing 8-4, which is obviously better than the 5-6 a season prior.

One of the big issues last year was about protection or lack thereof. Quarterback Zac Taylor was seeing stars more than he was seeing receivers it seemed, finding the turf, back-first, almost 40 times over the year. This year he's been sacked five times and project that over 12 games, which is what they played last season, that comes to obviously one per game. On top of that, the offensive line, which was giving up sacks every 12 passing attempts last season, has improved dramatically, Taylor going down once ever 28.4 snaps. As another reference, and one I have used a few times, USC's Matt Leinart went down behind the line of scrimmage once every 33 pass attempts.

Not bad and we'll consider the pass protection issue officially improved.

The running game was also another aspect of the Huskers, which was for all intents and purposes, useless. Averaging less than 100 yards a game, this was the most anemic rushing attack for the Huskers………..ever.
Adam Carriker was a sacking machine last
year. He needs to be that again if NU is
going to have any success against Meyer


This year they are not only averaging over 100, but over 200, the rushing attack seemingly back to the tune of 203.6 yards per contest.

So, I think it's safe to say that, that particular part of Nebraska has improved dramatically from last year.

Because of those two improvements, it only stands to reason that Zac Taylor himself would have improved, because much of the argument in his defense last year was that he would be markedly better if he wasn't getting pummeled all the time and he had some sort of running game to take the pressure off of the pass.

That's logical, of course, and while Taylor certainly wasn't horrid last year, completing over 55% of his passes, 19 of those going for scores, he did have 12 interceptions and an efficiency rating of just over 115 is good, but in this offense, not nearly good enough.

This year he's completing 63.9% of his passes and has already 12 touchdowns through just five games and he's only thrown two interceptions thus far. That adds up to an efficiency rating of just over 180, making him one of the most dependable QBs in the country.

The team itself, because of all this newfound versatility, has become somewhat of an offensive machine. Averaging just over 480 yards per game, they absolutely crush last year's production, which saw the Huskers produce a full 160 yards less per contest.

Again, goal accomplished.

So, what's with all the grumbling in Husker land? Why is it that when you read the message boards, listen to the radio and watch some remarks on TV, it seems as if the Huskers haven't won a game?

The simplest and usually most accurate answer to that would be that fans aren't happy no matter what you do. That, of course, is a big reason for the grumbling, but the most ironic reason pertains to the one thing that most people thought would be the one area where Nebraska was a lock this year to have success.

Defense

Last year Nebraska gave up just under 200 yards a game in the air. This year hasn't been quite as good. It doesn't look bad on paper when you think of it through five games, but since one of those teams was an option team, which passed simply out of desperation, it's probably more accurate to divide what they have given up through the air by four instead of five.

Through five games the average isn't bad at all, allowing just over 124 yards per game. Divide that by four, though, that puts them at just under 250 yards per game, which would rank them 105th out of 119 teams.

It's Zac Taylor and the offense, which has the
big red looking at only one loss this year
In addition, the sack total has dramatically decreased. At this point of the season last year, Nebraska already had 30 sacks to their name. They led the country in that department and in tackles for loss as well. Instead of ranking first this year, though, the Huskers are tied for 50th in tackles for loss and 90th in tackling the QB behind the line of scrimmage.

The team has only slightly improved in defending the run, last year's per game average of 124 yards a game for opponents, only topped by two yards this year, Nebraska allowing just over 122 yards per game.

The return game, which benefited Nebraska so much last season, ranking as one of the best in the country, now ranks in the middle of the pack or below.

The question has to be answered then, just how does a unit, which should have been better than last year's unit, drop off, and in some cases, dramatically?

The one clear answer is that offenses are ready for what Nebraska is going to do on defense. They know who the real weapons are for the blackshirts, thus they know how to best neutralize them.

The most common form this year has been through the quick passing game, coaches abandoning the five and seven-step drops, opting to go with three step drops, working out of the shotgun and utilizing a lot of screens. In addition, many of the quarterbacks they have faced are now moving around more in the pocket, opting for rollouts when last year many stayed in the pocket.

Nebraska also had a good reputation last year for stopping the run and Kansas showed just how you run around a team you know you can't run through. Utilizing a lot of stretch plays, Kansas was able to run to the corners, stretch the defense out, and John Cornish, an outstanding cut back runner for the Jayhawks, was able to find the holes, cut back against the grain and make positive yardage while linebackers in pursuit couldn't stop their momentum from taking them well out of the play.

What you end up with is a Nebraska defense that does have some speed, but finds itself a victim of that speed, because teams are using it against them. You end up with a Nebraska team, whose pass rush, so much a factor in their success last season, has now been effectively neutralized.

What that all ultimately means is that a secondary, already down a starter and outmanned against most teams they faced, was now in one-on-one situations with no real help, because they don't have any pressure on the QB and the help they get comes in the form of linebackers, who aren't meant to cover wide receivers down the field.

Some would say they are disappointed at Nebraska's performance thus far. I would say that most should be grateful they have the record they do.

This team has issues, and the biggest irony of all is that probably the one unit for the defense, which should have been the most effective, has been instead one of the most stagnant.

Nobody is going to argue that if you want a good defense, it all has to start up front. The defensive line not only has to be able to get pressure, but along that line at least one of those defensive guys needs to demand the double team. It doesn't seem to have happened that way, Kansas in particular handling Nebraska's front four with apparent ease.

No pressure from the front four means you have to use linebackers to help on the line, which means you are taking potential defenders in the secondary away. And, that means, of course, DBs and safeties back to man-on-man coverage, which is something this group isn't good enough right now to do.
Junior CB Cortney Grixby is good, but if
Nebraska can't put some pressure on the QB
more games like Kansas are in his future.


That means a hard decision is going to have to be made, because not only do you not have experienced depth in the secondary, you have issues with your starters. And when you have a team like Iowa State coming up, who has very good weapons at wideout and experience at QB, the importance of that decision is obvious.

Do you blitz Bret Meyer, hoping that the pressure gets to him and makes him make bad decisions, or do you hang back, hope your front four has more success and make Meyer beat you with his arm?

Before the Kansas game, every Husker fan probably would have said of Adam Barmann, that they would absolutely love for the entire game to be put on his shoulders. Well, it almost was and Nebraska almost lost the game. Can they take the chance that Iowa State's QB won't get as hot if they give him time to get comfortable?

All of these questions are those you might have thought we wouldn't be asking at this point. Based on the success last year, why would anyone assume that right now the blackshirts would be struggling to get to the QB, seemingly inadequate at getting a lot of penetration up field and almost futile when it came to stopping even the most basic of passing attacks?

They are there, though, and Nebraska has to answer them and soon.

The good news is that the offense has improved dramatically over last year, from pass protection to putting together drives on the ground. They are doing well in moving the chains on third downs and when they get into the red zone, they are a hard team to stop. The defense has to step up, though, and with games against teams who have weapons like a Bret Meyer and Todd Blythe, like a Colt McCoy and the bevy of talented wideouts at his disposal, it's important they do it now.

Nebraska is one game into conference play. Now isn't the time for the questions to outweigh the answers. Those should have been answered one way or the other long before we got to this point.

The downside to that is perhaps they have been answered and we just don't want to accept what those answers are saying, but it will probably only be a few days before we find out. Iowa State may not be USC, but this game means far more to Nebraska than the game with the Trojans ever could. This is a conference foe, a division foe and most of all, an opportunity to put things right.

I guess that's also ironic that we talking about how Nebraska must improve as if they have lost the last three games they have played. They haven't, but I think many fans think or feel that they are just as easily on their way down as they are maintaining their drive toward the top.

Which is it? Just which Nebraska team is the real team we should expect to see the rest of the year?

This weekend we'll probably find out.

Big Red Report Top Stories