Grading the Huskers: Nevada

With a 42-point victory, there wouldn't seem to be much reason for grades. Just give them "A"s across the board and call it good. Well, just call me anal, because this wasn't USC they faced, and there are still a few things to work on before the REALLY big team comes to town.

Quarterback

Sam Keller

Throwing 14 of your 25 passes complete, throwing for one score and one INT, isn't going to win you the Heisman. Senior Sam Keller didn't have a particularly efficient day, and the interception he threw was just a matter of not seeing the defender who was reading Keller all the way. That became the one and only real hiccup as an offense that pounds out over 400 yards on the ground, doesn't need to have a super game through the air.

Throughout almost the entire game I watched Keller throw, and up until the second half, I didn't see a single throw he made that his predecessor, Zac Taylor, couldn't have made. That changed when Keller hit redshirt freshman Michael McNeil on a 25-yard out, giving Nebraska first and goal at the Nevada four yard line. It was a solid throw, but it was also a rope, as they like to say, and that was the real difference I could see, at least for this game.

Keller did try a few deep balls, but they weren't exactly on the mark.

The primary responsibility for the signal-caller in this offense, or at least, what they say their job is, is to manage the offense and simply move the chains. Keller didn't have much of a burden put upon him, because the running game was simply destroying Nevada , almost from the outset. But a QB can still hurt your team. Completing 56 percent of his passes and the one interception, again, won't win you the Heisman, but for his first game in almost two years, this wasn't a bad debut.

B-

 

Running Back

Early on in the game I had this feeling that we were going to see a lot of the same kind of Marlon Lucky we had seen in the last two years. That being basically someone who could make one decent cut at the line, but was easy to take down and didn't really hit the hole all that aggressively.

Well, while I still don't think he hit the hole as well as I think he could, when he did get into contact, the difference between Lucky now and Lucky the last two years, was pretty evident. Lucky even went so far as to run into the back of his blockers and pushed his way across the goal line, scoring one of his four touchdowns.

Going from Brandon Jackson to Marlon Lucky, people might be a bit disappointed at the initial cuts Lucky made, especially when going back against the grain.

Marlon Lucky

The fact of the matter is, you have two different types of backs, both built for a different type of attack. Jackson 's lower center of gravity and much shorter legs, gave him an ability to cut significantly better than Lucky can. Those shorter legs also give you a better ability to drive through tacklers. Oh, and the fact that Jackson ended up going in the second round, coming out of college as a junior, nothing much needs to be said as to just how good that young man was.

But Lucky did good, not just in keeping his legs moving once he got into contact, but seeing the field about as well as I can remember since he was back at North Hollywood High. As good as he was, though, and 233 yards on a workmen-like 30 carries for a 7.8 yard average per carry, is pretty darn good, I think he could have still done better. To me, this is a glimpse of how good he could be, but it's not the best Lucky can get. I think we have yet to see that, and let's not forget the canyon-like holes the offensive line gave him almost the entire game. The biggest question about him now simply pertains to health, and there's no doubt about it, Nebraska needs this kid healthy.

A surprise came out of true freshman Quentin Castille. No, the bludgeoning style of Castille wasn't a surprise, his freightliner-physique powering him to two scores on the day. It was the frequency of his use. I wouldn't have thought much about it had Cody Glenn not came in late in the game when the contest was all but decided. That told me that Glenn was indeed healthy, but Castille got all the work which used to be Glenn's for the taking.

Most of Castille's runs were typically straightforward affairs, doing what he obviously does best. Heck, the guy even carried the ball, lining up from the fullback position. But there was one play, where Castille was forced to the outside, actually did a spin move to avoid the tackle and got a couple of more yards after that. That's not common for someone built like that, weighing 250 pounds, that they should have that kind of agility and even more, balance. I am not going to adorn the kid just yet, but that was a great debut for him, and now defenses have a lot more to think about, and that's if Glenn isn't in the picture, which I suspect he still very much is.

Both Roy Helu and Major Culbert added some nice reps, highlighted by Culbert's scamper up the middle for 17 yards and a touchdown. Helu was quick, as you would expect, and when Glenn was in, he was typically very tough, straight forward and ran with great energy. Heck, we even have to throw junior quarterback Joe Ganz into the mix of the running game out of the backfield as it was "throwback day" or in this case, "option right", Ganz on the keeper, gaining nine yards on the play.

The team ran for 413 yards, averaging almost six yards a carry. That's effective and it's almost gaudy. Husker fans like gaudy, and it has been a long time since the Huskers saw a smashmouth affair like that. The holes were big, the backs were aggressive, and while it wasn't perfect, if this was as bad as it ever got for this season, the Huskers would be on their way to a pretty darn good year.

A-

Wide Receiver/Tight End

When the team rushes for over 400 yards, there's not much need for a receiving corps to be that important. But they were, and in any running game, receivers who can block become just as important as receivers who can catch.

Unfortunately, catching wasn't exactly the high point of the game as both Frantz Hardy and Terrence Nunn dropped balls, making people hearken back to last year where those kinds of issues reared their ugly heads at the worst times.

Texas anyone?

That's an aspect of this group which has to improve, because as good as Keller is expected to be or hoped to be, it's not going to make a difference if key players can't make key catches. It's not going to make much of a difference against Nevada.

Nebraska was able to spread the ball around quite a bit, even with the passing game not needed as a way to move the chains. Eight different receivers/tight ends caught balls, highlighted by the 25-yard out to Michael McNeil. It was Lucky, though, who led all receivers, catching the ball three times for 33 yards and a score.

If the receivers did anything particularly well, at least for this game, it was block effectively for the running game. It wasn't illustrated anymore than Lucky's third jaunt into the end zone, led by a J.B. Phillips block, but finished off by a Todd Peterson block in the end zone, which had to be almost text book in its execution.

There are a lot of free passes you give players and/or units when it comes to a win like this. But when you lose and these kinds of things arise, you point to a game like this as to where everyone could see the problem start to develop.

This is nothing new, though, and this group simply has to find better ways to catch and take care of the ball. Even with the mostly sure-handed Purify back next week, everyone has to pull their weight, and the kinds of inconsistencies in this aspect will not just hurt this team, but take all of its potential and throw it right out the window.

D

Offensive Line

After the game offensive line coach Dennis Wagner talked about some of the position moves he was making throughout the game: Slauson from tackle to guard, Murtha from Tackle to Guard, Slauson back to tackle, back to guard, one guard over to the other guard spot, another guard to tackle ….and you get the point.

And all the while there seems to be mayhem within the line, it was the line itself which was causing mayhem on the Nevada Wolfpack linemen. I can honestly say I haven't seen a Nebraska offensive line move a team off the ball that well and that consistently, in years. Even back in the glory days when Nebraska was putting up these kinds of numbers almost habitually, within the single glaring number of total rushing yards for the team, there were a number of big-plays in the running game, someone going off for 50 yards and even more, perhaps two, three times or even more, during a game.

In this game the longest run was by Lucky, that going for 31 yards. The next longest was a 20-yarder by Cody Glenn.

That's flat out dominance right there.

Another way we measure dominance on offense is by drives and how long the other team's defense was on the field.

Matt Slauson

Hold on, because this stat is so ridiculous, you almost have to look twice:

40:38

That's how much time the Nebraska offense had the ball versus under 20 minutes for Nevada .

That's not possible or it shouldn't be. That's certainly not going to be a goal for any team, because most any team wouldn't have a prayer of reaching it. Even Nevada Head Coach Chris Ault said that he knew his defense was basically done, because they couldn't get off the field.

The running game went crazy for over 400 yards, but how about this offensive line allowing no sacks and only one quarterback hurry? This was an all around complete effort, and I am not even going to get into the fact that this wasn't USC they were facing. Nevada took Miami down to the wire just a few months ago in a bowl game and they didn't just suddenly suck. No, they weren't USC, but the great teams are defined as much by how they do against teams they are supposed to beat as they are against the best teams in the land.

Appalachian State anyone?

This line did well, and in some spots, extremely well. Lucky had his day, Keller had his time and the time of possession was just sick.

A

 Defensive Line

I wasn't expecting greatness, but I also wasn't expecting this group to stink up the place. They were, after all, recruited for a reason, so while there wasn't a whole lot of experience, I had certain expectations as to just how this group would perform.

With the Pistol offense and Nevada 's propensity at getting rid of the ball quickly, I didn't figure this game would be long on sacks. But for a guy who was only sacked one time, Nevada 's starting QB took enough damage after the throw, stemming from the nine total QB hurries, it probably didn't feel any different to him.

To be honest, I am not even sure how to grade the line as the line changed so much, going from a base four man front to a 30-defense, linebacker Phillip Dillard

Barry Turner

actually lining up on the nose, and then there was a little of the old standard 3-4 thrown in there as well.

I will say that I thought Zach Potter, coming into his first game following first round draft choice Adam Carriker, did a very good job. The part I was the most impressed with when it came to this former Creight Prep standout, was how well he got off of blocks. He was explosive, and for a time during much of his career at Nebraska , I wasn't sure he was even capable of finding that extra gear. He did, though, and I thought in both playing the run and in backside pursuit, he did a very nice job.

Because Ndamukong Suh didn't completely tear the entire Nevada offensive line to pieces by himself, this game might be considered a bit of a disappointment to some. I certainly put very high expectations on anything and everything he does. But let's say for an instant that we don't know exactly how Suh was used in this game, and I think that's a safe assumption. I never once saw him get pushed off the ball, which I expected. His backside pursuit was stellar for someone his size, Suh even running an I-back down from behind. He maintained his spot, and most of the yards gained I saw up the middle were off cutbacks against the grain on basic counter plays, where the momentum of the defensive line took them a little out of the play. It's good they had help on the bubble.

I thought Barry Turner looked particularly good. I actually thought for a time that with all the weight he's put on, we'd be seeing a slow-sluggish version of the kid who wowed us so much as a true freshmen, when he was a nightmare to offenses in situational duty. But he's traded in the opportunistic plays for being consistent at holding his position and getting penetration on the outside when in one-on-one situations, where he wasn't getting chipped by an end or a back.

Defensive tackle Ty Steinkuhler went out with the knee injury soon enough in the game, it's hard to gauge exactly how he did. But I can tell you that I was a bit concerned for the defensive line when Kevin Dixon came in. He's a good athlete, of course, but remember, this kid got to practice the day before hey put on the pads for the first day of fall camp. There's no way he was going to learn everything he needed to, in that short of time. But what he did very well, was maintain his position, stay disruptive at the line, and he was heady enough to get his hands up to bat a ball, which he took down for his first interception as a collegiate player. That's not bad.

When it comes to substitutions, I frankly gave up trying to keep track, Defensive Coordinator Kevin Cosgrove rolling guys in and out, seemingly every single play. The participation chart looks to be almost two thirds defensive players and of those, plenty played on the defensive line.

With everything that was good, there are still some pretty obvious concerns. One sack is nice, but against Nevada , OK, you probably can get away with it. The nine QB hurries are great, because even if you can't get to him, you are getting him out of his game.

However, one sack is one sack, and you project down to the road to much better teams with much better offensive lines, those hurries have to turn into sacks, because there are some QBs, which you can't get out of their game so easily. And none of those hurries or that sack came from the defensive interior. This is where Suh should jump out and start to make a lot of noise. Now, the primary goal of any defense is to stop the run first, and with Nevada netting 77 yards, you can say they did that. But this defensive line has not been about "just" holding your ground. They are getting some penetration from the outside, but the inside needs to be a lot more consistent in getting up the field. Again, this might have been more by design, the rush being worked from the outside in. If that's the case, you could give them a pass. And with Steinkuhler going out, that could have changed things from an aggressive philosophy inside, to one where they just wanted to keep the middle locked up and do their damage from the outside.

As it is, I thought for a first game it was a good overall effort, highlighted by Zach Potter and Clayton Sievers as well. This group only had to be on the field for under 20 minutes, so I don't really think you can say they were tested to any major degree.

It's in the books, though, and statistically, it's a pretty convincing win…for both sides of the ball.

B-

Linebacker

Maybe the biggest headline to come out of this is that after the first game of the season, every single linebacker is still upright. No, it's not high expectations, but based on the health of this corps over the last couple of seasons, getting out of the season-opener without a season-ending injury isn't a bad start.

The two highlights which stuck out to me in what I considered a pretty vanilla defensive package, all the moving around and formations notwithstanding, were Phillip Dillard and Steve Octavien.

It's nice to see Dillard back on the field, this brutishly thick but deceptively quick middle linebacker actually lining up on the nose, and at the snap of the ball, going around the outside of the line and actually getting pressure on the QB. Dillard is only credited with one quarterback hurry, but think about this kid's size for a

Steve Octavien

minute:

6-1, 250

Now think about the fact that he starts at the nose tackle position in a three-man front, and then runs to his right, gets up the field, goes back to his left and he still manages to get to close enough to the QB to force him out of the pockets. Folks, that's just crazy. For a kid that thick to have the kind of athleticism to just bend the way he has to, and then the quickness to make those turns and not lose momentum – if you want physical potential, you really got to see a lot of it on just that one play. Oh, and he's not a bad finisher either, when he's able to really put a hammer on someone, which he did once during this game.

Speaking of hammer, maybe we should just call Octavien the "hammer" from now on. Man, oh man, can this kid lay the wood to people. Yes, we already knew he could, but injuries have given us only a glimpse of what he can do, and it's been the idea of what he can do which has kept us wondering just how good he could be.

The way he's being utilized now, I can easily see how people will hearken back to Demorrio Williams and his 11-sack season, where he was used a lot from the down position, coming off that edge and wreaking unholy havoc on offenses. Just ask Utah State .

With Octavien, you have almost the same kind of quickness, but Octavien has a physicality about him which Williams didn't have. Williams could finish, no doubt, but Octavien can flat out finish people off. He runs like a deer, hits like a truck and sometimes he's just flat out mean. What you saw today was what we would have been seeing long before this, if he could just stay healthy.

Just knock on wood, because in the game, this kid is not only a gamebreaker, but as an offensive coordinator, you HAVE to account for him.

Advantage: defense

What can you say about the rest of this group, Corey McKeon and Bo Ruud dependable as always, McKeon almost coming down with an interception and Ruud adding another tackle for a loss. Considering how much these guys were being rolled around, shifted here and there, and the sheer fact that they weren't on the field that long, it was a solid effort overall.

The only thing you wonder about with this group, and this is basically in combination with the defensive line, can they put together packages which will supply consistent pressure in the backfield, and how versatile can they be with the blitz. I think that as this group stands, and again, if they stay healthy, I think you can blitz from just about anywhere on the field. You couldn't say that last year and the year before that for that matter. Hell, I think everyone knew when the blitz was coming and from where.

Not this time around, and while the LB corps didn't get a lot of chances to show everything they had, what they showed was good enough to think positively about the future.

A-

The Secondary

You can pick out a few plays that probably made teeth grind a bit during the course of this game:

Cortney Grixby gets turned around, giving up a 21 yard completion and a first down

Armando Murillo

Armando Murillo simply got beat for a 19 yard gain, and a first down

Murillo gets a pass interference call against him, giving the team 15 yards and a first down

Now, those weren't instances last year. They were almost themes. And it wasn't just Grixby and what Murillo is feeling right now in regard to those little miscues, Andre Jones can share his own from last year, and about a dozen more.

It's the one aspect you still worry about, but there is good news, which showed itself and I believe had an effect on how the entire secondary played.

Larry Asante

Yes, he should have had an interception, but didn't. What he missed out on with that play, though, he made up for in being a major presence on the field. He hits hard, moves to the ball very quickly and his four tackles was good enough to tie him for second on the team for this game. But I also think his presence makes everyone else step up. Tierre Green, long known as an athletic safety, but someone people just didn't feel like was really coming into his own, notched only one tackle, but had a key pass break up, which would have been a completion, had Green not come up from behind and hit the receiver so hard he couldn't even think about catching the ball.

It's about dominos, and when one falls, it affects all the others. That's often considered a negative, but I think when you have someone like Asante , who still isn't proven, but is very much a presence, it makes everyone in the immediate area better. One guy can change a game, because the other side has to take them into account. Whether that means a double-team on the interior of the defensive line gives outside guys one-on-one situations, or it's a safety, who becomes such a nuisance, O.C.s from the other team start looking at other routes which aren't considered as dangerous. Armando Murillo's inexperience was one reason he ended up third on the team in tackles, the offense continually testing him. But I think when your safeties are doing their job, what you might think is a team targeting a kid is in fact a team just looking for what they believe their best option is. And in most cases, Murillo took advantage.

Another aspect I liked, and it became very important early on in this game, was how effect the secondary was at playing the run. Someone the size of Grixby shouldn't like putting their nose in there, but he does at that. And it would seem that while some take issue with some of Phil Elmassian's techniques, they can't argue with him at all when it comes to his guys playing tough close to the line. I thought they did that very well.

OK, I know the only interception was by a defensive lineman, but let's take into account that in an Elmassian system, when it comes to the cornerback position, break ups are the big thing. It shouldn't be surprising to see the safeties and linebackers get more picks than those on the third level.

Let's do a little prognosticating, though, and this stems from what I believe the biggest statistics will be when it comes to the success of the cornerbacks

1 & 9

One is the total number of sacks on Nevada and nine is the number of quarterback hurries. The latter is actually pretty good, but the former won't cut it at all. I don't care if you have a field full of Champ-friggin-Baileys, you need finishes in the backfield of the opposition, because there are some QBs, just because you flush them, that doesn't mean you have thwarted the major threat. Some are a bigger threat when they get flushed out.

When it comes to pass efficiency defense, you can't argue with 9 for 27 and an interception, even if that pick came from a defensive tackle. That's as good as you could do, statistically speaking. But if you watched the game, and think about how that would work against say, a certain team over on the west coast, who has names like Ausberry, Turner and Hazelton at wideout, there's probably a little bit of concern going on. There should be, but for a first game, this wasn't bad. It wasn't great, but it could have been a heck of a lot worse.

And give it up to Murillo for taking his small baptism by fire in stride and maintaining good physicality throughout the game. Confidence is key for cornerbacks, and it seemed like his was always at a high level.

B-

Special Teams

Unless we are talking about Adam Viniteri, I never imagined in my life that a kicker would get a standing ovation for a field goal. True freshman not only got that for his 46-yard field goal, but he got it after he knocked through his sixth touchback of the day.

Six

That's six touchbacks out of nine attempts

That six already puts him at the halfway point of the TOTAL number of touchbacks from last year. And his percentage from this one game of 66 compares

Adi Kunalic

incomprehensibly well to the 15 percent the team managed last year. Now, you can't expect that every game, but add that to the 46 yard field goal he made, and it would appear that the search for that leg panned out extremely well. Oh, and let's not forget that while Adi did make one of the extra points, Alex Henery made the rest.

And how about Dan Titchener, who punted twice, both against the wind and both deep in Nebraska territory, and he averaged 44.5 yards per punt. That's a stellar improvement already on his less than 40 yard average just a year ago.

And then there's the return game, a pretty sore subject last year as Nebraska went from prolific to nearly pathetic from 2005 to 2006. The punt return average (5.6 yards per) isn't going to invoke a lot of confidence, but when Cortney Grixby had just a little room to run on those kickoff return opportunities, he did a fine job, averaging 33 yards per. It was Andre Jones who actually had a stellar punt return, only getting one, but taking that one 24 yards before being brought down.

When Nevada did get a chance to return a kick (three times), the results weren't nearly as favorable, the Wolfpack averaging 23 yards a pop. But I think most will trade that on three returns, if the other six don't go anywhere at all. On punt coverage they allowed 7.5 yards per return, which is more than acceptable.

My question about the return game last year was simply "why?" It wasn't like they didn't have good return guys. I mean, both Grixby and Nunn were amongst the best in the country two years ago, Nunn at one point ranking at the very top in average yardage on kickoff returns. So, why was there this almost monolithic drop-off?

From an observer I talked to, it would seem that Nebraska has switched up its blocking schemes a bit on the return game, much more emphasis being put on taking out the gunners, before doing anything else. That would make sense to me, but it would also make me ask about the fact that if it works now, what were they doing last year.

But I digress

Special teams almost became a joke last year, and honestly, not a very good one. Nebraska was scared to kick field goals, they had an inexperienced punter and the return yardage was almost comical. Well, if the first game is any indication whatsoever about the future, they have strong legs, a more experienced punter and better blocking in the return game. Combine that with a coverage unit which was one of the few bright spots last year in this group, this could end up being a decent unit. And we couldn't say that last year.

A-

Coaching

I usually keep the grading in this category pretty small, because, after all, I'm no coach. That basically means me analyzing what a coach does, when I haven't coached before – well, it's kind of stupid.

But I am doing it, because basically I want to give the guys props for being anything but predictable, at least in the first game of the year.

Last year they were one of the worst teams in the country when it comes to scoring in the third quarter. They couldn't even manage 50 points for the entire year. They got 24 in the third against Nevada . And the four quarter was kind of a sore spot for them defensively last year as they allowed 120 points over the season, in that quarter alone. They didn't allow any against Nevada .

And then there is just the rolling they did on defense, all the adjusting they did on offense, and the HUGE, HUGE, HUGE thing, was that when wholesale changes were made when younger guys were brought in (Dennis Wagner brought in the entire second string O-line), sure, there was a drop off, but it wasn't like going from the starters to those barely staying on the scout team. Heck, in some areas, you saw where some of those second stringers might have a real chance to make some noise this year.

It doesn't hurt that this team stayed healthy, the impending status of Ty Steinkuhler notwithstanding. It doesn't hurt that Nevada isn't exactly the Florida Gators. It doesn't hurt that the game was at home, and it didn't hurt a bit that when it came to mental hiccups, this team had refreshingly few.

You have to give credit to the players, but this was an effective and sometimes interesting gameplan, albeit about as vanilla overall as you can get. The defense certainly tried more things than the offense, but I doubt any big cats were let too far out of the bag.

A

Overall

First, Miami wasn't a world beater when Nevada played them. The Hurricanes were reeling after a horrendous year and were on the verge of firing a coach who proved that there is a way not to be able to recruit to Miami .  So, let's not give Nevada a whole lot of credit for taking them down to the wire, though, it was still a decent game for them.

This was Nevada , though. Not USC, not Texas , not Wake Forest and probably not Oklahoma State, Texas A&M or Missouri either. But it was a perfect game for them to figure out what they have, what they don't, and where to fine tune a few things.

The challenges get considerably harder next week, but if there were a lot of first-game jitters, I didn't recognize them all. Considering the opponent, the ideal conditions, the home field advantage and everything else, this was a job well done.

Overall Grade: B-


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