Mid Season Review

It's the midway point of the season, and that means it's time for the obligatory half-point review. What did the team do well, not do well and what surprises there were, if any? Who is our team MVP half way through the year? You might be surprised. Check out our Big Red Report half-way point review.

It's the half way point of the first year for Head Coach Bo Pelini, and going in to the Iowa State game, what do we know that we didn't? What do we think of the team which we simply didn't know going into the year. Well, here's the good, the bad and the other in our mid-season review.

Biggest surprise of the first half of the season


Steve: I have to admit that if someone were to bet me that one of the strongest unit on this year's team would be the defensive line, I might have laughed.

Sure, they returned every starter, but this was a group which was part of one of the worst defenses in the history of the program. The team finished in the bottom 10 of the entire country in total defense. I could see how they couldn't get a lot worse, but I was pretty skeptical as to just how good they might be.

Well, out of the 11 sacks the team has on the season, all but one and a half are credited to members of the defensive line, redshirt freshman Terrence Moore tied for the team-lead with junior defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh and senior defensive end Zach Potter, the trio with two each. In addition, out of the 39 tackles for loss, 26 of them are credited to the defensive guys in the trenches.

While 84th in total defense at this point isn't going to make anyone stand in awe, it's still almost 20 spots above where they were at the end of the year last season.

That starts with run defense, which Nebraska basically had none of last year, ranking 116th out of 119 teams last season. This year they rank 55th. That's improvement, and while I know Bo Pelini performed a bit of a miracle in 2003, with so many losses at linebacker and in the secondary, the defensive line was going to have to bare the brunt of the defensive pressure, and up to this point I'd say they have done a solid job.

Bryan: I am going to have to go with the wide receivers here.  After the spring game, I really felt like this was a very weak link for this team.  I didn't know if the seniors, Nate Swift and Todd Peterson, could shoulder the load.  I was wrong.  Way, way, way wrong. 

Swift and Peterson are a very good tandem that have been consistent and have provided leadership for the younger players.  I think that Menolik Holt is emerging as a player that Nebraska can build around next year. 

But, the biggest surprise might be Mike McNeil and Dreu Young.  McNeil might be the best receiving threat that Nebraska has right now.  Young, a great complement to McNeil, is a great receiver himself and is still developing.  The receivers have vastly improved from the spring through the summer to where they are now.
 

Biggest letdown of the first half of the season

Steve: Maybe I am bitter, because I touted them as being not just the best unit on the offensive side, but the core strength of the team. But through six games I'd say the offensive line simply hasn't produced.

You can't say they haven't had their chances either, facing three opponents which were decent in the non-conference, but I doubt that out of Western Michigan, New Mexico State and San Jose State, we'll be seeing any of them in a bowl game after the first of the year.

55 yards rushing against Virginia Tech
79 yards rushing against Missouri
Nebraska ranks 60th in the country in tackles for loss allowed, giving up 33 on the season
Nebraska ranks 114th in the country in penalties, many of those coming on offense, many of those coming from the offensive line in the form of holding penalties, false starts and even a personal foul.

It was only against Texas Tech just this last weekend where saw an offensive line take control of a game, something they did only once previously against New Mexico State, a team which allows over 240 yards a game rushing so far this year.

It isn't like I expect them to control the ball for over 40 minutes a game, but they have been simply poor in establishing the line of scrimmage, moving people off the ball and simply giving senior quarterback Joe Ganz opportunities to do things inside the pocket rather than have to make his production closer to the hashmarks instead.

I see this group turning around, and maybe today they can keep that momentum going against Iowa State. But up to this point they haven't done nearly what I thought they would do.

Bryan: I would have to say the running game, collectively.  Nebraska is only averaging 135.8 yards per game, just six yards more than they allow to their opponents, and less than a third of the points scored by Nebraska so far this year has come from a rushing attempt. 

It's not "Nebraska-like" numbers, but then again, since when has it been?  Two years was a good year for Nebraska and running the ball.  I just don't know where it's gone.  Nebraska is seeing a lot of seven man fronts and that means throw the ball, but the ability to break your opponent's defense is by running the ball.  Nebraska just can't do it right now. 

I know that I am picking on the running backs solely here and I believe that the offensive line is definitely part of the problem, might be a bigger problem than the backs are, but Nebraska's running backs, with the exception of Roy Helu, have lacked vision and creativity this year to me and just don't look explosive.

The MVP through the first six games is


Steve: As good as I think the defensive line has played, senior wide receiver Nathan Swift has been pure money, so to speak.

He and fellow senior wideout Todd Peterson are actually quite close in statistics, but Swift has added some drama to his game as well. Who can forget the return for a touchdown by Swift, which didn't ultimately lead to a Husker victory against Virginia Tech, but at that point his feat had the stadium and even press box all abuzz.

The receiving corps as a whole, has been solid, not having committed near the kind of mistakes in regard to drops they had from last year and from almost the entire Spring practice. Joe Ganz, in his debut as a full-season starter, needed comfort from receivers whom he knew he could trust. That was Swift and Peterson, and Swift has not only given Joe a capable set of hands, the comfort of being where he's supposed to be, when he's supposed to be there, but Swift has made all the hard catches as well.

Only kicker Alex Henery and running back Marlon Lucky have more points than Swift this season, the senior with 24 total points scored thus far. But I figure he's not done, and I honestly think teams won't take him quite as seriously as they should or look at him the way I do now.

The kid is a flat out playmaker, and he's proven to be a gamechanger as well.

Bryan: Nate Swift to me is having a career year.  I know, I know, Steve chose Swift too, but how can you argue with what he has been able to accomplish?  He is second on the team in receptions with 25 and averages the most yards per game with just about 63. 

He is averaging 15 yards per catch, has three touchdowns and a long catch on the season of 61 yards.  All of that is in addition to Swift averaging 22 yards per punt return and scoring once on special teams.  Swift is third on the team in scoring and second on the team with all-purpose yards.

The newcomer through the first six games is


Steve: I honestly thought to go with Cody Glenn, because he's a newcomer to the defensive side, and it's hard to discount what he's done in leading the team for tackles.

But I opted for Pierre Allen instead, because he went from giving senior defensive end Barry Turner some rest to having to take over his spot, which is something all are prepared to do, but not everyone steps up to the mark.

In the San Jose State game when Turner went down, Allen finished the game as the leader in tackles, the only Husker in double-digits with 10. He's steadily risen up the tackle-charts since, the four-game starter now sixth on the team in tackles with 29, including five for a loss, one of which was a sack.

All kids who play back up roles are asked to be ready to step up. But Allen has done it and the Huskers haven't missed a beat at that spot since.

Bryan: I am going to take a guy in the secondary and say Eric Hagg.  The whole defensive secondary has been under constant scrutiny.  Hagg, a safety recruit out of high school, has made the move over to cornerback to help out and has done a pretty terrific job. 

Hagg is second on the team in broken up passes, second only to senior Armando Murillo, is in the top 10 in tackles, has a forced fumble and has been an asset to this defense on the corner blitz. 

Hagg is improving and early on could have made some interceptions if he just looked up sooner, but that will come.  But, this is a true sophomore who had very limited opportunities in, pretty much, a wasted true freshman season.
 

Where do you think the team made the most improvement from last year?


Steve:

From 70th last year to 13th this year
From 51st last year to 18th this year

Those are the kinds of improvements you expect of a Pelini defense, but hold on a sec, that wasn't defense, but in the return game.

In punt return and kickoff return (respectively), Nebraska went from abysmal to deadly in just under a year. You have touchdowns from both sophomore wideout Niles Paul and senior wideout Nathan Swift, Paul's coming off a kickoff while Swifts came on the other end of a punt.

Think about this as well: Niles Paul leads the team in all-purpose yards 683, the former Omaha North standout the only Husker averaging triple-digits in that area, averaging 113.8 yards per game.

When it comes to battles between teams, it's often the team with the best starting field position on average, which comes out on top at the end of the game. Nebraska hasn't managed to completely capitalize on that, but the return game doesn't seem to be slowing down. The Huskers needed it, too, and Paul, quietly as anyone could, has found himself to be a weapon for the big red.

Bryan: I am going to stick with the receivers on offense and add the defensive line as a close second.  I really think that the receivers have come 180 since the spring when easy passes were dropped to where they are now.  Joe Ganz has nearly a 70% completion percentage through six games and that will give you some idea of how good his receivers have been.  The defensive line has stepped up and has all four starters, with Pierre Allen in there for the injured Barry Turner, in the top 10 tacklers on the team.  This is a very under-valued group on this team and has played extremely well this season so far against some good offensive lines.
 

Where do you think the team regressed or didn't improve, if you feel that certain units haven't really stepped up?

Steve: I have to give them some slack, because it's a new coaching staff, a new era, yadda, yadda, yadda.

But come on, Secondary Coach Marvin Sanders didn't seem to have problems getting turnovers out of his guys in Lincoln in 2003. He even had one (Josh Bullocks) tie for the lead in the entire country in interceptions.

Heck, the defense led in interceptions, turnovers forced, pass efficiency defense, etc, and this is the same unit that Sanders himself said was more talented than that group he had in 2003.

Now, either Sanders was just trying to make his own guys feel good about themselves and try and give them some confidence, or this group has simply underachieved. But it's safe to say that when you go into this game against Iowa State with five interceptions, and two of them are by defensive linemen, you have got yourself a problem.

When you consider that only one of these teams they have faced thus far wasn't a spread-to-pass offense, that's not a problem, it's almost panic time.

Just like the linebackers and secondary of last year couldn't carry the defensive line, the defensive line can't carry the secondary either. They need to start getting turnovers, and taking advantage of some of the situations, rather than let the situations take advantage of them.

Bryan: I am going to say running backs here.  Too often, the running backs were called upon to make plays this season and have either not converted on third or fourth down, or worse, fumbled changing momentum and causing the defense to have to take the field again. 

The combination of Marlon Lucky, Roy Helu and Quentin Castille is almost averaging 4.5 yards per carry between the three and has only scored eight times as a whole.  That is less than 25% of Nebraska scoring on offense and that just isn't good enough. 

Nebraska looked better against Texas Tech running the football into seven man fronts so let's see what type of improvement happens in the second half of the season.

Six games through this year, is this team where you thought they would be?

Steve: Considering how some things have manifested themselves, I might say that this team is a bit ahead in some areas, but behind in others.

I expected a better running game than this. I thought with this line they should be pounding it down teams' throats and asking questions later.

They haven't done that except for twice, and the most impressive effort at doing that wasn't the 330 yards they put up against New Mexico State, but the under 200 they put up down in Lubbock.

But there was no way I thought the defensive line would be this good. I also didn't think special teams would give Nebraska as many solid opportunities with great field position and game changing-type plays like touchdowns in that aspect of the game.

Based on where I thought the receivers were after Spring, I didn't expect them to have such a solid year, so few drops and the tight end finally realize its place in this offense which still has West Coast roots.

In addition, when there is only one starter back in the linebacking corps from last year, it wouldn't be easy to figure that your top two tacklers would indeed be linebackers, and it would be a converted running back in Cody Glenn, who would be standing at the top as of right now.

Yes, the running game still needs work. Yes, the secondary has been OK in spots, but tackling hasn't been great and lapses like senior cornerback's "coverage" of Texas Tech's Michael Crabtree on fourth down show you that they still have a ways to go. But overall, especially going into this ISU game, it's not bad.

Not bad at all.

Bryan: It's right about where I thought they would be.  I would have had them at 4-2 with a win against Virginia Tech, which could have happened, and I would have guessed that the Missouri and Texas Tech games would have been beatings.  However, Nebraska went on the road to Lubbock, a fairly hostile place to play (the town brews, so the earlier in the day you play the better), and took the #7 team in the nation into overtime. 

If one was to look at the schedule ahead of the season and notice that Nebraska played five teams in the pre-season, top 25 poll you would have seen that three were in the first six games.  Nebraska has the toughest schedule in the nation this year.  However, they are holding up pretty well.

Based on what you have seen thus far, how do you see the rest of the season going?

Steve: I think they win today, Nebraska favored by seven, but I'd say they win it by around 10 to 14 or so.

I also think that they have indeed turned a corner when it comes to understanding exactly what Head Coach Bo Pelini wants, and realizing that he wants it every single day of the week.

With a little added simplicity on both sides I think that should bode well for Nebraska against the teams it matches up with favorably.

That won't help them against Oklahoma, but out of the remaining opponents I honestly can't see any reason why they shouldn't have a good shot to win.

But forget about who they play, where Nebraska is now isn't bad, and I think by the end of the year, especially if they make a bowl, we'll say that they might have even overachieved Maybe, but I think it's probably appropriate that this team seems to be turning the corner right before they hit the second half of the season. It's good timing, especially if it actually occurs.

I do think, though, they are on their way.

Bryan: After last weekend at Lubbock, I think that Nebraska can win out with the exception of going to Norman.  The Huskers simply aren't ready to play against a team like the Oklahoma Sooners. 

I think that Kansas, Kansas State away and Colorado will all be tests for Nebraska, but if the memory of the players serves them correctly they will remember what happened last year in the games against Kansas and Colorado and vow not to let it happen again. 

That would put the Huskers at 8-4 and that is what I did say in the pre-season thinking that the Huskers would beat Virginia Tech and lose to either Kansas or Colorado.  I think the Kansas and Colorado games, at home, are very winnable and depending on what happens in the coming weeks with Missouri, Missouri goes to Austin and still has to play Kansas and Colorado themselves with much less to play for after losing to Oklahoma State, the Huskers could find their way right back into the thick of Big 12 North contention.

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