Failures lead to success

With Virginia Tech now the next game, now is as good a time as any to figure out just where this team is. There's good news. There's bad news. But the best news is that this team should only get better. But will it be soon enough to pull off the upset in Blacksburg?

Nebraska hasn't taken on two world beaters as they prepare for world beater number three. They took on a Florida Atlantic team which is looking less than marginal right now, and then an Arkansas State team which looked better than Florida Atlantic, but still hardly the cream of the collegiate crop.

But even against teams you are supposed to beat you can learn a few things here and there:

Zac Lee is legit

I don't know if that means he'll garner any postseason awards, but from where I was sitting before this season began, I wasn't sure how he would react to things, mentally. We all knew he had the arm. Lord knows we heard about it enough. We knew he had the mobility. The solitary scramble against Florida Atlantic last week proved that. But could he manage a game? Could he be as much a finesse player as he was a brute-force QB? Could he be patient and keep his eyes downfield looking for a play?

It was an emphatic yes to all of those against Arkansas State as Lee came out hot and stayed sizzling almost throughout as he threw for 340 yards, four touchdowns and no interceptions. Completing 77% of his throws, Lee was able to hit both the long and short throws with equal efficiency.

Lee is already proving he's the real

Part of that success came from Lee. But part of that, and this is something the Husker coaches admitted to after the game, Arkansas State was playing run almost the entire day. Apparently they weren't convinced by Lee's performance last week to the point that they were going to challenge him and make him beat them.

He did.

What Lee hasn't proven, though, because he has been comfy-cozy inside Memorial Stadium, is how he reacts in front of a hostile crowd. And they don't get much more hostile than Blacksburg.

Does he have a short memory? Can he navigate the varying mine fields when the defense you face is as athletic as it is aggressive? With both Florida Atlantic and Arkansas State, they have had had a few players here and there, but V. Tech has them across the board. It's not to say Virginia Tech is a world beater. Alabama proved that the Hokies have a lot of vulnerabilities in a defense which is noted for not having many at all. But at home with the crowd, this defense is likely to be much better, more energetic throughout, and the one thing ‘Bama could do is something that based on the next point, the Huskers probably can't.

Is Physical, Physical enough?

Through two games the Husker offensive line has enjoyed a personnel advantage. While there have been some individual talents, especially with Arkansas State, neither team stacked up to the Huskers on the line.

That showed in game one as the Huskers were able to run pretty effectively on Florida Atlantic, and they took advantage of opportunities in space.

The offensive line has done some
good things, but have to do great
things this weekend

That didn't work so well against Arkansas State for a couple of reasons:

First and most importantly, the Red Wolves were playing the run the entire time. Sticking to the rule about defending the run and trying to run, Ark. State stacked the box for most of the game even when Lee was tearing them apart downfield.

It wasn't a case of picking your poison. I think the coaches at Arkansas State just knew they couldn't defend the pass nearly as effectively as they could the run. So, their plan was to make sure the run was limited and hope the passing game wasn't efficient.

Turns out they half-succeeded.

Secondly,Nebraska wasn't getting as much of a push off the line as they had in the previous week's game. That was anticipated as the coaches, players and everyone else said that this Arkansas State defensive line was every bit the caliber of most units in this conference. The ruling is still out on how good that is, especially based on the performances over the first two weeks in the Big 12.

Since Alabama dominated Tech on the line, which you rarely see any team do against a Bud Foster defense, the first assumption you might make, especially since ‘Bama put up close to 270 yards rushing on the Hokie "D", is that they are big-strong-bullying sorts, who just wore Tech down and steamrolled them in the second half.

Well, they did steamroll them in the second half, but this Alabama line is far from the bullying-type. Think about it the other way, that being athletic, because they don't have a starting offensive lineman listed over 305 pounds, and only one on the entire roster who is listed above that weight. And some of these linemen are 6-6 and even taller. That means you can presume them to be very athletic, very quick and able to move laterally in the running game as well as they move straight up field.

That's actually an area where I think Nebraska has improved dramatically this season, because they really never did establish this identity of being a power running team. If you look back to last year's contest against Virginia Tech, Nebraska had a whopping 55 yards rushing. They had close to 280 in the air, but back to the axiom of rushing the stopping the run, the Huskers will have to do something against this team that they weren't able to do last year. And honestly, they weren't able to do to any other solid rush defenses last year, outside of what Roy Helu Jr. did against Oklahoma when the game was over and done with.

I have really liked the improvement of the physical aspect of this offensive line this year, because I think they have indeed been more physical. But this weekend they are having to go up against their big brother in terms of the step up in competition, rather than the contests against their little sister the two contests prior.

Point of Impact vs Point of Action

There's no doubt that you have seen more hard hits through the first two games than we might have seen all of last year. From the line to the secondary, players are flat blowing other players up.

That's good

There's also no doubt that the tackling in the secondary has improved by leaps and bounds. Yes, we have seen senior safety Rickey Thenarse and even fellow senior Larry Asante take a few bad angles, but the difference with those two, especially Thenarse, in finishing players off versus going right on by, has been obvious.

That's good

But the linebackers haven't quite followed suit.

The big reason, and it's understandable, is that they are young. A redshirt freshman at middle linebacker as well as BUCK. That's going to present issues from time to time, whether it's just taking a bad angle, not wrapping up at the point of impact or whatever.

It's been a bit disappointing to see junior Blake Lawrence have many of the same problems some of the more inexperienced players are having. He's touted as being one of the smartest players on that entire defense, yet he does some things during the course of games which makes you scratch your head.

Some of this could be simply from the entire group not grasping quite yet how to work as a unit rather than guys just trying to do their thing. However, some of it is just bad decisions at crucial points of a play.

Probably the biggest worry here from this last game was that when Arkansas State was getting runners beyond the first level between the hashes, either there weren't linebackers there to fill those gaps or sometimes they just took bad angles trying to make a play.

You can learn a bit by listening to the opposing coaches sometimes, and they indicated how Nebraska was giving them a bit of a cushion in the running with how high they were keeping the safeties. That's good, and you can use that to lull a team into thinking they can run. But if safeties are that high, the linebackers are the ones who have to make the play if the back gets through the line of scrimmage. I'm not sure we saw a very good example of that in this last game.

Virginia Tech has two running backs, both of which went over 160 yards rushing last week. Unlike Arkansas State, which seems to have capable, but not really athletic backs, Tech has the kind of open-field threats you have nightmares about. But where that could particularly hurt them is how fast these young backs can get to the line of scrimmage. Holes close quickly at this level of play, but they haven't closed very quickly for the Huskers, when a running back manages to get through the line.

Is it slow reaction? Is it confusion?

Whatever it is, they need to get that figured out, or the middle of the line, a place where we figured few would try their luck with too much, will be a place the Hokies might try to make a home.

The X-Factor

When it's all said and done, have of what we, the armchair QB might say about what Nebraska is or isn't doing well, can probably be scoffed at and debunked quite easily by most coaches.

But one thing that I don't believe any Husker coach would argue right now is that this team does not have good momentum going into the Virginia Tech game when it comes to shooting themselves in the foot.

Secondary players dropping easy interceptions became so commonplace last year we just accepted it.

They are still doing it.

Larry Asante drops a sure interception last week. Prince Amukamara drops a sure interception this week. Fumbles they should have gotten, could have gotten, etc., so on and so forth.

The good news is that Ndamukong Suh isn't tied for the lead in interceptions. Of course, he doesn't have any. It's an area where you are thinking that Virginia Tech won't stretch them to the limits, but when you are on the road you don't want to talk about turnovers you could have gotten or should have gotten. Often, it's those missed opportunities which kill you when playing in someone else's house.

To say Nebraska is better in that area than last year is correct. But to say they are good, wouldn't be. It's still a sore spot, because you have only had to watch the games to know how many real opportunities the Huskers had to stop drives and didn't, because they couldn't secure the ball.

Solutions come from failure

Here is the final area I'll address, but it's the one area where I think it will have the biggest impact on Nebraska this up-coming weekend, and you saw just a small example of that in the first two games. It has to do with preparation.

Think about Will Compton:

Here's a redshirt linebacker who ran Scout Team all of last year.

What was he doing on the Scout Team?

He was simulating the defense of the team Nebraska was to face that weekend.

That means he wasn't running his own system, but someone else's, and the only time he and everyone else on that unit had to prepare to be that defense was the time between the last game and the first day of practice that following week.

That's about a day and a half.

And one of those days the players had off except for meetings.

You are trying to simulate a defense which you probably haven't ran, might have an entirely different scheme and what's worse, isn't going to be exactly the same defense which the Husker offense will face when they face the actual opponent.

Unless they are a team like Oklahoma who believes they can line up and beat anyone out there just doing what they do, they are likely to switch things up and not give you exactly what you saw on film from other contests.

But there you are, a member of the Scout Team, trying to be as efficient as you can be in replicating a defense you might not have to replicate the rest of the year.

Compton has made mistakes, but
those mistakes will make him better
down the road.

Switch that around to now, and it's Compton who is running his own defense, but now has to face a Scout Team offense with exactly the same job.

Again, unless Nebraska is facing a team which is so good or stubborn it's going to do exactly the same thing come the weekend, what Compton sees isn't going to be exactly what he'll see come game time. And it won't be run with near the efficiency.

So, what he's facing throughout the week is a poor man's version of the team he'll be facing that weekend, and unlike practice where he goes against a lot of players who won't play at all this year, he'll be facing a team full of players who have been on the field the whole season.

That's the problem with the Scout Team.

First, they are obviously not as good as the team you are preparing to play.

Second, in many cases they don't have near the caliber of players you will be facing that weekend.

Third, they have such a superficial understanding of the system they are trying to replicate, you can't for one second expect the efficiency to be even close to what they are going to see from the upcoming opponent.

That leads to less mistakes.

Yeah, that's right. Less mistakes. Will Compton is going against players he might be bigger than and faster than. He might be going against players he knows very well from practicing with them and against them for close to two years. He'll have infinitely better understanding of how to do things in this situation which has no fans or no winner and loser at the end than he would if all those other factors came into play.

And unfortunately, it's the mistakes you learn from more than your successes.

Compton took some horrendous angles against Arkansas State, and a couple of players he should have had in the backfield or at least, stopped for no again, ended up getting plus yardage and in two cases, first downs.

But there it is, on film.

He'll learn from that.

How that player went at him, tried to avoid him, was able to read him, etc. He'll be able to see from watching film of an actual game what this one situation presented which led to him making some pretty blatant mistakes.

But neither Arkansas State nor Florida Atlantic has Tyrod Taylor at quarterback or Ryan Williams and David Wilson, two very fast, shifty and explosive players at running back. Neither team has the offensive line, tight ends, wide receivers or special teams.

Basically, what Compton has seen thus far and during the course of practice, isn't even close to what he's about to see this weekend.

He's in for a whole new world of mistakes, but they are mistakes which have to happen.

If you are looking for a player to be perfect from the outset, and for them to build on that perfection as they go through the season, you need to stop watching professional wrestling. Maybe in that scripted world do things work like that, but not here. Players have to make mistakes to get better. It's a coaches'  job and hope that they can show them as many of those situations as possible in practice or that those mistakes can happen as often as possible against teams that this group can easily beat.

But that's just not going to happen. Nebraska can't simulate what Virginia Tech can do, because they don't do it themselves.  But that works to Nebraska's favor, as well. After all, do you think they have a quarterback on the Hokies' squad who can simulate Zac Lee's arm along with his 75 percent efficiency?

I doubt it.

It works both ways, so the mistakes you know are going to happen that weekend are at the very least, not amplified through your preparation.

But they will happen.

Just as obvious as Virginia Tech's desire to run is the knowledge that you won't be able to completely stop it. You won't be able to figure out entirely what Taylor will do and when he'll do it. Part of it is still not having a team that can just line up and beat a team like that. And a bigger part is having a lot of players on this team who have never actually faced it.

They have someone else on film, not  themselves. And it's only when you make the mistake yourself do you really learn how to correct it.

And in a game like this, it's the team with the fewest mistakes which usually wins.

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