There will be a frustrated football team on the Nebraska sideline that knows now how important it is to finish as strong as you start. There is also a team that as a result of the loss to Virginia Tech might be better for having lost than having won. There are lessons that will be learned and Saturday night is a chance to apply those new lessons. Here is what I will be watching on Saturday night:
#1. Lee's thumb - There was some news that bubbled up late last week about a supposed injury to Lee's thumb. For a half, the hand and the injury seemed to be a non-issue. Accuracy and arm strength seemed to be there. In the second half the Nebraska passing game never really got going. Lee needs to put together an entire game to get Virginia Tech completely in the books and get ready for the rest of the season.
#2. QB Pressure - The way that Nebraska will go about attacking UL-L is going to be a little different than with Tech. However, Nebraska will be facing a pretty good offensive in UL-L, but he is susceptible to some tipped balls at the line of scrimmage (which Nebraska/Ndamukong Suh does very well). Nebraska will need to rattle the confidence of Chris Masson and not allow him to get comfortable in the pocket.
#3. Score TDs - Nebraska last weekend settled for five field goals as the only points scored against Tech. Red Zone efficiency for Nebraska was high last week, 4-for-5, but again settling for field goals. Nebraska needs to find ways to get the ball in the end zone from inside the 20. Additionally, Nebraska had some critical penalties called against them the nullified a touchdown pass to Mike McNeil in the second half that occurred in the red zone.
#4. Player Rotation - This week might have an offensive line that has some players playing out of position based on necessity for Nebraska. Mike Smith is injured moving Marcel Jones to left tackle and D. J. Jones will likely start at right. There is also an injury to Andy Christensen that might cause Jacob Hickman to slide over to guard in some cases bringing in Mike Caputo to center. Supposedly we might also look for true freshman, Jeremiah Sirles, to get some playing time tomorrow night. I would also like to see Cody Green, Rex Burkhead, Josh Williams, Terrence Moore and others.
#5. Manage the game - Besides just scoring points, Nebraska and more importantly, Zac Lee, need to just manage the game. There are some series that just seem to click. Others that go three and out and Nebraska might have been better off just to quick kick it back to their opponents on first down. Nebraska needs to get into a rhythm and sustain longer drives. Yes, quick points are great. However, Nebraska's real strength is their physical defense.
#6. No breakdowns on special teams - The opening kick off for Virginia Tech wasn't as devastating as it could have been. Nebraska could have lost their composure and got out of it mentally. While Nebraska showed the ability to hold things together and get back in the game there was still a breakdown on kickoff coverage. Nebraska needs to work these things out a couple of more games to make sure that they are ready for conference play.
#7. Silly little penalties - There was the illegal formation call, holding call that nullified a touchdown throw to Mike McNeil and other procedure calls that Nebraska just needs to quit doing. Yes, that is easier said that done and some of that were caused by a very loud environment at Virginia Tech. There is not a better place to get these things worked out than at home.
#8. Pound the Rock - The biggest part of managing the game for Saturday is establishing the run. Nebraska was able to run the ball well against Virginia Tech, 207 yards rushing, while Southern and Kansas State were able to run the football on UL-L. This weekend may not have a lot of flash, but if you want to see Nebraska just grind it out and wear someone out then this might be your weekend.
#9. New WR targets? - There has still been a lot of questions about the consistency of the hands with some of the receivers while players like Chris Brooks have stepped up and another player like Brandon Kinnie and Antonio Bell have played so little. This might be a weekend to turn them loose and tell them if they want to play more that this is their weekend to shine. It's win-win for the staff and the team to try and encourage some of the lower unit players to step up.
#10. They won't always be like this – There is this week and next week for Nebraska to really knock the rust off and get ready for a run that is much more important that winning at Virginia Tech. The goal of getting to Dallas is still there and attainable, scratch that, very attainable. Nebraska needs to remember that out of that loss that they proved that they can go into hostile environments and play well. That athletically and physically they aren't behind a lot of teams anymore. Mentally, the loss might do better for this team in the long run than a win.
This is going to be a weekend where a lot of people will rotate in and get to see some playing time. That also has to mean that Nebraska is going to win and win handedly. UL-L isn't a bad football team. They have athletes and they play hard. They did beat Kansas State earlier in the season so that is reason for Nebraska and others to really take the Cajuns seriously.
Seriously though, there is not a lot in their favor this weekend. It's in Lincoln. It's the 300th consecutive sellout. It's coming off of a tough loss for Nebraska. There is a major haul of recruits in town that Nebraska wants to impress. Nebraska wins this game going way, 49-13. More than that, I will determine victory by how early a lot of the younger and lower level players start to get on the field. I am hopeful that happens shortly after the first scoring drive of the second half.
And as I post this today, I am becoming a little nostalgic as I am left to think about great games and great plays that I have seen in Lincoln as part of the consecutive sellout streak. My first Oklahoma game in 1995 which Nebraska won 37-0 and was also the last Big 8 game ever played. My last Oklahoma game in 2001 – handoff to Thunder Collins, pitches it to Mike Stuntz, he's got a man open it's…Eric Crouch – which was also the first time I brought my son from Texas to Nebraska.
I think back to the 1996 and 1998 games against Colorado. Both of them close and the 1998 game might be the only game that I can recall of Nebraska's where they didn't score an offensive touchdown, while their opponent had multiple touchdown scores, and still won. I think that I still have a mild case of frost bite from that game.
Great plays, great players and great moments that fall into those games I was able to see at home. And there are of course others that I saw in person and saw on television. Heck, there are those that I remember listening to the radio, KFAB, with my father when I was a little boy. 37 years of sellout football. Here's to 37 more years and another 300 sellouts. This is one of the best traditions not only with Nebraska football, but with college football. There is no place like Nebraska.