It's probably more amazing that an offensive line mostly recruited for their prowess to pass block, has found themselves far more effective opening holes than they have keeping defenses out of the backfield. But with the combination of Helu and an opportunistic Lee, who actually seemed to be running with a fair amount of confidence in the second half, the offensive line did a decent job at opening up opportunities to run the ball. The Huskers averaged over five yards per carry. It doesn't take a mathematician to figure out that if you can do that on every play you never have to pass. But when you do pass, you can do it out of play action, which actually works, especially if you start out from under center. It wasn't a perfect game by any means, because the pass protection was suspect, the personal foul (tripping) by Keith Williams deep in Kansas territory was just dumb and there seemed to be some communication issues at times on the interior where it seemed defenders came free, when it seemed like someone else was supposed to pick them up and didn't, putting a lot of pressure on the offense to make plays under the gun. But this group played well for the most part, and guess what, YES, they were physical. How about that?
With 156 yards on 28 carries, Roy Helu Jr. once again proved that this offense goes as he goes. When the Huskers have actually committed to the run, and Helu has been the horse they had the luxury to ride, they can move the ball. Fullback Tyler Legate once again actually gets mentioned, because Nebraska kept him on the field much of the time when Lee was under center. Thankfully, that was much of the time as well, and how about Lee himself adding to the running game? That made for a solid outing from the entire backfield, but let's face it: This offense with Helu and the emphasis to use him as much as you need to, can actually get something done. They can actually move the ball. They can actually score points, get TDs instead of field goals and burn time off the clock. The only downside to this performance was the option call where Helu once again mishandled the toss. The actual pitch may have been a little hot, but this is the second time this year Helu has had an option pitch he should have easily brought in, fly right through his hands.
Yes, that's nitpicking, and we have all realized that with Helu Nebraska can do something on offense. Without him, Alex Henery's leg is going to get tired.
Have to give it to Lee for doing what Offensive Coordinator Shawn Watson says a quarterback has to do, and that is "manage."
He did that, and the best thing I saw in this entire game was Lee under center for most of it. When he did that the offense consistently moved the ball. When they were out of the gun, it was a sporadic attack at best.
What Lee did best wasn't necessarily hit receivers with good passes, though, Niles Paul is no doubt enjoying a good day from a few big catches he made during the game. What Lee did was make good decisions when it came to keeping it or throwing it.
On the two-point conversion at the end of the game, where Nebraska would go up by seven if it was good, Lee looked like he was going to keep it and try and get the conversion with his feet. But at the very last second, right in front of the line of scrimmage, he cocked back and delivered the pass to Paul in the back of the end zone.
Early in the game Lee looked very tentative running the ball, no more so than on that first touchdown-drive where Lee fumbled the ball into the end zone. It was Helu that perhaps saved the game right there as he dove onto the ball, giving the Huskers the score on the first drive of the game. Lee had some mental hiccups when he would go to an audible at the line. My suggestion is that they take that option play out of it, because it wasn't working. Lee isn't an option QB. He doesn't have the ability, it would seem, to make consistent decisions at the point of whether to keep it or pitch it. So, shelve that or redesign it….or something.
But 12-of-20 for just under 200 yards will work. No turnovers will work even better. This game won't put anyone in awe at its offensive prowess. But winning games is what matters. And to his credit, Lee did a pretty good job today.
It had to seem like going back in time for junior Niles Paul. Back to the days of being at Omaha North, where quarterback Phillip Bates Jr. would basically toss the ball up and Paul went up to get it.
Call that a theme for Paul today.
On his way to a career-high 154 yards receiving on just four receptions, Paul had the big play going his way. Whether it was toward the beginning of the game where he caught a 35-yarder down the right side when the defender fell down in coverage, or a 45-yard reception on 3rd and 3 in the third quarter, which kept a scoring drive alive – Paul came up big at big times. You can throw in sophomore Brandon Kinnie for a great one-handed reception on that same drive which saw Paul get the 45-yard catch.
And what do you know, two straight receptions on roll out throws to the tight end…yes, I said tight end..Michael McNeill. Lee actually tried to get the ball to McNeill three times in that drive, but McNeill couldn't bring in the last one, which would have been a first down. But when the tight end has been all but invisible for what seems like forever, five catches for around 30 yards, four of those receptions by McNeil, the last a catch by fellow junior tight end Dreu Young, it's a step up.
Ultimately, it could have been a Kansas penalty on a wide receiver, a facemask on redshirt freshman Khiry Cooper that might have been one of the biggest plays of the game. Cooper wouldn't have gotten the first down with that catch, but the fact that he was tackled by his face gave Nebraska a first down, which was followed immediately by Roy Helu running it in from the right side for the score.
It was overall, a good day for the wideouts. There could be some nitpicking on blocking for the running game, but when asked to make plays most of the wide receivers did that. But we also have to credit the running game for giving them some opportunities they might not have had if everyone had been expecting the Huskers to throw.
Yes, I know that people think the defensive line had their worst game of the season or at least, since the Texas Tech contest. But Kansas wasn't messing around with their game plan, which seemed obvious:
Move the pocket, run plays away from senior defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh, and yes, he was double-teamed on ample occasions. You have to give Spikes, their new guard who had to go up against Suh, some credit. He did a nice job. But when Kansas was getting yards on the ground, it was usually to the side where Suh wasn't supposed to be or on quarterback keepers, which were a big success for Todd Reesing and his Jayhawks.
Of course, if Suh is being occupied then Jared Crick is the guy who is supposed to make up the difference, which he has for most of the season. But in this game it seems like when they went at him they were having a decent amount of success, and Crick found himself getting moved around a little more than usual. That isn't Crick's strength right now anyway, as he is far quicker than he is strong. So, when working with leverage and trying to be staunch in the run game, he might still be a bit of a work in progress.
On the good side were solid performances from the defensive ends, specifically senior Barry Turner, who was key on a drive where he didn't buy an endaround at all, and a potential huge gainer for Kansas turned into a one-yard loss. But redshirt freshman Cameron Meredith had potentially the most solid game of all the defensive ends, especially playing close to the line. He made a couple huge stops behind the line, one an open-field stop where he made an ankle tackle, turning almost a certain first down into a loss on the play.
No, the defensive line wasn't great. But give KU's game plan a lot of credit for that, and I do think there's something to be said for trying to find some emotion coming off the most emotional win of the year, last weekend against Oklahoma. But when the defensive line had to make the stops at the end of the game, they did just that.
This was a tough game for this position. Senior linebacker Phillip Dillard got a great hurry on a blitz which was identical to the blitz he ran last week against Oklahoma, which got him and the team the first sack of the game. But when he finds himself in one-on-one coverage of speedy running back Jake Sharp, that's a problem.
And when redshirt freshman linebacker Will Compton was having to decide between doubling out on wide receivers or tight ends or staying home to watch for Reesing, sometimes those decisions came back to bite him.
Against this type of passing attack, the linebackers are probably going to be the most invisible players on the field, and when you do see them or hear about them, it usually isn't good. It wasn't, and there were some missed opportunities, botched tackles and poor decisions in defending that inside run game. Maybe they had gotten spoiled by a defensive line that was allowing them to do whatever they want for quite a few games in a row. When it did come time to actually fill gaps, because defensive linemen were getting beat, sometimes they either just weren't there or didn't make the play.
So, not a great game for them, but with all the nickel and dime coverage the team ran today, their performance wasn't going to make or break the team.
There were times where they were outstanding. There were times where they were just bad.
If there is a player of the game not named Roy Helu, it's cornerback Dejon Gomes. He had a couple of breakdowns on coverage later in the game, but his forced turnover on wide receiver Kerry Meier might be the play of the game. Meier was going into the end zone, and Kansas would have broke a 10-10 tie, but Gomes' mammoth forced fumble was a major break in the momentum Kansas had on that nine-play drive where they had moved the ball 73 yards.
There was the personal foul by senior safety Larry Asante, that was part his own momentum, but Asante clearly leaned into that very late shot on Reesing after he tucked and ran 13 yards for the first down. It was an obvious enough and brutal enough penalty, this might not be the last time we hear about it. If you remember, after hitting an OU safety hard last week (it was a clean hit), Asante was clearly taunting him after the play. That lack of sportsmanship bit him this time, and may still bite him again before it's all said and done.
If you look at the total yards passing, It may not look like the Nebraska secondary did that good. But it goes to show you what kind of relationship there is between the defensive line and what they can do on the back end. KU had a great game plan up front and executed extremely well. That meant a lot of sticky situations for the secondary, especially when trying to guard the deep pass and play run support. It wasn't perfect, but overall the unit did a decent job when they weren't being protected by their usually dependable defensive front.
There were a host of plays on defense and offense that probably changed the momentum of the game, but Nebraska got some huge plays in this area of the game, most of them coming from Paul, who rounded out his stellar all-around performance with a monster 44-yard kickoff return to open up Nebraska's first offensive possession after falling behind in the game, 17-16. It's something when you average over 38 yards per reception, but at that point of the game when NU clearly didn't have much (if any) momentum in the game, his kickoff return was huge.
Then there was Alex Henery…ho hum Henery, as I like to call him. Three-for-three on field goals, and while the wind was absolutely killing his punting average, he wasn't doing too horribly, as he averaged almost 39 yards per kick. It's also nice when he's not being asked to punt it double-digits like last week. Four times was all for him in the punting game. Kickoff coverage was good, especially later in the game when Kansas tried a handoff to the other side of the field to try and fool the Huskers. It fooled nobody, KU actually losing five or so yards on that mental hiccup.
The wind played heck with the kickoffs as well, as Adi only got one touched back in the end zone. But on the bright side, they actually needed him to kick off a lot, which means the offense must be doing something right.
There weren't any blocked kicks, but there also weren't any huge mistakes. But will we ever see a single game where someone isn't holding or blocking someone in the back on a return? That happened twice in this game.
I have two words for you:
That's where Zac Lee needs to stay.
When they ran under center, which they did ALL of their first two scoring drives……well, the offense obviously worked.
When they didn't, the offense sputtered, Lee made bad decisions in the running game, and let's face it: play action out of the gun? Come on. When you run play action from under center, that's almost a full second more the linebackers don't know what the play is, because the quarterback isn't showing the ball. Out of the gun it's almost pointless.
They actually ran play action the first play of the game….and it worked to the tune of one of Paul's big receptions down the sideline.
People have been beating it over the head a bit lately, but it really came home today that when Shawn Watson kept Lee under center, this offense moved. Yes, if Helu isn't back there that probably isn't the case. But he was, and this offense could move. I still don't get how this offensive line actually run blocks better than it passes, but have we finally found an identity for the Huskers?
It seems like Watson, whatever the motivation, has seen it and outside of a couple of lapses into the gun early in the game, went back to sticking Lee right under Jacob Hickman's butt and turning this team into an actual ball control offense.
As for how play action was mixed with the running game, that's impossible to say how you should call it, because it's a feel thing, regarding what defenses are doing, how you see the flow going. And I have to say that sure, me being the armchair quarterback that I am, there were plays and drives where I scratched my head at what was being called. But when you step back and look back at the big picture and more importantly, the statistics, you see that Watson's plan worked and worked well. Right now Nebraska doesn't have a quarterback who can just sit back there and beat you with his arm.
Yeah, we all realize that. But now it looks like the offense is starting to resemble something that does indeed cater to the strength of its players rather than force players into doing things they don't seem as adept at doing as we might have thought or hoped.
Nicely done, I'd say. Watson's "O" gets this win for the Big Red.
Yeah, that's right.
I think that in a situation like this – on the road, coming off a big win, I suppose I was expecting some sort of breakout game for the offense, but a "breakthrough" game works just fine, too. It was where they actually put it on the offensive line and the run game to keep Nebraska moving the chains, grind the clock and hopefully give a defense a break for once. It's a good thing, too, because that defense couldn't be perfect all the time, and even the best defenses in the country aren't super stars every single weekend of the year.
When Nebraska needed the offense to step up, they did, and on the road.
The thing is, you can't expect the defense to have two weeks like that. They are too good. But that offense really needed something to hang their hat on, other than pure mediocrity.
They now have their identity. It's set in stone as long as Helu is healthy.
Run, and make the other team make you do something else.
Ahhh, sounds like the good old days, doesn't it?
Nebraska is looking pretty good going into the Kansas State game at home, the game that will be the deal sealer for the Big 12 North title.