Grading the Huskers

It wasn't the prettiest win, but hey, let's face it, winning ugly is better than losing...no matter how it appears. Nebraska did just that, so let's break it down in our "Grading the Huskers" and project just how this all translates to next week when the Huskers travel to face the Horns for the Big 12 Title.


Quarterback – "B"

This grade was almost an "incomplete", and no, that's not a poor shot at humor. It's hard not to call it anything else. 9-of-14 for 73 yards passing and a touchdown is efficient enough. And the touchdown pass from Zac Lee to redshirt freshman tight end Ben Cotton was a dandy. But this game plan today was one where it seemed that once the pressure on Lee was registered, the offense went into a shell of sorts, trying to move the chains in painfully small increments. That's not all on Lee, though, running the ball he continues to be a bit of a liability, actually registering negative yards on the day. But some of that was due to sacks, most of them coming from either blitzing linebackers or safeties. The fortunate part for Husker fans is that Lee, who went down in the game from an injury eerily reminiscent of what Missouri quarterback Blaine Gabbert suffered at the hands of Husker defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh, wasn't nearly as serious. But give Lee some credit as well for making some good throws across the middle on third down, something he did three times in the contest.

Running Back - "C+"

This was actually a higher grade earlier, which got lower, but went back up toward the end. Much of the increase coming via the able and dependable hands of redshirt freshman Rex Burkhead. Starting running back Roy Helu Jr., averaged almost four yards per carry, but could only managed just over 50 yards for the game. But Helu's biggest mistake came when he fumbled the ball in the fourth quarter. It was a fumble that when you look at the replay, you have to question Helu a lot more for losing it than you'd give credit to the defender for knocking it out. He basically just coughed it up. But Burkhead didn't have those problems, and it was his late-game surge and consistency, along with a couple of runs by Helu, that spearheaded the 13-play drive that resulted in a Burkhead touchdown from seven yards out. On that drive the Texas native carried the ball nine times for over 50 of the 80 yards totaled. Between his vision and balance, Burkhead was able to find narrow gaps and exploit them, use his burst to get through them, and even when the first tackler had him, he wasn't very easy to bring down. This is all sounding like a lot better performance than a C+, but both of these guys blew it at least once in blitz pick up. One early in the game, Helu just couldn't hold his block, resulting in a Zac Lee sack. Another a bit later in the game, Burkhead simply whiffed on, resulting in another Zac Lee sack. There was enough blitzing going on throughout the day that this shouldn't have been a surprise, but it wasn't a strong day for those guys in this regard. But when Nebraska absolutely needed the running game, they got it from both these guys.


Offensive Line – "B+"

Yep, two false starts in the second half. That's not good. And there were times, even when CU was blitzing, which they did a lot of early, someone probably should have been able to pick someone up. But as former Husker Defensive Coordinator Charlie McBride loved to say, five can't block six. That seemed to be a philosophy of the Buffs early on. It worked to a tune of three sacks on Lee, and that doesn't even count the times Lee was caught at or behind the line of scrimmage in scrambling situations. But on the road, throughout much of the game, this unit, while not scintillating, wasn't exactly killing themselves with mistakes. The two fouls late didn't help, but what helped more on the other side of things was solid run blocking, which helped seal this game for the Big Red. That 13-play, 80-yard drive, the nail in the coffin, basically, was made possible in large part to the fact that this unit just bore down and went smashmouth for a series. Whether it was pulling by Ricky Henry or just straight ahead blocking, something you don't see much of nowadays, the unit opened decent holes most of the time, very good holes some of the time, and on the seven-yard run by Burkhead into the end zone, he never even touched. The blitz is always going to give teams problem, and it's up to backs and tight ends to fill the gap. Sometimes they did, sometimes they didn't, but the offensive line, for the most part, did their job. And when it counted, they did their job well.


Wide Receiver/Tight End – "B+"

I'm nitpicking a bit here, a blown block by redshirt freshman Ben Cotton on a stretch running play, and then a poor run after the catch on a drag route by fellow redshirt freshman Kyler Reed. Point of fact, the entire group of tight ends couldn't manage over 25 yards receiving, but Cotton made a very nice grab and pull in for an early score. And for the wide receivers, they had some issues now and again on blocking, but Niles Paul came up big twice on crossing routes, as Lee hit him for two first downs, two of only three third down conversions the Huskers had on the day. Wide receiver Brandon Kinnie got the other. As the game wore on and Nebraska went to the inside running game, it became almost a moot point what they were doing on the outside, other than making fine decoys. But outside of a couple missed blocks on outside running plays and a dropped ball by Paul, this unit got about as much production out of this kind of game you can get.

Defensive Line – "D"

Everyone knows Suh is going to get double teamed. That's as dependable as it comes. And nowadays we know Crick is going to get his share of attention, also. Well, they both got plenty of attention, as it seemed absolutely evident that Colorado wasn't just going to try and stop them, but they were actually going to go at the dynamic duo. If a line commits to two guys per inside guy, yes, they are going to have some success running the ball, and they did, running back Rodney Stewart topping the century mark for the game. But where are those defensive ends? Whether it was Stewart going inside or bouncing outside or it was quarterback Tyler Hansen running around all day in the backfield, Barry Turner, Pierre Allen and Cameron Meredith – none of them took full advantage of all the single-blocking situations they saw. You can say that linebackers are supposed to come up and help on run support as well as safeties, depending on the defensive call. But you could see all the attention both Crick and Suh were getting inside, yet there is not one single tackle for loss by any of them, and you have a grand total of one quarterback hurry. That's unacceptable. When you have the kind of inside presence Nebraska does, for the defensive ends to be so invisible, either Colorado is an amazing team with amazing weapons, able to beat them on pure athleticism, or someone isn't doing their job. Take your pick.


Linebacker – "C+"

Continuing on the above point, when the running back Stewart, is able to get those big runs outside, which he did on far too many occasions, that's going to fall to those who either had the responsibility of keeping the play inside or the backers who were supposed to cover those zones just outside of the offensive tackles. There were more than a few plays I saw redshirt freshman Will Compton shoot inside to stop the run, only to get sucked into the blockers, only to watch the run or even quarterback scramble go to the outside, where he was essentially out of the play. Then there was fellow redshirt freshman Sean Fisher, who is absolutely solid in pursuit, but there were two instances coming up to the line, he either misread the play and simply got juked or he misread the play and was too out of position to be of any factor. Phillip Dillard once again led the team in tackles, notching eight, along with getting a quarterback hurry. And it was either him or Suh who knocked the arm of the quarterback, which resulted in an errant throw and an interception by the Big Red. This is Fisher's first real time on the field since I don't know when, as we all know how much Nickel and Dime Coverage Nebraska has been in much of the year. But this is game two of legit snaps for Compton. If Colorado is fooling them, you don't even want to think of what Texas is going to do. They need to get this cleaned up fast.


Secondary – "B+"

Let's just get the bad out of the way: Cornerback Eric Hagg is not good in press coverage. He's just not. He's perhaps their best open field tackler, and he has incredible instincts for the ball, when the ball is already in the hand of the offensive player. But this is two weeks in a row now we have seen Hagg burned on a deep sideline pass, where he had his head turned around, seemingly had position to make the play and still gave up the big completion. Expect Texas to try and feed off that next week. Then there is the seemingly obligatory personal foul by safety, Larry Asante. The Colorado player is clearly out of bounds, and heck, so was Asante. But just as clearly, the senior safety puts his head down into the defenseless player, drawing the 15-yard flag. At some point, considering his little resume' of these types of deals, some ref might actually see it, call it and just eject him from the game. I can't say I would argue it happening either. But besides that, this group was pretty darn good, especially when you consider the defensive ends weren't getting any pressure on Hansen from the outside. Junior corner Dejon Gomes gets an interception, his third of the season. Then good OLD Matt O'Hanlon gets an interception as well, his fifth, which he turned immediately into a score. Then, in garbage time, where the game as more or less out of question, Prince got another, and made a stellar run back, taking the ball back the other way 40 yards before he was brought down. This secondary continues to get better. Honestly, that's all you can say. They all have their hiccups, and some of them could get exposed as real weaknesses come Texas, but this group has become a very solid all-around unit. Props to Marvin Sanders, who doesn't have the same kind of athletes across the board as he did in 2003 when he had three future NFL Draft picks on the back end. But this group is doing pretty good well.

Special Teams – "A"

There has to be something I can complain about here. Oh yeah, Alex Henery missed a 50-yard field goal.

HE STINKS

Seriously, what else can this guy do that he hasn't done already? He single-handedly won the field position battle for the Huskers in the first half, and he finished the game with four out of his six punts pinned inside the CU 20. And then there was Adi Kunalic doing his part, getting two touchbacks on his four total kicks. And how about Niles Paul, who breaks the game open from the get go, taking a punt back 59 yards for a score.

There are plenty of things you can nitpick, I suppose. But if Nebraska had problems, it wasn't on special teams, the missed field goal aside. We'll consider the high grade an acknowledgement of all the extra credit Henery has earned over the season.

Play Calling – "B-"

Honestly, it's kind of hard to put a grade on this one, because I think that the early plan was good, but CU blitzing every single play probably ruined a lot of what Nebraska was trying to establish early on. But when you as a Husker fan have perhaps gotten used to Offensive Coordinator getting cute if only for the reason of trying to be clever, when it counted he actually stuck with what worked. Run, run and dare the other team to stop you. Even when I was expecting some sort of play action pass toward the end of the game when Nebraska went on that 13-play drive, the Huskers only passed it twice..once on the first play of that march down the field and the other time on 3rd and five. A great throw and catch, by the way. But other than that, it was run, run and more running, finished off by yep, you guessed it, a run by the back who got you there, that being Burkhead.

I will tell you, though, that every time I see Nebraska get into the shotgun when it isn't third down or an obvious passing situation…I cringe. They don't have to do it, and it kind of amazes me where, at times, it seems that Watson is bound and determined to do something from that despite the evidence that it's almost certain to fail. He didn't do that this time around, I'd say. Some, but not much.

And let's give Colorado at least some credit here. They have a fair to decent defensive line, but secondary star Cha'Palle Brown is a bonafide stud. He was almost single-handedly responsible for stopping Nebraska on two different drives.


Overall

A win is a win is a win

That's what matters, but the problem is, I think some were hoping that Nebraska's offense might break out of a funk in Boulder. Probably not the best place to assume that would happen, and well…it didn't. This group seems as one-dimensional as it has been, and that wonderful drag route which was so successful a week ago, was almost futile now.

And the defensive line got exposed a bit, because Colorado directly challenged the ends and the help on the run support from the outside, to stop them. And CU still managed over 130 yards rushing in the game. A lot by Stewart the running back, some by the running quarterback. And a little more here and there.

But all these things, whatever Colorado could do in bits and pieces, Texas will be able to do them in huge chunks. Just because quarterback Colt McCoy hasn't ran much this entire year, you saw by his record-setting running performance just an evening ago against Texas A&M, this kid has wheels.

Texas doesn't have a marquee back, but they always have talent, a plethora of speed and what is considered by some as one of if not the best offensive line in the country.

As for the Husker offense, just cross your fingers, break a wishbone or whatever it is you feel you need to do to bring Nebraska some luck. Based on today and what we have seen in recent weeks, they are going to need all the luck they can get.

Box Score


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