Four-Down Territory: UCLA Week

Well Husker fans, Week One is in the books with a 49-20 victory over Southern Miss. Yet half of Nebraska fans seem to be approaching a fairly good game with overly-cautious pessimism. The other half think this is going to be the greatest season ever. I have a more tempered approach to this week where you have to take the good with the bad.

First Down: Taylor Martinez looked sharp completing 26 of 34 pass attempts for 354 yards and five touchdowns. This was against an outmatched Golden Eagles squad, naysayers will say, of course, Nebraska has had terrible passing games against sub-par teams in the recent past. Need I remind you of South Dakota State and Texas? A good quarterback is supposed for 300 yards and a few TDs against this caliber of opponent.

Regardless of your level of optimism, Martinez threw well in the pocket. He threw well on the run. He avoided unnecessary contact while running. He had tight throws. He took sacks instead of making an ill-advised throws. He didn’t look nervous in the pocket. And he didn’t get happy feet, throw much off of his back foot and he only chicken-winged a pass or two. Most importantly, he looked like he was actually having fun out there.

I’d expect you to see Martinez to continue to distribute the ball to multiple targets. I feel you’ll see Martinez to Quincy Enunwa continue to develop  this week. Enunwa seems to have “it” the most out of the Husker receiving corp. He may not be the fastest, but he goes and gets the ball with physicality in all situations. I’d also expect you to see Martinez to run quite a bit more, either in rollout, bootleg or option calls. Especially in misdirection plays where UCLA’s speed on defense would be used against them. Offensive Coordinator, Tim Beck, won’t leave Martinez sitting in the pocket as much going against a more athletic UCLA D.

Second Down: The elephant in the room is Rex Burkhead’s knee injury. You’ll either see Burkhead the first drive of this game or you’ll see him the first drive of the Wisconsin game. Bo Pelini set that precedent last season with a hobbled Alfonzo Dennard. Having your prized dark-horse Heisman candidate knocked out of the game should have you worried, but I say to you fear not!

Ameer Abdullah looked rocket-powered stepping in for Burkhead. He may not have Burkhead’s patience while running, but he definitely has an overdrive gear that Burkhead lacks. Abdullah was running inside and out, making contact, running through tackles, catching out of the backfield and his fumbling issues from last season appear to be under control. Braylon Heard also contributed with some great vision and power. Freshman Imani Cross certainly looked the part with all the tangibles you look for in a back. His decision making needs to get better, but he’s young. These guys will only improve with the increased practice reps left from the absence of Burkhead. I hope to see Jamal Turner get more touches. If Abdullah looks like a rocket then Turner looked like a hummingbird when he got his hands on the ball.

Backup RBs aside, Beck loves to use his big men and will use the intermediate passing game as extended runs if the running game falls flat with the lack of Burkhead. Beck finally called on the fullback to carry the ball in 2011 for the first time since 2004. Mike Marrow and C.J. Zimmerer got the rock a few times in this year’s opener. The FBs had more  opportunities to catch the ball that didn’t pan out this game. Nebraska came out in a lot of heavy sets with loads of backs and tight ends lined up at the line and in the backfield at TE, FB and H-back. That will continue to create mismatches against speedy teams.

Third Down: If you were anything like me while watching the game you were probably screaming at the television asking, “WHY IS CAMERON MEREDITH COVERING A RUNNING BACK ON A PASSING PLAY!?!” Upon further review of the game footage I had my eyes opened to what Bo and Co. were trying to do out there on defense. Nebraska was playing a lot of four linemen, two linebacker and six defensive back sets. Not necessarily true. The defensive front did more than a little zone blitzing. Zone blitzing is where a lineman or linemen drop off of the line into coverage and other players blitz. Meredith got the short end of the stick with this strategy, being repeatedly asked to cover running backs and receivers in the flat. They were using him more as a linebacker in a 3-3-5 set rather than a traditional nickel. Bo and defensive coordinator, John Papuchis, usually had Meredith as a down lineman to disguise when they were blitzing. Southern Miss definitely saw this and tried to create a lot of mismatches. Meredith didn’t give up too much in the grand scheme of things. And while this was being exploited, Southern Miss seemed to forget all about attacking a fairly inexperienced Nebraska secondary. This was Pelini’s strategy. Nothing deep. Bend don’t break.

This doesn’t excuse the linebackers being out of position, missing tackles and getting sucked up into blocking linemen for no reason. Will Compton recorded 12 tackles, but it could have been more had he been in the correct position. Lavonte David was fast enough to compensate for that last year, Compton is not.

That being said, when he was in position Compton made some great stops. Had Alonzo Whaley not dove on top of that fumbled exchange I’m sure we would have seen Compton pick that ball up and return it. And Meredith didn’t have nearly as much trouble in coverage or cutting off the run when the blitzes got into the backfield. I can’t imagine that the Nebraska defense will repeatedly throw the same zone-blitzing scheme at a much more athletic UCLA backfield featuring Brett Hundley and Johnathan Franklin. The Huskers better work on their assignments and tackling to prevent that duo from ripping off long runs.

Fourth Down: Which brings me to my last point. What should Nebraska fans worry about going into the UCLA game? Here are a few things to ponder.

Normally clutch kicker/punter Brett Maher. Maher missed two field goals that are normally chip shots for him. He was not very sharp punting with one especially bad shank. And his kickoffs seemed off, one going out of bounds and one returned for a score. Let’s hope this was just a bad day for the senior.

As I touched on previously, the defense needs to work on being in the right position and tackling. There were lots of plays where the defense over-pursued, trying to lean back and tackle the ball carrier. I guarantee UCLA is salivating at the prospect of a repeat performance for them. The lone offensive touchdown that Southern Miss scored came off of a poor tackle in the secondary. That’s unacceptable in the red zone, and plays like that against UCLA could go for scores no matter where they are on the field.

How will Martinez react to increased pressure? Turnovers will eventually happen. Sooner or later something will happen on offense that may not be Martinez’s fault. A missed blitz pickup Burkhead normally gets. A dropped TD pass with the game on the line. A tipped interception when Nebraska is driving. It’s happened before and it’ll happen again. How will Martinez react to that? Will he regress to his old throwing motion? Will his pocket awareness vanish? Things have snowballed out of control in a few games. (Wisconsin.) Then again, he’s bounced back and played very well in some. (Ohio State.) We’ll see how and if he’s matured when he’s tested by better teams. I have a feeling that he’ll have a much shorter memory this season and he’ll have fewer reasons for the coaches to yell at him.

I’ll leave you with two final thoughts. No one is talking about this at all. Nebraska was penalized only twice against Southern Miss. And one of those two was a kickoff out of bounds. And lastly, I’ve been seeing a lot of predictions for this game. Lots of people are picking a UCLA upset. 24-23. 30-28. 31-27. If UCLA wins this game I doubt it will be that low scoring. It’ll be a shootout if UCLA wasn’t just a couple of people running free all over a side dish. I have a feeling that Pelini will have whipped his defense into shape this week. I think you’ll see Nebraska do to UCLA what they did to Washington during the last two regular seasons with Nebraska wearing them down in the second half.


By Steve Siedlik

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