Well Husker fans, that was a tough loss to swallow. I expected to watch the game a second time and find that UCLA had changed its defensive scheme in the second half, or that Nebraska’s linemen had tired out, or the offense stalled. Much to my surprise I found little of that. Nebraska had itself in a 29-27 shootout until late in the fourth quarter despite the poor tackling and missed opportunities. The thing I took away from this game is that this Nebraska team is worse than the sum of its parts.
The offense wasn’t the problem. Taylor Martinez did all you could ask of him. Ameer Abdullah was brilliant in relief of the still-injured Rex Burkhead. I’m not understanding the hate fans have been piling on Martinez or the lamenting that had Burkhead played Nebraska wins the game. Today I’m going to discuss what I think needs the most improvement going forward in order of importance.
First Down: Offensive Coaching.
I don’t think the coaching staff is doing its players any favors. Tim Beck has some borderline genius play-calling ability. The qualifier “borderline” has to be applied here because he’ll get into situations like a third-and-one where he apparently won’t let his junior quarterback audible out of a fullback dive play even with the defense knowing what’s coming. Or lining up in the shotgun when backed up in your own end zone with spotty blocking. Or refusing to run the ball with timeouts in your pocket and more than three minutes left in the game when you’re only down by two points. Instead he asked Martinez to lob the ball deep down the field into a prevent defense. Fixing these problems isn’t difficult. Let your players do what has been working for them. Don’t ask Martinez to throw like he’s Peyton Manning. And maybe show some trust in the improved QB you’ve been talking up since March.
Second Down: Defensive Coaching.
The defense is another matter. I’m not even talking about the obvious tackling deficiencies. I’m talking about putting your playmakers in a position to make plays. This was supposed to be the year that the defense got into the backfield more. Collapsed the pocket. Blitzed freely. I’ve seen none of this. There is a complete lack of defensive identity and it looks eerily similar to a “read-and-react” style that Nebraska fans have come to know and loathe.
The defensive line – when not being asked to drop back into coverage – is so flat that the pocket stretches from sideline to sideline. They have gotten no push. The defensive ends seem to be looking sideways rather than trying to get down field. They let offensive linemen get past them and block the linebackers. Many blitzes are ineffective because the guys up front have not been tying up their blocks at all, leaving blockers free to pick up the blitzers. And they are playing a yard off of the line of scrimmage. Bo Pelini’s defense for this is they need to see what their assignments are. Why is this so complicated? Unless your assignment is to give the other team’s RB a free three yards per rush, I just don’t see what taking a step back is going to allow you to see. Obviously that wasn’t working, yet there was no adjustment.
The linebackers are being asked to do too much instead of just playing linebacker. Lavonte David isn’t running around like a madman anymore, yet the same seems to be expected of Will Compton. He’s a different player. The scheme and line are why I think you see Compton getting eaten up by O-linemen or out of position while trying to cover a back or receiver. Design the defense accordingly.
And the secondary. They have been covering fairly well, I’ll give them that. But there are no interceptions or big hits on players. And now I’m talking about tackling. UCLA’s secondary was doing all of that. Where is the intensity on defense? And can they double-team a guy who is giving them trouble?
Third Down: Blocking.
Another thing that has been raising my blood pressure is seeing Nebraska’s blockers diving at people’s knees when they don’t need to. Often, that player is the one who ends up tackling the ball carrier. This isn’t necessarily a receiver trying to cut a linebacker. This is about offensive linemen diving at a defensive back. You are a 300-pound lineman going against a 190-pound DB who is in your grasp. Steamroll the guy and sit on him. Don’t take yourself out of the play by leaving your feet. I’ve been noticing a lot of this since last year. Whoever is coaching it needs to find another job.
Speaking of missed blocks, if you look at the read-option play that resulted in a safety you’ll see that an interior D-lineman came free to sack Martinez in the end zone. If you look back on every time the Huskers ran that play you will see one or two unblocked big men disrupting the play. I’m pretty sure that’s not supposed to happen. I’m also pretty sure – if I remember my freshmen-year high school football correctly – that you don’t coach the offensive line to ignore the inner-most men on the line for exterior ones. If that play is designed that way you need to tear that page out of the playbook and cut it into confetti for the homecoming parade. If the offensive line misses assignments plays will not work. Period.
Fourth Down: Personnel Decisions.
Where to start? Alonzo Whaley. Missed tackles, missed assignments, poor angles, he has done it all the first two games. He actually ran into Compton more than one time during the UCLA game because his man cut from one side of the field to the other. He also managed to draw a pass interference penalty while letting a tight end run free for a touchdown. Bo & Co. must have noticed, too, because he was pulled from the majority of the game and replaced by safety Corey Cooper. Compton’s job seemed to get a little easier when the change was made. And Cooper played fairly well considering, except the coaches still treated his position like he was a linebacker. If you’re going to play a linebacker then put a different linebacker in. And if you’re going to put a safety in the game then maybe have him cover a receiver and have Compton blitz on a center. It sounds as though Pelini is going with Zaire Anderson against Arkansas St. Expect to see some fresh faces at linebacker going forward.
Brett Maher. The senior kicker out of Kearney has been struggling. One kick or punt he’ll shank. But then he’ll make a pretty good one next time. I’m not saying to replace the kicker, but if your holder can’t line the ball up correctly and the announcers on television even comment on it, then maybe you should practice with someone else.
The defensive line. Once again, I’m not quite sure what they are doing with the D-line. Now that I think of it, I don’t think the coaching staff is sure, either. I’ve heard that Nebraska plans to use more 3-4 alignment going forward. It will be interesting to see if they intend to use the same scheme they did against Southern Miss where Cameron Meredith was basically an outside backer, or if they plan on a massive change to their base defense. They may not have a choice in going to fewer linemen since sophomore D-tackle Chase Rome has left the team for unknown reasons. No truth to the rumor that Pelini asked him to switch to wide receiver.
I’d like to see Eric Martin see the field more, especially if they go to a 3-4. He plays with a fire this defense needs and I think he would fill that outside linebacker/defensive end role in a 3-4 nicely. I also would like to see Compton allowed to be a true middle linebacker. He’s at his best roving the middle of the field and hitting people North-South, not running laterally.
I’ll wrap things up on a high note. Kudos to Abdullah, Martinez, Josh Mitchell and especially Ciante Evans for playing well in a tough game. I’ve been vocal against Evans in the past, but he kept his coverage up pretty well this time. Things won’t be much easier this week as Arkansas State brings a potent offense and mobile QB to Lincoln. Hopefully that defense gets worked out.
By Steve Siedlik