Choppin’ It Up with Big Red Network
Choppin’ It Up is a Q & A feature with a fellow blogger repping Michigan’s upcoming opponent. This week, Darren of Nebraska blog Big Red Network came over to MGoFootball to chop it up. Big thanks to Darren for filling us Michigan fans in on what we don’t know about this week’s opponent.
Given the relative insanity in regards to the situation in Happy Valley last week, how’d this team come out and play? I saw Nebraska jumped to a 17 point lead, then won by 3…
In a word – resolved. They handled an environment that was so strange it bordered on the macabre. I suspect it is hard to get up for a game that follows a strange quasi-funeral. Credit to the coaching staff for A) focusing the team and B) appropriately addressing the moment before the game. Assistant coach Ron Brown is an FCA legend and absolute stud.
As far as the game itself, Nebraska had total control at 17-0. You are right, PSU stormed back to make it a game. Credit them for showing heart. To be fair to NU both PSU scores were set up by fairly fluky plays. The first came on a ball that could have just been as easily intercepted as caught. (500!) And the second was set up by a trick play (reverse throwback to the QB). So, yeah, NU outplayed PSU. I’m glad they didn’t mess around and lose the game.
To an outsider, this team is hard to figure out. Nebraska got beat badly by Wisconsin, then smoked Michigan State, then proceeded to let Northwestern steal one in Lincoln. How good is this team?
Well, yeah, I’d say you hit it on the nose with that string of games. The word “inconsistent” defines this squad. They have all the markings of a team that plays a lot of sophomores. And, several of their main senior leaders are all junior college guys. Their maturation as a team and becoming more consistent is really the story of the 2011 season.
To your question – this team has the ability to be VERY good. Consider this factoid – for a decade, NU didn’t beat a team ranked in the top 15. This year, they’ve beaten two. The talent quotient is high. When the game plan is good and they are focused, they can play with anyone. But, young teams sometimes fail to execute, and that leads to blowouts (Wisconsin) and games they shouldn’t lose (Northwestern). This is especially true for the Husker defense. Pelini’s schemes were tough for new and younger players to catch on to in the defensive back seven. When that group is playing well, the Blackshirts really click.
Let’s hear the wrap on Taylor Martinez. Given his struggles throwing the ball, is the offensive mindset run first with Burkhead, run second with Martinez, then pass when necessary?
Taylor Martinez is really improving as a quarterback, not just his passing but his overall decision making. My colleague Brandon did an excellent job outlining this as well as comparing him to Denard Robinson. Martinez’s steady improvement as a passer since the Wisconsin game is one of the best stories for the 2011 season so far.
Nebraska is a run-oriented attack. Burkhead is their best offensive player. Yes, they use Martinez extensively in the run game, both with the read option and the down-the-line options. But, by no means do they pass only as a last resort. In several games this year, Nebraska has actually come out of the gate throwing. Teams who load up against the run find Nebraska very willing to throw.
Martinez still has genuinely awful mechanics, but he’s been able to get the ball out. Here’s the thing – Nebraska has legit play makers at receiver and tight end. Kenny Bell and Kyler Reed are fast. They need to get the ball. Martinez’s completion percentage would actually be significantly higher if his receivers didn’t let him down and drop the ball (especially against both Minnesota and Penn State).
What’s Nebraska’s greatest position strength? Greatest weakness?
It’s not really a matter of position strength as it is a matter of depth and experience. It’s kind of a catch 22 for NU right now. NU’s best defensive player is a linebacker, Lavonte David. And, Will Compton has steadily improved. So, its a strength, right? The problem is they are very weak/thin at linebacker after those two. The same could be said for the secondary. Alfonzo Dennard is a stud, and they all feed off of him. At times, they play well. At others, they are very suspect. It’s the same story at running back – a strength because Burkhead is stud, potential weakness because it’s only freshman behind him. When he got nicked up against Northwestern, it hurt the offense a lot.
As far as a a true strength for NU, I can’t overstate how much quality special teams play has helped the Huskers so far this year. Brett Maher’s punting was important last week. He’s done a great job as a kicker this year too. The NU return game has been strong too. That’s the stuff that quietly helps win games.
For Michigan fans that haven’t seen Nebraska play, who are the impact players on both sides of the ball to keep our eyes on?
On defense – just follow #4, David. He’s a joy to watch at linebacker. When he gets help and the defensive line plays well, he’s just a tackle machine always around the ball. Dennard also merits watching. He makes them go in the defensive backfield. On offense, it the Burkhead show. #22 is already a living legend among Husker fans. He is as gutsy as he his talented. The Husker receivers have been hot and cold. If they get rid of the drops, they have athletes that can make plays. Kenny Bell (#80) and Kyler Reed (#25) are players that can knife a defense.
Feel free to throw all objectivity out the window here – how does a Nebraska vs. Michigan game play out in 1997?
Speaking for all Nebraska fans, I can say without a doubt that I would have liked nothing more than to have that title decided on the field. People who hate the BCS need to remember the angst and debate caused by split titles. Nebraska would win, and it might not have even been a very competitive game. Consider that Nebraska demolished #3 ranked Tennessee 42-17 in the Orange Bowl to finish the season while Michigan struggled to beat Washington State 21-16 in the Rose Bowl. That year, Tennessee was quarterbacked by Peyton Manning. Washington State was quarterbacked by Ryan Leaf. Just saying…
It’s easy for Michigan fans to say that their defense would have kept that game competitive. Woodson won the Heisman and all that. But, that 1997 Husker defense was ridiculously loaded. Eight of the eleven defensive starters played in the NFL. The offense was loaded with Frost at quarterback and Ahman Green at I-back. Nebraska was a complete team and would have won the head-to-head match up. Of course, that’s something we would have all liked to have seen.
Finally, how do you see things playing out this Saturday? Predictions are welcome…
I’m not too optimistic for Nebraska, honestly. You’ve already noticed their inconsistency. Can they stay dialed in and perform at a high level for two weeks in a row? Nebraska is also very banged up along both the offensive and defensive lines. That’s not good. Northwestern’s Kain Colter ran all over Nebraska on designed quarterback runs. That’s not good a good sign if they somehow expect to slow down Robinson. Throw in the fact that it is being played at the Big House, and I get downright skeptical. Nebraska will have to play mistake-free football, win big on special teams and get some turnovers from Michigan if they want to have a chance. Let’s say all of that happens…Huskers win 34-31 on a last-minute field goal.
I also just want to say that as Nebraska fans, we are all taking a moment to step back and appreciate what it is to be in the Big Ten conference. Yes, playing this schedule has been a challenge. But, to play against iconic programs like Michigan is a real joy. We’re happy to be in the league, and looking forward to exciting games for many years to come.