Saturday, October 29, 2011

Blackshirts Emerge from Slobberknocker with Sparty

Inconsistency has been the hallmark of Nebraska's 2011 football season, especially on defense. Brief stretches of great play, such as the third quarter against Wisconsin, the fourth quarter against Ohio State, or the first twenty minutes against Wisconsin were offset by some rough (to be kind) stretches. (Think the second twenty minutes against Wisconsin, if you are a masochist.) The good stretches give you cause for optimism, but the bad stretches hold you back.  For the last couple of weeks, the coaching staff has told us they thought the team had turned the corner. Just yesterday, secondary coach Corey Raymond told fans at the Big Red Breakfast in Omaha that the team was close:
"I think we're going to be much better than we are," Raymond said. "We're going to get there."
So I went into today's game against Michigan State hoping for the best...but expecting the worst.  The Huskers, meanwhile, came out with a defensive effort we haven't seen since last season. First solid sign?  Lance Thorell picking off a Kirk Cousins pass on the Spartans' opening possession of the game.  But it wasn't just was the entire defense.  Biggest difference maker to me? Cornerback Andrew Green, who was a surprise starter over Stanley Jean-Baptiste. Earlier this season, Green seemed to out of position about half the time. Opposing quarterbacks seemed to target him as he repeatedly got burned. But apparently he showed something in practice, as the coaches gave him a second chance this week, and he delivered. Big time. Seven tackles; two for a loss.  Seemingly always in the right position, he was solid in pass coverage as well.

The big heroes of the game on defense were the tag team of corner Alfonzo Dennard and safety Daimion Stafford.  They channeled their inner Amukamara and totally took B.J. Cunningham out of the game.  Cunningham is Michigan State's leading receiver, averaging over 100 yards a game receiving each game. Cousins tried to find him over and over again, but Dennard and Stafford weren't having any of that. Cunningham's lone appearance on the stat sheet in today's game?  The tackle on Thorell's interception.  Zero catches for Michigan State's leading playmaker.

Michigan State's lone offensive threat today was running back Le'Vion Bell, who took over from struggling Edwin Baker.  Bell did some early damage on the ground, but found less and less running room as the Huskers dialed in on the Spartans. That forced Cousins to make plays, and the Blackshirts were eager to face a pocket passer who wasn't a significant risk to scramble. Even so Cousins did make a couple of plays with his feet...but more often than not, went down hard.  Cue Eric Martin, who saw significant time in pass-rush situations in the second half and contributed two sacks.

Nebraska's offensive effort might not look all that impressive at first, until you realize that the Spartans rank in the top ten in all the major defensive categories. Rex Burkhead cemented his place in Nebraska football lore with a gritty, gutty 35 carry performance. The 3.7 yard average won't impress people...but the heart he showed in grinding out extra yard after extra yard all day was memorable. In the third quarter, Burkhead went down with a cramp, and you could almost hear fans holding their breath as they waited to see how badly Burkhead was injured. He missed two whole plays...and returned to the game with a bang, catching a touchdown pass to give the Huskers a seemingly insurmountable lead.

Taylor Martinez did a decent job managing the game today; we even saw a nifty touchdown run that was nullified by an unnecessary holding penalty on Quincy Enunwa.  The receivers had an off-day all-around. Kenny Bell had a false-start penalty, and there were a few drops.  On the play before the Burkhead touchdown catch, both Enunwa and Kyler Reed limped to the sideline.

Truth be told, it was a physical game and the game was rather choppy as the training staffs of both teams spent a lot of time on the field. It started on the opening kickoff and never stopped. As the second half unfolded, those two long Nebraska touchdown drives seemed to wear down the Spartans.  If Nebraska needed to score more points in the fourth quarter, they could have...but with a comfortable lead, there was no need to take a chance.

Carl Pelini shows the defense what they've earned.
Photo Courtesy:
Especially with the Husker defense returning to form. I noticed in Bo Pelini's post-game radio interview that he mentioned the performance of the Blackshirts. No doubt in my mind that the defense finally earned their Blackshirts today. A few fans may disagree with how Pelini handles the Blackshirt tradition, but it's hard to argue with Pelini's results. Under Pelini, the Blackshirts truly mean something.  It's a badge of honor.

With today's victory, Nebraska played themselves in the lead position to win the Big Ten's West division this season. The teeth of the schedule is still ahead.  Road games at Michigan and Penn State await next month. Everything is still in front of the Cornhuskers this season, and in a game that's as crazy as college football, who knows where things will lead. But Nebraska's division lead is tenuous at best, as there is zero room for error.

Win and advance.  Win and advance.


Chris said...

Just noticed there are couple of freudian slips/wishful thinking moments where you mislabel the Spartans as being from Wisconsin rather than Michigan State. Love the blog and your straight shooting insights.

Unknown said...

Good summary but you may want to change a couple "wisconsin"s to "michigan state"s in the third and fourth paragraphs.

Husker Mike said...

That's what I get writing while flipping between two Wisconsin games. (Badgers at Ohio State football on ESPN, and UNO at Wisconsin hockey on NET....) A little too much Wisconsin on my mind.

And yes, I was doing a little "if only this had emerged four weeks ago" as well...

nebrascal said...

"West division"!