Sunday, September 14, 2014

Nebraska Big Plays Keep Husker Fans Up All Night Against Fresno State

When the first reports emerged Saturday evening that Nebraska was wearing the infamous "Surrender Whites" uniforms in Fresno, it sent Husker fans into a minor panic.  Since first resurrecting the look in 1990, Nebraska is 2-10 wearing white pants with a white jersey, a look that really only works for Penn State. (Kansas City looks bad in them as well, FWIW.) Despite that bad history of the style, it was simply a response to Fresno's all-red uniforms to ensure that the Huskers could identify each other on the field.

But it was pretty clear early on that this was not going to be like many of those past all-white debacles. Even before CBS Sports Network could switch from the end of the Wake Forest/Utah State game, the Huskers were already up 7-0 with a 70 yard touchdown pass to Jordan Westerkamp. And less than a minute later after Fresno's opening drive went nowhere, Ameer Abdullah busted off tackle for 57 yards for another score...and the rout was on.

Or so it seemed. The Husker offense really only sustained a drive at the start of the second quarter with a 10 play drive that resulted in a field goal. And after Fresno State got a field goal after a 14 play drive just before halftime, the Bulldogs actually had an 11-8 edge in first downs at halftime.  It was a big lead, but it was mostly a result of big plays.

De'Mornay Pierson-El's 86 yard punt return was a sight for sore eyes, especially after Nebraska's massive failure trying to return punts last season. But Pierson-El isn't the only freshman leading the charge on punt returns; keep an eye on Joshua Kalu, who had a mean block on the play.

The mind-numbing play of the game was David Santos spiking a quick-kicked punt into the end zone. Luckily, it went out the back of the end zone before Fresno could fall on the muffed punt...limiting the damage to a safety for a muffed punt. On KOZN's Big Red Overreaction, Damon Benning speculated that Santos may have been thinking that it was a deep pass instead of a punt, and thought he was batting the ball away.

After halftime, Nebraska got more consistent with a nice touchdown drive to open the half. Fresno State quarterback Brian Burrell did somehow break off a Marv Seiler-like (Iowa State 1992) 66 yard touchdown run, but that was about all the Bulldogs had on offense. One can only wonder whether Duke transfer Brandon Connette, a scratch because of a hand injury suffered last week, would have made a difference with his mobility.  I suspect that Connette might have made the game a little closer, but Fresno simply has too many issues this season to have been a threat against the Huskers.

Despite putting up a big 55-19 victory, there were concerning things on offense once again this week.  Fresno took a page from McNeese State and tried to crash the line to stuff the Nebraska running backs.  On a couple of instances where Nebraska's offensive line could clear out a little crease, Abdullah and later Imani Cross made Fresno pay.  More often, it led to an inconsistent offensive approach. For the second week in a row, Armstrong failed to check down to Abdullah, who was wide open.  Those missed opportunities didn't hurt Nebraska against Fresno State, but they might against Miami or Michigan State.  (Memo to Tim Beck:  Ryker Fyfe checked down to Terrell Newby in garbage time.  Might want to review that in the quarterback meetings this week.)

Defensively, I liked a lot of what I saw.  Good push from the defensive line, even though Randy Gregory's upset tummy was limiting his snaps in the first half. Vincent Valentine had three solo tackles for loss to lead the Huskers, and we are starting to see the potential of Marcus Newby (another freshman) in the passing game.  True freshman Joshua Kalu led the Big Red with six tackles. (Who would have thought that before the game) Josh Banderas made a few plays in the first half as well.  On the negative side, Josh Mitchell got burned a few times by Fresno's Josh Harper, the son of former Nebraska legend Willie Harper. But Harper was a thousand yard receiver last year who'll be playing on Sundays next fall.

I know a lot of people expected this game to be closer, if not actually a squeaker.  I suspect that was mostly because of the late kickoff in ridiculously hot weather conditions. It certainly shouldn't have been the opponent, who's now been blown out the first three weeks of the season.  Yes, they have a 13 game home winning streak...but they lost a quarterback who's starting as a rookie and two thousand yard receivers.  And the Fresno defense was horrific last season, especially against the pass.

Bottom line:  it was a solid, but imperfect victory that was done in difficult circumstances.  The heat and the late start are things that are nearly impossible for Nebraska to emulate in Lincoln.  In fact, I wonder if the Huskers wouldn't be better off spending the night in Fresno and getting a good night's sleep, then fly home in the afternoon. I've flown the red eye a few times, and frankly, it has the opportunity to mess you up for a few days.

But the circumstances (heat and a big lead) allowed Nebraska to play a lot of youngsters, many of whom looked really good.  Besides Joshua Kalu and Marcus Newby, sophomore Lane Hovey provided a second quarter spark and shows us what kind of depth Nebraska has in their receiving corps.  That's something that certainly should give Nebraska fans a lot of optimism.

Once they get over the bleary eyes from a game that ended at 1:21 am in Nebraska.  Time to head to bed.

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