In their season opening 49-20 win over Southern Mississippi, it was Nebraska that made the correct second half adjustments. In their second game against UCLA, it was the Bruins who made the halftime adjustments on both sides of the ball to walk out of the Rose Bowl with a 36-30 win.
We wondered how much to take out of UCLA’s 49-24 win over Rice in their season opener with a redshirt freshman quarterback and a new head coach at the helm. The Owls were certainly not a good team to gauge performance on due to their shortcomings. However, it was some of those shortcomings displayed in Houston that the Bruins were able to exploit in Los Angeles against the Huskers.
The first half was full of offense on both sides of the ball. Nebraska was stunned early by a 27 yard touchdown pass from Brett Hundley to Joseph Fauria who was untouched into the end zone. To their credit, Nebraska punched back with Ameer Abdullah going six yards for the tying touchdown. Taylor Martinez then channeled his 2010 speed with a 92-yard touchdown run, the fifth longest in school history, to give the Huskers a 14-7 lead. It appeared that Nebraska was taking control, with the line blocking well and Abdullah getting tough yards. Nebraska took the 14-7 lead into the second quarter where things started to unravel.
A field goal got the Bruins to within 14-10, and then the defense held and gave the ball to the potent Hundley-led offense. Fauria caught his second touchdown of the game to give the Bruins a 17-14 lead as the shootout was on. We’d heard all week about how the 6-foot-7 tight end would be a mismatch in the red zone and it certainly was on the touchdown. Nebraska bounced back with Abdullah again, going 17 yards to put NU back in front 21-17. But UCLA answered the bell, going 80 yards in four plays capped off by Steven Manfro’s 49-yard touchdown catch in which he outran the NU secondary. Nebraska answered with a 54-yard field goal from Brett Maher to tie the game at 24 heading into halftime. So, essentially the first half was a draw, with the 705 yards of combined offense and 48 points.
The second half began with Abdullah fumbling on the NU 27 to give UCLA more great field position (more on that later) and the Bruins tacked on a field goal. Hundley left the game with an apparent ankle injury, but returned later largely unaffected, at least in the passing game. After trading punts, the Huskers tied the game at 27 on a 44-yard field goal by Maher. It was at this point that the Bruins wrestled the game away from Nebraska and went on their way to victory.
Let’s be clear—Nebraska’s offense did some great things in this game. But they were largely confined to the first half. Remember those second half adjustments? The Bruins defense allowed 333 yards in the first half, but only 105 in the second half. Nebraska had two promising drives in the second half, one of which resulted in a field goal made, the other in a field goal missed. Taylor Martinez was 13 of 17 in the first half and ran for 110 yards. In the second half, Martinez was 4 of 14 and ended up with 111 yards rushing for the game. UCLA’s offense, while only putting up 10 points in the second half and 12 total, continued to march down the field and wear down the Blackshirts.
After pinning Nebraska back at its five yard line halfway through the fourth quarter, the Huskers opted for a zone read. Martinez kept the ball and had no time to react to Datone Jones, who sacked him in the end zone to put the Bruins ahead for good at 29-27. It was a stark contrast to the first half where a defensive play turned the game on its head. At one point, the offenses of both teams were averaging over 9 yards per play, which shrunk to 3.1 yards per play in the third quarter. UCLA’s defense slowed Nebraska down, the same was not true for the Blackshirts which culminated in an interception from Martinez that led to Jonathan Franklin’s 9-yard touchdown catch to put the game out of reach. Nebraska did get another field goal from Maher, but the ensuing onside kick was unsuccessful and the upset was complete.
I’ve made it no secret that I am borderline obsessed with statistics and the first thing I often do when seeing scores of games I have not watched is to look at the box score and see what happened. So, let’s break this down for those that may not have seen all or even a little bit of the game to summarize how Nebraska fell short.
653. That’s the total offense from UCLA. If you know of a game where you can win after giving up that many yards, I’d sure like to see that box score. It's the first time since 2007 the Huskers have given up over 600 yards of total offense and second most in school history. When you're using that modifier, anyone in Husker Nation will immediately know it must be something bad.
1 of 11. That’s how many third down conversions Nebraska was successful on, a week after converting 9 of 15 against Southern Mississippi. Conversely, UCLA was 9 of 20. The defense spoke about how important it was to show urgency on third down in the offseason and not put themselves into 3rd and short situations. The Bruins converted those third downs, which often required short yardage conversions. To say it’s demoralizing for a team to give up third downs and not convert many themselves is quite an understatement.
2. That’s how many turnovers Nebraska had, all in the second half which led to 10 UCLA points. Abdullah’s fumble was on the first play of the second half. The interception from Martinez was when Nebraska trailed by two late in the fourth quarter. A week after having no turnovers against Southern Miss, the offense had two crucial giveaways. Credit to UCLA’s defense, which was more aggressive in the second half and dared Martinez to beat them through the air into a zone defense which was waiting for him.
344. That’s the rushing yardage for the Bruins, in addition to 309 yards through the air. The passing yards you kind of expect a bit more with all of the run-and-gun and spread style offenses in modern football. However, giving up 217 yards to one running back (Franklin) and 6.1 yards per rush will more than likely be your downfall as a defense.
37:40 and 22:20. That’s the time of possession battle and it went in the Bruins favor. Stats like that are often lost in offensive shootouts and it was in the first half, but it reared its important head in the second half as UCLA held a two-to-one advantage in that department, controlling the clock for over 20 minutes. Nebraska’s defense faced 94 plays throughout the game, while Nebraska’s offense had only 67. The last time Nebraska faced that big of a disparity was in 2009 when Oklahoma’s offense ran off 87 plays against Nebraska’s 57. That was a 10-3 win for the Huskers.
The bottom line is this—Nebraska’s offense has firepower which we saw on display against UCLA, but they were largely muzzled in the second half. The defense remains a work in progress to say the least and the front seven has some large questions to answer as some of the problems that cropped up last year in losses to Wisconsin, Northwestern, Michigan and South Carolina were found again Saturday night. It’s almost as if the script has been flipped from the 2009 and 2010 seasons in which the defense carried the offense. The Blackshirts were decimated by UCLA and from a cursory look at the above statistics, you’d have to be at least a little surprised that Nebraska only lost a six-point game.
It looked like Taylor Martinez and company were on their way to another 600 yard plus effort against the Bruins…that is, until the second half. UCLA adjusted their coverage and blitzes after getting burned in one on one situations in the first half. They simply let their defensive line go to work and they go the better of the Nebraska offensive line. The Bruins were able to sit back with more zone looks and force Martinez into some tough throws with constant pressure in his face. Save for one drive that went exclusively to the run in the fourth quarter, the Bruins dominated the final period. We didn’t see many drops in the opener against Southern Miss, but there were a couple in key spots this week. The running game fizzled and the passing game was non-existent in the second half as they couldn’t keep the Blackshirts off the field. If it weren’t for first half fireworks, there’d be a much lower grade here, but we’ll go with a C-.
Normally, you’d have one or two things to look at as a silver lining. True to form, you do have one thing after this game, and it’s the fact that UCLA only put up 36 points. Given all of the lopsided statistics from the box score, you’d have to think Nebraska gave up a 2007-type point total in a losing effort. Not so fast. UCLA’s awful special teams reared their head, which took at least nine points off the board with two missed field goals and the weird “fake” field goal in the third quarter with the score tied at 27. I am amazed the Bruins didn’t hang half-a-hundred on the Rose Bowl scoreboard, but credit the Nebraska defense, in the regard that they seemed to buckle down in the red zone. UCLA made eight trips inside Nebraska’s 20-yard line and only came away with points four times.
Is that enough to avoid a failing grade? Barely. They get a D-. I’d even go D double minus if it were feasible.
Coming off a dreadful week one, Brett Maher didn’t do much to get out of his funk early on, with a couple of terrible punts. But, he did get his game back a little bit, the swing was straightened out, and he hit a game-tying 54 yard field goal to knot the game at 24 heading into half time. His 43 yard field goal tied the game again at 27, but a miss from 37 yards out after a long drive swung the game back to UCLA. Maher would hit again from 40 to bring the deficit back to six, but it wasn’t enough. There were no long returns in the kick return game, but Nebraska had awful field position all game long. Until the final scoring drive when they took over on the UCLA 38 after a 15-yard late hit penalty, the Huskers best starting field position all game was at their OWN 38. UCLA meanwhile, was routinely at their own 40 or closer, including 3 drives starting inside Nebraska’s 30 yard line. Not entirely on the special teams, but Nebraska did themselves no favors. They get a C.
The Bottom Line
You can look at this in one of two ways—either this is a Nebraska team which will struggle all season on defense and may or may not get back to nine wins, or this is a team which still has all of its goals to win the Big Ten and play again in the Rose Bowl as still intact. After what we saw from the Big Ten today—Michigan’s narrow win, Wisconsin’s upset loss in Corvallis to Oregon State, Iowa’s embarrassing 9-6 slugfest loss to Iowa State, and so on, I wouldn’t be so quick to put this season’s trajectory on the former’s path.
The Big Ten is down this year as we’ve seen through the first two games. Ohio State and Michigan State look to be the best two teams in the league right now with everyone else scrambling for the spots directly behind them. While the numbers don’t lie, the schedule coming up doesn’t lie either. Nebraska has two gimme games against Arkansas State and Idaho State at home before Wisconsin comes calling on September 30th. Tim Beck’s offense hasn’t ironed out all of the kinks yet, but they look to be ahead of last year. The defense however, obviously has much work to do. It’s imperative to get things shored up before the Big Ten opener against the Badgers, otherwise the season could get away fairly quickly.
Brett Hundley certainly didn’t look like a redshirt freshman quarterback and Jim Mora didn’t look like a coach in his second game in his new gig. Whether UCLA can parlay their win into something bigger remains to be seen, but don’t be surprised to see the Bruins back in the top 25 for a decent portion of this season, if not the entirety of it. This will be a tough loss for Husker Nation to take until that matchup with Wisconsin, but a win against the Badgers and (just about) all will be forgiven.