An offense that moved the ball at will throughout the game coupled with a defense that made adjustments in the second half proved more than enough for Nebraska to get a season-opening 49-20 victory over Southern Mississippi to extend their streak to 27 straight wins in season openers. Taylor Martinez picked apart the Golden Eagles defense all day, going 26-of-34 for a career-high 354 yards and five touchdown passes. Throw in 278 yards on the ground from just about everyone possible in the back field (sans the irreplaceable Rex Burkhead—more on that later) and this game was put away early in the second half. It looked a little bleak at times, however.
Make no mistake about it—the offense did whatever it wanted to. A 7-yard completion to Quincy Enunwa here. A 26-yard strike to Kenny Bell for the second touchdown of the game there. But after taking a 14-0 lead with 7:07 left in the first quarter, the rest of the first half looked a little…disjointed, especially for the special teams. On the ensuing kickoff, Tracy Lampley raced 100 yards untouched to put the Golden Eagles on the board. Brett Maher’s miss from 44 yards gave Southern Miss the ball back, with Dominique Sullivan’s 24 yard touchdown reception tying the game at 14. Barely two minutes into the second quarter, this was suddenly a game again and stayed that way until the final 1:44 of the first half.
With only one timeout to play with, Nebraska really had to crank up the two-minute offense. Martinez completed two of three passes before connecting on a big 36-yard catch and run from Jamal Turner before the game changed for good on his beautiful 29 yard strike to Steven Osborne, who also made a spectacular catch on the play. 28-17 looks a lot better than 21-17 if you’re kicking off to start the second half, at home, and a 20-point favorite in your season opener.
The defense still looked a little vulnerable, especially in the middle of the field. The ball fakes, the mis-direction, those still seemed to confuse the Blackshirts at times as Southern Miss chewed up big chunks of yardage and moved the ball. All in all, giving up 152 yards of total offense in one half isn’t terrible…but, it had a 2011-type familiar feel to it. Adjustments were made in the second half and the defense got back into their rhythm. Perhaps it wasn’t a fumble recovered by Alonzo Whaley at the Nebraska 41 on the opening drive of the second half that sealed the game, but it gave the defense confidence. Southern Miss held Nebraska on the next possession, but the Husker defense stiffened and forced a three-and-out. Game over.
Martinez continued throwing all over the field and the defense allowed a mere 108 yards of total offense and 3 points in the second half as Nebraska put up a complete effort in the win. Ultimately, Husker fans have to feel good about a number of things—newcomers looked good in key spots, Martinez had a career day, and the defense made adjustments. There was some bad however—namely the injuries to Rex Burkhead and Tim Marlowe and the third down conversions for Southern Miss (7 of 14), but when you win by 29 points against a team that won 12 games a year ago, you have to be happy with the result.
It would be very, very difficult not to give the entire offense an A+ for the day. Martinez could have been undone by an early pick, but Deron Wilson dropped the gift and Nebraska scored on the next play on Bell’s touchdown. 26 of 34 for 354 yards and five touchdowns on the day for Martinez with no interceptions certainly suggests a tremendous day, but if you look at how the coaches specifically wanted to limit his bad throws, the forced throws…well, those numbers look even better. With a 70 percent completion percentage the goal for the season, Martinez is on track after one game, at 76 percent.
An offensive line touting three walk-ons in the starting lineup manhandled the Golden Eagles defensive line and paved the way for 278 yards rushing and only one sack of Martinez. The most impressive statistic however? If you ask me, it’s no false start penalties, no procedure penalties, and no penalties of any kind. Justin Jackson made the most of his first career start and looked like someone he’s been compared to and remains great friends with—Ricky Henry. Jackson’s speed and athleticism was apparently what won him the starting center spot over Cole Pensick and we saw it on display Saturday—pulling to the edge, taking out two or three guys with well placed blocks, and running 10 yards downfield to hit somebody.
He wasn’t alone as the line put on a clinic from start to finish.
Ten different Huskers had receptions by half time as Martinez spread the ball around at will. Quincy Enunwa not only blocked well on the edge, but proved that he could become the all-important “possession” receiver. His six catches were a team high and on one play dragged Golden Eagle defenders for an additional ten yards to pick up a first down. Sprinkle in timely catches from Kyler Reed, Jake Long and Ameer Abdullah out of the backfield and you have a well-rounded group.
Overall, the offense gets an A+ for the day.
Whether it was the second half adjustments or the rotating of Chris Campbell and Anthony Alford at quarterback that took Southern Miss out of rhythm, we may never know. The puzzling addition of Ricky Lloyd into the mix at quarterback during a key spot in the third quarter will remain a key question mark for Ellis Johnson and Southern Mississippi. Save for Sullivan’s touchdown catch in the second quarter, Nebraska’s pass defense was excellent most of the game. The Golden Eagles quarterback trio combined for only 7 of 19 completions for 75 yards and turned the offense even more one dimensional. The Blackshirts limited Lampley to two receptions for 27 yards on the day and save for the kick return touchdown, eliminated the Golden Eagles’ biggest threat.
Nebraska did allow Southern Miss 185 yards rushing, 84 of those coming from the talented freshman Alford. Alford looked explosive at times and the type of quarterback that Bo Pelini’s defenses have struggled with over the years, but they were able to keep him from making the big play. Will Compton has to be a leader for the 2012 Blackshirts, and he did that with a team-high 12 tackles and one sack. The rush defense is still a work in progress and was probably the weak link in the victory, but when you don’t allow a rushing touchdown, nor a run longer than 17 yards, things could be a lot worse.
The cornerbacks were rarely tested and save for Sullivan’s TD grab after breaking an Andrew Green tackle, turned in a good performance. With the exception of two passes, Southern Miss just didn’t throw the ball down the field at all. They did draw a deserved pass interference call against Green in the second half, but the junior made the most of the afternoon as Golden Eagle wide receivers made only three catches on the afternoon. Daimion Stafford continued to make his customary big tackles in run support and the defense looked organized against an unorganized and fairly green Southern Miss offense. Overall, the defense probably grades out to a C or C- in the first half, but gets a B+ in the second half…so, we’ll settle with a B for the game.
The Special Teams
…were not so special or what we were accustomed to seeing over the last few seasons. All-conference Brett Maher just wasn’t himself, missing a 41 and 44 yard field goal in addition to a kickoff that went out of bounds and a 21 yard punt in the third quarter. Couple Maher’s subpar day with Lampley’s 100-yard kickoff return and you have a very bad day in the kicking game. If it weren’t for the kick returns of Kenny Bell and Tim Marlowe and the punt returns of Ameer Abdullah, the special teams would probably hover around a D or worse. While it definitely cost Nebraska points, we won’t fail the special teams in the opener. They get a D+.
The entire Husker Nation held—and continues—to hold their collective breath over the status of senior running back Rex Burkhead. Burkhead left mid-way through the first quarter with a sprained MCL on his left knee. After the opening career-long 57 yard touchdown run on the first drive, the Heisman Trophy candidate’s day was done after about 10 minutes of game action. Pelini said in his post game press conference that Burkhead is “day-to-day, week-to-week” at this point, so stay tuned. Tight end Ben Cotton left with an injury to the cartilage around his ribs but should be ok while the news isn’t as good for Marlowe, who broke his clavicle and will miss an extended amount of time. Otherwise, the team seemed to hold up through temperatures which were in the low 90’s during the game and emerged with no other notable bumps and bruises. All eyes (and ears) will of course remain on Burkhead throughout the week ahead of Nebraska’s trip to Los Angeles.
Player of the Game
Martinez. If Steve Calhoun wasn’t known in Nebraska or throughout the country at this point, the man could make a fortune on this one performance from Martinez alone. Calhoun’s camp over the summer is credited with the improvement Martinez has made in his delivery, which looked pretty sharp against the Golden Eagles. It impressed ABC analyst Jesse Palmer to the point where the former Gator quarterback said he was “shocked” at the improvement of Martinez. We saw flashes of the accuracy last year—notably the Northwestern game in which he was 28-of-37 for 289 yards. To my count, Martinez threw only two ‘bad’ passes all game, a marked improvement from last season. One game it remains, but Husker fans have to love what they’ve seen from the junior quarterback.
Next Week at UCLA
Nebraska arguably looked the best of any Big Ten team throughout the weekend with the 49-20 win. Michigan got squashed against defending national champion Alabama at Jerry World, Penn State lost at home to Ohio, Iowa nearly fell to Northern Illinois on a neutral field, and Michigan State barely defeated a very young Boise State team at home among other results. Granted, Southern Mississippi is a much different team from last season’s 12 win team, but it’s probably the toughest season opener Nebraska has had since 2003 when they knocked off Oklahoma State. UCLA got the best of Rice with some big plays, but they struggled with the Owls for the first half before pulling away. Throw in the fact that Jim Mora Jr. has coached only that one game with the Bruins, and you have the makings for another potentially big effort from the Husker offense again next week.
Ultimately, I’m still of the opinion that Nebraska won’t really get tested until their Big Ten opener against Wisconsin in the game that’s been dubbed ‘The Quick and the Red’. Given how the Badgers looked in their sloppy 26-21 win over Northern Iowa, that late September matchup looks better than it might have before the season openers. Bo Pelini and Husker Nation are happy after the season opening win, but as usual—more can be done and more will be wanted from this team with at least 11 games to play.