Other than the first drive of the game which saw Nebraska start with a short field that ended with a 51-yard field goal missed from Brett Maher, there was little drama as to the final outcome. Heading into this game, there were two things the Huskers needed to answer before opening play against Wisconsin—was Rex Burkhead healthy enough to return to the field, and could the defense play physical enough up front to prepare for the rigors of the Big Ten? After today, I’m sure we answered at least the first question but the second is still up in the air.
The size mismatch was easy to see from the opening kickoff and Burkhead took a handoff 61 yards for the games opening points and the longest rush of his career. The rest of the first quarter was a blur—in game action only, the entire quarter took just under an hour—as Ameer Abdullah scored from eight yards out, Quincy Enunwa caught a 35-yard touchdown pass, Kenny Bell ‘caught’ a 68-yard touchdown pass (which looked like a run, but he did catch a forward pitch from Martinez, hence a ‘pass’) and Ciante Evans took an interception 28 yards to the end zone to cap the first quarter scoring. Nebraska had their 35-0 lead and it was time for the backups and their backups to get some playing time.
Ron Kellogg III made his first appearance at the end of the first quarter and became the first Husker walk on quarterback to complete a pass since Ryan Goodman in the 2004 season opener against Western Illinois as he hit Andy Janovich for an eight-yard gain. Kellogg would go 3 for 5 on the day with a touchdown and an interception that actually recalled Martinez off the bench for the rest of the second quarter. The game continued with little fanfare as Burkhead finished off his day with a two-yard touchdown run to end the day with eight carries for 119 yards and two touchdowns as the senior got a little bit of the rust off his game. Nebraska ended up with a 45-0 lead at halftime after a 49-yard field goal from Maher.
The second half was all about getting to see new faces in different places—and some familiar faces in familiar places too, as Ameer Abdullah took a bouncing punt 81 yards for the first score of the second half. Abdullah has now scored on a kick return, a punt return, a pass, and a run in 18 games as a Husker. Kellogg would lead three more scoring drives in the second half, with the only real drama being if the Bengals would get into the end zone. They did, with 12:31 left in the game on a 28-yard touchdown pass from CJ Reyes—who is also the Bengals’ punter—to Austin Luke for the only Idaho State points on the day. Imani Cross rumbled 20 yards for the game’s final touchdown with 8:11 to go, and that was that. Nebraska 73, Idaho State 7.
So what did we learn from only the 9th FCS level opponent Nebraska has faced since 1992? A few more things than you might think. Nebraska can still run the football in a variety of ways as they ground up 385 more yards with both Burkhead and Cross going over 100 yards, Braylon Heard getting 74 yards on seven carries with a touchdown and Abdullah chipped in 49 yards and a touchdown as well. The passing game saw about as much action as the game prior against Arkansas State, but that’s not a bad thing. Martinez finished 9-of-13 for 165 yards and two touchdowns, although 68 of those yards, one completion, and one touchdown were on Bell’s ‘reception’. Yes, I know the rules state it’s a pass, but come on. Regardless, he wasn’t quite as crisp as in the win over the Red Wolves, but we pretty much know his favorite targets remain Bell and Enunwa with a lot of other secondary options.
On defense, the Blackshirts allowed a mere 210 total yards of offense to the Bengals and only allowed 2 conversions on third down on 15 attempts. Nebraska forced three turnovers and racked up seven sacks on the afternoon while allowing less than three yards per play. Was the competition overmatched? Of course, but when a defense gets to dominate as they did, it builds a little confidence. And for a defense that has now performed well in consecutive weeks after a disaster in Los Angeles, there’s no way to look at it other than as a good thing.
But here’s the thing—the opponents get much tougher, much bigger, much stronger from here on out. While the Big Ten enjoyed another awful day top to bottom for the most part, it’s still a conference that grinds you down and requires depth on both lines on both sides of the ball. Does Nebraska have the requisite depth in both areas to compete for a Big Ten title? Can the defense find itself in more 3rd and long situations rather than 3rd and short as they did so many times in 2011? We won’t know that until next week.
On to the grades…
569 yards of total offense with 385 on the ground continues the strong rushing numbers the Huskers have put up through four games. Martinez did get sacked twice and the Huskers did throw an interception. Some expected sloppiness overall, but when you’re playing second, third, and even fourth string players who are getting some of their first game experience, it’s to be expected. From a purely results stand point, we’ll settle on a B+.
The Bengals looked sluggish after a week off from their 38-5 win over Division II Black Hills State. Kevin Yost entered the game completing 74 percent of his passes, but went only 16-of-34 with two interceptions. There were a few drops, but the secondary looked to be in good position. Idaho State is a largely one-dimensional offense as their head coach Mike Kramer acknowledged as much in the post-game, saying “we don’t have a running game, we don’t try to (have one).” Well that makes the grading easy, A for the Blackshirts.
Maher misfired on a 51-yard field goal on the game’s opening drive but did rebound to hit one from 49 yards in the second quarter while punting twice and averaging 34.5 yards per kick. Not his strongest day, but no huge miscues that led to Idaho State points. Abdullah and Turner were dangerous in the return game, as Abdullah’s third quarter punt return for a touchdown was a thing of beauty as he bobbed and weaved 81 yards for the score. Turner nearly broke one as well and looked as shifty as ever. Idaho State struggled in the return game as they only had three kick returns as Maher tallied 8 touchbacks. B+ for the special teams.
Did we learn much from the game? Bo Pelini says the team ‘got through this one’ and played ‘the style of football with the type of attitude we need to bring in and execute…and now it’s time to move on.’ Pelini was happy to see Burkhead get back into the game as they wanted to get him around 10 to 15 touches—he finished with eight carries and one reception on the afternoon, so about right on target. If I had to guess, I’d say Burkhead is about 90-95% right now. He did look a little slower than usual on a couple of runs, but then he looked fine in the open field on his 61-yard touchdown. The running game appears to be Nebraska’s biggest strength with Burkhead, Abdullah, Heard, and Cross offering very different and effective skill sets to a dynamic offense. If they have to lean on the running game in conference play—which you figure they’ll have to more times than not—it bodes well for Nebraska’s chances for success.
We know much less about the defense. The Blackshirts have faced two very pass happy offenses the last two games which will help the overall ranking, but we saw what happened against UCLA and how the Bruins were able to grind out big chunks of yardage. Can we expect teams like Wisconsin, Ohio State, Michigan and Michigan State to attempt and run first and foremost against Nebraska? Absolutely. Whether the front four (or three) of the Huskers can withstand that type of barrage remains to be seen. But the improvements made and especially, the confidence acquired in two dominating wins to close the non-conference portion of the schedule cannot be completely dismissed.
While most Nebraska fans would probably not have been enamored with a 3-1 mark heading into Big Ten play, I’ll reiterate what I wrote after the 36-30 loss to the Bruins—the Big Ten is wide open and Nebraska still has all of their goals within reach. The conference is down as a whole from last year and far less top heavy, which bodes well for a team like Nebraska that’s looking to jump to the top from the upper-middle. If the offense can continue to rack up big numbers on the ground with a sprinkling of big play capability from the Bell, Turner, Enunwa and company and the defense can hold their own on the line of scrimmage, there is no reason this team cannot win the Legends Division and head to Indianapolis.
But, so often is the case—the non-conference is a far different beast than that of conference play. Fortunately for Nebraska, the Big Ten would resemble more of a frightened house cat than a snarling dragon at the current time. Let's look at how Nebraska's next two opponents--Wisonsin and Ohio State have looked through four weeks:
Wisconsin Badgers (3-1)
Like Nebraska, the Badgers went out west to a Pac-12 school in week two and came back home with a loss, falling to Oregon State 10-7. The experts thought the Badgers would be able to transition seamlessly from Russell Wilson to Danny O'Brien at quarterback and rely on 2011 Heisman finalist Montee Ball for the 2012 season. Well, O'Brien got benched before the UTEP game and Ball left the UTEP game with a head injury after just nine carries. Wisconsin is a one-dimensional team--through week three totals, they're ranked 117th in passing yards per game, are surprisingly inept in the running game with a mere 119 yards per game and have scored 26, 7, 16, and 37 points against Northern Iowa, Oregon State, Utah State, and UTEP--not exactly a murderer's row of opponents. Last year at this point, Wisconsin had scored 51, 35, 49, and 59 points through four games. This is not the Wisconsin team that throttled Nebraska in the Big Ten opener last season. As a result, this is a winnable game at the least for Nebraska next week and a possibility for the Huskers to put the whoopin' on a team that housed them 48-17 last year in prime time in front of a national audience.
Ohio State Buckeyes (4-0)
While it might not be saying much, Ohio State arguably looked the best of any Big Ten team in week one. Since that 56-10 win over Miami-Ohio, the Buckeyes have looked very average at best and very beatable in the process. They scratched out a 31-16 win over Central Florida, held off Cal 35-28 and had trouble in beating UAB 29-15. Ohio State has been a little better with their offense, especially in the run game where they're averaging over 200 yards per game rushing. Braxton Miller is clearly the straw that stirs the drink for the Buckeyes and will have to be contained for Nebraska to get a win at the Horseshoe. Ohio State will host Nebraska a week after opening Big Ten play at Michigan State in what figures to be a physical, drag-em-out contest up in East Lansing. Nebraska should be riding high after a win over Wisconsin to start conference play instead of reeling after last year's encounter with the Badgers and the hang over that stuck around with the Huskers for nearly three quarters of their 2011 contest with the Buckeyes.
As I mentioned after the loss to UCLA, Nebraska still has everything to gain in the 2012 season. The Big Ten is not the same conference it was last year, with more parity ruling the day and the middle tier to upper-middle tier teams having a much better shot to jump to upper tier status. Michigan, Michigan State, and Wisconsin are all down from last year while teams like Nebraska, Ohio State, Northwestern, and even Purdue are on the way up. My way too early prediction for the 2012 Big Ten Championship matchup in Indianapolis? Nebraska and Purdue. We'll see how it shakes out.