LOS ANGELES — It's 15 minutes before midnight, and we're careening down the 110 in a Mazda apparently built for 212. Too bad there are three of us in it. Steve Beideck's driving, I'm the sniggering, incredulous shotgun, and Dirk Chatelain's in the back, massaging the last few lines of that column of his you read Sunday.
Beideck's already late for his flight — it's a lost cause — and he's trying to return this Mazda to some cheapo car rental place in the dead of night so we can all catch the last red-eye from the coast. None of us knows where the joint is, and the honey-voiced navigation system seems confused. (She all but begs: Please turn around.) Where's Manchester Avenue? Where's LAX? We're not going to find the rental shop. Will Hertz take the car? Can Beideck get on standby? How much is a new one-way ticket?
“I'm learning to drive around these people,” Steve says before cutting off a taxi.
“This won't ever happen again,” I vow.
“Before we vow what we won't do next time, we might want to get through this time,” Dirk says.
You saw Saturday night a pigskin version of that hapless routine inside the stadium during Nebraska's 36-30 loss to UCLA. It might as well have been a skating rink. Bo Pelini's defense is built for 11 SEC athletes. Too bad there aren't that many on the Husker sideline.
Bruin offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone knew how to attack NU's scheme. Challenge the corners deep. Force the linebackers to run the width of the field and cover. Create gaps everywhere. Make those defensive linemen pay for being in a scheme a little tougher than they can manage.
Speed. That's what makes for bad tackling. UCLA continuously beat the Huskers to spots on the field. For 653 yards!
NU defenders chased and flailed and froze and leaped and missed and pounded the turf and smacked themselves upside their helmets. Bad reads. Bad angles. They chugged all over the field to little avail.
If you're so flabbergasted by this — why? The coaches were not. Alarmed? Yes. Disappointed? Sure. Not stunned.
By all accounts I've heard, they stayed pretty calm on the sideline Saturday night. They kept teaching. The great players aren't there right now. I've written this often. You knew this instinctively.
There are enough sources for the defense's problems — recruiting, scheme, a lack of complete trust in younger talent — that mediocrity (360 yards and 24 points per game) will be fine in 2012. Yes, coaches and players trumpeted something different. Set it aside.
The Bruins didn't get to 653 just because of Nebraska's defense. They got there because the Husker offense — which, to repeat, must carry this team — sputtered completely in the second half, never taking one ounce of pressure off the defense. Though offensive coordinator Tim Beck may have tried too hard to do just that.
Nebraska's offense ended the night as it did the Capital One Bowl: with opposing defensive ends careening right around NU's tackles as quarterback Taylor Martinez tried to fit passes into spaces where they don't belong. With Beck picking the worst time for a strange call, that third-and-1 fullback dive.
Eight yards and three points on the last four drives.
Martinez played so well in the first half. The goofy interception-turned-sack will linger in fans' minds, but only because Nebraska burned timeouts earlier in the half and center Justin Jackson continues to struggle with his snaps. Ameer Abdullah's second-half fumble was a momentum killer, but I'm inclined to agree with Martinez that Beck slowed the second-half tempo and eroded his unit's edge.
Was he trying to eat clock and help his defense? You won't do it that way.
Beck said NU didn't run it well enough. Does he want 400 yards? NU racked up 260 and three touchdowns. Pretty good!
Great offenses throw when it counts. Martinez had a rhythm in the first half with short passes, and lost it in the second. Some of it is on him. But where were the protection adjustments? Where was that diamond wheel route? A quick tunnel or bubble screen?
I'm not absolving the defense of its flaws. Pelini's paying for Professor Ted Gilmore's recruiting plans in 2009 and 2010 and the 2011 transition to the Big Ten. The defense will get better, if only because the opposing offenses get worse. The Big Ten stinks as of Sunday morning.
But if Pelini wants to return to Pasadena in January — it's entirely possible — the offense can't fall into that stupor again. Beck has to lead from the front, operating — scary as it seems for Husker fans — the offense Martinez and his skill players want. Fast. Wide-open. Aggressive.
The navigation device never did find the rental joint. But Hertz, which sorta owns the place, took the car. Beideck, silver tongue that he is, worked his way onto standby. Despite a packed flight, he got a seat, flashing the ticket and a smile as I boarded the plane.
Bad plan. Ugly twist. New plan.
On with the rewind.
I see you
>> Wide receiver Kenny Bell: The skinny kid keeps making tough catches over the middle. He has more than just speed. He's a gamer.
>> Abdullah: Time to cure the fumble bug, yes, but the running back played capably in Rex Burkhead's absence. And he picked up an early blitz masterfully.
>> Kicker Brett Maher: The fourth-quarter miss undoubtedly stung, but he got back on track with good kickoffs and a career-long 54-yard field goal.
>> Nickel Ciante Evans: Had several good tackles and two pass breakups. He seemed to be one of the defense's smallest worries.
>> More burned defensive timeouts: They hurt NU's end-of-half and end-of-game clock management options.
>> No pressure from the front four: Husker coaches have to learn diplomacy on this topic.
>> Hideous third-down offense and defense: NU made 1 of 11 third-down attempts, and it again gave up a high number of conversions to UCLA (9 of 20). It's one down great teams consistently win.
>> Did Nebraska miss Burkhead or Tyler Moore more Saturday night? The question itself is a fourth concern. I could argue that Burkhead, Moore, Lavonte David, Alfonzo Dennard and DeJon Gomes were the five best NFL prospects Pelini has recruited. None of them were on the field last night. Tells you something.
>> Where are Zaire Anderson and David Santos? Getting ready to play a lot more snaps quite soon, Husker fans hope. UCLA's offense is complex. And so is Arkansas State's. But Anderson and Santos deserve their spin of the wheel.
>> How bad are Big Ten offenses? Wisconsin scored seven. Iowa scored six. Penn State scored 16, inventing new ways to miss field goals. Michigan and Ohio State both dropped 31, but that's only because of the virtuosity of Denard Robinson and Braxton Miller, respectively. There isn't a good offensive line right now outside of East Lansing, Mich. And not many elite skill players outside of Lincoln.
>> 94: Number of UCLA offensive plays. Yikes.
>> 96th: NU's NCAA ranking in total defense. In scoring defense, the Huskers rank 83rd.
>> Three: Carries Saturday by Braylon Heard, one more than Mike Marrow. Heard, who got popped pretty good early in the game on a swing pass, returned in the fourth quarter, gained 21 yards and went right back out.
Arkansas State is no slouch on offense, overcoming a 21-10 deficit to Memphis for a 33-28 win Saturday. The Red Wolves had 619 total yards vs. the Tigers, and 530 in a 57-34 loss to Oregon. Quarterback Ryan Aplin is more mobile than UCLA's Brett Hundley, and nearly as good a thrower.
Burkhead is back.
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