Every Monday during the season, Sam McKewon breaks down NU football news, last weekend's game and previews the next opponent.
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COLUMBUS, Ohio — I met my match Saturday night in the Horseshoe. Or maybe it was Sunday morning, by the time that blood opera ended.
Heading down to the field of this magnificent, towering, raucous stadium — TV doesn't do it justice — I got the squeeze from some night watchwoman hired to guard the sacred area behind Ohio State's bench from things like recruits and reporters.
She laid a forearm shiver to my chest and grabbed just below my collar with her free hand. Put me in the corner with a “Sir!” and a walkie-talkie for backup.
Now I know how Nebraska's defensive line must have felt. She finally let me pass right after Urban Meyer ran up the score and the final gun sounded.
Maybe 63-38 is the bottom, the pits. Coaches and players alike had few answers for how the Buckeyes turned a 17-7 deficit into a 35-24 lead in all of 11˝ game-clock minutes.
You could start with NU's safeties — I would — who played like they'd never seen a run fake and thought it'd be a good idea to hand off coverage of giant tight ends to a 155-pound corner. Start with players throughout the entire middle of the defense, who seemed so insistent on stopping a 5-yard gain they forgot about 20-yard runs. Or the punter, who ran 30 yards upfield along the hashmarks only to watch OSU return man Philly Brown bolt past him.
You could switch to the offense, where the quarterback, for all the plays he makes, forces far too many other bad ones. If he trusts NU's defense to make a stop, he wouldn't do that. This dual threat — to the other team, to his own — now appears part of Taylor Martinez's road DNA. He's done it too many times. And his offensive linemen let crowd noise and good defensive ends overwhelm them too many times.
Now Bo Pelini issues an edict: Win out. Not: Get good grades, perform acts of community service, beat Iowa and squeeze nine wins out of a moderately talented team. Those were good goals for this bunch, really, but Pelini — and his players — publicly aimed higher for eight months.
If Bo wants to gamble, fine. But will hard work alone solve it? Come on now.
Bo has two weeks to rejigger the wiring of his team. In 2009, after NU lost to Texas Tech and Iowa State in successive weeks, Pelini put the offense on lockdown to protect it from itself. That move, maligned it was by the three Shawn Watson defenders lurking on the Interwebs, kept the Huskers' season from crashing hard into the rocks.
It'll be harder to switch course in 2012, because the team isn't as talented, the defense needs protection and, well look: These are all Bo's guys, and it's harder to put the shiver to your guys. Pelini has to plow through it and take some chances. Or he risks being Bill Callahan in 2007, who sat through four games — wins against Ball State and Iowa State, losses to Missouri and Oklahoma State — until Steve Pederson's firing finally forced him to move the needle and, you know, ask his defensive coordinator to blitz a little.
Here are potential moves Bo can make. This week.
» Name some captains. Yes, right now. Team vote, executive appointment, pitch pennies, draw straws, ConnectFour, something. Defray the leadership cost a little. Four guys. Push Rex Burkhead out of his comfort zone. Get him vocal. Have captains address effort, focus and discipline. Because NU's official story of unprecedented maturity needs a rewrite. The message isn't getting home.
» Open up every defensive job. With athleticism and fundamentals — tackling, getting off blocks, toughness, instincts, emotion — getting precedence over knowledge. The wonks can light me up for writing it. Build the scheme around guys who want to fight and have the speed to do it.
» Hand out Blackshirts. Whoever wins those jobs, put them in black. In place of more crack strategy, give the defense an identity it's not required to earn. From the coaches, players need grace. From captains, they need the grindstone.
» Consider putting John Papuchis in the press box. Forget the title; for three years, the most important guy on Pelini's defensive staff was Marvin Sanders, the eyes in the sky. Papuchis was up there, too. If JP is Pelini's best defensive mind, put him in a spot where he can see the entire picture while somebody else signals plays. Pelini and Papuchis stand mere yards apart on the field. They have roughly the same vantage point. It's worth a shot.
» Hard sell in recruiting. Get commits this week. Ask for the sale. Win off the field. Send a message to boosters who need to hear it: We're hustling.
» Change the offense to help the defense. Martinez and his receivers want to throw the ball. They want a no-huddle tempo. And when they handle it right, it gasses and snookers an opposing defense.
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But they don't handle it right on the road. The turnovers and short, ugly drives are throwing NU's defense to the wolves. Slow it down. Chew clock. Take a breath. Run the ball. Martinez has lost four fumbles in four games — all while dropping back to pass. Can't happen.
» Minimum offensive standards for linemen and backs. A false start penalty or a fumble means you sit out for one drive. Two false start penalties or two fumbles equals a missed half.
» Go to Shawn Eichorst's press conference. It's a bye week. Get out of the cave for a half-hour and support the guy, since it's been insinuated that Bo's mad about the athletic director search. Pelini sells himself short with the “I just want to win a football game” persona. In an Eichorst administration, his voice may carry more weight, not less. Eichorst is a peer, essentially, of Pelini's. A guy who's been around the SEC and Big Ten, a lawyer, loves baseball. This relationship should work. Bo can send a right message to the department — and his team — by being there. Attention to detail.
On with the rewind.
I see you
» Wide receiver Kenny Bell: Quietly having one of the best Husker receiver seasons in recent history. He's fast, but for a guy that size, he has a lot of fight in him.
» Running back Rex Burkhead: Played up to the moment with 119 yards on 14 carries. His injury didn't cause NU's loss. But his health could be crucial to the rest of the Huskers' season. So could his leadership.
» Cornerback Stanley Jean-Baptiste: Wide receiver Devin Smith was shut out thanks to Baptiste's tough coverage. Like the rest of the defense, he missed a few tackles.
» Kicker Brett Maher: Decent job on kickoffs, punted OK, made a field goal.
» Ohio State coach Urban Meyer: He can coach. He can collect a lot of enemies, too, running up the score like that. And pretty soon here, he'll start lobbying for the No. 1 vote.
» Ohio State quarterback Braxton Miller: He won't win the Heisman. He will be the favorite in 2013.
» Wide receiver Steven Osborne: Nice job snuffing out the fake punt.
» Burkhead's injury: Just when No. 22 appeared to have back some of his confidence, he'll have to gain it again. The injury doesn't appear as bad as the original MCL sprain, and there's time to recover. Can the Huskers get by with Ameer Abdullah and Braylon Heard for a week or two? I think so. Heard needs more carries, not fewer.
» Line play: Nebraska took a step forward against Wisconsin, and a step back against Ohio State. The offensive line had too many breakdowns, while the defensive line danced with the Buckeyes.
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» Coverage complexities: NU had a plan to stop OSU's deep passing game on the edge of the field, but Meyer and offensive coordinators Tom Herman and Ed Warinner clearly identified a Husker weakness in covering seam routes and swing routes at the same time. OSU built on what UCLA did, and future opponents will build on the two. And Pelini is not one to change his pass defense scheme, because he thinks it works.
» How obsessed is Ohio State with Michigan? For two hours before the game, the video screens at Ohio Stadium played highlights of Buckeye-Wolverine games. At halftime, the Ohio State University Marching Band performed a show honoring video games — just one of the coolest things you'll ever see — using a Michigan flag in the performance. All the time, it's Michigan. Odd. But cool.
The Horseshoe sets the standard, by the way. That place is a postcard for Big Ten football.
» Is Michigan back in the driver's seat of the Legends Division race? Yep. It took all of two weeks of Big Ten play to get there, too. The Wolverines have two nonconference losses to undefeated teams, and humiliated Purdue on the road. On the Leaders' side, Wisconsin just beat Illinois, and if it beats Purdue this week, well, that's pretty much it. The Badgers are heading to Indianapolis.
NU doesn't have to win out, mind you, to make the Big Ten title game. But the Huskers had better beat Northwestern and Michigan.
» Can Frank Solich's Ohio team bring home an undefeated season? It's going to be tough if the defense keeps giving up 31 points to Buffalo and 34 to Massachusetts. But the Bobcats are 6-0 — bowl-eligible! — and getting more votes this week than Nebraska in the major polls.
» 8.03: Yards per Ohio State offensive play. That's the worst for NU since Texas Tech averaged 8.8 in 2008. UCLA averaged 6.9 yards this year. Ohio State averaged 9.81 yards per play from the second quarter forward. And that with two short fields and a punt return for a touchdown. It could have been worse.
» 8.5: Yards per every Burkhead carry. Who is this guy — Calvin Jones?
» 122nd: Nebraska's national rank in lost fumbles. With 10 overall, that's tied for last. The Huskers are 104th in turnover margin, which is pretty well par for the Pelini era.
In beating Indiana 31-27, Michigan State actually had a fruitful day. Why? Because MSU quarterback Andrew Maxwell and his receivers had to go win a game on the road. Running back Le'Veon Bell helped, especially in the red zone, but the Spartans opened up the playbook and put the game in the hands of guys who hadn't proved much.
In Happy Valley, Penn State beat Northwestern 39-28 — the game wasn't really that close if you look at the final numbers — and continues to look like a team doing more with less. In other words, rookie coach Bill O'Brien is working his tail off. The Nittany Lions' skill players — pretty much to a man — would inhabit Nebraska's second string. But they play hard and they know where they're going.
A little chilly around North Stadium.
Contact the writer:
402-202-9766, firstname.lastname@example.org; twitter.com/swmckewonOWH
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>> Video: NU-OSU postgame analysis with Rich Kaipust:
>> Video: Postgame press conference with Bo Pelini: