NU MIDSEASON REVIEW
Coming out of Nebraska's bye week, The World-Herald takes a look back at the first half of the season and how the Huskers got to 4-2. From the top offensive and defensive plays to team MVPs, relive the first six Husker football games of 2012. Full coverage
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KENNY BELL, RECEIVER
When Kenny Bell led all Nebraska receivers last season with 32 receptions as a redshirt freshman, his average of 14.4 yards per catch was a nice bonus.
It also was just a foreshadowing of what was to come for the speedy 6-foot-1, 185-pounder from Boulder, Colo.
Bell has put together a collage of big plays this season, making the most of his connections with quarterback Taylor Martinez. Although Bell doesn't rank among the Big Ten leaders with his team-high 20 receptions, he easily tops the league with 23.1 yards per catch and ranks third with his 77.2 yards per game (behind only Jared Abbrederis of Wisconsin and Allen Robinson of Penn State).
As NU head coach Bo Pelini said this week: “He can hurt you in a heartbeat.”
Bell had receptions of 74 and 28 yards in the loss at Ohio State, giving him eight catches of 20-plus yards this season. He also leads the Huskers with four touchdown recpetions.
Although he only has handled six kickoffs, those also include returns of 47, 37 and 28 yards and he averages 29.7 per chance.
|Taylor Martinez - Photo by Ryan Soderlin|
Standout player: There's only one to pick from here: Taylor Martinez has played every significant snap as a third-year starter. The junior said before the season that he wanted to complete 70 percent of his passes, and reaches the bye week at 66.4. His career percentage after two seasons was 57.4.
Highlight: Nebraska trailed Wisconsin 20-3 when Martinez completed all seven of his passes on a 12-play, 93-yard scoring drive that started the comeback in the second quarter. That was capped by a 3-yard touchdown pass to Rex Burkhead.
Lowlight: After Martinez threw just one interception in the Huskers' first five games, he was picked off three times in the 63-38 loss to Ohio State, with the first of those returned for a TD. He also fumbled twice against the Buckeyes, giving him five in two Big Ten games (two lost).
Best game: Martinez started the season by completing 26 of 34 passes against Southern Mississippi, when he finished with a career-high 354 yards passing and matched his personal best with five touchdowns (to five receivers). Martinez was 18 of 23 for 247 yards in a 28-point first half.
Key question: It's the same one as a year ago: Can Martinez hold it together in the second half of games where the momentum has turned against Nebraska? He was just 4 of 14 with an interception after halftime at UCLA, and also took a costly safety. He was intercepted at the Ohio State 7 with NU still within 49-31 of the Buckeyes in the third quarter.
Quote: “People snickered when I said I think Taylor is going to make a huge jump this year, and he has.” — NU head coach Bo Pelini on Sept. 24 as the Huskers headed into Big Ten play
Biggest second-half test: Michigan. Martinez can't get caught up in trying to match Denard Robinson after Robinson definitely got the better of the showdown a year ago, accounting for 263 total yards and four touchdowns as the Wolverines rolled to a 45-17 win.
|Ameer Abdullah - Photo by Alyssa Schukar|
Standout player: The knee problem bothering Rex Burkhead opened the door for Ameer Abdullah at I-back — and the sophomore has taken advantage. Abdullah not only leads the team with 514 rushing yards and seven TDs, but has proven he can be an all-around back while also still handling the majority of NU's kickoff and punt return duties.
Highlight: Nebraska was struggling to get something going at Ohio State when Burkhead took a handoff at the Huskers' 18 and broke a 73-yard run down the right sideline. NU scored three plays later when Burkhead lined up at quarterback and pitched to Abdullah for a 1-yard TD run to make it 7-7.
Lowlight: Nebraska was tied 24-24 and had the football to start the second half at UCLA, only to have Abdullah lose a fumble at the Husker 28-yard line on the first play. The Bruins turned it into a go-ahead field goal, and the mistakes would continue for the NU offense.
Best game: Nebraska gave Abdullah a career-high 30 carries against Arkansas State, and the 5-foot-9, 185-pounder turned them into 167 yards. Abdullah scored twice as NU opened a 28-3 halftime lead, and also caught two passes for 39 yards and had a 21-yard punt return.
Key question: Can Burkhead get healthy and stay healthy? The senior reinjured his left knee just after halftime at Ohio State and did not return, although Pelini already has said he expects Burkhead to be ready for Northwestern on Saturday. His value cannot be underestimated considering the All-Big Ten back carried the football 198 times in eight league games a year ago.
Quote: “He's one of the most dangerous guys you can imagine.” — NU assistant coach Ron Brown on Abdullah
Biggest second-half test: Michigan State. Burkhead had 35 carries in last year's 24-3 win over the Spartans, but ground yards might be hard to come by against the Spartan defense in East Lansing on Nov. 3.
Standout player: Kenny Bell is having a nice follow-up to his freshman season, leading the team in receptions (20), touchdowns (four) and yards per catch (23.2). That last number is hard not to notice — and the byproduct of his great speed — but Bell also has showed a level of toughness and leadership this season.
Highlight: Martinez went looking for Bell when NU faced second-and-17 from its own 13 midway through the second quarter at Ohio State. Bell not only made the catch, but turned it into a 74-yard gain and refused to go down at the end. NU scored two plays later for a 24-21 lead.
Lowlight: NU had plenty at UCLA. Jamal Turner dropped a third-down pass over the middle in the second quarter with room to run, and the Bruins turned around after an NU punt to take a 17-14 lead. Kyler Reed dropped another third-down throw in the third, Bell lost one in the lights in the red zone and another pass sailed between receivers because of some miscommunication.
Best game: Let's change the category to “best halves” for this one and go with Bell. He caught six passes for 108 yards in the first half as Nebraska traded punches with UCLA (with two receptions apiece on two scoring drives). He then caught four for 59 yards in the second half at Ohio State, doing everything he could to try to keep the Huskers in it.
Key question: Nebraska has a lot of mouths to feed with its depth at receiver and tight end, but Turner again seems underused through six games. Only five of his 10 receptions have come in the last four games.
Quote: “Kenny's played at a pretty high level. He's a dangerous guy. People got to pay attention to him. He can hurt you in a heartbeat.” — Pelini on Bell
Biggest second-half test: Michigan. The Wolverines have allowed only three receiving touchdowns, and opponents complete just 55 percent of their passes. The veteran unit, led by safety Jordan Kovacs, has survived losing cornerback Blake Countess in the team's opener.
|Spencer Long - Photo by Rebecca S. Gratz|
Standout player: After being a second-team All-Big Ten selection last season, Spencer Long has come back with a solid junior year so far. The former walk-on also has played just about every snap at right guard, with the exception of some mop-up duty for his backups.
Highlight: The offensive line opened a gaping hole right up the gut to spring Taylor Martinez on his career-long 92-yard touchdown run at UCLA. After Martinez carried out his zone read fake, the quarterback darted just right of where Long and center Justin Jackson had wiped out the middle of the Bruins' line.
Lowlight: The NU line completely let down Martinez on back-to-back sacks starting the Huskers' second possession of the second half at Ohio State. After linebacker Storm Klein sacked him for a 12-yard loss, John Simon came almost untouched around the left side for a 3-yard loss that pushed the Huskers back to their 6.
Best game: Nebraska was pretty solid up front starting the season against Southern Mississippi. The Huskers averaged 6.2 yards per rush and Martinez was sacked just once, and really hardly touched, despite throwing 34 passes.
Key question: Although the NU front five had been mostly penalty-free in the first five games, the first-half mistakes at Ohio State brought back memories of some past troubles. The Huskers had three false-starts on the same second-quarter possession, and another to start a drive in the first. Can the front five go back to eliminating those?
Quote: “It's just a start. We've got to see what kind of staying power they have.” — NU assistant coach Barney Cotton after the Husker offensive line shined in the season-opening win over Southern Mississippi
Biggest second-half test: Michigan State. The Spartans are tough and rugged up front, and allowing just 86.0 yards per game and 3.0 per carry so far. While Nebraska has 19 rushing touchdowns, Michigan State has given up just three. So something's got to give.