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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CIANTE EVANS, CORNERBACK
Nebraska's defense doesn't have a true midseason MVP like it did in 2011 (Lavonte David), 2010 (Eric Hagg) or 2009 (Ndamukong Suh). But if we're picking a guy who's made a few big plays and hasn't made too many big negative plays, it's Evans. He edges out defensive end Eric Martin, who has some flashy sack numbers (5.5) but has also overrun plays and made costly mistakes in losses to UCLA and Ohio State.
Evans played a key part in NU's 30-27 comeback win over Wisconsin when he asked defensive backs coach Terry Joseph if he could cover Badger wide receiver Jared Abbrederis in the second half of the game. Abbrederis had five catches for 107 yards and a touchdown in the first half. Over the final 30 minutes, he caught just two balls for 35 yards. Evans locked him down.
The junior leads the team in pass breakups with five, he returned an interception 29 yards for a touchdown, and he's been a solid tackler. Evans is far from a finished product, but on a team that preaches “Do Your Job,” Evans has done so pretty well.
|Eric Martin - Photo by Rebecca S. Gratz|
Standout player: Eric Martin. He didn't have much of a game vs. Ohio State, making too many mistakes, but he's the one Husker on the line who can go get a sack when it counts on third down. And that's been a big boost to NU at times this year. He leads the team in three categories: 5.5 sacks, eight tackles for loss and seven more quarterback hurries. He's also forced a fumble and recovered one.
Highlight: The second half vs. Wisconsin, when Nebraska's defensive line punched the Badgers' beefy line in the mouth and stuffed UW running back Montee Ball time and again.
Lowlight: The Huskers barely made a dent in Ohio State's offensive line after the first quarter of a 63-38 loss to the Buckeyes. OSU ran for 371 yards on pretty straightforward plays. Deflating performance.
Best game: Wisconsin rushed for just 12 yards in the second half, and 56 yards for the game. NU's line had it all working that night. Good quarterback pressure. Gap control. Solid penetration. The Huskers simply wore down the Badgers.
Key Question: How does the line rebound from the Ohio State game? The defensive linemen on this team are quiet, but competitive and hardworking. Getting dominated for three quarters has to sting. But two more mobile quarterbacks are coming down the pike, and soon. NU has to get its mind right on defense.
Quote: “You can't just have your guys line up with their hand on the ground in the same spot every time. You have to change things up, move people around, attack from different angles.” — NU defensive line coach Rick Kaczenski, before the season, on how his defensive line would play
Biggest second-half test: Conventional wisdom suggests it is Michigan, but perhaps it's Northwestern, whose offensive line pushed around the Husker defense last year. The Wildcats are sound schematically and scrappy. They'll want another win in this series, and they'll try to run the ball a lot.
|Will Compton - Photo by Matt Dixon|
Standout player: Senior middle linebacker Will Compton, who has 53 tackles, is on track for more than 100 this year and leaves the field only when the rest of the defense does or it's garbage time. Compton is the emotional leader of the defense. He tries to have fun in games, which is key to confidence.
Highlight: Fourth-and-1 vs. Wisconsin, when senior weakside linebacker Alonzo Whaley knifed in to pop the ball out of Ball's hands, forcing a fumble that NU recovered. It was the signature highlight in Whaley's career and a great play for the defense.
Lowlight: When UCLA running back Johnathan Franklin ran all over the Rose Bowl, NU's linebackers trying in vain to tackle him. The linebackers struggled in coverage, too, as the Huskers gave up 653 yards.
Best game: Wisconsin. Linebackers Compton, Whaley and Sean Fisher combined for 26 tackles and made a number of key second-half plays. The Badgers brought out the best in the not-yet Blackshirts.
Key question: Can this unit handle a mobile quarterback and speedy skill players? The evidence on hand — UCLA and Ohio State — suggests the answer, right now, is probably not. But the Huskers have several more chances to prove their critics wrong. Another question: Is it time for players like David Santos and Michael Rose to get their shots at playing more often? Zaire Anderson's torn ACL — which left him out for the season — didn't help.
Quote: “We're not very dynamic. We didn't make plays in the open field like we needed to, but also we don't have that eraser mentality, that ‘bang, there's the ball, I'm gonna go hunt it down.' We need to get to that level.” — NU linebackers coach Ross Els, on his unit's play in the UCLA game
Biggest second-half test: Michigan. Denard Robinson is a guy you have to tackle to stop. If Nebraska's linebackers can't corral him at all, the Wolverines will have a big night of offense at the Huskers' expense.
Standout player: Ciante Evans. After an up-and-down sophomore season, he's rebounded and played as consistently as any Husker defender. The junior leads the team with five pass breakups, and he's responsible for one of the three NU interceptions. He also has 21 total tackles.
Highlight: Arkansas State tried a double-pass throwback play that didn't fool safety P.J. Smith. The senior ended the Red Wolves' drive with a momentum-swinging interception.
Lowlight: UCLA's Steven Manfro ran right through the middle of the NU secondary and caught a 49-yard touchdown pass from QB Brett Hundley. That was two redshirt freshmen teaming up to effortlessly slice up a Nebraska coverage scheme designed to confuse the opponent. Not good.
Best game: Idaho State. The Huskers knew they had the clear talent advantage, and in that 73-7 win, they set the tone. They were physical, aggressive and imposing, which is exactly the style of play necessary in Bo Pelini's scheme. The Bengals threw 43 times, totaling just 179 yards.
Key question: When are the veteran safeties going to play like veterans? They're supposed to be the reliable pieces in this unit. Yet, too often, Smith and Daimion Stafford have been responsible for moments of miscommunication, assignment busts and poor tackling. Opponents in both Big Ten games have targeted the deep middle of NU's defense. More of that will follow. Time for Smith and Stafford to step up.
Quote: “We were surviving last year. When you watched the film, it was just surviving. Nobody played fast. It was always like we were 75 mph, not 100. So hopefully, Sept. 1, we'll play like we're flying around. We'll see.” — NU secondary coach Terry Joseph during preseason camp
Biggest second-half test: Penn State. The Nittany Lions aren't overly explosive, but led by QB Matt McGloin, they had produced more passing plays of at least 10 yards than any other Big Ten team this year. McGloin and his receivers could be dangerous if NU commits extra defenders to stop the run.
|Ameer Abdullah - Photo by Alyssa Schukar|
Standout player: Ameer Abdullah. If given the chance, he has the ability to subtly impact field position and drastically alter a game's momentum. His average of 16.5 yards per punt return ranks 13th nationally. Fumbling is still a concern, but the possible reward appears worth the risk.
Highlight: Abdullah went 81 yards against Idaho State, darting between and around would-be tacklers on a replay-worthy punt return that ended in the end zone.
Lowlight: Maybe a Nebraska player got a fingertip on Ohio State's Corey Brown. Maybe. The 76-yard punt return for a touchdown effectively sealed the Buckeyes' win in the third quarter. And it looked way too easy.
Best game: Wisconsin. Brett Maher made three of his four field goals, including the game-tying and game-winning kicks. He also recorded a touchback on six of his seven kickoffs. The Badgers averaged just 6.5 yards on two punt returns, too. And don't forget that Abdullah provided a much-needed spark by returning a kickoff to the 13-yard line in the first quarter.
Key question: Has Maher snapped out of his funk yet? He's close, it appears. The occasional hiccup still surfaces, though. Maher's averaging 41.8 yards per punt and has hit eight of his 15 field goals. But the Big Ten's best punter/kicker can do better than that.
Quote: “That Southern Miss game. Bang, score. Bang, score. Fourteen-zip. That thing should have been over. Of course the kickoff team that I'm responsible for gave up a dang touchdown — which will haunt me for the rest of my life.” — NU special teams coach Ross Els at a Big Red Breakfast in September
Biggest second-half test: Northwestern. Considering the inconsistency of Nebraska's special teams units this year, there's a possibility that every opponent could change the momentum with a big play. But the Wildcats have Venric Mark, who's returned two punts for touchdowns and is averaging 28.8 yards on eight attempts.