LINCOLN — Now Bo Pelini can turn up the heat.
The two most athletic quarterbacks on Nebraska’s six-game stretch run — Michigan’s Denard Robinson and Northwestern’s Kain Colter — are in the Huskers’ rearview mirror.
Who remains? Three methodical pocket passers and a true freshman who can run, but hasn’t faced anything like Bo’s brew of nasty blitzes.
Michigan State’s Andrew Maxwell, Penn State’s Matt McGloin, Minnesota’s Philip Nelson and Iowa’s James Vandenberg have a combined minus-1 yard rushing. Good thing Nelson, the true freshman, has 104 yards on his own. What he won’t have is an ounce of experience in a place like Memorial Stadium on Senior Day.
These are men Pelini’s defense is built to harass and smother. Prototypes that Pelini’s defense has harassed and smothered for years, from Josh Fields at Oklahoma State in 2003 through Michigan’s Russell Bellomy Saturday night.
Pelini can dial up his gut blitz with two linebackers. He can bring the delayed nickel blitz, as he did with junior Ciante Evans, who flipped Bellomy on his head. He can call his kind of run defense, which gums up the middle lanes and forces relatively slow backs to beat Nebraska around the corner.
You’d better believe NU’s defense will be confident. It’ll ooze from its coach. And it should. This is what he does. And hot defenses — which Nebraska’s is — play with a swagger.
Now, can Nebraska play with prosperity?
Pelini’s teams have struggled as the front-runners. They battle their way off the wall after an ugly loss, and their backs seem to instinctively seek out the wall again. The Huskers’ maturity should guard against a letdown. Of course, that maturity hasn’t exactly guarded against penalties and turnovers. NU can occasionally play like a team at odds with its self-interest. Like the offense did on those three plays inside Michigan’s 5-yard line.
But the road to Indianapolis won’t get much clearer or cleaner than this. I know: Four games left, good opposing defenses, breaks of the game. But let’s not make any of the remaining opponents out to be something they’re not. Nebraska has a significantly better offense than all of them. A better kicker than all of them. More team speed than all of them. More momentum than all of them.
And the likely Leaders Division champ — Wisconsin — could (should) limp into the Big Ten title game with five losses.
Am I suddenly flip-flopping on the not-quite-elite talent of Nebraska’s defense? No. I’m telling you what you already know.
That MSU and Iowa’s offenses would struggle to pitch coins in a fountain. That Penn State has an immobile quarterback who played poorly at home vs. the Huskers last year. That Minnesota’s quarterback just turned 19. That it’s closing time for Bo and the Blackshirts.
On with the Rewind.
I see you
>> Running back Ameer Abdullah: He saved his best, toughest running for the fourth quarter. His performance again saves Nebraska the trouble of rushing Rex Burkhead back into action. Especially since Braylon Heard and Imani Cross should be fresh as farm eggs for next weekend.
>> Tight end Ben Cotton: Still doesn’t drop the ball.
>> Linebacker Sean Fisher: Few Huskers have driven themselves harder in rehab and study hall than the senior from Millard North. To see it pay off with seven tackles vs. Michigan? Even the super-serious Fisher had to crack a smile at that.
>> Cornerback Stanley Jean-Baptiste: Another half-season of game repetitions, and the lanky junior could be one of the Big Ten’s best. He’s one of Carl Pelini’s final junior college recruiting gifts to this program. The Huskers could use Carl’s connections right now on the recruiting trail.
>> Kicker Brett Maher: Hello, rugby.
>> Defensive end Eric Martin: Get ready to watch him eat quarterbacks this last month. He has 6Ĺ sacks now; I’ll take the over on 10.
>> Michigan linebacker Desmond Morgan: Nine tackles and a great tip that forced an interception. Just a sophomore. The Wolverines’ defense is excellent now. Wait until 2014.
>> Linebacker David Santos: His speed changes the angles of blockers and the ballcarrier. It’s hard for opponents to get away with quick perimeter runs if he’s pushing the arc of their path backward. UCLA won’t know what hit ’em. You know, next year.
>> Defensive tackle Baker Steinkuhler: The quiet senior from Lincoln Southwest had his second best game of the year behind his play vs. Wisconsin. He picks the right games to peak.
>> Sideline penalties: If Nebraska’s secondary is going to play aggressively — grab, push and hit hard — then penalties will occur. Flags follow function. And while Pelini wants to fight for his players’ right to cover tough, NU defensive backs lose ground every time the sideline — Pelini, assistants, whoever — dress down the referees.
If your defense is going to carry a big stick in the secondary, talk softly.
>> Red zone passing: Taylor Martinez completed 1 of 5 passes for minus-3 yards inside Michigan’s 20. On two passes, Jamal Turner and Kyler Reed appeared to be on a different page.
>> Pass protection: Martinez got flushed a lot Saturday, scrambling out of jams and getting himself in a few with a fumble and an interception. Abdullah hinted that the Huskers’ tempo was so fast that line calls may have been missed. Like the one that had Abdullah blocking 281-pound defensive end Craig Roh?
>> Does Nebraska beat Michigan if Denard Robinson doesn’t get hurt? Until Shoelace went down, the Wolverines had controlled the game’s pace and seemed headed for a 10-7 lead. Does Nebraska get the two interceptions that set up 10 points? Does it force a punt that sets up another field goal? The evidence through most of two quarters suggests probably not. But offensive coordinator Tim Beck might have dialed down the aggression of his plan in response to Robinson’s injury. The game was going four quarters with Robinson.
It’s worth noting that Devin Gardner — once Michigan’s backup quarterback — made almost no impact at wide receiver. One catch, 15 yards. Wolverine fans have to be scratching their heads over how coach Brady Hoke has handled the development of a backup this year — and who the Wolverines will play next year.
>> Which Nebraska players are most in the running for first-team All-Big Ten? Maher, guard Spencer Long, wide receiver Kenny Bell and Evans seem to be the best bets. Martinez and Abdullah would normally belong in some capacity, but Ohio State’s Braxton Miller has earned the top quarterback spot, while Northwestern’s Venric Mark will edge Abdullah for all-purpose back.
Maher should make it as kicker, if the voters have the sense not to dock him for missing 50-yarders.
>> If Notre Dame wins out, will the Fighting Irish play for the BCS national championship? Oh, yes. As sure as the sun rises on Touchdown Jesus. I suspect The Harris Poll will be the key. And Notre Dame probably will have earned it. No FCS teams on its schedule. Alabama, Oregon and Kansas State each have one. Don’t discount it.
Kansas State is the story of the year so far, and it’s now hard for me to trust their league. The Big 12 stinks.
There. It’s been written. Ex-pats Missouri and Texas A&M are not contending for their league crowns, Oklahoma just got punched in the mouth by the Irish, and the league collectively aimed so low in its nonconference scheduling that KSU’s win against Miami shines brightest.
>> 47.5: Opponents’ completion rate vs. Nebraska this year. That’s tops in the nation.
>> 67.4: NU’s penalty yards per game. That’s tied for No. 102. The Big Ten’s best team, Ohio State, is 96th. And the Pac-12 has six of the bottom 14, including Oregon at 111th.
>> 9.75: The average national rank of college football’s top four teams — Alabama, Oregon, Kansas State and Notre Dame — in turnover margin. That’s why Nebraska did those push-ups in practice last week.
For most of its game against Wisconsin, Michigan State set college football offense back a decade or two. But when Spartan quarterback Maxwell had to deliver a game-tying drive late in the fourth quarter, he did it, completing eight passes in a 75-yard march. Then he threw the game-winning touchdown in overtime.
MSU’s offense lacks dynamism. It has four plays of 40 yards or longer this year. Nebraska has 25 of them.
Sunny through the week. Thirty percent chance of worry.
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