Published Saturday, August 31, 2013 at 12:01 am / Updated at 1:28 am
FOOTBALL
Shatel: For openers, Nebraska has lots of work to do

LINCOLN — This was just another Bo Pelini prank, right?

Wyoming had the ball with a chance to tie or take the lead with one minute to go on Saturday night. But quarterback Brett Smith's final desperate pass landed incomplete. And you wondered if the words “Got Ya” would appear on the giant scoreboard.

“Whew” would have sufficed.

The roller coaster is open for business early this season.

As openers go, this game met one expectation. Nebraska won, 37-34.

You expected the young defense to take its lumps. But give up 602 yards to Wyoming?

You expected the experienced, explosive offense to put this away early. But the starting quarterback and running back were in the game at the very end. Taylor Martinez played the entire game, and he had to continue playing after appearing to be dinged up.

You expected this to be the mood-setter for the season, a nice little walk in the park with exploding scoreboards and young heroes mugging for the cameras.

It may have set the wrong mood.

No, this one didn't exactly instill confidence or foreshadow a run for the Roses. Husker fans yucking it up over average-looking Michigan State or the Hawkeyes' woes were suddenly preoccupied with their own team's issues.

What to make of this?

It's one game. But it was dangerously close to one loss to Wyoming.

Winning ugly wasn't supposed to be the preseason slogan.

It's too soon to put this into any perspective for the season. The clock just struck September.

But at the very least, it's a buzz kill for an autumn of high hopes and expectations, where a special offense would lead the way to a special season.

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About that offense.

The Huskers ran the ball furiously, for 375 yards. Had good possession time. And yet they didn't look all that special. Couldn't put it away. Got in their own way.

No, I don't expect 52 points a game. There's only one “Scoring Explosion.” But for a unit with returning starters everywhere, with a line touted as the best in Pelini's six years, you expect more than 17 points in the first half against a Mountain West defense.

But once again, the Huskers have to get out of their own way. Openers are notoriously rough, but again, this is an experienced bunch. And 10 penalties, including too many false starts and offsides. One is too many.

And two turnovers, an interception and a fumble. Those happen, but this offense is expected to overcome its own mental lapses with video game blasts.

Maybe the lesson from Saturday night was that Tim Beck can't get too conservative.

It was obvious early, when everyone in the stadium, including the high-wire patrons in the East Stadium, was expecting Beck's High-Flying Circus. And they were wondering, “Why so conservative?”

Indeed, it was almost as if Beck had the inexperienced bunch.

Later, the coordinator admitted he was too conservative, wanted to run the ball. That the Huskers did. And how. Ameer Abdullah and Imani Cross banged out more than 100 yards each, and the aptly named Terrell Newby got three-fourths of the way there (76).

Even though Pelini said he wasn't going to use a running offense to give his young defense a break, I have to believe that became part of the strategy. Especially when it was evident that Smith and his receivers were not intimidated by Memorial Stadium and not going to hold back. Smith was flinging it.

That looked like the way to go in the third quarter, when it was already a close deal. The Huskers came out rolling on the run game, and after Quincy Enunwa made a terrific drag-the-toe touchdown catch, it was 31-14 and this looked like what everyone had come to see.

But the Huskers couldn't keep Wyoming out of the game.

NU's defense played hard and at times played well. The pass rush, with redshirt freshman Vincent Valentine starting and freshman Kevin Maurice getting serious reps, had a difficult task. Smith was mobile and smart enough to sidestep pressure or roll away from it. He was a handful.

But too often the Cowboys found holes over the middle, and Smith himself ran eight times for 92 yards. The Cowboys turned NU's interception and fumble into two late touchdowns. The drives went 52 yards in two plays and 62 yards in three.

The Blackshirts will get better. They won't always face skill-position players as good as Wyoming's. But what we saw Saturday night was that there are some good young players in this group. And there will be mistakes. Big mistakes. Big scores.

Which is where Beck and the circus come in. And as we saw, playing conservatively to give the defense a break is nice. Scoring more points would be better.

Nebraska's 1-0. Happy Labor Day. Speaking of, there's work to be done.

* * *

Video: NU coach Bo Pelini at the postgame press conference:



Video: NU's Quincy Enunwa at the postgame press conference:



Video: NU's Jeremiah Sirles at the postgame press conference:



Video: Rich Kaipust breaks down NU's win over Wyoming:

Contact the writer: Tom Shatel

tom.shatel@owh.com    |   402-444-1025    |  

Tom Shatel is a sports columnist who covers the city, regional and state scene.

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