LINCOLN — The best football games are a violent mashup of poker and chess. Call it “choker,” for the pressure coaches feel is like the collars Dobermans wear. The game is not all guts and not all stats. It's all worry. It's made up of bluffs and math and rage and charts and even space. You have to pore over as abstract a thing as uninhabited air.
The way Nebraska's defense attacked open space Saturday night defined its 56-13 rout of Southern Mississippi. NU confidently invaded pass routes and jammed up running lanes with linebackers and ends running downhill. The Huskers beat USM skill players to the spot. That's knowledge, armed with the speed to do something with that knowledge. The Blackshirts still made mistakes. But they made more plays. It's the playmaking aspect of this defense — its ability create turnovers, sacks and tackles for loss — that will make the busts manageable.
As Nebraska's defensive communication improved a “hundred-fold,” coach Bo Pelini said, so, too, did its pursuit and ball skills. Instead of having three defensive minds bunched up in a 4-yard space on the sideline, Pelini often stood several first downs away from defensive coordinator John Papuchis. I saw defensive line coach Rick Kaczenski deployed behind the play, watching from there. A greater calm among the braintrust produced a better storm on the field.
Now: Will offensive coordinator Tim Beck finally call up thunder and lightning for the UCLA game?
Yes, Beck's been dealt bad hands in the first two games. The first drive of the Wyoming game started at the Huskers' 2. The first drive of the USM game started at the 7. Both opposing defenses, Beck says, were relative mysteries, which required conservative opening moves. Beck dialed up power plays — behind an offensive line that's been good but not great so far — resulting in three-and-outs to start both games. The inconsistency that could bedevil the Big Red O in 2012 still seems to lurk inside Memorial Stadium.
UCLA's offense makes mistakes. But it has the speed, versatility and a quarterback — Brett Hundley is a lot like Wyoming's Brett Smith, only huskier — to turn Saturday's breakfast tilt into a game of choker.
In the Rose Bowl last year, NU's offense busted.
You'll hear this week about the 653 yards Nebraska gave up in Pasadena. You should. Some graduated Husker defenders may still see swing passes in their dreams. But NU still wins that game if quarterback Taylor Martinez waits just a little longer on a few throws, and Beck doesn't dial up Mike Marrow for a crucial 3rd-and-1 play. He has Imani Cross — a far better short-yardage back — for that duty. he should also have an offense that found its identity in several fourth-quarter comebacks last year. An offense that, by now, ought to dictate to a defense instead of reacting to it.
Beck's a patient player of the game. He's shown a few plays on tape for UCLA to ponder, and a few formations — like that jumbo inverted wishbone in the red zone. He may run those plays again, but with different personnel out of different formations. Other than Martinez moving a few pieces around when he changes plays, we haven't seen the elaborate motions Beck used against Georgia. We haven't seen Nebraska's fastest pace. We haven't seen Ameer Abdullah and Terrell Newby on the field at the same time. Few wrinkles yet.
UCLA's defense personifies “risk and reward.” The Bruins created 32 turnovers and notched 46 sacks last year. They also finished 78th in total defense. Nebraska experienced that when Martinez bolted 92 yards for a touchdown early in the game, then was smacked for a game-changing safety later while running the same play. Beck seems to relish opportunities against such units. Martinez — the only quarterback to burn Michigan State's blitz-for-broke defense last year — likes teams that bring the heat, too.
The Bruins will attack open space all morning and afternoon. It's what they do. Beck must be ready to punch it out.
On with the Rewind of what may be Nebraska's easiest win of the year.
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» Abdullah: Through two games, the I-back has been a far better edge runner than a guy who picks his way through the pile. Beck needs to get him the ball more in space, against a single defender.
» Quarterback Tommy Armstrong: Didn't run the option or zone read much in high school. You wouldn't know it.
» Wide receiver Kenny Bell: He's sixth in the nation with a 40.25-yard kickoff return average. Should teams try to boot away from him, they'll have Terrell Newby to handle.
» Wide receiver Quincy Enunwa: Should be NU's top target in the red zone. He is so far, with three touchdowns.
» Punter Sam Foltz: He's 13th nationally with a 45.78-yard punting average.
» Dime linebacker Nate Gerry: Love how he attacked an early screen play. He'd better be ready for UCLA to attack him early and often.
» Defensive end Randy Gregory: His inside move is just as dangerous as his outside speed rush. Is he fast enough to run down Hundley?
» Cornerback Stanley Jean-Baptiste: He's far from perfect — he had a pass interference penalty and was burned on the Golden Eagles' only score — but teams pick on him at their own risk. You may get yours. But he'll get his.
» Defensive end Greg McMullen: Strong. Four tackles, including two for loss. If Nebraska wants to flip to a 3-4, he anchors the edge well.
» Defensive tackle Vincent Valentine: Repeatedly busted through the line of scrimmage in the first quarter, disrupting USM's attempts to run the ball. Just one tackle, but he's a keeper.
» Big-chunk penalties: Two personal fouls and a defensive pass interference contributed to Nebraska picking up 75 yards in penalties. Through two games, the Huskers are 113th in penalty yards per game and 102nd in penalties per game. UCLA is 122nd and 125th (last) in those respective categories after one game.
» Rugby punt magic: Southern Miss averaged 45.2 yards per punt and downed three of five punts inside the 20. The Huskers did not score on any of the three drives. Is NU going to turn every punter into an Australian Rules version of Shane Lechler?
» Covering running backs on pass plays: Nebraska had much more success guarding Southern Mississippi's running backs than it did against Wyoming, but defensive end Avery Moss, as hard as he can run, is going to struggle covering UCLA's backs on a wheel route. The Bruins aren't dumb. They'll try to stretch, stretch, stretch NU toward the sideline as much they can.
» Six: The Blackshirts' interception total through two games. NU's tied for third in the nation, and is fifth in interception return yards.
» 55.17 percent: Nebraska's third-down conversion rate. That's good for 19th in the country. Martinez, so far, is 13 of 15 passing on third down, with 11 of those throws going for first downs.
» 3.41: Yards per carry for NU's rushing offense in the first quarter. Stinky! Contrast that number with 7.96 yards per carry in the second quarter and 7.68 yards in the third. Why's it happening? First, Wyoming and Southern Mississippi have pinned the Huskers' offense inside their own 20 because the punt return team won't jump in the water. Second, Beck has loaded up on power sets and been frustratingly conservative to open the game.
On my World-Herald Facebook page, I'll ask fans to submit comments after each game and post select responses.
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Scott Pastell: “Solid game. No shock. Pelini's scheme is 'usually' pretty good against non-mobile QBs. That said, it is extremely clear that there is an upgrade in overall athleticism. Randy Gregory is a beast.”
Mike Davis: “Defense is still giving up too many big plays. But at least they stood tall in the red zone. Also, they are missing too many tackles. Especially in the backfield. For us to be great we have to finish plays.”
Luke Bossard: “If the Southern Mississippi game was 'just a glorified practice' as some have commented, then so be it. We needed it, badly. I think the cream has risen to the top and we will need to confidently play our best against UCLA.”
Credit where it's due: Illinois coach Tim Beckman hired in the offseason a more accomplished head coach than himself — former Western Michigan coach Bill Cubit — and made that guy his offensive coordinator. Cubit's made Illinois a throwing team through two games, and the Illini crushed a decent Cincinnati team 45-17.
Incidentally, Cubit's replacement at WMU, P.J. Fleck, is a 32-year-old whose “Row the Boat” mantra comes complete with an oar, a dance and a helmet design. The Broncos are awful, and lost to Nicholls State on Saturday.
Finally, tragedy struck the UCLA football family Sunday morning when reserve wide receiver Nick Pasquale was killed in a car accident.
Nebraska will be the only state in America where folks fuss over Brett Hundley more than they do Johnny Manziel.
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Video: Sam McKewon breaks down the Southern Miss game:
Video: NU coach Bo Pelini after the Southern Miss game:
Video: NU's Taylor Martinez after the Southern Miss game:
Video: NU's Josh Banderas after the Southern Miss game:
Video: NU's Randy Gregory after the Southern Miss game: