Published Saturday, October 19, 2013 at 10:48 pm / Updated at 11:07 pm
Nebraska offense: Position by position

World-Herald staff writer Sam McKewon breaks down the Nebraska offense position by position.

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Standout player: Taylor Martinez, Tommy Armstrong and Ron Kellogg. They've all had their share of drives with the Huskers' offense, and when Martinez went down with a turf toe injury on his left foot after a loss to UCLA, Armstrong and Kellogg stepped up in wins over South Dakota State, Illinois and Purdue. Together, they completed 64.8 percent of their passes for 14 touchdowns and just four interceptions.

Highlight: Armstrong leading the Huskers to opening-drive touchdowns against SDSU, Illinois and Purdue. Any questions about the redshirt freshman's ability to lead were quashed in those statements. Kellogg looked sharp in relief of Armstrong against the Boilermakers.

Lowlight: A terrible second half against the Bruins, when Martinez, already injured, looked reluctant to run despite UCLA giving him open rush lanes. He didn't throw particularly well, either.

Best game: It came against the worst defense Nebraska faced, mind you, but Armstrong and Kellogg dominated the Jackrabbits, leading NU's offense to 300 yards rushing and 300 yards passing for the first time in school history.

Key question: When does Martinez come back? Coach Bo Pelini wants his four-year starting quarterback “100 percent” so he can work his usual magic on the zone read. But if he's 95 percent, and Northwestern comes to town, does Pelini push his perfection standard to the side?

Quote: “Hopefully sitting he's learned a little bit — that he doesn't have to carry the team. He's the integral part of the team, but he doesn't have to carry the team.” — offensive coordinator Tim Beck on Taylor Martinez

Biggest second-half test: Michigan State has the best defense in the Big Ten and perhaps the nation, but a trip to Michigan will test the Husker quarterbacks more. Under Pelini, NU hasn't won the big road game very often. The stage doesn't get any bigger than the Big House.

Running backs

Standout player: Ameer Abdullah is averaging 7.2 yards per carry and 136 yards per game and playing at the height of his ability, zigzagging in and out of traffic with confidence and skill. Plenty of Nebraska fans still wear Rex Burkhead jerseys in the stands, but the truth is this: Burkhead was never on this kind of torrid pace.

Highlight: Abdullah's 43-yard touchdown run through the Illinois defense. He got good blocks from Jake Cotton, Quincy Enunwa and Cethan Carter, but Abdullah had to break a tackle at midfield to bolt to the end zone. It was the flashiest run of a season full of good ones.

Lowlight: Abdullah's fumble early in the fourth quarter against UCLA. Nebraska had moved inside the Bruin 10 when he coughed it up, killing any chance at a Husker comeback.

Best game: Illinois. The Huskers ran for 335 yards, including Abdullah's 225 yards. Imani Cross had 76 yards, consistently battling into the secondary on his carries. The Illini couldn't stop NU on the ground.

Key question: Can Nebraska keep a lid on the fumbles? It's the only complaint on the running backs so far this year. Against Purdue, they kept the ball security a top priority, but better defenses await in November. Keeping Abdullah healthy is also important.

Quote: “You can always get better at something. You should never leave the (practice) field without working on an element of your game that you feel like you need to improve.” — Abdullah on honing his craft

Biggest second-half test: Michigan State. The Spartans are giving up just 58 yards per game, and their linebackers pack a punch. NU was the only team to run for more than 300 yards on MSU last year.

Offensive line

Standout player: Spencer Long. Now that he's out for the season with a knee injury, Nebraska fans can appreciate just how great a journey Long took from being a walk-on defensive lineman from Elkhorn to one of the nation's top offensive guards. He was the steady center of the line, a good puller and a quiet leader. He'll be missed.

Highlight: The Huskers have given up only three sacks this year, tied for first in the nation. The line has protected three quarterbacks as well as offensive line coach John Garrison could hope.

Lowlight: The line had several chances to help put Wyoming away in the season opener, and the Cowboys' vastly undersized front seven held up. NU didn't consistently hold its blocks well. Same thing happened in the second half against UCLA.

Best game: Illinois. Against the Illini's shifting, confusing defense, Nebraska's line rocked and rolled to 521 total yards. Racking up 645 yards against South Dakota State was impressive, too, but the Jackrabbits have a soft, overmatched defense.

Key question: How does Nebraska replace Long? It won't be easy, since Long had become one of the best Husker linemen in a decade. He also played nearly every snap. NU will look to Ryne Reeves and Givens Price — perhaps junior college transfer Chongo Kondolo, as well — to fill the gap.

Quote: “They know good offensive line play. I know what the standard is here and what they expect out of offensive linemen around here. We're striving to match it.” — Garrison on NU fans' expectations

Biggest second-half test: Iowa. Nothing wears on an offensive line like a November grind, and the Hawkeyes' salty front seven — Iowa's eighth nationally in run defense — lies at the end of the year. It'll be the usual brawl between two tired, proud units.

Wide receivers/tight ends

Standout player: Quincy Enunwa. Big, physical and fantastic in his senior campaign, Enunwa has 25 catches for 354 yards and seven touchdowns so far. He's on track for one of the best years in Husker history and that doesn't even factor in his blocking, which has been stellar, as usual.

Highlight: Kenny Bell's 37-yard, one-handed touchdown catch-and-run is one of the great receptions in Husker history, a surefire hit for any highlight reel for this year. Such a hard play made so casually.

Lowlight: Drops against UCLA by Tyler Wullenwaber, Jamal Turner and Sam Burtch hurt the Huskers' chances. Drops at Purdue didn't hurt NU, but they weren't pretty.

Best game: South Dakota State. Ten wide receivers or tight ends caught passes against the Jackrabbits, and the perimeter blocking wasn't bad, either.

Key question: Does the tight end spot hold up through injuries and inexperience? Nebraska lost Jake Long for a game and a half to a hamstring injury, and the next three tight ends are freshmen. NU still likes two-tight sets, so development must continue.

Quote: “You go up there every week after the game to see how you did during the game and see the points. I think that's a big factor in why I take so much pride in that. Obviously, we all want to win the game, and blocking is a big part of winning the game.” — Quincy Enunwa on the “Perimeter Warrior Award” that position coach Rich Fisher has created to gauge the quality of NU's blocking

Biggest second-half test: Michigan State. The Spartans have the most-hyped group of corners in the league, and they play tight man-to-man coverage. They'll get up in Nebraska's grill, no doubt.

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