by P. Carl Giordano, Managing Editor

It’s all about Taylor Martinez. The Nebraska QB and head coach Bo Pelini learned a lot in their maiden voyage in the Big Ten. The first thing was that it’s not as easy as it looks. The Huskers lost three conference games a year ago, two by definitively one-sided scores to Wisconsin and Michigan, and one at home as a 17½-point favorite to Northwestern. Sure, Rex Burkhead got his, carrying 284 times for 1387 yards (19th in the nation in yardage), but even with Burkhead making the all-league squad, the Huskers ranked just 8th in the Big Ten in rushing. It was Martinez’ inability to muster a consistent passing threat that made the difference.

The weather sometimes dictates a certain style in this league, but the Big Ten is far removed from Woody Hayes’ era “three yards and a cloud of dust” football. Michigan’s Denard Robinson threw for 4743 yards and Wisconsin starting QBs threw for 5634 in the last two seasons. Taylor Martinez has tossed just 23 TD passes in two years (the Badgers Russell Wilson clicked for 33 last year). If the Cornhuskers are to compete for the Legends Division title and a spot in the Big Ten Championship game, the rumors of Martinez’ improvement must be true. Observers of the weather-shortened spring practices in Lincoln report that Martinez has worked long and hard on his footwork, spending break time back home training with southern California QB guru Steve Calhoun. If the improvement is significant, and the erstwhile QB can do better (hopefully much better) than last season’s 12-TD, 7-interception ratio and generate some more respectable numbers, the Huskers could be in position to return to the top ten.

Martinez and Burkhead are joined by six additional returning offensive starters, including jr. G Spencer long, a second-team selection on the all-conference squad. The I-formation made a comeback in Lincoln last season after falling out of favor under former coach Bill Callahan, as last year o.c. Tim Beck reintroduced the Cornhusker staple as an alternative to the “Pistol” that made Martinez & Burkhead a lethal combination on the ground. This season expect more of the same, with Burkhead and Ameer Abdullah on hand and quality recruits in the pipeline. Burkhead remains the tip of the spear, but the passing game is what will make the difference between another nine-win season and a return to competing for the big prize. With seven of the top eight pass-catchers returning, Martinez will have ample targets available if a rebuilt OL can keep the pressure off of him. Beck is also tinkering with going “back-to-the-future” by using Kenny Bell in a circa-1972 Johnny Rodgers-type role (Google him, youngsters...Heisman Trophy winner and NU’s player of the century).

Defensively, new defensive coordinator John Papuchis was promoted to replace Bo’s brother Carl Pelini who got the jHC ob at Florida Atlantic, but we can’t really figure out why. Papuchis’ was in charge of the Husker defensive line last season, and that unit ranked 11th in the Big Ten in sacks and was 8th against the run. The defensive front lacked aggression and was 112th in the country in tackles for loss and 84th in sacks. Three DL starters return including DT Baker Steinkuhler (left) and DE Cameron Meredith (58 stops, 5 sacks), so some improvement might be expected. Although there is plenty of returning experience overall on defense, it’s unclear what the quality level is, as no returning Huskers made any of the all-conference defensive teams. Sr. MLB Will Compton and sr. strong safety Daimion Stafford are the top returning tacklers with 82 and 80 respectively, but the 4.0 ypc surrendered by NU last season was the worst since 2007’s defensive disaster that yielded 38 ppg and triggered Callahan being fired and Pelini being hired.

Kicker Brett Maher is one of the best combo punter/placekickers in the country and was first team all-Big Ten a year ago, but the offense can’t depend on getting three points from Maher instead of TDs from the offense as it did too often in 2011.

Summary: Nebraska was in the Big XII championship game in 2009 and 2010, but disappointed fans in its initial Big Ten season. NU hasn’t been able to run up scores on many teams the last few years, logging a 4-15 spread mark last 19 games laying double digits. Another year of mediocre (by Lincoln standards) results coupled with Pelini’s often terse, brusque reactions might turn up the heat on his seat as the leader of the Husker Nation.

Return To Home Page