After opening the season with a 49-3 pounding of Florida Atlantic, you'd swear that one of the top-rated teams in the nation was coming to Lincoln. Tom Osborne warned that Arkansas State would provide a tough test, while Husker coaches and media stated that the Red Wolves were a talented team that would make a game of it.
Unfortunately for Arkansas State, such fears were laid to rest early as the Huskers marched on consecutive 80-yard first quarter scoring drives that provided all the points that were needed to win as Nebraska took the game 38-9.
Zac Lee was on target, finishing the game 27 of 35 for 340 yards and four touchdowns. Lee's exceptional performance comes with some good news and some bad news. The good news is that Husker receivers were often wide open because Arkansas State had decided to take away the running game. The bad news is that Lee was only rarely challenged. There were only a few tough throws he had to make and he seldom had to check down or look off his receivers. Oh that the rest of the season is filled with such bad news.
What was impressive was the number of receivers involved in the offense. Lee completed passes to 11 receivers, his favorite of which was Niles Paul. Paul finished the game with six receptions for 69 yards and his first career touchdown. Curenski Gilleylen showed that he's a consistent threat this season as he used his speed to get behind the Red Wolves defenders and then made a gorgeous over the shoulder 43-yard catch to set up Nebraska's first touchdown. Fullback Tyler Legate scored his first career touchdown one play later on a play-action pass, which should put Husker fans at ease with the idea that only Ndamukong Suh could make such a play. Mike McNeill was his usual self, making a couple of tough catches when they were required and the rest when they were easy.
Overall it's hard to find any fault with the offense. The offensive line gave up a couple sacks, but even that can taken as be positive as they let Zac Lee know that he was mortal, furthering his growth process as the team prepares for it's first road test next week against Virginia Tech.
Roy Helu didn't get into a rhythm, but it wasn't required. Offensive coordinator Shawn Watson took advantage of a Red Wolves defense that was determined to stop the run, so why bother with it? Watson's play calling offers an interesting dilemma for nit-pickers. Had the Huskers established a strong running game, fans would be wondering what happened to the pass.
Bo Pelini will have to find another adjective besides "soft" to describe the Husker defense this week. The Blackshirts were much improved, giving up only 274 total yards to an offense that was supposed to give them trouble. The Huskers had a couple of coverage breakdowns, but at no point did Arkansas State threaten the Huskers lead. The defense recorded four sacks, including Suh's first sack of the year.
Overall, the Huskers looked more "crisp" than in their opening game. They had only three penalties, as opposed to nine the previous week, and none in the second half of the game. The penalties were big, however. A holding call by Marcel Jones negated a beautiful 69-yard touchdown pass to Niles Paul, and another personal foul penalty by freshman Eric Martin gave the Red Wolves great field position. Ultimately they mattered not.
Have the Huskers accomplished much yet? No. They've taken care of business, severely beating inferior opponents. Compare that to what most of the Big 12 North accomplished this weekend and you ought to be skipping your way to church Sunday morning. Colorado looked lost, Missouri had to come from behind to beat Bowling Green, Kansas State lost to Louisiana-Lafayette, and Iowa State got pounded by Iowa. Only Kansas looked like a contender, easily beating UTEP.
The cupcakes are over and the real season begins as next week the Huskers travel to Lane Stadium in Blacksburg, one of the toughest road games in the nation. If Nebraska can beat the Virginia Tech Hokies, it may be time to get excited. Until then, I'm sure we'll spend another week full of angst and anticipation.