I took some time last night to watch the Oklahoma State over again to get a better idea of what happened, why we gave up so many points, and what it was that allowed Taylor Martinez to throw five touchdown passes in a single game when he'd only thrown three the previous six games.
First - the defense. Husker fans are worried about the defense giving up 41 points and 495 yards to the Oklahoma State offense. Even with having watched the game again, I don't think I'm as worried as most - it was the first time in 15 games that an opponent scored over 21 points, and there's a fair bet that streak can resume again this week against Missouri. (We'll get into that more as the week moves on.)I mentioned Dana Holgorsen last week - the guy really is a mad scientist offensive genius. Combine his skills with two of the best players in college football, Kendall Hunter and Justin Blackmon, add in an up-tempo offense (watching that first half again it was like we were playing a team on meth), and you get the result you saw Saturday.
Hunter is an incredible back. The guy has great vision and an enormous amount of power. Husker fans might complain about the defense missing tackles against him, but there were several plays in which he simply stepped to the side of a defender and moved quickly past him when lesser backs would have taken the defender head on. There were a few plays in which he showed his strength, for example, at 4:00 left in the third quarter, he took the ball up the middle, made first contact with a defender at the five, then bulled his way to the one-yard line. Hunter will make an excellent draft choice for someone in next year's NFL draft.
Blackmon is another guy who'll go as a high draft pick. He has everything you want in a receiver, big, fast, powerful, and good hands. On his 80-yard touchdown pass, he made Prince Amukamara look like a fool, something that's not easily accomplished.
One thing about both players, though - they were shut down the second half. Hunter had 17 carries for 146 yards and a touchdown in the first half, but gained only 55 yards on nine carries and another touchdown in the second. Blackmon had five receptions for 157 yards and two touchdowns, but in the second half managed only two receptions for 28 yards, including a touchdown that brought Oklahoma State back within 10 points.
The defensive line is a concern, although don't worry so much about the lack of sacks and tackles for loss. Several times during the first half they weren't turned loose to rush, but instead held their ground, getting their hands up and clogging lanes. They were more aggressive the second half, and that appeared to be by design as much as anything else.
Jared Crick and Baker Steinkuhler still show a tendency to get caught up in blocking too often, allowing defenders to do too much with their hands. Cameron Meredith showed that he could make some plays at defensive end, while Pierre Allen left with an injury, replaced by Jason Ankrah and Josh Williams. One thing to remember about all the guys I've mentioned in this paragraph - Allen is a senior, Crick a junior, Steinkuhler, Williams, and Meredith are sophomores, and Ankrah is a freshman. That's a pretty young group - plenty of football left in them.
The bottom line - Nebraska's defense gave up 495 yards because they ran into an exceptional offense. It's not the end of the world - no where near it.
Oklahoma State started the game playing eight defenders in the box. Nebraska responded by rushing 11 times in the first quarter and throwing only five passes. One of those passes cost the Cowboys dearly, as Brandon Kinnie's first touchdown reception, a 45-yarder, came on a short pass play when he had only one defender to beat because the others were closer to the line playing the run.
Last week I noticed a lot of message board comments that Nebraska should go back to the I formation, or run the triple option, in other words, formations that Husker fans are comfortable with, that Tom Osborne was successful with years ago (and if Wats would only use Tom's playbook, everything would be rosy again). I wonder how many of those people would say the same thing this week. Nebraska's opponent clearly lined up to take away the run, and Shawn Watson made them pay for it by scoring 51 points without a single touchdown on the ground. That's a beautiful statement about the "multiple" that Watson and Bo Pelini preach about so often.
Later in the game, the Cowboys stopped loading the box, and Watson responded by rushing the ball 15 times while throwing only nine times in the fourth quarter. While the runs didn't net a lot of yardage (only 53 yards), the Huskers had the ball for 11:08 compared to 3:52 for the Cowboys. Captain Obvious would tell you it's damned hard to score if you don't have the ball.
Another item that stood out was just how much more depth this team has in Pelini's third year. I already mentioned Pierre Allen being replaced, but having Jermarcus Hardrick available to replace Jeremiah Sirles at left tackle was a benefit the Huskers didn't have last season. Depth meant moving players around, having Alfonzo Dennard cover Blackmon, and replacing Anthony West and Rickey Thenarse with Austin Cassidy and P.J. Smith. Replacing players like that isn't so much about one guy being better than another, but whether or not someone is having a bad day.
Taylor Martinez was brilliant most of the time. Mike mentioned a couple of his gaffs in his report card and at times Martinez reminded me of the bad Brett Favre. His throwing motion could be one of the ugliest ever, but because of his feet, he makes the plays. He broke tackles on the run and his ability to escape and scramble out of trouble has to be giving offensive coordinators fits.
Fans might be wowed by Martinez' performance so far this season, but you'd have to say that Alex Henery is Nebraska's biggest freak of nature. He looked like a natural scrambling on the early fake punt, but what should strike you about him is how automatic he is. How many bad plays has he made throughout his Husker career? Wow.
The Nebraska - Oklahoma State series ends after 43 games, and the Huskers leading in a lopsided fashion, 37-5-1. Good luck to the Cowboys. If they can find some more depth for their defense, they should be in good shape in the ten-team Big 12.