Nebraska's defense proved themselves of playing much better as a unit against Southern Miss. They didn't look confused, and for the most part played a pretty clean game save a couple defensive breakdowns. Overall, penalties were cut nearly in half (10 vs Wyoming, six vs Southern Miss) and the offense did well enough that two backup quarterbacks and a whole host of younger players got on the field. You could ask for more, but given what Husker fans saw on the field from the first week, you'd be setting unrealistic expectations (as if they could get any higher in the first place).
UCLA presents the first real challenge of the season for Nebraska packaged in a high-powered offense, a decent defense, and a fair amount of pedigree.
Teams lose more often than not when losing the turnover battle. There is no shock in this statement as most football fans heard it from the moment we were cognizant of football's existence and have been aware of it since, wincing every time is mentioned in association with our favorite team.
Nebraska finally broke its 14-game two turnover streak last week and this week would be a fine, fine week to go turnover free. The last turnover free game for Nebraska was 2012 Southern Miss and in last year's UCLA game the Huskers were -1 in turnover margin, leading directly to a 36-30 loss.
Nothing has changed this season. The difference between UCLA and Nebraska is tight - tight enough that the Huskers cannot win this game losing in turnover margin.
This begs a question after first setting a background: The score is 36-30. There is 3:07 left. What do you trust more - putting the game in Taylor Martinez' arm/Kenny Bell's hands or in the legs of Ameer Abdullah and Imani Cross?
Early Jump Start
The game has an 11:00 am start time or 9:00 am Pacific, UCLA's native time zone. Playing football at 9:00 am on a Saturday morning? Is this a thing that plays to Nebraska's advantage? The answer to this lies hidden in your attitude towards the old saying "Early to bed, early to rise, makes a man healthy, wealthy and wise". Morning people love this saying, repeating it fondly as it confirms their superiority over those of us whose morning saying isn't a saying as much as it is a glare - "talk to me before a pot of coffee and I will kill you".
So it goes between us, morning person, but to pretend that all players are morning people is folly. Best that the Husker football team recognize this and jump on UCLA early before they realize that the game has even started. This isn't just about the offense. Last week when Stanley Jean-Baptiste scored at 13:47 in the first quarter, everyone knew the game was over.
Who's to say the entire UCLA defensive front seven aren't night people? Take the ball and go at them early, see how they respond. Nebraska's hidden weapon might well be our offensive line yawning as the UCLA defense gets in their stance, knowing full well that yawning is contagious, and who can get off a block while they're yawning?
Offensive line consistency
Tim Beck wants an up tempo offense except when it comes to games like this. If you're facing team with a high-powered offense, you want to give them fewer scoring opportunities and that means fewer possessions. It's not about whether to huddle or not, it's about the time you're taking off the clock as you're going. Tim Beck wants to take that time, and that will require more consistency out of the offensive line than we saw against Southern Mississippi.
Were I Tim Beck I would plan on using a healthy dose of run against UCLA. Bruin linebacker Anthony Barr might be a future superstar in the making, but the first thing I would do is introduce him to Imani Cross if for no other reason than to let the Bruins know that I'm prepared to be physical. Cross inside, Ameer Abdullah outside, over and over after I've let my offensive line, supposedly the best of the Bo Pelini era, that this game is entirely upon their shoulders.
I wouldn't mind appearing a tab nit predictable either, as long as Taylor Martinez hits Cethan Carter/Kenny Bell/Quincy Enunwa when they're wide open for a touchdown as Carter was last week.
Offensive Coordinator Noel Mazzone
One thing I do find shocking is the lack of more discussion about UCLA's offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone. Mazzone was offensive coordinator at Arizona State 2010-2011, where he had a pretty decent showing (25th nationally in 2011, 10th in passing), and in his first year with the Bruins his freshman quarterback Brett Hundley set school records for single-season passing yards (3,740), single-season completions (318) and single-season total offense yards (4,095).
I asked Smart Football's Chris Brown about Mazzone's offense. His tweeted response:
@CornNation Run game is base inside zone but lots of attached bubbles/screens/quick game etc. Just a few pass concepts but combines runs/etc— Smart Football (@smartfootball) September 12, 2013
If you are not familiar with the concept of "packaged plays", Brown has articles at Grantland.com that fully explain the concept (as opposed to being limited to 140 characters). Condensed, the idea behind packaging is this:
The official play-by-play description for the touchdown drive looks a lot like the description for any number of similarly successful drives:
Play 1: Eight-yard rush.
Play 2: Completion to a receiver for four yards, first down.
Play 3: Quarterback run for 13 yards.
Play 4: Completion to a different receiver for five yards.
Play 5: Completion for 18 yards, touchdown.
That description seemingly represented what everyone watching the game saw - Ole Miss kept Pittsburgh's defense off-balance with a mix of plays that resulted in a quick, efficient scoring drive.
Except that wasn't the case at all. Ole Miss did not choose five different plays to keep the defense confused. Instead, they ran the same play five times in a row. That play simply had four different options - ones that resulted in two different ball carries and two different receivers touching the ball.
In other words, same formation, same play, requiring the defense to not only make one-on-one plays, but understand what's coming at them as it happens on the fly.
With regards to Brown's comment that "It's his system really!", Mazzone's spread offense system, "NZone System", is for sale, perhaps Bo Pelini and co. already own it. As fans we tend to view offensive and defensive play calling with so much sorcery, but the fact is most coaches know each other's systems, and as much as you hate to hear Bo Pelini's mantra about "execution" that's what it comes down to in this game - Nebraska's young defense knowing their assignments, lining up properly, and not making mistakes.
Again, the defensive line is key. UCLA's up tempo offense will allow substitutions only each series, optimally, so guys like Vincent Valentine had better have kept up on their conditioning and depth will be paramount. The front four will be called upon to maintain the line of scrimmage and keep Hundley under check. Saturday would be a great time for the college football world to get to know Randy Gregory.
Nebraska's defensive secondary should be its strength Saturday. That means Stanley Jean-Baptiste versus Shaquelle Evans and Ciante Evans versus Devin Fuller. Both Husker defensive backs had huge plays against Southern Miss last week. Both will need to have a big presence again this Saturday because they will be finding themselves in one-on-one situations that require them to make those plays that potentially save the game.
Last up - the so far lackluster performance of Husker fans at Memorial Stadium. Perhaps Nebraska fans have been in too much awe over the new stadium expansion and in too little awe of the first two opponents to make as much noise as to make Memorial nearly fall apart.
The students have called for a BlackOut, meaning that everyone should wear black. It makes sense, given the Huskers will be wearing an alternative uniform that also happens to be black. Those with the "It's a Sea of Red" attitude (admittedly mine in the past) should recognize that there is much more to a fan base united, and that includes not just the optimistic and the cynical, but the students and older folks as well. Nebraska is wearing black. It's not a school color. Wear black. Deal with it.
It's time for everyone to find out whether the new East-side expansion holds the sound in, making Memorial an even tougher place to play for opponents than it's been in the past. That's up to a Husker crowd - to get behind the team despite whatever cynicism they have for the season and disregarding the need to spell the opponent's blood in the water before they act.