Martinez Shines As Huskers Romp Over Southern Miss
Taylor Martinez had a career day passing for Nebraska as the Cornhuskers used a high-powered offense to pull away from Southern Miss, 49-20 in the opening game of the season. Martinez's numbers on the day - five touchdown passes, 354 yards, 76% completion rate - fly in the face of what Husker fans were accustomed to seeing last year and confirm all the discussion and speculation about Martinez as an improved passer. The Husker defense played better in the second half than the first, limiting the Golden Eagles to 13 total offensive points. On the downside for NU, the special teams (thought to be such a Husker advantage this year) were shaky and injuries were a potentially ugly part of this Husker win.
The game started as many may have suspected - with Rex Burkhead bolting for a career long 57-yard touchdown scamper to open the scoring on the first series. But, then things got a bit...shocking. Midway through the first half of this game, a Husker fan might have thought that everything they knew to be true about their team was false. Martinez opened the game 12-14 passing, connecting on both long and short throws. Brett Maher, the pre-season All-American, missed two field goals. Burkhead left the game with a sprained knee, and would not return. And, the Husker D assumed to be resurgent this season, was missing tackles and over running plays.
Put all of this together with a Southern Miss kickoff return for a touchdown and it's 14-14 tie midway through the first half. But, Nebraska's offense kept moving the ball almost at will and scoring, the defense settled down some and Nebraska cruised to a victory on a hot day in Lincoln.
Explosive and Diverse Offense
How good was Nebraska's offense today? Consider these statistics. They rolled up 632 total yards, with 278 rushing to combine with Martinez's 354 through the air. They had 33 first downs, converting a staggering 12 of 15 on third down.
The offense was balanced. They had 45 rushes and 34 pass attempts. The final drive (with the game no longer in doubt) was all running plays, or the game plan would have been nearly evenly split in their run-pass ratio.
It was explosive. The completions averaged more than 10 yards; the rushes more than 6. Six plays covered more than 25 yards.
It was also diverse. The number of players who contributed is almost comical. Six different players scored touchdowns. Five different players caught touchdowns. Eleven players caught passes. (11!). In the absence of Burkhead, the Husker rush game featured many names as well, nine players recorded carries. Ameer Abdullah got the bulk of the work, with 81 yards on 15 totes.
The hype about Martinez as a passer? True. The buzz about the quality and amount of Husker skill players? True. With Martinez as the trigger man rather than a runner, the ball was shared quickly and often. Martinez himself was seldom a designated ball carrier, and rushed for just 10 yards. His best run was not by design, as he scrambled down the sideline for a first down. Perhaps most stunning was his ability to read his first or second option on a pass play and then make a conscious decision to find his check down option. In that sense, sometimes his shortest throws were his most amazing.
Shaky Special Teams
There are downsides to today's performance. The first is Nebraska's special teams. They were far from special. Actually they were pretty ordinary, or worse. The Husker kickoff coverage unit gave up a momentum-stealing return for a touchdown. Brett Maher missed two kicks he normally makes. Absent that 13 point swing in the score, this game may have gotten out of hand sooner. Both of these issues are correctable. But, it needs to get fixed if NU has intentions on winning a conference title.
Injuries an Issue
The other painful issue in this game were the injuries. Burkhead has a sprained knee. The extent of his injury is unknown. Considering Pelini's reluctance to discuss anything related to an injury ("He's fine..."), fans may not know anything about his condition until if and when the super man in #22 trots back on to the field. Tim Marlowe also injured his shoulder in the first half. Steven Osborne subbed more very capably, but it's never good to lose a starter. Similarly, Ben Cotton caught one pass but then did not contribute again. Is he injured? Again, the back up - in this case Jake Long - played very well (3 catches and a touchdown), but teams don't want to tap in to their depth so soon in the year.
About the Defense
Potentially lost among the discussion of Nebraska's high-octane offense is how the NU defense did against Southern Miss. The first half showed a fair amount of blown assignments and missed tackles. It was not what a fan would call a "Blackshirt" performance. But, in fairness to the squad, they were clearly pumped up in the opening stanza. And, little was known about what USM's scheme would look like. They were playing on the fly early in the game.
In the stat sheet, it's a decent result - they gave up 260 yards, 13 offensive points and 17 first downs. The Golden Eagles converted half of their third downs. Nebraska won the turnover battle, (1-0), and generated more negative plays than they typically did a year ago. There are lots of areas in which this group can improve, but they looked fast and played with great effort. Those are good fundamentals from which to improve.
Next week, Nebraska moves on to take on UCLA in Pasadena, with or without Rex Burkhead. The Bruins were big winners over Rice in their opener. They should pose more of a challenge to Nebraska than Southern Miss did. To beat UCLA on the road, NU will need continued offensive production, more consistent defense and get its special teams issues resolved.