So where to start. It is hard not to feel emotional and euphoric after what we experienced on Saturday night. It has been a while after taking it in our collective chins week after week in last few years. We certainly saw a "team" out there at the Rose Bowl for the first time in many years. It was nostalgic me for personal reasons. UCLA beat Nebraska for the first time since 1988. That 1988 game was also the very first game I saw on TV as a Bruin fan. I was there in 1993 when we lost to an awesome Nebraska team by a score of 14-13 in which IIRC a TD from freshman Skip Hicks was called back and we also lost him to injury.
It felt like we were closing a number of loops on Saturday night. But before I let myself get too excited I need to remember how excited was after beating Tennessee twice during Neuheisel era, dominating a bad Texas team in Austin, beating up Michigan and Alabama in back to back early September games in the 90s, and then beating Alabama in Tuscaloosa. We have experienced this kind of moment before only to get let down in a big way.
Hopefully this time it's different. It has that feeling to it given the way our team looked in almost all facets of the game on Saturday night. But, still I am not going to feel total comfortable until we get used this kind of performance week after week including games against opponents not as high-profile as the Huskers (hello Houston). Let's get to the grades after the jump.
1) Is our defense prepared for each and every team we play?
We saw the same script from last week against a much better and more explosive opponent. We had a feeling the Bruin defense was going to have some rough moments against Taylor Martinez's scrambling ability and the stable of solid running backs. In the first half the Huskers rolled up 334 yards of total offense thanks to some huge plays from Martinez and Amir Abdullah.
The Bruins did have their moments with some huge plays from Anthony Barr - who is perhaps the frontrunner of the defensive MVP for the first quarter of 2012 season. Lou Spanos was bringing the heat early blitzing the Huskers repeatedly in the first half. He was also rotating bodies in the front-7 keeping them fresh. We paid the price with some big plays and the question was once again whether Spanos would be able to make adjustments in the second half.
Well, for the second straight game he answered the question in the positive column for our Bruins. Our defense looked like a different unit in the second half and we were getting pressure by rushing 4. The interception by Andrew Abbot was result of an awesome call by Spanos in which he got Abbot to draw back on coverage, completely confusing Martinez. Bruin defense was looking fast, physical and (imagine Gus Johnson's voice here) "MEAN and NASTY".
The D held the Huskers to 6 total points and 105 yards in second half, which included big plays after big plays on 3rd down and the momentum changing safety from Datone Jones. Datone's safety made an impression on Brett Hundley:
Even after every big play in his precocious debut, nothing made Hundley light up like his memory of Jones' ferocious sack.
''We were sitting in the sideline, just chilling, and then Datone sacks him, and it's an explosion in the Rose Bowl,'' Hundley said. ''That's just what we needed.''
The Huskers converted only 1 of 11 third downs. The cool thing here is that our defense still hasn't played a complete game and there is a lot of room of improvement - particularly at the ILB spots (hello Malcolm Jones, please talk to Mr. Anthony Barr) and secondary where certain senior CB keep making same mistakes. If the Bruins can clean up those issues, it has an opportunity to become perhaps the most entertaining defense since the era of Rocky Long (never really cared about Dewayne Walker all that much). For this category, I will go with a category of B+ (3.3).
2) Do we call offensive plays to catch our opponents off guard?
Once again let's start with the numbers because they are freaking delicious to read:
- Bruins rolled up 653 yards of total offense (improving from last week's 646 yards explosion against Rice).
- The Jet Ski rushed for 217 yards in 26 carries and grabbed 3 catches for 59 yards, including the game clinching TD. If we had a competent athletic department there would be an immediate, all-out campaign for Heisman around number 23.
- Brett Hundley passed for 305 yards and threw 4 TDs (with no picks) and rushed for 53 yards in 12 carries. As mentioned in our second half thread by the end of first half he had already completed passes to 8 different receivers.
- Devin Lucien had a good game (3 catches for 70 yards) as did Steve Manfro who made up for last week's drop with a huge TD catch and run and Damien Thigpen who lit up the Husker D with 84 total yards (37 yards in 7 carries and another 47 from 2 receptions).
There is not a lot to nitpick from this category. Mazzone had the Husker defense on the run the entire game. If not for the missed FGs, Jordan James fumble, couple of drops in the end zone, and BS PI call on Jerry Johnson, it could have been ugly for the Huskers.
Also, worth noting that Hundley was slowed down by ankle injury just a bit but appeared to be okay. He missed few passes which I think he will get better at as he gets more game experience. But still it was pretty cool to see a freshman UCLA QB doing looking off first, second options and finding his hot receivers. I don't think I saw even this kind of poise from number 18 in his freshman year (but to be fair Hundley is in his second year in the program).
For this category we will go with an A (4.0).
3) Do our players look like they know what they should be doing at all times?
Well, this is the category we need to improve most on (along with number 5). The performance at the ILB is a concern. Eric Kendricks is starting to show the form from his freshman year. But Damien Holmes is having a rough time. It's not about lack of effort on the part of Holmes. He is doing his best, but sometimes he is over matched against better athletes. Wish Malcolm Jones would consider one more time before transferring and give it a shot at ILB.
I don't really have any complaints on the offensive side. I think Hundley missed on few throws which he will get better at over time.
Our kicking game needs a lot of work to say the least. I was glad to see Coach Mora stick with Ka'imi Fairbairn even after his horrible first miss. It was good to see him come back connect in the first half. We have to convert on those chip shots and I am sure Ka'imi knows that more than anyone. I guess I wasn't feeling as horrible about it after watching what PSU kicker did against UVa earlier in the day. Hopefully Ka'imi will get some more confidence through next few weeks. I think the kid showed a lot of mental toughness in the way he came back after the first one.
Lastly, I want to mention something about that 4th down call by Mora in second when we lined up for a FG in second half, only to switch up and try for a TD. The actual play call was a little weird and execution clumsy. But that's the kind of call we have been waiting for a long time. That's kind of a play call that has big picture implications in terms of building identity of this team. Mora sent a message to his players, opponents and us with that call, and it may reverberate within our program. That's a potential culture changing call.
So for this category I will go with a plan B (3.0).
4) Do our players play for 60 G-D minutes every game?
Aaah. Yes. This is pretty easy to answer just like last week. Not only we played hard for 60 G-D minutes. It was awesome to see our defense kept getting stronger in the second half. I will go with another plain A (4.0).
5) Do our players execute?
On offense the answer is generally yes. Although as mentioned above Hundley missed a few passes that he will start connecting on as he gets more game experience. I think Fauria probably dropped a pass he would catch most of the times.
Speaking of offense though - I waited a while to mention this - but how about our OL. Nebraska's DL is not what it used to be. But that said they are still the Blackshirts and a very proud program. It was encouraging to say the least to see how an OL anchored by 3 freshman (including true freshman Simon Goines) handled the Huskers. That was awesome. Although, IIRC Baca may have been benched at times during the second half. It would be interesting to hear Coach Mora's mindset on that move.
I don't have really go over the issues with our FG kicking unit as I discussed it up thread. Same with our issues at ILB. Randall Goforth's two dropped picks also stand out. But he is a freshman. What is encouraging here is that he clearly has good instincts. He knows where to go - he will get his share eventually. He will just have to do a lot of ball drills.
Our tackling also needs to be improved and Coach Mora agrees:
"In order to win consistently and play great defense, you have to be a great tackling defense. Sometimes that is a function of them blocking us out and not being able to get over and not moving our feet quick enough. But whatever it is, we have to go put in some tackling drills in practice and get better at it. I thought it was better than last week.
The number of penalties is a concern. Bruins racked up 11 penalties for 126 yards. Sure couple of the calls were bad, but our guys need to clean up these mistakes, otherwise they will cost us down the road. I don't mind penalties resulting from aggression but can't have this many. Also, we can't have the kind of PI we see from a senior like Aaron Hester. Comeon man.
I do want to use this category to give a special shout out to Jeff Locke. He was simply brilliant - booming our kickoffs and then executing beautifully on punts setting us up with serious field position advantage most of the second half. We have had lot of snark in recent years with the phrase "punting is winning." No one can deny that Locke was a weapon last night and all that had to do with execution.
I will give this category a grade of B+ (3.3).
6) Do we have leaders on the field?
Yes, Sir. That would be our senior TB Jet Ski Franklin, who should emerge as a viable Heisman contender. No doubt at this point that Brett Hundley is in total charge of the offense while Joe Fauria came up with huge scoring plays.
On the defensive side Anthony Barr has emerged as the breakout star. Datone Jones and Owa had big games, as did Andrew Abbot with the huge pick in the second half.
If you recall early during the game week I wondered how the Bruins were going to respond to adversity in a close game against a team like the Huskers. Well we experienced good amount of it in an up and down game for four quarters. Here was Coach Mora's assessment after the game:
"I thought we responded well. We started two true freshmen - one on offense and one on defense. They are very well trained because they pay attention in meetings and are mature beyond their age. When you get in an environment like this, it's intense and you're playing a great opponent and you've got a big crowd and the lights come on, and you can become overwhelmed. You didn't see that with these guys. I'm very proud of them.
Overall, grade for this category is another B+ (3.3).
Final Grade Card for Nebraska Cornhusker
Based on the discussion here is how it shapes up:
1) Is our defense prepared for each and every team we play? [B+: 3.3]
2) Do we call offensive plays to catch our opponents off guard? [A: 4.0]
3) Do our players look like they know what they should be doing at all times? [B: 3.0]
4) Do our players play for 60 G-D minutes every game? [A: 4.0]
5) Do our players execute? [B+: 3.3]
6) Do we have leaders on the field? [B+: 3.3]
Nebraska GPA: 3.48
So that's an improvement from 3.27 from the Rice game and after two games our average is now at 3.38. Again, I will keep bringing this up every week for perspective. Our overall GPA at the end of the regular season was 1.61.
Bottom after two games there is a lot to feel good about our program right now. The numbers are improving across the board while with room for improvement. But before we all get too excited with a record of 2-0, don't forget how we felt just two years ago when the season started with a record of 3-0, including a massive win against Hello Kiffin's Volunteers in Knoxville.
It will be interesting to see how the team comes out against Houston. This is the kind of game Bruins have stumbled in the past either through bad losses or dispiriting sleep-walking, sloppy wins. The way coaches prepare our team this game week, when everyone will want to hype them up, will be very interesting. Onward.