Big Ten Football Preview: Nebraska

Story posted August 28, 2013 in Sports, CommRadio by Aaron Carr

Throughout its storied history the Nebraska football program has been known for its punishing defense that has produced collegiate greats such as Grant Wistrom and Ndamukong Suh.

The 2013 edition of the Nebraska Cornhuskers however, will live and die by their offense that led the Big Ten in total yards last season, including 8th in the country in rushing yards per contest (while scoring nearly 35 points a game).

For all the eye-popping offensive numbers the Huskers put up a season ago, the unit could be even better in 2013, with most of its core returning for one more run to glory.

After three productive seasons, it’s remarkable to think that quarterback Taylor Martinez will still be under center this season in Lincoln.

Martinez, who was named to the Big Ten All-Conference team a season ago by the Big Ten coaches, is the undisputed leader of a Nebraska offense that will define the term “speed kills.”

The redshirt senior quarterback may be the fastest player in college football with the ball in his hands, regardless of position.

Martinez, who topped 1,000 yards rushing last season, also added 10 rushing scores on the ground to bring his career total to a whopping 31.

Third year Nebraska offensive coordinator Tim Beck will once again utilize the spread offense to maximize the skill set of his personnel, which means plenty of designed runs for Martinez who carried the ball nearly 200 times a season ago.

While Nebraska’s quarterback has always been known for his blazing speed, Martinez has now developed into a dependable passer, as evidenced by his career high 23 touchdown passes a year ago.

In addition to the 23 touchdown tosses, Martinez also posted several career bests last season in passing yards (2871), completion percentage (62%) and boasted a passer rating of 141, which topped the Big Ten.

Martinez has been working closely with quarterback guru Steve Calhoun, whose previous students include NFL quarterbacks Nick Foles, EJ Manuel and Kellen Moore, to further aid his development as a passer.

The Corona, California native’s rise from a one-trick pony to an effective field general can also be attributed to Nebraska’s arsenal of gifted receivers including junior wide receiver Kenny Bell (863 yards, 8 TDs in 2012).

A 2012 All-Conference second team selection, Bell is the type of deep threat the Huskers desperately needed in order to keep opposing defenses honest.

His 17.3 yards per reception was fourth best in the Big Ten, and Bell has the speed to keep opposing defenses from constantly stacking the box, while freeing up some defensive attention away from Martinez.

Bell’s downfield wizardry should also help to free up running lanes for running back Ameer Abdullah, who, like Martinez, also topped 1,000 yards rushing last season while adding eight touchdowns.

The Homewood, Alabama native had six 100-yard rushing performances a season ago, including a season-high 167 against Arkansas State.

Nebraska loves to utilize the option out of its spread formation and with two gifted runners in the backfield, Martinez is able to sell fakes longer than most, due to opponents respect for Abdullah.

Although Martinez and company have the speed to more than create running lanes for themselves, they will be escorted on their path to pay dirt by an experience offensive line flanked by 2012 All-American guard and senior captain Spencer Long.

It’s incredible to think that the 6-foot-4, 315 pound Long was a walk-on at Nebraska and received exactly zero Division I scholarship offers out of high school.

Long is an absolute bulldozer at offensive guard and has developed into one of the premier interior lineman in all of college football.

Senior tackle Jeremiah Sirles, whose name has appeared on a few preseason Big Ten All-Conference lists, serves as an imposing bodyguard for Martinez.

The Road to Pasadena: Analyzing the Huskers path to the BCS

To say that Nebraska’s schedule is a tale of two halves would be an understatement.

As is customary for the Huskers under head coach Bo Pelini, the non-conference schedule is not overly taxing with home games versus Wyoming, Southern Mississippi and South Dakota State.

September 14th however, is a date that Huskers fans surely have circled on their calendars as No. 21 UCLA visits Lincoln.

The defending Pac-12 South Division champions defeated Nebraska 36-30 last season when the two teams clashed in Pasadena.

Good news for Nebraska is that UCLA running back Johnathan Franklin, who gashed the Huskers defense to the tune of 217 yards, now plays on Sundays after being selected by the Packers in the fourth round of April’s NFL Draft.

In what could be a potential Rose Bowl sneak peak, UCLA will have two weeks to prepare for the rematch between the two programs.

Nebraska’s conference schedule begins with Illinois, Purdue and Minnesota who each had mediocre, and in Illinois’ case forgettable, seasons a year ago.

The Huskers last five games however, are as tough a stretch as any team in college football will face.

Despite dodging Big Ten foes Wisconsin and Ohio State, Big Red’s last five games consist of, in order, Northwestern, Michigan, Michigan State, Penn State and finally Iowa in the annual Heroes Game.

Big Ten officials didn’t exactly do Nebraska any favors with their season ending stretch that includes two road contests against Michigan and Penn State, two of the most intimidating road trips in college football.

The silver lining of the schedule is, of course, the fact that Nebraska has eight home games compared to four road trips against Purdue, Minnesota and the aforementioned Wolverines and Nittany Lions.

Since the Huskers made the move to the Big Ten in 2011, they have only lost one game at Memorial Stadium, a three-point loss to Northwestern in 2011.

Return of the Blackshirts: Can the Nebraska defense rebound?

For a storied program that hangs its hat on playing shutdown defense, the 2012 Nebraska football team certainly had its fair share of defensive deficiencies.

Pelini, who was the defensive coordinator for the 2007 BCS national champions at LSU, will have to help second year defensive coordinator John Papuchis with overhauling a unit that allowed 28 points a game last season.

In its four losses, Nebraska was torched for 36 points (UCLA), 63 (Ohio State), 70 (Wisconsin, Big Ten title game) and 45 in the Capital One bowl versus Georgia.

There will be plenty of youth in the front seven and both starting safeties will have to be replaced.

The coaching staff has been pleased early on by the speed of its young group of defensive players and hopefully the athleticism may cover up some youthful mistakes.

The talented youngsters will look to two seniors, defensive end Jason Ankrah, and cornerback Ciante Evans, for guidance and direction.

Evans (56 tackles) is the next talented defensive back in a long line of them produced by the Huskers and should help with breaking in two new starters in the secondary.

2013 Forecast in Lincoln: Predicting the Huskers Season

If Pelini and Papuchis can work their defensive magic, then this team is headed to the BCS, and at the very least should win the Legends Division title.

The offense should be as effective as any in the nation and will provide plenty of big plays.

This is a Huskers offense that runs first and asks questions later, leaving defenses exhausted with breakaway speed at the skill positions and road graders in the trenches.

The schedule is user friendly but is also incredibly back-loaded with the final five game stretch.

If Nebraska can escape Pasadena with a win against UCLA then it has an excellent chance of starting the season 7-0 and steamrolling towards the seasons final push.

This team won’t be favored in a potential Big Ten championship matchup against Ohio State, as the Buckeyes simply return too much talent from a team that saw 12 opponents and defeated every one of them a year ago.

Another thing to remember is Nebraska’s recent struggles in conference championship games, as the Huskers are 0-3 in conference title games in Pelini’s five years at the helm, including last seasons blowout loss to Wisconsin in the Big Ten title game.

The upcoming season will be a make or break one for Pelini and company, as the program hasn’t won a conference championship in 13 years and haven’t taken a trip to the BCS since 2002.

If the defensive-minded Pelini and his cast of characters are to reach the promised land, the offense will be driving the BCS bus.

Aaron Carr is a senior majoring in broadcast journalism. To contact him, email adc5230@psu.edu.