As far as off weeks go, sticking one right in the middle of a football season is nice for symmetry. Nebraska has six games in the books, and six more to go so now seems as good a time as any to evaluate the Huskers on a unit-by-unit basis.
By definition, traditional letter grades signify specific levels of achievement, or lack thereof, on a 100-point scale but for the purposes of this report card, we’ll be grading the Huskers on progress as much as anything else. The baseline expectation coming in was to win the division title — a realistic expectation based on the experience Nebraska returned — so everything that follows is based on the following question: Is this specific unit bringing the team closer to that expectation or pushing them further away?
Today we’ll tackle the offense, tomorrow the defense.
QUARTERBACK — Statistically speaking, Taylor Martinez is actually putting the “dual” in dual-threat quarterback this season. Martinez ranks third in the Big Ten in passer rating, second in completion percentage, first in yards per attempt, and first in touchdown passes. That’s all progress over previous years. As a runner, he still displays plenty of big play potential. At the halfway mark, he has five touchdowns after rushing for nine as a sophomore and 12 as a freshman. He’s averaging 56.33 rushing yards per game, down from the previous two years but his 4.97 yards per attempt is slightly better than 2011. All in all, numbers anyone can like but here’s two you can’t: four interceptions and eight fumbles (four lost). Maybe this is too reactionary based on what happened last week, but the biggest thing slowing Nebraska’s offense down is turnovers. At this point, two-and-a-half seasons into Martinez’s career, I think its fair to wonder if his big risk, big reward style of quarterbacking is holding Nebraska back. With this running game, what would the Nebraska offense look like with a simple game manager who prized possession over everything else, particularly in big games? Just knowing that that question still exists says everything. FINAL GRADE: C
RUNNING BACK/FULLBACK — It’s hard to think what the Nebraska backs could be doing better right now beyond holding onto the football slightly more. The Huskers lead the Big Ten in rushing and rank sixth nationally. Even if you were to removed Martinez’s rushing output, Nebraska would still be second in the conference and 12th nationally. The fullbacks have been more of a mixed bag but with Andy Janovich emerging as a prototypical fullback, there’s little reason to dock the overall grade based on that alone. FINAL GRADE: A
WIDE RECEIVER/TIGHT END — This is another group that’s been as good as advertised. Kenny Bell ranks third in the conference with 77.2 yards per game and is emerging as a legitimate all-conference type receiver. Perhaps the best pure receiver Nebraska’s had in quite some time and he’s only a sophomore. Quincy Enunwa remains a rock-solid blocker and good possession receiver while Jamal Turner still show flashes of pure excitement with limited touches. Even Steven Osborne has elevated his game in limited snaps. You know the tight ends are probably more talented than they’ve been able to show in six games, but there are only so many passes to go around. Drops haven’t been a major issue to date. FINAL GRADE: A-
OFFENSIVE LINE — Nebraska’s 2012 offensive line isn’t a group that will go down in history but so far they’ve probably been good enough. They’re leading the way for the Huskers highly effective ground game and that’s really what they’re built to do. Spencer Long is developing into a really solid player and the Cole Pensick/Seung Hoon Choi combo gives the Huskers pretty good guard play game in and game out. Tackle is a bit of a bigger problem. The combo of Brent Qvale, Andrew Rodriguez, and Jeremiah Sirles is merely average through six games and has looked woefully overmatched at times against BCS conference opponents. The Huskers have the second most sacks allowed in the Big Ten, averaging two per game. The real question with this unit is will Nebraska be able to run the ball when teams, like Ohio State, really gear up to stop the run. FINAL GRADE: B-
COACHING — This is truly the toughest grade to give out. In year two under Tim Beck, the Nebraska offense shows flashes of brilliance. It also shows periods of stubbornness. On the good side, Beck has to be a nightmare to prepare for. Nebraska puts a lot of formations on film and runs new plays each week out of almost all of them. On the bad side, some of Martinez’s struggles could probably be limited by simply giving him easier throws to make. It’s hard to evaluate Martinez given the ups and downs. One week it looks like you can take the reins off, the next it looks like it’s time to reel him in. Beck has to have a better grasp on that than anyone. Still, the offense is one of the best weapons in the conference and that’s enough to give Beck more than a passing game. FINAL GRADE: B
Tally it all up, and Nebraska’s offense as a whole is in the B/B+ range. If the offense could get out of its own way, minimizing penalties and turnovers, it could be an A very easily so if you want to really delve into the report card rhetoric, Nebraska might be deserving of the dreaded “great potential, doesn’t apply itself” tag.
It’s not failing but it’s not all positive either.