Off-schedule, outgained, and very nearly on-the-ropes.
That was just the first half of No. 18 Nebraska’s narrow 37-34 win over Wyoming.
If you thought the scare stats from 2012 were a thing of the past, that wasn’t the case in week one. Wyoming rolled to 602 total yards on Saturday, not as bad as last year’s Big Ten championship game (640 yards) or the UCLA game (653) but the Cowboys aren’t exactly the Badgers or Bruins either.
“I don’t think the effort was poor, the guys played hard,” defensive coordinator John Papuchis said. “We gave up 300 yards rushing and 300 yards passing, there’s a lot of improvement to do in every aspect of what we do.”
But the total yards weren’t the worst of it. Wyoming, behind the brilliant play of quarterback Brett Smith, tallied 35 first downs. That’s the most in school history. Another record – and not the kind a team wants – falls.
The Cowboys averaged an astonishing 9.98 yards per play on first down. Wyoming picked up 22 of its record 35 first downs on first down. It’s hard to have success as a defense that way.
And here’s the alarming thing if you follow the Huskers: First down is the chess match of football. A clean slate for both sides. Everything’s even meaning that success or failure on first down comes down to scheme, talent, and match-ups.
Nothing about Wyoming’s success in that specific phase of the game reflects well on Nebraska right now.
“I haven’t changed my assessment of what this team needs to be defensively,” coach Bo Pelini said following the game. “I still think we’re going to be just fine. It wasn’t like we just got overpowered at times. There were just some things that we didn’t react to, which is an experience thing. Maybe an understanding thing.”
Pelini will be one of the few sticking to his view of the Huskers’ defense in the days to come. It was getting trashed on Twitter before the game was an hour old. The boys on College Game Day will mention the numbers next week. Nebraska will likely drop, slightly, in the polls. That’s the speed of the college football universe these days. It’s almost instant.
And that might be the best thing for Nebraska’s beleaguered defenders right now. For anyone who’s not invested in the Huskers’ fortunes this season, they’ve already been written off. Forgotten. Fans of rival Big Ten teams will see the stats, laugh, and move on. Some Nebraska fans might too.
But here’s the truth: Nebraska’s defense didn’t need to be good in week one. Many hoped it would be. The coaches were cautiously optimistic, but it didn’t have to be good on Saturday. Nebraska still won.
The Huskers defense likely won’t have to be great next week either. Southern Miss lost to Texas State at home this week. Nebraska’s offense, despite some early game sluggishness, put up 500 yards and had four players rush for more than 75 on Saturday. It is good enough to carry a lot of the load.
The defense will have to be better, however, in two weeks when UCLA and another mobile quarterback with experience visits. But it’s not two weeks from now. Given the youth Nebraska is playing on that side of the ball, weeks feel like years.
“Opening games are very, very frustrating,” Papuchis said. “Unless you’re just physically, overwhelmingly more talented than the team you’re going against, opening days are hard. My brother is a coach now at K-State and I guarantee you they’d rather be 1-0 than 0-1. I’ll take the 1-0 but we gotta get much better.”
Nebraska wasn’t much better on Saturday but Saturday wasn’t the season.
That’s not an apology for how the team played, it’s reality. Sometimes reality is disappointing.
Just like the win over Wyoming.