Is Nebraska Back in National Championship Hunt?
BY TODD NEELEY
Any doubts about how good Nebraska is pretty much vanished on a sunny day in Seattle Saturday. OK, not to mistake this Jake Locker-led Washington team for the same one that came back on Nebraska in Lincoln during a national title run in the ’90s, but playing in Seattle is a tough chore no matter what.
What we saw yesterday was a poised redshirt freshman quarterback, a powerful Husker running game and a stingy defense that made the expected top pick in the NFL draft look like an amateur in Nebraska’s 56-21 win. This isn’t to say it was the perfect game, but it just had the feel of Husker dominance of old.
There was a time in mid ’90s when you had no doubt about the outcome everytime Nebraska stepped on the field. You just expected NU to step on the field and call the score.
The biggest question mark heading into Saturday’s contest was whether Nebraska’s offense was really as good as it seemed in the first two games. Well, against the Huskies it was even better. The penalties virtually disappeared, NU took much better care of the ball, and Bo Pelini’s defense continues to show why it is the best unit in college football.
Redshirt freshman Taylor Martinez was the best player on the field Saturday, and if he’s not already raising eyebrows on a national scale he should be. Should he be a Heisman Trophy candidate? Not yet, but Martinez’ speed continues to garner attention. And most importantly, Martinez didn’t flinch once although the noise in Seattle was deafening.
Martinez made big, big plays on national television, on the road in a loud and hostile environment, and he put to rest anymore discussion about who is Nebraska’s quarterback for the next four years.
Although Bo played close to the vest about the quarterback spot all through fall camp, there’s no way he can make the case that it is a close race between Martinez, Cody Green and Zac Lee.
Pelini wanted to protect his young quarterback — it’s the only reason he told the media where to go during fall camp.
Barring injury, Martinez should make a serious run at the Heisman starting in his sophomore season. What’s more, the guy is nowhere near being polished as a quarterback. That’s what makes the kid so dangerous.
The sky is the limit.
The same goes for the Nebraska football program as a whole.
As history has shown, Pelini’s defenses only get better as the season goes on, and this unit already is pretty dang good. The only thing that kept Nebraska from making a run at a national title last season was its offense.
It makes you wonder if coaches could have somehow gotten Martinez ready to play as a true freshman?
Let’s not get too carried away here. Washington clearly has one of the worst defenses in the Pac 10 and I thought Locker was a huge letdown in one of the biggest games he’s played in awhile. I definitely thought this game would go well into the fourth quarter, but Locker and the Huskies just didn’t stack up.
Nebraska’s defense is good, but it’s time to stop buying into the Locker hype. He’s not ready for the NFL.
NU proved it can be a great road team and maybe a national title contender.
That Thursday night game against Kansas State in Manhattan will be a better test for Nebraska. The Wildcats have a formidable running game and are well-coached. Still, you’ll be hard pressed to find a tougher road game for Nebraska the rest of the way.
Suddenly the trips to College Station and Stillwater don’t seem as daunting. When you combine the running prowess of Rex Burkhead and Roy Helu Jr., along with Martinez and his ability to beat teams throwing as well, it’s a no-brainer that this team is built for the road.
Where can Nebraska improve?
Probably the one area is in the deep passing game. Right now Nebraska hasn’t had to throw deep because of a staggering running game. To compete for a national title NU will have to show it can hurt teams with the pass.
Defensively, though the defensive line has played well, this unit hasn’t dominated every down like it wants. Not to nitpick — it’s difficult to find anything wrong with this team.
Then you throw in the play of the special teams led by Alex Henery, and Nebraska has the potential to dominate every game.
Now, if Nebraska can dismantle KSU, Texas A&M and Oklahoma State on the road, and handle Texas in Lincoln, NU will be sitting pretty in the national picture.