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-By Daniel Mogollon, Staff Writer; Image: Taylor Martinez is at his best running the football. (Image Source: Dennis Hubbard)
With the college football season nine days away, we continue our top-25 question and answer countdown with No. 16 Nebraska [coaches’ poll].
Head coach Bo Pelini took over a 5-7 team and won nine games in his first season in Lincoln and 10 in year two. His star continued to rise and he had Nebraska in position to win the Big 12 in 2010 with a 10-2 record, but the season ended with a loss to Oklahoma in the Big 12 Championship Game and then to Washington in the Holiday Bowl, against a Huskies team they throttled 56-21 in the regular season. That was their final season in the Big 12. The Cornhuskers took a minor step back in their first Big Ten campaign, one that had high expectations, winning nine games and losing their second straight bowl game. Many predicted a Legends Division title in 2011, however Nebraska went just 5-3 in conference play, including a pair of blowout losses at Wisconsin [48-17] and at Michigan [45-17]. Pelini and the program enter the 2012 season with something to prove.
Nebraska’s Biggest Question: One-Dimensional Offense
Once upon a time, either at Nebraska or in the Big Ten, you could win big with three yards and a cloud of dust, but those days are long gone in Lincoln, as well as in the conference that now has 12 teams, two divisions and a championship game. The Big Ten isn’t the pass-happy Big 12, but this isn’t the conference of Bo and Woody either. The winners of the Legends and Leaders divisions—Michigan State and Wisconsin—finished second and fourth in the conference in passing. Nebraska was tenth and 104th in the nation.
In his sophomore campaign, Taylor Martinez completed just 56.3 percent of his passes and finished ninth in the Big Ten in pass efficiency. His 13 touchdown passes were 20 fewer than Russell Wilson, who led the Badgers to the Big Ten title. While the signal caller has been lauded for his work ethic and improved footwork, at times his mechanics were a mess and he’s never going to be known for his strong arm, because he doesn’t have one. If Nebraska is going to compete for a Big Ten title in year two, Martinez will have to improve as a passer.
It’s hard to judge the Cornhuskers pass catchers considering they were a run-first and sometimes a run-second and third offense. Not to mention Martinez’s issues. However, over the last two years, he hasn’t received much help from his wide outs either. Kenny Bell flashed oodles of potential as a freshman last season and could be a playmaker ready to bust loose in his sophomore campaign. But whom else does Nebraska have that strikes fear in the opposition? Their second-leading receiver is also back, but Quincy Enunwa only made 22 receptions for 293 yards and two scores a year ago. Pretty paltry numbers for the modernized Big Ten.
Nebraska’s Best Answer: Taylor Martinez/Rex Burkhead
While they are still searching for the success of teams of Cornhuskers past, the 2012 squad is reminiscent of some of the legendary Nebraska units. Sure, they need the passing game to take the next step, but the ground attack will remain the bread and butter in Lincoln.
What Martinez has lacked with his arm, he has made up for with his legs in his first two years at Nebraska and he’s well on his way to putting his name in the record book next to the likes of Cornhusker legends Tommie Frazier and Eric Crouch among running quarterbacks and in total offense. Martinez rushed for 874 yards last year and 965 yards as a freshman, with 21 career rushing touchdowns. He lacks the pure speed of Denard Robinson, but make no mistake, he’s a playmaker in the open field.
A year after sharing the running back duties with Roy Helu Jr., Rex Burkhead took over the bell-cow role as a junior and never looked back, leading the Cornhuskers with 1,357 yards, 4.8 yards per carry and 15 scores on the ground. The Texas native has very good size at 210 pounds, he’s a tough physical runner, who rarely goes down on first contact and is sneaky quick in the open field. Burkhead may lack elite speed, but is an otherwise all-around productive runner.
Behind the rushing of Martinez and Burkhead, the Cornhuskers finished third in the Big Ten in running the football and 15th in the nation. While the Big Ten has become more of a passing league over the years, the top two rushing teams—Wisconsin and Michigan—both played in BCS Bowls last season, so building upon a solid ground attack is still a good way to be successful in the Big Ten.
The Top 25 Countdown:
Daniel Mogollon is a member of the Pro Football Writers of America and the Football Writers Association of American. He is also a voter for the Thorpe and the Rotary Lombardi Award, as well as the Latino Sports MVP Awards.
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