A trip to Lincoln, Nebraska is not on the list of places many college football teams would pick to open the season. Nebraska hasn’t lost a home season opener since 1985 (a 17-13 loss to Florida State) and this is where the Cowboys will start their 2013 campaign. There is good news though for the Pokes, this current Huskers team isn’t your grandfathers, fathers or even older brothers Nebraska program. The Nebraska mystique has been gone since 2001 and the Big Red are currently just another college football program with a rich and storied tradition. Nebraska is no longer feared and the days of Tom Osborne running a triple option attack are a distant memory. It is a tough ask but there are several factors that should give Wyoming hope that they can pull off an upset at (the other) Memorial Stadium come August 31st.
Bo Pelini is a defensive oriented coach and over the last four seasons his defense has become progressively worse since the loss of the NFL quality talent that was recruited by previous head coach Bill Callahan. In 2009 Nebraska had the number one ranked scoring defense in the nation allowing just 10.4 points per game and have since slipped to 9th (17.4), 42nd (23.4) and 58th last season (27.6). I wouldn’t expect the Nebraska defense to improve this season having lost eleven seniors from the two deep depth chart that saw significant playing time last year. Even with an experienced defense Nebraska gave up over 35 points four times last season, with so many new players in the mix the 2013 Nebraska defense is one in transition.
Why the decline? There are two reasons. First, Pelini isn’t as good of a recruiter as Bill Callahan was and second the system Pelini uses takes several years for players to feel comfortable in. Bo is a stubborn coach who prefers to play those who have a grasp of the entire defensive system even if a player is much less athletic than those behind him who may not have a complete understanding of the defense. This lack of overall athleticism has limited Nebraska’s defensive play making ability and last season they ranked just 65th in fumbles recovered, 48th in tackles for loss and 44th in interceptions marks well below those of a top notch Husker defense the program is used to having.
Dave Christensen is an experienced game planner and he is sure to borrow concepts from UCLA, Ohio State, Wisconsin and Georgia that saw the Huskers give up an average of 53.5 points per game last season. In those contests the Nebraska opposition did a great deal of pre-snap shifting. This caused the Nebraska defense to not be aligned properly as they looked towards the sideline for guidance while the ball was being snapped. This resulted in big play after big play for the offense due to misalignments and blown assignments. Another area teams took advantage of were the edges of the Husker defense. Toss plays were ran to the outside of the Nebraska defense as well as wheel patterns in the passing game in the flats to running backs and tight ends with great success. Look for Christensen and his staff to test Nebraska in these two areas early and often.
Statistically speaking Taylor Martinez on the surface looks like a pretty good college quarterback (3,890 yards of total offense with 33 TDs last season). The truth is Martinez is a below average passer, that pads his stats versus lower competition who turns the ball over too much. In 39 career games Martinez has turned the ball over 42 times (27 interceptions and 15 fumbles) while fumbling the ball an astonishing 32 additional times that Nebraska recovered. You would be hard pressed to find another program in the country who would commit to playing a quarterback who was so careless with the football.
Martinez also has many flaws as a passer, a poor throwing motion that looks more like a shot put than a proper release, he throws off his back foot, he stares down his primary receiver and has a hard time reading defensive coverages (especially intermediately over the middle). These are all factors Wyoming can take advantage of and the Cowboys can limit Martinez’s production and force him into the mistakes he has so often made by doing the following things:
1. Play bracket coverage on the outside receivers and force him to throw over the middle where he has not been proven to be an accurate passer.
2. Keep Martinez in the pocket with a containment philosophy that does not blitz often. Blitzing is the only way Martinez will hurt you on the ground. He only has elite straight line speed and does not have the ability to make people miss in the hole or in the open field. By blitzing you give him a wide lane to run through if the blitz is picked up and he will hurt you.
3. Mix up your coverages. Martinez has a hard time reading a defense presnap and Wyoming’s switch to the 3-4 (with no film on it for Nebraska to look at) could give the Cowboys an advantage in confusing Martinez by masking coverages where the fourth pass rusher is coming from.
So there you have it, if Wyoming can take advantage of the weaknesses I have outlined above the Cowboys could be making national headlines come Saturday night.