Published Monday, January 6, 2014 at 12:30 am / Updated at 1:16 pm
FOOTBALL
McKewon: 2014 Husker offense's lone focus should be protecting defense

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — In the mud and rain of the Gator Bowl, you saw signs of a Nebraska structure that might hold up when vague winds blow next fall. The 24-19 win against Georgia is a mildly encouraging prologue as far as you choose to carry one bowl game into the following season.

Flaws remain. The three concerns — turnovers, special teams and consistent, physical football — are standing for eight more months. But we've combed the flaws into a cobhead-shaped bouffant. We won't forget them. But, this Monday, we'll leave them to focus here:

The Huskers finally appear close to resetting their identity. After recruiting whiffs, assistant transitions, a league change and a dash of hubris nudged Nebraska off the axis for entire chunks of the last three years, a calamity of injuries to the offense left the team no choice but to rely on coach Bo Pelini's bread and butter. And the standard meal still tastes pretty good.

However much time Pelini has at Nebraska, however much he chooses to pay his offensive coordinator — and whoever that coordinator is — Pelini has his recipe.

Protect the defense.

Love it and over-recruit to it. Pat it on the butt. Offensive coordinator Tim Beck should dote on it. Build his attack to serve it. When you have your own head-coaching aspirations — and your boss fully supports an explosive, no-huddle scheme — that can be a challenge. But the No. 1 goal for this offense, if Nebraska's going to get where it wants to go, is to judiciously pick its spots, and let the defense have at least 50 yards to defend before the end zone.

In Nebraska's last five games — Michigan, Michigan State, Penn State, Iowa and Georgia — opponents started 19 drives in Husker territory and scored 82 points. (This includes Penn State's scoreless overtime drive.) Iowa and Michigan State — NU's only home games and only two losses in that stretch — accounted for 12 of those drives and 59 of those points.

Excluding kneel-downs, opponents started 50 drives in their own territory in those five games. They scored 49 points.

Fifty drives, 49 points.

In Michigan State's last five games, excluding kneeldowns, opponents started 56 drives in their own territory — and scored 67 points against the Spartans.

That's a pace Nebraska can believe in.

Georgia repeatedly taxed the Huskers' defense in the Gator Bowl. But Nebraska held. Blame the rain, dropped passes, luck, whatever. Nebraska's defense had a perilously young front seven. Imagine how much better it could be with seasoning and the addition of the nation's top junior college defensive tackle, Terrell Clinkscales.

Presuming he's back — and there's no indication that he won't be — Beck kicked off next year's season with a reasonably protective performance. He took a chance on the 99-yard touchdown pass, but Nebraska's goal-line running game has been so fraught with poor execution, the deep pass might have been the safer call. It was, at worst, a punt.

Beck's on-field operator, Tommy Armstrong, made a single bad throw. Georgia turned that into an interception and a touchdown. If Armstrong eats that throw and takes a sack, I'm not sure Nebraska's threatened in the final five minutes. If the Huskers' offense and special teams can hold serve, Pelini and his defense appear talented and deep enough to drag games into the fourth quarter. Which is all a team can ask for when it wins close games — but averages 3.33 losses by double digits each year since 2011.

The natural inclination is to look at Shawn Watson's turtle-in-a-shell 2009 offense and wince at the idea of its return. I've often suspected the 2010 shift toward quarterback Taylor Martinez — ultimately the right choice for how often he bailed out the Huskers' defense in 2011 and 2012 — revolved around the failure of the 2009 offense to redeem the defense's excellent work. Martinez was instant offense. The 2009 offense might have been part of Pelini's best team, but it's viewed as a wart that, along with referees, cost Big Red the Big 12 title.

Nebraska's attack is now more built for a diverse-but-durable running game. The Huskers run it so much, out of enough different sets, that the play-action pass is a better weapon than it was under Watson, who often needed to bootleg his quarterback — thus cutting off half the field — to get good play-action freezes. I'd like to see Beck incorporate more wide receiver motion — as he did in the Gator Bowl — for next season to help create running lanes for whomever Nebraska has running the ball.

The Huskers' defense continued its growth. The line gummed up the middle, and all three starting linebackers — Michael Rose, David Santos and Zaire Anderson — scraped off blocks and pursued well to Georgia back Todd Gurley. The Bulldogs' passing game was often reduced to crossing routes/pick plays. While the Huskers will need more corners — and probably a new defensive backs coach to lead them — the talent in-house is better than you might think. It's not far off what the Huskers had on the field in 2013. Jonathan Rose and Charles Jackson — two players with huge springs in front of them — simply need to play into their skill sets. It'll take time. But the front seven is there to let it happen.

Which brings the conversation back to Nebraska's offense — back to Pelini and Beck. Will they refit the offense to serve the defense? It's fine to say the Huskers simply will stop turning the ball over one day. But they haven't — for any extended number of games — at any time in Pelini's tenure. The man's won nine per year despite dragging the chain of miscues around with him. At least some of the chain's been made within the structure of an offense that often detracts from Pelini's biggest passion: his defense.

Nebraska's fan base loves good offense, and will hold any coordinator to a lofty standard created by one of game's finest offensive minds, Tom Osborne. But the fans want to win big, too. Pelini coaches his best — he's more dialed in, he's better with the press, everything — when he's pitching to his strength. Defense. And now that Nebraska's adjusted to its new league, and Pelini's righted the recruiting ship on that side of the ball, it's time to see that identity re-emerge.

Fifty drives, 49 points.

On with the Rewind.

I see you

» Running back Ameer Abdullah: Ran for more than 100 in the mud against a defense that knew he was getting the ball. If he departs, backups Imani Cross and Terrell Newby had better improve fast, or Adam Taylor had better be great.

» Anderson: He won't give up playing time easily as a senior. The linebacker tracked and tackled very well in the Gator Bowl.

» Safety Corey Cooper: Quiet key to the defense this year. Played better than any Husker safety since Matt O'Hanlon left the building in 2009. Cooper's set up for a big senior campaign.

» Wide receiver Quincy Enunwa: If he doesn't find a home in the NFL, perhaps in college — as a professor. Smart kid with a tough major — economics.

» Defensive end Randy Gregory: Eat up. Pumas need some fat on them, too.

» Cornerback Stanley Jean-Baptiste: He'll get drafted. Wasn't a corner until the 2011 Ohio State game. Funny how good he got in such a short time.

» Defensive tackle Thad Randle: Played another stout game. Solid end to his career. In contrast to Gregory, I would expect Randle to lose a lot of weight now that he doesn't have to keep it on.

Three questions

» Should Abdullah stay or go? My sports editor made a good point the other day: Abdullah's choice to stay for his senior season or leave for the NFL is an intriguing, insider litmus test on Nebraska's chances in 2014. Abdullah knows his team better than anyone, and if he thinks the Huskers can make a legitimate run to the college football playoff, maybe it's worth sticking around to help make it happen. And restoring Nebraska to that place — while becoming the program's first player to run for 1,000 yards in three seasons — might offset the financial gains of one extra year in the NFL. I can't say, with certainty, that Abdullah's stock is higher now than it ever will be. If he doesn't fumble once next year, and improves as a receiver, will 200 extra carries be that much of a deterrent to NFL teams? It may come down to how many more memories he wants to create in Lincoln — and how many more he thinks the Huskers can create with him there.

» Can Johnny Stanton push Armstrong for the starting quarterback job? Absolutely. I like everything I've seen out of Stanton — and heard about him — since Nebraska started recruiting the kid. He's roughly an inch taller and a few pounds heavier than Armstrong, and he looked good throwing at open bowl practices. Armstrong's advantage lies in the trust he's built with teammates this season. Through no fault of his own, Stanton will have to play catch-up there. It's hard to beat a win at Michigan in terms of experience. But Armstrong as starter is not a foregone conclusion — nor should it be. Limiting turnovers is a key factor in Nebraska's ongoing success, and Armstrong didn't always do that.

» Should Pelini and his assistants get their standard additional year on their contracts? It's pretty standard in the business: Head coaches often have four years left on their contract — in perpetuity — so they can truthfully tell recruits they'll be there for the duration of a recruit's time at School A. We all know: Most don't actually end up there four more years. But that's the business. Four more years on the contract. Assistants like to have two-year contracts for the sake of financial security — I'm sure there's an assistant out there in college carrying around two mortgages and renting an apartment in a third city because of the transient nature of the job — and, again, for recruiting. Fewer than four years for the coach opens the team up to negative recruiting, however minor the impact might be.

Yes, extra years cost money. Fortunately, the Big Ten's paying out a whole lot of it each year to each member school.

Four Stats

» 24.8: Points per game given up by Nebraska's defense. That's tied for 48th nationally. Since the defense ranked 39th in total yards per game, I'm comfortable calling NU a top-50 defense. Perhaps even a top-40 defense considering the improvement the Huskers made as the year progressed. Last year, NU's defense gave up 10 fewer yards per game but 27.6 points per game. So here was a 2013 unit that performed slightly better — despite a fairly hideous start — than the 2012 bunch full of seniors. That's talent.

» 21: Fourth-down attempts faced by the Huskers' defense in 2013. Opponents converted eight of them. The 38.10 percent conversion rate was 23rd nationally. NU finished seventh nationally (31.02 percent) in third-down defense.

» 50: Yards Armstrong's 99-yard touchdown pass to Enunwa traveled in the air. Armstrong was 7 yards into the end zone and Enunwa caught the ball near his own 43.

» 2.92: Sacks per game for Nebraska, good for 13th in the nation. The 38 total sacks is the highest Husker total since 2009. The 93 tackles for loss ties the Huskers with the 2009 bunch.

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Each week, I've asked Husker fans for their takes and posted them here. After this game, I asked NU fans to gauge their overall satisfaction with the season and their hopes for 2014.

» Fred Farrell: “Entire season has an asterisk by it. Injuries led to turnovers led to losses. D was a liability early and we knew that. Beck's play-calling in UCLA game totally exposed them. Excited about next year but would still like to see more attention to detail.”

» Patrick Shannon: “9-4 isn't good enough. I like the potential of 2014's team. Could be a breakout year.”

» Ryan Patrick Anderson: “I don't know how anyone could not be disappointed, but that doesn't mean the answer is to clean house. There were enough positive flashes from our youngin's to feel optimistic for the future. Glad that they ended it on a positive note.”

» Jeff Hamburger: “Bo haters are coming out of the woodwork again today. Last six years, three teams won nine games every year. Bo has as many wins as T.O. had in his first six years. We've played for the conference championship. We've switched conferences. My God, let them have more time.”

» Scott Benedict: “I'm not a fan of Bo and don't honestly believe he'll be successful long term without some of the very changes I heard you reference on the radio a month ago, namely handing off responsibilities and focusing on special teams and fundamentals. That said, it is very hard to argue with the job he did in 2013, losing 80 percent of his offensive line and his three-plus-year starter at QB. Pair that with a very young defense, especially on the line and at linebacker, and to go 9-4 is borderline remarkable. I'll complain like everyone else when we fail, but I have to maintain some objectivity and recognize the good job he did in 2013 with this team.”

» Bill Strom: “My bottom line for the year: The players on this year's team are high-character, easy to cheer for. This season is a good reminder that it is possible to hold two contradicting thoughts at the same time: First, disappointment in light of what could have been, and second, pride in what was.”

» Ryan Wilkins: “Consistency is built on preparedness and composure, and coaching sets the standard for both. Coach Pelini's reappearing sideline tirades and apparent disdain toward fans and media tarnish his (and, in turn, the University's) image, needlessly alienate the program from fans who love and support it, and cannot help recruiting. And his own poise, or lack thereof, cannot be divorced from that of his players — as manifested in persistently near-conference-worst turnover margins, penalties, and special-teams play.”

» Jeff Miedlinger: “For 2014, I expect the Omaha World-Herald writers will continue to use the term 'hot seat' in nearly every article, so much so that it replaces 'selfie' as the most overused word for the year.”

Forecast

The usual cool-down before signing day scuttlebutt heats up.

Contact the writer: Sam McKewon

sam.mckewon@owh.com    |   402-219-3790    |  

Sam McKewon covers Nebraska football for The World-Herald. Got a tip, question or rant? Good. Email him. Follow him on Twitter. Call him.

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