Big 12 days in Nebraska's rear-view window

Huskers balance defensive woes with dynamic offensive attack

Iowa linebacker James Morris (44) pulls Nebraska quarterback Taylor Martinez (3) to the ground during the first half of their  game Friday, Nov. 23, 2012 at Kinnick Stadium. (Brian Ray/The Gazette-KCRG)
Iowa linebacker James Morris (44) pulls Nebraska quarterback Taylor Martinez (3) to the ground during the first half of their  game Friday, Nov. 23, 2012 at Kinnick Stadium. (Brian Ray/The Gazette-KCRG)

CHICAGO -- Nebraska's Big 12 days are so far out of sight, quarterback Taylor Martinez needs binoculars to see them and a diary to recall them.

The Cornhuskers enter year three as a Big Ten member and media questions about their transition this summer have dwindled somewhere between few and random. Only the fans remember the Big 12. The players and coaches choose to look forward.

"I don’t think it was very difficult (adjustment) at all," Martinez said. "Football’s football. You’ve just got to go out there and play and have fun. Pretty much the defense has to adjust to your offense."

The results for Nebraska's first two Big Ten seasons blended success with failure. Overall, Nebraska is 19-8 and earned the Legends Division title last year. Twice the Cornhuskers have advanced to the Capital One Bowl, the league's top destination outside the Bowl Championship Series. They've beaten every Big Ten team they've faced at least once over the two seasons. That includes traditional powers and contenders Ohio State, Michigan, Penn State, Wisconsin, Iowa and Michigan State.

But the scars are jagged and nasty, especially on the road. Nebraska is 6-7 away from Memorial Stadium. The Cornhuskers gave up 337 points in those seven losses, an average of 48.1 points. That includes 63 points at Ohio State, 48 at Wisconsin, 45 at Michigan and against Georgia. There also was a 70-point bomb Wisconsin dropped in last year's Big Ten title game.

Nebraska was outscored 503-278 in games away from Memorial Stadium and had 30 turnovers compared to 13 for their opponents.

"There's always going to be an adjustment period for teams going through, going into a conference for the first time," Nebraska Coach Bo Pelini said. "And that's going to be there. There's no hiding from that."

With those numbers, Nebraska's defense has taken the brunt of scrutiny. Pelini is a former defensive coordinator with a Big Ten and SEC pedigree. It's surprising for a program with a storied history of defensive excellence — see the Blackshirts era — but it's a tradition slightly tattered over the last decade.

Pelini bristles at suggestions that the defense's problems are schematically based.

"It's nothing magical," he said. "It's about getting better. It's about tackling better, executing better. It's not a scheme thing.

"At the end of the day you have to execute. And when those things happen, they happen for a reason. We've studied it.  We've addressed it.  Going to continue to work and we need to be better, more consistent than we were last year."

There are some major question marks -- and opportunities -- for Nebraska's defense. Only two starters return in the front seven, and the Huskers lose their top five tacklers from last season. In fact, only two of Nebraska's top 10 tacklers come back, and both are cornerbacks.

"I’m concerned about their defense," ESPN college football analyst Kirk Herbstreit said. "Last year they gave up a lot of big plays. They lost some experience, they lost seven defensive starters from that defense. As we sit here right now before seeing that new defense, it’s only fair to wonder are they going to be better even though there’s a lot of new faces on that side of the ball?

"I know that Bo is one of the better defensive minds in the game, and I know it had to drive him crazy, not just last year, but the year before, where some of the games did not look like Nebraska's defense."

But the Cornhuskers counter with the Legends Division's most explosive offense. Martinez, a four-year starter, owns the school record for quarterback starts with 39. He rallied Nebraska from four second-half, double-digit deficits to victory. Martinez has passed for nearly 6,600 yards and rushed for 2,858. He's combined for 77 touchdowns.

Martinez's totals of 3,890 total yards and 33 total touchdowns last year are Nebraska records. He guided the league's top rushing attack at 253.4 yards per game. He's the focal point of every defense, yet he still produces.

"I know that they always have to account for me so they’re going to put an extra two or three guys on me," Martinez said. "If you guys ever go back and watch the game plans, it’s crazy how many guys they put on me when I’m rushing the football. There’s always guys keying me in weird spots, the safeties, or the corners."

The offense remains dynamic. The top three receivers, including one of the league's best in Kenny Bell, all come back. Leading rusher Ameer Abdullah returns as the focal running back after splitting carries with Rex Burkhead. Three starting offensive linemen return, and guard Spencer Long might be the league's best interior player.

"I feel good about where our guys are scheme-wise and their knowledge of Coach (Tim) Beck's offense and what he wants to do," Pelini said. "And I'm looking forward to our offense. I think they have — I wouldn't trade our offense for anybody. I really like what we're doing."

Nebraska's Big Ten schedule lightens with Illinois and Purdue replacing Ohio State and Wisconsin. Nebraska plays all of its non-conference games at home, including a pivotal week-three match-up against Pac-12 contender UCLA. The Legends title could come down to a three-week stretch where the Huskers face Northwestern, travel to Michigan, then host Michigan State. Bottom line, the defense will dictate the team's final record and bowl destination.

"We're going to get what we earn," Pelini said. "We understand that. We understand that the challenges are going to be there from the first week, all right on through, and we're looking forward to everything that lies ahead." 

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