So, I would be lying if I said that I wasn’t a little nervous about the Huskers being officially welcomed to the Big 10 tonight by the Wisconsin Badgers. I mean, we Husker faithful have been glued to every game since week 1, and well, we’ve definitely seen some things that made us worry–missed tackles, a bumbling secondary, and a whole lot of fumbles. But perhaps it is the three things that we haven’t seen a lot of that should be greater cause for concern–those signature Taylor Martinez running plays, some solid Blackshirt defense, and a red-faced Bo Pelini yelling on the sidelines.
I’ll start with Martinez. Here is a kid that I honestly feel has a whole lot of potential. He’s got a good arm, and you’d be hard pressed to find a quarterback playing college ball right now that could beat Martinez in a foot race. Better yet, he’s not just fast, he’s elusive. He can duck and juke and and slip through almost nonexistent holes in the line and make it look like child’s play. We’ve been watching this kid for a year now, and there’s a reason that we fans got excited when we saw what he could do on the field. There’s only one problem though–everyone else was watching too, and it didn’t take our opponents long to start fighting back.
The problem I see with Martinez is a lack of maturity and confidence on the field. There is no doubt in my mind that this kid has the talent to be a really great quarterback, but first he needs to decide that he actually wants to lead this team. Football has always been a game of momentum. Great plays lead to greater plays. Big tackles lead to bigger tackles. And hard fought victories lead to truly amazing seasons. Martinez took Husker Nation (and the rest of the nation) by storm when the 2010 season began, putting up big numbers and showing off his speed and agility. Then, he got cocky and downright farsighted in his approach, like he was striving to be a hero instead of the leader the team really needed. When an unfortunate injury put a noticable chink in his armor, everything just started to fall apart.
Watching Martinez through these first 5 weeks of the season, something just isn’t right. Moments of greatness are followed by moments of glaring inconsistency. We’ve seen long accurate passes followed by inexcusable fumbles, amazing scrambles for long gains followed by sloppy sidearm passes that are picked off with ease by the opposing defenses. In tonight’s shellacking by the Wisconsin Badgers, I watched Martinez throw three gut-wrenching interceptions, and it was like deja vu–Martinez drops back, scrambles, starts to run, then apparently changes his mind and heaves the ball across his body without taking the split second he needs to set his feet, and suddenly the ball is in the hands of a member of the Wisconsin secondary. Had Martinez committed to the run, I’m certain that he could have broken the line and run for a first down, if not more. Had he committed to the pass and taken a moment to set his feet and square his body, I think the he would have been rewarded with a number of completions and quite a few more points on the board.
And perhaps that is Martinez’s biggest problem this year–his lack of commitment. Just as there is no crying in baseball, there is no hesitating on the football field. Know your plays, know your teammates, and know your options, because as soon as that ball is snapped you’ve got one Mississippi, two Mississippi, three Mississippi to make a decision and stick with it. It’s do or die out there gentlemen, and tonight we didn’t see a whole lot getting done.
And while we’re on the subject of a whole lot not getting done, it’s time to talk about the Blackshirt defense. The tradition behind the Blackshirts is a rich one, and I encourage you to read more about it if you’re unfamiliar by clicking HERE. For over 40 years now, Nebraska’s Blackshirt defense has made a name for itself as one of the most dominant in college football. Even when we have had some really tough years offensively, our Blackshirt defense has made Nebraska a force to be reckoned with.
This year, however, I’m not sure whether our defensive players have really even earned their black shirts. In just 5 games, Husker opponents have scored 160 points. That’s an average of 32 points a game.
This isn’t the NBA people. Allowing the opposing team to score an average of 32 points a game is pretty much committing defensive sucide in most sports, football included. Between the missed tackles and our opponent’s receivers having enough space to show off their ballroom dancing moves in our secondary, it’s a wonder that we’ve actually been able to keep our average points against at just 32.
Don’t get me wrong, I have an enormous amount of respect for our defense and for the vital role they play in each and every game. I’m not ignorant enough about football to believe that any game can be won by the offense alone, but I have to admit that what I am seeing from Nebraska’s Blackshirt defense this year is starting to scare me. Something just isn’t clicking out there, and it’s resulting in a whole lot of preventable touchdowns.
The way I see it, playing good defense is all about learning to read your opponents and learning to listen to your intuition. No matter how good the opposing offense is, it is always possible to stop them, but first you need to settle down and start paying attention. A fine-tuned offense is a lot like a symphony being played renowned orchestra. There may be some changes in rhythm or some pauses along the way, but there is always a pattern. There is always a somewhat natural progression of notes and chords and cadence. Learn to recognize the rhythm and you can find a way to disrupt it. Learn to anticipate the changes and you can write your own melody.
I think the biggest mistake defensive players can make is to simply react. If that’s all you’re doing when you take the field against your opponent, then you have already lost. Instead of simply reacting, good defensive players must follow Ghandi’s advice and “be the change [they] want to see”. Forcing fumbles, stopping runs, and intercepting passes are not reactions, they are actions. Good defensive players don’t just sit back and wait for things to happen, they make things happen. They incite. They ignite. And, most importantly, they light a fire beneath the rest of the team.
And if there is anything the 2011 Huskers are missing, it’s that fire.
That being said, it’s time to talk about Bo Pelini.
There are few people in this world who can get more visibly fired up than Bo Pelini. If I were making a Top 5 list, Pelini would rank right up there with Lewis Black, MeatLoaf (after being locked in room with Gary Busey), a ‘roid-raging Danny Bonaduce and Adolf Hitler.
The thing that sets Pelini apart, though, is that his rage is always justified. See, Pelini is a guy who loooooooves football. For him, it’s not just about winning. It’s about going out there and giving it absolutely everything you’ve got, and then some. If Pelini is giving one of his players a verbal bashing on the sideline, then you can be sure that player deserves it. Maybe he wasn’t paying attention and ended up jumping offsides, or maybe he was too busy planning his route to run for the touchdown before he’d even made sure that he caught the ball. See, Pelini knows that ridiculous, careless mistakes can be the difference between a win or a loss that week, and when he catches one of his players making one, it’s his job to get that player’s attention and make sure he doesn’t do it again.
And yeah, maybe Pelini has done his fair share of yelling at the referees too, but I doubt he has ever said anything to those officials that you or I haven’t screamed from our living rooms as we watched blatant holds get overlooked or a magic second get added to an expired clock in a conference championship game.
If you ask me, guys like Bo Pelini are what real coaching is all about. As a coach, it is your job to motivate and inspire, to counsel and critique, to teach and correct. As a coach, it is your job to help an otherwise ordinary player tap into his potential and to mold an immature squad into a fine-tuned machine. You don’t forge steel with gentle nudges and delicate hands–you use force and fire. And you don’t lead an army to defeat an enemy with smiles and a soft-spoken request to “do your best”–you train them and test them and push them to the very edge before you can finally be sure that they are ready to be unleashed and hold their own in the battle. Anything less and you might as well just tied them up, blindfold them and lock them in a room with a pack of hungry wolves.
Sadly, this season, Pelini seems to have lost a bit of his fire. Maybe he is just a little reserved as he focuses on assimilating our Huskers into their new conference. And maybe he is still feeling the sting of being publicly admonished for a few rather candid displays of emotion during nationally televised games last season. Whatever the issue, I hope he clears it up fast, because our Huskers need someone who can light a little fire beneath them this season if we hope to make more than just a lackluster debut as the newest member of the Big 10. Come on, Pelini, let’s get this party started!
We Huskers have a long season still stretching out before us, and we have far too much talent and determination and pride to let it end the way it did tonight in Madison. So, let’s learn our lessons from this loss and head into this next week of practice with a renewed sense of ourselves, our strengths, our weaknesses and our goals. Let’s go, Big Red! We’re all right here behind you.