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The Huskers have their sights on Indianapolis in December.
The Nebraska Cornhuskers are 4-2 at the halfway point of the regular season and stand 1-1 in Big Ten play. Bo Pelini’s club is still reeling from a 63-38 loss to Ohio State, and the Huskers will use a much-needed bye week to work on their goal of winning the Legends Division. The NU offense has the firepower to win the league, while the defense must improve greatly from its performance in the first six games. The division race should be very compelling in October and November, and here are five things to watch for Nebraska during the second half of the 2012 campaign.
The Cornhuskers have struggled mightily on this side of the ball, and the issues range from tackling problems to missed assignments within the scheme to keeping composure during adversity. In two losses, Nebraska gave up an alarming 653 total yards to UCLA and 371 rushing yards against the Buckeyes. The defensive deficiencies must stop if NU wants to win its first conference crown since 1999. The Huskers have been solid against the pass and in pressuring opposing quarterbacks, but that will not matter if the nation’s 92nd-rated rush unit does not improve. In fact, Indiana is the only Big Ten squad to give up more rushing yards per game. Pelini and coordinator John Papuchis must use the bye week to solve the defense’s execution issues.
Nebraska received a major scare in the Ohio State game when I-back Rex Burkhead had to leave with a knee injury. The senior runner has already missed the UCLA and Arkansas State games this season, and the Huskers will need their senior leader in league play. Burkhead is expected to return for the October 20 Northwestern game, and his presence along with the emergence of Ameer Abdullah gives Nebraska a formidable rushing tandem that can put up points and dominate the time of possession. The Huskers will also need to manage the carries of quarterback Taylor Martinez, who could wear down if he absorbs too many hits in the second half of this year.
3. Passing Game
The Nebraska passing game has been fairly solid this season, although Martinez’s three interceptions against the Buckeyes is cause for concern. There is not a huge need for tons of yards in the passing attack, but the ability to make first downs and not let opponents key on the run game will be paramount down the stretch. Martinez has been very efficient this season, and he has solid targets in Kenny Bell, Quincy Enunwa and tight end Kyler Reed. The NU offense must continue to carry the team and help keep the defense on the sideline, and continued production in the passing game will assist the Huskers in remaining among the elite scoring offenses in the nation.
Nebraska is 3-8 in its last 11 games away from Memorial Stadium. And while the Huskers have played many top opponents during that stretch, the road woes must change in order to win the Big Ten. NU’s next three games will be huge in the Legends race, and two of those — Northwestern and Michigan State — are on the road. The home contest sandwiched in between is versus Michigan, who blew out Nebraska by a 45-17 mark last season. Martinez’s play has been subpar in many of the aforementioned road losses, but the entire roster must step up during this critical three-game stretch.
5. Pelini stability
We are not trying to suggest a “hot seat” issue here, but another four-loss season would make some in the passionate Nebraska fan base feel like the program has become fairly stagnant. Most schools would love to have those types of “issues”, but the NU tradition under legends like Bob Devaney and Tom Osborne is among the best in the history of college football. While the overall results are still solid, Pelini has a club in his fifth season that has struggled with penalties, turnover margin and porous run defense. With new athletic director Shawn Eichorst taking over, the NU staff could feel some extra pressure. Pelini’s Huskers have an opportunity to fix some issues during the bye week, and they should compete much better on defense down the stretch. The second half of the season will definitely be fun to watch, as Nebraska strives for that elusive league crown.