Previously on “The Drive” we’ve discussed individual moments in team’s failures including my own North Carolina Tar Heels’ last five plays in their fruitless effort to tie the game at Georgia Tech and the Mississippi State Bulldogs coming up just short of taking Auburn to overtime. This week though, we’re expanding “The Drive” from just a zeroing in on one series to looking at Nebraska’s entire first half in this past Saturday’s loss to Wisconsin.
Before we get into the numbers, play selection and what ultimately was the downfall of Tim Beck, Taylor Martinez and the Nebraska Cornhuskers’ offense let me remind you of what was said prior to the game in our Match Up Of The Week:
“Wisconsin’s biggest issue is the edge of their defense. “The edge” meaning both their contain and their perimeter defense. There are openings to hit the corner of this Wisconsin defense and play in space and make a team, one that is strong up the middle, tackle and pursue on the edge.”
That was not some big trade secret, every analyst that discussed the game going in hit on the Huskers need to work the edges of the Badgers’ defense. The need for Nebraska to keep Wisconsin guessing and avoid becoming a one dimensional football team. Utilize the strengths of the talented sophomore Taylor Martinez, running and play action passing, and not accentuate the kid’s weakness, dropping back play after play to throw the ball.
The Black Shirts were not going to put a cap on Wisconsin’s offensive attack alone, they needed Martinez and the Husker offense to score points as they got stops where they could to try and hold this behemoth of an offense. By hitting the perimeter of the defense, capitalizing on play action and tempo the Nebraska offense was fully capable of scoring points. In fact, the Cornhuskers proved as much in their first “two-ish” drives (“two-ish” because of the extension of the first drive thanks to a fumble on the punt return).
Fourteen points in the first 20:12 of the ball game, none of which were “gimme” points or the type scored off of busted plays, interception, fumble or special teams touchdowns. Legitimate scoring drives of nine and ten plays are how the Huskers got on the board.
Nothing. Not another legitimate drive until late in the third when the boys from Lincoln were already down 27 and the game was decided.
So what changed? Where did Tim Beck and the Huskers go wrong?
The reason we’re looking at the first half is because here is where the wheels truly fell off for the Cornhuskers. You can see the panic set in and the team come unglued starting up in the coaches box and trickling down on to the field. Forget Bo Pelini yelling at his defense for missed tackles or blown coverages, this Wisconsin offense was going to infuriate them regardless. Instead focus in on the stark contrast in plays ran during the first three drives with those plays trotted out in the Huskers’ last four drives of the half.
In their first three drives Nebraska was superb; they built a 14-7 lead, were moving the ball at will against the Badgers defense, they were forcing the issue and dictating the pace while Martinez was running the show comfortably. To put that into numbers for all of you “stat people” the Huskers had 130 yards of offense in 25 plays on drives of 17, 39 and 74 yards lasting 6, 9 and 10 plays respectively. 5.2 yards per play. The Cornhuskers also boasted an incredibly healthy 17:8 run to pass ratio during this short lived stint of success.
Everything is aces. Thanks to a missed extra point when Nebraska gets the ball back at the 9:48 mark in the second quarter they still have a one point lead and this game is as much their’s as it is Wisconsin’s to win. The Badgers’ haven’t stopped the Huskers since the initial 17 yard drive and the last time Nebraska had the ball Taylor Martinez drove them down the field on a 10 play 74 yard touchdown campaign.
Keep doing what you’re doing. Hit the edges of this defense. Once you’ve got them reeling come back and let Martinez complete easy passes over the middle or work some play action downfield. Above all else work your option and toss sweep game, keep running the football. It was all working just as people believed it could.
Except that is not what Nebraska decided to do.
At the 9:48 mark of the second quarter the Huskers got cute. Abandoned the gameplan. Most notably they asked Taylor Martinez to become something he is not and Tim Beck abandoned the run. To end the half Nebraska got the ball four more times, ran fourteen plays and gained a total of 53 yards or 3.8 yards per play. Equally as disturbing as the overall drop off in production is the 2:14 run to pass ratio that Nebraska posted in their final four drives.
In those first drives, the ones where Nebraska moved the football and scored points, Tim Beck was on his game; he was dialing up the option, mixing in the toss sweep and leads and letting Martinez throw the ball to hit his spots and catch the defense off guard. Success with these plays was what the Huskers needed and that was what they were getting. The option was not being busted for big plays but the Nebraska offense was gaining yards and keeping Wisconsin honest and guessing by using the play Martinez is quite comfortable running.
Then something changed. Instead of keeping with the running theme of, well, running. Using timely passes and the tosses to hit the corners Nebraska decided with 9:48 left in the second quarter and a one point lead that now is the time to showcase our quarterback’s awesome dropback passing skills that don’t exist. After calling just eight true “dropback” passes in the first 25 plays the Huskers dialed up 11 in the final fourteen snaps of the half.
No more option. No more toss plays.
The Huskers, with a one point lead, were calling plays like a team down by double digits in the fourth quarter. Like a team that needed desperately to get into a ball game. Like a team that had to score now. Like a team that was panicking.
On the fourth drive, a pass to start out on a 1st and 15 results in a sack. A Martinez quarterback lead nets just one yard before the Huskers toss it to Burkhead to buy some room to punt.
Still 14-13 when the Cornhuskers get the ball back.
On the fifth drive a Rex Burkhead lead loses yardage so Nebraska decides to toss it twice in a row, neither pass connects with Huskers players but one does find its way into the hands of Mike Taylor. the Wisconsin linebacker. Taylor Martinez’s first interception of the half.
20-14 Wisconsin grabs the lead off the interception.
The game is still just a one score affair when the Huskers decide passing is the way to go. No attempt at running the ball this time; five straight passes for Taylor Martinez. Two completions, one first down and Martinez makes his second mistake of the half, an interception to safety Aaron Henry.
Three drives. Eleven plays. Two runs. Nine passes. Two interceptions. One first down. Three minutes and fifty seconds of clock tick off with Nebraska possessing the football.
27-14. Wisconsin is rolling now. Their latest touchdown drive covered 63 yards in five plays but took just 47 seconds. Now is when your team should start to worry. The defense can’t stop Russell Wilson, Montee Ball, Jared Abbrederis and Nick Toon. The Badgers are now killing the Black Shirts.
32 seconds left in the half. The Huskers need a score. This is when you should start throwing the football to cover the thirty-ish yards you need to at least get Brett Maher into field goal range. Two timeouts left. In 18 seconds the Huskers throw an incomplete pass, get a false start and then run Martinez back to the original line of scrimmage. Timeout. Out of the timeout Beck gets a victory by way of a 25 yard completion to freshman standout Jamal Turner. Timeout. 8 seconds left.
At the edge of Maher’s range and a bad snap doesn’t help the junior kicker who pushes the 50 yard attempt right. Wisconsin trots out and takes a knee. 27-14 at the half.
14-13 and it all fell apart for the Cornhuskers. With the offensive gameplan deserted the wheels fall of the Nebraska wagon. Composure isn’t gained until the score is 34-14 and the Huskers get the ball with 2:36 left in the third quarter, ultimately kicking their final points of the night through the uprights in the first minutes of the fourth.
That closes the book on the Huskers, the only thing they can do is learn going forward. Panicking is a colossal no-no, panicking when you have a one point lead is an absolute no and changing the entire complexion of your offense to throw eight straight times, including two interceptions, just cannot happen. Taylor Martinez is a gifted athlete but his skills are limited, asking him to simply dropback and let it fly is doing not just the sophomore but the Nebraska football team a disservice and this game was lost in the third, fourth and fifth drives for that reason.
Get to the edge, attack the defense’s weaknesses, establish the run, use the play action passes that keep T-Magic comfortable and for heaven’s sake after he throws an interception dial up plays that fit into his “dual threat” capabilities.
The good thing is the season’s long, Nebraska’s got seven games left and still controls their own destiny in regards to reaching the Big Ten Championship Game. Should that game be against Wisconsin let’s hope the Cornhuskers have a better showing than this past Saturday night in Madison.