Time for our weekly “five questions, five answers” with a beat writer who covers UW’s opponent.
This week, that means turning again to our old friend Aaron Babcock, who is the General Manager of Huskers Illustrated Magazine and HuskersIllustrated.com. A native of Auburn, Wa., he can be followed on twitter at http://twitter.com/aaron_babcock.
So here we go, with our questions and Babcock’s answers about Nebraska.
Q1: Much will be made of Nebraska wanting revenge for the Holiday Bowl — how big an impact do you think that will have on the game?
A: Overall I don’t think revenge will be the over-riding theme going into this game. While I think this game will have a little more emotion to it than the first two games of the season, I believe the theme will be more about redemption or a desire by players to prove themselves. While players like quarterback Taylor Martinez (pictured being sacked by Hau’oli Jamora in a Dean Rutz photo) have used the word revenge, most players have referred to their “embarrassing” performance in the Holiday Bowl as motivation. In the end, I don’t expect it to play a large factor in the game.
Q2: What happened in the Holiday Bowl, anyway, from a Nebraska perspective?
A: Nebraska’s identity changed dramatically half way through the season when Martinez was injured against Missouri. Before the injury, Martinez averaged 124 rushing yards per game through the first eight games, while the offense was humming with 458.5 yards per game. From that point on, Nebraska averaged just 317.7 yards per game and scoring dropped from 38 points per game to 21.5. Combine the anemic offense with a team that didn’t show up to play in San Diego and the result was a Nebraska team that was out-played, out-hustled and out-coached by the Huskies.
Q3: Is Martinez back to the QB we saw in Seattle last September and is he really throwing a little better this year?
A: Martinez appears to be 100 percent and is running the ball like he did the first half of last season, rushing for 135 yards and 3 TDs in the opener against Chattanooga and 166 yards and 2 touchdowns against Fresno State. His speed makes him a threat to take nearly any play the distance, especially now that new offensive coordinator Tim Beck has incorporated the option in this year’s offense. Martinez, who fumbled 16 times in 2010, has already fumbled 5 times this season, although none have been lost.
As far as the passing game is concerned, football purists will cringe at his throwing motion. And while Martinez doesn’t have an overly strong arm, he has been most effective with longer pass plays in the first two games. This is in large part to talented freshmen receivers Jamal Turner and Kenny Bell. Martinez’s biggest issue has been in the intermediate passing game (10-15 yards), which has seriously hurt the offense. Both opponents this season have loaded 7-9 defenders in the box to force Martinez to throw the ball. The result has been feast or famine for the offense — 54 plays for 1 yard or less and 12 gigantic plays for a total of 499 yards (average of 41.6 yards per play). Against Fresno State last week, Nebraska had eight drives under a minute (1:05 to be exact) and of the Cornhuskers’ 15 drives, just three were longer than 5 plays and 10 were four plays or less. Nebraska’s longest drive of the day was 3 minutes, 24 seconds and it only resulted in 7 plays for 29 yards. Nebraska lives on the home run play. So if Washington can keep Martinez from breaking 2-3 large plays Saturday, the Huskies have a great chance to win this game.
Q4: I hear Nebraska has a rebuilt offensive line. How has it played so far?
A: Nebraska’s offensive line has taken a lot of heat already. But this line is likely the youngest in school history. Center Mike Caputo is the only returning starter and the Huskers are starting a sophomore at left guard, a sophomore at right guard and a true freshman at right tackle. The results have been predictably inconsistent. Combine inexperience with a numbers disadvantage on most plays, and this group is being forced to learn quick. In part because of opponents loading the box, Nebraska has had difficulty running between the tackles. The Cornhuskers have rushed for 448 yards in two games, but 301 have come from Martinez, meaning running backs have totaled just 147 yards in two games.
Q5: Is cornerback Alfonzo Dennard going to play, and is the Nebraska secondary anywhere close to being as good as it was a year ago?
A: I’m guessing, but I would say there’s probably only a 30 percent chance cornerback Alfonzo Dennard returns Saturday, since Dennard hasn’t practiced (undisclosed leg injury) in nearly four weeks. His absence has been a big blow for the Blackshirts. Instead of starting a potential first-round draft pick, the Huskers are forced to start sophomore Andrew Green in his place. This adds even more pressure to sophomore Ciante Evans on the other corner. Last week against Green’s side of the field, Fresno State had a receiver running loose deep in the secondary on a simple flag route on two occasions. The first was overthrown badly and the second was good for a 55-yard pickup. Nebraska will have to fix these mental breakdowns against better teams like the Huskies. Coach Bo Pelini says that Dennard is getting close to playing, but he still didn’t practice on Monday (or Tuesday).