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Grading the Huskers


COLLEGE STATION, Texas -- Who were those guys in white pants running around all over the place on Kyle Field Saturday night?

Nebraska, trailing 31-14 midway through the third quarter and looking like it would drop its sixth straight game away from home, exploded for 24 points in the game's final 1 1/2 quarters to rally for a 38-31 win. No doubt about it, it was a huge victory for a Cornhusker team that appeared to be well on its way to losing four games in a season for just the second time since 1968.

Now Nebraska returns home with a 6-3 record -- and some serious momentum -- to host Texas. The Huskers will be looking to keep their nation-best 26-game home winning streak alive against a Longhorn team that was the last outsider to win in Lincoln back on Halloween of 1998.

With four games to play, Nebraska still needs to win them all to be assured of keeping several impressive streaks intact. Here's a report card of the Huskers' season so far and what they must do to keep things rolling:

Offense

” Quarterbacks -- Jammal Lord is on pace to join an elite list of quarterbacks who have both run and passed for 1,000 yards in the same season. However, there have been plenty of growing pains for the junior as he's looked to replace Eric Crouch. Lord's scrambling ability is his biggest asset, but his decision-making on pass plays has often looked shaky. He showed plenty of heart and served notice that next year should be better.

Backup quarterback Mike Stuntz has seen little action, save for his fourth-quarter passing flurry at Iowa State when he performed well considering the circumstances. True freshman Curt Dukes will look to make his mark next year after a redshirt season.

Grade: C.

” I-backs -- The season-long search for a difference-maker appears to be over as true freshman David Horne has shown plenty of signs that he might be the man in Nebraska's backfield for years to come. Horne stands out because of his ability to get to the outside with his speed and seems to get three or four yards even when it seems like nothing is there.

Dahrran Diedrick is a good power back -- remember when everyone thought he was the play-maker -- but hasn't been able to prosper for most of the season with the smaller, faster-closing holes provided by this year's offensive line. Inconsistency and fumbles have hurt the trio of Josh Davis, Cory Ross and Marques Simmons.

Grade: B-

” Offensive line -- This unit has been hampered by Lord's inability to develop a consistent passing game, allowing teams to gang up on the run more than ever. However, this is a team game and it's the job of the big boys up front to grind out yards no matter what and that's exactly what they did against the Aggies.

Youth and inexperience could be a major factor as the Huskers start sophomore guard Mike Erickson and redshirt freshman tackle Richie Incognito on the left side. Say what you want about the emotionally-charged Incognito, but he appears to have the attitude you want in an offensive lineman.

Truth is, All-America guard Toniu Fonoti -- now starting for the NFL's San Diego Chargers -- might be missed as much as Crouch.

Grade: C-

” Receivers -- The expectation that split end Wilson Thomas was going to have a monster season was probably a little optimistic, but with opponents concentrating on the senior, others have emerged. Freshman Ross Pilkington has been a big addition and should develop into a go-to guy at split end.

Throwing to the tight end and wingback continues to serve as virtually a trick play in the Huskers' offensive scheme. However, players like Troy Hassebroek, Aaron Golliday and Jon Bowling are always up for a good surprise. True freshman tight end Matt Herian appears to have the speed to line up as a wide receiver.

Grade: B

Defense

” Defensive line -- The inability to stop the run in losses at Penn State, Iowa State and Oklahoma State starts here. It seems Nebraska has some talented pieces to the puzzle, but many of the players -- especially on the interior positions -- are inexperienced. Ryon Bingham has been steady, but more was expected from some of the youngsters like redshirt freshmen LeKevin Smith and Titus Adams. Then again, they are redshirt freshmen.

The injury to senior Chris Kelsay certainly hasn't helped the rush end position, which like Nebraska's I-back situation, is missing the star power of the past. Senior Demoine Adams lost his starting job before Kelsay's injury while Trevor Johnson has looked good at times. A lack of depth is a major concern at the rush end spot.

Grade: C-

” Linebackers -- The buzz surrounding weak-side linebacker Demorrio Williams being the next big impact player has died some as the defense has struggled as a whole. Williams remains one of the team's leading tacklers but had been virtually silent for several games before Saturday night as backup T.J. Hollowell has also received a good share of playing time.

Barrett Ruud still looks like a good one at middle linebacker but has had his share of mistakes while over-pursuing plays at times. Despite criticism that he lacks speed, senior strong-side linebacker Scott Shanle keeps plugging away and entered Saturday's game as the team's leading tackler. At least someone is sticking their nose into the plays.

Grade: C+

” Secondary -- Boy, is this unit young. With teams staying away from senior cornerback DeJuan Groce, much of the pressure is falling on much more inexperienced players. True freshman Fabian Washington has a nice, aggressive attitude at the corner position. He definitely looked like a freshman against Oklahoma State All-American Rashaun Woods but rebounded strong against A&M -- a great trait for a cornerback in Nebraska's system.

Free safety Philip Bland is a hard-nosed tackler, who has quickly developed into one of the main spokesmen for the defense. Redshirt freshman Daniel Bullocks has shown flashes of good play but, again, is very green.

A host of other players such as Pat Ricketts, Jerrell Pippens, Josh Bullocks, Lannie Hopkins, Lornell McPherson and Shane Siegel all see action in Nebraska's special pass coverage packages and have contributed -- both bad and good -- throughout the season. Having Willie Amos, lost in the spring with a knee injury, certainly wouldn't have hurt this unit.

Grade: C

Special teams

” Returns -- Proof that experience is king in college football comes in Nebraska's special teams play. Returning virtually everyone from last year's unit, the Huskers have prospered in this department. DeJuan Groce and his punt return team are among the nation's best, producing three scoring returns. Before his leg injury against Missouri, Josh Davis was a threat to break every kickoff return.

Unlike past seasons, the kickoff and punt coverage teams have experienced no significant breakdowns this season.

Grade: A

” Kicking game -- Josh Brown has been solid this season. Some offseason changes have made a major difference for the senior as he entered Saturday's action 6 of 7 on field goals, including a perfect 4 of 4 from 40 yards or longer. He's also been adept at kicking balls out of the back of the end zone for touchbacks on his kickoffs.

Punter Kyle Larson started like a house of fire before cooling off some and having a tough game with a pair of shanks against Missouri. However, Larson has a huge leg and is capable of getting off a boomer at any time. He's also shown a flare for pinning opponents inside their own 20-yard line with coffin-corner kicks.

Grade: A-

Coaching

” Offense -- Frank Solich has absorbed plenty of heat from fans and media this season but isn't shying away, saying earlier this week that ultimately, everything comes back on him. As if losing games weren't enough, Solich has also had to deal with plenty of off-the-field distractions thanks to Lord's disturbing the peace citation and I-back Thunder Collins quitting the team.

Play-calling continues to be a major criticism and Solich admitted this week that he is considering naming someone else to be his offensive coordinator. There's no doubt that Solich knows the offense well, but maybe he hasn't mastered the nuisances that Tom Osborne was able to develop over the years. Predictability -- option plays on nearly every third-and-4 play -- continue to be a problem. However, give Solich credit for sticking with his game plan against A&M as the Huskers ground out the victory -- Nebraska style.

Grade: C

” Defense -- Perhaps the only person who is receiving more criticism than Solich is defensive coordinator Craig Bohl, who appears to be sitting smack dab in the middle of the hot seat. Nebraska's plan and execution against Missouri were top-notch, but the Blackshirts had struggled in nearly every other big test before stepping up against the Aggies.

Youth and inexperience have plagued the Nebraska defense but chances are that's not a viable excuse for rabid Husker fans determined to see him let go. It says here: Give Bohl one more year.

Grade: D+

Sports Editor Terry Douglass covers Big Red football for The Independent


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