LINCOLN — In its 37-34 win over Wyoming on Saturday night, Nebraska's offense ran 85 plays, racked up 375 rushing yards — 530 total — possessed the ball for nearly 36 minutes, converted nine of 17 third downs into first downs and completed 77 percent of its passes.
“We were just OK,” coach Bo Pelini said.
“It felt like it wasn't enough,” offensive tackle Jeremiah Sirles said.
“We're not about stats,” offensive coordinator Tim Beck said. “We want to play well.”
Among other Husker players and coaches, there was no dissent.
NU's offense — which set few limits on its capability during training camp — failed to score on seven of its 13 drives. Worse, after leading 37-21, they failed to close out the Cowboys in the fourth quarter. Quarterback Taylor Martinez threw an interception on one drive. He fumbled during a quarterback sneak on the next drive. And he was stuffed well short of a first down on Nebraska's final attempt to run out the clock.
“We let them back into the game, and that shouldn't happen,” Martinez said. “Great teams don't let that happen.”
Sirles said the kneel-down “victory” formation is his favorite of all. Because it means NU's offense ended the game on the field.
“Not being able to do that was very disappointing for all of us,” Sirles said. “I don't think anyone felt good about it.”
Especially the offensive line. Sirles said he and his teammates didn't consistently finish blocks. Offensive line coach John Garrison — now fielding the weekly, sometimes-pointed queries that Barney Cotton often did — described a “very quiet ” film room as the line reviewed its work.
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“At times it was really good and at times it was not so good,” Garrison. “We're talking about how good we want to be. Talk's talk. It's time to start executing and be a consistent group. Because that's who we can be.”
Garrison and Sirles said Nebraska's line might start a play well, but not end it by sticking with the assignment until the whistle. The problem also cropped up, he said, in last Wednesday's practice, and carried into the game.
“You feel like a guy's blocked, and your leg drive stops moving,” Garrison said. “You've got to keep your feet moving. A lot of guys just stopped their legs. Not finishing their blocks. That was a little disheartening.”
Beck said Nebraska might run the same play within three plays of each other and get different results based on execution. It “sticks in your craw,” he said, when mistakes compound at the end of the game.
Why did it happen?
“Maybe it was first-game jitters,” Beck said.
Pelini pointed to Nebraska's uncertainty in what defense Wyoming would run. The Cowboys switched from a 4-3 to a 3-4 in the offseason and spent part of the game with three down linemen and a fourth hybrid player on the line of scrimmage. While Sirles said coaches prepared well the NU offensive linemen for varying schemes, Pelini said Beck had to show a variety of formations and plays to reveal Wyoming's weaknesses.
That lack of early continuity, Pelini hinted, may have contributed to the line's average play.
“Our guys didn't come off the ball,” Pelini said. “It was almost like they were hesitant at times. You don't play with the physicality you want to when you play that way.”
Problems went beyond the offensive line. Backs didn't hit every hole. Martinez said he hadn't worked much with receiver Sam Burtch, the intended receiver on the interception, so when he thought Burtch would cut off his route, the sophomore walk-on kept going. Pelini and Beck agreed there were more deep passes Beck could have called to thwart Wyoming putting so many players in the box to stop the run. Two false-start penalties, Pelini said, were “killer plays that take you out of drives.”
But primarily, Beck said, he wants to see a better focus on “being great.”
“If they're playing to be good enough, they're not doing good enough,” Beck said. “We want them to be great. That's kind of how the game was. There were opportunities.”
Running back Ameer Abdullah — whose 62-yard run was a result of an on-the-fly decision he made when a hole wasn't open — recognized that right after the game when he organized the team in the locker room and made a quick speech.
“We have a certain standard that we want to hold on this team,” Abdullah said Monday of his postgame players chat. “I felt personally that we didn't play up to that standard. That may work against some teams in lower divisions than what we are, but that's not the type of football that we're capable of playing last Saturday. I know we can be much better, and that's what I tried to voice to the team.”