Published Sunday, October 27, 2013 at 12:01 am / Updated at 12:28 pm
FOOTBALL
McKewon: Tim Beck's plan reactive, risky; Husker offense's chemistry was missing

MINNEAPOLIS — When Tim Beck took over as Nebraska's offensive coordinator in 2011, he had a natural competitive streak that cut through the professorial facade of most playcallers.

As he captivated a Football 202 audience the summer before his first season, he showed a few clips of Husker offensive players not hustling, not helping, not leading. He then showed a few clips of some the same players doing all those things. Beck aimed to create an offense that defined itself by those latter clips. Fast. Physical. Intuitive. Cohesive. Full of leaders.

For the second time this season, Beck's offense missed that standard in a 34-23 loss at Minnesota. No pace. Little rhythm. Little fire. Indecision seized the day. Injuries and inconsistency left one of the nation's trendiest coordinators talking low in a hallway, explaining how an offense that was expected to carry the Huskers had bogged down again.

Beck took the heat for a pass-first, pass-often game plan that had worked against the Gophers in 2012, but not Saturday. He took the blame for being unsure about whether to pull returning quarterback Taylor Martinez for a series — as he had originally planned — or to keep him in the game. Tommy Armstrong and Ron Kellogg's uniforms remained unblemished at game's end.

Beck's been dealt bad cards. His top offensive lineman tore his knee. The lineman's twin brother is the only experienced tight end on the roster, and he's out, too. His top slot receiver seemingly gets hurt every fifth play. His top two outside receivers have been hot-and-cold catching the ball. His four-year starting quarterback has a toe injury of some kind, the nature of which has been protected as if Martinez were a Kremlin leader.

But the OC become too reactive by half. He let a Minnesota defense with one great player and a handful of pretty good ones dictate his script. He asked Martinez, who may be experiencing shooting pain every time he steps to throw, to launch balloons to wide receivers who didn't get separation. He called screen passes even after the Gophers saw those screens coming. He called long-developing pass plays even after it became clear NU's offensive line couldn't slow a four-man Minnesota rush. Why?

“When they play man-to-man coverage like they do, they could win eight of them and we win two (out of 10), they're probably 14 points with the guys we got,” Beck told The World-Herald's Dirk Chatelain. “We just didn't make those plays.”

Actually, Kenny Bell made a big catch on the first drive and Beck's right: It led to a touchdown. An inside screen to Quincy Enunwa would have if tackle Brent Qvale hadn't impeded his path.

Still: If Beck's comfortable with two out of 10 — that's two or three drives where Nebraska punts. Two or three drives where Minnesota holds the ball for an eternity.

Relying on receivers to catch deep balls from a rusty quarterback? That's risky on the road, in the cold and the wind, no matter how much you believe in the matchups. I watched Bill Callahan do that at Iowa State in 2004, throw 43 times with Joe Dailey as his starting quarterback because the matchups were there. NU lost 34-27, despite forcing seven punts and averaging 5.6 yards per rush.

Saturday, NU forced five punts and averaged 6.3 yards per rush. Beck stuck with the throw game.

Worse, Beck's offense — remember he's paid $700,000, the most of any Big Ten offensive coordinator and more than some FBS head coaches — played with few of the intangibles he's tried to instill. The Huskers competed with a middling effort and beveled edge. They didn't finish blocks. They didn't communicate well, and thus Gophers roamed free on defense. Receivers didn't catch what was thrown to them.

As the game progressed, you saw the usual huffs of frustration. Guys sulkily rose from the turf or turned to stare at the big screen inside TCF Bank Stadium and see where a play had gone wrong. After one series, Martinez jogged one way toward graduate assistant Joe Ganz while the rest of the offense jogged to the far end of the bench. Not many guys are picking each other up. When an offense doesn't huddle, it has to find alternate ways of reminding itself “we're a team” before and after each play.

But most Husker players appear so sensitive to potential conflict that unfiltered emotion is approached with caution or fear. So they'll look to Beck.

What does his offense become now? Saturday resembled late-era Greg Davis at Texas or late-era Shawn Watson at Nebraska: great athletes, spotty consistency, the occasionally explosive play, no dependability.

It's easy to write: Run it! It'd be an identity. It worked in 2009, but Nebraska's 2013 defense bears no resemblance to coach Bo Pelini's best. Beck's offense hummed better under Armstrong and Kellogg, but consider the competition, and consider the opposing offenses. Purdue and Illinois couldn't do what Minnesota did.

Beck's paid the big bucks, so he needs to a chart a course, not waver and demand more accountability from the skill players he likes so much: Martinez, Enunwa, Bell, Ameer Abdullah and Jamal Turner. If those are your leaders — if it's not the offensive line, which often led the best Husker teams — fine. But they need to lead, and do it with a thick skin.

Their grip on excellence is slipping away. So is the season.

On with the Rewind.

I see you

»  Abdullah: The running back appears to be Nebraska's biggest weapon since injuries have diminished Martinez and the wide receivers have struggled catching the ball in the last two weeks. Can he stop fumbling?

»  Minnesota running back David Cobb: Nebraska made him look like Arian Foster, but Cobb's a shifty back for a 225-pounder. He made many Huskers miss.

»  Minnesota offensive coordinator Matt Limegrover: Yes, he cribbed from Wisconsin's plan in the Big Ten championship. So? Not every coordinator has. Limegrover called a masterful game.

»  Cornerback Josh Mitchell: Made a nice hit on a tackle for loss and didn't seem to have major coverage problems.

»  Defensive end Avery Moss: I thought he played well enough and was one of a few defensive players to talk after the game. Moss referenced a number of veterans who were “already in our ears” about how to correct things on defense. Those veterans didn't have many thoughts to share with the press (and thus the fans), however. They want to speak to the team, but not for it.

»  Minnesota quarterback Philip Nelson: Clearly the Gophers' best signal-caller, Nelson was clutch on key plays in the second half, especially throwing the ball. He executes a good play fake.

»  Kicker Pat Smith: Pounded home three field goals in a weird east-west stadium with a decent wind.

»  Punt returner Jordan Westerkamp: Caught every punt. Some improvement is being made here. He also picked up Bell in the end zone toward the end of the first half. He wasn't necessarily the closest guy to Bell, but many of the Huskers just left the field. Another redshirt freshman leading.

Three concerns

»  Martinez's six-minute postgame presser: The Martinez injury story gained an extra layer of depth Saturday, and it's a microcosm of Nebraska's indecision. It raised more questions than it answered. Why not divulge the full nature of Martinez's injury? Why set a standard of 100 percent when Martinez admits he's not, that the toe problem he has normally takes months to heal, and that he's simply toughing it out when two quite healthy and productive backups don't play a snap? Not that Armstrong or Kellogg would have played any better, but the narrative has been, for a month, that when Martinez gets back, he'd be good as new. Why even create the narrative? And why is Martinez managing that injury disclosure by himself after the game?

»  The continuing erosion of Pelini's run defense: Minnesota's plan — creative while remaining conservative — should offer a template for future Big Ten opponents because it takes NU's two best defensive playmakers — Stanley Jean-Baptiste and Randy Gregory — out of the game, and puts the bull's-eye square on linebackers who are still learning the ropes of the league.

There's no easy way for Ross Els to prepare these guys for the experience they've just begun. But Els' unit played poorly. The weakside guy overruns the tackle, the middle guy catches blocks and makes tackles 7 yards downfield, the strongside guy struggles to force runners back toward to the other two. Any remaining Husker opponent must — and probably will — get in big sets and try to put the linebackers on skates.

Pelini also conceded his unit struggles with fitting run blitzes when other teams shift.

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“Out of all things, that's probably what's hurting us the most defensively,” he said. “Our guys, they're not at that point. They can't quite figure that out.”

»  Offensive line play: World-Herald correspondent Steve Beideck reported that NU's offensive line didn't have much fire for the entire game. Heads were hung. Morale was low. Did Spencer Long's injury gut this unit that much? Barney Cotton spent five years as a lightning rod, but I'm not sure his unit ever played as poorly last year as new main coach John Garrison's unit has twice played this year.

Five stats

»  4.6: Yards per pass attempt Saturday for the Huskers. Factor in the four sacks — which are, after all, the result of pass plays — and that rate sinks to 3.29. The plus-sacks average at Purdue — 5.29 yards — wasn't much better. Against UCLA, it was 5.48 yards. It was 4.88 yards against Wisconsin in the Big Ten championship.

»  53.1 percent: Martinez's completion rate on first down. Surely Beck wants better than that. Kellogg is 71.4 percent on first down, while Armstrong is 61.1 percent.

»  78th: NU's ranking in total defense. The Huskers are 77th in run defense and 49th in scoring defense. The defense remains good on third down — eighth nationally in opponent conversion percentage — but struggles on first down.

»  15-10: Pelini's record against BCS conference teams since 2011. I use that year because of the Big Ten transition. Overall, he's 35-22 against those teams.

»  14-8: Pelini's record in October since he took over in 2008. What is it about the middle of the season for this team?

Facebook feedback

On my World-Herald Facebook page, I'll ask fans to submit comments after each game and post select responses here.

“The 'us against the world' mentality Bo is so fond of using only works if you first have an 'us against the opponent' mentality. The offensive and defensive units cannot be allowed to believe they 'have arrived' after one or two good games. Missed tackles and catches seem to be a result of this mentality.” — Joe Petsick

“I don't usually do this, but I am going to today. These games are unacceptable. No enthusiasm on either side of the ball. Football is a game of emotion and I saw none from our football team, period! That's coaching! Defense looked lost again, Martinez makes our offense look disjointed constantly.” — Jason Van Ackeren

“Apparently NU has not learned how to slow down the Wisconsin game plan from last December. Opposing teams will take note. Most of the rest of the schedule features teams that have had moderate to good success running the ball. This does not bode well, especially if the offense is flat.” — Jon Callahan

“Where is the emotion? Where is picking each other up? I see 11 guys afraid to make eye contact and trying to be invisible when things head south.” — Tom Zawada

“Beck became enamored with the pass after the first drive and quickly abandoned what works best — run the ball.” — Jeff Kirshenbaum

Opponent watch

Michigan State returned to the Dr. Jekyll version of its offense in a 42-3 whupping of Illinois. The Spartans gained 477 yards and converted 14 of 16 third downs. The defense did its usual thing, holding the Illini to 128 yards. No other defense has come close to that. Michigan State's going to be a really hard out, and hosts Michigan next week.

Forecast

Riders on the storm.

* * *

Video: Nebraska coach Bo Pelini after the game:



Video: Nebraska quarterback Taylor Martinez after the game:



Video: Postgame analysis with Sam McKewon:

Contact the writer: Sam McKewon

sam.mckewon@owh.com    |   402-219-3790    |  

Sam McKewon covers Nebraska football for The World-Herald. Got a tip, question or rant? Good. Email him. Follow him on Twitter. Call him.

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