Its always tough to gauge the first game of the season. There is so much expectation and speculation that rarely matches reality. The season opener needs to be taken for what it is, a starting place. This is the beginning. Each game is another checkpoint. This team will evolve. That is not to say I wasn’t pleased with what happened Saturday night in Memorial Stadium. The Big Red did some really good things. But this team, and all others, are a work in progress. This is far from the final product. Likewise there were areas that need work. The good part is I think the problems that I saw Saturday night are largely fixable. Still, it is important not to read too much into a first game. Those results can be extremely misleading. Remember 2007 when the Huskers smashed Nevada on a sun soaked opening Saturday 52-10? That team won 4 more games. Take the opener at face value. This is a week by week process. This is simply checkpoint 1. By and large, NU passed.
I want to make this clear. Fresno did not stop the Huskers offense one freaking time Saturday night. When NU got serious, pounded the rock and stayed focused, it was 6. The various drive killers were penalties, poorly executed plays or cutesy play calls. On the whole, the Huskers were able to grind out yards with ease, rushing for 292 and an average of 5.7 yards per rush. It wasn’t an explosive ground attack by any stretch. Rather it was a steady pounding that the Dogs never had an answer for. The Big Red flexed some serious muscle in this department. Devine Ozigbo led the way with 103 yards on 17 carries. Ozigbo is a lot of fun to watch.When he gets a head of steam and squares his shoulders, he’s tough to stop. The offensive line had a good showing Saturday night, opening holes routinely for whoever the ball carrier was. Those boys kicked some serious tail. I was impressed. It was a heavy ground attack that some Husker fans have been craving. Tommy Armstrong threw just 10 passes on the night, completing 5 of them for 108 yards and a TD. Armstrong wasn’t at all sharp in his passes. Set aside the beautiful 57 yard bomb to Alonzo Moore on a well time play action pass, and I was pretty underwhelmed with his passing. He easily could have completed a few more of them and really stressed the Fresno defense. It mattered little. When NU set their mind to running the ball and stayed out of their own way, they were unstopable against a woeful Fresno defense. There will be much stiffer tests ahead, but for tonight, this unit passed with room to spare.
Overall, I was fairly pleased with the defense. I think they were put in some tough spots, some of their own doing, but hung in there to produce a pretty decent opening outing. Let’s start with the defensive line. This group was pretty stout against the run. In particular I was impressed with Mick Stoltenberg. He was disruptive and tough to move. This group wasn’t particularly productive in the pass rush department, but were terrific in the run game. Fresno had nowhere to run all night gaining a meager 31 yards on 26 attempts. The defense wasn’t perfect. NU was off the field before a Luke Gifford targeting call kept the drive alive. That led to a Fresno field goal. Also, it appeared freshman Lamar Jackson was getting picked on in the nickel package. Fresno QB Chason Virgil seemed to target Jackson and found success against the freshman. Looking at the big picture its tough to be too critical of the defense. The lone Fresno TD came after a blocked punt on a drive that spanned just 32 yards. They produced 2 turnovers and was exceptional against the run. This defense did allow 243 passing yards, but it took FSU 43 attempts to obtain those yards. That’s an average of just 5.7 yards per pass which isn’t bad. There were just 2 deep balls, a bugaboo for last years secondary. One of those came in junk time. Personally, I was happy with the NU pass defense as a whole. The balls that Fresno WRs did catch were contested and there were several sound plays by NU defensive backs. There was some sloppy play, which is true for the entire squad, but generally I feel good about the NU defense and this initial outing.
Make no mistake, this was far from a perfect debut. Then again if you were expecting perfection perhaps you should re-calibrate your expectations. Still, there was some sloppiness all the way around. There were too many penalties including 2 unsportsmanlike conduct penalties that were completely uncalled for. Stupidity like that gets you beat. I don’t want to see any more of that trash. Additionally, there was a blocked punt, leading to Fresno’s lone TD. Jordan Westercamp fielding punts seemed pretty wheels off all night long. Where is Demornay Pierson-El? Armstrong wasn’t very sharp throwing the ball, and the playcalling was a bit unfocused at times. Mike Riley in his post game interviews was underwhelmed with his team’s performance. I find that encouraging. That means he expects much more than we got Saturday. That’s good news. For now, from my armchair, I was pleased with this first game. It was a pretty good jumping off place. This is just one of 12. Punch your picket at this particular checkpoint and get ready for next week.