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Official Husker Locker Blog

2009 Nov 29

Husker Monday Review: Onward, to DFW


By HuskerLocker

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It starts somewhere around Denton. It doesn't end, really, until you hit Waco.

It's the endless strip mall that soon becomes the Dallas-Arlington-Fort Worth metro area – the Metroplex, as its known just about everywhere. Exit after exit after exit of shopping centers, big-box stores, cell-phone service marts, cheap book outlets, donut stops, Waffle Houses, Grandy's, Tex-Mex joints, roadside churches, car dealerships, western stores, billboards, crammed-in office parks, live oaks tucked onto an inch of landscaped grass, steakhouses, high-line boutiques, low-end pawn shops, and the lingering scent of traffic jams and the Dallas Cowboys in the air.

From the hard-scrabble, bloody roots of the state's rather amazing history, arises a temple to the transient, the gleam of a new truck's chrome. A symbol of the new American dream: You can have it all, buy it all, eat it all, drive it all. No checks please. Credit cards welcome. Cash, in wads of $100 bills, preferable. The Metroplex is more than 9,200 square miles, with 6.3 million shoppers as its clientele. The U.S. Census tabs it as the fastest growing area by population in America. A cultural beehive made of glass, country music, hairspray, oil money, beef brisket, southern politics and daddy's girls.

Loathe it some, but love it a little, too – there's some “Texas” in just about every Nebraskan. The independent spirit. The self-determination. The hard-won state pride, and the love for football.

The game was born in the Ivy League. Took its roots in the Rust Belt. Earned a living in and around the Great Lakes. Did a tour of duty with the military academies. But it currently resides, full-time, in the Lone Star State. It rents a duplex in Nebraska, but football finds Texas most to its liking.

High school stadiums are the size of small cities. The game there bubbles with innovation, competition and maniacal attention to detail. The state boasts ten Division I programs. The Cowboys are a second religion.

At the roadside barbecue stands, you can actually get your brisket with a side sauce of football. It's a little thick and leathery, but you can acquire a taste for it. Try it with burnt ends.

So it only made sense that the Citizen Kane of this giant pigskin menagerie, Jerry Jones, built a Xanadu: Cowboys Stadium. We'd presume, from all of the press coverage of this white whale, that you're aware of its existence.

It's a tribute, quite frankly, to everything Texas. Its hubris. Its excellence. Its taste for the needlessly ornate and expensive. Its love of large gatherings. And its love of football. Especially the glory part of it.

Into that spotlight walks a man who'd rather never see one: Bo Pelini, who'd just as soon play this thing in Cousin Joey's backyard. He'll be flanked by a single Goliath – Ndamukong Suh – and a collection of Davids looking to pop a burnt orange balloon.

Some challenge! The Big 12, no doubt, will enjoy its "tradition" week, but don't kid yourself: By late Saturday night, it fully intends to send triumphant Texas to the BCS National Championship game, preferably riding the coattails of a perfectly comfortable win over NU.

The league has been shamed, as you know, coming into this game. Sam Bradford's season never really climbed off the turf. Oklahoma State's showpony was an utter flop. The most exciting player, Robert Griffin, went down in week four. While Nebraska finally did emerge from the Big 12 North, Kansas stunk like a pair of old socks, while Colorado regressed mightily on national television.

The Big 12 is putting all its eggs in the basket of Texas and its quarterback, Colt McCoy. A loss, and the door opens for - TCU?

You see what's at stake. The gap between UT and everyone else. Recruits for 2010, 2011 and beyond. The very tidiness of the BCS. There are television executives everywhere, the de facto kings of the world at this point, with millions riding on this one game. What Nebraska can potentially do? How about: Sweet dreams and flying machines in pieces on the ground.

The Huskers as Battleship Potemkin. The people's champion. With the people's coach - in a sweatshirt and slacks, furiously chomping gum.

Ain't it somethin?

Are you ready? We are. But first – a review of Colorado, along with some key questions for the Big 12 Championship.

Five Players We Loved

Defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh: Forget Missouri's new uniforms – it was Suh who morphed into “Beast Mode” in the second half vs. the Buffaloes. Had Colorado been rightly flagged for a few penalties, his performance would have been even more dominant.

Wide receiver Niles Paul: He's only scored one touchdown – the 59-yard punt return vs. CU – since the Iowa State game. But Paul's made a lot of big plays – see his long catches at Kansas and timely returns at KU and CU – and crucial small ones, like his two catches to extend touchdown drives on Friday.

Punter Alex Henery: Three more gems inside the 20 on Friday.

Running back Rex Burkhead: I especially liked how Burkhead picked a hole and slid through it without changing his forward lean. Roy Helu makes terrific cuts of his own, of course, but Burkhead is a canny runner for his young age. You could see where Burkhead puts a lot of stress on his feet, though, as hard as he plants.

Offensive guard Ricky Henry: The junior is poised to make “the leap” next year to an all-conference caliber player, provided he stays healthy. Be thankful NU coaches redshirted him in 2008. Henry played his nasty best in Boulder.

Three Concerns We Have

Neo-conservatism: There's nothing wrong with a power offense; it can be as dynamic and dangerous as any spread. Look at Stanford. But Shawn Watson almost seems to be embracing his new role too well. The third-down passes – where Zac Lee almost exclusively locked in on and waited for Niles Paul to break loose on a short crossing pattern – were particularly predictable. For Texas, Watson has to get a little more creative. It's pretty hard to milk the clock on Colt McCoy.

More dumb penalties: Cool it, Larry Asante. No need to give Colorado free points with an unnecessary (albeit borderline) hit out of bounds. Texas, the Big 12's Tiffany team, will be protected to the hilt on Saturday night, so every hit not only has to be clean, it has to look like Bevo's mother gave it approval beforehand.

Pursuit angles and poor tackling: This isn't the time – nor the opponent – to start getting sloppy from a tackling standpoint, but Nebraska has struggled in recent weeks against mobile quarterbacks and slippery receivers. Texas has both. Sean Fisher could use a crash course in playing the zone read, if NU has any intention of playing a base defense in Dallas.

Reviewing the Five Keys

Win One for the Hawk: Colorado indeed played hard on Saturday for embattled coach Dan Hawkins, who retained his job for another year. Smart? Not so much. In other words – Nebraska's still Nebraska, and the Buffaloes are still, well, the Buffaloes.

The Specials: Did we call it or what? NU owned CU on special teams. And it was the difference.

Inside-Out: Nebraska's offense rarely tested the deep middle of Colorado's defense, even though it was ripe for the testing. Shawn Watson did, however, dial up a nifty playaction pass for a touchdown.

Tyler, Cody and Zac: Cody Hawkins did not play, so he's out. Of the remained, CU's Tyler Hansen made several more big plays than Lee did – but he also threw three costly interceptions, one of which was returned for a touchdown. Lee managed the offense, like he has for a month, and converted a few third down passes. His offensive line didn't protect him too well.

Play the Odds: Colorado did indeed self-destruct, a hallmark of a Hawkins-coached team. Hey – the Buffaloes are the ones choosing to keep him around.

Three Questions We Still Have

Does NU outsmart itself in preparing for Texas? The Brothers Pelini built this Nebraska defense on the strength of a dime look with Eric Hagg and Dejon Gomes in the game. Will they stick with that dance card, play nickel, or try a base look with Will Compton and Fisher flanking Phillip Dillard? UT's running game stunk for two-thirds of the season, but the Longhorns seem to have found their running back in freshman Tre Newton.

Can Nebraska just line up and run the ball? UT's defense, like Nebraska's, seems very comfortable stopping the horizontal-then-vertical spread running game. But Texas A&M lined up and punched the Longhorns right in the snout with power zone plays, counters and fullback isolation runs. The Huskers will line up in even heavier sets. Will Texas, which has a slight reputation for being soft, flinch, or bow its back?

Does the giant stage affect the young Huskers? This is a gritty team, sure. But it's not that experienced, and with some many native Texans on the NU roster, a game in the JerryDome is rife with expectation and pressure. Because ESPN wants viewers, its talking heads are bound to talk up Nebraska's defense throughout the week. When Texas hits a few big plays – and it will – how does NU respond in a cavernous dome where some fans are a quarter-mile away?

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See also: Big 12 Postseason Awards, 10 Unforgettable NU-UT Moments, Big 12 Rankings, Bowl Watch, Onward to DFW, Huskers Giving Back and [url=http://www.huskerlocker.com/blogs/view/bid/2363/i/podcast

Tags: big 12 championship, rex burkhead, ndamukong suh, niles paul, alex henery, bo pelini, ricky henry

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