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Aug. 30, 2001

The Desert Husker • Bill Marks

Purple Haze

As I pen my column today, I'm wearing a TCU golf shirt. Unfortunately, it's not because I am about to hit the links.

I am adorned in TCU purple because I lost a bet with a co-worker that Nebraska would cover the 28-point spread in last Saturday's Pigskin Classic. And, since I always honor bets that don't involve money or taking people to lunch, I get to spend the workday pretending to be a Horned Frog (as opposed to yesterday, when I pretended to be a hard-working employee).

That's the surface reason why I'm wearing this shirt, but as one looks deeper, there are a bevy of other reasons for my purple predicament. The most glaring of which is that TCU's linebacking corps spent as much time in the Nebraska backfield as Crouch and Co.

Still, as ugly as it was at times, there were a few positives mixed among the negatives during the 2001 Pigskin Classic.

What Went Wrong
For beginners, the TCU defenders wouldn't sit back in a base defense and take their whuppin' like they should've. Instead, they lined as many as nine guys on the line of scrimmage and blitzed constantly, which threw off the timing of the option.

This tactic was very effective, and the Huskers can expect to see more of it in coming weeks. But while constant blitzing can produce some big losses (as it did on Saturday), it is also risky and can leave a team susceptible to big plays. Unfortunately the coaching staff didn't make enough adjustments in their play calling to take advantage of TCU's aggressive D. A few more screen passes and quarterback draws may have put the TCU defenders back on their heels, and allowed NU to regain control of the line of scrimmage.

The O-line often looked porous, and seemed to miss plenty of blocks. I'm not ready to throw dirt on this group yet, but they and the coaching staff only get to use the "it's the first game, we were just a little rusty," line once a year. We're going to have to see a lot of improvement before the Big Red line strikes any fear in opposing defensive coordinators.

I was a little disappointed in Thunder Collins. He didn't have a bad day, and looked fast and fluid when he got to the corner, but otherwise appeared tentative and didn't hit holes (the few that were available) as quickly as I expected. Granted, he didn't get many carries, and did score two TDs, but if I were Dahrran Diedrick, I'd feel like my starting job was secure (and I'd avoid screaming at the owners of local drinking establishments).

What Went Right
Offensively, Crouch looked steady. Sure, he didn't put up outstanding numbers, but his passes had more zing on them than at the end of last year, and for the most part, he made good decisions. There may have been a few times he could have avoided losses on option plays if he had gotten rid of the pitch more quickly, and the interception he threw in the second quarter was a horrendous pass, but overall E.C. showed leadership and poise when the going got tough.

I also thought the receivers did a nice job. Wilson Thomas ventured into unknown territory by catching more than one pass. Tracey Wistrom was his usual dependable self, and John Gibson looked good coming off a knee injury.

The view was a lot better on the other side of the ball. The Blackshirt defense completely shut down TCU except for one fluke play. Scott Shanle, Jaime Burrow, Chris Kelsay and Pat Ricketts flew all over the field and laid some licks on the Horned Frogs (come to think of it, I had a college buddy who got arrested for essentially doing the same thing).

Of course, the successes of the Husker D should be taken with a grain of salt. The words "TCU offense" and "scoring juggernaut" are never going to be used in the same sentence (except in this sentence). When they had the ball, the Horned Frogs looked pretty clueless, especially after signal caller Casey Printers got hurt (my printers at home are always going down too). Still, it was encouraging to see the defense look hungry and aggressive.

Finally, let's give it up for new punter Kyle Larson. While it's never a good sign when your punter is arguably your team's MVP, Larson showed both the power to boom towering punts, and the touch to pin the opposition inside the 20 yard line.

The Desert Husker Offensive Player of the Game
The winner of this prestigious award and a Desert Husker T-shirt (he either gets my ten-year-old "Dead Dog Alley" shirt, or a freebie I got for attending a conference on nuclear fuel storage) is Eric Crouch. Maybe this is a cop-out pick -- we've all seen Crouch have better games -- but who else are you going to give it to? Judd Davies and his one yard on two carries? Even if it wasn't always pretty, Crouch got the job done.

The DH Defensive Player of the Game
Technically, punter is a defensive position, so it's tempting to give this award (and which ever shirt Crouch doesn't want) to Larson. But instead, I'll go with Jaime Burrow. Not only did he lead the team in tackles and play a big part in making the TCU running game non-existent, he also showed that he's up to filling the big shoes (if not the big mouth) of Carlos Polk.

Question answered
Will Crouch be able to throw the ball with his newly-repaired shoulder? Thankfully, the answer to this one was "so far, so good." Though the Cornhusker offense was far from firing on all cylinders, Crouch's passes were generally accurate and kept some drives alive.

Question remaining
Is the offensive line up to NU standards? It sure didn't look like it on Saturday. True, it's tough for five linemen, a fullback and a tight end to block eight and sometimes nine defenders, but even when TCU wasn't blitzing, running space was hard to find. Was it inexperience and missed assignments or a lack of ability? We'll learn more as the season progresses.

What will the next game teach us?
Not much. Even if the Huskers beat Troy State 70-0, we won't know much more about this team. Troy State doesn't have the talent to provide any kind of measuring stick for the 2001 Cornhuskers. However, it should be a good opportunity for some second, third and fourth stringers to get some time on the field. This one should be a classic blowout, but watching a relatively dull NU win still beats doing about anything else.

Humorous headlines
I got a good laugh while reading Sunday's edition of the Arizona Republic, the state's largest newspaper. The headline above the story detailing Nebraska's 14-point victory over TCU read, "Nebraska Sneaks Past TCU," while the headline above the story about Oklahoma's 14-point victory over North Carolina read "Oklahoma Blows Out North Carolina."

The Desert Husker's final piece of advice
Don't get too high or too low about the first game of the year. Yes, Nebraska looked sluggish. Yes, there's plenty of improvement needed. But if Solich's squad can get the job done the rest of the season, no one is going to care that NU only beat TCU by two touchdowns. This team still has plenty to prove, but they have at least 11 more games in which to do so.

Remember the national championship season of 1997? The Huskers put in lackluster performances in their first two games - wins against Akron and Central Florida - and were eight-point underdogs going into the game with Washington. Needless to say, the Huskers took it to the Huskies, and kept that momentum going throughout Tom Osborne's final season.

I'm not saying this is a national championship-caliber team, but let's wait a few more games before trading in the season tickets for an old lawnmower, a six pack of Keystone and a handful of magic beans.

See you next week.

Bill Marks, a.k.a. the Desert Husker, is a professional business writer and consultant living in Chandler, Ariz. He is a longtime Husker fan and can be contacted at [email protected].

Previous columns: 08/20/01 | 08/12/01 | 08/03/01 | 07/25/01 | 07/18/01