- Mitch Sherman, ESPN Staff Writer
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The bye week for Nebraska comes at an opportune time, allowing the Huskers to assess problem areas after a roller-coaster ride of a non-conference season. Additionally, the extra week benefits quarterback Taylor Martinez, who missed his first start last week because of a turf-toe injury after a streak of 32 in a row.
As the Huskers (3-1) turn their attention to Illinois and the Big Ten opener on Oct. 5, here’s a look at the internal areas on which they’re likely to focus.
1. Identify the leaders: Interesting that in the year coach Bo Pelini assigned captains months ahead of schedule and distributed Blackshirt practice jerseys before the season opener for the first time in his six seasons, the Huskers enter Big Ten play without a clearly defined core of leaders. Yes, offensive guard Spencer Long, receiver Quincy Enunwa, Martinez and cornerback Ciante Evans have all done a nice job in their own ways, but look what has happened when adversity struck. Against UCLA, no one stepped up. Against Wyoming, the clock may have saved the Huskers. Against South Dakota State, youngsters like David Santos and Randy Gregory on defense made big plays. Ameer Abdullah has the personality of a leader, but he’s still working to cut his fumbles. Look for the usual suspects to take on a bigger leadership role over the next eight games but also for some of the youngsters to assert themselves.
2. Determine a cause of the defensive woes: The poor play of Nebraska’s young defense has hindered the overall progress of the team. It impacts everything. When the defense can’t get off the field, the offensive players feel the negative energy. It permeated the stadium on Sept. 14, aiding the Bruins’ 38 unanswered points after Nebraska took a 21-3 lead. Defensively, the stats look bad. The Huskers are 106th in total yardage allowed and 109th in yards allowed per play. Only winless New Mexico State has allowed more plays of 10 yards or more than the Huskers’ 79. More than that, the defensive mindset is lacking. Pelini noticed it against UCLA and South Dakota State. Nebraska’s defense lacks a killer instinct. It leads to tentative play and missed assignments. The coach said this week he thinks his players are embarrassed. Best way to cure that is to play better.
3. Clean up the special teams, penalties and turnovers: It has been better this year, but problems still exist. Nebraska has fumbled 11 times; only Auburn, Florida and Idaho have dropped the football more often. Nebraska ranks 119th nationally in yards per opponent punt at 46.1. Some of that is a result of unlucky bounces, but the Huskers – notably Jamal Turner -- have shown a tendency to pick the wrong moments to act aggressively and passively. It has cost the Huskers field position and cost Turner his role as the top return man. On the bright side, Nebraska ranks 16th in turnover margin. Penalties continue to be a problem as the Huskers’ 28 rank as more than all but 19 teams nationally.