Nebraska Cornhuskers: Taylor Martinez

Two weeks and one day from the start of spring practice at Nebraska, it’s time to identify the top spot in our countdown of players to watch during March and April workouts.

To review, we’ve examined a young running back, a pair of veteran defenders who could help solidify a pair of units and a newcomer on the defensive line.

Did you think we’d forget the most important position on the field? Atop the list, of course, is a quarterback.

[+] EnlargeTommy Armstrong Jr.
Eric Francis/Getty ImagesTommy Armstrong Jr. could be pushed this spring by a few young signal-callers.
Sophomore QB Tommy Armstrong Jr.

Why to watch: Why not? Armstrong is the clear leader to earn the spot as Nebraska’s starting QB in 2014 after he started eight games in place of injured incumbent Taylor Martinez last season. There was plenty to like about Armstrong, notably his 7-1 record (with help from senior Ron Kellogg III) and poise in tight spots. Armstrong shined at Michigan in handing the Wolverines their first home loss under Brady Hoke and again in the Gator Bowl over Georgia.

What to watch: Nebraska likely won’t endanger its quarterbacks in the spring with risky play calls in scrimmages. The objective for Armstrong and top challenger Johnny Stanton, a redshirt freshman, is to demonstrate command of the offense. With his experience alone, Armstrong enters a step ahead, though don’t underestimate Stanton, who, like Armstrong, showed great leadership and a knack for winning as a high-school quarterback. Armstrong has earned the confidence of offensive leaders like Ameer Abdullah and Kenny Bell, an important factor. He's a natural in the option run game, but Armstrong can improve his decision-making as a passer.

What to expect: Look for a spirited competition between Armstrong and Stanton, with freshman Zack Darlington and walk-on sophomore Ryker Fyfe in the background. Armstrong, for a player of any age -- let alone a first-year contributor -- displayed impressive maturity last year in a highly scrutinized spot. All eyes followed his every move, and that will only intensify as he moves forward, starting next month. Armstrong is cold-blooded in his approach to the game; pressure does not bother him. If he progresses at an expected rate, Armstrong should finish the spring in even better shape than he starts it.

Countdown of Nebraska players to watch in spring practice:
No. 5: RB Terrell Newby
No. 4: S Charles Jackson
No. 3: DE Joe Keels
No. 2: LB Zaire Anderson

A new era for Nebraska quarterbacks

February, 11, 2014
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Our countdown continues with a look at Nebraska position groups with most room to improve. Next on the list is not so much a group of positions, but just one spot.

It’s important enough, though, to warrant inclusion on the list. At No. 4, the quarterbacks:

[+] EnlargeNebraska
Phil Sears/USA TODAY SportsTommy Armstrong Jr. was inconsistent at times as a redshirt freshman, but his 7-1 record as a starter is nothing to scoff at.
Major losses: Taylor Martinez is gone after an anticlimactic senior season in which the returning three-year starter played in just four games. He started all four and lost two after suffering a plantar plate tear in his left foot during the Cornhuskers’ season opener against Wyoming. He leaves as the school record-holder in passing yardage, total yardage and starts at QB, among many other marks. Also departed is Ron Kellogg III, a former walk-on who rose to prominence and turned into a popular figure following his Hail Mary heroics in Nebraska’s November win over Northwestern. Kellogg came off the bench to lead the Huskers to victory at Penn State and earned his first career start on Senior Day as Nebraska fell to Iowa.

Top returnees: Tommy Armstrong Jr. played in nine games and started eight in his redshirt freshman season. His numbers, in retrospect, appear rookie-like: 68-of-131 passing for 966 yards with nine touchdowns and eight interceptions. Still, as things unfolded, it felt as if Armstrong was working magic at times behind a makeshift offensive line. And his record -- despite help from Kellogg against Northwestern and Penn State -- sits at 7-1 as a starter, with wins at Michigan and over Georgia in the Gator Bowl. Sophomore Ryker Fyfe and junior Tyson Broekemeier are also back; both are untested walk-ons.

Numbers to know: Armstrong connected on 5 of 7 throws for 59 yards on the game-winning drive as the Huskers snapped Michigan’s 19-game streak at Michigan Stadium with a 17-13 victory. That possession, likely more than any other, offered a glimpse at the kid’s poise. Nebraska fans also soon won’t forget the 99-yard strike to Quincy Enunwa on New Year’s Day.

Key question: How serious is Nebraska about giving redshirt freshman Johnny Stanton an opportunity to challenge Armstrong this spring?

The outlook: Armstrong enters the spring with a big advantage over Stanton, the former Elite 11 co-MVP and state-champion California prep star. But let’s not anoint the confident Texan as the starter in 2014 unless he earns it in March and April.

Armstrong ranked 13th nationally and second in the Big Ten by averaging 14.2 yards per completion. Of his pass attempts, 6.9 percent went for touchdowns -- behind only Braxton Miller in the conference. But Armstrong has plenty of room to improve. His QBR index of 54.4, which measures total quarterback performance, ranked 10th in the Big Ten.

He needs to cut down turnovers and increase his awareness in many situations as a passer. Improvement figures to come with time.

The competition with Stanton could turn intriguing. Stanton is listed as one inch taller and five pounds heavier. He brings a different set of skills but similarities with his attitude and likeability factor.

Freshmen Zack Darlington -- who is already in school -- and A.J. Bush will likely redshirt.

Countdown of Nebraska position groups with most room to improve:
The official invite list for the 2014 NFL combine is out, and 36 Big Ten players will try to impress pro scouts during workouts in Indianapolis from Feb. 22-25. In case you were wondering, that's fourth most among conferences behind the SEC (71 invitees), the ACC (48) and the Pac-12 (45).

Here are the Big Ten players who were invited, broken down by position:

Quarterbacks (0)

Running backs (2)

Wide receivers (8)

Tight ends (2)

Offensive linemen (8)

Defensive linemen (2)

Linebackers (7)

Defensive backs (7)

Specialists (0)

Breakdown
It's a strong list of players, but were there any snubs. Nebraska quarterback Taylor Martinez, Michigan State linebacker Denicos Allen and Iowa cornerback B.J. Lowery jump out right away as missing, though Martinez has injury (and position) concerns, while Allen's small frame means he'll have to prove to scouts he can play at the next level.

I'm also a bit surprised not to see Indiana's Ted Bolser on this list; he's not a traditional blocking tight end, but his receiving skills would seem to translate to the NFL. Only nine kickers and punters were invited to Indy, yet it's a little disappointing that Purdue's Cody Webster and Northwestern's Jeff Budzien weren't included in the specialists.

Others who could have gotten an invite include Purdue defensive tackle Bruce Gaston, Ohio State guard Andrew Norwell and Nebraska defensive back Ciante Evans.

That doesn't mean those guys won't play in the NFL. But their path to the league might be a little more winding.

Offseason to-do list: Nebraska

January, 23, 2014
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In the three weeks since Nebraska beat Georgia to extend its streak of nine-win seasons, the Huskers have replaced secondary coach Terry Joseph with Charlton Warren, who is already making himself known on the recruiting trail, and retained I-back Ameer Abdullah for his senior season. That's not a bad start to the offseason, but there’s more to do.

We continue our Big Ten offseason to-do lists with Nebraska.

[+] EnlargeBo Pelini
Eric Francis/Getty ImagesTurnovers have been a big issue for the Huskers under Bo Pelini.
1. Fix the turnovers. Enough is enough, we know. You don’t want to hear how the Huskers must address their issue with turnovers before taking the next step as a program. But it’s that important so we’ll keep talking about it. Nebraska extended an ugly trend under coach Bo Pelini last season, finishing 117th nationally in turnover margin at minus-11. In games after the nonconference season, the Huskers were dead last at minus-15; no other team was worse than minus-12. And those numbers include the Taxslayer.com Gator Bowl in which Nebraska finished plus-1. Without its two forced turnovers against the Bulldogs, the Huskers would not have won. It’s a good launching point into an offseason in which all of the Huskers -- offensive, defensive and special teams players -- ought to work regularly to make this area a strength next season.

2. Solidify the QB spot. Tommy Armstrong Jr. started eight games as a redshirt freshman. He was brilliant at times against Michigan and Georgia and played well against lesser competition like Illinois and South Dakota State. Inconsistency was a concern, but Armstrong figures to improve in the coming months. After all, he was thrown into the mix with little warning after Taylor Martinez's toe injury forced the senior out in September. Armstrong has plenty of time to prepare the right way for next season. And that’s the point: Give him time. Nebraska can have a nice quarterback competition in the spring with Armstrong and redshirt freshman Johnny Stanton, and even walk-on sophomore Ryker Fyfe and true freshman and early enrollee Zack Darlington. But by mid-April, offensive coordinator Tim Beck would be best served to identify a leader and define his role before August. If it’s Stanton, go with it. But likely, the Huskers' offense will go as far as Armstrong can take it next fall.

3. Plug holes in the secondary. Spring practice will be big for the defensive backs. Not only do they get to work out the kinks with Warren, their new position coach, but those 15 practices in March and April must go a long way toward identifying replacements for departed cornerbacks Ciante Evans and Stanley Jean-Baptiste. Start with Josh Mitchell, who collected two turnovers in the Gator Bowl. Mitchell will be a senior and part of the Huskers’ core of leadership. Safety Corey Cooper gives them another solid piece in the secondary. Harvey Jackson and LeRoy Alexander showed flashes last season, but the Huskers need more bodies. From a promising group of inexperienced players like Charles Jackson, Jonathan Rose, D.J. Singleton and Boaz Joseph, Nebraska will search for key contributors this spring.

More to-do lists:
Taylor Martinez missed all but one Big Ten game in his senior season because of a plantar plate tear of the second metatarsal phalangeal joint in his left foot, according to his father and foot doctor.

Basically, it’s a torn ligament in his toe.

Three weeks after his record-shattering career unceremoniously ended on the sideline at EverBank Field in Jacksonville, Fla., as his understudy, Tommy Armstrong Jr., flipped a 99-yard touchdown pass in the Huskers’ Gator Bowl win over Georgia, we know what really happened with Martinez last fall.

So why now?

[+] EnlargeTaylor Martinez
Hannah Foslien/Getty ImagesTaylor Martinez's injury -- which caused debate, conspiracy theories and even a rushed comeback -- was finally explained and allows him to move on.
Because Martinez’s father felt the time was right. Casey Martinez revealed the details of Taylor’s much talked-about foot injury on Wednesday to clear the air. And to move forward.

The mystery that surrounded Martinez’s injury, from the days that followed Nebraska lost to UCLA on Sept. 14 through late October after his painful comeback attempt against Minnesota, bordered on silly.

Coach Bo Pelini rarely offered detail on the injury. When he did, even that was vague. His answers only led to more questions.

According to Casey Martinez, Nebraska never exactly diagnosed it. Surely, though, Pelini knew more than he said. It's normal for coaches at all levels of football to conceal information about injuries. They do it to protect their players’ health and privacy and to maintain a competitive edge.

In the case of Martinez, the secrecy just led to rumors and conspiracy theories. Was he being shoved aside? How badly was he hurt? Did Nebraska mismanage his injury?

In the end, Nebraska did nothing wrong; neither did Martinez. His father said he didn’t question the Huskers' handling of the situation, even the decision to play the QB at Minnesota when he needed more rest.

The important thing is this: Martinez is moving on. He’s feeling better and training at home in California. He’s set to make a splash on March 6 at Nebraska’s pro day.

He’s open to playing positions other than quarterback in the NFL, which should enhance his value.

Martinez endured a sad finish to an illustrious collegiate career. At least there are no more questions about how it ended.

Season wrap: Nebraska

January, 15, 2014
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All paths lead back to the same place for Nebraska -- or so it seems after a sixth consecutive season under coach Bo Pelini with nine or 10 wins and four losses. This season, the Huskers finished 9-4, but the ride was anything but mundane as Nebraska lost starting QB Taylor Martinez for all but one game of Big Ten play.

It needed late-game heroics to escape at home against Northwestern and to win at Michigan and Penn State, an impressive double even in a down year for the traditional league powers. Freshman quarterback Tommy Armstrong emerged. The defense showed solid improvement. And a TaxSlayer.com Gator Bowl win over Georgia sent the Huskers into the offseason with a warm, fuzzy feeling.

Offensive MVP: I-back Ameer Abdullah. He stepped into a leadership role in Martinez's absence and at times carried the Huskers. Abdullah set an example with his work ethic. He rushed for 1,690 yards, the top total in the Big Ten this season and fourth on Nebraska’s single-season charts. And he’s coming back as a senior.

Defensive MVP: Defensive end Randy Gregory. The sophomore newcomer arrived in Lincoln only a month before the season opener but needed little time to acclimate. He was a force from the start off the edge as a pass-rusher, accumulating 10 sacks. Gregory, despite playing underweight most of the season, posed huge problems for opponents because of his athleticism.

Best moment: A 49-yard Hail Mary pass from senior quarterback Ron Kellogg III to freshman Jordan Westerkamp provided the winning points in Nebraska’s 27-24 defeat of Northwestern on Nov. 2 at Memorial Stadium. Things appeared decided in the waning minutes before Kellogg, a former walk-on, engineered an 83-yard drive. Only its final play, though, will live in Husker history.

Worst moment: Just a week before the miraculous finish against Northwestern, the Huskers lost 34-23 at Minnesota, marking the Golden Gophers’ first win in 17 tries against Nebraska, dating to 1960. More disheartening than the outcome, though, was the method through which Minnesota won: The Gophers pounded the Huskers, piling up 271 rushing yards against the Blackshirts.

Nebraska helmet stickers

January, 2, 2014
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JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- Top performers for Nebraska in its 24-19 TaxSlayer.com Gator Bowl victory over Georgia on Wednesday:

WR Quincy Enunwa: You can’t overlook the game’s MVP, though there are many strong candidates for the Huskers in their ninth victory of the season. Enunwa lunged to catch a four-yard touchdown from Tommy Armstrong Jr. in the second quarter to give Nebraska a lead it never relinquished. The play of the game -- and likely his career -- came in the third quarter, with the Huskers backed up just an inch or two from the goal line on third down. Enunwa got free and snagged Armstrong’s throw near midfield. The senior from Moreno Valley, Calif., sprinted home for a 99-yard touchdown. With his 12th TD catch of the year, Enunwa broke Johnny Rodgers’ 42-year-old record.

IB Ameer Abdullah: If Wednesday served as Abdullah’s final game at Nebraska, he went out in style -- just like Enunwa. The junior from Homewood, Ala., rushed 27 times for 122 yards and one score, reaching triple digits for the 11th time this season. Abdullah was the force that kept the Huskers afloat all season, and it was no different in Jacksonville. Even on drives that ended in punts, Abdullah often dug Nebraska out of poor field position. His season rushing total of 1,690 yards ranks fourth in Nebraska history, remarkable considering the slew of injuries suffered on the offensive line this season and the absence of QB Taylor Martinez for all but four games. Abdullah, if he turns down a jump to the NFL, could become the first three-time 1,000-yard rusher ever at Nebraska next season.

CB Josh Mitchell: What a time for the junior from Corona, Calif., to turn into a ball-hawking specialist. Nebraska would not have beaten the Bulldogs without the two turnovers secured by Mitchell. He pounced on Reggie Davis’ second-quarter punt-return muff after four Nebraska possessions produced four punts. The first turnover set up a 14-yard scoring drive. Mitchell intercepted Georgia quarterback Hutson Mason in the third quarter, returning the football four yards to the Georgia 38 to set up a seven-play drive for the Huskers’ second touchdown. The positive turnover margin (plus-1) came after a putrid October and November in which Nebraska was minus-16 in the category, worst in the nation. It must correct the problem in 2014. Mitchell’s New Year’s Day performance serves as a good start.
JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- Nebraska seeks to avenge its loss in the Capital One Bowl from a year ago against No. 22 Georgia on Wednesday at noon ET on ESPN2. Here’s a preview:

Who to watch: The quarterbacks are a good place to start. They won't be Taylor Martinez and Aaron Murray, the record-setting senior duo who led these teams to a combined 76 points last year in Orlando; rather freshman Tommy Armstrong Jr. is expected to start for the eighth time this season for Nebraska, and junior Hutson Mason gets the call for the Bulldogs for a second straight game. Also, keep an eye on Nebraska defensive end Randy Gregory, an SEC-caliber star with size, speed and strength. If he’s not the best player on the field, it might be Georgia running back Todd Gurley.

What to watch: Statistically, it’s difficult to identify too many spots at which one team might exploit the other. Remember, though, Georgia was challenged by a schedule that featured five teams arguably as good or better than Nebraska’s best foe. So the numbers matter little in gauging matchups. Here’s a hunch that the Huskers, who couldn’t stop Minnesota or, for one quarter, South Dakota State, will struggle to contain Gurley. He was in contention for the title of best SEC back before the midseason injury. And watch the matchup of UGA receivers Chris Conley and Michael Bennett against Nebraska defensive backs Ciante Evans and Stanley Jean-Baptiste. It should be good.

Why to watch: The trio of Big Ten-SEC clashes on New Year’s Day is always entertaining -- at least, it is for fans of the SEC teams. Seriously, the Big Ten is 0-2 in bowls (0-4 if you count 2014 newcomers Rutgers and Maryland), and the SEC is 3-0. Perhaps this game presents the Big Ten with its best chance to win on Wednesday. If that doesn’t get you, tune in to see if Nebraska's Bo Pelini can join the likes of Mack Brown, Tom Osborne, Steve Spurrier and Barry Switzer as the eighth BCS-conference coach in history to win nine games in each of his first six years at a school.

Prediction: Georgia 34, Nebraska 24. A big day for Gurley and a typical turnover or two will spell doom for the Huskers. Look for Ameer Abdullah to keep the Huskers close for a while, but like last year, the Bulldogs will make plays when necessary late.

Nebraska keys to victory in Gator Bowl

December, 31, 2013
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JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – Nebraska seeks a sixth consecutive nine-win season on Wednesday in the TaxSlayer.com Gator Bowl, facing No. 22 Georgia at noon ET on ESPN2.

Here are three keys to a Husker upset victory:

Run the football: Ameer Abdullah needs to get loose. The Huskers’ junior I-back is surely capable. He topped 100 yards in 10 games this season, including a stretch of eight straight that featured a 123-yard effort against Michigan State -- the nation’s No. 1-ranked defense against the run. Georgia is solid in rush defense, ranking fifth in the SEC and 42nd nationally. But Nebraska is healthier on the offensive line than for any game since mid-October. And with Tommy Armstrong Jr. back to full speed or close, the traditional option and zone-read running game re-enter the equation for offensive coordinator Tim Beck.

Stop the run: Notice a trend? Without starting quarterbacks Aaron Murray of Georgia and Taylor Martinez from Nebraska, the winner of this game will earn its keep in the trenches. Like Nebraska, the Bulldogs have a horse in the backfield in Todd Gurley, who averaged more than 6 yards per carry and scored 15 touchdowns in nine games. Georgia rushed for 176 yards per game, while Nebraska allowed 161. Advantage UGA, right? Probably. Though the Huskers were much improved in nearly all aspects on the defensive side this season, they slammed the door on an opponent’s running attack only against Michigan over the final six games.

Play smart: Much easier said than done this year for the Huskers, who posted a minus-12 turnover margin and repeatedly committed errors in the punt-return game to lose valuable yards of field position. Often, Nebraska simply couldn’t get out of its own way. Had it simply broken even in turnovers and avoided most of the special teams mistakes, you’re likely looking at a 10-win team, even without Martinez for all but four games. That speaks to the manageable nature of the schedule this year. Georgia, despite four losses of its own, is arguably the most talented team the Huskers have seen. Nebraska probably must win the turnover battle and finish ahead in the kicking game, too.
The Big Ten is off to a rocky start in the postseason. Our predictions are faring slightly better, but there are five games to go.

We made our picks for the first two Big Ten bowls last week and both went 1-1. The overall season race remains all square.

New Year's Day will feature Nebraska in the TaxSlayer.com Gator Bowl, Iowa in the Outback Bowl, Wisconsin in the Capital One Bowl and Michigan State in the Rose Bowl Game presented by VIZIO. Ohio State wraps up the Big Ten bowl slate Friday in the Discover Orange Bowl.

Let's get started.

TAXSLAYER.COM GATOR BOWL
Nebraska vs. Georgia; 11 a.m. ET Wednesday; Jacksonville, Fla.

Brian Bennett's pick: Nebraska should be as healthy as it has been since midseason, and I expect the Huskers to put together a pretty good showing. Ameer Abdullah will enjoy coming back to the south with 130 rushing yards and two scores. Ultimately, though, the Nebraska defense has no answer for Todd Gurley, who churns out 175 yards and three scores, and a late Tommy Armstrong Jr. interception seals it for the Dawgs for the second straight year. … Georgia 31, Nebraska 23

Adam Rittenberg's pick: Motivation could be a factor in this one as both teams had much higher aspirations this season. Neither has its starting quarterback, although Nebraska has played without Taylor Martinez a lot longer than Georgia has without Aaron Murray. But the Bulldogs remain explosive on offense with running back Gurley, who gashes Nebraska for 140 yards and two touchdowns. The Huskers lead early and get another big game from Abdullah, but they commit two costly second-half turnovers and Georgia rallies behind Gurley and Hutson Mason. … Georgia 34, Nebraska 27

OUTBACK BOWL
Iowa vs. LSU; 1 p.m. ET Wednesday; Tampa


Rittenberg's pick: LSU has more speed and overall talent, but I really like Iowa's chances as the Hawkeyes typically play well in bowls and have walked a very similar path to the 2008 season, which ended with an Outback Bowl win against an SEC foe (South Carolina). The Iowa defense does enough against an LSU team that no longer has star quarterback Zach Mettenberger. LSU leads early thanks to Odell Beckham Jr. and its return game, but Iowa keeps things close and has a big fourth quarter on offense. Jake Rudock fires the winning touchdown to C.J. Fiedorowicz in the final minute. … Iowa 20, LSU 17

Bennett's pick: Iowa brings some momentum into this game and a defense that's really playing well against a new LSU quarterback. So don't count the Hawkeyes out. I even think Iowa will be the more motivated team and will jump on the Tigers early with a couple of nice scoring drives. But I'm just not sure the Hawkeyes have the speed and athleticism to counter Les Miles' team. LSU pulls off the late win this time, with Jeremy Hill scoring the go-ahead touchdown in the final minute … LSU 24, Iowa 20

CAPITAL ONE BOWL
Wisconsin vs. South Carolina: 1 p.m. ET Wednesday; Orlando, Fla.


Bennett's pick: Do we see the Wisconsin that was so good during most of the season, or the Badgers who went out with a whimper on Senior Day? I think it will be the former, as a large senior class is highly motivated to make up for that loss to Penn State and to get over the bowl hump. The running game led by James White and Melvin Gordon will help neutralize South Carolina's pass rush, and neither have to worry about being decapitated by Jadeveon Clowney, who spends the second half dreaming of sports cars. Chris Borland forces a Connor Shaw fumble on the Gamecocks' final drive to go out on top. … Wisconsin 20, South Carolina 17

Rittenberg's pick: The Badgers aren't a good team when playing from behind and relying heavily on quarterback Joel Stave to make big plays. Fortunately, Wisconsin jumps ahead early in this one behind Gordon, who breaks off some big runs in the first half. It will be close throughout but the Badgers hold a 2-1 edge in turnover margin, and respond well after the Senior Day debacle against Penn State. Clowney has a ho-hum ending to his college career, while Borland and a decorated senior class finally get a bowl win. Gordon's second touchdown in the final minutes proves to be the difference. … Wisconsin 24, South Carolina 21

ROSE BOWL GAME PRESENTED BY VIZIO
Michigan State vs. Stanford; 5 p.m. ET Saturday; Pasadena, Calif.

Rittenberg's pick: By far the toughest game to call, I've gone back and forth all week on my pick. I went with Michigan State in the Big Ten championship because it had more experience on that stage than Ohio State did. Once again, I'm going with the team more accustomed to this particular spotlight. I love this MSU team, but Stanford is playing in its fourth consecutive BCS bowl game. The Spartans aren't simply happy to be here, but they'll make a few costly mistakes against a sound Cardinal team. Max Bullough's absence isn't too significant, but Stanford capitalizes on strong field position from Ty Montgomery and picks off two Connor Cook passes, the second in the closing minute as Michigan State drives for the winning score. … Stanford 21, Michigan State 17

Bennett's pick: The loss of Bullough is huge for the Spartans. But I think the Spartans defense can still hold up well enough. The real key will be whether Cook can play nearly as well as he did in the Big Ten title game, because there likely won't be much running room for Jeremy Langford. Cook won't throw for 300 yards again, but he will do just enough damage and toss two touchdowns. There's every reason to pick Stanford after the Bullough suspension, but Michigan State just seems like a team of destiny to me. … Michigan State 17, Stanford 16

DISCOVER ORANGE BOWL
Ohio State vs. Clemson; 8:30 p.m. ET Friday; Miami Gardens, Fla.


Bennett's pick: The potential loss of Bradley Roby and Noah Spence is devastating news for a Buckeyes' defense that was already going to be under the gun in this game. The Big Ten just can't prepare you for the type of speed and playmaking ability Clemson has at receiver, and Tajh Boyd and Sammy Watkins will end their Tigers career in a big way while connecting for three scores. Ohio State finds lots of success running the ball with Braxton Miller and Carlos Hyde, getting a combined 250 yards and four touchdowns out of them, but the Buckeyes just can't match Clemson score for score. … Clemson 38, Ohio State 35

Rittenberg's pick: Another tough one to call, as I don't like Ohio State's injury situation, especially against Clemson's big-play receivers. How motivated are these Buckeyes? Often times teams that fall just shy of the national title game don't bring it in their bowl. Still, I've seen too many ACC teams fall flat on their faces when the lights are brightest, and Ohio State has been strong in BCS bowls over the years. Ohio State has the edge at both head coach and quarterback in this game, as I expect Miller to perform well both with his arm and his legs. Both offenses show up, but I'll take the running team with Urban Meyer at the helm. Hyde turns in a big fourth quarter as Ohio State rallies late. … Ohio State 41, Clemson 38

SEASON RECORDS

Bennett: 81-18

Rittenberg: 81-18
Aaron Murray and Taylor Martinez, the shelved senior quarterbacks at Georgia and Nebraska, started 95 college games.

They won 67.4 percent.

Bet you thought that rate was higher.

Seems we’ve watched these two operate forever. In the past four years, Murray and Martinez meant something important to college football. They tormented defensive coordinators and served as the poster boys for a pair of proud programs, trying -- desperately close at times -- to break through.

It’s not going to happen in their time.

Despite 64 victories between them (35 for Murray, 29 for Martinez), neither won a conference title. At Georgia and Nebraska, a conference title, at minimum, is the standard of success.

Yet as Murray and Martinez depart the college game in sadly anticlimactic fashion as the Bulldogs (8-4) and Huskers (8-4) meet for a New Year’s Day rematch in the TaxSlayer.com Gator Bowl, they leave a record of greatness.

[+] EnlargeTaylor Martinez
Josh Wolfe/Icon SMITaylor Martinez's final season didn't go as planned, but he'll be remembered in Lincoln.
Murray’s senior season was nearly doomed from the start. Injuries to running backs Keith Marshall and Todd Gurley, several top receivers and playmakers on defense contributed heavily to four Georgia losses.

The QB persevered until Nov. 23, when he suffered an ACL tear in a 59-17 victory over Kentucky. Murray played through the injury for one series but couldn't fight the pain any further.

In similar fashion, Martinez battled for two weeks through a foot injury, suffered in the Huskers’ season opener.

He led the Huskers to a 21-3 edge over UCLA in the second quarter on Sept 14, but any thoughts of a storybook ending to his career crashed to a halt in the second half. The Bruins scored 38 consecutive points. Martinez clearly wasn’t himself, unable use his usually dangerous feet to stem momentum.

A one-game comeback fell flat at Minnesota in October. Martinez was finished. He lost his final two starts and an opportunity to join Colin Kaepernick as the only players in FBS history to pass for 9,000 yards and rush for 3,000. He finished with 7,258 passing yards and 2,975 rushing yards.

He lost his chance to win a conference title, a hope so promising back in 2010, when Martinez led Nebraska to a 17-point lead over Oklahoma in the Big 12 championship game as a freshman.

Martinez never broke through.

“It’s been hard,” Nebraska coach Bo Pelini said. “This whole season’s been hard on him. It’s not the way you want to see him go out.”

Georgia coach Mark Richt said the same thing about Murray. Richt visited a hospitalized Murray after he underwent surgery on the damaged knee. Richt said he wanted to feel sorry for his quarterback, but Murray wouldn’t let him.

His positivity is relentless. And that’s part of Murray’s legacy, alongside the 13,166 passing yards and 121 touchdown passes.

No Southeastern Conference quarterback before Murray threw for 3,000 yards in three seasons. Murray did it four times. He broke Danny Wuerffel’s SEC record for touchdown passes and Tim Tebow’s record for total yardage.

But, like Martinez, his teams never broke through.

Murray’s best chance fell 5 yards short last year against Alabama in the SEC championship game. He targeted Malcolm Mitchell in the end zone, a shot within reach to win an SEC title as the clock ticked away. Tide linebacker C.J. Mosley deflected the pass to Georgia receiver Chris Conley. Conley slid to the turf, surrounded by defenders. Time expired on Murray’s best opportunity.

[+] EnlargeGeorgia's Aaron Murray
Scott Cunningham/Getty ImagesAaron Murray's place in Georgia and SEC football history is secure.
Instead of a shot to play for the national title, Georgia beat Nebraska in the Capital One Bowl as Murray threw for 427 yards and five touchdowns, both career-best marks.

It all felt anticlimactic for Murray, though nothing like this year.

“Obviously I had a vision of how I wanted to go out,” Murray said recently.

This wasn’t it.

“It’s almost like I didn't say goodbye,” he said, “which, I guess, is a good thing. I guess it's like, 'to be continued.' I'm not leaving. I'm always a Bulldog. I'll always be a Bulldog, and I guess if I would have been there to wave and really cherish the end of it, that would have been like, 'Book closed, it's over,' and I feel like it's not over for me.”

Murray is eloquent and charismatic. Martinez is quite the opposite.

Uncomfortable in the spotlight, the Nebraska quarterback hasn’t spoken to the media since the Minnesota game.

But Martinez appears to be at peace. He has remained at the side of teammates through conditioning drills and practices this month. Those close to him, though, say he’s devastated by the injury.

A generation from now, Murray and Martinez will be remembered not for this anticlimactic ending or their inability to break through and win a championship.

Time will heal their wounds. History will reflect well on their legacies. College football will remember them.

Big Ten Christmas Eve mailbag

December, 24, 2013
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Since Christmas is tomorrow, the normal Big Ten Wednesday mailbag comes at you a day early. Consider this your letters to Santa blog:

Matt from Tucson, Ariz., writes: I'll send my question to you since you chose Nebraska as your most improved bowl team. I'm curious why (as a whole) Nebraska is perceived as a bad team that didn't meet expectations? I was watching ESPN's bowl preview show and was disappointed that Mike Belotti called Nebraska "a bad team" while Georgia was declared a team that persevered through injuries. Didn't Nebraska persevere through enough O-Line, WR, and QB injuries to make it to an 8-4 record? The O-line was so beat up that Vincent Valentine was needed on the FG team by the end of the season. Why is there no love for the Huskers?

Brian Bennett: "Bad" is a very subjective word, Matt, and not one I'd use to describe this Nebraska team. It's true that the Cornhuskers did get a whole lot of crummy luck when it came to injuries, including losing senior quarterback Taylor Martinez and much of the offensive line. Nebraska did a great job of persevering and pulling out victories in tough games against Northwestern, Penn State and Michigan, the latter two of which came on the road. If there's a difference between Nebraska and Georgia, it's that the Bulldogs have marquee victories over South Carolina and LSU and came within a miracle play of beating Auburn on the road. The Huskers didn't accomplish anything close to that and suffered three blowout losses at home -- to UCLA, Michigan State and Iowa.

Tim from Raleigh, N.C., writes: Will the Capital One Bowl be the last game Joel Stave starts for Wisconsin? I want Bart Houston (#BartHouston2014 which I try to get trending on Twitter) to start next year. I've been excited about this kid since he committed. I thought Gary Andersen might not be as thrilled since he is a pocket passer, but I looked at Houston's stats and he had 338 rushing yards and 19 rushing TDs in his senior HS season. He's supposed to have the better arm and can probably run better than Stave. I respect Stave a lot being an in-state walk on, but I don't think he's the answer for the next 2 years. I'm also scared Houston could then transfer. I don't want us to be in a Nebraska type situation where get stuck with a QB that you started as a freshman. Also, Houston has to start, HE'S NAMED AFTER BART STARR!!

Brian Bennett: Well, he's got a good name and some nice high school stats. There's an airtight case that he should start. Ahem.

There's nothing quite like the love for backup quarterbacks among fans. A player is almost never as popular as he is before he plays a significant down. Hey, Bart Houston might wind up as a great player. We have no idea. I'll tell you who does, though: Andersen, offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig and the rest of the Badgers staff. They've seen Houston practice every day since they've come to Madison. If they thought Houston was better than Stave, he would have played more by now.

Maybe Houston progresses in the offseason and overtakes Stave, who simply missed too many throws in 2013. Or maybe Tanner McEvoy makes a move at quarterback, though his future may well lie on defense after he played well at safety. It's no secret that Andersen likes mobile quarterbacks. Right now, though, Stave still has a huge experience edge. It will be up to someone else to outplay him in practice.

[+] EnlargePat Narduzzi
AP Photo/Al GoldisCould Michigan State defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi get a head coaching job soon?
Matt from SoCal writes: Do you see Pat Narduzzi as a real option to be the head coach at Texas?

Brian Bennett: I don't, Matt. It's not that I think Narduzzi couldn't do a good job at Texas. It's just that I don't believe the Longhorns will hire a coordinator. They've got more money than Scrooge McDuck and are going to shoot for the moon with this job. Narduzzi might, however, benefit from a possible coaching carousel resulting from the Texas hire.

Kevin from Rock Island, Ill., writes: Illinois has really been going after the Juco players. What are your thoughts on the strategy and some of the signees so far? It has worked for Groce and the basketball program, but when there are so many holes, it seems like a short term fix to a bigger problem.

Brian Bennett: No doubt there are some issues with signing a lot of junior college guys. Not all pan out, and you risk getting in the cycle of needing more and more to fill gaps. But Tim Beckman really needs more depth and experience on the roster, and I think he sees this mostly as a short-term fix. The guys Illinois signed last year weren't exactly superstars, but players like Zane Petty and Martize Barr contributed, and Eric Finney might have done more than that had he stayed healthy. I can't pretend to know how good these incoming 2014 jucos will be, but I do like that the Stone-Davis brothers both fill needs at receiver and defensive backs and have three years left to play.

Connor M. from Lima, Ohio, writes: Love the work you guys do for the Big Ten! Looking ahead to next year, let's say Braxton and Shazier both play well in the Orange Bowl, raise their stock and turn pro. How much will the offense and defense be affected and who do you see replacing those two in their respective positions, most specifically, the QB spot?

Brian Bennett: Thanks, Connor. I think Ryan Shazier is the more likely of the two to go pro, and Ohio State could more easily absorb that loss, even though it would be a huge one. The defensive line should continue to improve, and there's a ton of young talent at linebacker and in the secondary on the way. Losing Braxton Miller, however, would change the whole outlook for the 2014 Buckeyes, especially since most of the offensive line and Carlos Hyde also are seniors. The only experience at all on the roster at quarterback is Cardale Jones, and he's a freshman who has thrown four passes. Freshman J.T. Barrett and incoming recruit Stephen Collier would battle Jones for the starting job, but Ohio State would basically be starting from scratch. In a much more difficult division.

BUCKIHATER from Future Home of the BigTen, NYC, writes: If you look back starting from the modern era of college football (1960's- present), the school who loves to put the word 'THE' in front of its name only has two claimed national titles -- you can even argue they should only have one if it wasn't for a really bad call, while the other happened before Woodstock. If you compare the 'THE' to other traditional football powerhouses like 'Bama, Miami, even Nebraska who all have 5 or more since the 60's, its not even close. Why does 'THE' get so much love on being the savior for the Big Ten? I was shocked to see the lack of championships over the last 50 years and Michigan State just did what every team in the Big Ten wanted to do for 2 years: Beat the bullies from Columbus.

Brian Bennett: So I take it you're not an Ohio State fan, then? Listen, if you want to start talking about national championships won by the Big Ten since the 1960s, this is not going to turn out well for anyone. Since 1970, we've got Michigan's split national title in 1997, Ohio State's in 2002 and ... hey, look, at that squirrel over there! The Buckeyes have been the only Big Ten team to even play for a national championship in the BCS era as a league member, and they've done it three times. So if you want to hate on Ohio State, that's fine. But that makes the rest of the conference look even worse by comparison.

Doug from KC, MO, writes: I have a Hawkeye question stemming from some recent conversations I've had with Nebraska fans. They always talk about whether to get another coach or not because they want to be contending for National Titles like the old (90's) days. I tell them for most teams in the country, and especially the BIG, this is pretty unrealistic. CFB is at a point where a lot of the odds/rules/recruiting are stacked against northern teams and outside of programs with lots of tradition (Mich, OSU and even ND) it is going to be very tough for you to have a regular NCG contender. I hope for a BCS game or Rose Bowl for Iowa every 4-5 years but it is just too much of a stretch for me to think Iowa (and other mid-tier BIG teams) will make a NCG appearance. Do you think some BIG teams have expectations that are too high or am I on the Debbie Downer side of the argument?

Brian Bennett: Doug, can you talk to BUCKIHATER for me? Anyway, I'm not sure enough Big Ten programs are ambitious enough. The Rose Bowl is great, but too many league teams talk like the Big Ten title is the ultimate goal, and I believe that becomes a self-fulfilling prophesy. How many times did you hear Urban Meyer talk about how much the Buckeyes just wanted to get to the Rose Bowl?

Anyway, as I just wrote a moment ago, the Big Ten hasn't exactly been reeling in the national titles. Here's the good news for the league, and for a team like Iowa: the forthcoming Playoff opens things up. Have a great year, win the Big Ten, and there's a chance you'll be in the four-team playoff. From there, who knows? Getting to that playoff, not the Rose Bowl, has to be the goal for every serious league team from 2014 on.

Chris from Northern Michigan writes: Happy holidays, Brian, and merry bowl season. I would like to get your thoughts on the MSU QB situation. Obviously it looks like Connor Cook has the job wrapped up for the next two years, barring injury or a huge year next year leading to NFL early entry. Would you expect Damion Terry or Tyler O'Connor to transfer? MSU just lost a QB recruit, and while it would be understandable that either current QB would want to play, a Cook injury could be catastrophic if either transfers.

Brian Bennett: Catastrophic? Well, you'd still have Cook and at least one backup. Not a whole lot of teams had to play three quarterbacks major minutes this season, outside of Nebraska. Cook will be hard to unseat after going 9-0 in the Big Ten and winning a title. I do think there will be some sort of role for Terry, because he's just too talented not to get on the field. Wouldn't surprise me one bit if O'Connor moved on.

And to your first point, Chris, Merry Christmas and happy holidays to all.

Concern, optimism abound for Nebraska

December, 24, 2013
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LINCOLN, Neb. – The lows were low, and the highs, well, they were nice.

Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and many observers of the past season in Nebraska football relish a November that featured road wins at Michigan and Penn State after a miraculous finish at Memorial Stadium to beat Northwestern.

Others dwell on the reality that 14 years have passed since the Huskers’ last conference title and 12 since Nebraska played in a BCS bowl game. More so than any time in the past decade, the feelings about Nebraska football range from hope to despair.

Here’s a sampling of both as we review 2013.

Three reasons for concern

[+] EnlargeBo Pelini
AP Photo/Nati HarnikBo Pelini knows a bowl win over an SEC power will cure a lot of ills in the Nebraska program.
Is this Groundhog Day? A sense exists that Nebraska is living the same season on repeat. Bo Pelini inserts new characters and varies the schedule, but the results look the same. Here are Nebraska’s final records since 2008: 9-4, 10-4, 10-4, 9-4 and 10-4. This year, with a win, the Huskers can reach 9-4. Like Bill Murray’s character in the movie, some Nebraska fans grow more frustrated with each cycle, particularly as the Huskers’ relevance on a national level diminishes. Alongside those records, here are Nebraska’s final rankings in the AP poll since 2009: 14th, 20th, 24th and 25th. This year, the Huskers are unranked before the bowl game. Notice a trend?

Fundamental errors. The problems that plague Nebraska often come back to basics -- ball security, discipline, tackling. This year, Nebraska sits minus-12 in turnover margin, better than only three teams nationally. Since 2008, the Huskers rank 109th at minus-32. And the timing of the turnovers couldn’t have been much worse this year. Nebraska lost the football five times in its own territory against Michigan State, handing 24 points to the Spartans. It was a similar story against Iowa. When the Huskers held on to the football, they couldn’t take it away. Generally, this team -- like others before it -- failed to get out of its own way.

Communication, or lack thereof. For all the sensationalism that accompanied the final weeks of the regular season, as media speculation turned rampant over Pelini’s job status, the problems began -- and could have ended -- within the athletic-department offices in the north wing of Memorial Stadium. The policy of first-year athletic director Shawn Eichorst to withhold comment during the season would have worked just fine if Pelini knew where he stood. No one need a weekly assurance of the boss’ stance on matters in the program, but some kind of internal communication could have served to prevent matters from reaching the boiling point they hit on the day after Thanksgiving. Clearly, Pelini and Eichorst must find a better way to understand each other.

Three reasons for optimism

An infusion of young talent. Even the most Scrooge-like among those who follow the Huskers must admit they made important strides on defense this year. It happened primarily because of the maturing group of youngsters that arrived at Nebraska after a refocused recruiting effort took shape two years ago. That’s when the Huskers signed linebacker Michael Rose and defensive linemen Vincent Valentine and Avery Moss. The trio of redshirt freshman teamed with newcomer Randy Gregory to help form an imposing front seven that ought to have its moments of dominance next year. More than anything, they’re built for the Big Ten. Nebraska has appeared, in its 2013 and under-construction 2014 class, to further capitalize on that enhanced recruiting vision.

Tommy Armstrong Jr. and Johnny Stanton. In place of injured senior quarterback Taylor Martinez, Armstrong made his share of mistakes this year, committing nine turnovers in seven starts. He also led a game-winning drive at the Big House to complete a 5-0 beginning to his career. He lost to Michigan State, then aggravated an ankle injury and sat for the final seven quarters of the regular season. But we saw enough to know Armstrong has got the moxie and a few other special qualities that could help push the Huskers over the hump. Stanton, who redshirted this fall, reputedly possesses many of the same traits. Their athletic strengths are different, but both QBs are proven winners and strong leaders. Ought to make for a fun spring.

Consistency. Say all you want about the stagnant nature of Nebraska under Pelini, but he has brought winning ways back to Lincoln. With a victory in the TaxSlayer.com Gator Bowl over Georgia, Pelini would become the seventh coach of a BCS conference program ever to win nine games or more in each of his first six seasons -- and the first to do it after inheriting a team with a losing record. His staff has remained largely intact. The offensive system under coordinator Tim Beck has taken firm hold. With healthy players, it would likely flourish. Pelini is unwavering in his approach toward the game, on an off the field, and his players appreciate his straightforwardness. Now, with just a little more patience …

Injuries impacted UGA, Nebraska seasons

December, 23, 2013
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This season's similarities are striking for the combatants in this season's TaxSlayer.com Gator Bowl, Georgia and Nebraska. Perhaps the most notable similarity between the Bulldogs (8-4) and Cornhuskers (8-4), though, is the numerous injuries that helped prevent them from playing up to their potential.

ESPN.com's David Ching and Mitch Sherman discussed how injuries affected the teams' seasons and what might have been if not for all the physical ailments.

1. Out of all of the injuries they sustained this season, which one was the costliest and why?

Ching: There are a lot of directions you could go here, but Todd Gurley's ankle injury and ensuing three-and-a-half-game absence probably hurt the most. Gurley is one of the biggest difference-makers in the country, and Georgia's potent offense simply wasn't as good without him in the lineup -- particularly when fellow tailback Keith Marshall suffered a season-ending knee injury the week after Gurley went down against LSU. It's not a coincidence that Georgia bounced back from a two-game losing streak upon Gurley's return, nor that the Bulldogs went 4-1 down the stretch once he was back. He totaled 755 yards and 10 touchdowns in those five games.

Sherman: Taylor Martinez began this season as most indispensable Husker -- and by November, we saw why. Without the fifth-year senior, who started a school-record 43 games at quarterback, including four this season, the Nebraska offense shifted from the strength of this team to a liability. The Huskers failed to gain 400 yards in each of their final four games. Tommy Armstrong Jr. and Ron Kellogg III performed admirably, but their numbers paled in comparison to the production expected from a healthy Martinez. In good position to become the second QB in FBS history to surpass 9,000 career passing yards and 3,000 rushing yards, he suffered the fateful foot injury in Nebraska’s season opener. By mid-September, his limitations were painfully apparent, stamped into the record books with losses to UCLA and Minnesota in Martinez’s final two starts.

2. Which position group dealt with the most injury issues?

Sherman: Problems on the offensive line began on the opening series of the sixth game against Purdue as All-Big Ten right guard Spencer Long went down with a season-ending knee injury. Long was the leader of the line and a motivating force for the entire team as a senior captain and former walk-on turned solid NFL prospect. As soon as his linemates began to wear Long’s jersey No. 61 as a tribute, the injury bug spread. First, it was left guard Jake Cotton. Tackles Jeremiah Sirles and Brent Qvale, despite staying in the lineup, dealt with injuries, too, as did center-turned-guard Cole Pensick. Long’s replacement, Mike Moudy, missed the final four games. The injuries hurt most in practice, and Long’s injury got the snowball rolling. Before the Purdue game, Nebraska rushed for 285 yards or more in four of five games. After Purdue, it never topped 195 on the ground.

Ching: Georgia's safeties could make a reasonable argument here, but let's go with the receivers. Malcolm Mitchell suffered perhaps the most bizarre injury of the season when he tore an ACL while leaping into the air to celebrate Gurley's 75-yard touchdown run against Clemson on the Bulldogs' second offensive possession of the fall. Justin Scott-Wesley, who essentially caught the game-winning touchdown passes in the fourth quarter against South Carolina and LSU, tore an ACL while covering a punt against Tennessee. Michael Bennett and Chris Conley also missed multiple games with midseason injuries, and junior college transfer Jonathon Rumph didn't play until Game 8 against Florida after injuring his hamstring in August. Because of the regular lineup shuffling, six Bulldogs have at least 20 catches this season.

[+] EnlargeTodd Gurley
Todd Kirkland/Icon SMIGeorgia went 4-1 after sophomore RB Todd Gurley returned to the lineup, and the only loss was the 'Miracle at Jordan-Hare.'
3. What do you think this team might have accomplished if health hadn't become such a factor?

Ching: I hesitate to say Georgia would have been a BCS title contender because its defense was probably not championship caliber. But it's hard to predict what might have been with any certainty since the Bulldogs started losing key contributors in the first quarter of the first game. I'll go so far as to say the Bulldogs at least would have won a third straight SEC East title and been in the running for an at-large BCS bowl spot. With Aaron Murray, who suffered a season-ending knee injury of his own against Kentucky, at the trigger and an impressive array of skill talent, this had the potential to be the scariest offense Georgia has ever put on the field, but we never saw the full complement for even one full game.

Sherman: It’s difficult to quantify in wins and losses, considering the other problems that plagued these Huskers, notably with turnovers and on special teams. Nebraska could have outscored Minnesota with a healthy Martinez and Long. And it’s likely that the second-half meltdown against UCLA never would have happened if Martinez was operating at full strength. The Huskers moved the ball well in a 41-28 loss to Michigan State. Injuries weren’t the issue against the Spartans; turnovers were, but freshmen committed all five. And Martinez, while turnover-prone since his freshman season, torched the Spartans a year ago. But even at 10-2, Nebraska would have missed a repeat trip to the Big Ten title game.

Season report card: Nebraska

December, 20, 2013
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We continue our delivery of the regular-season report cards with Nebraska.

It was an odd year in Lincoln, shaped by injuries and controversy but growth and promise, and it ended with a fan base largely divided. For every member of Husker Nation ready to hand out passing grades, there’s another who saw it in just the opposite way.

So at the risk of just adding to the confusion, here it goes:

Offense: B-minus

[+] EnlargeAmeer Abdullah
Rick Osentoski/USA TODAY SportsAmeer Abdullah, who ran for 1,568 yards, was one of the bright spots for the Nebraska offense this year.
Considering the bevy of injuries on the offensive line and the loss of quarterback Taylor Martinez for all but one game in Big Ten play, Nebraska gets the benefit of the doubt. Its replacements played well enough to keep the Huskers in every game -- if not for the turnovers.

Oh, the turnovers. Nebraska lost the football 28 times, most in the Big Ten, and often turnovers came at the worst times. There’s likely not a team in the country that could have handled four fumbles and an interception against Michigan State better than the Huskers did on Nov. 16. But it was still a 13-point loss.

Before the injuries hit, the Huskers’ running game was a force. And I-back Ameer Abdullah still finished with 1,568 yards, arguably the best season by a Huskers back since 1997. Freshman QB Tommy Armstrong enjoyed some nice moments. Receivers Kenny Bell and Quincy Enunwa did their jobs well.

Nebraska badly missed a playmaker at tight end. But no one will soon forget the Ron Kellogg-to-Jordan Westerkamp Hail Mary that beat Northwestern, a play that single-handedly nudges this grade upward.

Defense: C

Remember the fourth quarter against Wyoming and the first 15 minutes against South Dakota State? Too much bad stuff happened to bump this grade past the point of average.

Sure, the Huskers were young. They needed time to grow into their roles. Why is that, though? How did Nebraska find itself, six years into the coach Bo Pelini regime, in a spot that required a rebuilding job? In year two or three, we’d understand more easily.

There was also debacle in Minneapolis as Minnesota rushed for 271 yards and basically punched the Blackshirts in the face.

Nebraska responded well late. It played a great defensive game in the win at Michigan and a good one to win at Penn State. Even against Iowa, despite losing 38-17, the defensive play was decent.

When factoring the promise for next year -- with emerging stars like Randy Gregory, Avery Moss and Michael Rose -- this defense is better than average. But production doesn’t always meet potential.

Special teams C-minus

Bell on kickoff returns and place-kicker Pat Smith, who was solid all year and hit a game-winning field goal in overtime at Penn State, prevented a failing grade here.

Just too many mistakes and lack of adjustments.

Nebraska averaged 3.04 yards per punt return -- better nationally than only Mississippi State and 1-11 Cal. More than that, the Huskers fumbled a pair of punt returns and erred too often on decisions in the return game.

Additionally, Michigan State converted a key fake field goal against the Huskers, and Pelini’s ill-advised decision to fake a punt against Iowa proved costly.

Overall: C-plus

Nebraska sits 8-4 as it prepares for the TaxSlayer.com Gator Bowl against Georgia, leaving it with a chance to again reach nine wins. A loss on New Year’s Day would mark Pelini’s first season with five defeats and make this the second Nebraska team not coached by Bill Callahan since 1968 to miss the nine-win benchmark. The absence of key players, youth on defense, turnovers and other mistakes factor in the Huskers’ overall grade. None of it weighs heavily enough to sink this team to great depths, yet Nebraska hasn’t done enough, either, to get far above the industry average.

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