Despite being 2-0 coming into Blacksburg, I think most Hokie fans have more questions than answers about this week's opponent. That's why I turned to Husker Mike and Corn Blight from Corn Nation to help us get a better grasp on Nebraska before the big game. Thanks to both of them for participating. Here are my answers to their questions.
What are the biggest differences between this year's Huskers and the team we saw last year?
A more consistent defensive line and secondary for starters. It's tough to tell due to the lackluster competition so far, but this year, they are more physical and make more plays than a year ago. Last year, they had to think then act...now they just react. Also more playmakers have emerged at wide receiver (Niles Paul, Curenski Gilleylen), catching passes from Zac Lee, a more physically talented quarterback starting to grow into his role.
The biggest difference is that we have a defense with confidence. Coming into the Virginia Tech game last season, we still had a defense that was suffering from a hangover from 2007. They lacked confidence, and when you lack confidence, you play a lot slower than you would if you knew that someone had your back, and I'm not just talking about on the field.
Put it this way - go adopt an animal that's been beaten. Whatever it does, it still has a tentative, fearful nature about it. It may grow more comfortable over time, but it takes a while. That was the Nebraska team last season. Am I talking about the previous coaching staff? You betchyerass I am.
Is Nebraska a better team coming into this year's game at 2-0 than it was last year at 3-0?
Without a doubt. Last year, Nebraska was still feeling their way on offense and defense. Now they are much more sure of themselves on both sides of the ball.
Overall, much better. The defense is much much improved, largely because they've had a year of Pelini's philosophy. They've also had a year that was pretty successful given the circumstances.
Two redshirt freshmen, Will Compton and Sean Fisher, are starting linebackers. Pelini held them back last year, even though they might have helped with their athleticism.
There is much better depth across the board, save quarterback. You might look to running back as well, but the fact that true freshman Rex Burkhead is second on the depth chart says more about Burkhead's potential than it does about the guys he beat out.
Tell us about starting quarterback Zac Lee. How has he looked in the first two games?
He has the strongest arm we've seen wearing a Husker quarterback going back decades; he can make throws no other quarterback could even try to make. He also has decent mobility, though we haven't seen him use it much early on. The only thing he lacks is experience, and that could be an issue early on against Virginia Tech. He's never faced a defense like that without wearing the "hands off" practice jersey.
Lee hasn't made many bad throws, but truth be told he hasn't been challenged that much. Florida Atlantic did a decent job covering receivers, but against Arkansas State, guys were running open everywhere. Still, like Mike said, he's got a very strong arm and has a good grasp on the offense.
Last time Tech fans saw Bo Pelini, he was drawing an unsportsman-like conduct penalty late in the game last year. How has he improved as a coach since that game? Does he still have the same temper?
The passion is still there, but I think he's learned to manage his temper a bit better. If you caught last year's Nebraska-Oklahoma game, he nearly had a stroke in the first quarter as the Sooners ran all over the Huskers. After that game, several people intervened and showed him a tape and he quickly realized that he acted like a lunatic at times on the sidelines. Ever since then, he's been much more measured. (Whoever posts this, look for the "Bo Pelini: Not Happy" video on YouTube...) But as a coach, just look at how the Husker team evolved in October and November. They took Texas Tech to overtime on the road and won the Gator Bowl against Clemson. This was a team that improved dramatically between the start of the season and the end of the season.
(Ed. Note: You want it, you got it.)
What Mike said. Bo Pelini has learned how to be a head coach. I'm sure he's got more learnin' to do, but like the team, he grew a lot last season.
Beating Virginia Tech doesn't help the Huskers with what I'm assuming is their primary goal: Winning the Big 12 North. But what would a win in Blacksburg mean to the program? Could we officially say, 'Nebraska's back'?
Nope. Some people will try to make that claim, but we'll know when "Nebraska's back" when nobody asks that question anymore. Now, a victory in Blacksburg will quiet that question a bit, but as long as this is still a question, Nebraska's not back.
That being said, beating a Virginia Tech team on the road will represent real progress for Nebraska. The Huskers haven't beaten a top-20 team on the road since 1997 (Washington), and while a victory over the Hokies doesn't mean Nebraska's "back", it's convincing and incontrovertible proof that Nebraska football is relevant on a national scale.
Man, I have to stop letting Mike answer these questions before I do, because there are too many times he answers so well I can't say anything more than ... Yeah, what he said.
Although ... I'm thinking next time we do a Q&A with another site, I'm going to give Mike fake questions, then send them back to the asking blogger as if nothing happened. Ha Ha! I'm so clever.
Seriously, I hate the "Nebraska is back" stuff. Drives me nuts, mostly because some fans seem to have lower expectations than I do about what constitutes "back". Back means we compete for the Big 12 title every year. That takes longer than winning a road game. Takes longer than a season.
It'll happen sooner or later because I believe we have a good coaching staff. Offensive coordinator Shawn Watson is damned good, I wouldn't trade him for anyone in the country.