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Nebraska-Kansas State: What It Means

I originally typed out the following five thoughts for this morning's links post, but the post was already getting long, so I thought I'd just flesh it out in an entirely new post.  Here are five thoughts about last night's game.  And yes, I mentioned some of these either on Twitter or in last night's live thread.

1. Taylor Martinez has one of the best play-fakes I've ever seen.

It's Kaepernick-esque.  Colin Kaepernick has a great play-fake because not only does he disguise the ball longer and better than most, but with his ostrich legs, he's ten yards upfield in about three steps once he has you fooled.  Martinez isn't 11 feet tall like Kaepernick ... but he's really, really fast, which more than makes up for it.  He disguises the ball for so long that it points to NU's biggest area of vulnerability right now -- they've now fumbled 18 times in five games -- but if it doesn't result in a fumble, it results in a really, really nice gain.

My work at Football Outsiders has proven that the correlations between strong recruiting and strong on-field performance are quite high, so clearly it is important to compile as high a quantity of strong talent as is possible.  But the breakthrough players are not always the most high-profile.  Think about recent Mizzou and Nebraska recruiting classes.  Andrew Jones and Michael Keck were four-star signees, Chase Daniel and Chase Coffman three, Sean Weatherspoon and Danario Alexander two.  Marlon Lucky was a five-star, Quentin Castille four, Prince Amukamara and Taylor Martinez three.  The production doesn't always match up with the star rating.  Martinez had no other major offers, and when he committed, Nebraska was unsure if they would put him at quarterback or free safety.  And then Martinez didn't actually win the starting quarterback job until, supposedly (unless Pelini knew all along and didn't let on), the final week of August practices.  Now he's second in the country in rushing.

The most high-profile recruits often become huge stars.  South Carolina's Marcus Lattimore, Alabama's Trent Richardson and Julio Jones, Ohio State's Terrelle Pryor, Tennessee's (and now Kansas City's) Eric Berry ... all were five-star, top ten recruits out of high school.  But the guys who can push your program from decent to very good, or very good to great, are often guys you have no reason to expect.  More four- and five-star signees = better chance at success.  But once your signees are on campus, it's probably best not to figure out who is truly going to help your team break through.  Once they put on the jersey, their star ratings go in the trash.

2. Nebraska is fast. Kansas State is not.

As The Beef said last night in the live thread (I always have to steal at least one thought from him), you have to have speed and discipline in the linebacking corps and secondary to contain the Nebraska offense.  It was pretty clear from the start that the Kansas State defense had neither.  How many times was Martinez tackled once he got about three yards beyond the line of scrimmage?  If he got through the line, he was gaining at least 20 yards, possibl y80.  Part of that is insane speed, but part of it, as proven by a lot of the wide-angle replays, was that K-State was taking horrible angles, and when they took the right angle, they got there far too late.  It wouldn't surprise me if a faster, smarter defense (like that of Texas next week) was able to contain things a little better.  Of course, even if Texas is slowing the Nebraska offense down, they still have to score.  We'll see about that.

It really is clear, though, that Kansas State just doesn't have the horses.  It was most vivid not on a Martinez run, but on the 79-yard play-action touchdown pass to Kyler Reed.  Reed was wide open deep and had to come to almost a complete stop to catch a pass that hung up behind him.  K-State's two best defensive backs -- safeties Tysyn Hartman and Emmanuel Lamur -- were catching up to him at (I assume) full speed ... and Reed was still able to outrun both of them to the end zone.

Kyler Reed is a tight end.  You want damning?  That's damning.

The main question for Kansas State moving forward is, can Bill Snyder find the speed his team is lacking and get it on campus?  In K-State's glory days, there was always a Lockett brother or a David Allen ready to explode for an 80-yard touchdown on offense, and there was always speed to burn on defense.  Not surprisingly, the first of a new generation of Locketts (Tyler Lockett, Kevin's son) is on the way next season, and what the Brown brothers (Aaron and Bryce, both of whom were five-star recruits who left the state and transferred back, eligible in 2011) appear to lack in actual football instincts, they certainly seem to possess in athleticism.  But will that be enough?  We know Snyder teams will be well-coached and physical, but the difference between a salty 6-6 and another string of 10-win seasons is athleticism, and K-State does not have it just yet.

3. Lavonte David is fun to watch.

He's exactly the kind of linebacker Nebraska needed.  He's a JUCO transfer from Fort Scott C.C., and ... tell me again why I spend every summer writing tens of thousands of words about the season when newcomers/injuries/random breakthroughs and slumps will render moot half of what I write?  David and Martinez have made Nebraska a completely different team ... and I barely mentioned either of them over the summer.

4. Daniel Thomas is a great back to have, as long as you can stay close enough for him to do good things in the second half.

The problem with power backs whose best asset is to wear down defenses over the course of 60 minutes is, if you're down three touchdowns at halftime, he's of no value.  Last night was a good game for proving two of the four "truths" I talked about last week on Outsiders -- big plays are vital (KSU had no hope for any), and while we remember fourth-quarter heroics, the first half matters even more.

5. It's easy to see how to stop Nebraska. Harder to do.

5. Nebraska is similar to their mid-1990s counterparts in one very specific way: the recipe for stopping them seems very easy to figure out -- go all out to stop the run (hoping you don't get burned by play-action), force an iffy passing quarterback to throw the ball, take advantage when they lay the ball on the ground, score every time you have the opportunity, etc.  Only ... while it may be easy to figure out, it's really hard to actually do.  Mizzou has the speed necessary to at least slow Nebraska down, but they're going to have to play extremely disciplined, recover most of the fumbles, and at least fight the Huskers to a draw in the special teams department if they're going to have a chance.  Possible?  Yes.  Probable?  No.  And they're going to have to stay out of passing downs as well -- they're more well-equipped to handle them than K-State, but you still don't want to have to handle them.