Published Monday, September 23, 2013 AT 3:17 PM / Updated at 3:25 PM
Mad Chatter, Sept. 23
Dirk Chatelain Omaha World-Herald

Here are your numbers of the day: 514 and 512.

While you ponder what those figures represent, I’m still trying to wrap my head around the first quarter Saturday at Memorial Stadium — and the defensive coaches’ reaction to it.

I started covering Nebraska football in 2002. I’ve seen some bad days. But I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a staff so miffed by a performance. Granted, this wasn’t Kevin Cosgrove struggling to get words out of his mouth. But as I detailed in my Sunday column, Bo Pelini, John Papuchis and Rick Kaczenski were HARD on the defense afterward.

The linebacker play might have been bad — Nebraska is really paying for its inexperience there. But most disappointing was the defensive line. South Dakota State ran it down Nebraska’s throat.

“This was a long day,” Rick Kaczenski said. “This was a long day.”

The Huskers won’t face many future NFL skill-position players in Big Ten play — you can probably count them on one hand. But SDSU showed you don’t need Shaq Evans and Montee Ball to expose the Blackshirts. Zach Zenner did just fine. Had the Jackrabbits leaned on him in the second half — they didn’t because SDSU plays North Dakota State this week — Zenner might have broken Roy Helu’s Memorial Stadium record of 309 rushing yards. Imagine that.

What’s wrong? Well, Nebraska’s D-line clearly doesn’t have the muscle to play a two-gap system. But at its core, this isn’t about scheme.

“I can’t keep saying this every week,” Kaczenski said. “It seems like every week, we gotta get a sense of urgency across the board and turn this thing around quick.”

Kaz wants to see guys play with emotion. Stop playing like they’re afraid to make mistakes. He watches the big screen after a play and his linemen are in the right spots. But they’re not shedding blocks and making a tackle.

Their minds are cluttered with technical thoughts, he said. Where am I supposed to be? What if the lineman goes this way?

“You can’t think of these things after the ball is snapped,” Kaz said. “I think we got a lot of guys doing that right now. They’re putting their hand on the ground, trying to figure things out. You gotta go through the scenarios pre-snap.”

Why Nebraska is still fighting these battles in week four, I don’t know. What Nebraska will do to solve them, I don’t know. But it’s important to note: This was South Dakota State! The Huskers got beaten up by an offense full of players Nebraska would NEVER recruit.

So back to that number, 514? What’s it mean? It’s the average total yards allowed the past six games, dating back to last year’s Big Ten championship game.

What’s 512? That’s the average total yards allowed the last six games of the 2007 season.

And if you haven’t noticed, the offenses Kevin Cosgrove faced were a little more talented than South Dakota State and Wyoming.

***

>> I remember in June 2010, when Tom Osborne went to the Board of Regents to make his case for a conference change. One of his points amused me. He referenced sports like baseball, golf and tennis, saying the Big Ten offered a more level playing field. In other words, because the weather is cold in the Big Ten, the baseball players, golfers and tennis players generally aren’t very good.

Which I guess made Nebraska’s mediocrity in those sports more acceptable? It was a weird argument, like a high school athletic director saying his school should drop from Class A to Class B in order to compete. Compete for conference championships, yes. But moving to the Big Ten only moved NU farther away from elite status in baseball, golf and tennis.

Why do I bring this up? Because Osborne could’ve just as easily been talking about football!

Seeing Michigan and Michigan State struggle (again) Saturday illustrated that Nebraska CAN still win this division. The Huskers couldn’t win the SEC West or East, couldn’t win the Pac-12 South or North, couldn’t win the ACC Atlantic, the Big Ten Leaders or the Big 12. But it CAN win the Big Ten Legends. It CAN still win nine games (thanks to not seeing Ohio State or Wisconsin).

It’s the biggest source of hope right now for Husker fans. I’d argue the program should be judged on how close (or far) it is from NATIONAL relevance, not how many games it wins. But you gotta admit, Nebraska is definitely a contender for Indianapolis.

>> I loved watching Tommy Armstrong Saturday. And I think that Armstrong is much closer to Taylor Martinez than most of us realized. But hold your horses on the QB controversy. Armstrong needs to show it against somebody better than South Dakota State.

But hopefully this does inspire Bo Pelini to give him more time in October. Let’s see Armstrong in the second or third quarter, even if a game is relatively tight.

It’s going to take a lot more than a few good possessions against South Dakota State to prompt Bo to make a permanent change. But Armstrong has earned more than mop-up time. If nothing else, it helps prepare him for 2014.

One more point on the QBs: It’s too bad Martinez didn’t have a high-level backup the past two years. He could’ve benefited from an underclassman pushing him.

>> I’ve written it before. But I don’t know how NFL coaches and players sleep. They invest every ounce of energy in their week into winning Sunday afternoon. And seemingly half the games are decided by one play.

Look, for example, at the Tennessee Titans the past two weeks. They go to Houston, have the game in hand, lead by eight in the final minutes, lose a coach’s challenge on a long Andre Johnson reception, then lose the game in overtime.

Week 3 they come back home and win on a 34-yard touchdown pass to Justin Hunter with 15 seconds left, a play that easily could’ve been called offensive pass interference.

Look at the Redskins, where the difference between misery (0-3) and progress (1-2) was a 57-yard touchdown pass to Aldrick Robinson overturned when the tip of the ball hit the ground in the end zone. Look at the Packers, who win Sunday in Cincinnati if Johnathan Franklin’s fumble on fourth-and-inches doesn’t go for a touchdown the other way.

It’s nuts. And totally unpredictable. The Jets have a better record than the 49ers. The Chiefs — 2-14 a year ago — are undefeated. The Redskins — who won seven straight to finish last season — are 0-3.

The only sure thing? Jacksonville will be terrible. Every single week. You can bank on that.

>> The Royals are not going to the playoffs. Face it. But Sunday’s 10th-inning grand slam by Justin Maxwell was a heckuva prologue for the 2014 season. “That was the coolest thing I’ve seen since I’ve been here,” Alex Gordon said. I regret not getting to Kauffman Stadium this summer. I won’t make the same mistake next year.

>> Jeff Passan assigns toilet flushes to each of the MLB playoff contenders.

>> He was supposed to be the next Kevin Garnett. What happened to Korleone Young?

>> Finally, Happy 64th Birthday, Bruce Springsteen! The other night, he played 30 songs in Brazil, covering 3 hours, 17 minutes. I wish we all could live each day with the same passion and intensity.

About Dirk Chatelain

Dirk Chatelain is a staff writer for The Omaha World-Herald and covers Nebraska football and general assignments. You can follow Dirk on Twitter (@dirkchatelain) or email him at dchatelain@owh.com