Nebraska Football: The 5 Greatest Super Bowl Performances by Cornhuskers

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photo and story by Patrick Runge

Nebraska football fans, along with basically the rest of the planet, will be tuning in on Sunday to watch Super Bowl XLIX between the New England Patriots and the Seattle Seahawks. While neither team boasts a Nebraska player on its active roster (the Seahawks have no Nebraska players, while the Patriots have Alfonzo Dennard on injured reserve and Eric Martin on the practice squad), the Cornhuskers have a proud history of players in the Super Bowl.

Prior to this year’s contest, Nebraska ranked seventh overall in terms of colleges represented in the Super Bowl with 95 players (as compiled by Bleacher Report’s Amy Daughters). But which of those players has done the most on the biggest stage in the NFL? When combining performances and appearances, here are the five best Cornhuskers in the Super Bowl.

All statistics courtesy of NFL.com.

No. 5: Mark Tinglehof

Tinglehof participated in four Super Bowls (IV, XIII, IX, and XI), all playing center for the Minnesota Vikings. Yes, it’s true that the Vikings lost all four of those games, never scoring more than 14 points in any of the contests.  However, the sheer number of appearances in the NFL’s crowning achievement make Tinglehof a worthy member of this list.

No. 4: Mike Minter

Minter only appeared in one Super Bowl (XXXVIII), a close loss to the New England Patriots. But in that game, Minter logged fourteen total tackles at cornerback, the second best performance in Super Bowl history. So while Minter only has the one Super Bowl appearance (and in a losing effort), such a standout performance in his time on the big stage is worthy of inclusion in this list.

No. 3: Grant Wistrom

Wistrom has appeared in three Super Bowls, one in victory with the St. Louis Rams (XXXIV), and two in defeat (with the Rams in XXXVI and the Seahawks in XL). In addition to making the Super Bowl three times (and with two different teams), Wistrom’s performance in Super Bowl XXXIV with five total tackles ties him for sixth overall in tackles by a defensive lineman in a Super Bowl.

Combining his statistical performance with his number of appearances in the Super Bowl helps place Wistrom on the list.

No. 2: Russ Hochstein

Hochstein appeared in three Super Bowls (XXXVIII, XXXIX, and XLII) with the New England Patriots, as part of the offensive line helping to protect Tom Brady as he led New England to the most recent back-to-back victories (along with a narrow loss to the New York Giants). As a crucial part of the last team to defend the Vince Lombardi Trophy, Hochstein is one of the most accomplished Husker alums to play in the Super Bowl.

No. 1: Roger Craig

Ultimately, this wasn’t that close of a contest. Craig appeared in three Super Bowls (XIX, XXIII, and XIV), all with the victorious San Francisco 49ers. He also holds the distinction for most receiving yards by a running back (101, in Super Bowl XIX) in the history of the game.

With three rings and a statistical distinction like that, Craig’s performances stand out at the greatest by a Husker alum in Super Bowl history.

Nebraska Football: Cornhuskers’ 3 Most Underrated Recruits of 2015

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photo and story by Patrick Runge

Nebraska football fans have been watching the 2015 class take shape as National Signing Day on February 4 approaches. Currently, the class sits at 14, and is ranked no. 36 nationally and no. 5 in the Big Ten by 247 Sports. New Nebraska head coach Mike Riley will be working hard to make up those numbers before National Signing Day.

While the ranking is alarmingly low, the small number of commits (no school ahead of Nebraska has fewer than 16) should help boost the number by the end of the process. But what shouldn’t be lost in the worry about the overall ranking is the quality of prospects already in the class. Here are three that haven’t received the attention they deserve.

All measurables and rankings from 247 Sports

Daishon Neal (Defensive End, 6-foot-7, 250 pounds, three-star, 89 composite)

It might not be entirely fair to list Neal here, as there has been much real and virtual ink spilled about Neal’s flirting with other programs (such as this article from Sam McKewon of the Omaha World-Herald discussing Michigan’s overtures to Neal).

But it’s big news for a reason. Check out this Scholarship Distribution Chart done by the Omaha World-Herald, a phenomenal resource you should have bookmarked. After 2015, Nebraska will only have three (!) scholarship defensive ends. Other than Neal, Nebraska only has one other defensive end commit in Carlos Davis (three-star, 89 composite), so a second defensive end commit is a must-have for NU to fill out its class.

The down-to-the-wire chasing of recruits happens every year, but given Nebraska’s lack of depth at the position and how slim the pickings are if Neal de-commits, it’s almost hard to over-state the importance of Neil for this class.

Jalin Barnett (Offensive Guard, 6-foot-5, 315 pounds, four-star, 92 composite)

Why is the second-highest rated prospect in Nebraska’s 2015 class consider underrated? Well, it’s not because we don’t know about his skills and how he projects at the next level.

What’s underrated about Barrett, at least to this point, is when he was signed. Barrett wasn’t a Bo Pelini recruit that Riley has held onto. Barrett signed for Riley, not for Pelini, a sign that the man from Corvalis, Oregon, is able to convince top-flight talent to come to Lincoln.

Whether a flow of four-stars to Lincoln under Riley will continue is a question that will be answered in part this February, and in more detail with next year’s class. But the fact that Riley was able to land one so quickly after taking charge bodes well for his future.

Stanley Morgan (Wide Receiver, 6-foot-0, 185 pounds, three-star, 87 composite)

Nebraska’s senior-laden defensive end class has been well documents, but less attention has been paid to thirty percent of NU’s scholarship wide receivers being seniors in 2015. After this year, though, Nebraska will be down to seven scholarship wide receivers, two of them (Alonzo Moore and Brandon Reilly) having a history of injuries.

Which makes having just one wide receiver in the 2015 class (at least to this point) a bit of a gamble. Morgan looks to be a good addition to Nebraska’s wide receiving corps, with the potential to fight for playing time right away. But given Nebraska’s impending lack of depth at wide receiver, coupled with a likely shift to more of a passing attack under Riley, Morgan’s addition to the class becomes incredibly important.

Nebraska Football: Who Will Be The Huskers’ Starting Quarterback in 2015?

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photo and story by Patrick Runge

Nebraska football fans looking forward to the 2015 season will have one question on their minds over almost all others: who will be the starting quarterback?

There are five candidates on the roster as we speak. Tommy Armstrong is the incumbent, having started 21 games over the last two years. Waiting in the wings are Johnny Stanton and Ryker Fyfe, who saw limited playing time in 2014, and Zack Darlington and A.J. Bush, who redshirted last year.

Of course, it’s a big guessing game at this point as to who will win the job, as we don’t know what type of offense new head coach Mike Riley will be playing. We also don’t know how each of the quarterback prospects will perform this spring or this fall.

But based on what we know now, we can at least make some educated guesses as to where the quarterbacks currently on the roster stand.

Tommy Armstrong

As the incumbent starter, Armstrong has to open as the favorite to win the job in 2015. And there’s a lot of reasons to like Armstrong. He’s 16-5 as a starter. He’s led Nebraska on gutty comeback performances, either in victory (Iowa) or close defeat (Michigan State, USC). He’s a leader on the field who commands respect from his team-mates.

But there are also reasons to question whether Armstrong will be the guy who gets the nod next year. He has a 52.9 percent career completion rate, which is simply not good enough to win a conference title. As thrilling as the comeback against USC in the Holiday Bowl was, don’t forget that the Trojans also dropped a host of interceptions that would have put the game truly out of reach at halftime.

That’s not to say Armstrong can’t get better, particularly with a new head coach and a new offensive coordinator who are both skilled in working with quarterbacks. Given his experience, Armstrong is still the clear favorite to win the job next year.

But given the new staff coming in and looking at things with fresh eyes and installing a new offensive system, it’s a lot closer than it would be otherwise.

Chance of being the 2015 starter: 50 percent.

Johnny Stanton

If there’s anyone that has benefited from the transition from Bo Pelini to Mike Riley, it’s Stanton. Until the very end of last year, Stanton was unable to even win the backup job, ceding that role to walk-on Ryker Fyfe. But the Elite-11 prospect has the kind of underlying skills that made Riley want him very badly at Oregon State, meaning Riley arrived in Lincoln aware of his skills.

If Stanton couldn’t see the field last year because he struggled picking up Tim Beck’s system, then a change in offensive coordinators gives him a fresh start. And given his unquestioned physical talents, that might be enough to create some real drama this spring.

Chance of being the 2015 starter: 25 percent

Ryker Fyfe

Fyfe looked to be playing the role of Joe Ganz from a few years earlier, being the plucky kid who worked hard in the shadow of much higher-regarded quarterback prospects until he got his chance to shine. When Armstrong was injured against Michigan State, it was Fyfe who got the nod and led Nebraska to a score to keep the game competitive.

But with a new staff and a new system coming in, Fyfe will be starting from scratch, much like all of the other quarterback prospects. That means the same hurdles he needed to clear last year will be facing him again. That’s not to say he can’t be successful. It’s just a lot more difficult for him.

Chance of being the 2015 starter: 5 percent

Zack Darlington

Darlington has been lost in the shuffle a bit, in part because of his redshirt and in part because his concussion history had many wondering if he would be able to play quarterback at all for Nebraska. But he’s still here, with the same three-star dual-threat quarterback pedigree (according to 247 Sports) that made him a target for schools like Ohio State, Arizona, and Mississippi State.

He’s also a coach’s son, which would tend to suggest he might have a leg up in terms of picking up a new system and understanding the game as a whole. Maybe he’s not as flashy as some of the other signal-callers on Nebraska’s roster, but Darlington might be a bit of a sleeper.

Chance of being the 2015 starter: 10 percent

A.J. Bush

If Darlington is the sleeper pick, Bush is the trendy redshirt to back for next season. During bowl preparation, interim head coach Barney Cotton called Bush “intriguing” and praised his athleticism and work ethic in preparation for the Holiday Bowl (according to Steven M. Sipple of the Lincoln Journal-Star).

Hearing the praise about Bush’s work ethic certainly would have to bode well for his chances to make a splash with Nebraska’s new coaches. Combine that with his physical skills, and he should have a fighting chance to make an impression.

Chance of being the 2015 starter: 10 percent

Nebraska Football: Reasonable Goals for Huskers’ Offseason

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photo and story by Patrick Runge

Nebraska football fans are now officially settled in for a long offseason, and the first step of any offseason is to define some goals. Sure, winning a national title in 2015 would be awesome, but Nebraska’s odds of doing so are pretty remote.

So what are some realistic goals new head coach Mike Riley can accomplish before the 2015 season starts? Here are three baseline goals that will go a long way towards building a foundation for Riley in Lincoln.

Recruit Strong

In the brief few weeks since Riley arrived in Lincoln, his job got a lot more complicated. Ohio State won the national championship, demonstrating (if you didn’t realize it already) that the Buckeyes have a talent pool that can compete with anyone in the country. Michigan hired Jim Harbaugh, who has won big every place he has gone and looks to take the Wolverines’ top-ten recruiting classes and have them competing with That School Down South in a hurry. Add into the mix Penn State, with a top-flight recruiter in James Franklin, being freed from the Sandusky-era sanctions and a Michigan State squad that has lived in the top ten for the last few years, and you can see the B1G isn’t quite the cakewalk it seemed to be.

That said, Riley landed four-star offensive guard Jalin Barrett this week, the highest-ranked recruit of the 2015 class. Nebraska’s class, according to 247 Sports, sits at no. 27 nationally and no. 3 in the B1G. With a small class and a short recruiting period, a gaudy recruiting ranking for Nebraska is unlikely.

But if Nebraska could at least crack the top 25 with its 2015 class, it would be a promising sign going forward.

Get To Know the Roster

Yes, that goal sounds quite banal and obvious. But it’s also one of the biggest and most important things Riley and his staff will be doing this offseason. Riley was known as running a pro-style offense at Oregon State, and many were fearful upon hearing of his hire that he would attempt to take Nebraska’s squar-peg roster of zone read players and force it into the round hole of a pro-style offense.

New offensive coordinator Danny Langsdorf seemed to quell those fears (according to Rich Kaipust of the Omaha World-Herald).

“We haven’t necessarily been a huge zone-read team (at Oregon State), more because we haven’t had necessarily the right person to do that,” Langsdorf said. “I think here, it looks like there’s a little bit more possibility of that. So we’ll definitely look at that and consider more with who we have.”

It’s fair to assume that Nebraska’s defense will have the same adjustment, even with new defensive coordinator Mark Banker’s preference for quarters coverage. Brandon Vogel of Hail Varsity has an excellent summary of the similarities and differences between what look to be Banker’s philosophies and what Bo Pelini did on defense.

But that means Riley and his staff will have to very quickly get a handle on the strengths and weaknesses of Nebraska’s current roster, so it can start making offensive and defensive plans accordingly.

Choose a Quarterback

Goal number three comes right on the heels of goal number two, of course. One of the biggest decisions that Riley and his staff will be making this offseason is about the nature of Nebraska’s offense. And what that offense will look like should inform the skill-set of the quarterback that wins the starting job.

But it might not be that simple. With a new staff arriving, the door will be more open than ever for a new person to win the starting quarterback job. As the coaches look at all five quarterbacks on the roster (Tommy Armstrong, Ryker Fife, Johnny Stanton, Zack Darlington, and AJ Bush), they will be able to assess each of their skills and sculpt an offensive philosophy around the one that they believe gives Nebraska the best chance to succeed in 2015.

So deciding on a starting quarterback not only will be a roster decision, but will also likely be an indicator of what Nebraska’s offensive identity will be next season.

Nebraska Football: 5 Players Poised to Break Out in 2015

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photo and story by Patrick Runge
Nebraska football fans will have watched the College Football Playoff National Championship Game (which desperately needs a better name) and spend some time dreaming about what it would be like to see NU in that game. To get there, Nebraska will need some new stars, particularly to replace players like Ameer Abdullah and Randy Gregory.
Nebraska’s roster has plenty of talent for new head coach Mike Riley to use next year. Here are five players who could be breakout stars for Nebraska in 2015.
De’Mornay Pierson-El
OK, it’s fair to say that Pierson-El already has broken out, given his phenomenal freshman campaign. But his performance in the Holiday Bowl (8 catches, 102 yards, 1 touchdown) suggests that he can play a larger role in Nebraska’s offensive game plan. Combine that with Riley’s history of a pass-heavy offense, and Pierson-El could develop into more than just a game-changing returner.
Add in the benefits of another off-season in the weight room to increase his durability, and Pierson-El could go from an exciting addition to a main weapon in Nebraska’s offensive arsenal.
Cethan Carter
Under Bo Pelini, tight ends frequently suffered from what I called “Mike McNeil syndrome,” when a promising receiving target would disappear from the game plan.
Carter certainly looked like he was falling victim to that syndrome. Before his two catches against Iowa (which was a season best, telling you all you need to know), Carter hadn’t caught a ball since Fresno State. Sure, some of that was due to injury, but much of it was due to the tight end just not being a part of the game plan.
Look for that to change under Riley’s system, whatever it may end up looking like. Any tight end usually presents simpler targets for a quarterback, and a tight end like Carter who can be a receiving threat and cause matchup nightmares can become a huge part of an offensive game plan.
Michael Rose-Ivey
If there was one position where Nebraska really struggled last season, it was at linebacker. Other than Zaire Anderson, the linebackers for Nebraska really didn’t make much of an impact for the Blackshirts.
But much of that came from Nebraska never really getting settled at middle linebacker. Towards the end of 2013, Rose-Ivey began to look comfortable at the position, helping to orchestrate the defense as well as making plays on his own.
An injury cost Rose-Ivey the 2014 season. But with a year to heal and prepare, look for Rose-Ivey to be a lynchpin for the Blackshirts in 2015.
Mikale Wilbon
Nebraska’s offense next year will have an Abdullah-shaped hole right in the middle. Imani Cross and Terrell Newby were called to action to replace Abdullah after his injury against Purdue, but neither of them were able to truly take advantage of that opportunity. Adam Taylor was lost in fall practice to an injury, but was struggling to crack the depth chart even before he got hurt.
So maybe it’s Wilbon, who spent his redshirt season last year on the scout team, who will be the one to rise and shine.
Johnny Stanton
Yeah, this one is kind of taking the obvious leap. Tommy Armstrong will be returning at quarterback with almost two years of experience, and the confidence of his team in large part due to his off-the-charts intangibles.
But he’s also never finished a season with better than a 53.3 completion percentage. And even with his late-game heroics, the fact remains that Nebraska will not win a conference title if its quarterback is completing passes at that percentage.
Maybe Riley and his staff comes in, works on Armstrong’s mechanics, and makes him a more accurate quarterback. But the door is open much more than it would have been without a coaching change for a new starting quarterback in 2015. Stanton—who Riley recruited hard when he was head man for Oregon State—could very well end up winning the position and taking over as Nebraska’s signal-caller next season.

Nebraska Football: Ranking the 5 Best Redshirt Freshmen for the Cornhuskers

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photo and story by Patrick Runge

Nebraska football fans have long memories, long enough to remember the recruiting hype for the freshmen who redshirted last year and have extended their careers in Lincoln as a result. Of course, there is no real data available to make any kind of informed analysis of where the redshirt freshmen stand.

Having said that, we do have recruiting rankings available, to give at least some idea of a player’s potential. We can also look at the opportunities available to the players, either from roster attrition, a new coaching staff, or both, and make some informed projections about how these players may fit in next season.

All ratings from 247 Sports.

No. 5: Mick Stoltenberg (DT)

Stoltenberg was a three-star recruit (.8296 composite) coming out of high school, and plays a position that should see a lot of competition prior to the 2015 season. With Randy Gregory declaring for the NFL draft, Greg McMullen looks to be the only sure-fire starter returning for Nebraska.

Stoltenberg will be competing with Jack Gangwish, Joe Keels, and A.J. Natter, all who saw playing time last season.

No. 4: Freedom Akinmoladun (TE)

Let’s agree at the start that guessing what new head coach Mike Riley’s offense will look like in 2015 is a fool’s errand. Having said that, given Riley’s history and the fact that his new offensive coordinator is a quarterback coach, it’s a fair conclusion that Nebraska will lean more on the passing game than it did under Bo Pelini.

And if we take past as prologue, we see that the tight end in Oregon State’s offense in the last three years has been either third or fourth in receptions. Compare that to Nebraska’s offense over the same time period, where the tight end has only been fourth one year (Kyler Reed in 2012) and sixth every other year.

In 2015, Nebraska will have a dangerous receiving threat at tight end returning in Cethan Carter. But Akinmoladun looks to be cut from the same mold as Carter, and should have a chance to shine.

No. 3: A.J. Bush (QB)

Bush might be the biggest wild card of all Nebraska’s redshirt freshman. As discussed earlier, we don’t know what Nebraska’s offense is going to look like next year, so it’s hard to guess what skill set the next NU quarterback will need. Tommy Armstrong has off-the-chart intangibles and nearly two years of starting experience under his belt. Johnny Stanton was recruited by Riley at Oregon State, so there’s no question Riley likes what Stanton has to offer.

And yet Bush’s name keeps coming up, even over Nebraska’s other redshirt freshman quarterback Zack Darlington. During preparation for this year’s Holiday Bowl, interim head coach Barney Cotton called Bush “an intriguing guy” (according to Steven M. Sipple of the Lincoln Journal-Star).

With a new coaching staff coming in, all the quarterbacks will be starting with a clean slate. That may give this “intriguing guy” a chance to make an impression and work his way up the depth chart next season.

No. 2: Mikale Wilbon (RB)

The graduation of Ameer Abdullah leaves a huge hole at Nebraska’s I-back position. Returners Imani Cross and Terrell Newby certainly have the advantage of game experience. But that experience has also shown some of the weaknesses in both of their games.

Adam Taylor, if he is able to bounce back from an injury that cost him the 2014 season, looks to provide a middle-ground in skill sets between a bruiser like Cross and a scatback like Newby. A three-star prospect (.8822 composite), Wilbon will have the chance to impress the new coaching staff and make an immediate impact in 2015.

No. 1: Tanner Farmer (OL)

In some ways, picking the redshirt offensive lineman for this list was a challenge, as Nick Gates and Jerald Foster will be in the mix as well. But Farmer’s recruiting pedigree (four-star, .9021 composite) along with his size (six-foot-four, 310 pounds) give him the slight nod in this contest.

Farmer’s familiarity at guard should help, as Nebraska is returning both starting tackles for 2014. But the depth of talent and competition for playing time should be a good problem for new Nebraska offensive line coach Mike Cavanaugh.

Nebraska Football: 5 New Years’ Resolutions for the Cornhuskers

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photo and story by Patrick Runge

Nebraska football fans have been looking forward to the new year even more than usual with the firing of Bo Pelini and the hiring of Mike Riley. So as a new year dawns, it’s a good time to look forward and see what kind of resolutions for 2015 would help move things forward and make things better for the Cornhuskers.

Here are five to consider—and hopefully keep in place longer than the two weeks my “do sit-ups every night” resolution is likely to survive.

Keep the Class Together

The first thing Riley has to do is help protect and preserve Nebraska’s 2015 recruiting class. The dismissal of Pelini has already cost Nebraska standout running back prospect Kendall Bussey, although there was always some question as to whether Nebraska could have kept him even if Pelini stayed.

But there are other critical parts of the 2015 recruiting class assembled by Pelini that Riley needs to keep committed to the Big Red. Defensive backs Eric Lee and Avery Anderson, along with the Davis brothers Khalil and Carlos (both defensive tackles) are critical parts of the recruiting class, and Riley’s first priority must be to get their signatures in February.

Find a Quarterback

Riley is known for operating a pro-style offense at Oregon State. His most recent quarterback, Sean Mannion, just broke the Pac-12 record for passing yards in a career. While it is not clear what Nebraska’s offense will look like next season (more on that later), it’s a safe bet that Nebraska will be throwing the ball more under Riley.  Combine Riley’s talent in developing quarterbacks with the recent hiring of Danny Langsdorf—who was quarterbacks coach for the New York Giants last year—as offensive coordinator suggest the passing game will be a big focus for Nebraska in 2015.

Tommy Armstrong will be the incumbent coming into next year, but he will also be bringing in a 53 percent completion rating. Behind him will be Johnny Stanton, who Riley tried very hard to get to Corvallis, along with unknown quantities in Ryker Fife, Zack Darlington, and A.J. Bush. Riley and his staff will have this offseason to see what they have to work with as Nebraska’s signal-caller for 2015.

Play the Hand You’re Dealt

Yes, Riley is known as running a pro-style offense. But there is no question that Nebraska does not have a pro-style collection of talent. Nebraska fans are scarred with the memory of a new coach trying to shoehorn a quarterback into a system that does not fit his skill set (see Dailey, Joe).

So while Riley will be tasked with installing his system in Lincoln, he will also need to make sure he takes into account the talent on his roster when developing his game plan.

Avoid Lazy Comparisons

This one’s not for Riley, it’s for Nebraska fans. While the goodbye speech helped turned public opinion against Pelini, the fact remains that Riley is taking over for a coach that never won fewer than nine games. Nebraska opens next year against BYU, South Alabama (who played in a bowl game) and at Miami. While unlikely, it’s not inconceivable that Nebraska could start 2015 at 1-2.

If that happens, Nebraska fans need to take some advice from Aaron Rodgers. R-E-L-A-X.

Transitions take time, and there are bumps in the road. While I don’t think it’s likely, it’s not at all inconceivable that Nebraska’s record could end up worse in 2015 than it did in 2014. So if that does happen, Nebraska fan, take a step back.

Much like the record in and of itself didn’t tell the whole story about the Pelini era, the record in and of itself won’t tell the whole story about Riley’s first season. Certainly Riley isn’t above criticism, but judge Nebraska’s performance in year one of the Riley era on performances, not just results.

Let It Go

I know, I’m sick of hearing this song too. But it’s good advice, particularly for Nebraska’s returning players.

Pelini did a lot of good things about creating a family atmosphere around his team. But one of his primary motivating tactics was creating an “us-against-the-world” mentality, and his goodbye address made it very clear that Pelini thought Nebraska’s administration (as opposed to Pelini) was responsible for NU’s struggles and his own dismissal.

Of course, he’s entitled to that opinion. But by explicitly telling that to his players—right after his firing, when they were angry and emotionally vulnerable—Pelini set all kinds of psychological land mines in place that could go off when Nebraska faces adversity next season.

Ultimately, it will be up to the players next year—and specifically to the senior leaders that arise on the team—to flush that kind of victimization and make sure the team remains accountable to itself and avoid the easy-out scapegoating that looked to consume it at times under Pelini.

Nebraska Football: 5 Takeaways From The Holiday Bowl

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photo and story by Patrick Runge

Nebraska football fans saw the Bo Pelini tenure in microcosm while watching NU’s 45-42 loss to USC in the Holiday Bowl. Ugly offensive performances. Head-scratching playcalling decisions. A defense gouged by a power rushing attack. A furious comeback fueled by heart that came achingly close to success.

And, of course, a fourth loss to a season.

Yes, the next time Nebraska takes the field there will be a new coaching staff in place. But there are still things that can be learned from Nebraska’s performance going forward.

Tommy Armstrong’s Job Isn’t Secure

Armstrong’s stats for the Holiday Bowl were impressive. He was 32-51 (!) for 382 yards, three touchdowns, and one interception, with 41 yards rushing and another touchdown to boot. But those statistics might be a little misleading.

In the first half, USC defenders dropped no less than four sure-fire interceptions. If those picks are made—heck, if even half of those picks are made—the Trojans would have had the opportunity to bury Nebraska in the first half and put a very different shine on the game.

In late-game situations needing a comeback (Michigan State, Iowa, USC), Armstrong has been at his best. But he’s also been hopelessly, dangerously erratic and inaccurate early in games.  Armstrong has earned his season-long 53.3 completion percentage, which is not going to be good enough to win conference titles.

This isn’t to say that Armstrong won’t be the starter. His intangibles are off the charts, and Armstrong does have the experience of a year-and-a-half of starting games. But given the flaws in Armstrong’s game—coupled with the fact that his backup in Johnny Stanton was heavily recruited by incoming head coach Mike Riley when he was at Oregon State—suggest that Armstrong’s game will have to improve if he wants to keep the starting job in 2015.

Nebraska Has The Talent To Hang With USC

Sure, Nebraska was facing a USC squad still feeling the effect of a scholarship limit, and was able to wear the Trojans down in the fourth quarter as a result. But athlete-for-athlete, Nebraska was able to stay with USC throughout the game. The game was not a mismatch, which was reflected in the exciting, down-to-the-wire finale.

Incoming coach Mike Riley has some holes to fill, to be sure. But the cupboard in Lincoln is far from bare.

The Offensive Line Needs Work

It was certainly jarring to see Nebraska throw the ball 51 (!) times against USC in the Holiday Bowl. But given how beat up Nebraska’s offensive line was, the run/pass ratio starts to make a little more sense. Nebraska was down to its third-string center (which, unfortunately, was likely part of yet another ball-to-the-facemask incident at the worst possible time), and the struggles on the offensive line were a big part of why Nebraska’s rushing attack struggled to gain traction.

With an influx of young talent (headlined by guard Tanner Farmer), Nebraska’s offensive line could look radically different in 2015. And with Ameer Abdullah’s graduation, it will have to perform radically better for Nebraska’s offense to have a chance.

De’Mornay Pierson-El Will Be Next Year’s Offensive Star

True freshman receiver De’Mornay Pierson-El made a name for himself on special teams this year, but struggled to make an impact on offense. Pierson-El never had more than four catches in a game prior to the Holiday Bowl, and his fumble against Minnesota did display the dangers of inserting a true freshman into the starting lineup.

Against USC, though, Pierson-El had eight receptions for 102 yards and a touchdown. It was Pierson-El, not Ameer Abdullah, whose number was called on a critical fourth down conversion attempt late in the game. It’s hard to know what Nebraska’s offense will look like next year, with a new coaching staff, uncertainty at quarterback, and the return of Jamal Turner.

But it seems likely that Pierson-El will be one of the primary offensive weapons for Nebraska next season.

The Stormtroopers Are Here To Stay

Surrender whites, they’ve been called. The all-white look has been castigated by traditionalists and believers in superstition as a fashion travesty for Nebraska.

Well, get used to it. Nebraska has gone stormtrooper (white shirt, white pants) three times this season. Even with a new coaching staff, look for this development from the 2014 season to stick around.

Nebraska Football: Burning Questions for the Holiday Bowl

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photo and story by Patrick Runge

Nebraska football fans may have forgotten a bit about the upcoming Holiday Bowl amidst all of the drama, but there are a number of questions to be answered that will tell how NU will perform this post-season. After the firing of Bo Pelini, more questions that normal surround Nebraska as it prepares for the bowl. Here are three of the biggest ones that will help define Nebraska’s performance in San Diego.

What Will Nebraska’s Motivation Be?

Bowl games are always tricky to forecast because of the motivation question. How hard will a group of college kids, nearly a month removed from the regular season and with the holidays in between, really want to work? Will one team be more willing to pay the price in preparation, and therefore have more chance to be successful?

That’s for any bowl game. Add on top of that a popular head coach being fired. Add on top of that the fired coach being 9-3. And add on top of that a farewell speech from the fired 9-3 coach that further stoked the “us-versus-them” mentality that was one of the defining traits of said fired 9-3 coach’s career.

You could imagine almost anything in terms of how Nebraska will show up for the Holiday Bowl. Nebraska could be razor-sharp and wanting to put on the game of its life in honor and support of Bo Pelini and his staff. Nebraska could be completely flat and listless, feeling like their seasons were stolen with Pelini’s firing. Nebraska could come out like wild horses, riding an emotional high, but falling apart at the first sign of trouble.

Each of those scenarios are plausible. Indeed, over the course of Pelini’s career, we’ve seen each of those Nebraska teams take the field. So finding out what Nebraska team comes out of the locker room will be one of the biggest questions to answer in finding out how the Holiday Bowl will play out.

What Will The Game Plan Be?

While Pelini is getting comfortable in Youngstown, the rest of his staff will be preparing Nebraska for the Holiday Bowl. That means that defensive coordinator John Papuchis will be in full charge of the Blackshirts, and offensive coordinator Tim Beck will be able to call the game he wants.

Throw in a month to prepare—and coaches who will be looking to make a good impression for future employers—and Nebraska could look fairly drastically different than it has at any point this year. How effective that will be, of course, will be anyone’s guess.

How Healthy Will Nebraska Be?

Without the coaching change, this one might have been the biggest question to answer coming into the Holiday Bowl. Ameer Abdullah’s status will be the biggest question, of course, as it was his injury during the Purdue game that really changed the course of Nebraska’s season. But Kenny Bell has struggled with injuries all season, as have a number of other Nebraska stars.

With a month to heal, Nebraska will be as healthy as it has been since the start of the season. That will make a significant difference, particularly given the talent level of an opposing team like USC.

Nebraska Football: Pelini’s Last Act One of Selfishness and Childishness

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photo and story by Patrick Runge

Nebraska football fans thought the dismissal of Bo Pelini and the hiring of Mike Riley was the end of a tumultuous relationship between Pelini and the outside world. They thought wrong.

Nebraska football fans heard news of another surreptitious recording of Bo Pelini uttering profanities, this time during his half-hour meeting with the team on Dec. 2 after his firing. A transcript of the recording, obtained by the Omaha World-Herald, said that for “the majority” of that meeting, Pelini complained about Nebraska athletic director Shawn Eichorst.

Or, more accurately, he stood in front of a group of college kids and called Eichorst names.

“I didn’t really have any relationship with the A.D.,” Pelini said. “The guy, you guys saw him (Sunday), the guy is a total p—-. I mean, he is. He’s a total c—.”

One of Pelini’s prime complaints about Eichorst was his lack of public support for Pelini.

“I don’t even really know what those guys do. And I said ‘Hey, you know what, if (Eichorst) ain’t gonna do his job, if he doesn’t have the balls to go out there and support me, to support these kids, support this program, then do me a favor and get rid of me.’”

(This was, of course, the same Eichorst that didn’t fire Pelini after his infamous Coach Chickenbleep press conference after the 2013 Iowa loss.)

Of course, this wasn’t the first time Pelini has been stung by a leaked audio. Last year, Deadspin released an audio tape of Pelini angrily berating Nebraska’s “f—ing fair-weather fanbase” after a comeback win over Ohio State.

Perhaps a bit of advice may be in order. If people are referencing a recording of your embarrassing and profanity-laced tirade, and you have to ask which one they are referring to, you’re probably doing something wrong.

In all honesty, there was probably some merit to Pelini’s complaint about a lack of public support from the top brass at the university (although former Nebraska player Scott Shanle did point out how little that should probably matter to the players on Twitter.) And with two separate releases of damaging and embarrassing audio tapes, the conspiracy theorists will have free reign to craft scenarios about Nebraska brass setting bugs to catch Pelini.

At the end of the day, though, that’s not the point.

Pelini is a 47-year-old man. He’s been one of the most influential leaders in the lives of the players on his team, players who just were shell-shocked to learn that their coach had been fired. They’re looking to Pelini for leadership, for guidance on how to handle a traumatic event in their lives.

How does Pelini respond?

He spends “the majority” of the last meeting he will have with his players venting his spleen, airing his grievances, painting himself as the noble hero in the story dragged down by the “f—ing lawyer” and the people Pelini would “rather f—— work at McDonald’s than work with some of those guys.”

No introspection on what Pelini might have done differently. No advice to his players on how to handle the situation other than a perfunctory do-what-you-want suggestion and an admonition to call him.

Nope. Pelini’s team was a captive audience for the final act in this seven-year drama. As a result, perhaps we shouldn’t be so self-righteously stunned that one of those players recorded and leaked the audio of that final act.

Steven M. Sipple of the Lincoln Journal-Star called Pelini’s rant to his players “selfish,” which is the perfect adjective. Sipple went on to defend Pelini in a way, reflecting that the job consumed Pelini, making it impossible for him to continue.

The job consumed Pelini? Or Pelini allowed the job to consume him?

“I have been at LSU, I have been at Oklahoma, I have been to these other places. … The scrutiny, the negativity, it ain’t like that everywhere,” Pelini said to his team.

With all due respect, that’s nonsense. LSU coach Les Miles is under unremittent pressure in Baton Rouge—and he’s won a conference title and a national title. Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops feels the heat in Norman—again, with one more national title ring on his finger than Pelini has.

But, again, that’s beside the point. It doesn’t matter whether Pelini was justified in his complaints about Eichorst and the Nebraska brass. What matters is Pelini—after having more than enough time to marshal his emotions and compose his thoughts—chose to teach his players that the way to handle adversity is by dropping c-bombs about another adult in an ostensibly closed-door setting.

It was the same lesson he taught his players when he swung his hat at the referee during the Iowa loss in 2013. It was the same lesson he taught his players when he called out the “f—ing fair-weather fans” whose devotion paid for his salary and the palatial facilities in which the football team operated. When the going gets tough, just lash out blindly.

Bo Pelini had many good qualities and characteristics. He did a lot of good things for a lot of people, there is little doubt about that.

But when push came to shove, Pelini was incapable of responding to pressure and adversity like an adult.