Nebraska Football: Ranking the 5 Most Surprising Cornhuskers in 2014

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photo and story by Patrick Runge

Nebraska fans have been pleasantly surprised by a number of players in 2014. While stars like Randy Gregory, Ameer Abdullah, and Kenny Bell have been (in the immortal words of former Arizona Cardinals coach Dennis Green) who we thought they were, some Cornhuskers have either stepped up performances from previous years or come completely out of the blue to become stars.

Here are five Cornhuskers who have given Nebraska fans far more than they expected this season.

No. 5: Greg McMullen

Sure, we knew Randy Gregory was a beast at defensive end. So when Gregory went down early in the season, Nebraska fans were rightfully concerned at what his absence would do to the defensive line.

But throughout this season, Greg McMullen has more than held his own on the other end of the defensive line. He’s eighth on the team in tackles with 27, four in tackles for loss with 5.5, and third in sacks with 2.5. Gregory is quite rightly getting the lion’s share of praise, but McMullen’s contributions this year have been quietly critical for Nebraska.

No. 4: Trevor Roach

In fall practice, Nebraska lost three defensive players—nickel back Charles Jackson, middle linebacker Michael Rose, and safety LeRoy Alexander—either to injury or to suspension. As the season has unfolded, it’s become clear that Rose’s loss has been the most damaging for Nebraska.

The Blackshirts have struggled at linebacker, in large part due to a lack of production from the middle linebacker position. Josh Banderas, who had an lost the position last year as a true freshman, has struggled again this season.

Up stepped senior Trevor Roach, particularly against Michigan State, and demonstrated that knowledge of the defensive system and being in the right place can make up for some athletic deficiencies. Roach and Banderas are now neck and neck for the starting middle linebacker position, as Roach has struggled some after his breakout performance against the Spartans.

But the fact that Roach is in the conversation with Banderas at all is, at least to some, quite a surprise.

No. 3: Maliek Collins

Much like with Gregory and McMullen, many thought that Vincent Valentine was going to be the key cog of the interior defensive line for Nebraska. And while Valentine has played very well, Maliek Collins has excelled at defensive tackle as well.

Collins has the same number of tackles (24) as Valentine, and is tied for the team lead in tackles for loss with 6. Against Rutgers last week, Collins spent a good portion of the game in the Scarlet Knights’ backfield, disrupting any attempt of a comeback.

Much like at defensive end, the unexpected performance of the “other” guy has been a large part of why Nebraska’s defensive line has been so effective in 2014.

No. 2: Nathan Gerry

Last year’s experiment with Gerry as a linebacker didn’t work out so well, with Gerry not being able to produce well enough stay on the field.  But Gerry’s move this year to safety has paid dividends. He has been all over the field, is second on the team in tackles with 23, and leads the team in interceptions with three (and that’s not counting the totally bogus one taken away from him against Miami).

Gerry’s move to safety certainly had the promise of success. But particularly with a mostly-anonymous season from Corey Cooper, Gerry’s performance in 2014 has been a crucial and pleasant surprise for Nebraska.

No. 1: De’Mornay Pierson-El

You’re not shocked at this one, are you?

True freshman Pierson-El was a ways down the pecking order in terms of punt returns. Indeed, it wasn’t until Pierson-El flashed his brilliance against Fresno State that Nebraska truly realized what a weapon it had on its hands.

Now, Pierson-El is so intimidating opponents that they are punting short and out of bounds (like Northwestern), giving Nebraska free yardage without the risk of turnover or injury, or kicking off to Ameer Abdullah (like Rutgers) with predictable results.

Pierson-El is just starting to be integrated into Nebraska’s offense, including the amazing return of Black Flash 41 Reverse where he threw a touchdown pass to Tommy Armstrong.  But there’s little doubt that the true freshman who only got into his first game against Florida Atlantic in garbage time is becoming one of Nebraska’s biggest offensive weapons.

Stats from CFBStats.com.

Nebraska Football: Game-by-Game Predictions for the Month of November

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photo and story by Patrick Runge

“And it’s hard to hold a candle

In the cold November rain.”

- Guns ‘n Roses, “November Rain”

Nebraska football fans will be putting away their Halloween candy (in more ways than one) and preparing for the November end-of-season stretch run that will define whether 2014 was a success or a failure. Trips to Wisconsin and Iowa highlight the challenges of the month, but four potential pitfalls await Nebraska as it tries to find a way back to Indianapolis.

So let’s take a look at how we should expect Nebraska to fare in its final four games of the regular season.

Nov. 1: Purdue

Nebraska’s November is no picnic, but at least it has a bit of a soft start to the month. Purdue has been struggling to rebuild under Darrell Hazell, but currently sit at 3-5 overall and 1-2 in the Big Ten. The Boilermakers have shown some fight in the last few weeks, knocking off Illinois in Champaign and putting up game efforts in close losses to Michigan State and Minnesota.

So Purdue may not be the automatic win that Nebraska fans anticipated at the start of the season. But anything less than a comfortable win—particularly off the back of a sloppy performance against Rutgers—should make for an uncomfortable bye week.

But Nebraska’s sloppy play against Rutgers is bad news for Purdue, as Bo Pelini should have his teams full attention in practice this week. A sharp Nebraska should be more than enough to comfortably handle Purdue

Fearless Forecast: Nebraska 45, Purdue 13

Nov. 15: at Wisconsin

Reports of the Badgers’ demise may have been a bit premature. After B1G fans were ready to write off Wisconsin as a legitimate conference title contender, the Badgers undress Maryland in Madison, 52-7, in a game that might not have been as close as the score indicated.

Wisconsin’s Melvin Gordon is the nation’s no. 2 rusher (one spot better than Ameer Abdullah), and if the Badgers can get any kind of a passing attack going they can be dangerous. Couple that with a stingy defense and the house of horrors that is Camp Randall, and Nebraska looks to have a tall order facing it.

But Wisconsin does too. For its offense to work, Wisconsin must have some semblance of a passing attack, and Nebraska’s defensive line should be effective enough to pressure the Badgers’ quarterback (whichever one they roll out) into mistakes. Look for Nebraska, with the advantage of an off week to prepare, to take advantage of a Wisconsin team in transition and notch an important road win.

Fearless Forecast: Nebraska 27, Wisconsin 20

Nov. 22: Minnesota

The Gophers know who they are and, more importantly, who they are not. Minnesota will come to Lincoln with a ground-and-pound attack and hope to shorten the game and wear the Blackshirts out, like it did in Minneapolis last year.

But Nebraska has more going, both on offense and on defense, than it did a year previously. A clearly hampered Taylor Martinez will not be the albatross around Nebraska’s offense this time around, and the memory of last year’s upset should be more than enough to keep NU focused and ready.

Fearless Forecast: Nebraska 31, Minnesota 17

Nov. 28: at Iowa

Before the season started, this dope thought that Iowa would beat Nebraska on its way to a B1G West division title. Then came losses to Iowa State (!) and Maryland, along with less-than-convincing wins against the rest of its schedule. Laboring to beat Northern Iowa, Ball State, and Purdue does little to inspire confidence that the Hawkeyes are even close to a team ready for a division title.

Add into the mix an unsettled situation at quarterback and a rushing attack that is far less potent than imagined, and Iowa looks to be a far cry from what it was expected to be at the start of the season. With games against Minnesota and Wisconsin before facing Nebraska, it’s hard to guess what Iowa’s record will be on the day after Thanksgiving. But a more complete Nebraska team, with a trophy to win back, should be enough to get the job done for NU.

Fearless Forecast: Nebraska 24, Iowa 14

Nebraska Football: Early Odds for the Cornhuskers’ Team MVP

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photo and story by Patrick Runge

Seven games into the season, Nebraska football fans have taken a good look at the roster and have an idea of the team’s most valuable players. Some are established stars, some are newcomers making a name for themselves, and others are unexpected contributors. But here are five Cornhuskers who are staking a claim as this year’s MVP, along with those players’ odds of actually getting that accolade at the end of the year.

Sam Foltz: 20-1

I know, I know, he’s a punter. But hear me out.

Field position is a huge, and frequently ignored, factor in winning football games. And in games where Nebraska has struggled, Foltz’s punting has gone a long way towards keeping Nebraska in the game.

Take McNeese State for example. In the second half, as Nebraska labored to beat the FCS Cowboys, NU had to punt five times. The Cowboys’ starting field position after those punts? Their own 22, own 2, own 33, own 5, and own 10. Those are long fields, which made it harder for the Cowboys to score and put a real scare into Nebraska.

Foltz did the same against Michigan State, as Nebraska punted seven (!) times in the first half. The Spartans’ starting field position was their own 20, own 20, own 13, Nebraska 31, own 19, own 16, and own 23. Other than one big return, the Spartans had a long field to cover, making it harder for them to score. Had they not, Michigan State could well have been ahead at halftime far more than “just” 17-0, making Nebraska’s near-miracle comeback a non-entity.

Foltz won’t be Nebraska’s MVP this year. But given his contributions, he should be in the conversation.

Tommy Armstrong : 10-1

It is hard to know just what to think of Armstrong. On the one hand, Armstrong has struggled to take the reins of Nebraska’s offense. His completion percentage of 53.5 percent is problematic, almost to the point of being a liability. And whether it is Armstrong’s decision-making or offensive game planning, he has not (at least prior to Northwestern) run the ball enough to take attention away from Ameer Abdullah. In essence, the argument against Armstrong would go, at best Nebraska is succeeding with Armstrong as a passenger—and at worst, in spite of Armstrong.

But the fact remains that Nebraska is 13-2 with Armstrong as a starter, and both of those losses came to Michigan State. And while “he’s young” falls a little flat as a defense of a quarterback with 15 starts, it is fair to say that Armstrong is improving. His completion percentage against Northwestern (62.1) may be signs of things to come. And the toughness and leadership he’s shown at the end of games, leading Nebraska to a near-Lazarus moment in East Lansing and helping to put a pesky Northwestern team away in the second half, certainly suggests Armstrong’s intangibles are critical to NU’s toughness and resiliency.

De’Mornay Pierson-El: 8-1

Can a guy who touches the ball less than 15 times in a game truly be a difference-maker? True freshman Pierson-El may be providing us an answer. After his coming out party against Fresno State, Pierson-El’s electric punt return game has turned a huge liability for Nebraska into a huge asset. Pierson-El’s punt return against Michigan State was the crucial element in Nebraska’s oh-so-close comeback. And the fear of Pierson-El led Northwestern to kick away from him on punts—and even kickoffs—ceding field position to Nebraska without any risk of turnover or injury.

And now Pierson-El’s role on offense is growing, including a reprise of the Black 41 Flash Reverse where Pierson-El threw a touchdown to Armstrong last week. Given Nebraska’s struggles with injuries at receiver, combined with Pierson-El’s playmaking ability (and, at least to Northwestern head coach Pat Fitzgerald, his ability to intimidate), he could end up making a remarkable difference.

Randy Gregory: 9-2

Gregory has missed nearly two full games out of seven for Nebraska. He draws cut blocks and ends up being taken out many times. Fair questions can be raised about his motor and ability to give maximum effort throughout a game.

And yet Gregory, with his combination of size and speed, is the most disruptive defensive force Nebraska has seen since Ndamukong Suh. He has six tackles for loss and 4.5 sacks this season, even after missing nearly two of the seven contests. He can chase down opposing ball carriers from the back side of a play. He can, almost single-handedly, collapse his side of an offensive line.

Nebraska’s defensive line as a whole has performed well this season. But at least some of the credit to that performance has to be the extra attention a weapon like Gregory gets from opposing game plans.

Ameer Abdullah: 3-1

It would be tempting to be a contrarian and try to find a way not to pick Abdullah. After all, Abdullah was a non-factor against Michigan State, with only 45 yards of rushing. He had gaudy numbers against Northwestern (146 yards rushing and four touchdowns), but almost all of that came in the second half against an overmatched defense. Even against McNeese State, Abdullah was held to just 54 yards rushing and one touchdown.

But he had a receiving touchdown at the end of the game against the Cowboys, too, and that one was pretty good. That play single-handedly saved Nebraska from the prospect of overtime against an FCS team, and the possibility of a hugely embarrassing home loss. It was reminiscent of Abdullah’s fourth down conversion against Northwestern in 2013 which set up the Hail Mary victory. That run by Abdullah, I will maintain, is the most impressive demonstration of individual brilliance I have ever seen on a football field.

Yeah, Abdullah has been held quiet when Nebraska struggles. But in some ways, that’s the definition of a team’s most valuable player. So with five weeks left to go in the season, Abdullah is the odds-on favorite to be the 2014 team MVP.

Stats from CFBStats.com.

Nebraska Football: Will the Cornhuskers Suffer an Upset Before Wisconsin?

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photo and story by Patrick Runge

Nebraska football fans were relieved to leave Evanston on Saturday with a 38-17 win over Northwestern, and could be forgiven for sneaking a peek at Wisconsin. After all, the Badgers look to be Nebraska’s next big test, with home games against Rutgers and Purdue standing in the way.

But those games still need to be played, and the chance exists for either team to upset Nebraska. Could that happen? Here are three things to worry about.

The First Defensive Series

Other than against Fresno State and (remarkably) Michigan State, Nebraska has allowed each opponent this year to score on its opening possession.  Nebraska has not lost any of the games in which it has conceded an opening-drive score, but that doesn’t lessen the fire with which NU is playing.

There are only a few ways teams with inferior talent can pull off an upset, particularly away from home. One is to get a lead early and play keep-away, hoping that the pressure of a potential upset on the favorite will lead to more mistakes.

Surrendering an opening drive touchdown doesn’t necessarily lead to an upset. Nebraska gave up opening scores to Florida Atlantic and Illinois before blowing those teams off the field. But Nebraska also gave up an opening score to FCS opponent McNeese State, helping the Cowboys to stay confident and able to hang with NU until the very end of the contest.

If Nebraska wants to avoid an upset prior to Wisconsin, coming out of the gate strong defensively would be a significant first step in doing so.

The Sneaky-Good Opponents

Hear me out. Yes, Nebraska has Rutgers and Purdue prior to Wisconsin, teams that at the start of the season would have been assumed wins.

Rutgers showed at least some signs of life this year, putting up a 5-2 record including a win on the road at Washington State.  But the Scarlet Knights’ close loss to Penn State is looking less and less impressive as the Lions struggle. And Ohio State ran Rutgers off the field last week, beating the Knights 56-17 in Columbus.

Purdue came into the season looking to be the worst team in the Big Ten. And at 3-5, the Boilermakers look to be fitting right into that prediction.

But Purdue’s record can be a little misleading.  The Boilermakers gave both Iowa and Michigan State a game, losing to the Hawkeyes 24-10 in a game that was closer than the score indicated and 45-31 to the Spartans.

Rutgers’ 5-2 record already suggests that the Knights could be more of a challenge than thought of at the start of the season. And with a win over Michigan, Rutgers showed it could beat a team with significantly better talent (albeit one in the midst of a total collapse).

The History

In some ways, 2014 feels like a different season for Nebraska. A comfortable win over Northwestern and a resilient (if ultimately unsuccessful) comeback on the road against a top opponent may be evidence that Bo Pelini’s squad this year is ready to shake off the doldrums of a four-loss season.

But that four-loss ceiling hasn’t been broken yet. And Pelini’s teams still have a track record of head-scratching losses to inferior teams. Both Rutgers and Purdue have inferior talent to Nebraska, and both games are in Lincoln. On paper, Nebraska should be prohibitive favorites against both teams.

But Pelini’s teams have in the past shown a propensity, or at least a vulnerability, to lose games they should win. Falling victim to that propensity could lead to an upset, and a real setback in Nebraska’s attempt to reclaim national relevance.

Nebraska Football: Grading Each Positional Unit At The Halfway Point of the Season

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photo and story by Patrick Runge

Now that the Nebraska football season has reached its halfway point, it’s time to think about grades for each positional unit. Six games in, we have enough data now to reach at least some preliminary conclusions about how each unit has performed, and what to expect for the season’s second half.

So, on a standard A-F grading scale, here’s how each unit has graded out for the first half of the 2014 season.

Offensive Line – B

Of all the units, this one was the hardest to grade because of the variance. Nebraska is currently no. 6 nationally in rushing, and no. 28 in sacks allowed. Those are awfully good numbers, and the offensive line deserves much of the credit for those stats.

And yet, we saw what happened in East Lansing. We saw Nebraska’s offensive line get its collective butt kicked—head coach Bo Pelini’s words, not mine, according to the Omaha World-Herald—in NU’s most consequential game of the year. Yes, the Spartans are really good, and yes, it was a sloppy track that contributed to the struggles.

But struggles there were. A “B” feels like a compromise grade, and might be a bit generous.

Offensive Backs – B

Remember, these are the backs in aggregate. I-back Ameer Abdullah has been a revelation, even with his performance against Michigan State factored in, and still can state his case for a Heisman invitation this year. Imani Cross has performed well as Abdullah’s primary backup, while Terrell Newby really hasn’t forced his way onto the field as of yet.

So the question becomes how to grade quarterback Tommy Armstrong. His touchdown-to-interception ratio currently sits at 10/5, which is better than the 9/8 ratio he had at the end of the 2013 season. But his completion percentage of 51.9 percent is identical to where he ended the season last year.

It’s also, just for comparison’s sake, just over four points poorer than the worst completion percentage that Taylor Martinez posted in his career, 56.3 in 2011. And no one would confuse Martinez as a quarterback who could hurt opposing defenses with accurate throws. Nor would they confuse Armstrong with having the electric, game-breaking speed of Martinez that could help justify Martinez’s deficiencies as a passer.

Sure, Nebraska’s decimated receiver corps is in part an explanation for Armstrong’s struggles. But it’s time to retire the “he’s young” canard as a defense for his performance. Armstrong has started or played in 15 games over his career. In college football, that’s a veteran, and it’s fair to start judging Armstrong based on that standard.

It’s hard to criticize Armstrong because he is a likeable kid, a mature leader, and tough as nails (as we were reminded of based on his performance in East Lansing). But is he good enough, right now, to win Nebraska a conference championship? Michigan State didn’t think so, game-planning to take Abdullah away and make Armstrong win the game.

In East Lansing, Armstrong couldn’t answer that bell. Whether he can as the season progresses may very well be the defining question for Nebraska in 2014.

Receivers – Incomplete

Kenny Bell. Jamal Turner. Cethan Carter. Sam Burtch. Brandon Reilly.

Those are all Nebraska receivers who are either out for the season or who have missed significant playing time due to injury. It’s a massive blow to absorb, one that (arguably) was the decisive factor in Nebraska’s loss to Michigan State. Players like Jordan Westerkamp, Sam Cotton, and Taariq Allen have their own talents, but none of them can stretch the field and force defense to honor the deep ball.

If Bell and Reilly are healthy and able to contribute, that could make a huge difference for Nebraska’s offense in the second half of the 2014 season. Additionally, if players like Alonzo Moore and Demornay Pierson-El are able to take their opportunities and become downfield threats, Nebraska’s offense may have more balance and be more difficult to defend.

But for right now, any judgment about Nebraska’s receiver corps would simply be unfair given the injuries it has seen.

Defensive Line – A-plus

The only reason the defensive line’s grade is an “A+” is because there’s nothing higher to give. (Yes, I suppose I could go with the trite “A++,” but that’s like saying someone is giving “110%” effort, a tired cliché with which I won’t burden you).

Defensive end Randy Gregory already has 4.5 sacks, 5 tackles for loss, and 24 total tackles, and that’s with him missing almost two full games out of the six. His opposite number, Greg McMullen, would be an unmitigated star were he not starting on the other end of a likely first-round NFL draft pick. And interior linemen Vincent Valentine and Maliek Collins have both begun to live up to their potential.

If there is any criticism of the defensive line, it is that it lacks depth, with a fairly significant drop-off in production and performance being seen when the starters are not in the lineup. But that should not take any shine off of what has been the standout positional unit for Nebraska this season.

Linebackers – C

When likely starting nickel back Charles Jackson was lost for the season due to an injury in fall camp, many thought that would be Nebraska’s most significant loss. But as the season has unfolded, it appears that middle linebacker Michael Rose might have been worse for the Blackshirts.

Sophomore Josh Banderas has been tasked to replace Rose, but throughout the season he has struggled at middle linebacker. In both run and pass coverage, Banderas has struggled—at times, to the point of being a liability—which has been a weakness opposing teams from McNeese State to Michigan State have exploited.

Senior Trevor Roach has played very well when called upon at the position, but his lack of speed and athleticism does limit how and where he can be played. David Santos seemed to take a big step forward against Miami, and his loss due to injury against Michigan State may have been an unheralded contributor to Nebraska’s struggles.

While the low grade is probably unfair to Zaire Anderson, who is performing well in his senior campaign, the struggles at a crucial position like middle linebacker make the harsh mark a fair one.

Defensive Backs – B-minus

This is another unit that is difficult to grade. Josh Mitchell has performed well at cornerback. Daniel Davie has surprised many with just winning the other corner position, not to mention his outstanding performance. We got a glimpse of the difference against Michigan State, when Davie went down and the Spartans hit replacement Jonathan Rose for a long touchdown. And the performance of true freshman Joshua Kalu should be a joy to watch for Nebraska fans, and a real glimpse into the future.

The loss of amazingly-talented athlete Charles Jackson at nickel back to injury in fall camp was disappointing, of course. But junior college transfer Byerson Cockrell has filled the position admirably.

At safety, Nathan Gerry has been incredibly impressive, flying over the field and contributing against the run and the pass. Corey Cooper, on the other hand, has been disturbingly anonymous, particularly given his size and senior status. When LeRoy Alexander was suspended for the season, it was thought he was going to compete with Gerry for playing time. Now, it looks like the coaches would love to have Alexander to plug in at safety—for Cooper.

With the wild mix of performances, weighed down by the lack of production from a player like Cooper who was thought to be a key contributor—another composite grade has to be the result.

Special Teams – A-minus

Drew Brown has performed admirably for a true freshman at placekicker, hitting 80 percent of his field goals and being perfect on extra points. With the injury to Mauro Bondi pressing Brown into duty as kickoff specialist, Nebraska’s output has stayed steady, with a 54.55 percent touchback rate.

Punter Sam Foltz was inconsistent last year, but his 2014 campaign has been solid. In Nebraska’s struggles with McNeese State, a good argument could be made that Foltz was the MVP for NU, keeping the Cowboys pinned deep time and time again and helping to prevent them from pulling off the upset.

Nebraska’s kickoff returns haven’t set the world ablaze, resting at no. 93 nationally. But Demornay Pierson-El has transformed Nebraska’s punt return game, taking a huge negative for NU in 2013 and turning it into a positive. No better evidence can be had for Pierson-El’s impact than the Michigan State game. Sure, Nebraska did well to have a chance late in the game. But without Pierson-El’s touchdown return, is Nebraska able to mount that miracle comeback?

Stats from CFBStats.com.

Nebraska Football: Three X-Factors for Nebraska vs. Northwestern

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photo and story by Patrick Runge

Nebraska football fans have had an off week to recover from NU’s near-miss against Michigan State, and will be looking for x-factors in the upcoming match against Northwestern. While Nebraska enjoys a 3-1 record against the Purples, it’s not at all hard to imagine that number being 1-3.

Two years ago, Nebraska was down 12 points with 8:31 to go, needing a miracle comeback to pull off a 29-28 win. And of course, last year Northwestern had Nebraska beaten when the clock struck 0:00, with NU needing the “RK III to 1” Hail Mary from Ron Kellogg to Jordan Westerkamp to preserve a win.

No. 1: Get Ameer On Track

If there’s any obvious plan for Nebraska, it’s this one. For the season, Abdullah has averaged 6.36 yards per carry, shouldering the load for Nebraska’s offense. But against Michigan State, Abdullah averaged 1.9 yards per carry. Don’t be fooled by Abdullah’s two touchdowns.  The Spartans neutralized Nebraska’s biggest threat, which was a major factor in their win.

For Nebraska to get back on track, Abdullah needs to find his mojo again. Facing a Northwestern defense that is a respectable no. 55 nationally against the run, success on the ground against the Purples is not a foregone conclusion.

Whether Nebraska is able to get Abdullah back on track is the single biggest decider in terms of whether NU will escape Evanston with a win.

No. 2: Corral Trevor Siemian

Sure, freshman running back Justin Jackson looks like he might have been the playmaker Northwestern was looking for after the departure of Venric Mark on the eve of the season. Jackson has been terrific, averaging 4.48 yards per carry and providing the Purples’ offense with an unexpected spark.

But it is still senior quarterback Trevor Siemian that makes Northwestern’s offense really go. He’s completing 58.8 percent of his passes, has thrown for over 1,300 yards, and has averaged 37.7 attempts per game. That means Northwestern isn’t afraid to put the ball in the air, rather than relying on the ground to move the ball.

If the Blackshirts shut Siemian down, they go a long way towards getting a win against Northwestern.

No. 3: Avoid Interceptions

I know, I know, I’m breaking my Doctor Strangelove rule from a few weeks ago and asking Nebraska to stop turning the ball over. But this is a very specific admonition, avoiding the interception. While Northwestern hasn’t done anything this season that jumps off the statistical pages, one thing the Purples have done well is intercept opposing quarterbacks.

Northwestern has nine interceptions over six games, tied for first in the Big Ten. Nebraska quarterback Tommy Armstrong has struggled with accuracy and decision-making, with five interceptions in six games and a handful of others which Armstrong was fortunate to see hit the turf.

That has the danger to be a deadly mix for Nebraska. While it’s likely that NU will feed the Purples a heavy dose of a rushing attack, there will be times in the game where Armstrong will need to make plays with his arm. Ensuring he makes those plays to white shirts, rather than the goth gear Northwestern will be rocking, will make a big difference on Saturday.

Stats from CFBStats.com.

Nebraska Football: 3 Startling Statistics through 6 Weeks

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photo and story by Patrick Runge

Nebraska football fans had a lot to digest after NU’s near-miss comeback against Michigan State, coming up on the wrong end of a 27-22 score. So they can be forgiven for not diving into the numbers as Nebraska reaches the midpoint of the 2014 season.

That’s what we’re here for, of course. So here are three numbers that you wouldn’t have expected to see, and how those numbers either explain where Nebraska is or help gauge where it is going in 2014.

All stats courtesy of cfbstats.com.

No. 8 Nationally in Rushing Offense

Many Nebraska fans turned last weekend’s game against Michigan State off as things got into the third quarter. While not laudible (and boy did they miss a show!), that decision was understandable given how anemic Nebraska’s offense looked. Coming into the game, Nebraska was no. 3 nationally in rushing offense, and NU was expected to pound Heisman candidate Ameer Abdullah and make their hay on the ground.

Nebraska ended the game—and that includes NU’s fierce comeback, remember—with 37 carries for 47 yards.

But it does give you an idea of how good Nebraska had been running the ball in the five weeks prior to Michigan State that even after such a dismal performance, Nebraska only dropped from no. 3 to no. 8 nationally. It suggests that Nebraska’s rushing attack is still formidable, even with the disastrous disappearing act it did against the Spartans on Saturday night.

No. 20 Nationally in Punt Returns

Hey, remember last year when Nebraska’s punt return game was a huge hindrance? Last year, Nebraska was no. 123 (out of 125) in punt returns, averaging 3.04 yards per return. Which, basically, represented Nebraska punt returner catching the ball and immediately falling forward.

With the discovery of true freshman Demornay Pierson-El, though, everything has changed. Nebraska is now no. 20 nationally in punt returns, averaging 14.95 yards per return. In addition to the obvious benefits of the additional 11-plus yards of field position with every punt, Nebraska has scored two touchdowns. The second, against Michigan State, was truly the turning point keying Nebraska’s near comeback.

In other words, Nebraska’s punt return game has gone from a liability to hide to a strength that can put NU in position to win a game it had no business making even close.

No. 21 in Both Polls

This might be the most remarkable statistic of all, particularly if you were one of those people who turned the Michigan State game off shortly after halftime. Nebraska came into the game ranked no. 17 in the AP poll and no. 19 in the Coaches’ Poll. When Nebraska was down 27-3 going into the fourth quarter, NU fans were primarily worried about the game becoming a complete blowout.

The fourth-quarter comeback made many Nebraska fans feel better, but certainly didn’t make up for how humbled NU’s offense was in the first three quarters. But apparently, the comeback also registered with poll voters, who only dropped Nebraska two and four spots respectively.

Is that relevant? Well, to an extent. Yes, the College Football Playoff committee is independent from the polls. But it’s hard to imagine that the perception of Nebraska as not falling too far—even with being held to only 47 yards rushing—won’t have some effect on the committee.

And before you write a comment reminding me that Nebraska looks miles away from a playoff team (which is a fair observation), remember that the committee also picks the rest of the “big six” bowls based on their rankings. Should Nebraska end the season at 10-2 or 11-1—not at all an unreasonable objective given NU’s remaining schedule—that cushion from the Michigan State loss could be crucial for Nebraska to make a big-time bowl game.

Nebraska Football: What The Cornhuskers Need To Do To Upset Michigan State

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photo and story by Patrick Runge

Nebraska football fans are gearing up for the biggest game of the 2014 season, a trip to East Lansing to face the defending Big Ten champion Michigan State Spartans. Last year, Michigan State beat Nebraska 41-28 in an ugly contest that saw NU lose the turnover battle by five (!) against the Spartans.

Most pundits think the Spartans will win on Saturday. But at least one smart and particularly handsome analyst thinks Nebraska will defy the odds and stay undefeated in 2014. Here’s what Nebraska must do to make that happen.

Stats from cfbstats.com.

Take the Ball Away

This is me giving up on a thread I have been pulling for the last two years. If Nebraska stops turning the ball over, it can be so much more successful. And while that is true because, duh, all the evidence before us suggests that such a phase change simply isn’t going to happen.

But things are better this year, right? Nebraska’s turnover margin isn’t nearly as bad as it was last year, right?

Well, yes and no. Right now Nebraska is plus-one in turnover margin, which is certainly far better than the minus-11 NU ended with in 2013.

Where was Nebraska at this stage last year, though? Plus-five. So Nebraska is actually four behind its turnover margin pace from last year—the year that ended at a disastrous minus-11.

In 2014, Nebraska has had six total turnovers. In 2013 at this stage in the season, Nebraska had—you guessed it—six turnovers. And the sad thing is that 2013 marked an improvement for the first five games of the season from 2012 (13) and 2011 (9).

So, I give up. Until proven otherwise, it’s just not reasonable to expect Nebraska to stop turning the ball over. But having a turnover margin so cartoonishly underwater in and of itself will prevent Nebraska from winning games like this and competing for conference titles. If Nebraska gets more turnovers than it gives up (or at least keeps the numbers close), then Nebraska profligacy with the ball on offense will be neutralized.

This is my Doctor Strangelove moment, or How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Love The Turnover.

Stop Jeremy Langford

The conventional wisdom is that the growth of Michigan State quarterback Connor Cook has been the key to the Spartans’ improved offensive attack. And there’s no doubt that Cook’s performance has sparked a revival that vaulted Michigan State to a conference title and national prominence.

But let’s take a look at this season. Michigan State is 3-1, with three wins over hopelessly outmatched opponents. The one loss was on the road, to Oregon.

Against the Ducks, Cook was 29-47 for 343 yards, with two touchdowns and two interceptions. He ended the game with a 128.53 quarterback rating, which is apparently very good according to those who have the foggiest notion of what a quarterback rating means.

So it looks like Cook played well in the Spartans’ loss. Sure, the defense had a lot to do with it, with the whole “giving up 47 points” thing. But how did the other part of Michigan State’s offense look?

Jeremy Langford had 86 yards and a touchdown against Oregon, his second-highest performance of the season. But he got those 86 yards on 24 carries, easily his biggest workload of the season. More importantly, Langford’s yards per carry average against Oregon was 3.58, almost two full yards less than his season average.

In other words, Oregon was able to beat Michigan State fairly convincingly by allowing Cook to play well but (in addition to scoring a lot of points) holding Langford’s yards per carry down. That’s the number to focus on. If the Blackshirts can corral Langford, keeping him under four yards per carry, Nebraska can make Michigan State’s offense one-dimensional and allow NU’s pass rush to work on Cook.

Be More Balanced On Offense

Nebraska fans of a more traditional bent have been thrilled to death with how NU’s offense has looked in the last two games. Against Miami, Nebraska ran the ball 80.5 percent of the time, and against Illinois its run percentage “dropped” to 76.9 percent. Proponents of things like “identity” and “mindset” loved Nebraska’s devotion to the run game, particularly as quarterback Tommy Armstrong has looked less than convincing.

And it does seem that offensive coordinator Tim Beck has undergone a bit of evolution, making sure to give the ball to his best player rather than attempt to achieve balance for its own sake. But just as “balance” on offense on its own is not a laudable goal, neither is having an over-reliance on the running game for its own sake smart strategy.

Michigan State is sixth in the nation in rushing defense, allowing opponents an average of 80.75 yards per game. While Nebraska’s run game is its strength (right now sitting third in the nation with an average of 354.8 yards per game), it’s a fair assumption that Michigan State will at least be able to slow down Abdullah and company.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that Nebraska should sling the ball fifty times on Saturday (particularly given the dreadful weather forecast). Nebraska’s offense will need a healthy dose of Ameer Abdullah to be successful, sticking with him even if it is not successful early.

But there’s “sticking with him” and there’s “80/20 run/pass balance.” Michigan State is simply too good defensively for Nebraska to be that one-dimensional. To win this game, Armstrong simply must make some plays with his arm, either in the short game to get the ball to playmakers in space or taking the lid off the defense with the deep ball.

Nebraska Football: Game-by-Game Predictions for the Month of October

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photo and story by Patrick Runge

“Wake me up when September ends.”

- Wake Me Up When September Ends, Green Day

Nebraska football fans are quite pleased to see NU putting September in the rear-view mirror with the team sitting at 5-0, including a cathartic 41-31 win over Miami in Lincoln. For the first time since 2010, Nebraska is undefeated through five games and, much like that 2010 season, has a monster national showdown coming up in week six.

(Although, in fairness, Michigan State has no shot to replace Texas and the disastrous “Red Out Around The World” game from 2010).

Getting through September is a prerequisite for having a special season. But that doesn’t mean much if Nebraska can’t take care of business in October. So let’s look ahead and see what Nebraska faces as the calendar turns.

All stats from cfbstats.com.

October 04: at Michigan State

Without question, this Saturday’s game in East Lansing is the marquee game in the Big Ten to date. Michigan State comes into the game ranked no. 10 in the AP poll, and Nebraska comes in at no. 19. The Spartans have only one loss, a 46-27 defeat in Oregon where Michigan State held a lead in the third quarter. Michigan State’s other wins have been gigantic blowouts against overmatched opponents.

Nebraska comes into the contest at 5-0, with the most impressive win against a talented Miami team in Lincoln. Nebraska has also blown out three overmatched opponents, and had an ugly win against FCS McNeese State, needing an “Ameeracle” with 20 seconds remaining to avoid overtime.

In many ways, this game has an “immovable object/unstoppable force” vibe going. Michigan State has the no. 6 rushing defense in the nation, allowing only 80.75 yards per game. Nebraska has the no. 3 rushing offense in the nation, gaining an average of 354.8 yards per game.

A smart and particularly handsome analyst picked before the season that Nebraska would beat Michigan State, and the rationale for that pick holds up. Last year, Nebraska lost to Michigan State not because of superior Spartan talent, but because of a minus-five turnover margin. When Nebraska wasn’t giving the ball away, it was going blow-for-blow with Michigan State.

Add in to the mix this year Ameer Abdullah’s raised level of game play and a healthy Randy Gregory, and the setting for an upset. That guy at the start of the season might have been on to something.

Nebraska 28, Michigan State 24.

October 18: at Northwestern

Yes, Northwestern got a huge conference win last week, going into Happy Valley and knocking off Penn State. But that win doesn’t really change the underlying dynamic—that with the departure of Venric Mark and the loss of Christian Jones to injury, the Purples are devoid of true game-changing playmakers on offense. Combine that with a baseline of talent level that is below Nebraska’s, and ultimately this game becomes less frightening than previous contests.

Sure, Northwestern will play hard, and play smart. And going to Northwestern is a challenging trip, although having a week to prepare after Michigan State will be a big help. Look for Nebraska to take care of business in the windy city.

Nebraska 35, Northwestern 17

October 25: Rutgers

At the start of the season, Rutgers looked to be a few years away from being competitive. Don’t look now, but the Scarlet Knights may have hit the fast-forward button on their development.

Rutgers is 4-1, and really should be 5-0 with a tough-luck three-point loss at Penn State. The Knights have wins on the road at Washington State and Navy, two teams that may not be world-beaters but are challenging foes to face.

The knock on Rutgers coming into the Nebraska contest before the season was that it was going to go through a gauntlet beforehand, getting Michigan at home and away to Ohio State before arriving in Lincoln.

Well, things have changed a bit. Michigan looks like a gimmie, and Ohio State has not looked to be the national powerhouse expected by many. At this point, Rutgers coming into Lincoln anything less than 4-2 would be a disappointment, and it’s not impossible to imagine the Knights pulling off an upset in Columbus. After all, Virginia Tech already has.

This year feels a little different from years past, so maybe this is the year Nebraska puts the four-loss hoodoo behind it. So no call for an upset yet on this one, but watch this space.

Nebraska 30, Rutgers 27 

Nebraska Football: How the Cornhuskers Can Avoid Looking Ahead to Michigan State

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photo and story by Patrick Runge

Nebraska football fans will still be savoring the Cornhuskers’ win over Miami last week, but by this stage will already be worrying about facing Illinois on Saturday. Not about the Illini themselves, of course, but about how Nebraska could be overlooking Illinois in preparation for a monster game against Michigan State the following week.

Of course, if Nebraska stubs its toe against Illinois on Saturday, that game in East Lansing won’t be nearly as monster as it would be otherwise. So how will Nebraska stay focused and get the job done on Homecoming against Illinois?

Remember Wes Lunt and Josh Ferguson

Yes, Illinois is 3-1, but that’s with needing comeback wins over football powerhouses like Youngstown State, Western Kentucky, and Texas State.  So it would be easy to dismiss Illinois as a cakewalk for Nebraska after a big win against a talented (if undercoached) Miami squad.

But Illinois has talent. Quarterback Wes Lunt, a transfer from Oklahoma State, has a big arm—maybe the best raw talent at quarterback Nebraska will face all season.  While Illinois has much poorer talent at both receiver and offensive line than Miami, Lunt will make throws and ask questions of Nebraska’s secondary.

And Josh Ferguson has the potential to be a big-time back in the Big Ten. The junior is averaging 6.38 yards per carry with three touchdowns in four games (courtesy of cfbstats.com). He’s no Duke Johnson from Miami, but Ferguson has plenty in the tank to give the Blackshirts problems. And when combined with Lunt’s arm, Illinois’ offense can carry a one-two punch that could threaten Nebraska if given an opportunity.

Bo Pelini and the coaching staff will surely point this out to the Blackshirts this week in practice, which should get their attention.

Remember McNeese State

In fairness, other than Miami, McNeese State might be the most talented team Nebraska has faced in 2014. And yes, that as much an indictment of Florida Atlantic and Fresno State as it is a compliment to the Cowboys. But at the end of the day, McNeese State and Nebraska were tied with 20 seconds to go in the game, and it was only a miraculous (perhaps Heisman-esque?) play by Ameer Abdullah to spare NU’s blushes at home.

After the contest, Nebraska knew it dodged a bullet. Abdullah said that the team “didn’t respect the game,” in preparation for the Cowboys (as quoted by Brian Christopherson of the Lincoln Journal-Star). And in the next two games, against Fresno State and Miami, Nebraska has looked sharper and more focused, perhaps taking Abdullah’s advice to heart.

“I was reluctant to say something,” Abdullah said about his concerns regarding the team’s preparation for McNeese State, “but I promise that is the last time it will happen.”

After his performance against Miami, Abdullah and the coaching staff should have the team’s full attention, making a letdown against Illinois less likely.

Remember Red Rising

In addition to a bizarre 8:00 p.m. kickoff time, Nebraska will be breaking out the alternate “Red Rising” uniforms against Illinois. While the alternate uniforms haven’t always been a success (see UCLA last season), as a fan of the superhero costumes I can only hope that Nebraska will find success with the cool threads and avoid further superstitions.

After all, it took seven years for Nebraska to break out the “Stormtrooper” all-white look against Fresno State this year. The convincing win should, hopefully, wash away the taste of the “surrender white” look Nebraska had in Bill Callahan’s last game, a loss to Colorado in Boulder.

One can only hope that the extra juice of coming onto the field in alternate uniforms will help sharpen Nebraska’s play on Saturday night.

For a different look at Nebraska football, check out The Double Extra Point.

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