Nebraska Football: NU ReView, Nebraska 35, Oregon 32

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On Saturday, Nebraska won a thriller in Memorial Stadium, taking the lead on a Tommy Armstrong rushing touchdown and holding off an Oregon comeback. My photos of the game are here. So, for Nebraska fans looking back on a famous win …

The Good

Dispelling Hobgoblins. Admit it. Deep into the fourth quarter, when you saw a speedy Oregon wide receiver five yards behind the Nebraska secondary, your scarlet-and-cream heart sank. Your mind flashed back to last year’s BYU. Or Illinois. Or Wisconsin. Or … well, you get the idea. The idea was the same – once again, you thought, Nebraska was showing consistent struggles in late-game situations against the deep ball.

Well, you know what they say about consistency. And thanks to a great play by safety Keiron Williams (and, in all fairness, an underthrown ball by Oregon quarterback Dakota Prukop), Nebraska could put a sword into the heart of that particular hobgoblin.

The Price of Hubris. Boy, it looked pretty sharp for Oregon at the start. The Ducks ate up yardage on their first drive, scoring a touchdown with alarming ease. Then, for the conversion, Oregon brought out the swinging gate play and got a two-point conversion, pushing the score to 8-0 early in the contest.

Seemed bad for Nebraska, so Oregon decided to try it again. And again. And again. And again. Four more times over the course of the contest, the Ducks tried for two and failed. That’s two points on five conversion attempts after touchdowns, leaving Oregon three points shy of where it would have most likely been had it just kicked the darn ball.

Which, of course, was Nebraska’s margin of victory. Two lessons to be learned here. First, never, ever chase points with two-point conversions unless you absolutely have to. And, two, do not tempt the Gods of Football Karma.

Impressing The Kids. No, it’s not about the DJ Khaled tifo unfurled by the Boneyard (as described by Erin Sorensen of Hail Varsity), Nebraska’s student section – although that was pretty freaking awesome. No, this is about how one day after Nebraska knocked off Oregon, it picked up the commit of Deiontae Watts, a three-star defensive tackle (according to 247 Sports) from Texas. That commit brings Nebraska’s overall ranking on 247 Sports to no. 23.

Sure, it’s reductive to think that the win over Oregon was why Watts signed. But the big-game atmosphere was one of Nebraska’s selling points. More wins mean more big-game atmospheres, and (theoretically) an easier sell to recruits. And, better recruits lead to more wins, which help lead to better recruits in a virtuous circle.

Let’s not get ahead of ourselves, it’s one game and a three-star defensive tackle. But it’s certainly encouraging news for Nebraska, both this year and going forward.

The Bad

Swinging. Nebraska had only one turnover, and that was awesome for NU. But the turnover itself was pretty cringe-inducing. It’s bad enough to not be able to execute a swing pass – which Armstrong has a disturbing tendency to execute poorly. But it’s even more disturbing when the throw goes backwards and becomes a live ball – particularly when Nebraska benefited from the exact same mistake by an opponent the week before.

“Not As Bad” Still Isn’t “Good.”  Sure, Oregon’s 13 penalties (!) for 126 yards (!!) was a huge factor in Nebraska’s victory. But Nebraska still had seven flags for 55 yards. The yardage wasn’t as damaging as in weeks past, and the only penalty that really affected the game was a mysterious offside call in the fourth quarter that helped keep Oregon’s drive to take the lead alive.

It’s unlikely to see a game where a team will have no penalties at all. But it would be nice to see a number lower than seven for Nebraska going forward.

Better Lucky Than Talented. OK, first let me say that Nebraska played an amazing game against a very strong opponent, and deserved every little bit of this milestone win. But Nebraska was helped by some by the Ducks, as well. The two-point conversion fetish of Oregon head coach Mark Helfrich we discussed supra. Oregon’s orgy of penalties, if nothing else, helped Nebraska see what life was like on the receiving end of all that yardage. And the injury to running back Royce Freeman certainly didn’t do Oregon’s offense any favors.

Yes, Nebraska had its share of hardships to overcome as well. Please don’t see this as taking anything away from Nebraska’s win on Saturday. But it wouldn’t be fair to at least acknowledge that Nebraska got a few breaks from Oregon on Saturday – and took advantage of them.

And the Beckoning Opportunity.

Sure, it’s easy to say after Nebraska wins. But in all fairness, this game carried far more upside than downside for Nebraska. A loss, while certainly painful, did not derail the primary season goal of winning the B1G West. And given how far Nebraska’s national perception has fallen, a loss to Oregon (other than a humiliation) would have just left NU in the national obscurity in which it has languished.

Instead, the game was an opportunity. Lose, and Nebraska really just stayed where it was. But win … well, a win for Nebraska gets a foothold back into the national spotlight. Almost assuredly Nebraska will return to the Top 25, the first time since the end of 2014.

And the upcoming schedule for Nebraska provides another opportunity. Nebraska should be favored in every game between now and Wisconsin, so if it can take care of business NU could find itself in the top 15 as it faces off against the Badgers. That kind of exposure and excitement is invaluable, not only for the confidence of the current squad, but for recruiting momentum.

Of course, it’s just opportunity. Nebraska had opportunities before, under Frank Solich, Bill Callahan and Bo Pelini. Nebraska could easily squander this opportunity and slink back to national obscurity.

But the opportunity is there for Nebraska. This year. Admit it – when Nebraska was 3-6 and coming off a loss to a truly dreadful Purdue squad – you didn’t really expect this kind of opportunity to be available for the scarlet and cream in 2016. Enjoy it, Husker Fan.

Nebraska Football: NU ReView, Nebraska 52, Wyoming 17

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On Saturday, Nebraska scored 28 points in the fourth quarter to pull away and beat Wyoming 52-17. My photos of the game are here. Early in the game, Nebraska seems like it would be able to pull away and get a comfortable victory over the Cowboys. But a Tommy Armstrong interception at the goal line taking points off the board put things on hold, and an end-of-half Hail Mary touchdown for Wyoming gave the Cowboys enough momentum to be within four as the fourth quarter started. Nebraska’s defense forced enough turnovers to pull away and balloon the score at the end.

So, for Nebraska fans against Wyoming (with apologies to Sam McKewon of the Omaha World-Herald for mimicking his numerical analysis) …

The Good

3.5. As in plus-3.5, which is Nebraska’s net turnover margin average over one game. That’s no. 1 nationally, according to cfbstats.com. Yeah, it’s two games against sub-par opponents. And yeah, Tommy Armstrong’s one interception at the goal line was not only horrible, but terrifyingly reminiscent of the mental errors that have haunted his career.

But we’re now one-sixth of the way through the season (!), and Nebraska is not only 2-0 but doing a much better job at taking care of the football.

10. That’s the number of receivers that caught at least one pass against Wyoming. Yes, Run The Ball Guy didn’t care for the game plan against Wyoming, but having that depth at receiver makes Nebraska exceptionally hard to defend. It can also lead to success in the running game, with teams unable to (as both Fresno State and Wyoming did) load the box and dare Nebraska to throw.

A deep pool of talent at receiver can be a critical element of Nebraska’s offensive success – if (and it’s a big if) Armstrong can continue to avoid interceptions.

2.89. That’s the average yards-per-carry allowed by Nebraska’s defense this season. While Nebraska’s pass defense was what terrified most fans coming into the season, it’s always critical to be stout against the run. And yes, Fresno State and Wyoming are no Wisconsin and Ohio State. But they’re no slouches either, particularly Wyoming.

So having such outstanding success against the run for Nebraska in its first two games is an encouraging sign for the Blackshirts in 2016.

The Bad

52.6. That’s the percentage of Nebraska’s points scored in the fourth quarter. After three quarters, Nebraska was only up by 11 (21-10) against Fresno State and by seven (24-17) against Wyoming. For those of you who haven’t blocked out most of the 2015 season as a defense mechanism, allow me to remind you that Nebraska has demonstrated a disturbing history of seeing teams roar back in the fourth quarter to win.

Now, maybe Nebraska’s new-found dominance in the fourth quarter is excising those demons. But it seems an unsustainable pattern to wait for the final period before exploding on the scoreboard.

7/96. That’s the number of penalties and the total yardage of those penalties Nebraska had against Wyoming. While at least Nebraska did not draw a targeting flag this week, penalties still loomed a large factor. Late hit calls on quarterbacks and unsportsmanlike conduct calls kept Wyoming’s offense on the field, and offensive penalties took two Nebraska touchdowns off the board.

Against teams like Fresno State and Wyoming, Nebraska’s talent advantage is sufficient to avoid disastrous consequences. But against teams with equal to or superior talent – like, say, a frighteningly-fast Oregon team coming to Lincoln this Saturday – giving up nearly a football field worth of penalties will likely be a hole too deep for Nebraska to dig out of.

Stop the Insanity. OK, this one is just for those in the stadium. In the third and fourth quarters against both Fresno State and Wyoming – when the game was still at some level in contention – the crowd inexplicably started the wave. Not just a little bit during commercial breaks either, but a full-blown variable-speed wave that was going while the game was in play.

Now, look, I’m really trying not to be That Guy who complains about people having fun at a game. If the result isn’t in doubt, I’m fine with the wave – and Nebraska fans have gotten pretty good at doing the normal-to-slow-to-fast wave, in all fairness.

But here’s a pretty good rule of thumb. If the starters are still in the game, then you have no business doing the wave, fer cryin’ out loud.

(Honorable mention to Mixed Loyalty Guy, of which there were a bizarre amount of against Wyoming, wearing gear for both teams playing, such as a Wyoming hat and a Nebraska shirt. Look, if for whatever reason you have ties to both teams, I get it. I’m an unabashed Jaysker, and the Nebraska-Creighton basketball and baseball games are confusing for me. But if there’s any rule to follow, it’s that you can’t try to wear both teams’ gear to a game).

And The Papering Over Of The Cracks

So Nebraska is 2-0, after outscoring its two opponents by a total of 65 points. All’s right with the world, isn’t it?

Nope. Nebraska was in a two-score game as the fourth quarter began against a frankly terrible Fresno State club, and within seven points going into the final period against a Wyoming squad that’s only marginally better.

Sure, Nebraska pulled away late and won both games comfortably – and believe me, that’s better for Nebraska than the alternative we saw over and over again last year. But that doesn’t mean Nebraska has been grinding minnows under its heel getting ready for the Ducks to arrive on Saturday.

Maybe these late surges are evidence of a confident squad ready to make a big statement on national television. The Ducks, also 2-0, have exhibited a defensive frailty that should provide some optimism to the scarlet and cream faithful. But Nebraska fans should not look at the lopsided scores of its first two games and lull themselves into believing NU is as good as those gaudy numbers would indicate.

Nebraska Football: NU Re-View, Nebraska 43, Fresno State 10

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On Saturday, Nebraska opened the 2016 season with a 43-10 win over Fresno State. My photos from the game can be found here. Nebraska only led 14-10 at halftime, with Fresno State missing a short field goal and missing a chance at a touchdown to end the half due to poor clock management. But Nebraska pulled away, scoring 22 in the fourth quarter to seal a comfortable win. So in looking back at Nebraska’s victory …

The Good

Picking Up Where They Left Off. Against UCLA, Nebraska ran the ball 62 times and threw it 19. Throughout the offseason, though, we were told about how the game plan was unique to UCLA’s undersized defensive setup and should not be expected to be repeated.

Against Fresno State, Nebraska ran the ball 51 times and threw it 13.

It was very clear that the game plan was to take the ball out of quarterback Tommy Armstrong’s hands. Out of Nebraska’s first 21 plays, 20 were runs. So whether this distribution can last the season (see below), at least for one game Nebraska kept with a winning formula.

Back in Blackshirts. It’s not like there wasn’t time to panic. The game was 14-10 at halftime, with Fresno State engineering an alarmingly-familiar march down the field at the end of the first half. Would déjà vu strike all over again and Nebraska see its lead slip away in the final frame?

Nope. Nebraska locked down Fresno State, shutting the Bulldogs out in the second half as a fourth-quarter flurry of scoring put the game away. Fresno State was unable to hit the big strikes downfield that were Nebraska’s downfall in 2015. So, again at least for one game, Nebraska seemed to have put its ghosts behind it.

A Two-Headed Monster. Nebraska’s wide receivers came into the season as the generally-accepted strength of the team. And, in fairness, they’re still really good, especially when Brandon Reilly returns from his one-game suspension.

But Nebraska’s running backs looked awfully good on Saturday, as well. Devine Ozigbo led the charge with 17 carries for 103 yards and two touchdowns. Terrell Newby, the starter, ran strong with 53 yards on 11 carries. And when you add in Armstrong’s running (42 yards on 11 carries with two touchdowns), and the appearance of true freshman Tre Bryant (36 yards on five carries) and Mikale Wilbon (16 yards on his single carry), Nebraska’s running back corps suddenly looks pretty salty as well.

The Bad

An Unsustainable Imbalance. You know that guy. The one who wears the faded red polo shirt and goes on incessantly about how Nebraska could start winning again if it would just get back to the option and give those walk-ons a chance to play.

Well, that guy has been loving Nebraska football the last couple of games. And with the success Nebraska has enjoyed, it’s hard to criticize. Wins are wins, and coming off a 5-7 season it’s hard not to fall into intellectually lazy traps like this being “real Nebraska football.”

Don’t fall for it. This ridiculous run-pass imbalance stemmed from specific matchup issues, against an undersized UCLA team and an undermanned Fresno State. It was successful in both, and could very well be just as successful against a team like Wyoming next week.

But teams that are better than Fresno State and Wyoming are coming. Against teams like Oregon, LSU-beating Wisconsin, and Ohio State, certainly Nebraska shouldn’t be channeling its inner Mike Leach. But Nebraska won’t be able to have a 51-13 run-pass balance against those teams if it wants any chance at victory.

Target Acquired. In the last three games, Nebraska has had four targeting penalties called against it. Now, one of those was rescinded on Saturday, but that still means Nebraska has had three ejections in three games.

Yes, I know you think it wasn’t fair. And I think there’s probably a good case to be made that the targeting flags were at best marginal. But the bottom line is that Nebraska’s been hit with those penalties. And we’ve seen the damage caused by those flags – Iowa scored straight after Nate Gerry was ejected, and Fresno State’s best drive of the game came right after Luke Gifford’s dismissal.

So whether the flags are fair or not, Nebraska needs to be taking steps to make sure it isn’t even getting close to such a targeting foul in the future.

Not Ready For Prime Time. Hey, remember this guy? After an injury-ravaged 2015, it’s easy to forget how electrifying De’Mornay Pierson-El was for Nebraska. And when Pierson-El was proclaimed healthy and ready to get back on the field, Nebraska fans were understandably excited at the potential.

Well, Pierson-El was back on the field. But his return was nothing he’ll want to remember. He touched the ball only once, fumbling a jet sweep handoff for a loss of seven. Although he was listed as the number one punt returner, it was Jordan Westerkamp that went back to field punts (somewhat shakily) throughout the game.

Maybe the fumble shook him. Maybe the coaches don’t quite have the confidence in him yet. But whatever it is, the Pierson-El we saw in 2014 isn’t back yet.

And The Unconvincing Blowout

Have you ever seen an unconvincing 33-point win? Well, if there ever was one, it was Saturday against Fresno State. Sure, getting the win is great – keep in mind, this is the first time Mike Riley has gone 1-0 at Nebraska. And for the investors among us, having Nebraska cover the 28-point spread wasn’t bad either.

But this was a game that was 14-10 at half – and very easily could have been a 17-14 Bulldog lead absent a missed chip-shot field goal and an inexplicable failure to call time out and waste a down while inside Nebraska’s 10.

Sure, Nebraska ultimately pulled away in the second half, and the fact that NU was able to do so speaks volumes compared to a team that lost to Illinois and Purdue last year. But the fact remains that a 33-point margin is utterly flattering to how Nebraska played.

A win is a win. If 2015 taught us anything, it’s that Nebraska is in a survive-and-advance mode as a program. But there’s still big questions left for Nebraska to answer if it wants a trip to Indianapolis in December.

Nebraska Football: What is Success for Mike Riley’s Cornhuskers in 2016?

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Nebraska fans are part of a unique breed that understands how beautiful the phrase “it’s Fresno State week” is after a long off-season. This is the time of year where you’ll get game-by-game predictions for the upcoming 2016 campaign.

For the record, mine is 9-3, with losses to Oregon, at Indiana, and at Ohio State.

But that’s not really what I think is interesting as this new season dawns. I’ve been far less prolific in posting this year, which will happen when you adopt two boys. So, yeah, dumb reality is getting in the way of Nebraska football blogging.

But not thinking about the scarlet and cream, believe me. Ever since last season, I’ve been grappling with a question raised on Twitter by @CountIstvan. Basically, his argument in criticizing the Riley hire was that Nebraska fans shouldn’t have to wait two or three years for the program to get back to Pelini’s nine-win level. In the midst of Nebraska’s 5-7 regular season, he lamented that Riley’s defenders would take the struggles of 2015, use a seven- or eight-win season in 2016 as proof of improvement, and see Nebraska get back to nine wins in 2017. What’s the point, he argued, in hiring a guy that will take you three years to get back to the level of the guy you fired?

It’s a powerful argument, one that’s stuck with me throughout the offseason. It certainly seemed like it was where Nebraska was heading post-Purdue, although NU’s  win over UCLA in the Foster Farms Bowl has certainly put some wind in the sails of Nebraska fans’ hopes.

I’m a Riley supporter, have been even before he was hired at Nebraska. So I want to buy into his tenure, want to believe that he’s the guy that can get Nebraska back to national relevance. But how do I respond to this question about Riley’s tenure that’s nagged me since I read it all those months ago?

Well, for starters, it does assume that Nebraska won’t get to nine wins until 2017. After Nebraska lost to Purdue last year (which, if I would have been writing more this summer, would have been the focal point of a “worst Nebraska losses in a decade” column), it was more than reasonable to question whether Nebraska would win nine games – heck, would go to a bowl game – any time in the near future.

But wins over Michigan State and UCLA, coupled with a loss to Iowa that was gift-wrapped and handed to the Hawkeyes with a shiny bow by Nebraska, changed the perception. If you look at five-year recruiting rankings (as listed by SB Nation), Nebraska (no. 27) should only have inferior talent to two teams on its 2016 schedule, Oregon (no. 22) and Ohio State (no. 2).

That means, in terms of talent on the field, Nebraska should be looking at a 10-2 season. Now, obviously, there’s more to it than who has the best players. But that’s a big part of the equation (as Dave Bartoo from CFBMatrix will consistently prove).

We all know that 2015 was defined by Nebraska finding new, ridiculous, and excruciating ways to lose football games in the fourth quarter. We also know that those kinds of bounces and bad plays aren’t sustainable, and that Nebraska’s 5-7 record significantly undersold how good NU was last year. While the quote probably isn’t wise to make given its history, I do think it is fair to say that for Nebraska football the fundamentals are sound.

As a result, I think a nine-win season for Nebraska in 2016 should be the baseline expectation. But as we saw last year, stuff happens. Nebraska might only win eight games this year. Maybe even seven. Anything less than seven will likely have the villagers coming to Memorial Stadium with their pitchforks and torches.

But let’s say it’s 7-5 or 8-4 this year. Heck, even if I call it right and Nebraska goes 9-3, that’s just back to where the program was before Riley arrived. Can we say that Riley is a failure, that firing Bo Pelini was a mistake?

With all the caveats that it depends on how the team looks in getting to its final record, I would still say no. There’s a huge difference between a nine-win season in year seven of Pelini’s tenure and a nine-win season in Riley’s second. And it can be summed up in one word.

Hope.

Maybe some of it is just because Riley is the new guy. But let’s be honest. Yes, Pelini never won fewer than nine games. But he never lost fewer than four, either. And the culture he created in Lincoln was becoming so poisonous that it was hard to see how Nebraska could ever move forward.

I don’t want to re-litigate the Pelini era, but the one vignette from his tenure that will always stick with me is the meeting he had with his players after he was fired. You can read the transcript from the Omaha World-Herald here, but you all know what he said. How he vented his spleen and settled his scores, regardless of how it affected the kids that were staying and living in that program going forward. You know, the kids that he was supposed to be leading, mentoring, teaching.

Riley may be many things, but he’s not that. Sure, he overachieved at Oregon State, which I don’t think he’ll ever get sufficient credit for. But there’s no guarantee he will be able to take a stagnating national giant like Nebraska and return it to national relevance.

But he’s a professional. He’s done this before, both in college and the NFL. He can learn from his mistakes. He can bring people in who know more than he does about something. He can cut loose an under-performing coach, and show loyalty and protection to a high-performing coach who makes a big, big mistake. He can create a culture and an atmosphere that doesn’t pit his players against the fans, the administration, and the rest of the world in an unsustainable cycle of self-righteous offense.

And yeah, at least from the early returns, he can recruit. I know, I know, that was the defense of Bill Callahan. But it is nice to see some five-stars coming to Lincoln, instead of having the guy in charge just complain about how hard it is to get them here.

Contrary to popular belief, Nebraska fans on the whole aren’t unreasonable. They don’t expect a return to the nineties and winning consecutive national championships.

But Nebraska fans do expect that their team should be in the mix for a conference title pretty much every year, with a reasonable shot to win one most seasons. That “1999” on the West Stadium façade on the “Conference Championship” line is looking awfully lonely.

Riley’s career path and his current recruiting should demonstrate Nebraska is on an upward trajectory. There’s a path Nebraska fans should be able to see, fairly clearly, that ends up with a scarlet and cream swarm in Pasadena on New Year’s Day.

So that’s why a nine-win Mike Riley Nebraska is different than a nine-win Bo Pelini Nebraska. Under Pelini, most Nebraska fans concluded that nine wins was Nebraska’s ceiling. And, as Shawn Eichorst made clear when he announced Pelini’s dismissal, that’s not good enough at Nebraska.

That’s a tall order for Riley – or any coach – to fulfill. But there’s enough evidence, 5-7 notwithstanding, to legitimately hope Nebraska can get to that promised land soon.

Nebraska Football: Three Numbers To Watch in 2016

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Sometimes football fans don’t like numbers. Arithmetic and statistics, fans think, can’t capture passion and emotion. Cold, hard digits can’t speak to what is happening on a football field.

Then again, 5-7. Says a lot, doesn’t it?

But, of course, there’s more to it. Here are three numbers from last year that tell a lot about what happened in 2015, and what needs to get better.

1299

Sometimes numbers can show us objectively what we know instinctively. In this case, the number 1299 is the number of passing yards Nebraska surrendered in 2016.

No, not overall, that would be pretty good. That’s the number of passing yards Nebraska gave up in the fourth quarter.

Think that’s bad? You’re right. It’s dead last in the country bad. It’s dead last in the country by nearly 100 yards over second-to-last Arizona State bad.

Nebraska’s pass defense overall struggled in 2015, and there’s any number of reasons (which is the polite way to refer to excuses) for those struggles. A change in scheme. A lack of confidence in the scheme. Having the right players in each position in the secondary. A horrifying sense of déjà vu as Nebraska struggled again and again and again to stop long passes at the end of close games.

Regardless of the reasons, getting this number better (and, by definition, it can’t be worse, at least in ranking) in 2016 is critical for Nebraska to improve.

-0.92

Again, sometimes numbers reflect the things you know already. This number is Nebraska’s turnover margin per game, meaning Nebraska averaged losing nearly one turnover more than its opponents per game.

That’s no. 113 nationally, which is really dreadful. And it puts into sharp focus the observation of SB Nation’s Bill Connelly that Nebraska is one mistake per game away from contenting for a B1G West title.

Well, 0.92 is awfully close to 1.00, isn’t it? If Nebraska gets this number to zero – not even getting it positive, just out from being underwater – that alone could put NU in place for a division title.

1.85

This number is closely related to the first number we discussed. Nebraska averaged 1.85 sacks per game, which was no. 78 nationally. That’s almost by definition average, which means you wouldn’t think it was one of the critical data points to watch.

But remember how bad Nebraska’s pass defense was, particularly in the fourth quarter. Sure, the secondary needs to improve on its own. But what’s a secondary’s best friend? A great pass rush.

So if Nebraska is able to manufacture more sacks, and more quarterback pressure, then the secondary won’t have nearly as much pressure on it – and should improve as a result.

All statistics from cfbstats.com.

Nebraska Football: Takeaways from First Scrimmage

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As the 2016 season comes closer, Nebraska is getting ready by scrimmaging in addition to position-specific work. Sam McKewon of the Omaha World-Herald said head coach Mike Riley’s summary of the scrimmage was “efficient.”

That’s good news for a team that (put gently) struggled with efficiency in 2015, losing five of its first eight games in the final minute – before enduring one of Nebraska’s worst losses in a decade by dropping a game to Purdue. But what should we make of the news coming out of Nebraska camp? What are the most important takeaways?

Rule no. 1: Don’t put much stock in most of this

If there’s anything to take away from news coming out of fall camp, it’s this one. Any news coming out of camp should be viewed with suspicion, simply because all this is still just practice. This rule is especially true when it comes to good news, as at this point in the pre-season everyone is optimistic and hoping for the best. This is the sunshine-pumping season, and all the news coming from camp should be viewed through that lens.

An absence of turnovers is encouraging

Over 100 plays, Nebraska had no turnovers. No interceptions, no fumbles lost, none. Bill Connelly, master of the advanced statistics for SB Nation, said Nebraska can contend for the B1G West by making one fewer mistake per game. As anyone who watched Nebraska’s game last year against Iowa (or Northwestern, or Purdue, or Miami, or …) can attest, eliminating turnovers would make the difference in those contests.

But again, refer to Rule no. 1.

The secondary seems to be progressing

Over the course of the scrimmage, Nebraska’s quarterbacks never hit any home-run balls over the top. And, according to McKewon’s recap, it wasn’t because the quarterbacks were inaccurate, but because the receivers were well covered. Again, anyone watching Nebraska’s game last year against BYU (or Illinois, or Wisconsin, or Miami, or …) an ability to shut down the long pass. An improvement in that category can do nothing but encourage the Nebraska faithful.

But, again, refer to Rule no. 1.

Injuries are a concern

A number of players missed the most recent scrimmage, including Michael Rose-Ivey with a knee , Jordan Westerkamp with a groin, and Cethan Carter going through the concussion protocol.

Of the three, Westerkamp’s is probably the least concerning, as we knew he was coming back from injury already. Rose-Ivey missing time is always a concern given his injury history – and the kind of contributions he can make when he’s on the field.

Carter’s injury is more concerning, simply because of the nature of concussions. Hopefully Carter can get cleared and be able to participate fully, especially given the sky-high expectations for his 2016 campaign. But we won’t know until we see him back on the field.

Nebraska Football: Power Ranking the Difficulty of the Cornhuskers’ 2016 Season

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As August bears down on us, the 2016 college football season can’t be far away. With B1G Media Days coming next week, and fall camps about to open, it’s time to look at the calendar and start thinking about the season to come.

So, with a little more perspective on the coming campaign, it’s time to power rank Nebraska’s 2016 season from the easiest game to the most difficult.

No. 12: Wyoming (Sep. 10, home)

The Cowboys were 2-10 last year, and are still trying to make up a pretty significant talent gap. Craig Bohl has some work left to do.

No. 11: Purdue (Oct. 22, home)

The Boilermakers were 2-10 as well last year, and are likely still coached by Darrell Hazel in part to their mystifying defeat of Nebraska last year. Honestly, the more times you look back at that game, the more unbelievable it is that Nebraska lost to a team like Purdue.

No. 10: Fresno State (Sep. 03, home)

Fresno State isn’t BYU, but it is still a legit program with a respectable history. Sure, 3-9 wasn’t great last year, and the Bulldogs haven’t really been very good since Derek Carr left. But given last years’ experience, Nebraska fans should feel at least a little sense of concern seeing a non-directional-school as the season opener.

No. 9: Minnesota (Nov. 12, home)

Tracy Claeys has a tall task ahead of him, taking over for the perpetually-over-achieving Jerry Kill. Yes, quarterback Mitch Leidner is better than he probably gets credit for, but the Gophers still look like a squad about to fall back to earth.

No. 8: Maryland (Nov. 19, home)

Last year Maryland combined a decent (no. 54 nationally) rushing defense with a poor (no. 104 nationally) passing defense to finish 3-9. That combination (decent rush defense, poor pass defense) seems to at least benefit the Terrapins against what we think Nebraska will do offensively, which could make the game more challenging than the talent gap might suggest.

No. 7: Illinois (Oct. 01, home)

The arrival of Lovie Smith should help to stabilize an Illinois program that has been staggering under the weight of mismanagement for years. And with an NFL-caliber quarterback in Wes Lunt, the Illini have weapons to work with. But attrition will hit Illinois hard this year, pushing Smith’s guidance of the Illini back to respectability back at least a year or two.

No. 6: Wisconsin (Oct. 29, away)

Well, at least we won’t have Joel Stave to kick around anymore. Whether Bart Houston or Alex Hornibrook wins the job, though, he’ll have phenomenal talent Corey Clement behind him, which should add punch to Wisconsin’s attack. Still, questions on defense and needing to break in a new quarterback should make this year’s trip to Madison less frightening than trips past.

No. 5: Indiana (Oct. 15, away)

Stop me if this seems familiar. Team finishes 6-7, with all of its losses coming in soul-crushing ways that couldn’t possibly replicate the following season. Yes, Indiana’s season was just about as ridiculous as Nebraska’s in 2015. Indiana’s offense should be just as good as it was last year, too, which should put Nebraska’s re-tooled defense to the test early. Particularly with the game in Bloomington, if you have money to wager invest on an upset, this game would be a prime candidate.

No. 4: Northwestern (Sep. 24, away)

The Purples were nowhere near as good as their 10-3 record would suggest. But the defense in Evanston last year (nationally, no. 12 in scoring defense, no. 21 in rushing defense, no. 23 in passing defense, and no. 13 in total defense) should still be salty. That’s a challenging draw for a Nebraska team going on the road for the first time in 2016, for its first conference game of the season, and coming off a challenging game against Oregon the week before.

No. 3: Iowa (Nov. 25, away)

The Hawkeyes make few bones about who they are – solid defense, good play on the lines, and an offense that will do enough to keep them in games and wait for your mistake. Iowa won a whole bunch of games last year (including in Lincoln) sticking to that formula. By the time the Heroes Game comes to Iowa City, given their schedule the Hawkeyes should be in position for another trip to Indianapolis, and ready to give Nebraska a challenge.

No. 2: Oregon (Sep. 17, home)

The Ducks weren’t at their national-title-challenging caliber last year, and have another FCS transfer quarterback in Dakota Prukop learning the ropes in 2016. But Oregon’s talent is still better than Nebraska’s (no. 19 vs. no. 24, according to SB Nation’s five-year recruiting average),

No. 1: Ohio State (Nov. 05, away)

Yeah, the Buckeyes in 2016 are basically quarterback J.T. Barrett and a whole bunch of “Hello, My Name Is” stickers. But by November, those Buckeyes will have had plenty of experience, and the talent differential (and playing the game in the Horseshoe) should make this a difficult trip for Nebraska.

All stats courtesy cfbstats.com unless otherwise noted.

Nebraska Football: Three Players Who Need To Improve in 2016

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Coming off a 6-7 campaign, it’s fair to say that there might be more than three players who need to improve for Nebraska’s 2016 season to impress. But for Nebraska to right the ship (and, according to one smart and particularly handsome analyst, be favored to win the B1G West title next season), there are three critical players on the roster who need to significantly outperform their 2015 season.

Not Featured: Tommy Armstrong Jr.

I know, I know, this doesn’t make sense. How can Armstrong not be a player that needs improvement when this dope already said that his completion percentage and touchdown-to-interception ratio weren’t good enough for Nebraska to win a division title?

Because, to be honest, at this point it’s unreasonable to expect those numbers to change. Armstrong is going to be a senior in 2016. For those two most important statistics, here’s what his career numbers look like.

Year Attempts Comp. % TD-to-INT
2015 402 55.2 1.375
2014 345 53.3 1.833
2013 131 51.9 1.125

As you can see, Armstrong’s completion percentage has – barely – been improving in his three years under center. His ratio, which was atrocious in his freshman season, actually got worse last year after some promising signs of improvement in 2014.

Sure, a new coaching staff and a new offensive philosophy can explain a lot of Armstrong’s struggles last season. And sure, it’s possible that a second year under offensive coordinator Danny Langsdorf might help Armstrong make a leap in both categories.

But at this point, it’s really hard to assume or even expect that. Armstrong is a senior, who has played 33 games for Nebraska. Much like Taylor Martinez before him, at this point in his career Armstrong is likely who he is going to be – in his case, a great leader, a tough competitor, a dangerous playmaker, and an inaccurate and turnover-prone quarterback.

If Armstrong develops into something more in his senior campaign, then it’s a bonus for Nebraska. But for now, we have to expect Armstrong to deliver about what he has delivered throughout his career.

Nate Gerry

Gerry has had an … interesting career at Nebraska. As a freshman, then-head coach Bo Pelini moved Gerry to linebacker in an attempt to find his best position. Gerry returned to his position at safety as a sophomore, and looked like he was going to be a world-beater.

But then Pelini was dismissed, and in came head coach Mike Riley with defensive coordinator Mark Banker.  Pelini’s defensive schemes put a prime on defending the pass, at the expense of the running game. Banker’s quarters-style defensive strategy is the opposite, focused on stopping the pass at the expense of the deep middle passing game.

That’s a huge change for a safety, and Gerry’s transition was – not ideal. We know what Nebraska’s pass defense, particularly in the fourth quarter looked like last year.

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You want numbers? Take a look at these comparisons.

  2014 2015
Pass yards allowed/game (nat’l rating) 205.8 (33) 290.5 (122)
Scoring defense (nat’l rating) 26.4 (60) 27.8 (75)
Total defense (nat’l rating) 383.7 (53) 400.4 (64)

What do these numbers tell us? Well, that Nebraska wasn’t all that much different in terms of both total defense and scoring defense between 2014 and 2015 – with a pass defense that went from no. 32 nationally to no. 122.

That means if Nebraska pass defense improves even to average, then Nebraska’s overall defense should be much better in 2016. It will have to be, if this smart and particularly handsome analyst is right and Nebraska looks to be in contention for the B1G West this year. Gerry, as a senior, will be one of the team leaders, and it’s up to him in his second season under Banker to find his sophomore form.

Freedom Akinmoladun

Buddy Ryan, the architect of the 1985 Chicago Bears defense (and puncher of fellow coaches) recently died. And while his personality might be the perfect polar opposite of Riley’s, he could not have been more right about how a pass rush helps a secondary. Here’s what Ryan had to say about how a pass rush helped a secondary.

“A quarterback has never completed a pass when he was flat on his back.” (courtesy of the Houston Chronicle).

Nebraska was no. 78 nationally in sacks. Yes, the pass defense last year was atrocious, and it’s easy to point fingers at the secondary. But the lack of pass rush was a huge contributing factor to Nebraska’s woes defending the long ball.

Unfortunately, there doesn’t appear to be much of a cavalry riding in to the rescue. While Riley’s 2016 recruiting class was impressive, given that Riley was coming off a 6-7 campaign, one glaring deficiency was a true pass rush specialist.

It falls, then, to the players on the roster to heat up the opposing quarterback. And of all the pass rushers on the roster, Akinmoladun looks to be the one most likely to shine. Last year was his first at defensive end after moving from tight end, and Akinmoladun possesses the raw athletic ability to get past an opposing tackle and get home.

For Nebraska to be successful next season, Akinmoladun will need to make that leap.

Nick Gates

OK, here’s a comprehensive list of the starters on Nebraska’s offensive line who will be playing in the same positions they manned in 2015.

If that doesn’t frighten you as a Nebraska fan coming into the new season, then you aren’t paying attention.  Nebraska’s offensive line will be undergoing a huge transition, with three new starters being broken in and two players likely shifting positions from 2015.

Of the players shifting positions, Gates will be the one with the most on his shoulders.  Last year, Gates played at right tackle, but looks (based on projections from Ourlads) to be playing left tackle in 2016. That position (especially with a right-handed quarterback) is the most important on the offensive line, and it looks to be filled next year by a redshirt sophomore who has not started a game at left tackle in his college career.

For Nebraska to reach its goals in 2016, Gates will have to excel in his new home on the offensive line quickly.

All stats from cfbstats.com.

Nebraska Football: Riley’s Decision to Have Rape Victim Address Team Sends a Powerful Message

On June 22, Brenda Tracy will speak to the Nebraska football program about her experience being raped by a group of four men, including three college football players. In 1998, four players were present during Tracy’s assault, two of them Oregon State players under then-head coach Mike Riley. When Riley was still Oregon State’s head coach, he promised Tracy an opportunity to speak to his team and tell her story. After his move to Lincoln, Riley made sure Tracy was aware that his offer was still good (according to Steven M. Sipple of the Lincoln Journal-Star).

John Canzano of The Oregonian recounted Tracy’s description of the ordeal she will be sharing with the Nebraska football team on June 22:

She’ll tell them about the four college football players – two of them Beavers – who were present, and the drink she accepted without knowing what was in the cup.

Tracy will try to find the words to explain what it felt like to grow sleepy, then lose consciousness, only to wake up being sexually assaulted by four men. She’ll talk about being terrified, unable to fight back, and how she pleaded with one of them to make it stop.

The assault went on all night, and continued the next morning. Tracy eventually woke up on the floor of the apartment with crumbs, condom wrappers and garbage stuck to her naked body.

“Those men treated me like garbage,” Tracy said.

The stories of how Oregon State and law enforcement officials in Corvallis failed Tracy was described in gut-wrenching detail by Canzano. And it’s more than fair to question Riley about how he responded to those allegations. Tracy summarized how she felt about the inadequacy of Riley’s response.

“One game for my rape,” she told Canzano. “One (expletive) game.”

The story is hauntingly familiar to what happened in Waco with the assaults and alleged assaults surrounding the Baylor program (as outlined by Max Olsen of ESPN). It’s hauntingly familiar to how the investigation of sexual assault allegations against Florida State quarterback Jameis Winston were mis-handled by the Tallahassee Police Department and local prosecutors (as described by Patrick Redford of Deadspin). It’s hauntingly familiar to how law enforcement in State College failed to investigate or prosecute Jerry Sandusky as he was serially abusing children at Penn State (as detailed by Nate Schweber of the New York Times).

Stories like that – failures like that, betrayals like that of both the victims and those who could be wrongly accused – are why I still have to say “alleged” assault so many times. Not because the assaults didn’t happen, necessarily, but because the desire to protect the program outweighed the pursuit of justice. Because time and time again for coaches, local law enforcement, and university administrators, the screams of the crowd on football Saturdays drowned out the screams of victims in dorm rooms and locker room showers.

With Art Briles’ dismissal as head football coach at Baylor, much digital ink (like here and here and here) has been spilled about how we as a country have reached a turning point, about how we will get serious about investigating and prosecuting sexual assault allegations against football players.

Maybe. Hopefully. But I’ve heard that before, read those think pieces before. Remember this devastating “We Were Penn State” Sports Illustrated cover after the Sandusky scandal broke in 2011? Remember how we thought after that, something as insignificant as winning college football games would no longer take a back seat to protecting the vulnerable from being victimized by the powerful and influential? How after Sandusky those in positions of authority – coaches, local law enforcement, and university administrators – would never allow the status of The Program to interfere with the investigation and prosecution of crimes?

Fast forward a little less than five years. Penn State’s sanctions have largely been wiped away. The Tallahassee police made sure we could never get to the bottom of Winston’s assault allegations. Baylor happened. And those are just the high-profile cases.

So what will it take to change the culture of college football, to truly make sexual assault unacceptable, to make college football players and coaches who commit and abet those crimes truly accountable?

Well, perhaps what it will take is someone inside the fraternity – like Riley, known and respected throughout the world of college football – to own his past failures and address the issue with his team and with his fanbase head-on. Riley has acknowledged that he’s changed how he looks at allegations of sexual assault since Tracy’s incident in 1998.

“Doing the right thing is the key,” Riley told Canzano. “What I’ve learned is that some things that are not negotiable about the opportunity to be on a team. One of those is certain kinds of assault, and one of them is anything to do with guns.”

In a 2014 interview with Canzano, Riley discussed how his thoughts about handling sexual assault allegations have changed through the years.

“It’s so sad to me that it still haunts her. It’s scary what that means to a lady,” Riley said. “Maybe retribution would have helped that. I don’t know. I just reminded our team here recently about those things that will change their life and others in a blink of an eye.

“What I hope I’ve learned through the years is ‘What are we really doing here?’ There are deals, you have to look at it case by case, and gather information. I don’t necessarily think you have to wait for the courts to say ‘guilty’ when you’re talking about guns, when you’re talking about abuse of women, when you’re talking about assault, DUI, drugs and you usually know enough to know that these guys have disrespected the program.

“I’m in the business of helping these guys grow, but some guys refuse that and you have to cut them loose totally. Some guys you have to suspend, see how they do from there. … It’s a hard world to be in. You’re judge and jury. But if there were a baby sitter that was accused of molesting kids, would you continue to let them babysit your kids and wait for a jury to decide?”

Still, Tracy’s feelings about Riley are understandable.

“I despised that man,” Tracy told Canzano about Riley. “I hated him with every cell in my body. This is a coach who victimized me, and now I’m going to stand in front of his football team and tell them how I felt.”

Riley is making sure that Tracy gets the chance to tell her story to his players. He doesn’t have to do that. No charges against Riley’s players at Oregon State were ever filed (thanks, in large measure, to the failures of law enforcement to properly investigate the assault and preserve evidence). Tracy’s civil lawsuit against Oregon State – and Riley – is ongoing (according to Bryan Denson of The Oregonian).

But Riley is keeping his word to Tracy anyway, and a new group of college students will hear first-hand the experience of a woman raped by a group of college football players. Nebraska’s football players are no different than other football players at big-time programs around the country – some wonderful kids, some selfish, many with an over-developed sense of entitlement coming from a life of being the best football player on a team and all the perks from an adoring community that status entails.

Those players will hear a very human story of horror and trauma inflicted upon a woman when college football players – kids in exactly the same situation they are in – felt entitled to take what they wanted from her without her consent. And maybe, just maybe, those words will echo in their minds when an opportunity to take advantage of their privileged status arises for members of Riley’s football team.

Over the years, Tracy has been able to make her peace with Riley, even though she has not yet been guaranteed an opportunity to meet with him on a one-on-one basis when she comes to Lincoln.

“I don’t hate Riley today,” Tracy told Canzano. “Thank God. That type of anger eats away at your soul. I’ve found a lot of peace.”

And Riley’s explanation to Canzano as to why he agreed to let Tracy speak to his team gives some insight about what Riley hopes Tracy’s talk to his team achieves.

“I think kids have to always understand it’s about choices,” Riley said. “The other basic thing to understand is how you treat people. It’s one more piece. I really appreciate Brenda reaching out, stepping out to do this. I think it will be a real-life thing. I think that’s what players need to know about. There’s people’s lives involved here and how it affects them.

“I think they have to know that.”

And, more importantly, Tracy described to Canzano her reasons for coming to Lincoln and describing her ordeal to Riley’s team.

“College football needs to change,” she said. “It needs a hero. It needs someone to be vocal and call on the rest of college football to be transparent and accountable when something like Baylor happens. Who better to step up nationally than Mike Riley?”