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 

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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.

Or you can use the Twitter machine to follow @DblExtraPoint.

Nebraska Football: Five Players Who Have Surprised Us In 2014

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photo and story by Patrick Runge

Nebraska football fans had a pretty good idea who would be stars this season for the scarlet and cream. But there are always players who will surprise, putting on performances no one saw coming and helping to make the spectacle thrilling from week to week.

This season is no exception, so here are five players who have caused us to sit up and take notice in 2014.

All stats from cfbstats.com.

Greg McMullen

Coming into the 2014 season, Randy Gregory was hands-down the player to watch on defense. But, of course, opposing teams knew that, and would shift their coverages accordingly. Then, early in the season opener against Florida Atlantic, Gregory left the game with a re-aggravation of a previous injury.

Enter Greg McMullen, previously known as “the other guy” at defensive end. At first out of necessity and then out of performance, McMullen has stepped into his role admirably. He’s piled up 16 total tackles, 3.5 tackles for loss, and 2.5 sacks in his first four games, and has provided an important counter-balance on the defensive line with Gregory’s return.

Yeah, Gregory is the star and the NFL prospect on Nebraska’s defensive line. But Nebraska fans have to be pleasantly surprised for the production they are getting from McMullen on the other end.

De’Mornay Pierson-El

Admit it, you expected to see Pierson-El first on this list. And with good reason, too. While getting a receiving touchdown in game one as a true freshman was a great sign, that was in garbage time of a blowout win over Florida Atlantic.

No, Pierson-El’s surprise game in game three, when he was given his shot at punt returns. Nebraska had struggled mightily in that department, having one of the worst punt return units in the nation last year. Pierson-El got put into the rotation as punt returner, though, and things changed.

Pierson-El had two returns for an average of seven yards against Florida Atlantic. The following week, his average improved to 10.4 yards per return on five attempts. And then against Fresno State, Pierson-El electrified the fans with a touchdown return, averaging 30 yards per return on five attempts.

Coming into the season, one of the biggest questions was how (or if) Nebraska would revive its moribund punt return game. It took a true freshman to answer that question.

Joshua Kalu

As the season has gone on, it’s become clear that true freshman Joshua Kalu was going to force his way onto the field. He’s seen time in all four games this season, but his role has gotten bigger and bigger as the non-conference slate wore on. He saw lots of time on the field against pass-happy Fresno State, logging six solo tackles.

But it was against Miami that Kalu has made his biggest impact to date. With the Hurricanes driving in an attempt to stay in the game, it was Kalu that made a leaping interception that helped Nebraska pull away and earn an incredibly satisfying win.

Jordan Westerkamp

Yeah, we all know how solid a receiver Westerkamp is, and his catch of the Hail Mary to beat Northwestern will live in Nebraska lore. But this season, we may be getting even more of a handle on how good a receiver he really is.

When you watch the games, it’s pretty clear that Westerkamp is quarterback Tommy Armstrong’s go-to receiver in crunch time—sometimes, even to Armstrong’s detriment, forcing the ball to Westerkamp even in tight coverage. But Westerkamp’s hands and route-running prowess make it hard to argue looking for him.

And that’s not even discussing the ridiculous behind-the-back catch (pictured above) Westerkamp made against Florida Atlantic. If you say you weren’t surprised by that, you’re lying.

Sam Foltz

As a freshman last year Foltz had an up-and-down campaign as a punter, winding up no. 53 nationally with an average of 41.61 yards per punt. But this year, Foltz has been a crucial (if under-appreciated) weapon helping Nebraska to a 4-0 record.

Against McNeese State, with the offense struggling in the second half, Foltz time and again pinned the Cowboys deep, forcing McNeese State to drive the length of the field and keeping the game close. Indeed, if it wasn’t for Ameer Abdullah’s heroics at the end of the game, a strong argument could have been made for Foltz as the contest’s MVP.

So spare a thought for the under-valued and under-appreciated punter, who has been an unexpected—and critical—ingredient to Nebraska’s non-conference success.

Ranking the Five Best Moments in the Nebraska-Miami Rivalry

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photo and story by Patrick Runge

For most fans of a certain age, the Nebraska-Miami rivalry holds a very special place in history. Nebraska helped put Miami on the national stage with the Hurricanes’ amazing 31-30 victory in the 1984 Orange Bowl. Nebraska’s humblings at the hands of Miami in Orange Bowls of 1989 (23-3) and 1992 (22-0) led Tom Osborne to a wholesale change in his recruiting and defensive schemes. And that, as a result, led to Osborne’s first national championship—fittingly, against Miami in the Orange Bowl—in 1994.

Overall, Miami and Nebraska have split, playing each other ten times with each team winning five. So in looking back through history, here are the five best moments (from a scarlet and cream perspective) of the Nebraska-Miami rivalry.

No. 5: A First Bowl Victory

Nebraska’s first two bowl trips ended in defeat, to Stanford in the 1941 Rose Bowl and to Duke in the 1955 Orange Bowl. Nebraska would not get another bowl invite until 1962, when NU headed to Yankee Stadium to face Miami in the Gotham Bowl.

Played in sub-zero temperatures before a meager crowd, the 1962 Gotham Bowl was an amazing contest, with Nebraska taking a 36-27 lead in the fourth quarter, holding off a Miami rally, and sealing its first bowl win with a Bob Brown interception.

No. 4: The Fumblerooski

Nebraska was losing to upstart Miami 17-0 in the 1984 Orange Bowl, and needed a spark to turn the game around.  So the trick play was called where quarterback Turner Gill put the ball on the ground, making it a live ball, and ran off to the right.

It was then picked up by guard Dean Steinkuhler who, while the defense followed Gill to the right, ran left and rumbled into the end zone. The touchdown sparked Nebraska’s comeback, which was thwarted only by a deflected two-point conversion.

But the play, now outlawed, became a permanent part of Nebraska lore.

No. 3: Cory Schlesinger’s Second Touchdown

Most of the best Nebraska moments from this rivalry will come from Nebraska’s 24-17 win in 1994, so picking one moment from that game is tricky. But Nebraska fans should remember that Miami led most of this contest, going up 10-0 in the first quarter, leading 10-7 at the half, and leading 17-9 going into the fourth quarter.

Nebraska tied the game with 7:38 remaining on a Schlesinger trap play and a two-point conversion. But remember, college football didn’t embrace overtime until 1996—and we all remember what a tie in the Orange Bowl meant for Nebraska in years past.

So it was Schlesinger’s second touchdown, with 2:46 left to play (and with Schlesinger’s cleat firmly implanted in Warren Sapp’s chest as he rumbled into the end zone) that sealed the win and the shiny crystal football for Nebraska.

No. 2: Ken Calhoun’s Deflection

This may not be the happiest moment in Nebraska history, but it is likely the most iconic. In 1984, Nebraska was considered the best team in college football, and needed to knock off an upstart Miami team to get the monkey off Tom Osborne’s back and win a national title. The “Scoring Explosion” of Turner Gill, Mike Rozier, and Irving Fryar was ready to stake its claim to glory.

The game didn’t quite turn out according to script, though. Miami took a 17-0 lead in the first quarter and led Nebraska 31-17 going into the fourth. Nebraska scored on a one-yard Jeff Smith run to get within seven, and Smith scored again with under a minute to play.

31-30. An extra point would give Nebraska a tie, and almost certainly a vote as national champion.

Osborne would have none of a tie though, sending his offense back on to the field for a two-point conversion and the win. Gill took the snap, rolled to his right, and threw the ball to Smith. But Miami safety Ken Calhoun got a finger on the pass, tipping it away, and establishing the Hurricanes as a force in college football for the next decade.

How that decision looks in retrospect is, without question, changed by the three national titles Osborne won in the mid-nineties. But there can be no doubt that the courage of the decision, and the result, helped to define Osborne’s legacy.

No. 1: Kareem Moss’ Interception

Be honest. If you’re talking best moments of the rivalry, Kareem Moss’ interception of a wobbly Frank Costa pass on fourth down, clinching a win in the 1994 Orange Bowl and securing Tom Osborne’s first national title is the moment.

If you’re a Nebraska fan, and you’re old enough, you remember with vivid clarity that moment. The moment when the Miami dragon had finally been slain in its own lair. The moment where all those doubts, all those questions, all those near-misses were put away. The moment where, finally, you got to witness the scarlet and cream raise the national championship trophy, reaching the pinnacle of glory in college football.

At that moment, you had no idea that the next three years would see two more shiny crystal footballs on their way to the trophy cabinet in Lincoln. And it didn’t matter. On that warm Miami night, and on the cold streets at 72nd and Dodge in Omaha where ecstatic fans gathered to celebrate, the Cornhuskers could finally—finally—stand astride the college football world in triumph.

And there’s no better moment than that.

Will the Nebraska Cornhuskers’ Soft Non-Conference Schedule Come Back To Haunt Them?

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photo and article by Patrick Runge

Nebraska’s non-conference schedule for 2014 has worked out to be a little softer than first anticipated. Yes, Florida Atlantic and McNeese State aren’t going to impress anyone (although Nebraska’s struggles with the Cowboys on Saturday certainly put a damper on fans’ excitement for the balance of the season). Fresno State was 11-2 last year, but is currently sitting at 0-2 having been outscored by an aggregate 111-40 this year. Miami is a marquee name on a schedule, of course. But after the Hurricanes were outmatched by Louisville on the opening week of the season it doesn’t appear that Miami will be adding schedule strength to Nebraska’s resume for the selection committee.

So if we accept the premise that Nebraska’s non-conference schedule this year is pretty soft, what effect will it have on NU going forward?

Could it keep Nebraska out of the Playoff?

It’s possible.

There’s two scenarios where Nebraska could be a playoff contender. The first is if Nebraska runs the table and goes 13-0 with a win in the Big Ten Championship. In that circumstance, the only way Nebraska gets shunted out of the Playoff is if there are three undefeated conference champions with better schedules.

How’s that work? Well, check out the College Football Playoff’s selection protocol. The stated purpose of the committee is to select the “four best teams from among several with legitimate claims to participate.” The criteria for making those selections are purposefully loose, but there is one area where the criteria do provide some specifics.

“Strength of schedule, head-to-head competition and championships won must be specifically applied as tie-breakers between teams that look similar.” (emphasis added)

What does that mean? Well, we’re not entirely sure until we see it in action. But more than likely, it means that a 13-0 champion of the B1G would get a playoff berth over, say, an 11-1 Big 12 champion or a 12-1 ACC champion. The undefeated season in a Power Five conference should put a team like Nebraska on a different level than a team with one loss, meaning the strength-of-schedule tiebreaker should not come into play.

Now, if Nebraska is 12-1 and B1G champions, the calculus is very different. In that circumstance, Nebraska could be jostling elbows with a number of one-loss teams for a playoff spot. If we assume that the SEC and Pac-12 champions will get playoff berths (given the strength of their conferences), then we have two spots left in the inaugural field.

In that scenario, Nebraska would be fighting with the champions of the other Power Five conferences, the ACC and the Big 12. If either of those champions are undefeated (say, Florida State and Oklahoma), Nebraska’s out. And Nebraska would likely lose out to a one-loss Florida State or a one-loss Oklahoma in that scenario, given the relative strength of schedule as a tiebreaker.

And a 12-1 Nebraska would also have to contend with a one-loss SEC team that didn’t win the conference title. Let’s say LSU goes undefeated and loses to Georgia in the SEC title game. We could be looking at a musical chairs game of four teams for two spots, between an 11-1 Oklahoma Big 12 champion, a 12-1 Florida State ACC champion, a 12-1 LSU that did not win a championship, and a 12-1 Nebraska B1G champion.

Picking between those first three would not be an enviable task for the two remaining spots. But eliminating Nebraska from that conversation would be pretty simple.

Could it keep Nebraska out of a New Year’s Six bowl?

Probably not, but cannot predict now.

In addition to the four-team Playoff field, the selection committee will be deciding the participants for the “New Year’s Six” bowl games (the Orange, Sugar, Fiesta, Rose, Peach, and Cotton Bowls). Two of those four bowls each year will be the Playoff semi-finals, and the participants for the other four will be chosen by the committee.

Different rules apply, though, for New Year’s Six bowl selection. Many have conference ties (unless the conference-tied bowl is a semi-final). But for the bowl slots without conference ties, it will be the selection committee and not the bowl representatives in their brightly-colored blazers picking the teams.

However, the criteria for selecting bowl teams is different than for selecting the Playoff participants. Instead, the committee will be picking from the “displaced conference champions” (meaning conference champions without a bowl tie in, like when the B1G champion can’t go to the Rose Bowl because it is a semi-final) and the highest ranked “non-contract conference champion” (meaning a non-Power Five conference champion) to fill the non-mandatory slots. The selection committee will fill the at-large berths in “rank order” from the final selection committee rankings. So how would this affect Nebraska?

Well, if Nebraska wins the B1G but gets squeezed out of the Playoff, it is still guaranteed a spot in a New Year’s Six bowl as a conference champion. The only way Nebraska’s strength of schedule could hurt its chances as a New Year’s Six bowl is if it doesn’t win the conference and is positioning for an at-large berth. In that circumstance, Nebraska would have to rank high enough to warrant one of those at-large bids—and Nebraska’s soft non-conference schedule could be a drag on its ranking, making it harder to land one of those berths.

Could it hurt Nebraska in the conference season?

Probably not.

There’s a cliché about steel sharpening steel which could have Nebraska fans worried. It is possible that a cushy non-conference schedule could make Nebraska fat and lazy, and unready for a challenge from a truly talented opponent.

In some ways, then, the near-miss to McNeese State might have been a good thing. Had Nebraska rolled through its non-conference, then overconfidence could have been a problem in preparation for games like Michigan State and Wisconsin.

But after Nebraska needed an “Ameer-acle” to knock of an FCS opponent in Lincoln, no one in scarlet and cream should be overconfident. Ever, or at the very least for the rest of this season.

Nebraska Football: What You Should And Shouldn’t Be Concerned About After Week 2

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photo and story by Patrick Runge

Nebraska football fans got a huge scare in Week 2 against FCS opponent McNeese State. The Cornhuskers were tied with the Cowboys 24-24, with 20 seconds left and the FCS squad having all the momentum, before Ameer Abdullah took a check-down pass from Tommy Armstrong, made five tacklers miss, and ran 58 yards for the winning touchdown.

Predictably, Nebraska fans were in varying stages of panic after the near-miss to a second tier team.

But with the benefit of a little time to reflect, let’s think about what Nebraska fans should—and should not—worry about as a result of this “win.”

Don’t Be Concerned About Nebraska’s Physical Play

There’s no doubt Nebraska’s contest against McNeese State was a strange sight to behold. Nebraska dominated its FCS opponent in the first half, with the score remaining close only because of a 98-yard interception return for a touchdown. Some second half adjustments, and Nebraska’s superior talent and depth should win out, right?

Right?

Obviously, that didn’t happen, and the second half was truly the more frightening. The Cowboys had 19:56 time of possession in the second half, as opposed to Nebraska’s 10:04. Nebraska was 1/7 on third down conversions. Prior to the “Ameeracle” play where Abdullah went 58 yards for the game-winning touchdown (yeah, I’m willing to go with the building meme), Nebraska had run 23 plays in the second half.

For 52 yards. Which is an average of 2.26 yards per carry. Against an FCS opponent.

As Brandon Vogel from Hail Varsity observed, it appeared that “Nebraska’s offensive line appeared to get handled by an FCS front.” And given the statistics above, it’s hard not to come to that conclusion.

So is that true? Was McNeese State’s line really physically stronger and able to push Nebraska’s line around?

Clearly not. If that was the case, then there’s no way Nebraska could have averaged 7.37 yards per play in the first half. Nor could Nebraska have averaged 8.52 yards per play against Florida Atlantic last week, an FBS program (although, admittedly, probably an inferior team to McNeese State).

So, if the problem isn’t physical, what is it?

Be Concerned About Nebraska’s Mental State

Sure, there were some Xs and Os reasons as to why McNeese State was able to be successful against Nebraska. The Cowboys stuffed the box, daring Nebraska to throw, and Nebraska never challenged that single coverage. Abdullah only had 17 carries, meaning McNeese State was able to scheme Nebraska away from its best offensive weapon.

But that alone doesn’t explain the near-upset. And given how Nebraska performed earlier, it’s almost impossible to avoid the conclusion that Nebraska wasn’t right mentally against the Cowboys.

Abdullah said it himself, as quoted on Huskers.com.

“I feel like our level of respect for the game this week was not good enough.  It definitely showed.  That’s on me as a captain.  I have to assist that as the week goes on, but I was reluctant to say something, and I promise that it is the last time that will happen.”

So there’s your answer in black and white. Nebraska didn’t “respect the game” enough during the week, meaning that NU’s preparation for an FCS opponent wasn’t sufficient. Couple that with injuries to key contributors like Randy Gregory, Kenny Bell, and Jamal Turner,  and quarterback Tommy Armstrong getting tentative after the pick-six, and you get an anemic performance that almost led to the biggest upset in Nebraska’s modern history.

Does that mean Nebraska fans shouldn’t worry? In the short term, perhaps. Nebraska under head coach Bo Pelini has a history of bouncing back and performing well after a sub-par showing. Even with the travel and the strange start time (9:30 p.m. central time), Fresno State is nowhere near the 11-2 BCS-buster of a year ago. A committed performance from Nebraska should be more than enough to take care of business next week.

But for the rest of the season? When Nebraska yet again falls prey to mental lapses causing the team to under-perform, as it has done throughout Pelini’s tenure? We got the answer to that question from senior cornerback Josh Mitchell, as reported by Steven M. Sipple of the Lincoln Journal-Star.

“I see 9-4 all over again.”

Ranking the 5 Most Important Seniors on the Nebraska Cornhuskers in 2014

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photo and story by Patrick Runge

Nebraska football fans know how important seniors are to the success of the Cornhuskers in 2014. Not only do seniors provide the leadership that sets the tone on the field and in the weight room, seniors also tend to be the players that make the plays to win games.

So for Nebraska to be successful in 2014, NU’s seniors will have to shine. Here, in order of importance, are Nebraska’s five most critical seniors.

No. 5: Zaire Anderson

Nebraska’s linebacker corps is full of youth, much of it untested. Middle linebacker Josh Banderas got playing time last year as a true freshman, but is now in the position due to a season-ending injury to Michael Rose. Courtney Love, Marcus Newby, and other young linebackers will help provide depth to the position.

But it is Anderson, a senior who arrived in Lincoln as a junior-college transfer, who can provide leadership as a starter to Nebraska’s linebacker corps. Anderson has not been able to avoid the injury bug during his Nebraska career, but if he is able to stay off the training table he could be massively important for the Blackshirts.

No. 4: Mark Pelini

Never underestimate the importance of a center to an offense. While Nebraska is starting four new offensive linemen, and having flashy stars like Alex Lewis to watch, it’s Pelini’s senior leadership directing the line and making the necessary calls to keep drives clicking.

In other words, if you’re going to have just one senior on the offensive line, having him at center is a pretty good way to go.

No. 3: Kenny Bell

“The Fro” has been a fixture for Nebraska’s offense since he arrived in Lincoln. But as a senior, Bell will be leading Nebraska’s wide receiver corps. And as Nebraska’s primary threat to stretch the field, combined with a quarterback in Tommy Armstrong who particularly excels at throwing the deep pass, Bell could become even a bigger part of NU’s offense than he has been in seasons past.

No. 2: Josh Mitchell

Mitchell isn’t the tallest Blackshirt, nor is he the fastest, nor is he the hardest hitter. But Mitchell is without question the vocal and spiritual leader of Nebraska’s defense. And his pugnacious attitude, as much as his cover skills and his tackling ability, will help drive the Blackshirts in 2014.

No. 1: Ameer Abdullah

What more can be said about the spiritual and physical leader of the 2014 Cornhuskers? Particularly with the injury to defensive end Randy Gregory, Abdullah is unquestionably the best player on the team. And his leadership off the field, as best demonstrated by this speech Abdullah gave at Big Ten Media Days, sets the kind of hard-working and selfless tone head coach Bo Pelini wants to see.

Nebraska Football: Grading The Performance Of Each New Starter

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photo and story by Patrick Runge

Nebraska football fans got to see their Cornhuskers get off to a good start, beating Florida Atlantic 55-7 in Lincoln. In that game, a number of starters got their first chance to shine under the spotlight. Here’s how they graded out.

Offensive Line

Alex Lewis, LT: A+

Jake Cotton, LG: A+

Mike Moudy, RG: A

Givens Price, RT: A

With 498 yards of total offense, it’s clear that the offensive line had a good day. Watching the game, you could see that the left side of the offensive line (led by Lewis) was getting a stronger push and imposing its will more than the right side. But that’s all a question of degree, as both sides of the line were as imposing as a Nebraska offensive line has been in quite some time.

Receivers

Alonzo Moore, WR: C

Making the starting lineup amidst a jumble of receivers was quite an accomplishment for Moore. Unfortunately, he wasn’t able to cash in on the stat sheet after the game. Moore was targeted in the red zone and would have scored, had Tommy Armstrong’s pass been on target, which does increase his grade slightly.

Defensive Line

Greg McMullen: A+

Vincent Valentine: A

Yes, the loss of Randy Gregory was frightening for Nebraska fans. But the emergence of McMullen, at least for this game, as a nearly unstoppable force on the other end of the defensive line was an exciting thing to see. Both in the backfield and, at times, dropping into coverage. McMullen was the defensive standout of the game.

And Valentine, while playing in a less glamourous but no less important hole, was stout up the middle, and was able to get into the backfield at times and disrupt the Owls’ offense.

Linebackers

Josh Banderas, middle “Mike” linebacker: A-

Zaire Anderson, weak-side “Will” linebacker: A

Florida Atlantic’s first defensive series saw the Owls drive right down the field, 75 yards, to tie the score at seven. After than, FAU only gained 125 of total yards—and much of that was late in the fourth quarter when the result was well in hand.

While the defense as a whole performed well, which is a good sign for the middle linebacker who helps direct everything, Banderas did not have a stellar individual day. He had no individual tackles, and three assists, making for 1.5 total tackles on the day. Anderson, on the other hand, was effective in coverage and disruptive in the backfield.

Defensive Backs

Nathan Gerry, S: A

Daniel Davie, CB: A

Byerson Cockrell, NICKEL: A

Davie was a surprise start, with many (including this dope) thinking that Jonathan Rose would end up winning the starting cornerback position. But Davie came up with a great game, as did Gerry who was all over the field making plays. Cockrell fitted in well at NICKEL, both in run support and pass coverage, making the sting of Charles Jackson’s injury a little less painful.

Specialists:

Drew Brown, PK: B+

Brown got the first chance at placekicking, drilling a 44-yard field goal along with the extra point duties until the fourth quarter. Mauro Bondi did come out and kick a fourth-quarter extra point, showing that there is at least competition for the placekicking role and lowering Brown’s grade slightly.