Nebraska Football: Pelini’s Progress at Nebraska Little Different Than Callahan’s

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photo and story by Patrick Runge

Nebraska football fans know that seasons—and careers—turn on fine margins. Even coming off a number of bad losses, Nebraska was still just a few plays away from making that next step. One play going the wrong way in a championship game, keeping Nebraska from finally winning that elusive conference title.  A fumble by a wide receiver at the end of a critical game costing Nebraska a much-needed win. If both of those plays go the other way, the status of the Nebraska program looks very different.

Boy, that Bill Callahan guy was close, wasn’t he?

I know, the opening of this column sounds like Bo Pelini’s near-misses, against Texas (and Oklahoma, really) in the Big 12 title game, and last week’s loss to Minnesota. But Callahan, the man who has become a cartoon villain amongst many Nebraska fans, has a resume that looks eerily similar.

Conference title near-miss? In 2006, Nebraska faced Oklahoma for the Big 12 title. Midway through the third quarter, the score was tied 14-14 and Nebraska had Oklahoma in a third-and-long inside its own five yard line. With the statistical advantage on both offense and defense, a stop for the Blackshirts on that play gives NU the ball with great field position, momentum, and a clear chance to get the conference title monkey off its back. A win in that game puts Nebraska back on the map in Callahan’s third season, potentially changing the trajectory of the program. A stop on that third down goes a long way towards that win.

Instead, Paul Thompson hits Jermel Greshman for a 35-yard completion and converts the first down. The Sooners end up with a 99-yard touchdown drive and squeeze the life out of Nebraska, 21-7.

A late-game wide receiver turnover costing Nebraska a much-needed win? Look back to 2006 again, when Nebraska faced no. 5 Texas. With 2:23 left in the game, Nebraska held a 20-19 lead and had the ball, looking to get its first win over the Longhorns since 1999. But Terrence Nunn, after hauling in a Zac Taylor pass, lost a fumble to Texas’ Aaron Ross.

Texas drove the short field for a field goal, and Nebraska’s last-second comeback fell short, leaving NU once again coming oh-so-close to a huge win.

Of course, the analogies aren’t perfect. Pelini’s loss to Texas in 2009 was probably closer to glory than Callahan’s loss to Oklahoma in 2006. Pelini’s loss to Minnesota this year is almost certainly worse than Callahan’s loss to the no. 5 rated Longhorns in 2006.

Most importantly, Pelini is not Callahan—although his “I haven’t forgotten how to defend the run” quote after the 2011 win over Wisconsin (from Huskers.com) might hang around his neck in the same way Callahan’s “I’m doing an excellent job in every area” quote did in 2007 (from the Lincoln Journal-Star). Pelini has never missed a bowl game—indeed, he’s never won fewer than nine games in a season. Up until last week, he had not lost consecutive conference games since 2009.

The point is that football seasons turn on fine margins. We remember Callahan’s four years at the helm in Lincoln as an unmitigated disaster. And, given how the 2007 season ended, there’s good reason to look back in horror at what unfurled under his leadership.

But the smoke from the blazing hulk of the 2007 can obscure how close Callahan came to turning the metaphorical corner at Nebraska. Much like Pelini, Callahan was fingertips (literally, with Nunn’s fumble) away from a career-defining moment.

The fact remains, though, that those moments never happened, that corner never got turned. Being close to greatness isn’t greatness, just as being part of an entourage doesn’t make you a star.

Callahan had four years of getting close before a seven-loss season (along with near-universal loathing for his boss, former athletic director Steve Pederson) cost him his job. Pelini has had seven years. He’s had the same agonizingly-close brushes with glory as Callahan—along with the hide-the-children debacles on national television.

What Pelini hasn’t had is a seven-loss disaster like Callahan did in 2007. Whether that’s enough to keep him for year eight is up to current athletic director Shawn Eichorst.

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Nebraska Football: Fans Should Be Thankful For Clarity Provided by Minnesota Loss

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photo and story by Patrick Runge

With the Thanksgiving holiday approaching, Nebraska fans will be looking hard for something about which to be thankful. In the course of seven days, Nebraska fans saw their Cornhuskers go from an 8-1 team on the periphery of the College Football Playoff to (at best) the third-best team in the Big Ten West. In the process, Nebraska fans saw Wisconsin running back Melvin Gordon set the FBS all-time record for rushing yards in one game—needing only three quarters to do so—and saw less-than-fleet Minnesota quarterback Mitch Leidner gash the Blackshirts for 133 yards on the ground.

So what can Nebraska fans be thankful for as they sit down to their turkey and trimmings?

Clarity.

Think about what would have happened if Jordan Westerkamp had hauled in Tommy Armstrong’s across-the-field throw for a touchdown to salvage an ugly win against the Gophers. Nebraska would have gone to Iowa City at 9-2, with a chance to win the B1G West with help. The struggles of 2014 would have been seen as a blip, rather than evidence of the program’s level.

Yes, the struggles of 2014, not just the past week. Remember, this is the same Nebraska squad that needed a miracle play from Ameer Abdullah to avoid defeat at home against FCS McNeese State. The same Nebraska squad that was down 27-3 against Michigan State going into the fourth quarter, before staging a furious comeback—fueled by a punt return and a short drive led by backup quarterback Ryker Fife.

A win over Minnesota on Saturday—driven by a broken play, a blocked field goal, and a last-minute touchdown drive—would have allowed Nebraska to paper over the cracks for another year, allowed fans to tell themselves their team was something it was not.  A contender.

In seven years, Bo Pelini’s Nebraska teams have been to three conference title games. In 2009, an Ndamukong-Suh led Nebraska squad was one second away from beating Texas. In 2010, a freshman Taylor Martinez threw an interception that likely turned the tide in Oklahoma’s 20-13 victory.

And in 2012—well, Nebraska fans all remember what a 7-5 Wisconsin squad who finished third in the Leaders Division and went to Indianapolis only due to sanctions levied against Ohio State and Penn State did to that crew of Cornhuskers.

Two years removed from that title game, and Nebraska is on track (if oddsmakers are to be believed) for Pelini’s seventh four-loss regular season in seven seasons.

As a smart and particularly handsome analyst noted after Wisconsin’s 59-24 mauling of Nebraska in Madison, a Nebraska program ending the season at 10-2 or 9-3 would be hard-pressed to dismiss Pelini, even though that record really would not be indicative of whether Nebraska was a contender to win a division title.  The record would mask the true state of the program under Pelini at the end of the 2014 season.

But with a loss to Minnesota, the second loss on the bounce against the Gophers? With the oddsmakers favoring Nebraska to drop a second straight to Iowa, producing this year’s version of a four-loss season with a three-game losing streak?

Clarity. The loss to Minnesota provides clarity to anyone observing the Nebraska program as to what it is.

The question about what to do, of course, is open. Pelini thinks his program is on the right track, and on the verge of a breakthrough season. Pelini takes care of his players, runs a clean program, and gets his teams to bowl games each year. His quote after the Wisconsin game that “[a] lot of programs across the country would die to have won the amount of games we’ve won” (from Huskers.com) is accurate.

Of course, most programs around the country don’t have the investment in football, the tradition, resources, or fan base support Nebraska provides, but that’s another story.

The bottom line is that there are a lot of good reasons to retain Pelini’s services as Nebraska’s head coach, either positive (his winning record, his recruiting, the program he runs) or negative (the cost of a firing, the trauma to the fanbase, and the fear of the unknown with a new coach).

But at least after the Minnesota loss, those pros and cons can be debated by the Nebraska fan base—and ultimately by athletic director Shawn Eichorst—with a clear perspective as to where Nebraska’s football program currently lies, without a deceptive and unrepresentative win-loss record concealing the blemishes.

Clarity. If you’re looking for something to be thankful for about Nebraska football this holiday season, be thankful for clarity.

Nebraska Football: Ranking the 5 Best Pro Prospects on the Cornhuskers

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photo and story by Patrick Runge

Nebraska football fans, still smarting from seeing Melvin Gordon score again (and again, and again) on the Blackshirts, are looking for anything to distract them from Saturday’s debacle. One exercise is to take a look at Nebraska’s roster and think about who the best NFL prospects are in scarlet and cream.

Judging NFL prospects has some subjectivity to it, of course, particularly when you look at younger kids who have not had an opportunity to see the field. Sometimes experience and what you have seen on film can rule the day, while other times raw potential can make a player an exciting prospect.

So, trying to balance all of those considerations, here are Nebraska’s five best pro prospects.

All draft projections and measurables come from The Sports Xchange.

No. 5: Kenny Bell (WR, senior)

Even as the school’s record-holder for touchdown receptions, Bell has been far from a dominant force in Nebraska’s offense this year. Much of that, however, stems from the run-heavy nature of Nebraska’s offensive scheme combined with quarterback Tommy Armstrong’s inefficiencies (which is the nicest possible way to say it) as a passer.

At the next level, though, Bell has the speed and hands to get drafted. He is currently projected as a fifth-round selection in next year’s draft. His desire and competitiveness—demonstrated by his ferocious devotion to blocking, if nothing else—should help him stick on an NFL roster next season.

No. 4: Vincent Valentine (DT, sophomore)

Valentine’s status on this list is a little bit of a projection, but there is plenty on which to base that speculation. For starters, his size (six-foot-two, 320 pounds) give him an idea frame as a run-stuffing defensive tackle. And this year, in his first full season as a starter, Valentine’s talent and athleticism have started to show through.

Placing him this high on the list, of course, is having faith that his skill level will continue to increase until the 2017 NFL Draft. But given his physical makeup and the improvement we’ve seen thus far, it’s a leap worth taking.

No. 3: Greg Hart (TE, redshirt freshman)

If Valentine’s inclusion on this list is a leap of faith, then including Hart on the list is a blindfolded jump off of a bridge. But there are reasons why such a jump might be worth it.

First of all, a big pass-catching tight end can be a game-changer for an NFL offense. Players like Rob Gronkowski for the Patriots and Jimmy Graham for the Saints have demonstrated how those types of players (and the matchup nightmares they create for opposing defenses) can change the entire construct of an offense.

Yes, Nebraska already has one of those on its roster in Cethan Carter. And Carter is certainly a talent, although injuries, offensive design, and poor quarterback performance have limited his contributions.

But Hart is an inch taller, and has a 40-yard-dash time almost a full tenth of a second faster than Carter. Obviously, we haven’t seen Hart on the field much. But we’ve seen precious little of Carter (much to the chagrin of Nebraska fans), so there’s a lot of speculation as to both players as to what they will look like as finished products.

So in guessing between the two, I’m going to lean on the player with the better measurables.

No. 2: Ameer Abdullah (IB, senior)

Does it seem that long ago when Abdullah was considered a Heisman candidate and looked to be establishing something special in his senior campaign? After an injury against Purdue, combined with Nebraska’s humiliation at the hands of Wisconsin, Abdullah’s performances seem to have been lost in the shuffle.

But Abdullah is still a remarkable talent, with balance, speed, and deceptive power combined with a low center of gravity that should make him an interesting prospect at the next level. Currently viewed as a second-round pick in next year’s NFL Draft, Abdullah should hear his name called on the draft’s second day and factor heavily into an NFL squad’s future plans.

No. 1: Randy Gregory (DE, junior)

One of the very few silver linings of Nebraska’s evisceration at the hands of Wisconsin on Saturday was the fleeting thought that it looked so bad it might convince Gregory to stick around for his senior campaign. After all, the wishful thinking goes, the defense looked so bad that it might hurt Gregory’s stock with NFL clubs.

Fat chance. Not only is Gregory a first-round projections, many analysts see him going in the first few picks of the draft. Given his combination of size, speed, length, and instinct, it’s not hard to see how he draws comparisons to Jadaveon Clowney and Javon Kearse (according to Chase Goodbread of NFL.com). Gregory looks to be the highest-picked Nebraska player since Ndamukong Suh went no. 2 overall to the Detroit Lions in 2010.

Which makes Saturday’s defensive embarrassment against Wisconsin all the sadder for Nebraska fans, as it likely is a waste of Gregory’s remarkable talents in scarlet and cream.

Nebraska Football: Epic Collapses Now The Defining Trait of Pelini’s Husker Program

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photo and story by Patrick Runge

“It should not define our program. It’s one game.”

– Nebraska offensive coordinator Tim Beck, after NU’s 59-24 loss to Wisconsin in 2014. (As quoted in the Grand Island Independent)

“It’s one game today … I never look back.”

– Nebraska head football coach Bill Callahan, after Nebraska’s 2004 season ended at 5-6, breaking NU’s 35-year streak of bowls. (As quoted in USA Today)

Nebraska fans had a sickening feeling of déjà vu on Saturday as Wisconsin’s Melvin Gordon racked up 408 yards on the ground—breaking the NCAA single-game rushing record in three quarters—as the Badgers scored 56 unanswered points to beat Nebraska 59-24.

The last time Nebraska faced Gordon was in the 2012 Big Ten Championship game, when Gordon torched Nebraska for 216 yards on nine (!) carries en route to a 70-31 humiliation of NU.

It seemed like a long time had passed since that debacle in Indianapolis, though. The recruiting struggles of 2010 and 2011 were behind Nebraska, and NU had the athletes to compete at the highest level. Bo Pelini, after a tumultuous offseason, had matured and put the embarrassing collapses behind him.

This was the year Nebraska turned the metaphorical corner, it seemed. In year seven of Bo Pelini’s tenure in charge of the Nebraska program, 2014 was the year Nebraska returned to the national relevance fans have ached for since 2001.

Heck, Nebraska fans were even getting ready to cheer for Miami, to help NU’s strength of schedule and bolster the Huskers’ argument to make the inaugural College Football Playoff. If there’s anything that will tell you how desperate Nebraska fans were to bask in the glow of a nationally-competitive football program, that’s it.

At 17-3, those dreams were intact. Then, Gordon ripped off a 62-yard touchdown run. And the meltdown was on. Again.

“And it’s not like it only happens to us. Look across the country. It happens.”

– Nebraska head coach Bo Pelini, at his weekly press conference after the 2014 Wisconsin game (as quoted by Huskers.com)

With all due respect, coach, no it doesn’t. No one has ever given up 408 yards to one opposing player—certainly not in only three quarters of game time. The teams at the level at which Nebraska aspires to achieve—teams that are regularly in the discussion for conference titles, and now for inclusion in the four-team College Football Playoff—don’t get humiliated on a regular basis.

How regular? Well …

2014 Wisconsin 59, Nebraska 24 (NU led 17-3)
2013 UCLA 41, Nebraska 21 (NU led 21-3)
2012 Wisconsin 70, Nebraska 31
2012 Ohio State 63, Nebraska 38 (NU led 17-7)
2011 Michigan 45, Nebraska 17
2011 Wisconsin 48, Nebraska 17 (NU led 7-0 and 14-7)

 

In case you were curious, that means in six games against marquee opponents over the past four years, Nebraska was outscored 326-148, after having leads in four of those games.

So, no. It’s not just one game, Coach Beck. Quite honestly, since 2011 collapses like the ones against Wisconsin on Saturday have pretty much been the defining characteristic of the Nebraska program.

“We’ve won a lot of football games since I’ve been here, a lot of football games. A lot of football programs across the country would die to have won the amount of football games we’ve won.”

– Pelini, defending the state of the Nebraska program in a post-game interview after the Wisconsin loss on Saturday (as quoted by ESPN)

Is it fair to define Pelini’s program by the ugly losses? Isn’t he right to point out that under Pelini Nebraska has never won fewer than nine games? Is that really fair on Pelini?

Maybe not. But fair ain’t nothing but a four-letter f-word. And fair or not, the one thing Nebraska is known for on a national stage are the six ugly, face-on-a-rake losses Nebraska has endured on a national spotlight since 2011.

It’s year seven of Pelini’s time at the helm in Lincoln. There’s no more rebuilding from the Callahan legacy. There’s no more disruption from a conference shift. There’s no more recovering from a bad recruiting cycle early in his career.

This is Pelini’s program. It’s his team, with his players and his culture. And in six of the biggest games since 2011—four of which his teams have held leads—his teams have been outscored by a combined 178 points.

So what now? While questions have been raised after Saturday’s debacle, Pelini’s job is in no serious jeopardy. If Nebraska wins its next two games—and yes, Nebraska has enough talent to win out—NU will end the season at 10-2. The state nearly came unglued when Frank Solich was fired with a far worse record than Pelini’s. So absent an epic meltdown on Pelini’s part—like we saw against Iowa last year—Nebraska athletic director Shawn Eichorst is unlikely to consider any change at the helm.

“I believe this program is on a good track. It’s on the right track.”

– Pelini on the status of the Nebraska program, from the weekly press conference after the 2014 Wisconsin game.

In some ways, it’s a trap. Pelini’s teams have delivered good seasons, never less than nine wins. But they’ve never delivered great seasons, with a conference title or a truly marquee win for Nebraska fans to hang their collective hat on. The only time Pelini’s job was ever truly in jeopardy wasn’t for the wins and losses, but for Pelini’s immature and boorish behavior at the end of last season. Assuming he’s not foolish enough to repeat that behavior, his record is such that he’s unlikely to be fired.

So what do Nebraska fans, so desperate to see NU return to what they see as its rightful place as a major player in college football, do now?

“Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.”

– Hebrews 11:1 (King James Version)

Yes, I know Nebraska football is not religion—although in this state, some may be forgiven for mistaking the two. But at this point, the principle is the same. Pelini, absent a post-Iowa presser like last year, isn’t going anywhere unless his team completely implodes. So Nebraska fans have two choices. The first is to hope Nebraska starts losing on an epic level that will force Eichorst’s hand to make a change. But that kind of toxic karma will do no good for either the fans who would engage in those dark arts or for the kids currently in the program who are putting their bodies on the line every Saturday for the Sea of Red.

The other option is to have faith—blind faith, to be sure, given Pelini’s history and his statements at the post-Wisconsin press conference that he has “no idea” why Nebraska keeps collapsing under his watch like it does—that Pelini is right about Nebraska being on the right track and on target to start winning conference and national titles.

Is it rational? Not based on the evidence of things seen.

But it’s all you’ve got left to hold on to, Husker fans.

Nebraska Football: Ranking the Top 5 Surprises for the Huskers This Year

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photo and story by Patrick Runge

Nebraska football fans had an idea of what to expect coming into the 2014 season, but have received a few surprises along the way. As with any season, unexpected twists and turns have popped up, changing expectations from where they were in the summer.

Here are five of the biggest surprises Nebraska fans have seen as the 2014 season has unfolded.

No. 5 – Gregory’s Return?

Last week, Nebraska fans were buzzing at the possibility of defensive end Randy Gregory returning for his senior season in 2015. Fueled by comments from head coach Bo Pelini that “we’re not going to lose any of them” (referring to the defensive line, as reported by Brian Christopherson of the Lincoln Journal-Star), Nebraska fans had a glimmer of hope to see Gregory next year.

After all, many outlets (such as CBS Sports’ Rob Rang) have Gregory as a top-five pick overall in next year’s NFL draft. While Pelini later said he wasn’t implying he knew anything about Gregory’s return next season (according to Brian Rosenthal of the Lincoln Journal-Star), the seed was at least planted that Nebraska might get another year out of the phenomenal defensive talent of Gregory.

No. 4 – Tommy’s Consistency, In A Bad Way

In many ways, quarterback Tommy Armstrong’s numbers don’t look all that different in 2014 than they did in 2013. Take a look:

Completion % TD INT Yards/Att Rating
2013 51.9 9 8 7.4 124.31
2014 53.0 13 8 7.9 131.45

 

While Armstrong has played in nine games this year, the same number as in 2013, it’s hard to make a straight comparison of his statistics. Many times last year, Armstrong played only part of a game, being spelled by Ron Kellogg. This year, the job has been almost exclusively Armstrong’s.

Going into his nineteenth game, it’s not unreasonable to have expected improvement in Armstrong’s performance at quarterback.

No. 3 – Kicking Conundrum

As observed long ago by a smart and particularly handsome analyst, Nebraska has been “Kicker U” recently, producing an inordinate amount of accurate and reliable placekickers. That history has spoiled Nebraska fans a little, leading them to think field goals in college football are near automatic.

Not this year. True freshman Drew Brown is 9-14 in field goal attempts—fairly average nationwide, but perfectly dreadful based on Nebraska’s recent high standards. And while Brown’s (relative) struggles have yet to cost Nebraska a game, seeing NU with anything less than a stellar kicking game is a little jarring.

No. 2 – Failure to Launch

Sure, Ameer Abdullah has been fantastic (unless the opponent was an M-State, be it Michigan or McNeese). But much was expected of the other I-backs in the stable, Imani Cross and Terrell Newby.

While both have a yards/carry average that is respectable (5.19 for Cross, 4.67 for Newby), neither of them have really been able to make a splash and grab the kind of attention Nebraska fans had hoped for. Certainly, in comparison to Abdullah at his best, most running backs will struggle.

But as Nebraska fans saw with the offensive struggles against Purdue in Abdullah’s absence, it’s not unfair to say that the contributions of Cross and Newby at this stage are a little underwhelming.

No. 1 – A Star is Born

There’s little doubt that freshman receiver De’Mornay Pierson-El has been the best surprise Nebraska has found this year. Almost single-handedly, Pierson-El has turned a weakness into a strength in the punt return game. He’s beginning to be worked into the offense as well, looking as if he has claimed the starting third wide receiver position.

And if Abdullah is going to be limited against Wisconsin, Pierson-El may provide a crucial playmaker and weapon, forcing Wisconsin to respect the deep part of the field and opening running lanes for Armstrong, Cross, and Newby.

Stats gathered from CFBStats.com.

Nebraska Football: The 3 Biggest X-Factors for Nebraska vs. Wisconsin

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photo and story by Patrick Runge

Nebraska football fans well remember the Huskers’ last trip to Madison, which resulted in a 48-17 shellacking at the hands of the Badgers. So as they prepare for the return trip (and with echoes of Wisconsin’s 70-31 humiliation of Nebraska in the 2012 Big Ten Championships still ringing in their ears), Nebraska fans will be looking for how NU can win on Saturday and stay on track for a return trip to Indianapolis.

Here are three X-factors fans should  be looking for to key a Nebraska victory on Saturday.

Ameer Abdullah

According to Steven Sipple of the Lincoln Journal-Star, Nebraska head coach Bo Pelini said that he “anticipates” I-back Ameer Abdullah to play against Wisconsin, but said that he did not practice with the team during the week. That’s far less definitive than Pelini was earlier, when he said he anticipated Abdullah to be close to 100 percent for the Wisconsin game.

So what does that mean? The likelihood is that Abdullah is going to be limited by the knee injury that kept him out of the game against Purdue two weeks ago. How limited? That’s the big question. If he is significantly limited, then we saw a glimpse of what Nebraska’s offense looks like sans Abdullah.

If he is able to provide something close to full fitness, though (or if Pelini is playing games with Wisconsin head coach Gary Anderson), then Abdullah has the chance to be the difference in the game on Saturday.

Cethan Carter

Pelini has been optimistic that tight end Cethan Carter would be back for the Wisconsin game, according to the Lincoln Journal-Star. Even though his contributions offensively have been sparse (two catches for 25 yards and one touchdown), Carter’s presence provides Nebraska with a downfield threat that no other tight end on the roster can give.

Carter’s absence (along with the injury to Kenny Bell early in the first quarter) may have been a big part of Nebraska’s offensive struggles against Michigan State. If Carter is back, Nebraska may have an unexpected weapon added to its arsenal as it travels to Madison.

Tim Beck

Against Purdue, offensive coordinator Tim Beck said he made the same mistake he made against Michigan State by overloading and over-complicating the offensive game plan. Nebraska’s offense has demonstrated the ability to be very effective against elite-level athletes, putting up 41 points and 456 yards against Miami.

Wisconsin’s defense is no. 5 nationally in rush defense and no. 3 nationally in pass defense. If Nebraska is going to beat the Badgers in Madison, Beck’s game plan and preparation will have to be top notch to get NU over the hump and stay on top of the B1G West.

Stats gathered from CFBStats.com.

Nebraska Football: Five Things For the Cornhuskers To Improve During the Bye Week

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photo and story by Patrick Runge

Nebraska football fans endured (that’s really the correct term for it) a sloppy 35-14 victory over Purdue to see NU head into its second bye week at 8-1 overall and 4-1 in conference play. But with the meat of its conference schedule ahead of it, how Nebraska performs in the final three games of the regular season will determine if NU breaks out of its four-loss rut and makes a run at a conference championship.

So what has to happen in this bye week to get Nebraska ready for its final gauntlet? Here are five things the Cornhuskers should be looking to improve.

Ameer Abdullah’s Knee

It’s not exactly rocket science to diagnose that a healthy Ameer Abdullah would do wonders for Nebraska’s chances against a suddenly-resurgent Wisconsin. According to Sam McKewon of the Omaha World-Herald, Abdullah had a mild knee sprain and head coach Bo Pelini is “optimistic” about his return for Wisconsin.

Nebraska fans should hope his optimism is well founded. Imani Cross and Terrell Newby are nice replacement options, but neither is the kind of game-changer a healthy Abdullah is when on the field. And with Wisconsin in the last few weeks looking like the Badger crew we thought we would see at the start of the season, Nebraska might need that game-changer to escape Madison with a win.

Drew Brown’s Foot

True freshman Drew Brown missed a makeable field goal in each of Nebraska’s last three games, putting him at a less-than-stellar 9-of-14 in field goals for the season. In each of the contests, the misses ended up making no difference in the outcome. But that doesn’t mean the time won’t come this year where Nebraska’s hopes for a conference title will rest on a kicker’s foot.

It’s difficult to replicate game conditions and game pressures in a bye week, of course. But Nebraska will certainly go into this off week hoping to find some confidence in its placekicking game.

Tommy Armstrong’s Rapport

When you see a quarterback throw a horrific interception—or two—it’s easy to point the finger at him and ask what in the world he is seeing. But many times, a throw is made before a receiver makes a cut or a move. If the quarterback and receiver are thinking two different things—in other words, if the receiver zags when the quarterback expects him to zig—then you can end up with some pretty horrific throws into a waiting defender’s arms.

According to Steven M. Sipple of the Lincoln Journal-Star, Armstrong’s two interceptions against Purdue came from receivers running the wrong routes. That’s certainly possible, and Armstrong is not solely to blame for his struggles. But if Nebraska is going to survive the three-game gauntlet before it (at Wisconsin, Minnesota, at Iowa) and win the Big Ten West, Armstrong and his receivers must be on the same metaphorical page.

Mark Pelini and Ryne Reeve’s Snapping

Against Michigan State, the center-quarterback exchange problem was blamed on renegade clapping by Spartans defenders, mimicking Nebraska’s snap signal. But “clap-gate” doesn’t explain the ongoing problems with the exchange against Rutgers and Purdue. Botched snaps cost Nebraska points and set up opposing scores. Against Rutgers and Purdue, those mistakes did not make a difference in the final outcome. Against better opponents, like Nebraska will be facing to end the season, those mistakes almost certainly will make a bigger difference.

According to Brian Christopherson of the Lincoln Journal-Star, the snap issues are “mystifying” and not showing up in practice. That might make fixing the problem in the bye week challenging, but it is an issue that simply must be solved if Nebraska wants to return from Madison with a victory.

Tim Beck’s Preparation

Offensive coordinator Tim Beck gets credit for being honest, sometimes to his own detriment. According to Steven M. Sipple of the Lincoln Journal-Star, Beck said that he “confused” the offense by giving them too much to work on, rather than simplifying the message and making adjustments throughout the game.

Sound familiar? It’s the same mea culpa he gave after the Michigan State game to explain Nebraska’s sluggish offensive performance.

I remain a little skeptical that being over-prepared is the primary culprit for Nebraska’s offensive woes post Michigan State. Outside of Ameer Abdullah’s brilliance and a solid half of play from Tommy Armstrong against Northwestern, Nebraska’s offense has looked disjointed and out of rhythm since returning from East Lansing.

Nebraska fans certainly hope, though, that a simplification of preparation during the bye week will be the tonic for NU’s offensive struggles.

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

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