Nebraska Football: ReView of the Cornhuskers’ 36-28 Win Over Southern Mississippi

DSC09249

On Saturday, Nebraska survived a shaky fourth quarter to beat Southern Mississippi 36-28, and move to 2-2 on the season. Leading 29-7 after three quarters, Nebraska looked poised for a comfortable victory as non-conference play ended. But a 21-point fourth quarter from the Golden Eagles put them in position for a Hail Mary at the end of the game, snuffed out by a Freedom Akinmoladun sack. So, in looking back for Nebraska …

The Good

Freedom! Yeah, cue all the cheesy William Wallace references you want. But Akinmoladun’s sack of Nick Mullens avoided one last test of Nebraska’s shaky secondary – not to mention the coronary health of the Nebraska fanbase.

But Akinmoladun did more than just seal the game for Nebraska. He had four tackles, two tackles for loss, and two sacks in the game. While Nebraska’s struggles in the secondary are the talking point to be sure, his ability to perform at defensive end might be the brightest spot coming out of the contest defensively. A converted tight end seeing playing time due to Jack Gangwish’s injury, Akinmoladun’s growth into the position is crucial for the Blackshirts to right the ship.

A Fullback Sighting. If new head coach Mike Riley wanted to get Nebraska’s old-school fans on board with him, giving the ball to fullback Andy Janovich wasn’t a bad plan. Janovich had five carries for 68 yards (and would have had more absent a penalty), certainly a thrill to Nebraska fans who remember Cory Schlesinger rumbling through an exhausted Miami secondary in January of 1995.

But those runs were more than just an homage to the past. Riley’s offense this year uses a lot of misdirection, and those fullback were a part of the misdirection game. In addition to the jet sweep, opposing defenses now have tape of Nebraska’s tailback going in one direction and the fullback pounding up the middle the opposite way.

For a team still looking to establish a running game (particularly with questionable offensive line performance), adding in the fullback belly play is an important element to Nebraska’s offense.

Continued Excellence. The growth and maturation of Tommy Armstrong as a quarterback might be getting overlooked, or even taken for granted. It shouldn’t be. Armstrong put the ball up 35 times and had a 65.7 percent completion rate for 368 (!) yards, with two touchdowns and one interception. He also ran the ball seven times for 75 yards, meaning he accounted for 443 yards of total offense.

Armstrong is no. 10 nationally – nationally – in total offense after four games (according to cfbstats.com). Some, like this dope, thought that Armstrong was potentially a weakness for Nebraska coming into 2015. Instead, he’s put a team with a struggling defense on his back and willed it through a rough non-conference slate.

The Bad

The Bad Quarter Came Late. If there was a saving grace about the Blackshirts’ troubles earlier this year, it was that Nebraska was able to adjust and staunch the bleeding. While Nebraska avoided a bad quarter early, it almost picked a horrible time to be terrible as Southern Mississippi carved up the defense late.

Inexplicably, the Golden Eagles waited until the end of the game to test Nebraska deep, finding success in attacking the soft underbelly of the defense.

Lacking a Killer Instinct. Sure, the fourth quarter was scary for Nebraska fans. But it shouldn’t have been if Nebraska had done its job in the first half. Nebraska kicker Drew Brown hit five (!) field goals in the first half, and three of those five were inside 30 yards. That’s a shorter kick than the NFL’s current extra point (which, as an aside, is easily the stupidest rule change in modern professional sports history).

Had Nebraska cashed in just those three drives with touchdowns instead of point-blank field goals, the score would have been 34-0 at the half, and the game would have almost certainly looked more like the South Alabama game in the second half.

Yellow Rain. At this rate, this may become a permanent feature of the ReView. Here’s Nebraska’s penalty output in the first four games of 2015.

Opponent Penalties Yards
BYU 12 90
South Alabama 7 80
Miami 13 114
Southern Mississippi 12 98
Average 10.8 91.5
National Average 6.6 59

Stats from cfbstats.com

Sure, some of those penalties – like the Casey Martin flop that drew a pass interference penalty against Joshua Kalu in the fourth quarter and should stifle soccer critics forever – were soft. But Nebraska still is struggling with alignment and personnel fouls. Those penalties helped keep a team like Southern Mississippi in the game in Lincoln. They could prove Nebraska’s undoing against teams like Wisconsin and Michigan State.

And the Elephant in the Room

There’s plenty of ways to find rose-colored glasses about Nebraska’s non-conference performance. BYU and Miami are legitimately good teams with good talent. South Alabama and Southern Mississippi are not on the level of Nebraska’s talent overall, but both have enough playmakers on offense to cause trouble for Power Five teams (such as the Golden Eagles’ 311 yards passing against Mississippi State earlier this year).

But the fact remains that Nebraska is now no. 128 nationally – that’s dead last, Husker fan – in surrendering long pass plays. Take a look (although it might be wise to shield the eyes of young children) at how that breaks down.

Pass Play Yardage Number Number/Game
10+ yards 57 14.25
20+ yards 24 6
30+ yards 14 3.5
40+ yards 6 1.5
50+ yards 5 1.25

Stats from cfbstats.com

If that number/game statistic doesn’t scare you as a Nebraska fan, you’re made of stern stuff. next week, Nebraska faces Wes Lunt at quarterback for Illinois, who has an NFL-caliber arm. Connor Cook for Michigan State still awaits, C.J. Beathard for Iowa is looking good, and at this point even Wisconsin’s Joel Stave has to frighten the NU faithful.

What is even more disturbing is how the continued struggles in the secondary seem to be affecting the confidence of the squad. As Southern Mississippi continued its fourth-quarter comeback, the Nebraska secondary began to resemble a free throw shooter in basketball struggling at the line, or a golfer with the yips on the green.

A smart and particularly handsome analyst gave some suggestions on how the holes in Nebraska’s defense could be plugged. With Nebraska at 2-2 and a challenging – but still navigable – conference schedule approaching, now is the time for the Blackshirts to consider breaking that emergency glass to get things right in a hurry.

Advertisements

Nebraska Football: Five Ways To Fix The Cornhuskers’ Defense

DSC00060

Nebraska football fans are smart enough to know that defensive struggles have cost NU two of its first three games. Nebraska has surrendered 300 yards or more through the air in each of its three contests, and is currently no. 127 nationally – out of 128 teams – in pass defense (according to cfbstats.com).

So, yeah, that’s a problem. But never fear, Husker fan, the Double Extra Point is here to clue you in on how the Blackshirts right the ship defensively. In order from least radical of changes to most, here are five remedies for an ailing Blackshirts defense.

“Adjustments in Personnel”

God bless Mark Banker for how he put things after Nebraska’s loss to Miami. Miami scored 17 points in its first three drives, and 16 points for the rest of the game. What changed? Well, at least one thing was cornerback Daniel Davie being replaced by Jonathan Rose.

Banker described his adjustments as (according to Rich Kaipust of the Omaha World-Herald) “mostly with personnel,” which is a kind way of saying that Davie has been over-matched. Davie was one of Nebraska’s best performers in the secondary last year, but don’t forget that cornerbacks last year almost always had “bracket” coverage help from a safety. That’s not the case under the new defensive structure.

Yes, there were other personnel moves that were made throughout the game. But it’s hard not to see an athlete like Rose (an Auburn transfer) being a better fit in Banker’s defensive scheme that asks for a lot more one-on-one coverage than Davie.

Surrender principle to practicality

We’ll see if a personnel change – and you have to assume that Davie won’t be starting after the last two games – is enough to give Nebraska’s passing defense the shot in the arm it needs. If not, then Banker may have to give serious consideration to shifting his defensive philosophy to fit his players.

One of the reasons Nebraska is so good against the run is because it can schematically use a safety to help in the run game. That provides an extra defender against the run, but leaves the cornerbacks on an island to cover receivers one-on-one. If the cornerbacks can’t stand up to that – and we’ve seen Nebraska’s corners struggle with doing so – then teams have a huge weakness to exploit.

Particularly against teams whose strengths are throwing the ball (such as Illinois, upcoming), Banker may need to surrender that extra run defender and more frequently bring that second safety back into pass coverage to help a struggling set of cornerbacks.

Shift the defensive front

Sure, the cornerbacks are the easiest targets to blame for Nebraska’s struggles in pass defense. But a lack of pass rush is just as big of a culprit. Other than defensive end Freedom Akinmoladun – who was a tight end last year – there is no one on the outside of Nebraska’s offensive line who is placing any pressure on opposing quarterbacks. And the interior of the line has yet to be able to make an impact in the passing game as well, although asking defensive tackles to be a primary pass-rushing weapon is asking a lot.

It might be time for Nebraska to get creative in terms of finding edge rushers. Linebacker Marcus Newby didn’t see the field much last year, but when he did it was at a defensive end-like position as a pass rush specialist. Particularly if defensive tackle Vincent Valentine is healthy, perhaps it might be worth a try to put Valentine and Kevin Williams or Kevin Maurice in the middle and slide Maliek Collins outside, letting Collins’ talent work as a pass rusher instead of clogging the middle.

Blitz

If four ain’t getting the job done, maybe it’s time to start bringing five or six. Nebraska had some success in pressuring opposing quarterbacks this season when it starting bringing extra pressure. If the front four isn’t able to be successful getting home on its own, perhaps it’s time to consider including blitzes as a more regular part of Nebraska’s defensive package, and making personnel decisions accordingly.

The downside to a blitz, of course, is being exposed to big pass plays if the blitz is unsuccessful. But in all honestly, that’s happening even when Nebraska rushes four. According to Brandon Vogel of Hail Varsity, Nebraska is currently no. 113 nationally in surrendering plays of 20 yards or more and no 126 nationally in plays of 30 yards or more.

Sure, technically it could get worse, but not by much. And if you’re at the bottom already, why not go for a strategy with a little more upside?

Burn the redshirts

This option is the “break glass in case of emergency” one, and if you see it you know that there’s real trouble with Nebraska’s current roster. But if all else fails, Nebraska might have to consider burning some redshirts to get the production it needs on the defensive line and in the secondary.

On the defensive line, Nebraska has four talented recruits currently planning to redshirt in Carlos Davis (three-star, 89 composite), Khalil Davis (three-star, 89 composite) DaiShon Neil (three-star, 89 composite), and Alex Davis (three-star, 84 composite). Defensive line is tough to ask a true freshman to come in and compete right away, given the size difference between high school and FBS football, so seeing a redshirt get burned there might be less likely.

But in the secondary, Nebraska has Eric Lee (four-star, 93 composite) and Avery Anderson (three-star, 89 composite) waiting in the wings. If Nebraska is unable to find a way to make the current cornerbacks work in Banker’s system, it might be worth it to see if Lee or Anderson is able to withstand the pressure.

Star ratings and composites from 247 Sports.

Nebraska Football: ReView Of Cornhuskers’ 36-33 Overtime Loss To Miami

DSC09790

On Saturday, Nebraska lost in overtime, 36-33, to the Hurricanes in Miami. After being down 33-10 with just over 11 minutes in the game, Nebraska stormed back with three touchdowns to tie the contest.

But on the first play in overtime, Tommy Armstrong threw an interception, and a personal foul by left tackle Alex Lewis for a late hit set Miami up for a chip-shot field goal to win the game.

The Good

Tommy! Armstong’s numbers weren’t the best. He was 21-for-45, for 309 yards, four touchdowns, and three interceptions. But those numbers are a little deceiving, as Armstrong was plagued with drops early in the contest.

But the statistics almost don’t matter. Armstrong was Nebraska’s best player on the field, and it was on his shoulders – and his legs – upon which Nebraska was able to make a comeback. Yes, it was his mistake that functionally ended the game. But without Armstrong, Nebraska gets blown out. And even in a loss, this was Armstrong’s coming-out performance as a quarterback that can get Nebraska to Indianapolis.

The Comeback. Anyone else have a flashback to Michigan State last year? Or Iowa? After looking punch-drunk at times in Miami, the last eleven minutes of regulation showed the kind of potential this new-look offense can have when it is working. It showed that the mental toughness Nebraska showed last year. And it showed Nebraska would not allow itself to be embarrassed on national television as it had been last year.

Brown’s Bomb. When Drew Brown trotted on to the field in the middle of the second quarter, it felt more like a surrender. Nebraska had been blitzed for 17 points in the first quarter, and was only able to get the ball to Miami’s 32 before needing to kick a field goal.

And seeing Brown take the field did not inspire confidence. Two weeks ago, it was Brown missing a 40-yard and a 41-yard field goal that put BYU in a position to win the game on a Hail Mary. So Nebraska fans were justified in holding their collective breath when he swung his leg at a 49-yarder.

But Brown’s kick was true, and would have been good from over 50. It ended up to be very important in the game against Miami. But perhaps even more importantly, Nebraska fans – and coaches – have now seen Brown take the field in a hostile environment and be true from long distance. Even in terms of decision-making and giving coaches enough confidence to give him a chance in the future, that’s a big deal.

The Bad

Another Bad Quarter. Against BYU, Nebraska gave up 17 points and looked like it was helpless defensively in the second quarter. Against Miami, the Blackshirts’ dreadful 17-point performance came in the first quarter, and put Nebraska on its back foot the rest of the game.

Yes, Nebraska was able to staunch the bleeding, making schematic and personnel adjustments to neutralize (at some level) Miami’s offense. But Nebraska’s propensity to get bombed early in a game is distressing.

A Bad Mix. A smart and particularly handsome analyst pointed out that the lack of a pass rush and the struggles in the secondary go hand-in-hand. That dynamic was on display again on Saturday. With a four-man rush, Miami quarterback Brad Kaaya had all the time in the world to wait for his receivers to come open.

And while Nebraska’s secondary (particularly Daniel Davie) struggled, it’s unfair to ask them to play single coverage against talented receivers for as long as they are being forced to do so. Nebraska has answered with some blitzes and additional safety help in coverage, which seemed to make some improvements later in the game.

Yellow Rain. And, they’re back. Nebraska improved – sort of – its penalty-committing ways against South Alabama in game two, going from 12 penalties for 90 yards against BYU to 7 penalties for 80 yards against the Jaguars.

But against Miami, the numbers blossomed to the worst performance of the year, 12 penalties for 98 yards. And while some of the penalties were of the spectacularly foolish and damaging kind (looking at you, Alex Lewis), many were still disturbing signs of a transition not yet complete. Nebraska was caught numerous times with an illegal formation on offense, and a substitution infraction for 12 men on the field. Lewis ended the game with two (!) personal foul penalties and an ineligible man downfield.

In fairness, Miami was worse, with 13 penalties for 114 yards, including two ejections for targeting fouls. But given how razor-thin the margin was, even a slightly cleaner game from Nebraska might have made the difference.

And the B1G West Champions-In-Waiting

After the first quarter against Miami, it seemed ludicrous to think that Nebraska would win another game, much less a divisional title this year. It was that bad, reminiscent of the embarrass-the-program performances that ran Bill Callahan and Bo Pelini out of town.

But, much like with BYU, Nebraska was able to steady the ship and come oh-so-close to a grand comeback. The win puts Miami at 3-0 in a navigable ACC conference. BYU is 2-1, with a one-point loss in the Rose Bowl to a UCLA squad many (like Kyle Bonagura of ESPN) are projecting as a playoff team.

Take a look at the rest of Nebraska’s divisional foes. Wisconsin has been far from impressive, most recently beating Troy 28-3 in Madison. If the Badgers are relying on the arm of Joel Stave to win in Lincoln, Nebraska fans have to like their chances. Minnesota, after raising a few eyebrows with a game effort against TCU in week one, haven’t looked worldbeaters either, recently squeaking by Kent State, 10-7, at home.

Northwestern has the best resume, by far, with its 16-6 win over Stanford (made even more impressive by Stanford beating USC in Los Angeles) and a 19-10 win over Duke on the road. Iowa has held serve as well, including wins over an Iowa State squad that regularly gives the Hawkeyes fits and an Alex Henery moment in beating Pitt with a walk-off field goal.

(Save your energy, commenters, I know that Henery’s kick against Colorado wasn’t a walk-off. Same basic idea, though.)

But both Northwestern and Iowa are in Lincoln. Yes, Michigan State looks like a big ask for Nebraska, but it is unlikely that any B1G West squad will have a perfect in-conference record. And if Nebraska can run the table against the division – a result I would say is still more likely than not – then a trip to Indianapolis in December for Nebraska is on the cards even with a 1-2 start.

Nebraska Football: PreView of the Cornhuskers’ Game Against Miami

DSC00466

Nebraska faces its first road test of the season and with new head coach Mike Riley in charge, traveling to Coral Gables to face the Miami Hurricanes. For Nebraska fans watching the game at 2:30 p.m. central time on ABC:

You’ll Be Happy If …

Tommy Continues His Progress. Coming into the season, this dope thought that Tommy Armstrong could be a weakness for Nebraska, given his struggles with completion percentages and interceptions. But in two games, Armstrong has a completion percentage of 63.4 percent and a 5/1 touchdown-to-interception ratio.

Those are numbers good enough to win a divisional title, and compete for a conference title. And if Armstrong can keep those numbers up against the most talented team Nebraska has faced so far this season – and on the road for the first time as well – Nebraska will be in great shape.

Kaaya Gets Heated Up. Yes, Nebraska’s secondary has struggled mightily this year. But that comes in large part from Nebraska unable to generate a pass rush, especially with only its front four. That’s got to change if Nebraska is going to be successful against Miami. Miami quarterback Brad Kaaya is too talented and has too many weapons to be allowed time in the pocket.

So whether it’s Maliek Collins in the middle learning how to deal with double and triple teams, or defensive end Freedom Akinmoladun translating his athletic ability into quarterback pressure, the Blackshirts’ ability to put Kaaya on the ground will be critical for a Nebraska win.

Carter’s Return Is Triumphant. After a two-game suspension, tight end Cethan Carter returns to the lineup for Nebraska. That’s a big deal for a Nebraska squad already thin from injuries with Sam Cotton lost against BYU. Plus, even with Nebraska’s tight end squad fully healthy, Carter is by far the most dangerous offensive weapon of the bunch.

Miami hasn’t seen any tape of Carter in Riley’s offense, and Carter will have a point to prove after missing the first two games. Don’t be surprised if he ends up a huge factor in a Nebraska victory.

You’ll Be Sad If …

There’s A Banderas-sized Hole. Middle linebacker Josh Banderas has been struggling with injury all week, but is expected to play against Miami on Saturday (according to Brian Christopherson of the Lincoln Journal-Star). That’s a big deal, as Nebraska has not yet been able to see its two most experienced linebackers – Banderas and Michael Rose-Ivey – on the field at the same time.

But expected to play doesn’t necessarily mean fully healed. And if Banderas is limited, or has a setback and isn’t able to play at all, then Nebraska’s defense is significantly hampered against the most talented offense NU has faced all season.

The Yellow Emerges. Against BYU, Nebraska had 12 penalties for 90 yards, and it’s hard not to see that as a factor in NU’s razor-thin loss to the Cougars. Against South Alabama, Nebraska was better – but still not good – in penalties, drawing 7 flags for 80 yards.

This game already looks to be chippy, after a fiercely competitive matchup last year in Lincoln. But Nebraska can’t afford to give yardage away against Miami with a flurry of penalties. If the yellow comes out in large quantities for Nebraska, Miami has a huge advantage.

Golden Is, Well … Miami coach Al Golden has struggled to return the Hurricanes to glory. SB Nation posted an interview with Golden that discussed whether he was on the hot seat as a result of his relative underachievement.

Dave Bartoo of the CFB Matrix has developed an analytical tool to tell how much difference – positive or negative – a coach can make on a team’s success in what he calls the “Coach Effect.” Last year’s coach effect saw Riley (then at Oregon State) at no. 11 amongst power-five schools, and Golden at no. 41.

Those numbers suggest that, all things being equal, a Riley-coached team should beat a Golden-coached team. And Miami and Nebraska are pretty equal, talent-wise. But the game is in Miami, and if Golden is able to over-perform his coaching history, Nebraska is likely to struggle.

Investment Advice

Miami is a three-point favorite at home (according to Covers), suggesting that the gamblers view the two teams as nearly even. But Nebraska looks like it is building steam and starting to settle in to what Riley is asking for on offense and defense. And Golden’s coaching history does not inspire confidence. Take Nebraska and the points.

Fearless forecast: Nebraska 31, Miami 28.

Nebraska Football: Secondary’s Struggles Part of Blackshirts’ New Scheme

DSC09343

Nebraska football fans knew they were going to see a change in defensive structure when defensive coordinator Mark Banker took over from the de facto DC in former head coach Bo Pelini. As discussed by a smart and particularly handsome analyst, Pelini’s schemes relied on keeping two safeties high and protecting against the deep ball, at the expense of stopping the run.

Banker’s scheme is almost entirely the opposite. Under Banker, Nebraska’s defense floods the box with defenders and, in exchange, asks the secondary (particularly the cornerbacks) to win one-on-one battles with receivers on deep fade passes.

The statistics bear that out. Last year, Nebraska was no. 80 nationally in rushing defense, and no. 33 in passing defense. This year (admittedly only two games in), Nebraska is no. 16 nationally in rushing defense, and no. 120 (!) in passing defense. According to Brandon Vogel of Hail Varsity, Nebraska has already given up nine passing plays of 20 yards or more, no. 110 nationally in that category.

(All other stats from cfbstats.com)

We’ve seen that dynamic play out this season. Sure, we all remember the “Hail Joseph” where Nate Gerry and Daniel Davie were trying to out-jump Mitch Mathews. But Nebraska’s secondary was victimized a number of times for passes 15 yards or longer. And early in the fourth quarter, it was Davie who got beat on a jump ball on a fourth-and-one that kept BYU’s hopes of a comeback alive.

Davie was victimized as well against South Alabama, giving up pass receptions of 55 and 33 yards. He wasn’t alone, of course – Byerson Cockrell and Josh Kalu have given up their share of long passes as well. But Davie, as the senior leader in the secondary, is the one that gets first look when the secondary struggles.

At times, watching Nebraska’s defense this year has felt a little bit like playing EA Sports Madden NFL franchise online, where opponents would simply throw deep on every play and wait to hit a bomb.

(Of course, it’s unlikely that Nebraska’s opposing offensive coordinators are 14-year-olds swearing at you through a headseat, but that’s a separate conversation.)

When asked about it, Banker emphasized that winning the one-on-one battles is part of what cornerbacks have to do in his defense. According to Michael Bruntz of 247 Sports:

Banker said that while Nebraska could have helped with a safety, he wanted his players on the edges to have to make plays against deep balls. He expects similar plays until Nebraska can show that it can shut down the plays. Banker said South Alabama also made good throws on the deep balls. “We can help the corners through scheme, and at some point we will,” Banker said.

In other words, Husker fan, get used to seeing your cornerbacks on an island. And hope they get better quickly.

But to put all of the blame on the secondary would be unfair. If a defense is going to ask its corners to live on an island, it has to get pressure on the quarterback. Otherwise, at some point those receivers are going to get loose from single coverage.

Nebraska has struggled getting pressure on quarterbacks, especially with a four-man rush. In the second half against South Alabama, you saw a lot more additional pressure being brought – with mixed results. Defensive tackle Maliek Collins is already drawing a number of double and triple teams, meaning the ends should have one-on-one battles to win.

If they’re not able to win those battles, then Nebraska will be put in a circumstance of either being forced to bring pressure or leave its corners on an island. Either way, the pressure will continue to be applied on Nebraska’s cornerbacks.

And that’s by design. Yes, against BYU and South Alabama, the defense gave up some big plays. Against the Cougars, those big plays were the difference between winning and losing. But Nebraska has made a philosophical decision on defense. The deep pass is a much lower percentage play for an offense than the running game, so Nebraska will continue to focus on stopping the run at the expense of putting pressure on its secondary.

That may be cold comfort next week if Miami’s receivers are able to gouge Nebraska’s cornerbacks. But it is a strategy that looks to pay dividends as Nebraska prepares to face conference foes like Wisconsin and Minnesota.

Nebraska Football: PreView of the Cornhuskers’ Game Against South Alabama

DSC08934

On Saturday, Nebraska will attempt to bounce back from its last-second loss to BYU, facing the South Alabama Jaguars in Lincoln (7:00 p.m., Big Ten Network). For Cornhusker fans watching the game …

You’ll Be Happy If …

The Rock Is Pounded. Head coach Mike Riley knows that Nebraska’s output from the running backs on Saturday wasn’t good enough. According to Sam McKewon of the Omaha World-Herald, the coaches are considering leaning more on one back as opposed to the rotation we saw on Saturday.

One game is a small sample size, but based on that evidence Mikale Wilbon should be the guy that gets the bulk of those carries. His elusiveness – particularly combined with an offensive line that has been struggling to create running lanes – seems to be the skill set that fits Nebraska’s needs best right now.

Regardless, Nebraska’s offense was out of balance against BYU, gaining 319 yards through the air and 126 on the ground. Even accounting for BYU’s weakness in pass defense and that some of Nebraska’s pass yardage was on screens and other run-substitute plays, more from the ground game would help immensely.

Freedom Rings. One of the glaring deficiencies from Nebraska’s game against BYU was a lack of pressure from the defensive end. Nebraska did better in heating up BYU’s quarterbacks in the second half, in part from bringing blitzes and in part from the interior defensive line finding success against a tiring BYU offensive line.

But if Nebraska is going to be successful, particularly asking its corners to cover one-on-one for extended periods, then the defensive ends have to get home. And that’s where the ascension of Freedom Akinmoladun becomes important. An injury to Jack Gangwish has given Akinmoladun his chance to start and play extended time.

Gangwish beat out Akinmoladun for the position this fall, and as a team captain it is a loss for him to be off the field. But Akinmoladun, a converted tight end just learning the position, has the raw athletic potential to be the difference-making edge rusher unlike anyone else currently on Nebraska’s roster. Throwing him into the fire gives that athletic ability a chance to be on the field at a position of critical need.

Nebraska Converts. Yeah, the last play hurt. But in the three drives before that play, Nebraska had a third-and-one, a third-and-one, and a third-and-three. On each of those, Nebraska couldn’t get the first down, continuing to give BYU a chance to recover.

It doesn’t matter if it’s lining up and pushing ahead for a yard, or hitting a play-action pass, or any other method. If Nebraska makes one of those third-down conversions, BYU likely never has a chance to hit that last pass. Against South Alabama, look at those third-and-short situations and see how Nebraska responds.

You’ll Be Sad If …

Nebraska Needs Its Kickers. I am amazed at how little this aspect of Nebraska’s roster is being discussed in the wake of the BYU loss. At punter, Nebraska is down to its scout team quarterback pressed into punting duties, Tyson Broekemeier. He performed admirably against BYU, but he becomes a net liability for Nebraska going forward.

And Nebraska’s placekicking game is a source of tremendous concern. Drew Brown missed field goals of 40 and 41 yards against BYU, and the lack of those six points gave BYU the chance to win on that last play.

Sure, it’s one game, but it’s not like Brown impressed last year. Brown was 14-of-21 on field goal attempts, with a long of 44 yards. From forty yards and out, Brown now has a 2-for-9 (!) record.

Forty yards isn’t, for a college-level kicker, a long way to kick a football. And unless we see a dramatic improvement in a real hurry, it’s hard to have any confidence in Nebraska’s ability to put three on the board when the need arises.

The Corners Crumble. Nebraska’s defensive structure (particularly with Michael Rose-Ivey returning from suspension) allows the defense to put eight players in the box to stop the run. But it asks the defensive backs, particularly the corners, to play one-on-one coverage and consistently win those battles against opposing receivers.

In the second quarter, as BYU quarterback Taysom Hill carved up the Blackshirts secondary en route to a 17-point performance, it looked as if those corners were struggling. South Alabama runs an up-tempo offense and can score on big plays, as it did last week against Gardner-Webb with scores of 49, 56, and 92 yards. The Jaguars have real speed on their roster in players like Xavier Johnson and Terrence Timmons, who will make the Blackshirts pay for any mistakes on the edges.

Don’t be surprised if South Alabama hits a few home runs against Nebraska on Saturday. Just hope it’s not too many.

The Second Quarter Was Real. Boy, that first quarter felt good, didn’t it? Nebraska quarterback Tommy Armstrong looked in rhythm, the offense was clicking, and the start of the Riley era was a joy to behold.

Then the teams flipped ends of the field, and we saw the Armstrong we saw last year. Flustered, poor mechanics, running for his life and overthrowing open receivers. After starting the game going 10-for-12 throwing the ball, Armstrong was only 4-15 in the second quarter.

Which Armstrong will we see on Saturday? The more of second-quarter Armstrong shows up, the more likely it will be that Nebraska will struggle.

Fearless Forecast

South Alabama has enough talent to do damage, but a mature coaching staff should have the team’s full attention after a heartbreaking loss. Look for Nebraska to win a game that will likely be more comfortable than the score indicates.

Nebraska 31, South Alabama 20

Nebraska Football: ReView of the Cornhuskers’ 33-28 Loss to BYU

DSC08920

Nebraska lost to BYU, 33-28, on a last-second pass (probably rude to call it a “Hail Mary” from BYU) from backup quarterback Tanner Magnum to Mitch Mathews. It’s a rough start for head coach Mike Riley as head coach of Nebraska, and there’s a lot to digest from the game (not to mention a few game-day snacks that remained un-digestible after Mathews’ receptions).

The Good …

Second-Half Adjustments. After coming out like a house on fire, Nebraska looked for all the world like a team about to collapse in the second quarter. BYU scored 17 unanswered points, and likely left more on the field when running back Algernon Brown dropped a wheel route on fourth down near the end of the quarter. BYU quarterback Taysom Hill was having his way with Nebraska’s defense, and Nebraska quarterback Tommy Armstrong reverted to his 2014 form.

But in the third quarter, after Nate Gerry intercepted Hill, the worm turned. Hill was only 3-7 passing before being replaced by Magnum, and BYU’s offense stalled. The Blackshirts were able to apply pressure, sacking Hill twice in the third quarter. Nebraska was able to establish a rushing attack, and Armstrong rediscovered his first-quarter passing mojo.

Welcome Back, Alonzo. When kick returner and wide receiver De’Mornay Pierson-El went down with injury, one of the many questions raised was who would fill his role as a speed threat for Nebraska’s offense. Against BYU, we may have learned that junior wide receiver Alonzo Moore might be a big answer to that question.

Moore had three receptions for 48 yards, including a sideline-threading touchdown scamper. He was also utilized (along with Jamal Turner) in the running game, getting two carries for 24 yards. Injuries have prevented Moore from making a contribution in previous years. But a healthy Moore might well be a huge part of bridging the gap until Pierson-El’s return.

Freshman Performances. Nebraska had standout performances from true freshmen on both sides of the ball against BYU. Dedrick Young was pressed into service at linebacker, even when Nebraska played more nickel sets than we would normally see from defensive coordinator Mark Banker. Young was ready for the moment, able to make plays in space and stay on his feet to keep lane containment. In quite a trial by fire against BYU, Young has put his name in ink on the depth chart for the foreseeable future.

On offense, wide receiver Stanley Morgan was exactly as advertised. The star of fall camp, Morgan found his way onto the field in the second half, ending the game with two receptions for 19 yards. Tellingly, he was also the guy called on to be the second punt returner (along with Jordan Westerkamp) in response to BYU’s rugby-style punter.

Nebraska has good depth at wide receiver, even with Pierson-El’s injury. But Morgan’s emergence should get the attention of Nebraska fans – not to mention Nebraska recruits like Keyshawn Johnson Jr. (in response to a suggestion that he notice how the #Huskers were using their wide receivers).

The Bad …

The Second Quarter. As the game opened up, it looked like the team with the ball last might win the game, with each team exchanging scores. But then, in the second quarter, things began to unravel. Armstrong started missing receivers high. Running lanes opened against the Blackshirts, and receivers became uncoverable. BYU scored 17 unanswered points, and looked like it was going to run away and hide with the contest.

Anyone having flashbacks of Nebraska’s second quarter in Madison last year could have been forgiven.

This year was always going to be a challenge for Nebraska, trying to transition from Bo Pelini’s schemes and philosophies to Riley’s. It was hard not to see some of the traits of a Pelini-led team in that second quarter, and it allowed BYU to put enough points on the board to ultimately win the game.

Knock It Down! A smart and particularly handsome analyst said this about what could be a deciding factor of this game:

Combine that with BYU’s big receivers (six-foot-six Nick Kurtz and six-foot-six Mitch Mathews) against Nebraska’s cornerbacks (six-foot-one Daniel Davie and six-foot-one Joshua Kalu) and the Cougars could have a favorable matchup to exploit.

(Emphasis added)

It was the aforementioned Mathews who was able to use his big frame to block out Daniel Davie and Nate Gerry to haul in the winning pass.

Kickers. Yikes, does Nebraska have problems kicking the ball now. An injury to punter Sam Foltz has pressed scout team quarterback Tyson Brokemeyer into duty. An area that was one of huge strength for Nebraska in terms of field position has now become a glaring weakness, particularly if Foltz’s injury will keep him out for any length of time.

But what might be more disturbing is the performance of sophomore placekicker Drew Brown, who went 0-2 against BYU. Brown missed both kicks badly, the first a 40-yarder into the wind as time expired in the first half, and the second a 41-yarder with the wind in the fourth quarter as Nebraska was trying to ice the game.

Not to be churlish, but if both those kicks are made – and 40-yard field goals should be an expectation for a kicker on a team intending to win things – then the worst BYU could have done with that last play was a tie.

All of a sudden, Nebraska has a huge question mark in a critical phase of the game.

And Taylor Swift

We’re in uncharted territory, Husker fan. As ABC seemed intent on reminding everyone, Nebraska hadn’t lost a season opener for 29 years. Assuming a win over South Alabama next week, Nebraska will still need a win on the road in Miami to avoid a 1-2 start to the 2015 campaign.

Time to panic? Absolutely not. Remember, this was game one of the Riley era. In the second quarter, you could see Nebraska reverting to form from last season, both offensively and defensively. So that halftime response, where Nebraska came out and dominated on both sides of the ball, was instructive.

You can see what Nebraska is trying to do on offense, stretching the field horizontally with the jet sweep action. You could see Armstrong making anticipation throws, and being effective when in rhythm and not under too much duress.

Defensively, it was a little harder to get a feel for what Nebraska wanted to do. The suspension of linebacker Michael Rose-Ivey likely forced Nebraska into more nickel coverage than it would have otherwise liked, to avoid asking freshmen Young and Luke Gifford to shoulder too much of a load against a stout BYU offense.

Losing an opening game stinks, especially in the manner in which the game was lost. But this loss does nothing to dent Nebraska’s chances at a division title. And Nebraska’s second-half response to BYU should provide hope for a fanbase dealing with being on the other end of a last-second desperation heave.

So shake it off, Husker fan. And mark this game down in a few weeks’ time, when Wisconsin rolls into Lincoln, and see if the tough lessons learned against the Cougars pay dividends against the Badgers.

Nebraska Football: PreView of the Cornhuskers’ Game Against BYU

DSC09452

Nebraska will be playing its first game of the season at home against BYU on Saturday, as new head coach Mike Riley gets his first chance to see his Cornhusker squad in a game that counts. For Cornhusker fans watching the game …

You’ll Be Happy If …

BYU misses Jamaal Williams. Yes, quarterback Taysom Hill is a fearsome running threat. But Williams was easily the Cougars’ best rushing option behind Hill, and his decision to withdraw from school and redshirt this season (according to the Salt Lake City Tribune) will be a significant blow to BYU’s offense.  The Cougars’ starting tailback (according to BYU’s depth chart per SB Nation) is Algernon Brown, a junior who had 68 total carries last season.

That’s not the same kind of threat Williams would have provided. If the Blackshirts are able to focus on Hill away from BYU as a runner, and still handle Brown and the rest of the Cougars’ rushing attack, Nebraska’s chances for success increase dramatically.

Collins Makes The Breakthrough. Defensive tackle Maliek Collins looks to be the Blackshirts’ leading light. He’s been touted as Nebraska’s best player, with ESPN draft analyst Todd McShay putting him in the first round of next year’s NFL Draft.

But Collins has loftier goals. According to Sam McKewon of the Omaha World-Herald, Collins is aiming for “Suh-like stats” in his final year at Nebraska. If Collins is able to approach those numbers – and, more importantly, be the kind of disruptive force up the middle Suh was in 2010 – then BYU has a big problem on Saturday.

The Kids Are Alright. Take a look at Nebraska’s depth chart for BYU (from HuskerMax.com), and one thing you’ll notice is a lot of youth.  Redshirt freshman Nick Gates starting at right tackle. True freshman (!) Dedrick Young starting at weak-side linebacker. True freshman Jordan Ober starting at long snapper.  Redshirt freshman Jerald Foster at backup right guard.  Redshirt freshman Trai Mosley as a third cornerback. True freshman Aaron Williams as a third safety.

You get the idea. This is a big stage and a tough opponent for newbies to shine. If Nebraska’s youth movement pays dividends on Saturday, Nebraska’s chances of victory increase significantly.

You’ll Be Sad If …

Taysom Throws It. We’ve heard all offseason about Hill being a dangerous rushing threat. But if Hill is able to throw the ball effectively, BYU could cause real problems for Nebraska. New defensive coordinator Mark Banker’s quarters scheme works in part by sneaking a safety into the box to play the run, which means there is extra stress put on the secondary in pass coverage.

Combine that with BYU’s big receivers (six-foot-six Nick Kurtz and six-foot-six Mitch Mathews) against Nebraska’s cornerbacks (six-foot-one Daniel Davie and six-foot-one Joshua Kalu) and the Cougars could have a favorable matchup to exploit. If BYU is able to get a passing attack started, forcing Nebraska defenders out of the box, Hill should have more space to run and gouge the Blackshirts on the ground.

Tommy Turns It Over. This dope has written incessantly over the offseason about Armstrong’s struggles with turnovers, carrying a career 1.55 touchdown-to-interception ratio (31 TD, 20 INT) into this season. While we don’t know what Riley’s offense will look like this year, we know at Oregon State he favored a pro-style offense with short, controlled passing – the kind of passes that Armstrong has struggled with in the past.

If Armstrong struggles picking up the new offense, and gives the ball to BYU a few times, the Cougars have more than enough talent to pull off an upset.

Opening Day Jitters Strike. Saturday will mark the start of a new era for Nebraska football. But it will also be the first time that both Riley’s new offense and Banker’s new defense have been tested out against a team wearing different colors. And not just any team. BYU has plenty of talent and one of the best quarterbacks Nebraska will face all year.

If there’s growing pains for either the offense or defense – or both – then Nebraska could easily be staring down the barrel of an 0-1 start to the 2015 season.

Fearless Forecast

Nebraska 31, BYU 24

Nebraska Football: Predictions for the Huskers’ 2015 Season

DSC00174

With the new college football season finally upon us, it’s time to go on record for how the 2015 season will unfold. The arrival of new head coach Mike Riley, and the installation of an entirely new offensive and defensive structure, this year becomes even more challenging than most to call.

But we know, pretty much, as much as we’re going to know before the ball is teed up for real. So it’s time to make a call, and have something to look back on in January –either with pride or dread.

BYU

While quarterback Taysom Hill provides a stern test for the new-look Blackshirts, an overall talent gap and the Memorial Stadium crowd help Riley open his career in Lincoln with a win – or, perhaps more importantly, avoiding a loss

Fearless forecast: Nebraska 31, BYU 24 (1-0, 0-0 in conference)

South Alabama

Even coming off a bowl appearance, the Jaguars should be outmatched when they arrive in Lincoln. Assuming Nebraska is at some level ready to play, talent should prevail.

Fearless forecast: Nebraska 41, South Alabama 17 (2-0, 0-0 in conference)

At Miami

If Riley’s first test was a big ask, his first game on the road is even bigger. Even with injury problems, a head coach in Al Golden who has yet to impress, and a less-than-intimidating home field, asking Nebraska for a win here in year one seems too much of a stretch.

Fearless forecast: Miami 27, Nebraska 23 (2-1, 0-0 in conference)

Southern Miss

The Golden Eagles may be on the road back to respectability, but there’s still a long way between that and being competitive with Nebraska in Lincoln. Any fears of a repeat performance from Southern Miss like in Bill Callahan’s first year should be unfounded.

Fearless forecast: Nebraska 45, Southern Miss 13 (3-1, 0-0 in conference)

At Illinois

Firing head coach Tim Beckman less than two weeks before the season starts can’t be helpful for Illinois’ preparation. While it does remove the “dead man walking” element from the season, having an interim coach should make this season feel a bit lost for the Illini.

Fearless forecast: Nebraska 35, Illinois 20 (4-1, 1-0 in conference)

Wisconsin

Time to get bold. Yeah, the Badgers have humiliated Nebraska in their last two meetings. But Melvin Gordon is now in the NFL. Joel Stave is still quarterback for Wisconsin. The Badgers are going through a coaching change, although nowhere near the kind of culture change as at Nebraska. And, perhaps most importantly, Nebraska’s new defensive scheme should be far better suited to stop Wisconsin’s rushing attack (as pointed out by a smart and particularly handsome analyst).

Add to that mix the fact that the game is in Lincoln, where Nebraska is 1-0 against Wisconsin (take that, Bucky!), and it’s time to risk being called a homer.

Fearless forecast: Nebraska 21, Wisconsin 20 (5-1, 2-0 in conference)

At Minnesota

Yes, Goldie has a two-game winning streak over Nebraska. Yes, Minnesota’s program is flourishing under head coach Jerry Kill. But I still can’t buy the Gophers as a contender to make it three over Nebraska, even in Minneapolis.

As with Wisconsin, Nebraska’s struggles with the Gophers over the last couple of years have come in large part because of a self-imposed mismatch due to former head coach Bo Pelini’s defensive structure. Add to that Minnesota losing three top-flight players to the NFL in the last two years (defensive lineman Ra’Shede Hageman, running back David Cobb, and tight end Maxx Williams), and the Gopher run of good fortune should end in 2015.

Fearless forecast: Nebraska 27, Minnesota 13 (6-1, 3-0 in conference)

Northwestern

It really is amazing how the 2013 game against Ohio State in Evanston seems to be a high-water mark for Northwestern. Going into that game, the Purples were nationally ranked and had ESPN’s Gameday on campus. But after Ohio State did the business against them, the program has been on a downward trajectory.

Northwestern’s trajectory against Nebraska is on a similar arc. After winning in Lincoln in 2011, the Purples lost two straight heartbreakers. But last year, Nebraska was able to pull away and win convincingly, in Evanston. There’s little reason to think that trend line should change this season.

Fearless forecast: Nebraska 38, Northwestern 21 (7-1, 4-0 in conference)

At Purdue

Illinois’ dismissal of Tim Beckman probably helps to ensure that Purdue won’t finish in last place this season in the B1G West. But even with a road trip, the talent disparity should help Nebraska to a comfortable win on Halloween.

Fearless forecast: Nebraska 44, Purdue 10 (8-1, 5-0 in conference)

Michigan State

Having Nebraska at 8-1 at this stage of the season may seem like irrational exuberance about NU’s 2015 season. But any such exuberance would end with the Spartans roll into town. With a veteran returning quarterback in Connor Cook, a talent level equal to if not surpassing Nebraska, and a stingy defense, NU’s fairy-tale start to the season looks to end.

Fearless forecast: Michigan State 27, Nebraska 13 (8-2, 5-1 in conference)

At Rutgers

It’s tempting to see this game as a trap game, particularly coming off of what is likely to be a physical and emotional beat-down for Nebraska the week before. A long trip against an improving Rutgers team in that scenario is a recipe for disaster. But given how late in the season this game is and the kind of experience Riley and his staff have, Nebraska should be prepared enough to survive a closer-than-expected contest.

Fearless forecast: Nebraska 20, Rutgers 16 (9-2, 6-1 in conference)

Iowa

The Heroes Game hasn’t quite grown into the rivalry that the B1G hoped it would when Nebraska joined the league. But the games have been competitive (if not necessarily watchable, other than last year’s overtime contest in Lincoln).

Iowa looks on track to another middle-of-the-pack conference season under head coach Kirk Ferentz. If that’s the case, and Nebraska has a chance to clinch the division in Lincoln, the game could have an energy it has been hoping for. Look for Nebraska to shade a close one.

Fearless forecast: Nebraska 24, Iowa 21 (10-2, 7-1 in conference)

B1G Championship

So, Riley gets a trip to Indianapolis in his first year. Safe money has Nebraska facing off against Ohio State, the first ever unanimous pre-season no. 1 in the Associated Press. But don’t be surprised if it’s Michigan State, not Ohio State, that represents the B1G East in Indianapolis. Yes, the Buckeyes were dominant in the postseason last year. But don’t forget, that same Buckeye squad lost to Virginia Tech and were outplayed for large swaths of the game against Minnesota.

Regardless of whether it’s Ohio State or Michigan State, though, neither team is a good matchup for Nebraska. Making it to Indianapolis will be a great accomplishment for Riley in Year One, but asking for a number to be added next to the lonely “1999” on the East Stadium façade for conference championships is a step too far.