Nebraska Football: NU ReView, Northern Illinois 21, Nebraska 17

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Nebraska lost to Northern Illinois 21-17 at home, losing to a group-of-five school for the first time since a 2004 loss to Southern Mississippi. The Blackshirts played well after struggling in the first two games, but two first-half pick-six interceptions were the tale of the game. So, in looking back at the contest …

The Good

Blackshirts are Back: Hey, remember when worrying about Nebraska’s defense was a thing? The Blackshirts held Northern Illinois to 213 total yards and one offensive touchdown. Really, except for one long pass right after Nebraska took the lead – which was the prime opportunity for a letdown in the game – Nebraska’s defense answered the bell.

Fourth Down is the New Third Down: This year, Nebraska is 4-for-6 on fourth down conversions. That’s an amazing statistic, not only because of the number of attempts (averaging two per game), but in how often Nebraska has been successful. A combination of bravery and execution in the ultimate do-or-die situation.

The Conference Goals Are Still in Place: Yes, that was ugly, but Nebraska’s goal of winning the B1G West and playing in the conference championship game are …

Don’t. Just, don’t. While the “goals in place” thing might be true, it’s also ignoring the gigantic tire fire burning in the living room. (Don’t ask how the tires got in the living room. It’s a metaphor, go with it.)

The Bad

Tanner from Tulane: I hate to say I told you so, but … a smart and particularly handsome analyst said this about junior transfer quarterback Tanner Lee:

So I understand the desire for some stability. But it’s a recurring theme that amidst all of the uncertainly, the one thing most observers are not worried about for Nebraska is the level of quarterback play under transfer Tanner Lee. Check it out here, and here, and here.

That’s … kinda nuts. I know he was the offensive MVP of the scout team last year, I know he’s looked great in fall practice, and I know that he’s ruggedly handsome.

But he hasn’t played any real football in almost two years. And when he did, at Tulane, he had a career completion percentage of only 53.6 percent and a 1.095 touchdown-to-interception ratio, throwing 23 touchdowns and 21 interceptions.

Let’s take a look at the numbers.

  Completion % TD INT TD/INT Ratio
Arkansas State 59.3 2 0
Oregon 46.3 3 4
Northern Illinois 53.2 0 3
2017 Total 52.5 5 7 0.714
Tulane Total 53.6 23 21 1.095

Lee’s performance at Nebraska looks a heck of a lot like … Lee’s performance at Tulane. And that level of performance is simply not good enough for Nebraska’s offense to be successful.

Sure, Lee’s offensive line didn’t give him much help. And sure, Lee had some critical drops – if Jack Stoll hauls in his fourth-quarter target, Nebraska likely wins this game anyway.

But that’s all part of the package for a quarterback. Lee had three interceptions against Northern Illinois, and was fortunate not to have at least three more given some of the decisions he made.

The season isn’t over, and it would be a colossal shock (absent injury) if Lee isn’t under center against Rutgers next week. Lee won the starting job because he’s the best quarterback on Nebraska’s roster in 2017.

Unless his performance improves significantly, in a hurry, that’s not going to be good enough for Nebraska to salvage even a winning season this year.

Third Down is Still Third Down: Yeah, it’s fun to see Nebraska put it all on the line and convert on fourth down. But coming into this game Nebraska was no. 103 nationally in third down conversions at 32.14 percent. Against Northern Illinois, Nebraska was 3-for-13, or 23 percent, so that national ranking is likely to go down.

That’s not good enough, not even close to good enough. A combination of poor offensive line play and shaky quarterback performance is a huge contribution to Nebraska’s poor showing on third downs this year. It’s likely more symptom than cause, but this is a number to watch if Nebraska is going to get the wheels back on the train this season.

A Confidence Game: Boy, the first drive of the game against Northern Illinois didn’t look like the game would end as it did. Nebraska was in an offensive rhythm, biting off big chunks on the ground and through the air. It looked like Nebraska’s decision to take the ball at the start of the game was going to pay dividends, allowing NU to get an early lead and put some confidence back in the squad.

Then Shawun Lurry made a break on Lee’s bubble screen and went 87 yards for a score. Nebraska looked shell-shocked on offense, never really getting back into rhythm until the third quarter. It wasn’t entirely different from how Nebraska’s defense looked against Oregon last week, after Lee’s interception allowed the Ducks to take an early 14-point lead.

Don’t forget these are still college kids, learning a new system on both offense and defense. In both of Nebraska’s last two games, NU has had to dig itself out of double-digit holes. Nebraska has only held a lead for one minute and 22 seconds in the last two games. That’s going to weigh on the psyche of a team, and might be the biggest hurdle Nebraska faces going forward.

And the Calling of the Question

After Nebraska’s 6-7 campaign in 2015, Riley likely lost a year of patience from the Nebraska fans. Coming into 2017, this dope thought that Riley might be a year away from the hot seat.

A loss to Northern Illinois changes that. Northern Illinois is no. 119 nationally in terms of five-year recruiting rankings, one of the best ways to measure talent. The Huskies are easily the least talented team Nebraska will face in 2017 – the next least talented team is Illinois at no. 72.

With the talent disparity, at home, Nebraska has no business losing to Northern Illinois. Ever. This is the type of stain that doesn’t come off of a coaching resume. This is the type of loss that goes in the first paragraph of a coaching tenure’s obituary.

This is the type of loss that puts a coach on the hot seat. Don’t believe me? Ask Nebraska’s athletic director, Shawn Eichorst.

What Eichorst said after the Northern Illinois loss wasn’t really all that important. It was the fact that Eichorst came out and said something at all. Eichorst is famously averse to media appearances, and would only have come out so soon after the game – giving Riley the “dreaded vote of confidence” – if he thought it was necessary.

Eichorst was right. As it stands now, Nebraska will need to upset Wisconsin, Ohio State, or Penn State to have a shot at an 8-4 season. And that’s assuming Nebraska wins all of other remaining games on its schedule, including on the road against a suddenly-scary Purdue, at home against perennial nemesis Northwestern, on the road against Minnesota, and at home against an Iowa squad with a two-game winning streak.

Nebraska is 1-2. Nebraska is one play away from being 0-3. And the long knives are already at least being reached for, by no less than Omaha World-Herald columnist Tom Shatel. Scott Frost is still turning heads with his work as Central Florida’s head coach. So is Trev Alberts as UNO’s athletic director, by the way.

That doesn’t mean the season is over, of course. There’s nine games left. In 2015, a reeling 3-6 Nebraska squad raised up and beat no. 6 Michigan State in Lincoln. If Nebraska can find itself and get some confidence in the next two weeks, it’s not impossible to imagine Nebraska pulling off an upset when the Badgers come to Lincoln. Heck, Nebraska has outscored its opponents 31-0 in the third quarter this year. Put that performance together for another three quarters, and anything can happen.

The evidence suggest that result is unlikely. At this point, 7-5 feels like the best-case scenario, with losses to Wisconsin, Ohio State, and Penn State. A 6-6 finish – or worse – probably seems more likely.

There’s time to fix things, no doubt about it. But three games in to Riley’s third season, this is what the beginning of the end looks like.

GBR, baby.

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Nebraska Football: A Theory on the Cornhuskers’ Collapse Last Season

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Sherman, set the WayBack Machine for October 29, 2016. Nebraska just missed exorcising its demons in Camp Randall with a thrilling 23-17 overtime loss to Wisconsin, but showed to the world that it could stand toe-to-toe and compete on a national stage. That near-miss loss meant that Nebraska was still 7-1 on the season, including an impressive (although, if you believe in win percentage as a metric, unlikely) victory over Oregon. It was encouraging enough for this dope to even end his ReView of the Wisconsin game with defiance, saying “bring on the Buckeyes.”

Yeah, that didn’t exactly work out for Nebraska. After Ohio State’s 62-3 evisceration of NU, the season took on water in a hurry. Nebraska pulled out a gritty 24-17 win over Minnesota, and a comfortable 28-7 victory over an outmanned Maryland, but those wins proved to be paper over the cracks.

On the day after Thanksgiving, Nebraska was dominated 40-10 by Iowa (!), surrendering 264 rushing yards (!!) and 404 total yards (!!!) to the Hawkeyes. Nebraska drew Tennessee in the Music City Bowl, and lost 38-24 to the Volunteers in a game that was nowhere near as close as the score might have indicated.

So Nebraska’s 2016 campaign ended at 9-4, a decided improvement over the 6-7 mark from a season prior. But in Nebraska’s three losses in its final five games last year, it was outscored 140-37, and outgained by total yards in those contests by more than a two-to-one margin, 1519 to 739.

What happened? How did a season that saw Nebraska at 7-0 and ranked no. 7 nationally end with such a resounding thud?

Obviously, a big part of it was that Nebraska’s quality of opposition improved dramatically towards the end of the season. Oregon looked like a great matchup on paper in 2016, but ended the season at 4-8 and a fired head coach. Ohio State, Tennessee, and (gritting teeth) Iowa were dramatically tougher opponents than Nebraska’s early-season victims, so it should not have been surprising that Nebraska had more difficulty at the end of 2016.

Additionally, Nebraska’s 7-0 mark coming into Wisconsin was clearly, in retrospect, inflated. Given the game flow, Nebraska was pretty fortunate to beat what turned out to be a very flawed (if talented) Oregon squad in Lincoln. Other than the Ducks, Nebraska’s best win in that 7-0 stretch was … Northwestern? Wyoming?

Those factors can explain some of what happened at the end of 2016. But it wasn’t just that Nebraska struggled at the end of last year. Let’s be honest. Nebraska collapsed at the end of 2016. Nebraska capitulated to the strongest teams at the end of its schedule. (And yes, that’s officially throwing shade at Minnesota.)

So what else explains the magnitude of Nebraska’s late-season collapse. There’s a whole bunch of factors, of course. And I will state from the outset that this is just rank speculation from a total outsider, observing from a distance. But I would venture an educated guess that there were two significant factors that contributed to last year’s swoon.

The first is the effect of injuries to quarterback Tommy Armstrong. Of course, his terrifying injury against Ohio State threw Ryker Fyfe into duty in Columbus. But Armstrong had been walking wounded for quite some time before his Ohio State scare, and a combination of injuries against Minnesota a week later knocked him out of the following game against Maryland.

Armstrong tried to soldier through his injuries against Iowa, and it showed. He ran six times for 13 yards and was 13-35 throwing for 125 against the Hawkeye defense. Armstrong was a shell of his former self on Black Friday, and everyone – including Iowa’s defense – could clearly see it.

Gamer that he is, Armstrong fought hard to get back on the field for the Music City Bowl, but his injuries simply wouldn’t allow it. Fyfe started against the Volunteers and was … well, he had eight rushes for minus-27 yards, and was 17-36 for 243 yards passing with two touchdowns.

It’s fair to say, then, that Armstrong’s injury was a significant factor in Nebraska’s late-season struggle. But it’s more than that. Fyfe was Nebraska’s best option as Armstrong’s backup. God bless the kid from Grand Island, he’s a good athlete, worked very hard, and did the best he possibly could in the situation in which he found himself.

But it was clear to any observer from the outset that Fyfe was never good enough for Nebraska to be competitive against a sturdy opponent. And, more importantly, it had to have been clear to the Nebraska squad that going into games against Iowa and (especially) Tennessee, having a quarterback as limited as Fyfe gave NU almost no chance to be competitive.

Outside of perhaps a goaltender in hockey, there is no position in sports more important than the quarterback in football. If there was one fatal flaw in former head coach Bo Pelini’s time in Lincoln (well, apart from the obvious), it was Pelini’s inability to get his signal-caller right.

Between Armstrong and Taylor Martinez, Pelini’s quarterbacks were dynamic and dual-threat, but ultimately limited due to their inability to pass effectively and avoid turnovers put a ceiling on how effective Nebraska’s offense could be. But maybe even more damning of an indictment might be how poor the depth at quarterback has been in Lincoln.

And that lack of depth ultimately undid Nebraska last season. A loss to Ohio State in Columbus was, in retrospect, not a surprising result. And asking Fyfe to come in for an injured Armstrong, with Nebraska already down 21 points, would have made anything other than a blowout surprising.

So really we’re down to two big losses – Iowa (!) and Tennessee – that defined Nebraska’s 2016 season. Why did Nebraska capitulate so badly in those games?

Let’s take as a given that both teams are very good, and worthy winners. But it’s hard not to see Nebraska’s collapse, in part, as a subconscious response by a team knowing that their quarterback gave them no chance to be successful on that day.

Against Iowa, Armstrong gamely tried to play, but it was clear from the start that his injury was going to rob him of his effective rushing of the ball. And without that threat of a run, Armstrong simply was not good enough as a quarterback to be effective.

Against Tennessee, Nebraska was asking Fyfe to go up against an SEC defense (including a future NFL first-round draft pick in defensive end Derek Barnett). Fyfe, as he always did, but up his best effort. But his best effort ended up being a sub-50 percent completion rate. Remarkably, Nebraska remained within a couple of scores throughout the game, but the outcome was never in doubt.

And it’s hard not to think that part of the reason Nebraska couldn’t hold up against Tennessee was because, at some level, the team knew that they couldn’t be successful with Fyfe under center.

Now, my caveats again. I wasn’t in that locker room, and I don’t know anyone that was. But I’ve been an observer of the game for a long time, and I know what my expectations were going into the Music City Bowl. I know what my expectations were against Iowa once it was clear that Armstrong couldn’t run. And if I knew that, it’s hard to imagine that the team didn’t at some level think that too.

And keep in mind, this was a team that had expended a lot of emotional energy that year. The sudden death of punter Sam Foltz just before the season started shocked and saddened the team, and the fan base overall. Throughout the year, the team remembered Foltz before each game, and accepted the support of opposing teams who wanted to sympathize in Foltz’s death as well.

Which, of course, was exactly the right thing to do. It was inspiring to see those young men rally around each other in their grief and memory of a remarkable student athlete taken too soon. I defy you not to tear up when you watch the “missing man” delay of game penalty tribute Nebraska took against Fresno State to honor Foltz’ loss.

But that kind of emotional energy, week after week during a hard campaign, had to take a toll on a group of young men. Add it that toll the disappointment of an overtime loss against Wisconsin, and then the unspoken futility of sub-optimal quarterback play, and you have a recipe for a collapse.

Is that what happened? I don’t know. Is it a plausible explanation, at least as a contributing factor, to how Nebraska could surrender 40 points to Iowa and 521 total yards to Tennessee at the end of a particularly grueling 2016 campaign?

I think it could have been. And if that’s the case, it provides a reason to be hopeful for a 2017 season that is otherwise chock full of questions.

Nebraska Football: Four Takeaways from the End of Spring Practice

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Sure, anyone can give you an instant breakdown of Nebraska’s Spring Game, feeding you the hot takes and farming for your sweet, sweet clicks. But we at the Double Extra Point know you come here for reasoned and thoughtful analysis, the kind that takes some time to generate.

OK, fine, I’ve been really busy, and a little bit lazy. But there is some value of taking a breath and looking back at where Nebraska football is after head coach Mike Riley’s third spring in charge. Here’s four big takeways as we prepare to go through the long dark summer of baseball, cookouts, and hot-weather tomfoolery until football starts back up in August.

It’s Not Year One for Riley, But it Kinda Is

Riley isn’t going to get much breathing room even with all the changes coming to Lincoln this autumn. He’s going into year three of his tenure, after a 5-7 season in his first year and going 2-3 to end his second year with an aggregate score of 140-37. Riley isn’t on the hot seat for 2017, but he may very well be a year away from it.

And yet, there very little about 2017 that will look like 2016 in terms of the team taking the field. New defensive coordinator Bob Diaco will be deploying his much-discussed 3-4 defense, and we won’t learn anything about the Blackshirts’ transition until Arkansas State comes to town. And Nebraska’s signal-callers are going to look different than … well, just about any time in NU’s recent history.

Shortly after the Spring Game, Riley said junior transfer Tanner Lee would be Nebraska’s starter going into fall camp (according to Sam McKewon of the Omaha World-Herald). Behind Lee will be redshirt freshman Patrick O’Brien and sure-to-redshirt freshman Tristan Gebbia. All three were impressive in spring practice, and showed well at the Spring Game.

But it was Lee who had the highlight of the contest, with a 30-yard touchdown pass to JD Spielman that brought a collective gasp to the Memorial Stadium crowd.

That’s … a throw Nebraska fans aren’t used to seeing their quarterback execute. So Lee being the first name on the sheet isn’t a surprise. But Nebraska’s quarterback depth now is as good as it’s been in quite some time – maybe since Tommie Frazier and Brook Berringer. Given what’s happened to Nebraska in the last few years when its starter went down, it’s hard not to see this season as something very different in terms of NU’s offense.

But with a quarterback like Lee (or O’Brien, or Gebbia) as opposed to the run-first guys like Taylor Martinez or Tommy Armstrong, and with the shift in defensive scheme, Nebraska is going to look very different in 2017.

Diaco the Poker Player

Anyone who thought they were going to get a glimpse of what Nebraska’s 3-4 defensive attack was going to look like in 2017 were sorely mistaken. At no point in the Spring Game did Nebraska come out in a three-man front, playing lots of nickel, and generally being super plain and boring with its defensive alignment.

That was by design. Diaco, and Riley, made a conscious decision to keep the Blackshirts’ new look under wraps to avoid giving opponents an off-season worth of film to study.

At one level, that’s kind of silly. A 3-4 defense isn’t exactly revolutionary, and any competent offensive gameplan will at some level know what’s coming and how to defend against it.

Having said that, though, at least some of the benefit of a 3-4 scheme is deception, with an offense not knowing from down to down where the fourth pass rusher is coming from even without a blitz. And given that Nebraska will be breaking in a new defensive structure (as well as a new offensive structure), any tiny little advantage might be helpful.

Recruiting as the Known

OK, sure, there’s no such thing as a “known” in recruiting, especially before national signing day. But still, what’s happened with Nebraska’s recruiting in the last few weeks is nothing short of remarkable.

Nebraska is currently sitting at no. 11 nationally (according to 247 Sports) with its 2018 recruiting class. Led by Brendan Radley Hiles, the sixth-best prospect Nebraska has signed since 2000 (!), the class of eight commits to date should be filling Husker hearts with hope about the talent coming to Lincoln. After watching the NFL Draft, and seeing Nebraska break its streak of 54 years with multiple players selected, it’s hard not to come to the cold realization that NU’s talent pool had thinned in recent years.

It appears that trend is reversing. But still, a note of caution should be heard. While Nebraska is rated no. 11 nationally, that’s still only good for fifth in the B1G. One spot behind Minnesota. So, take those numbers for what they’re worth.

Better Team, Worse Record?

Nebraska fans could be forgiven for being a little confused about what to think about their team. In 2015, the team wasn’t nearly as bad as the 6-7 record would have suggested, suffering one inexplicable loss after another. In 2016, the team likely wasn’t as good as the 9-3 record would have suggested, as evidenced by lopsided losses to Ohio State, Tennessee, and (shudder) Iowa.

Nebraska’s 2017 squad shapes up to be very different, and perhaps more dangerous, than Riley’s two previous teams. But the schedule it faces also looks to be more challenging than the previous two years.

Consider Nebraska’s road trips to Oregon, Minnesota (you know, the team with the no. 10 nationally ranked recruiting class) and Penn State, with home contests against Wisconsin, Northwestern, Ohio State, and Iowa.

The three most difficult contests are likely at Oregon, Ohio State, and at Penn State. If Nebraska drops those three games – not at all an unreasonable expectation given NU breaking in a new offense and a new defense – then it will have to run the table just to match 2016’s achievement. That would include wins over Wisconsin (which hasn’t lost to Nebraska since 2012), Northwestern (which perennially plays Nebraska tough) and Iowa (which hasn’t lost to Nebraska since 2014).

It’s very likely Nebraska’s 2017 team will be better on offense, and perhaps on defense, than the 2016 squad. It’s also very likely that the 2017 record won’t reflect that improvement.

Photos of the 2017 Spring Game can be found here.

Nebraska Football: Five Things To Watch For at the Red-White Spring Game

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On Saturday, Nebraska will have its fifteenth and final spring practice play the annual Red-White Spring Game before a crowd likely to be north of 80,000 in Memorial Stadium. As year three of Mike Riley’s tenure as Nebraska’s head coach begins, fans will be wondering what to expect after last year’s record was an improvement over the prior season, but saw some ugly losses to Ohio State, Tennessee, and (shudder) Iowa.

So what should a smart fan (and a DXP reader, but of course that’s redundant) be looking for from Saturday’s glorified final practice? Well …

Can The Quarterbacks Complete Passes?

I know, that sounds mean. But here’s Nebraska’s completion percentage from 2009-2016:

2009 57.7
2010 57.8
2011 56.0
2012 62.0
2013 57.7
2014 52.9
2015 55.9
2016 50.3

The last three years, of course, were with Tommy Armstrong as starting quarterback. And those numbers are simply not good enough for Nebraska to expect success on the field.

This year, with Armstrong’s departure, the quarterback battle looks to be between redshirt junior transfer Tanner Lee and redshirt freshman Patrick O’Brien. Lee played two years at Tulane, and many fans hope his experience will help him win the job and lead Nebraska’s offense out of the doldrums.

His career stats? A 53.6 completion percentage and a 23/21 TD/INT ratio. Sure, that was at Tulane, not Nebraska. But still, those aren’t numbers that inspire confidence.

With the threat of a quarterback run game now gone, Nebraska will need significantly more efficient play from the passing game to be effective on offense. Whether the starter is Lee or O’Brien, we will at least get a glimpse of what to expect from them on Saturday.

Can The Offensive Line Hold Up?

Nebraska’s passing game was a mess last year, and much of that comes from the signal-callers and their limitations throwing the ball. But part of the problem has been an offensive line that has struggled to perform at a high level. Injuries were a part of the problem last season, of course. But it’s rare to finish a season without some attrition on the offensive line from injury.

Going into Saturday, we do not yet have a good grasp on who will be starting up front on offense. We also don’t know exactly how the Red and White squads will be divided, so it may very well be that a full first-team offensive line won’t be on the field at the same time on Saturday.

But we will get at least some look at how this year’s version of the Pipeline will look come September.

Can The Running Game Get Established?

Yes, it’s fair to say that this question will hinge in large part on the answer to the last question about the offensive line. But it’s also fair to say that Nebraska has a whole bunch of I-Backs to pick from, none of whom have yet to show the ability to take over a game. For the three primary returning backs, here’s their yards per carry from 2016.

Mikale Wilbon 5.93 (15 carries)
Devine Ozigbo 4.25 (97 carries)
Tre Bryant 4.00 (43 carries)

Last year, Nebraska had the no. 73 ranked rushing attack nationally – and that was with Armstrong’s running ability factored in as a part of the offense. This year’s offense will likely not feature a quarterback run game, but will (hopefully, for Nebraska’s sake) have a more efficient passing attack. On Saturday, we will get at least a glimpse of how that effects Nebraska’s ability to run the ball.

Will The New 3-4 Defensive Scheme Take Time To Learn?

62-3. 40-10. 38-24.

Those were the scores of Nebraska’s last three losses (to Ohio State, (shudder) Iowa, and Tennessee), and were a significant factor in why Bob Diaco and not Mark Banker is Nebraska’s defensive coordinator in 2017.  But it’s not like Nebraska was dreadful on defense overall last year. NU was no. 30 nationally in total defense, and no. 33 in scoring defense.

So, on the good side, that means Diaco has a good platform on which to build. But, on the concerning side, it also means that a substantial shift in defensive scheme (from 4-3 to 3-4) runs the risk of upsetting the proverbial apple cart.

Diaco said (according to Rich Kaipust of the Omaha World-Herald) that the Spring Game will be more of a “dress rehearsal” than an audition, and that “[i]f you’re interested in filming the spring game to figure out what we’re going to do on defense, you’re going to waste a lot of film and footage.”

OK, sure, a smart reader like you might expect that Diaco wouldn’t come out with a quote like “hey, Nebraska opponents, make sure to check out the Spring Game because we’re totally going to show you all our sneaky trick defensive plays.” So of course what will be on the field this Saturday will be a pretty sanitized version of the Blackshirts compared to this September.

(And, at the risk of being snarky, it would be helpful to let Diaco know that most recording is now done digitally instead of using something like this. Although, in fairness, the latter is far cooler.)

Can Nebraska Generate Pressure on the Quarterback?

While we should be able to learn something about Nebraska’s new-look Blackshirts on Saturday, it is fair to say that we might know less about Nebraska’s ability to pressure the quarterback in 2017. Even if the offensive line is a question mark (see supra), it is unlikely that Nebraska will be calling any elaborate blitzing or pressure schemes.

Still, one of the advantages of a 3-4 front is to permit even four-man pressure from multiple locations, potentially causing confusion to opposing offenses (as discussed by Kaipust of the Omaha World-Herald). And Nebraska could use the help on that front, checking in at no. 65 nationally in sacks and no. 85 in tackles for loss last year.

So even without the blitzes or other extra schemes, getting a look at how a 3-4 front attacks an opposing offense should give fans at least a taste of what’s to come in 2017.

All stats courtesy of cfbstats.com.

Nebraska Football: Husker Fan, Chill Out About The ESPN FPI Prediction

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This week, ESPN released its Football Power Index (FPI), an analytical tool that simulates thousands of college football matchups to predict future outcomes. The FPI results for the 2017 season are out and they are … not optimistic for Nebraska.

The FPI thinks that Nebraska will win somewhere between 5.5 and 6.5 games in 2017, making it no. 58 in the nation. In looking at the schedule next year, that’s a lower rating than Ohio State (no. 1), Penn State (no. 8), Oregon (no. 21), Northwestern (no. 29), Iowa (no. 39), and Minnesota (no. 55).

Reactions on Husker message boards were, of course, calm, measured, and grammatically accurate. Basically, they broke down into archetypes.

Grizzled Old-School Husker Fan: Bah, what do those eggheads know about a game played on the field!

Snarky Hipster Husker Fan: Gee, can’t wait to watch that exciting half-a-loss Nebraska gets this year.

Angry Message Board Husker Fan: ESPN HAS ALWAYS HATED USSSSS!!!!!!11!!!!1!!

Husker Fan Pining For Previous Coach: It’s all because we fired Bo.

Husker Fan Pining For Previous Coach, Five Years Ago: It’s all because we fired Callahan.

Husker Fan Pining For Previous Coach, Ten Years Ago: It’s all because we fired Solich.

But the FPI results shouldn’t be a surprise. Here’s how ESPN describes the methodology for the FPI rankings.

The model comprises four major components: the last four seasons of performance on offense, defense and special teams, with the most recent season counting most; information on offensive and defensive returning starters, with special consideration given to a team returning its starting quarterback or gaining a transfer quarterback with experience; a four-year average recruiting ranking of four systems (ESPN, Scouts, Rivals and Phil Steele); and head coaching tenure. These four components interact and are assigned different weights depending on the team to produce preseason FPI.

Combining all of the factors above produces a predicted value on offense, defense and special teams, which represents the number of points that each unit would be expected to contribute to the team’s scoring margin if it were to face an average FBS team on a neutral field.

Bill Connelly from SB Nation (and the robot from the incredibly entertaining Podcast Ain’t Played Nobody) released his 2017 S&P+ preseason ratings, which consider recruiting, returning production, and recent history. That formula has Nebraska at no. 42 nationally, behind Ohio State (no. 2), Penn State (no. 8), Wisconsin (no. 11), Oregon (no. 23), and Northwestern (no. 37).

So the computers hate Nebraska in 2017. Why?

Well, first of all, the Nebraska that takes the field in 2017 will bear almost no resemblance to the 2016 squad (which may either relieve you or terrify you, based on your perception of last year’s team).

Quarterback Tommy Armstrong, the undoubted engine of whatever offense Nebraska could produce last year? Gone, replaced either by a Tulane transfer with a career completion percentage of 53.6 percent and a 23/21 TD/INT ratio, or a redshirt freshman who has never taken a snap in a college game.

Wait, there’s more. Nebraska’s leading rusher? Gone. Leading receiver? Gone. Third leading receiver? Gone. Fourth leading receiver? Gone. Any tight end on the roster with a career catch? Gone.

Remember, analytics in general and the FPI in particular look at returning production to “decide” how good a team will be going forward. Nebraska, outside of receiver Stanley Morgan, has basically no returning production. So it shouldn’t be a surprise that the analytics don’t think much of Nebraska’s chances in 2017.

So take another look at Connelly’s S&P+ preseason rankings. They rank Nebraska no. 22 nationally in recruiting, no. 32 nationally in a five-year average (thank you, 2015), but no. 72 nationally in returning production. That explains, almost entirely, how Nebraska ends up in the mid-forties overall.

Does that mean Nebraska can’t be successful in 2017? Of course not. But it highlights the danger that could burst Husker Fans’ bubble of optimism – that we really don’t know what to expect from the guys wearing the scarlet and cream next year. Tanner Lee might tear things up next year and make Nebraska’s new passing attack thrive. But we don’t know, and we won’t know until the season plays out.

And the analytics are giving us a preview of what the national pundits will likely do as the season gets closer – show that Nebraska has lost the benefit of the doubt. Remember, Nebraska hasn’t won a conference title since 1999. Nebraska hasn’t been competitive in a conference title game since 2009, and needed a once-in-a-generation player like Ndamukong Suh to get that close.

If and when Nebraska gets back to the point where it can legitimately compete for conference titles, the national spotlight and the benefit of the doubt will be back, rest assured. Nebraska is still a legacy name, like Alabama was when it labored under the tutelage of Mike DuBose, Dennis Franchione, and Mike Shula before some guy named Saban showed up in Tuscaloosa.

But Nebraska ain’t Alabama, at least not yet. And until Nebraska can show it won’t wilt under the spotlight, don’t expect the national college football audience – or the analytics – to give Nebraska the benefit of the doubt.

Nebraska Football: Five Toughest Quarterbacks Cornhuskers Will Face in 2015

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photo and story by Patrick Runge

Nebraska football fans know that the quarterback is the most important part of an offense, so the teams with the best quarterbacks will be the hardest to beat. Next season, Nebraska will face a number of talented signal-callers as new head coach Mike Riley learns the ropes of his position.

Here are the five quarterbacks Nebraska is likely to have the most trouble with next season.

All stats courtesy of cfbstats.com.

No. 5: Mitch Leidner, Minnesota

It seems odd to think of a quarterback from the offensively-challenged Gophers to make this list. But Leidner led Minnesota into Lincoln last year and beat Nebraska, so NU fans should think twice before dismissing his ability.

Leidner’s statistics aren’t jaw-dropping (51.5 percent completion rate, 11/8 touchdown-to-interception ratio in 2014). But in Jerry Kill’s smash-mouth offense the quarterback does not need to be the primary weapon. Instead, the quarterback merely directs the offense and makes plays when necessary.

Which is exactly what Leidner did last year against Nebraska, going 8-of-17 for 135 yards through the air, and carrying the ball 22 times for 111 yards on the ground. If Leidner is able to match those numbers against Nebraska this year, NU will struggle to avoid a third straight defeat.

No. 4: Wes Lunt, Illinois

Injuries derailed Lunt’s 2014 season at Illinois after transferring from Oklahoma State. Even in the eight games he played last year, though, Lunt amassed a 63.5 percent completion rate and a 14/3 touchdown-to-interception ratio. Those numbers are enough to make any defensive coordinator nervous.

Although Illinois’ weapons are certainly limited, a healthy Lunt will be able to get the best out of them, and provide a challenge for Nebraska’s new-look defense.

No. 3: Taysom Hill, BYU

Much like Illinois’ Lunt, injuries robbed Hill of what could have been a darkhorse Heisman candidacy last year. Hill’s primary threat is with his legs, having rushed for 463 yards on 86 carries and scoring 8 touchdowns in only seven games last year.

But Hill is also effective as a passer, with a 66.7 completion rate and a 7/3 touchdown-to-interception ratio. Hill’s dual-threat skill set represents a huge challenge for opposing defenses, and the fact that he is the first quarterback Nebraska will face under Riley’s leadership makes him all the more dangerous.

No. 2: Brad Kaaya, Miami

It’s not like Kaaya had a bad game against Nebraska last year. As a true freshman in a hostile atmosphere, Kaaya went 28-of-42 for 359 yards passing and three touchdowns. But he also threw two interceptions, and that in combination with Miami’s inability to stop Ameer Abdullah helped Nebraska to a ten-point victory.

But in 2015, the game will be in Miami. Abdullah will not be wearing scarlet and cream, and Nebraska will be taking its first road trip under Riley. Kaaya will have a full year of experience under his belt, while Nebraska will be in only the third game learning a new defensive scheme. And Miami will be looking for payback after a chippy game in Lincoln last year.

No. 1: Connor Cook, Michigan State

Cook probably doesn’t get the respect he deserves. He’s not flashy or gaudy, and Michigan State is much more known for its defense than its offense.

But NFL scouts have their eyes on Cook. CBS Sports has Cook as the no. 1 quarterback prospect for 2016, and Walter Football projects Cook as the no. 6 overall pick in next year’s NFL Draft.

Between those lofty projections, and the salty defense he will have protecting him, Cook will provide Nebraska with the sternest challenge as a signal-caller in 2015.

Nebraska Football: Five Former Top Recruits Who Will Finally Shine in 2015

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photo and story by Patrick Runge

Nebraska football fans are not alone in feeling burned by the recruiting process. After spending months getting excited about four- and five-star prospects arriving, fans have to wait—sometimes for years—before those prospects actually produce something on the field.

A new season, and a new head coach in Mike Riley, is on the horizon. So let’s take a look back at Nebraska’s recent recruiting history and see which highly-touted recruits might get their chance to come good for NU.

Star and composite rankings from 247 Sports.

Jamal Turner

Class of 2011, four-star, .9658 composite.

In 2011, Turner showed up in Lincoln intending to compete with Taylor Martinez for the starting quarterback position. When that didn’t work out, Turner moved to wide receiver. Between struggles with learning the position and recurring injuries, Turner’s career at Nebraska has never caught fire.

But being given an extra year’s eligibility through a medical hardship gives Turner a new lease on life. Turner will likely be a starting wide receiver along with Jordan Westerkamp (more of a possession receiver) and De’Mornay Pierson-El (whose slight frame should limit his usage). This provides a huge opportunity for Turner to make a big impact in his swan-song season.

Charles Jackson

Class of 2011, four-star, .9605 composite

Much like Turner, Jackson’s career in Lincoln has been a struggle with injuries. In August of 2014, when he was in line to be Nebraska’s starting nickel back, Jackson suffered a knee injury that cost him the entirety of the season.

His misfortunes with injuries have continued into 2015, with another knee injury keeping him out of spring practice. But according to John Taylor of NBC Sports, this time around the injury isn’t as serious and Jackson should be at full strength coming into fall camp.

Jackson will be competing in a crowded and talented backfield for playing time. But he’s also a freakish athlete who will have every opportunity to earn his moment in the sun.

Paul Thurston

Class of 2012, four-star, .9357 composite

It’s not unusual for offensive linemen to take time before they are ready to produce at a collegiate level. Indeed, it’s the rare player who is able to contribute in the trenches as an underclassman. But Thurston looks ready, after seeing limited time as a backup last season, to press for the starting job at center in 2015.

With a line that will be looking for experience after losing starters at both guard positions, having Thurston emerge and produce at center would be a huge boost for Nebraska’s offense in 2015.

Josh Banderas

Class of 2012, four-star, .9053 composite

When Riley was hired, much was made of Banderas’ status with the Nebraska program. Lee Barfknecht of the Omaha World-Herald discussed how Banderas was close to leaving the program after being “jerked around” by former head coach Bo Pelini’s staff.  Steven M. Sipple of the Lincoln Journal-Star wrote about Banderas being “mismanaged” by Pelini.

Given that track record, a new coaching staff would be reason enough to be optimistic about Banderas’ prospects in 2015. But when you combine that with a thin linebacking corps (Nebraska in 2015 will have five scholarship linebackers who are not true freshmen) and a quarters defensive scheme from new coordinator Mark Banker that focuses on three linebackers on the field, and Banderas’ opportunity next season becomes apparent.

Terrell Newby

Class of 2013, four-star, .9404 composite

Newby has always been a tantalizing talent for Nebraska fans. He was a higher-rated prospect than Randy Gregory (according to 247 Sports), and has flashed the kind of game-breaking speed that could make him a dominant threat at I-back.

But Newby’s performance hasn’t matched that promise. A big part of that is being behind Ameer Abdullah in Nebraska’s backfield, of course. Newby has averaged just 4.65 carries per game, and has averaged 4.9 yards per carry.

This year, though, Abdullah is gone and Newby looks primed to win the starting I-back job (according to Sam McKewon of the Omaha World-Herald and a certain smart and particularly handsome analyst). While Newby will have a crowded backfield competing with him for playing time, 2015 looks to be his year to shine.

Nebraska Football: Cornhuskers’ 2015 Offseason Checklist

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photo and story by Patrick Runge

Nebraska football fans settling in to summer are well versed with checklists, having time in the offseason to get their gutters cleaned and barbecues fired up.

New Nebraska head coach Mike Riley has a big to-do list on his desk as he takes the reins in Lincoln. And while there are a number of demands on his attention, here are five things that he has been (or will be) working on between now and September.

Get the New Guy Settled In

Seven years of Bo Pelini’s leadership in Lincoln ended in stormy fashion with the release of a (shock of shocks) profanity-laced self-indulgent tirade from Pelini masquerading as a farewell address to his team.

So when athletic director Shawn Eichorst announced the surprise hire of Riley, Nebraska fans weren’t quite sure what to think. As a result, Riley needed to win the press conference and inspire some confidence in the Children of the Corn as the offseason settled in.

As a smart and particularly handsome analyst observed, many of Nebraska fans’ concerns about Riley are misguided. But his easy-going manner and openness with the fans have gone a long way towards helping him be accepted in Lincoln.

Of course, that all goes out the window if Nebraska goes 1-2 in its first three games this season—which is not impossible to imagine, given the way the schedule lays out. But at least for now, Riley has done what he needed to do.

Status: Done

Settle on a Quarterback

When Riley and his pro-style offense arrived, many Nebraska fans wondered how NU’s quarterback situation would look in 2015. But as the spring unfolded (as observed by Sam McKewon of the Omaha World-Herald and others), it became clear that Tommy Armstrong was the strong favorite to retain his starting job.

But when combined with Nebraska’s commitment from dual-threat quarterback Terry Wilson, a picture emerges that NU will at least incorporate elements of a quarterback run game in its offense going forward. Early indications suggest that Riley will not take the same tack as Bill Callahan, who tried to force a mobile quarterback prospect like Joe Dailey into a pass-heavy West Coast offensive structure, with disastrous results.

So perhaps it’s not so much that Riley is sold on Armstrong per se, but more that Armstrong is the best candidate available to build an offense around.

Status: Mostly Complete

Fill Depth at Linebacker

Even without a change in defense, Nebraska would have struggled with linebacker depth next season. Not counting the incoming recruiting class, Nebraska only has five scholarship linebackers, with two coming off major injuries.

Add in new defensive coordinator Mark Banker’s quarters system which has three linebackers on the field most of the time, and Nebraska’s linebacker depth becomes a significant concern.

The 2015 recruiting class, started by Pelini and concluded by Riley, signed five linebackers (as classified by the Omaha World-Herald). As an early enrollee, Dedrick Young has a chance to be in the mix to start as a true freshman next season, particularly if either Michael Rose-Ivey or David Santos aren’t able to fully recover from last year’s injuries.

As for the rest of the incoming freshman, it’s hard to know if they will be able to contribute right away—or if they will even remain at linebacker. So Nebraska has certainly made a start in terms of addressing linebacker depth, but there’s a long way left to go.

Status: Incomplete

Hit the Recruiting Trail

Nebraska under Pelini never hit the heights in terms of recruiting prowess that it did under Callahan before him. And while Callahan has been rightly vilified by Nebraska fans, the fact remains that it will be very difficult for NU to reach the level of a conference champion contender recruiting at Pelini’s level.

Take a look at where Nebraska’s recruiting classes for each of Pelini’s seasons were ranked, according to 247 Sports.

Year National Recruiting Ranking
2008 25
2009 42
2010 27
2011 16
2012 30
2013 22
2014 35

Those are the results for a team that can challenge for a divisional title from time to time, but isn’t ever going to be a serious contender for a conference or national title. Take a look at Dave Bartoo’s work at CFBMatrix, and you’ll see how closely aggregate recruiting rankings—and therefore overall talent level—correlate to wins and losses on the field.

If Riley is going to get Nebraska to where Eichorst expects—challenging for conference and national titles—NU’s recruiting numbers need to improve.

Status: Incomplete

Get the Roster Right

If you look at Nebraska’s current roster distribution (courtesy of the Omaha World-Herald), you’ll see one very disturbing number.

88.

That’s the number of scholarship players currently on Nebraska’s roster. That’s three over the maximum of 85, which means in short order Nebraska’s roster needs to be trimmed. Whether it is from attrition, medical hardship, or transfers, Riley must find a way to remove three current scholarship players.

At present, Riley knows of no players with plans to transfer, according to Eric Olsen of the Associated Press. But this item on Riley’s to-do list isn’t optional, it must be completed before the start of next season.

Status: Incomplete

Nebraska Football: Early Grades for the 2016 Recruiting Class

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photo and story by Patrick Runge

Nebraska football fans know that even though the 2015 season is still months away, important work for the 2016 recruiting class is being done. New head coach Mike Riley and his staff are beating the bushes (and social media) looking for the next crop of talented players to don the scarlet and cream.

Currently, according to 247 Sports, Nebraska’s 2016 recruiting class is no. 33 nationally and no. 7 in the Big Ten. But with a total of just six commitments, there’s plenty of room for the class to grow. But based on what we know now, here’s a snapshot of how Nebraska is looking for next year’s class.

All measurables and prospect rankings are from 247 Sports.

Offense

Nebraska currently has five commitments on offense.

Name Position Height Weight Star Composite
John Rairdon OG 6’4” 260 Four-star .9651
Bryan Brokop OT 6’5” 273 Three-star .8888
Jared Bubak TE 6’4” 235 Three-star .8538
Terry Wilson QB (DUAL) 6’2.5” 187 Three-star .8407
Patrick O’Brien QB (PRO) 6’4” 225 Three-star .8456

There are two big takeaways from this list, even at this preliminary stage. The first is the commitment of Rairdon, who would be Riley’s highest ranked recruit at Nebraska under 247 Sports’ criteria. Landing the four-star’s talent on the offensive line would be a big coup for Riley, and a huge boost for Nebraska’s offense in the years to come.

The second fascinating takeaway is the commitment of dual-threat quarterback Wilson. For his own talents as a three-star prospect, Wilson is a good get for Nebraska. But more interestingly, Wilson’s commitment means that Nebraska is still actively recruiting dual-threat quarterbacks. That was an open question with Riley given his pocket-passing pro-style offense from Oregon State.

Then, on Thursday, Nebraska secured a commitment from the three-star pro-style quarterback prospect O’Brien. Having both quarterbacks in the 2016 class, in addition to the five scholarship quarterbacks currently on the roster who would have eligibility in 2016,

Notable amongst the offers out for Nebraska is four-star running back Devwah Whaley (who, according to the Omaha World-Herald, has NU in his top ten of possible schools) and junior college offensive line prospect Malcolm Pridgeon, who according to the Omaha World-Herald stands at six-foot-eight (!) and 303 pounds.

Grade: A

Defense

At present, Nebraska only has one defensive commitment.

Name Position Height Weight Star Composite
William Johnson OLB 6’3” 220 Three-star .8617

The position is important, as Nebraska currently has only five scholarship linebackers outside of the players signed in the 2015 class. New defensive coordinator Mark Banker’s quarters defensive scheme relies on three linebackers on the field most of the time, so Nebraska will have a great need for depth at linebacker going forward. Adding a junior-college transfer like Johnson should help Nebraska with ready-to-play talent next year.

Defensive tackle will also be an area of particular need for Nebraska in 2016, with Kevin Williams graduating and juniors Vincent Valentine and Maliek Collins potentially leaving early for the NFL if they have a big 2015 campaign (Collins is included in the “others considered” of the early 2016 first-round draft projection of ESPN’s Mel Kiper).

Of course, there’s plenty of time for Nebraska to grow its defensive haul for 2016. Linebacker/defensive end prospect Quayshon Alexander is widely expected to pick Nebraska, although Sam McKewon of the Omaha World-Herald reports that Alexander is “slowing down” his recruiting process.

Grade: C

Overall

It’s a little scary to see Nebraska rated no. 7 in the B1G and no. 33 overall for the 2016 class. Ending up there would be a frightening sign of things to come.

But there’s plenty to be encouraged about, between the decisiveness at quarterback and the early handling of a position of desperate need on defense. It’s way too early to panic about results, and there’s enough good things happening to offer some comfort this early in the process.

Grade: A-

Nebraska Football: Coach Mike Riley’s Biggest Challenges for Nebraska in 2015

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photo and story by Patrick Runge

Mike Riley knew he had a big job on his hands when he took over as Nebraska’s head football coach. But now that spring practice is over, Riley will be focusing on the upcoming 2015 season. As we settle in for a long summer offseason, let’s take a look at three things that will be occupying Riley’s attention as he prepares for the upcoming campaign.

What the Quarterback Will Be

Notice the very specific phrasing of this challenge. It’s not who Nebraska’s quarterback will be—all evidence points to junior Tommy Armstrong, absent injury. The bigger question is what the role of quarterback will be in Nebraska’s new offense.

At Oregon State, Riley’s quarterbacks were pure pocket passers. Riley’s most recent signal-caller, Sean Mannion, left Corvallis as the Pac-12’s career passing leader and was a third-round pick by the St. Louis Rams in this year’s NFL Draft.

If that’s going to be what Riley is expecting, Armstrong is a bad fit. Mannion had a career 64.6 completion percentage and a 1.43 touchdown-to-interception ratio (according to Sports Reference), while Armstrong has a career 52.9 completion percentage (according to Huskers.com).

But Riley might be changing his expectations of his quarterback. His first quarterback recruit for 2016 (according to 247 Sports) is Terry Wilson, a dual-threat quarterback. Why would Riley be bringing in a dual-threat quarterback if he wanted to move Nebraska into a pocket-passer style of offense?

It’s clear that Tommy Armstrong will not be Riley’s Joe Dailey, a run-first quarterback asked to run a pass-heavy offensive scheme. But trying to find that balance between the offense Riley has run with the talent in Lincoln will be one of Riley’s biggest challenges this season.

How Nebraska Adapts To A New Defense

Nebraska’s defense will look quite different under new defensive coordinator Mark Banker. As described by Sam McKewon of the Omaha World-Herald, Banker’s Blackshirts will think less, react more, and play fast. That’s in stark contrast to former head coach Bo Pelini’s focus on complex schemes and blitzes to keep opposing oCffenses off-balance and look for advantages in matchups.

It sounds great, a very exciting style to watch. But it will also mean that Nebraska will have to win more battles athletically, as opposed to a reliance on scheme to make up the gap against a more talented opposing offense. And a team playing fast is also vulnerable to misdirections, counters, and other offensive schemes designed to use a defense’s speed and aggression against it.

Particularly in year one of Banker’s new defense, Nebraska could be face with growing pains as it learns how to play defense fast and simple. That could result in some ugly plays—which could lead to ugly losses if not managed properly.

September

“Wake me up when September ends.”

– Green Day

Say what you will about Pelini and the way he left, but he consistently won nine games. He never had his Callahan moment of a losing season and missing out on a bowl game. Yes, he never won the big prize, but he never guided Nebraska onto the reef like coaches past had done.

Some still question the hiring of Riley, whose career record of 93-80 in college may not inspire confidence in his ability to lead Nebraska to compete with Urban Meyer at Ohio State and Jim Harbaugh at Michigan. Of course, as a smart and particularly handsome analyst observed, Riley’s record in Corvallis was far more impressive than the .538 winning percentage, given the limitations at Oregon State.

But there will still be some skepticism about Riley’s ability to win at Nebraska. And his first three games present a stern challenge. A home opener against BYU and dark-horse Heisman candidate in quarterback Taysom Hill could easily see Nebraska start off 0-1. And after a paycheck game against South Alabama, Nebraska has to make a trip to South Beach to play a very talented Miami squad.

Yes, on paper Nebraska should probably be favored to win both games. But given that Nebraska is also installing a whole new offense and whole new defense, it’s not at all implausible to imagine Nebraska losing to both BYU and Miami.

And a 1-2 start to his tenure could easily to poison the well for Riley with the Nebraska faithful, particularly if NU struggles in the rest of the season and limps to a poor (dare I say) Callahan-like record in 2015.

Of course, the opposite is true as well. If Nebraska beats BYU and knocks of Miami on national television, Nebraska could find itself vaulted into the spotlight with a feel-good story of Riley’s success.

So while Riley should be afforded time to put his stamp on the program, the fact remains that the first three games of his career in Lincoln have the potential to define how he is viewed by the Nebraska faithful and the college football world as a whole.