Nebraska Football: No, You Can’t Kick Players Off The Team For Kneeling During the National Anthem

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On Saturday, prior to Nebraska’s game against Northwestern, defenders Michael Rose-Ivey, DaiShon Neal, and Mohammed Berry knelt during the playing of “The Star Spangled Banner.” The action was a protest, inspired by San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick, to draw attention to the deaths of African-Americans at the hands of police. Rose-Ivey described the rationale for his actions as follows (as quoted by the Omaha World-Herald):

As everyone is aware, this past Saturday, before the game against Northwestern, DaiShon Neal, Mohamed Barry and myself kneeled in solidarity with Colin Kaepernick and many other athletes across the country, both professional and non-professional, who are standing together to use their various platforms to bring awareness about police brutality and the recent deaths of black men and women at the hands of police officers.

To make it clear, I am not anti-police, I am not anti-military, nor am I anti-American. I love my country deeply and I appreciate the freedoms it professes to afford me.

I feel I am obligated to stand up and bring awareness to the social injustices that are not limited to police brutality but also to the policies and laws that discriminate against and hinder the growth and opportunities of people of color, low-income people, women and other marginalized communities.

As a rule, I try to avoid politics and controversy here. While I have my opinions on the Kaepernick-style protests, I decided not to use this forum to share them with the world. If you want a really thoughtful piece on the protests themselves, check out Brandon Cavanaugh’s piece from Today’s U.

I even held fire when Rose-Ivey and the other players – and the predictability of this response was so disheartening – received racist death threats as a result of their actions. Such revoltingly ignorant and evil actions would seem not to need a response – “hey, how about not being a racist bully” doesn’t seem like a particularly hot take – but maybe in 2016 it’s becoming necessary.

Then I read about what University of Nebraska Regent Hal Daub had to say about the protest by the Nebraska players (according to Chris Dunker of the Lincoln Journal-Star):

It’s a free country. They don’t have to play football for the university either.

They know better, and they had better be kicked off the team.

They won’t take the risk to exhibit their free speech in a way that places their circumstance in jeopardy, so let them get out of uniform and do their protesting on somebody else’s nickel,

Those publicity seeking athletes ought to rethink the forum in which they chose to issue their personal views at the expense of everyone else.

(emphasis added)

In addition to following Nebraska football (although my wife would say there’s precious little time for much else, especially in the fall), I have some experience in the law. And when a Nebraska Regent – the elected officials responsible for the entire University of Nebraska system – says in public that football players at a Nebraska university should be kicked off a team, that’s a big deal.

Why? Because that’s clearly unconstitutional.

To understand why, we have to understand what is being asked of the players. Observing “standard” decorum for the National Anthem is asking players – commanding players, in Daub’s view – to make a political statement. There’s no getting around that position. If it wasn’t a political statement – if what you say and how you act during the national anthem doesn’t carry meaning – then the national controversy generated by Kaepernick would not exist.

Nebraska is a state university, which means when it takes an action, it ultimately carries the force of the state of Nebraska behind it. That includes what the university can require football players to do during the National Anthem. And the First Amendment (made applicable to the states by the Fourteenth Amendment) has very clearly been understood to mean that the state cannot mandate a citizen to make a political statement he or she does not want to make.

The most famous United States Supreme Court case about this is probably Wooley v. Maynard, where the Court said the state of New Hampshire could not require citizens to put a license plate on their cars with the state motto of “Live Free Or Die” if that message conflicted with their own personal views. But there are a host of other cases making it clear that the government cannot compel speech from its citizens.

That’s why Daub has it exactly backwards. Rose-Ivey and the others weren’t expressing “personal views at the expense of everyone else” (never mind the argument about how anyone else’s expression of patriotism was affected by someone quietly kneeling). They were declining to participate in a political statement by observing standard decorum for the National Anthem. They were doing so quietly, and in a way that was specifically designed after consultation with veterans to be respectful of the military while still reflecting the message  of the protest (according to Will Brinson of CBS Sports)

And Daub wants to use the power of the state to punish those players for failing to make the political statement he felt the players should make, seeking out the media to criticize the “publicity seeking athletes.”

Now, it’s different if a professional sports league, such as the NFL or NBA, wants to put a rule in place with regards to the National Anthem. The First Amendment protects you from the government, but it doesn’t protect you from your employer (unless you work for the government, of course).

Since the story came out, Daub has now denied saying he said he thought the players should be removed from the team, prompting this headline from Deadspin (and meaning that Daub’s statement has gained national attention and that he probably isn’t going to put this particular cat back in the bag):

Nebraska Regent Calls For Kneeling Players To Be Kicked Off Team Then Tries To Deny It (Filed to: LIARS)

While it doesn’t sound like Daub is going to get a mulligan for this one, it is good that he recognizes his position was untenable. As a lawyer and long-time Congressman, Daub should well know the freedoms guaranteed to all citizens, and that the power of the state cannot be used to compel anyone – even a Nebraska football player – to make a political statement he or she does not want to make.

There’s plenty of room for conversation about the moral justification for the kneeling protest, and people of good faith on both sides can honorably take opposing positions. Pete Ricketts, Nebraska’s Governor, called the protests “disgraceful” but upheld their right to protest (according to Sam McKewon and Emily Nohr of the Omaha World-Herald).

Look, if seeing Nebraska football players kneeling during the National Anthem upsets or offends you, I’m sure it feels good to say that they should be kicked off the team. But the Constitution – the document that ultimately the National Anthem is celebrating – clearly says the state is forbidden to do such a thing.

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Nebraska Football: Three Numbers To Watch in 2016

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

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

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

1299

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

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

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

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

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

-0.92

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

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

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

1.85

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

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

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

All statistics from cfbstats.com.

Nebraska Football: How the Cornhuskers Get to Ten Wins in 2016

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Earlier this week, the sports gambling site Five Dimes set Nebraska’s over-under total at 9.5 for wins in 2016. For the non-gamblers among you, the bet is just what the name of it suggests – you put your money down as to whether you think Nebraska’s win total will be over or under the number selected, in this case nine-and-a-half.

That means this particular sports book thinks the most likely scenario for Nebraska in 2016 is to win between nine and ten games. That’s a pretty bold statement for a team coming off a 6-7 season in 2015.

So, is Five Dimes just counting on rabid Nebraska fans making irrationally exuberant investment decisions? Maybe to an extent, although “souvenir” bets like that are usually on tickets to win a national title put down by chumps like me on trips to Las Vegas. An over-under line set too high will be pounced on by sharks, and could end up costing a sports book lots of money.

That means the book makers at Five Dimes must have some confidence that Nebraska can get to ten wins in 2016 – besides just listening to this smart and particularly handsome analyst who picked Nebraska as the B1G West favorite next season. Here’s what has to happen for Nebraska to get ten wins next season.

Beat Oregon

A ten-win season almost certainly would require knocking off Oregon in Lincoln on September 16. Given where the two programs have been over the last few years, that sounds like a tall order for Nebraska.

But Oregon isn’t quite what it has been in years past. Quarterback is a huge question mark for the Ducks, hoping FCS transfer Dakota Prukop will be the heir to Heisman trophy winner Marcus Mariota.  Former Michigan head coach Brady Hoke will be taking over Oregon’s defense, bringing his skill set to Eugene but asking the Ducks to learn a new scheme next season.

Nebraska will likely come into this game as an underdog. But with the game in Lincoln, and Nebraska being Oregon’s first big test of 2016 (with no disrespect to UC Davis or Virginia), a win over the Ducks could help put NU on the map. And if the over ticket for Nebraska is to be cashed, NU will almost certainly have to pull the upset.

Avoid the Toe-Stubber

Yeah, a 5-7 regular season was pretty dreadful for Nebraska last season. But that record includes two head-scratching losses to Illinois and Purdue, both on the road.

The two upsets were very different. Nebraska’s loss to Illinois involved asking Tommy Armstrong to make 31 passes in high winds, while the loss to Purdue had much to do with tossing backup quarterback Ryker Fyfe into the fire due to Armstrong’s injury.

Either way, though, those two games were inexplicable losses when comparing the relative talent levels of the two teams. If Nebraska wins those games, even with everything else that went wrong in 2015, the season would have ended at 8-4. The distance between 8-4 and 10-2 seems far more manageable than the actual records earned last year.

Win on the Road

If Nebraska is going to win ten games, it’s going to have to get work done on the road in conference. Trips to Northwestern, Wisconsin, and Iowa will likely determine Nebraska’s fate in the B1G West. Last year, Nebraska had its contests against those divisional rivals in Lincoln, and lost all three in excruciating fashion.

In 2016, the schedule flips and Nebraska will have to face those teams on the road. And if Nebraska is to reach the ten-win plateau, it will have to do better on the road in 2016 than it did at home in 2015.

Get the Bounces

Nebraska’s struggles in close games could not have been more well documented. And it would be falling prey to the Gambler’s Fallacy to think that Nebraska was due a run of good luck to make up for all the bad bounces it got in 2015.

Instead, perhaps it’s more reasonable to think that Nebraska’s secondary won’t be quite as vulnerable to the deep ball as it was throughout much of 2015 – a weakness that clearly cost it games against BYU, Miami, Illinois, Wisconsin, and (exhausted deep breath) Northwestern. Add to that a second year in an offense to help Armstrong avoid at least some of the turnovers that doomed Nebraska (such as against Iowa), and you have a recipe to turn those close losses into wins.

If Nebraska is to win ten games in 2016, it will have to find ways to convert those close losses into victories.

Nebraska Football: Takeaways from the Spring

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Now that spring practice is (yeah, I know, quite a distance) behind us, let’s take a step back and take stock of where Nebraska is heading into the 2016 season. Coming off of a 6-7 campaign, Nebraska fans will be wanting reasons for optimism heading into a new season, so the storylines coming out of this spring will have to tide things over until the autumn.

Armstrong is the man

The arrival of heralded phenom quarterback Patrick O’Brien led some Nebraska fans to wonder if senior-to-be quarterback Tommy Armstrong would have legitimate competition in 2016. While Armstrong’s ability to make a big play has won games for Nebraska during his career, his consistent struggles with accuracy and turnovers lend some (like this smart and particularly handsome analyst) to question whether NU can win trophies with Armstrong at the helm.

But at the Spring Game, we didn’t see O’Brien on the field until the second half. And his performance (6-10 for 59 yards and a game-sealing interception) didn’t exactly light the world on fire.

Sure, it’s the Spring Game, also known as the last in a series of practices. Very little weight should be given to just about anything seen therein.

Still, it’s hard not to get past the fact that Ryker Fyfe and A.J. Bush saw the field before O’Brien did. That suggests O’Brien has a ways to go to see the field in 2016, and could be in line for a redshirt season.

That can change, of course. With another phenom quarterback in Tristan Gebbia committing to Nebraska for 2017 and the signing of Tulane transfer Tanner Lee, Nebraska head coach Mike Riley might well think it worth the risk to give O’Brien playing time next season if he can earn his way up the depth chart.

But if O’Brien wasn’t playing with the first team at the Spring Game, it’s hard to think that he will make enough of a move in the fall to unseat a three-year starter like Armstrong. So it looks a near lock that Armstrong will be leading Nebraska’s offense in 2016.

Questions on the lines and at I-back

Both of Nebraska’s lines will look very different in 2016 than the previous season. The early departures of Maliek Collins and Vincent Valentine left a gaping hole in the middle of Nebraska’s defensive line that needs filling. Nebraska’s offensive line will likely not have a single starter in the same position from 2015.

That has the potential to be a good thing, particularly on the offensive line where players like David Knevel, Tanner Farmer, and DJ Foster are likely to get a chance to shine. But it’s a frightening scenario to have no returning experience up front on offense.

At I-back, there looks to be an impressive array of talent, but little clarity in terms of how it will be used. Senior back Terrell Newby may have missed his chance to seize the reins of a starting job last year, and now looks to be fending off challenges from sophomore Devine Ozigbo and junior Adam Taylor.

How those backs will be used — and whether Nebraska will truly take a committee approach at I-back in 2016 — is an open question after this spring.

Strength on the edges

If the interior of Nebraska’s offense and defense is a question, the exterior of the offense is not. Nebraska’s wide receiver corps looks to be the strongest unit on the team — and maybe the strongest set of receivers in school history.

Jordan Westerkamp should lead the unit with his remarkable hands and his chemistry with Armstrong. Brandon Reilly is a dangerous deep threat, as is the oft-injured Alonzo Moore. Stanley Morgan was a revelation in his freshman season last year, and should force his way on to the field. Tight end Cethan Carter began coming on at the end of 2015 as a matchup nightmare. And with a year to recover and other weapons around him, De’Mornay Pierson-El may be Nebraska’s secret weapon.

Of course, that presents a challenge for offensive coordinator Danny Langsdorf, as (see above) the almost-certain starting quarterback for Nebraska in 2016 has a career completion percentage of 54 percent.

Waiting for 2017

In many ways, Nebraska’s 2016 campaign may be another season of transition. With Armstrong as the starting quarterback, Langsdorf will almost certainly tailor his offensive philosophy to suit Armstrong’s strengths as a runner and minimize his weaknesses regarding his accuracy as a passer. Some form of spread-option attack will be grafted in to the offensive scheme Riley and Langsdorf prefer.

Starting in 2017, though, the offense should look far more like what we have seen from Riley at Oregon State. If you look at the quarterbacks Nebraska has lined up for 2017 and beyond (like O’Brien, Lee, and Gebbia) you can see into the future for what NU’s offense will look like — short, accurate passing from the pocket as a key element of the attack.

In addition, Nebraska’s overall talent level in 2017 may start to look more like a team ready to contend for conference honors. Currently — with only eight commits — Nebraska sits at no. 21 nationally for its 2017 class, according to 247Sports. If Nebraska is able to use its success with players like Keyshawn Johnson Jr. and Gebbia to lure other talented players (like five-star cornerback Darnay Holmes, from the same Calabasas High School as Johnson and Gebbia), then NU’s 2017 could end up in the top-15 or even top-10.

And that’s critical for Nebraska to return to national prominence. As observed by many, including Dave Bartoo’s CFBMatrix, success in recruiting has a direct correlation to success on the field. Of course, signing class after class of top-10 talent is no guarantee of on-field victories (see, e.g., Texas).

But it’s a heck of a lot more likely to win on the field if you have the athletes to at least compete with top-tier teams in your conference. Since the Callahan era, Nebraska’s recruiting has lagged in the twenties to thirties nationally — and Nebraska has struggled in that time to compete against top-tier competition.

If things continue as they have this off-season, 2017 may be the year Nebraska turns the corner in recruiting and puts talent on the field that gives NU a legitimate shot to compete for conference and national titles in the coming years.

 

The Double Extra Point 2015 in review

The WordPress.com stats helper monkeys prepared a 2015 annual report for this blog.

Here’s an excerpt:

The concert hall at the Sydney Opera House holds 2,700 people. This blog was viewed about 13,000 times in 2015. If it were a concert at Sydney Opera House, it would take about 5 sold-out performances for that many people to see it.

Click here to see the complete report.

Nebraska Football: ReView of the Cornhuskers’ 23-21 Loss to Wisconsin

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It’s not the despair, Laura. I can take the despair. It’s the hope I can’t stand.

– John Cleese as Brian Stimpson, Clockwise

Once again, Nebraska loses a heartbreaker, beaten by Wisconsin 23-21 on a 45-yard field goal by Rafael Gaglione with 0:04 seconds remaining in the game. To its credit, Nebraska fought hard, answering the bell time and time again. But as NFL great Bill Parcells said, you are what your record says you are, and right now that’s 2-4 overall and 0-2 in B1G play. So for Nebraska against Wisconsin …

The Good

Retro Nebraska. With 6:17 left in the game, Nebraska faced a third-and-one at its own 45, down 20-14. The crown in Memorial Stadium was flat, feeling like they had seen this movie before.

(Spoiler alert: They had, in fact, seen the movie before, and knew how it ended)

Nebraska then motioned into an I formation, and quarterback Tommy Armstrong gave the ball to fullback Andy Janovich. He broke tackles and steamed his way to the end zone, breathing life and hope into the Sea of Red.

And as we’ve learned this season, it’s the hope that gets you.

Receiver’s Grabs. Two catches for Nebraska were worth noting. At the end of the first half, Armstrong took a shot deep for Alonzo Moore. Moore was one-on-one with the Wisconsin cornerback, and had to make the touchdown grab around the defender. He made the play, even with an interference call, and put Nebraska in front as the half expired.

But to set up that touchdown, Nebraska needed to convert a third-and-four from the Nebraska 44. Armstrong floated a pass to Stanley Morgan, who made a one-handed grab to convert the first down and put Nebraska in position to score before the end of the half.

Defensive Standouts. Yes, there were Blackshirts that played well against Wisconsin. Chris Weber, a walk-on linebacker pressed into service due to injury, had seven tackles and a quarterback hurry. More importantly, though, Weber’s presence helped stifle Wisconsin’s rushing attack.

Cornerback Joshua Kalu had nine tackles and four pass breakups, and spent most of the game in single coverage against Wisconsin’s Alex Erickson. And linebacker Marcus Newby had four tackles, one tackle for loss, and four pass breakups playing a role somewhere between a linebacker and a free safety.

Dodging a Bullet. Yeah, I know it’s a fourth good. But Nebraska and Wisconsin play for the ridiculous, anodyne and focus-group-created Freedom Trophy. So by winning the game, that means Bucky has to take this monstrosity home with him.

The Bad

Getting Beat Twice. Against Illinois last week, Nebraska had a chance to salt the game away, but Armstrong threw an incomplete pass, stopping the clock and giving the Illini an opportunity for a game-winning drive. Head coach Mike Riley took tremendous heat for that play call in the week to follow.

Fast forward one week, when Nebraska had a 21-20 lead with 1:24 remaining. Wisconsin had three time outs, and Nebraska ran three straight plays with Imani Cross into the teeth of, basically, the entire Wisconsin defense. The Badgers ended up getting the ball back at their own 30 with 1:03 left needing only a field goal to win.

So, here’s the thing. One of those three plays – probably second down – was crying out for a play-action pass to draw in the Wisconsin defenders bunched in the middle, letting Armstrong booting out with a run-pass option, likely either open or with single coverage.

One first down for Nebraska wins the game. There was almost no chance to get that first down running straight into the teeth of Wisconsin’s defense with a bruiser like Cross. And given Nebraska’s history this season (and how long the defense had been on the field), it was both unfair and unreasonable to ask the defense to make a stop.

But given what happened on third-and-seven against Illinois, it’s hard not to think Riley didn’t play it safe wanting to avoid a repeat of what happened in Champaign. Unfortunately for Nebraska, playing it safe was exactly the wrong decision in this scenario.

Yellow Rain. A smart and particularly handsome analyst pointed out this would be a regular feature of this column, and it was a huge issue against Wisconsin. Nebraska had nine penalties for 89 yards, right on track with its performance this season. Yes some of the penalties were … soft, and 15 of those yards were on an unsportsmanlike conduct call against Mike Riley.

But, still, penalty yardage makes a difference. And when you consider the razor-thin margin between 6-0 and 2-4 for Nebraska this year, those penalty yards could be the difference.

Lack of Pass Rush. Yeah, Joel Stave had 322 yards of passing against Nebraska, and there’s plenty of questions to ask about the secondary. But part of the reason for Stave’s success was an almost total absence of a pass rush. The absence of defensive end Freedom Akinmoladun was keenly felt, as Ross Dzuris and Jack Gangwish simply lack the ability to apply pressure from the edge.

And the Tragic Inevitability

In calling a game for Monday Night Football, Tony Kornheiser referred to a comeback by the New England Patriots as “tragic inevitability” as the Ravens surrendered a lead to Tom Brady.

At this point, that’s what it feels like for Nebraska. Be honest, Husker Fan, once Wisconsin took the ball with a minute left, you thought something like this:

There’s plenty to like about how Nebraska kept playing hard and fighting back. But these are college kids who have put their blood, sweat, and tears for months into this team … and have gotten a 2-4 start out of it. At some point, there very well could be an F-it moment for players on this team. Unless something good happens soon – and a trip to Minneapolis to face a feisty Gophers squad is not ideal to find that – that F-it moment could be on the horizon.

Wisconsin @ Nebraska photo gallery

Nebraska Football: Riley’s Cornhuskers Face Moment of Truth After Illinois Loss

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THESE are the times that try men’s souls. The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of their country; but he that stands by it now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman

– Thomas Paine, The Crisis

Stop me if you’ve heard this one. On Saturday, Nebraska gave up a lead on a final drive and lost to Illinois, 14-13. The loss drops Nebraska to 2-3 on the season, and 0-1 in conference play. There’s plenty to break down, especially that third down play. But at this point, there’s a bigger issue to address.

Nebraska is now 2-3, and here’s what the schedule looks like for the next three games:

Wisconsin

At Minnesota

Northwestern

A 2-3 record is bad, no doubt. But if Nebraska can’t right the ship next week against Wisconsin, its staring at 2-4. And it’s not like Nebraska’s last couple of games against Wisconsin went well.

Then Nebraska has to travel to Minneapolis to face the Gophers. Dropping that game could put Nebraska at 2-5. And Minnesota has a two-game winning streak over Nebraska.

So if Nebraska’s going to stop the rot, it has to happen this week. We can talk all we want about schemes or personnel issues, But ultimately, that’s not the biggest issue for Nebraska.

At this point, it’s mentality. Nebraska has lost three heartbreakers, games it has played well enough to win. Nebraska is just a few plays away from being 5-0.

But it isn’t. And it’s also a Freedom Akinmoladun sack against Southern Mississippi from a Hail Mary that could have dropped Nebraska to 1-4, too.

Tommy Armstrong has been an offensive juggernaut, Coming into the Illinois game, he was no 10 nationally in total offense after the first four games (according to cfbstats.com). But he’s also the guy who made the critical error to cost Nebraska games against Miami and Illinois.

(And yes, there’s no doubt that the third-down throw was an Armstrong improv. Nebraska head coach Mike Riley said as much in the post-game press conference. And Armstrong wears Brett Favre’s no. 4 for a reason).

So what happens now? How much more heartbreak can a group of college kids endure? At what point does the team lose faith in the new guy and go into the tank?

That’s what we’re going to find out next week when the Badgers arrive in Lincoln. And Memorial Stadium might well be the worst place in the world for Nebraska. Already reeling from heartbreak after heartbreak (after heartbreak) – and, more importantly, not getting the rewards for the hard work they’ve been putting in all off-season – it’s not at all hard to imagine the Nebraska crowd venting its frustration and anger if NU struggles against the Badgers.

So now the Wisconsin game takes on an air of desperation for Nebraska’s season – and perhaps for Riley’s career in Lincoln.

A Mini-ReView

The Good – Front Four Pressure: For most of the game, Nebraska was able to get pressure on Illinois quarterback Wes Lunt with its front four. Moving defensive end Maliek Collins outside at times to help the pass rush was encouraging.

The Bad – The Last Drive: OK, I know, duh. But we learned that Nebraska’s secondary struggles weren’t about scheme nearly as much as personnel. Lunt hit Malik Turner for a 50-yard pass to advance the ball to Nebraska’s seven. That play was against a cover two, meaning that Nebraska’s defensive coordinator Mark Banker left two safeties back to defend against the pass. And it was against Nate Gerry, Nebraska’s most experienced defender.

And The Cock-Eyed Optimist: Yeah, it looks bad. But Nebraska’s next three opponents look to set up very well for NU. Wisconsin just lost at home to Nebraska, 10-6, and has struggled to move the ball. Minnesota has been taking on water all season after giving TCU a game in week one. And Northwestern, while impressive this far, still struggles to move the ball consistently.

A smart and particularly handsome analyst said that Nebraska’s defense is particularly well suited to face off against teams like these. If Riley can keep the team believing it can win – and keep the fans from storming the field with torches and pitchforks – then the next three games are poised for a Nebraska recovery.

Nebraska Football: Fullback Attack Fits In With Riley’s Offensive Philosophy

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Nebraska football fans had an uncomfortable afternoon watching NU nearly blow a 29-7 lead in the fourth quarter, needing a Freedom Akinmoladun sack of Golden Eagles’ quarterback Nick Mullens to avoid a distressing BYU flashback.

But the brightest spot in the game for many Nebraska faithful was the emergence of fullback Andy Janovich, who carried the ball five times for 68 yards (with another nine-yarder called back on a penalty) and had one reception for 53 yards. A fair summary of social media’s response to a resurgent Nebraska fullback was as follows:

OMG OMG FULLBACK RUN OMG NEBRASKA OSBORNE GAAAAAHHHHH!!!!!!11!!!

Mitch Sherman of ESPN provided a nice reflection of why the fullback holds such a dear place in the hearts of Nebraska fans. Or you could just as Husker fan about Cory Schlesinger romping through the Hurricanes’ secondary in January of 1995.

But Janovich’s performance against Southern Mississippi was more than just a nice feel-good nostalgia piece. How he was used, particularly on the ground, fits in perfectly with head coach Mike Riley’s offensive concepts. Take a look at this highlight mashup of Janovich’s day against the Golden Eagles.

OMG OMG FULLBACK RUN OMG …

Sorry, got a little carried away there. But watch what happens in the backfield when Janovich gets the ball. Armstrong and the tailback are both going in one direction to the outside, and then Janovich gets the ball and slams inside. The offensive line either clears out the middle, or a lineman on the side where the tailback is running pulls away from where the tailback is (on this play) decoying the defense.

This type of play illustrates a stable concept in Riley’s offense, that of putting lateral stress on a defense. Basically, what a play like this does is give the defense a choice – defend the attack coming laterally, or defend the attack up the middle. The purpose is twofold.

First, the hope is that the defense will be caught chasing after the decoy tailback, getting them out of position for the run up the middle. You can see that on the last play in the video (starting at 0:47) where the linebacker on the top of the screen takes a step towards where the tailback is running, then has to correct himself in trying to tackle Janovich coming to the left. Without that mis-step, that linebacker is in better position to square up against Janovich and make a tackle.

Second, the hope with concepts like this is to create uncertainty in a defense, allowing the offense to get a step and create lanes to run. In that way, the fullback running plays we saw were conceptually identical to the jet sweeps that Riley loves to run.

Take a look at this example from Wisconsin’s game against Northwestern in 2013. (Hey, Husker fan, at least I didn’t pick one from the B1G Championship game …)

Watch the defensive end at the top of the screen. His first step is inside, towards the running back. He then has to correct himself once he realizes that it’s Melvin Gordon with the ball on the jet sweep. Of course, by the time he’s done that, Gordon is already turning the corner and the defensive end has lost the edge, asking the linebackers to catch Gordon with a full head of steam.

Good luck with that.

Alonzo Moore and Brandon Reilly have already shown flashes running the jet sweep, and with news (according to KETV Omaha) that De’Mornay Pierson-El might return next week, Nebraska has some exciting weapons to deploy. Nebraska’s coaching staff have also said that Janovich is likely to see the ball more given his performance, according to Sam McKewon of the Omaha World-Herald.

So sure, Husker fan, enjoy that trip down nostalgia lane in seeing a fullback rumbling through the middle of an opposing defense. But maybe enjoy it a little bit more knowing (as Hannibal Smith might say) that it’s all part of the plan coming together for Nebraska’s offense.

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

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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 BYU

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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