Nebraska survived what might have been the trickiest game on its schedule to date, traveling to Bloomington and beating Indiana 27-22. After roaring out to a 17-0 lead, Nebraska held on for dear life, getting a long fourth-quarter drive to finally put the game out of reach. So for Nebraska fans watching the Indiana game …
Fast Start. Indiana became a trendy pick to upset Nebraska. Even this dope thought Nebraska would get stung in Bloomington at the start of the season. So if Nebraska was going to avoid an upset on the road, it needed to get out of the gates quickly—something it has not excelled at this season.
Well, Judas Priest, Nebraska delivered on that score. Nebraska scored ten points on its first two offensive possessions, then cornerback Chris Jones intercepted a Richard Lagow pass and took it back for a touchdown to give NU a 17-0 lead with 4:33 left in the first quarter.
That’s how you start a game to avoid an upset. Of course, things didn’t continue to go as well game wore on (more on that later), but Nebraska at the very least now has a blueprint for how to start well on the road.
Defensive Masterclass. Nebraska’s offense was … well, it wasn’t the best we’ve seen. But the Blackshirts more than made up for NU’s offensive woes with a dominant performance. The Hoosiers were held to 4.8 yards per play, far fewer than the 5.98 Indiana has averaged this season. Indiana was held to 5-for-15 on third down, and 0-2 on fourth down, meaning that the Blackshirts were able to get stops at critical times.
Last season, it was fair to wonder if Nebraska’s defense would ever be a strength for the squad. On Saturday, the defense was able to help Nebraska survive and advance in the B1G this season.
Gritty Ending. We had all heard the stories about how dominant Nebraska had been in the fourth quarter this season. You know, 78-6 and all. But this game wasn’t about fourth quarter dominance so much as having the mental strength to make the final plays when needed at the end of the game.
After Tommy Armstrong hit Stanley Morgan for a 72-yard touchdown, Nebraska looked ready to pull away and finish off the Hoosiers. But Indiana responded with a five-play, 85-yard drive in just 1:13 to bring the score back to 24-22. Rather than a fourth quarter domination, Nebraska was faced with a challenge late in the contest and on the road.
And Nebraska responded. Perhaps most importantly, with 8:26 left in the game, NU ripped off a 15-play, 60-yard drive that took 7:41 off the clock. While the drive only resulted in a field goal, it left Indiana with only 45 seconds to respond, and needing a touchdown. That pressure undoubtedly contributed to the game-sealing interception by Aaron Williams.
So not only has Nebraska demonstrated an ability to dominate lesser opponents late in games, it has also shown that it has the ability to grit out a win on the road against a salty conference foe.
The Stuff In The Middle. Nebraska’s first quarter against Indiana was awesome. Nebraska’s last drive to salt the game away, combined with the game-sealing interception, was tremendous.
Everything between those two events? Eh ….
Nebraska was 5-of-15 on third down against Indiana. Tommy Armstrong was 10-for-26 passing, with two interceptions to go with his two touchdowns. On the ground, Nebraska was held to 3.4 yards per attempted rush, down from a season average of 4.69 (according to cfbstats.com). And those numbers are for the entire game, not just the lull between the good parts.
Nebraska went nine – nine – possessions without a point against Indiana. It’s tough to weather a dry spell like that – and Nebraska very nearly did not.
Depth Charges. Yeah, yeah, football is a tough game, and injuries aren’t an excuse for anything. That’s true, if somewhat simplistic. But, good heavens, does Nebraska have some depth problems.
With injuries to Nick Gates and David Knevel, Nebraska will be down to two healthy offensive linemen that started the season. Top wide receiver Jordan Westerkamp was out against Indiana, as was top tight end Cethan Carter. Alonzo Moore was hampered with injury, as was Devine Ozigbo.
And that was coming off a bye week.
Nebraska will face Purdue on Saturday, which just fired its head coach. Assuming the MASH unit that is Nebraska’s offense can get by the Boilermakers, it still makes for heavy weather when Nebraska looks at trips in consecutive weeks to Wisconsin and Ohio State.
Dropped Kicks. It’s hard to complain about Nebraska’s special teams when placekicker Drew Brown is 5-6 in field goals and 26-26 in extra points. But Nebraska’s punting game has left something to be desired. It’s not fair, of course, to be overly-critical of true freshman Caleb Lightbourn, who was thrust into the position of starting punter after the death of Sam Foltz.
But it is inarguable that Nebraska’s punting game has been a liability. With two blocks on the season, Nebraska has now had a punt blocked once every three games. Against Indiana, the blocked punt notched two points for the Hoosiers on a safety as the ball squirted through the end zone – and could easily have been six.
More importantly, though, the blocked punt provided a spark for Indiana and seemed to rattle Nebraska more than a little bit. While neither blocked punt has cost Nebraska a game, clearly against the more difficult opposition NU is about to face, it cannot afford to be surrendering that yardage and momentum in the future.
And BOWL ELIGIBLE!!!!!11!!!1!!
Sherman, set the WayBack Machine for October 31, 2015. It’s not quite a year ago, but given what’s happened in between it can feel like an eternity. So let’s look back at where Nebraska was on Hallowe’en one year ago. After a glimmer of hope with a 48-25 defeat of Minnesota in Minneapolis, Nebraska lost to Northwestern in Lincoln. And then came the trip to Purdue, with an injured Armstrong giving way to Ryker Fyfe and Nebraska losing 55-45 to arguably the worst team to beat NU in the last decade.
At that point, Nebraska was 3-6 under new head coach Mike Riley. The fanbase was in a mixture of rage, shock, and horror.
Fast forward to the present, and Nebraska fans are reading about NU’s chance to make the College Football Playoff. They are engaging in their favorite pastime, loathing ESPN’s Kirk Herbstriet for mocking Nebraska being a top-10 team.
Say what you will about ESPN’s sarcastic chuckling, but remember this. Nebraska is ranked in the top ten! Less than a year after being 3-6 and losing to freaking Purdue!
Nebraska has quite a gauntlet to run in the next few weeks (after Saturday’s contest against Purdue), with three of the five games being road contests at Wisconsin, Ohio State, and Iowa. The glittering undefeated season may look as bruised as Armstrong’s ankle in a few weeks.
So if and when that happens, Husker Fan, please don’t forget where we’ve been in the last year. Yes, it would be great to see Nebraska go 12-0 and reprise Iowa’s 2015 season (although hopefully with a better bowl outcome).
But don’t get too greedy. 2016 has been far kinder to Nebraska than anyone had a right to hope for. A bit of a regression to the mean by the end of this season won’t signify failure.