Nebraska Football: NU ReView, Nebraska 28, Illinois 6

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On what is hopefully not the last Friday game Nebraska plays for a while, NU rolled into Champaign and won a comfortable 28-6 win over Illinois. Even though the Illini held the ball for almost the entire first quarter, Nebraska was efficient on offense and built a comfortable lead that it never relinquished.

The Good

O-Line Optimism. Yes, quarterback Tanner Lee deserves significant praise for an efficient and turnover-free performance. But a significant portion of Lee’s success against Illinois came because the offensive line really performed well (particularly in the first half) protecting their signal-caller and giving him the time to go through his progressions.

Sure, Illinois isn’t very good, and Nebraska’s performance has to be taken in context. But Northern Illinois isn’t very good either, and – well, we all remember what happened there. So getting that good performance has to be nothing but encouraging.

Stanley Morgan. Welcome back, Stan. Wide receiver Stanley Morgan was a game-time decision with a neck injury, but dressed and played. He led Nebraska in receptions (8) and yards (96), including a stiff-arm touchdown and a remarkably physical first down catch to help keep a drive alive and help put the game out of reach early.

The Blackshirts are Back? Yes, this is the soft part of the schedule. But if you take the second half of the Oregon game and extrapolate it to a full game, Nebraska is now averaging allowing 190.8 yards and 5.7 points per game.

I know, I know, Husker Fan, you can’t get visions of Arkansas State bubble screens or Oregon’s 42-point first half out of your mind. I get it. And with Wisconsin and Ohio State coming to town, those averages are sure to go up pretty soon.

But defensive coordinator Bob Diaco’s Blackshirts have put enough good performances down to have some degree of confidence in the defense as the meat of the schedule arrives in Lincoln.

The Bad

Corner Questions. If there was one glaring weakness of Nebraska’s performance against Illinois, it was at cornerback. Eric Lee drew pass interference calls on the first two deep balls he was asked to defend. Lamar Jackson struggled both in coverage and in tackling throughout the night. Against a poor and young offense like Illinois, Nebraska was able to overcome the poor play from the cornerback position.

That won’t be the case as the sharp end of the schedule, namely Wisconsin and Ohio State, comes up.

Stanley Morgan. Yes, Morgan was great against Illinois. But when he wasn’t great, he was kinda terrible. He had at least four drops and a fumble to compliment his offensive production – meaning his game could have been significantly better than it was. Almost assuredly, Morgan wasn’t fully healthy and played hurt. The extra day to prepare for Wisconsin next week might end up being very important for Nebraska.

Not All Sunshine and Roses. Lee’s performance against Illinois looked a lot like the guy Nebraska fans thought they were getting at the start of the 2017 campaign. But when your name starts trending on Twitter after you’ve thrown your third pick-six interception in two games, you know things aren’t going the way you want.

And while Lee’s game against the Illini was cause for hope, there was at least one throw that had to give Nebraska fans flashbacks. In the third quarter, Lee was rolling to his left and pressured. Off his back foot, he put up a wounded duck in the vicinity of tight end Tyler Hoppes, which looked to be an easy interception. Hoppes made a brilliant defensive play to keep the ball in Nebraska’s hands and Lee from going double digits in interceptions.

And The Resumption of Normal Service

Wrap your head around this. Nebraska’s game against Illinois – the fifth of the campaign – was the first game this year where Nebraska didn’t trail at some point in the first quarter. Before this game, Nebraska’s biggest lead at any point in a game this year had been a 10-point advantage in the first half against Arkansas State.

So it was more than a little comforting to see Nebraska up 21-3 over Illinois as the first half expired. Moreover, given how well Nebraska’s defense was playing, at no point was there ever a real concern that Illinois was going to mount a serious comeback. At the start of the season, this dope thought that the combination of a Friday game and Illinois having an extra week to prepare made this game a recipe for a shocker.

Instead, Nebraska flashed back to a more pleasant time for its fans, dominating a less talented team and never really being in danger of losing. Given how the schedule tightens up, this will likely be the last opportunity for Nebraska fans to see such a comfortable win. But it’s certainly good to see Nebraska still remembers how to cruise to a win.

GBR, baby.

Image courtesy of wellbelove.files.wordpress.com.

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Nebraska Football: NU ReView, Nebraska 27, Rutgers 17

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Well, it’s been an eventful week, hasn’t it Husker Fan? A week ago Saturday morning, the fan base was reveling in optimism from a furious comeback against Oregon and wondering if we were seeing the green shoots of optimism.

A week later, Nebraska has lost to Northern Illinois, the program’s worst loss since at least 2004. It’s seen athletic director Shawn Eichorst fired, and the status of head coach Mike Riley – and the 2018 recruiting class he’s been assembling – thrown up in the air.

Oh yeah, and Nebraska had to start conference play against Rutgers. But even with challenges on and off the field, Nebraska ground out a functional 27-17 victory over the visitors from Piscataway, moving to 2-2 overall and 1-0 in conference play.

And, yes, that means Nebraska is in first place in the B1G West. Take a picture, Husker Fan, Lee Corso style.

The Good

Playing the Hand You’re Dealt. In the first two years, Riley had to modify his offense to fit the strengths and weaknesses of his quarterback. Well, with 14:07 left in the third quarter, after current Nebraska quarterback Tanner Lee threw another pick-six interception, Rutgers held a 17-14 lead in Lincoln.

Never mind surviving the season, it wasn’t clear Riley’s job would be safe through the weekend if Nebraska lost to Rutgers. So Riley and offensive coordinator Danny Langsdorf leaned on the run instead, and Nebraska was able to use its depth at I-back to wear out Rutgers and escape with a win.

This Diaco Guy. After the first six quarters, new defensive coordinator Bob Diaco’s handiwork was – well let’s just say called into question. But since then, the Blackshirts have answered the bell. If you extrapolate Oregon’s second-half performance to four quarters, Diaco’s defense has average allowing 188 total yards and 5.6 points per game.

(Of course, that’s not charging Lee’s three pick-six interceptions against Diaco. Elephant, meet living room.)

That’s … pretty good. And with injuries to its two best defensive backs in Chris Jones and Josh Kalu, and losing Aaron Williams to a targeting penalty in the first series of the game against Rutgers. There’s a lot to worry about for Nebraska going forward, but that also might make it easy to miss the leaps and bounds the Blackshirts have made.

A Steady Hand. It’s a bit of an understatement to say that Riley had a bad week. And losing in the third quarter meant that Nebraska was truly staring into the football abyss.

Nevertheless, Nebraska persisted. And that has a lot to do with Riley’s calm, relentlessly positive attitude. If you want to bury Riley for his flaws and limitations, that’s fair. But here’s what Lee had to say about Riley’s coaching of him (according to huskers.com).

Coach Riley has been great with all this, especially this week getting ready to play. After that play he just told me to stay with it and stay settled in and play the game and do what those guys are teaching me. So that was good to hear.

Look, Riley’s dug himself this hole. But at least for one week, Riley has also been able to keep the ship afloat.

The Bad

Hiding Tanner. After Lee’s pick-six, the Red Beast in the Memorial Stadium stands felt like it might be turning on the team. A smattering of boos, greeted Lee as he trotted back onto the field from the home crowd.

After the interception, Nebraska ran the ball 31 times and threw it only 12. To his credit, Lee was 8-for-12 on those throws with a pretty touchdown to De’Mornay Pierson-El. And many of those runs were after Nebraska took a two-score lead, showing Langsdorf has learned his lessons from 2015 Illinois.

But it’s also telling that Nebraska didn’t ask Lee to win a desperately-needed game. Lee was a complimentary piece of Nebraska’s second-half performance to win the game.

That’s exactly what Nebraska should have done against an outmanned Rutgers squad. It almost certainly won’t be good enough as Nebraska gets into the meat of its B1G schedule.

Running Before you can Walk. If you’re a Nebraska fan, it had to be a bit bittersweet to watch the Penn State-Iowa game Saturday evening. After ABC reminded you over and over about Iowa’s success against top-ranked teams in Kinnick, the Hawkeyes put up one of the most Hawkeye performance in history. The Nittany Lions dominated Iowa on the stat sheet throughout the game, but an Akrum Wadley touchdown with one minute left in the game have Iowa the chance for a massive upset. It was only through a wizard-like touchdown throw from Trace McSorley to Juwan Johnson as time expired (coupled with a simply superhuman performance from running back Saquon Barkley) that let Penn State escape Iowa City with playoff dreams intact.

I know, Husker Fan, that’s what you want to see the scarlet and cream doing on national television. That’s what you expect. That’s the target.

But that’s not Nebraska right now. Nebraska right now is a gritty come-from-behind win over Rutgers at home. It’s progress from the week before, to be sure. It’s at least a little water on that seed of hope planted in your Big Red heart.

But just keep the words of Robert Frost in mind as you reflect on Nebraska’s place in the college football world.

The woods are lovely, dark and deep. But I have promises to keep. And miles to go before I sleep. And miles to go before I sleep.

And the Al Davis Rule

Just win, baby.

Yeah, it wasn’t pretty. But this game was an existential threat to Riley’s time in Lincoln. Lose this game, and there’s no coming back. Riley is a dead coach walking, as remainder of the 2017 becomes a dead rubber. At that point, it’s hard to see how Nebraska maintains any of its top-flight recruits currently committed for 2018 and 2019.

So an ugly win is a win. It keeps the patient alive for another week. It’ll be the same on a weirdo Friday night contest in Champaign against a reeling and similarly-outmanned Illinois squad.

You’re not going to see beautiful football from the scarlet and cream next week. There will be parts of the game you’ll be watching through your fingers as you try to hide your eyes.

It doesn’t matter. Survive and advance. Get the Badgers to Memorial Stadium and see what happens. It’s a funny game, with a funny shaped ball, and confidence is a mercurial thing with a group of college kids.

Just win. GBR, baby.

(image courtesy doin-work.com)

Nebraska Football: NU ReView, Oregon 42, Nebraska 35

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A tight, seven-point loss to Oregon on the road, that’s the type of game everyone expected, right?

Not so much. Nebraska was humiliated in the first half, falling behind 42-14 and looking to all the world like it was on its way to another nationally-televised embarrassment. But Nebraska found something in the locker room, shutting the Ducks out in the second half and nearly pulling off a miraculous comeback.

The Good

Halftime Adjustments. Let’s just take a look at Nebraska’s defensive performances, broken down by halves.

  First Half Second Half
Total Yards 698 365
Passing Yards Allowed 558 222
Yards/Play Allowed 7.51 5.00
Points Allowed 68 10

Those numbers kinda speak for themselves. Defensive coordinator Bob Diaco might very well be making the greatest halftime adjustments in the history of organized football. It’s a problem, though, that he has to be (more on that later).

ONIONS! On the first drive of the second half, Nebraska faced a fourth-and-ten at the Oregon 40. Head coach Mike Riley went for it and Nebraska converted, leading to a touchdown and breathing a little life into the scarlet and cream.

On Nebraska’s next possession, Nebraska faced a fourth-and-five at the Oregon 39. Once again, Riley went for it and Nebraska converted. While that drive didn’t lead to points, it set a tone that allowed Nebraska to stay in the game and almost complete a miracle comeback.

Fine Margins. This one’s in the Good section more for Husker Fan looking for reasons to feel better about Nebraska’s loss. Quarterback Tanner Lee’s first interception was a fortunate bounce off a defender’s hand. Oregon’s third touchdown only happened when the ball went off one receivers hand and fluttered into the hands of another. At the end of the first half, another fourth down conversion – which could have kept Nebraska’s drive alive and avoid some of the points Oregon put up at the end of the half – was thwarted thanks to a false start by De’Mornay Pierson-El.

Yes, Oregon badly outplayed Nebraska in the first half, and earned every bit of its 42-14 lead. But, as we saw with how close Nebraska came to a comeback, those fine margins can make the difference between winning and losing.

The Bad

Needing Halftime Adjustments. Judas Priest, Nebraska’s first two first halves of the 2017 campaign have been ugly to watch. They’ve resulted in a down-to-the-wire win over a Sun Belt team and digging a hole too deep to dig out of against Oregon.

I can’t pretend to explain this Jeckyll-and-Hyde performance from the Blackshirts – and I’m not entirely convinced Diaco can as well. I suppose the silver lining is that the second half performances show Nebraska’s defensive potential. But I’m not sure how many first-half embarrassments Husker Fan can tolerate.

The Kid from Tulane. Talk of Tanner Lee’s departure to the NFL after his junior campaign have, shall we say, cooled after the Oregon game. Lee was 19-for-41 through the air for 252 yards, three touchdowns, but four interceptions. Now, two of those interceptions weren’t Lee’s fault, one being a pinball deflection and one from a blind-side hit that resulted in the ball fluttering into a defender’s hand.

But even with that bad luck, Lee struggled against the Ducks. He missed a number of makeable throws, particularly in the first half when Nebraska really needed its offense to keep up. There’s plenty of things to learn for Lee going forward, but this game won’t be one that goes in his scrapbook.

Big Red Cross. What might be the biggest concern coming out of Eugene are injuries to I-back Tre Bryant and safety Joshua Kalu. Bryant has been a revelation in the first two games of the season. I could give you some stats, but this tweet says it all.

Bryant has been struggling with his knee throughout camp, and an injury to that knee causing him to miss the rest of the game is a huge worry for Nebraska. Although Mikale Wilbon got the touchdown that brought Nebraska to within seven, there’s little doubt that NU’s offense wasn’t the same without Bryant.

But what could be a more impactful injury might well be to Joshua Kalu. A hamstring injury in the second quarter took Kalu out for the rest of the game. With Nebraska’s secondary already thin after injuries to Chris Jones and JoJo Doman, the Blackshirts can ill afford to lose Kalu for any length of time.

And the Goals Still Intact

Admit it, Husker Fan. You feel fairly OK after that game. At halftime, you had visions of Texas Tech running through your mind and were worried that this season was about to slip away.

That’s fair. The fact that there’s relief about Nebraska being respectable on a national stage is a barometer of the state of Nebraska’s program. Whether that’s acceptable in the long run is a fair question.

But it’s where Nebraska is now. And (cue the cliché) it still leaves the primary goals for the season open.

Nebraska’s next three games are against Northern Illinois, Rutgers, and Illinois. Presuming Nebraska holds serve, NU will be 4-1 on October 07 to welcome Wisconsin.

And that’s where the rubber will really hit the road. Diaco’s defensive charges will have five games under their belt to (hopefully) learn how to play in the first half, and the opportunity will be there for Nebraska to get a win over Wisconsin and set itself up for conference play.

Yes, that loss was disappointing – and extraordinarily weird. But there were enough green shoots there to keep hope alive when the Badgers come calling.

GBR, baby.

(image courtesy of letterboxd.com)

Nebraska Football: NU ReView, Nebraska 43, Arkansas State 36

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“In fact, the very best advice it has to offer in these situation is to be found on the cover, where it says in those now notoriously large and famously friendly letters, ‘DON’T PANIC.’”

– Douglas Adams, The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy radio script (image from RogersMovieNation.com)

Nebraska survived its first game of the Mike Riley-Bob Diaco era with a 43-36 win over Arkansas State, salted away only when Red Wolves’ quarterback Justice Hansen’s pass was tipped away in the end zone as time expired. A win is a win, but the muted buzzing from the crowd exiting Memorial Stadium after the three hour and 52 minute (!) contest sounded much more like it would after a loss than a win. So in looking back at Nebraska’s 2017 lid-lifter …

The Good …

The kid delivered. Not that long ago, this dope was worried about Tanner Lee based on his statistics from Tulane and the fact that he hadn’t played college football in over a year. Well at least for one week, against Sun Belt opposition, Lee sure put those worries to rest. He was 19-for-32 for 238 yards, two touchdowns, and no interceptions.

The numbers are impressive enough, but the throws he made – and didn’t make, when appropriate – were what should get Nebraska fans excited. His first touchdown to Stanley Morgan should be framed and hung in a museum. And he showed enough mobility in the pocket to help out an offensive line that struggled in pass blocking at times.

Diaco’s adjustments. At halftime, Arkansas State had 245 yards of total offense and 26 points on the board. Outside of the last two drives (which were a combination of fatigue and shock after a successful onside kick), the Red Wolves had 74 yards and three points in the second half.

Yes, I know those last two drives count too, and that’s not to let the defense off the hook for a disturbing performance. But while there’s plenty to criticize and worry about, the Blackshirts are going to take an amazing amount of heat this week. Given the way the defense responded in the second half, though, there’s plenty of room for optimism as well.

Lightbourne’s bounceback. Keep in mind, this was supposed to be punter Caleb Lightbourne’s first game kicking a ball in anger. He was supposed to redshirt, watching and learning as senior Sam Foltz showed him how it was done.

We know how that story ended, and we know about Lightbourne’s struggles last year. But against Arkansas State, Lightbourne delivered with an average of 42.4 yards per kick and three placed inside the 20. Given the way Nebraska’s defense looked to be on skates for much of the first half, that kind of field position advantage was invaluable, and a not-insubstantial part in how the Blackshirts were able to find their feet later in the game.

The Bad …

The first half. Sure, it was great that Diaco was able to make those adjustments. But, Judas Priest, that first half wasn’t pretty. Arkansas State took a pretty basic concept – overload one side with more receivers than defenders, then throw to one of them on a screen – and just kept going and going as Nebraska demonstrated an inability to stop it.

The fact that Nebraska was able to successfully adjust to the Red Wolves’ attack is reassuring. The fact that it took an entire half to do so – against Sun Belt-level athletes – is less reassuring.

Clock malpractice. Sherman, set the WayBack Machine for October 05, 2015. Specifically, set it for 55 seconds left in the game between Nebraska and Illinois. Nebraska has a third down and seven on the Illinois 27, and a 13-7 lead over the Illini. A first down wins the game, to be sure. But anything that keeps the clock running will bleed so much time away to make a comeback almost impossible.

Of course, Tommy Armstrong throws an incomplete pass, Nebraska fails a fourth down conversion, and Illinois carves through NU’s secondary to score a game-winning touchdown with ten seconds left on the clock.

Now, let’s look at this year’s Arkansas State game. Nebraska starts a drive from its own 22 with 5:46 left in the contest. Two Tre Bryant runs get Nebraska to third and four. With a 43-29 lead, a first down likely puts the game out of reach for Arkansas State. But keeping the clock moving is just as important, particularly given how the Red Wolves had been able to march at will on the Blackshirts.

Instead, Lee throws an incomplete pass, giving Arkansas State enough time to score, get an onside kick, and bloody nearly score again to send the game into overtime – or allow the Red Wolves to win it with a two-point conversion.

Sure, it took a bunch of really unlikely things to happen for Arkansas State to be in a position to tie or win the game. But more adept clock management – an area Riley has consistently struggled with – would have never allowed the Red Wolves to be in that position in the first place.

My blood pressure. OK, guys, this is game one, and against a Sun Belt opponent. There’s Oregon, Wisconsin, Northwestern, Iowa, not to mention the big hitters like Ohio State and Penn State. I’m not a young man any more. Seriously, guys, I can’t do this for another eleven games. I’m not saying get beat, to be sure. But, seriously, just put those guys away when you get a chance, please?

And The Inevitable Overreaction.

Let me make myself clear, first of all. Things aren’t fine, as the dog sipping coffee in the burning café says. Getting taken to the wire by a Sun Belt team suggests there’s a problem. And given that the Red Wolves straight-up dropped a touchdown earlier in the game and had a deflected interception on the Nebraska 1 stop another drive, there’s a pretty good argument to be made that Arkansas State should have won the game – or, at the very least, that Nebraska was plenty lucky to have won.

But Nebraska did win. And after that fortunate win there’s going to be plenty of OMG NEBRASKA SUUUUUUUUUUUUCKZZZZ!!!!!11!!! hot-takery in response to the Arkansas State squeaker. Stories of an impending 4-8 implosion are being written on message boards as we speak, and much of the guarded optimism surrounding 2017 has likely dissipated.

And, sure, this game could end up being the canary in a coal mine if Nebraska collapses going forward. But there’s enough green shoots of hope from this game to make such a collapse unlikely. Lee looked straight-up amazing, making throws Nebraska fans haven’t seen in … well, a really long time. Bryant was given the entire game, and responded with 192 yards on 31 carries behind some solid run blocking. Until it tired – which, having to face 89 (!) plays, isn’t a shock – Nebraska’s second-half defensive performance bordered on impressive.

So, yeah, there’s plenty to worry about from Nebraska’s win over Arkansas State. But please, Husker Fan, hold off on mashing that panic button just yet.

Nebraska Football: What the Cornhuskers Must Do for a Successful Season

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Nebraska’s 2017 campaign is about to start in earnest, but we still have time to take a step back and consider what has to happen for the season to be a success. Obviously, wins and losses will define how Nebraska fans look back on the season. But it’s more helpful to think about specifically what needs to happen on the field for that success to arrive.

Head coach Mike Riley is entering year three of his tenure in Lincoln. After a disastrous – but unlucky – 6-7 season in 2015, he followed up with an improved – but lucky – 9-4 campaign last year.

Former head coach Bo Pelini was dismissed from his position after seven years, in part, for not being able to get over the four-loss hump. And while there’s little thought that Riley is on the hot seat now, it’s not at all inconceivable to think he is a year away from the hot seat if Riley’s Cornhuskers don’t show signs of progress in 2017.

So, what will those signs of progress be? Here’s three things to look for.

Tanner Lee lives up to his billing

I get it, there’s a lot about Nebraska we don’t know coming into this season. The entire defense is being revamped (more on that in a bit), and we haven’t even seen how it looks. The offensive line is entirely shuffled. Almost all of Nebraska’s offensive production from last year is gone. Chris Jones, Nebraska’s best defensive player (and arguably its best player overall) is lost to injury.

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.

Yes, it was with a Tulane team bereft of talent, and Lee played through an injury. Still, the only evidence we have of Lee taking snaps in anger shows him playing at a level nowhere near good enough for Nebraska to be successful on offense in 2017.

Hopefully for Nebraska fans, Lee is everything that he’s being billed as coming into this season. As a smart and particularly handsome analyst observed, an entire season can spiral downward if the quarterback play for a team isn’t good enough.

But to take Lee’s success as a given this year is crazy. The table is set for him, to be sure, but Nebraska fans should need to see him actually deliver before checking that particular box off.

The defensive transition is smooth

New defensive coordinator Bob Diaco is a fascinating character, full of high energy and sometimes-mystifying quotes. But he’s also bringing with him a 3-4 defensive structure he’s kept tightly under wraps, not even letting fans see a glimpse of it at this year’s Spring Game.

It was a gutsy call for Riley to fire former defensive coordinator Mark Banker after last season. But given Nebraska’s late-season collapse, particularly against Iowa, it was an understandable move made by a head coach who knows time is precious.

But that doesn’t make the task of transitioning from a 4-3 to a 3-4 (and from a one-gap to a two-gap system) any easier. Combine the challenge of learning an entirely new way of playing defense with the need to figure out how players recruited for the previous regime fit into the new system, and you have a recipe for defensive breakdowns.

No defense is perfect. But with a schedule that is more daunting this year than last, Nebraska can ill afford a rough transition on defense if it wants to succeed in 2017.

Beat Iowa

I know, I know, Iowa isn’t a rival to Nebraska. I’ve heard that over and over and over again. For a (ahem) seasoned observer of Nebraska football, those protestations sound hauntingly familiar to things Husker Fan has said about Nebraska’s neighbors to the west and the south.

There’s a longer think-piece about this coming (lucky you), but let’s take a look at where we find ourselves now. Iowa owns a two-game winning streak over Nebraska. Riley has never beaten Iowa. And last year’s 40-10 (!) curb-stomping in Iowa City is a large reason why Diaco and not Banker is directing the Blackshirts this year.

But think of it in a broader context. As maddening as the end of 2016 was, one demon Nebraska did excise was losing to teams with inferior talent. Wisconsin, Ohio State, and Tennessee all were at least equals in terms of the players on the field to Nebraska.

Iowa, not so much. According to SB Nation’s five-year recruiting rankings – which is as good a tool as any to measure raw talent on the field – Nebraska is no. 22 nationally. Iowa is no. 40, the team with the lowest recruiting ranking of any squad NU lost to last year.

(In fairness, Wisconsin is no. 38, but the Badgers have a stronger history of over-performing their recruiting rankings than the Hawkeyes do).

Think about it this way. Let’s assume no more ridiculous losses to Purdue and that Nebraska can take care of business against teams like Northwestern and Minnesota. Nebraska ends the season at 8-4, but with two different scenarios.

The first scenario is with losses to Oregon, Wisconsin, Ohio State, and Penn State. Disappointing, to be sure, but in many ways it may be Nebraska’s most likely scenario for 2017.

The second scenario is with losses to Oregon, Ohio State, Penn State, but finally beating Wisconsin – and then losing to Iowa on Black Friday.

Of the two, which scenario would feel worse for you, Husker Fan? Which scenario might slide Riley closer to that hot seat in 2018?

You know the answer. So does Riley, which is why he fired his long-time friend after Nebraska’s day-after-Thanksgiving embarrassment last year.

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: Three Things We Learned from the Cornhuskers’ Pre-Spring Defensive Depth Chart

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The best laid schemes o’ Mice an’ Men,

Gang aft agley,

An’ lea’e us nought but grief an’ pain,

For promis’d joy!

– To A Mouse, Robert Burns

A certain smart and particularly handsome analyst had a great idea. Do a preview of Nebraska’s depth charts before spring practice started, as a great way to lead into a discussion about how the roster could be composed. The depth chart projection, then, would be a convenient vehicle to analyze where the roster might be weak, or how changes on both sides of the ball could alter how players get used.

Then head coach Mike Riley, in his opening press conference of spring practice, had to go and mess everything up by announcing the entire defensive depth chart. You can see it here, thanks to Hail Varsity.

Now, in fairness, this isn’t exactly a depth chart in the sense of knowing who are the starters and who will be backups. But it does group the defensive roster into positions for new defensive coordinator Bob Diaco’s 3-4 scheme.

So now that the cat’s out of the bag, and our plans for the next couple of articles at the DXP are ruined, let’s at least take a look at Riley’s version of the Sorting Hat and see what stands out.

Field-side inside linebacker could be a problem

For the most part, Nebraska looks to have decent depth at most positions. But at field-side ILB, the roster looks a little thin. Dedrick Young should have the inside track to start, given the amount of time he played last year (even though his performance fell off towards the end of the season). But after Young, it’s two untested players. Mohammed Barry saw some work on special teams last year but precious little on defense, and redshirt freshman Greg Simmons is an unknown quantity.

Should something happen to Young – either through injury or poor play – then the field-side ILB spot for Nebraska becomes one of the biggest question marks on the defensive unit next season.

Whither the 2015 class?

Of Nebraska’s 2015 recruiting class, two of the top four recruits were defensive backs. Eric Lee was the highest rated recruit of that class (according to 247 Sports) at cornerback, and Avery Anderson was the fourth-highest rated player who moved between cornerback and safety.

So it’s a little jarring to see the pre-spring depth chart to list neither Lee nor Anderson. There’s spots on the depth chart for untested kids like JoJo Doman, Dicaprio Bootle, Tony Butler, and Marquel Dismuke. But no mention of the stars from Nebraska’s 2015 class.

That could mean the two of them are destined to be considered busts. Or, it could mean that Nebraska has an untapped vein of talent waiting in the wings of the secondary.

The names are going to take getting used to

Two inside linebackers? A “strong-side” and “field-side” outside linebacker? Defensive “ends” that have functionally the same role as defensive tackles Nebraska fans have grown up watching?

Yes, switching from a 4-3 to a 3-4 will be a big adjustment for Nebraska’s players and coaches, both in terms of players on the field and recruiting for the future. But it’s also going to be a big adjustment for fans watching Nebraska’s defense starting in 2017.  The new names – and new roles – for the front seven of the Blackshirts will take some practice.