Nebraska Football: NU Re-View, Tennessee 38, Nebraska 24

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Nebraska won’t get another post-season lift from a bowl win, falling to Tennessee in the Music City Bowl 38-24. Injuries and suspensions challenged Nebraska, with quarterback Tommy Armstrong, wide receiver Jordan Westerkamp, and safety Nate Gerry out for the game. But those absences don’t account for Tennessee quarterback Josh Dobbs having a career game with 291 yards in the air and another 118 on the ground. Nor could it account for defensive end Derek Barnett dominating and disrupting Nebraska’s entire offensive line. So, in looking back at Nebraska’s final game of the 2016 season …

THE GOOD

Oh hai Brandon! If Nebraska had any shot to win this game, particularly after falling behind 14-0 (and having starting I-back Terrell Newby go out with injury in the first half), it was going to be on the sticky gloves of wide receiver Brandon Reilly. Reilly ended the game with four catches for 98 yards and two touchdowns, and (when quarterback Ryker Fyfe had time to throw) provided a downfield threat that could help neutralized Tennessee’s dominance of NU’s offensive line.

Going out in style. OK, here’s two quarterback stat lines. Tell me if you see any similarities.

QB1: 14-27 for 199 yards, 1 touchdown, 11 carries for 46 yards and one touchdown rushing.

QB2: 17-36 for 243 yards passing, 2 touchdowns, 8 carries for 14 yards and one touchdown rushing.

Any ideas? QB2 was Fyfe’s line in the Music City Bowl. QB1? Armstrong’s average stats for the 2016 season. In part, that’s a reflection of how well Fyfe played, particularly with his non-throwing wrist still in a cast. In part, though, it’s also a reflection of how Armstrong did not end with the senior campaign he – and Nebraska fans – were hoping for.

$450,000 saved. Who needs a special teams coach? Freshman punter Caleb Lightborn was called into duty far more than Nebraska would have liked, but performed admirably, averaging 42.7 yards per punt on his seven attempts. Placekicker Drew Brown hit his only field goal attempt to help keep Nebraska within striking distance. And freshman JoJo Domann caused a fumble on a kickoff that got Nebraska the ball back and helped NU get within one score. Nebraska was outplayed fairly decisively in most elements of the game, but won the battle on special teams.

THE BAD

It all starts up front. Sure, Barnett is a future NFL defensive end. But he, and the rest of Tennessee’s defensive front, simply outclassed Nebraska’s offensive line throughout the game. When Fyfe had time to throw, he was relatively effective. But far too often, there were Volunteers in Nebraska’s backfield almost as soon as the ball got back to Fyfe.

The story was the same on the other side of the ball, too. Nebraska was unable to pressure Tennessee with four, and once the Blackshirts started blitzing then Tennessee was able to take advantage of NU’s secondary. Combined with poor tackling (more on that in a moment), Nebraska’s inability to compete on either line was the single biggest determinative of this game’s result.

Defensive fundamentals. It’s not like Nebraska didn’t have its opportunities. But particularly at the linebacker position, Nebraska struggled with poor pursuit angles and poor tackling. Given Tennessee’s talent advantage, Nebraska had little room for error. So when Nebraska would let Tennessee off the hook on third down by missed tackles, the result was predictable.

M.A.S.H. Unit football. Yeah, there’s no excuses in football. But geez, it’s hard to really understand how much to take away from the Music City Bowl given Nebraska’s roster issues. Nebraska started out down its starting quarterback, no. 1 wide receiver, and staring safety. Then, during the game, Nebraska lost its starting I-back (Newby) and its no. 2 safety (Antonio Reed). In a game where Nebraska had a talent deficit coming in, it was a bridge too far asking NU to overcome those losses.

AND THE TRUE END OF AN ERA

Somehow, ending the season with four losses – one of the defining traits of Nebraska under former head coach Bo Pelini – seems fitting. The end of the 2016 season sees the departure of players like Armstrong, Westerkamp, and Gerry, fine players and leaders but definitely carrying the hallmarks of the previous administration. Head coach Mike Riley was always going to be in a strange position taking over for Pelini with Armstrong as his signal-caller and with defensive coordinator Mark Banker trying to re-make the Blackshirts.

Next season, the page will well and truly be turned, and year three of Riley’s regime will really feel like the first real Riley football team. Whether that will be good enough to get Nebraska where it sees itself – competing for conference titles – remains to be seen. Athletic director Shawn Eichorst made it clear, though, that there are still high expectations for Riley in recruiting as well as results (in an interview with Sam McKewon of the Omaha World-Herald).

That’s a good thing. Four-loss seasons weren’t good enough when Pelini was in charge (although his dismissal was not entirely caused by them), and Eichorst has made it clear that they aren’t good enough in the long-term for Riley. With a depleted Nebraska squad falling to an SEC team in a bowl, Husker Fan has truly seen the closing of the Pelini Era of Nebraska football. What comes next will be fascinating to watch in 2017.

Nebraska Football: Grading Each Positional Unit At The Halfway Point of the Season

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photo and story by Patrick Runge

Now that the Nebraska football season has reached its halfway point, it’s time to think about grades for each positional unit. Six games in, we have enough data now to reach at least some preliminary conclusions about how each unit has performed, and what to expect for the season’s second half.

So, on a standard A-F grading scale, here’s how each unit has graded out for the first half of the 2014 season.

Offensive Line – B

Of all the units, this one was the hardest to grade because of the variance. Nebraska is currently no. 6 nationally in rushing, and no. 28 in sacks allowed. Those are awfully good numbers, and the offensive line deserves much of the credit for those stats.

And yet, we saw what happened in East Lansing. We saw Nebraska’s offensive line get its collective butt kicked—head coach Bo Pelini’s words, not mine, according to the Omaha World-Herald—in NU’s most consequential game of the year. Yes, the Spartans are really good, and yes, it was a sloppy track that contributed to the struggles.

But struggles there were. A “B” feels like a compromise grade, and might be a bit generous.

Offensive Backs – B

Remember, these are the backs in aggregate. I-back Ameer Abdullah has been a revelation, even with his performance against Michigan State factored in, and still can state his case for a Heisman invitation this year. Imani Cross has performed well as Abdullah’s primary backup, while Terrell Newby really hasn’t forced his way onto the field as of yet.

So the question becomes how to grade quarterback Tommy Armstrong. His touchdown-to-interception ratio currently sits at 10/5, which is better than the 9/8 ratio he had at the end of the 2013 season. But his completion percentage of 51.9 percent is identical to where he ended the season last year.

It’s also, just for comparison’s sake, just over four points poorer than the worst completion percentage that Taylor Martinez posted in his career, 56.3 in 2011. And no one would confuse Martinez as a quarterback who could hurt opposing defenses with accurate throws. Nor would they confuse Armstrong with having the electric, game-breaking speed of Martinez that could help justify Martinez’s deficiencies as a passer.

Sure, Nebraska’s decimated receiver corps is in part an explanation for Armstrong’s struggles. But it’s time to retire the “he’s young” canard as a defense for his performance. Armstrong has started or played in 15 games over his career. In college football, that’s a veteran, and it’s fair to start judging Armstrong based on that standard.

It’s hard to criticize Armstrong because he is a likeable kid, a mature leader, and tough as nails (as we were reminded of based on his performance in East Lansing). But is he good enough, right now, to win Nebraska a conference championship? Michigan State didn’t think so, game-planning to take Abdullah away and make Armstrong win the game.

In East Lansing, Armstrong couldn’t answer that bell. Whether he can as the season progresses may very well be the defining question for Nebraska in 2014.

Receivers – Incomplete

Kenny Bell. Jamal Turner. Cethan Carter. Sam Burtch. Brandon Reilly.

Those are all Nebraska receivers who are either out for the season or who have missed significant playing time due to injury. It’s a massive blow to absorb, one that (arguably) was the decisive factor in Nebraska’s loss to Michigan State. Players like Jordan Westerkamp, Sam Cotton, and Taariq Allen have their own talents, but none of them can stretch the field and force defense to honor the deep ball.

If Bell and Reilly are healthy and able to contribute, that could make a huge difference for Nebraska’s offense in the second half of the 2014 season. Additionally, if players like Alonzo Moore and Demornay Pierson-El are able to take their opportunities and become downfield threats, Nebraska’s offense may have more balance and be more difficult to defend.

But for right now, any judgment about Nebraska’s receiver corps would simply be unfair given the injuries it has seen.

Defensive Line – A-plus

The only reason the defensive line’s grade is an “A+” is because there’s nothing higher to give. (Yes, I suppose I could go with the trite “A++,” but that’s like saying someone is giving “110%” effort, a tired cliché with which I won’t burden you).

Defensive end Randy Gregory already has 4.5 sacks, 5 tackles for loss, and 24 total tackles, and that’s with him missing almost two full games out of the six. His opposite number, Greg McMullen, would be an unmitigated star were he not starting on the other end of a likely first-round NFL draft pick. And interior linemen Vincent Valentine and Maliek Collins have both begun to live up to their potential.

If there is any criticism of the defensive line, it is that it lacks depth, with a fairly significant drop-off in production and performance being seen when the starters are not in the lineup. But that should not take any shine off of what has been the standout positional unit for Nebraska this season.

Linebackers – C

When likely starting nickel back Charles Jackson was lost for the season due to an injury in fall camp, many thought that would be Nebraska’s most significant loss. But as the season has unfolded, it appears that middle linebacker Michael Rose might have been worse for the Blackshirts.

Sophomore Josh Banderas has been tasked to replace Rose, but throughout the season he has struggled at middle linebacker. In both run and pass coverage, Banderas has struggled—at times, to the point of being a liability—which has been a weakness opposing teams from McNeese State to Michigan State have exploited.

Senior Trevor Roach has played very well when called upon at the position, but his lack of speed and athleticism does limit how and where he can be played. David Santos seemed to take a big step forward against Miami, and his loss due to injury against Michigan State may have been an unheralded contributor to Nebraska’s struggles.

While the low grade is probably unfair to Zaire Anderson, who is performing well in his senior campaign, the struggles at a crucial position like middle linebacker make the harsh mark a fair one.

Defensive Backs – B-minus

This is another unit that is difficult to grade. Josh Mitchell has performed well at cornerback. Daniel Davie has surprised many with just winning the other corner position, not to mention his outstanding performance. We got a glimpse of the difference against Michigan State, when Davie went down and the Spartans hit replacement Jonathan Rose for a long touchdown. And the performance of true freshman Joshua Kalu should be a joy to watch for Nebraska fans, and a real glimpse into the future.

The loss of amazingly-talented athlete Charles Jackson at nickel back to injury in fall camp was disappointing, of course. But junior college transfer Byerson Cockrell has filled the position admirably.

At safety, Nathan Gerry has been incredibly impressive, flying over the field and contributing against the run and the pass. Corey Cooper, on the other hand, has been disturbingly anonymous, particularly given his size and senior status. When LeRoy Alexander was suspended for the season, it was thought he was going to compete with Gerry for playing time. Now, it looks like the coaches would love to have Alexander to plug in at safety—for Cooper.

With the wild mix of performances, weighed down by the lack of production from a player like Cooper who was thought to be a key contributor—another composite grade has to be the result.

Special Teams – A-minus

Drew Brown has performed admirably for a true freshman at placekicker, hitting 80 percent of his field goals and being perfect on extra points. With the injury to Mauro Bondi pressing Brown into duty as kickoff specialist, Nebraska’s output has stayed steady, with a 54.55 percent touchback rate.

Punter Sam Foltz was inconsistent last year, but his 2014 campaign has been solid. In Nebraska’s struggles with McNeese State, a good argument could be made that Foltz was the MVP for NU, keeping the Cowboys pinned deep time and time again and helping to prevent them from pulling off the upset.

Nebraska’s kickoff returns haven’t set the world ablaze, resting at no. 93 nationally. But Demornay Pierson-El has transformed Nebraska’s punt return game, taking a huge negative for NU in 2013 and turning it into a positive. No better evidence can be had for Pierson-El’s impact than the Michigan State game. Sure, Nebraska did well to have a chance late in the game. But without Pierson-El’s touchdown return, is Nebraska able to mount that miracle comeback?

Stats from CFBStats.com.