Nebraska Football: NU ReView, Nebraska 27, Indiana 22

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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 …

The Good

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 Bad

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.

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Nebraska Football: The Cornhuskers’ Biggest Position Battles Heading Into Fall Camp

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photo and story by Patrick Runge

Nebraska football fans know that fall camp is starting soon, and one of the biggest things for new head coach Mike Riley to do during fall camp is to sort out contested positions. Some positions are fairly clear, but a number of positions on Nebraska’s roster will force Riley to make some decisions.

Here are five of the positions where the battles for playing time should be the fiercest.

I-Back

Of all the battles, this position might be the most contested, simply because of the talented options available. Last year, Ameer Abdullah’s brilliance made it hard for any running backs to get much playing time, and the statistics showed. Abdullah had 62.7 percent of all rushing attempts by running backs in 2014.

That doesn’t leave a lot of room for an heir apparent, so the I-backs returning this year (along with the new guys) will all be starting from a fairly level playing field. Given the way the backs were used in the Spring Game, Terrell Newby looks to be the most likely to start against BYU in Nebraska’s opener. But Imani Cross, Adam Taylor, and Mikale Wilbon should all have their chances to earn playing time in fall camp.

The offensive line if your name isn’t “Alex Lewis”

At left tackle senior Alex Lewis looks to have his place locked up next season. Tom Dienhart of the Big Ten Network calls Lewis a “cornerstone” for Nebraska in the upcoming season. But the rest of the offensive line is a huge question mark.

Givens Price should have a chance to compete at right tackle, with David Knevel right behind him. Chongo Kondolo and Dylan Utter will be battling with Tanner Farmer, DJ Foster, and others at guard. And at center, Ryne Reeves and Paul Thurston should be the primary contenders.

Defensive End

Nebraska’s starters at defensive tackle seem pretty clear, with Maliek Collins and Vincent Valentine taking up the middle. But at defensive end, Nebraska has a number of players who should be fighting for time.

Greg McMullen, given his history at the position, should be one of the first names on the list. But behind McMullen, Jack Gangwish looks to be battling with Joe Keels and AJ Natter for the other spot at end. And younger players like Sedrick King and Daishon Neil be challenging for playing time. Keep special watch on converted tight end Freedom Akinmoladun, whose athletic ability could make him the surprise of the unit.

Linebacker

This position isn’t so much about who will be a starter – Nebraska is so thin at linebacker, that anyone with returning experience is likely to earn a starting job almost by default. Absent injury, Josh Banderas and Michael Rose-Ivey should be all but guaranteed a starter’s role.

But behind those two is an interesting battle. Returners Luke Gifford and Marcus Newby might have first crack at the whip. But incoming freshman Dedrick Young will have a great chance to earn playing time, as he was an early-enrollee. And the other true freshmen (Mohammed Berry, Tyrin Ferguson, and Adrienne Talan) will get their shot as well.

Secondary

This caption is a little misleading, as one starting cornerback spot (Daniel Davie) and one safety spot (Nate Gerry) are likely earned already from last season’s performance. But the other spots should be the subject of fierce competition, given the depth of talent at the position.

At cornerback, Charles Jackson,  Josh Kalu, Trai Mosely, and Jonathan Rose will be fighting with incoming freshmen Avery Anderson and Eric Lee to see the field. And at safety, Byerson Cockrell and Kieron Williams will be challenged by incoming freshmen Antonio Reed and Aaron Williams (as well as any of the players at corner who may slide into the position).

Nebraska Football: Predicting the Depth Chart Heading Into Fall Camp

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photo and article by Patrick Runge

Nebraska football fans know that fall camp is about to start, and with fall camp comes the depth chart battles that will help define the 2014 season. So while there are no official depth charts, we can speculate as to where things are at least starting out as fall camp opens. Of course, the battles in fall camp will go a long way towards determining what Nebraska’s depth chart will look like on August 30 when NU tees the ball up against Florida Atlantic.

But until then, here’s at least a glimpse of where things might stand. Returning starters are in italics.

Offensive Line

While the offensive line will be seeing a lot of new starters, thanks to the injuries many of this year’s pipeline will have gained valuable experience last year. Colorado transfer Alex Lewis, should he hold the job through fall camp, could be one of the most valuable additions to Nebraska’s roster in 2014.

Left Tackle: Alex Lewis, David Knevel

Left Guard: Jake Cotton, Chongo Kondolo

Center: Mark Pelini, Ryne Reeves

Right Guard: Mike Moudy, Dwayne Johnson

Right Tackle: Zach Sterup, Tanner Farmer

Offensive Backs

While Johnny Stanton may have the talent to be the next guy, it seems as if Ryker Fife has the inside track on the backup spot given his mastery of the playbook. Backups to Ameer Abdullah should be fluid, with Adam Taylor and Terrell Newby seeing packages specific for them.

Quarterback: Tommy Armstrong, Ryker Fife

I-Back: Ameer Abdullah, Imani Cross

Fullback: Andy Janovic, Mitch McCann

Receivers

Kenny Bell is the undisputed leader of Nebraska’s receiver corps, but after Bell the depth chart should be fluid throughout the season. Perhaps the most fascinating battle will be at the slot receiver position between Jamal Turner and Jordan Westerkamp—will Turner’s as-of-yet unrealized potential outweigh Westerkamp’s consistency?

Wide Receiver (X): Kenny Bell, Brandon Reilly

Wide Receiver (Z): Alonzo Moore, Taariq Allen

Wide Receiver (A): Jordan Westerkamp, Jamal Turner

Tight End: Cethan Carter, Sam Cotton

Defensive Line

Randy Gregory will be the first name written on any depth chart, but behind him fall camp will go a long way to sort things out. Look for Vincent Valentine and Greg McMullen to take advantage of the time to solidify their positions

Defensive End: Randy Gregory, A.J. Natter

Defensive Tackle: Aaron Curry, Maliek Collins

Defensive Tackle: Vincent Valentine, Kevin Maurice

Defensive End: Greg McMullen, Joe Keels

Linebackers

Linebacker is a peculiar position for Nebraska. There is a lot of talent, but there is very little in terms of clearly-won positions. Zaire Anderson looks to be the strongest overall talent, and Michael Rose did a lot to win the MIKE position last year. After that, the depth chart could be in play throughout the linebacker corps.

BUCK Linebacker: Josh Banderas, Courtney Love

MIKE Linebacker: Michael Rose, Trevor Roach

WILL Linebacker: Zaire Anderson, David Santos

Defensive Backs

Nebraska does have some returning experience in the secondary with cornerback Josh Mitchell and safety Corey Cooper. The battle for the other starting cornerback position between Jonathan Rose and Byerson Cockrell could be one of the most entertaining of the fall camp. And seeing the amazing athletic talent of Charles Jackson replace Ciante Evans at NICKEL could be a difference-making change for the Blackshirts.

Cornerback: Josh Mitchell, Boaz Joseph

Safety: Corey Cooper, Nathan Gerry

Safety: LeRoy Alexander, D.J. Singleton

Cornerback: Jonathan Rose, Byerson Cockrell

NICKEL: Charles Jackson

Specialists

Hold your breath, Nebraska fans, we’re likely to see a true freshman enter fall camp as the de facto starting placekicker. How Drew Brown holds up to the pressure could be a defining element of Nebraska’s 2014 campaign. And look for some game-breaking talent to take the reins of the return game, helping to improve from last season.

Placekicker: Drew Brown

Kickoff Specialist: Mauro Bondi

Punter: Sam Foltz

Holder: Sam Foltz

Long Snapper: Gabriel Miller

Punt Returner: Jamal Turner, Terrell Newby

Kick Returner: Jamal Turner, Terrell Newby

Nebraska Football: Four Backups Critical to Cornhuskers’ Success in 2014

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photo and article by Patrick Runge

Nebraska football fans are legendary for their knowledge, and it is not uncommon for those diehards to know the backups (and the backups for the backups) inside out. Football is a rough game, and a long season means teams will frequently have to rely on their depth to get through a game or more.

So which of Nebraska’s current backups will be most important for NU to challenge for a divisional title? Here are four backups who could prove vital.

Johnny Stanton

Yes, the backup quarterback is always the most popular guy on campus. But as we saw last year, the backup quarterback might also be the most important guy on the team. When Taylor Martinez went down last year, Nebraska’s offense struggled mightily as NU switched between true freshman Tommy Armstrong and senior Ron Kellogg. Neither Armstrong nor Kellogg had the benefit of an offseason as the starter, and their uneven performance should not have been a surprise.

Armstrong looks to be the clear-cut starter coming into 2014. But if something happens to Armstrong, it looks to be Stanton (with all due respect to Ryker Fife) that would take the reins of Nebraska’s offense. Should that need arise, Nebraska would need Stanton to shine right away.

Imani Cross

Ameer Abdullah is without a doubt Nebraska’s best offensive weapon—indeed, there’s an argument to be made that he’s the best player on the team overall. And every year we keep thinking that Nebraska’s brain trust will spread the wealth and even out the carries between NU’s I-backs, only to find one back becoming the bellcow.

But if there is to be a rotation, Cross is in a perfect position to take advantage. His size and strength make him a true bruiser, a perfect change of pace from the elusive Abdullah. But in the Spring Game, Cross demonstrated a surprising amount of wiggle and burst, elements of his game we didn’t see last year. No one will be confusing Cross for Terrell Newby, but if Cross can be more balanced he could provide a strong change of pace for Nebraska at I-back.

Maliek Collins

It might be a little unfair to list Collins as a backup, as he ended the season as a co-number one on the depth chart at defensive tackle. But I’m going to presume he’s going to be at least an “-OR-“ at defensive end alongside Vincent Valentine, which means he will be important in the defensive end rotation.

But what really makes Collins valuable and important is the time he may see as a specialized pass rusher. Much like linebacker Marcus Newby, Collins has seen time as a pass rush specialist this spring. If he is able to bring this skill to bear, in addition to his contributions on the offensive line, he could be a critical piece of the Blackshirts’ puzzle.

David Knevel

Another great football cliché is that left tackle is the most important position on the offense, as it is the left tackle’s job to keep the right-handed quarterback upright and clean. Alex Lewis looks to have secured the starting job, but Knevel will be right behind Lewis, pushing for the spot and for time in the rotation.

Knevel’s size (six-foot-nine, 310 pounds) should in and of itself demonstrate his potential. If he is able to couple technique with his massive frame, he could be a huge asset to Nebraska’s offensive line.

Nebraska Football: 5 Freshmen Who Must Shine In Fall Practice

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photo and article by Patrick Runge
Nebraska football fans are anxiously awaiting the beginning of fall practice, when they will start to see which freshmen may shine. While the established stars are known, fall practice is the first real opportunity for the freshmen on the roster to claim a spot on the field.
So who will those freshmen be that shine? Who will be the new stars for Nebraska? Here are five candidates.
Adam Taylor
Once again, Nebraska has a plethora of young I-backs. Behind senior Ameer Abdullah is junior Imani Cross and sophomore Terrell Newby, before getting to redshirt freshman Adam Taylor. While Taylor came in a little ahead of Newby in terms of recruiting rankings, Newby was able to see the field right away given his unique set of skills.
Taylor redshirted, and as a result is looking up at three talented I-backs on the depth chart. If Taylor wants to earn any kind of significant playing time, a strong fall practice will be crucial.
David Knevel
At the start of last season, it would have been pretty easy to pencil in Knevel as a starting tackle. His size alone (six-foot-nine, 305 pounds) makes him an imposing presence on the offensive line.
But then Colorado transfer Alex Lewis shone in spring practice, looking to have won the starting left tackle position. A strong fall practice will help Knevel move his way back up the depth chart, or at least earn himself significant playing time in a rotation.
Drew Brown
It could be argued that Brown might be the most important signing of this year’s class, at least for 2014. Given the departure of Pat Smith, last year’s placekicker, and the failure to impress by Mauro Bondi and the other kickers currently on the roster, it is likely that Brown will come in and have a shot to win the starting job from day one.
For Nebraska’s sake, Brown needs to have a strong fall practice—and a good 2014 campaign.
A.J. Natter
There’s little question that Randy Gregory will be occupying one of the two starting defensive end positions. But the other position looks up for grabs. Junior college transfer Joe Keels should have the inside track on the position, simply given his experience.
But a strong performance from redshirt freshman A.J. Natter could push Keels for playing time, or at least give Bo Pelini and the coaching staff some options to rotate the defensive line. And with three years of eligibility after 2014, a strong showing from Natter this year would provide a good base for years to come.
Marcus Newby
Nebraska is deep and young at linebacker. Other than Zaire Anderson, there looks to be only one upper-classman (junior David Santos) that will be in the starting rotation. So there will be work for Newby to do if he wants to see the field as a linebacker.
But Newby has a bit of a secret weapon in his locker. During the Spring Game, Newby was used as a hybrid defensive end or outside linebacker in a three-man front look. Functionally, though, Newby’s role was as a pure outside pass rusher, and he excelled. While Newby might be a ways down the depth chart as a linebacker, if he can excel as a pass rusher in fall practice he can earn playing time—and provide a real weapon for the Blackshirts in 2014.

Nebraska Football:Final Winners And Losers From Spring Ball

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photo and story by Patrick Runge

Nebraska football fans have seen spring practice for 2014 be put into the books, and are settling in for a long summer’s wait until fall practice begins and the college football season arrives. But before we leave spring practice altogether, it’s worth taking time to review where we stand, see who the winners and the losers are

 

Winner: Alex Lewis

Coming into the start of the season, it looked like David Knevel had the inside track to start at left tackle. Lewis was still resolving his legal troubles, and it appeared that Knevel would do enough to win the job.

But once Lewis got on campus and began competing directly, he shot up the depth chart. By the end of spring, the transfer from Colorado had wrapped up the starting position, giving defensive end Randy Gregory a run for his money in practice.

 

Loser: David Knevel

Knevel’s position is the opposite of Alex Lewis. At six-foot-nine and 305 pounds, Knevel has the physical frame to be dominant as a tackle. After sitting out a redshirt year in 2013, Knevel looked ready to make the jump and compete for a starting job in an offensive line that had plenty of opportunities.

For every winner in the spring, there is a loser. Lewis’ winning of the starting left tackle position, at least at this stage, has come at Knevel’s expense.

 

Winner: Tommy Armstrong

Never mind his less-than-overwhelming performance in the spring game. Before spring practice began, most Nebraska fans expected a two-way battle between Armstrong and Johnny Stanton to win the starting quarterback position in 2014.

But very quickly during spring practice, it became apparent that Armstrong was going to win the starting quarterback position. His experience (including his 7-1 record as a starter), his charisma, and the chemistry he has built with the rest of the team has helped propel him to his role as the heir apparent for Taylor Martinez.

 

Loser: Johnny Stanton

Many Nebraska fans were hoping that Stanton would have a phenomenal spring and take the starting quarterback position away from Tommy Armstrong. But in retrospect, with Stanton learning offensive coordinator Tim Beck’s scheme for the first time after directing the scout team last year, asking him to come in and compete for the starting job in 2014 was a tall order.

Indeed, not only was Stanton not a serious competitor for the starting role, he is currently in a dogfight with sophomore Ryker Fife for the backup position. Perhaps it’s not fair to Stanton, but at least in comparison to where expectations were for many fans at the start of spring, that’s quite a fall.

 

Winner: Bo Pelini

I’m not sure that a coach has ever had a better offseason than Pelini, in terms of where he was to where he is now. At the end of the Iowa game last year, Pelini’s shameful deflection of responsibility and his all but daring athletic director Shawn Eichorst to fire him led most to think that Pelini’s tenure in Lincoln had come to an end.

But Eichorst stood by Pelini, and between now and then Pelini’s public persona has undergone an extreme makeover. He’s reached out to his Twitter alter ego, @FauxPelini, embracing the parody of himself. He’s opened almost the entire spring practice to the media, something that would be unheard of in years past. And he topped it all off by taking the field at the Spring Game carrying FauxPelini’s cat, pretty much breaking Twitter in the process.

Comparing Pelini’s perception now to the end of last season, it’s almost hard to recognize the same man. After spring, Pelini is clearly doing great. The true test will come when Nebraska loses a game next year.

 

Loser: Shawn Eichorst

In all honesty, adding Eichorst as a loser might be a bit of a stretch. If Pelini’s public relations rehab since the end of last year leads into increased success for Nebraska, Eichorst is going to look like a genius. Instead of firing Pelini, as many urged him to do and thought he would, if Eichorst’s retention of Pelini leads to a division title or perhaps a conference title, then Eichorst will get a lot of the credit for standing by Pelini. And if Pelini melts down next year, making the decision to let him go simple, then Eichorst’s position isn’t really harmed either.

But it’s the status quo that’s scary for Eichorst. Each year of Pelini’s tenure, he has lost four games. What happens if that continues in 2014? What happens if we see the same old Nebraska—decent, but error-prone, and ultimately not good enough to compete at the highest levels?

If that happens, Eichorst is in a bit of a box. He can’t really fire Pelini after delivering functionally the same result as last year. But he also can’t really sit back and do nothing while the Nebraska football program idles in neutral, particularly with schools like Ohio State, Michigan State, and now Penn State moving ahead.

Eichorst has taken a gamble on Pelini, and could find himself in a very difficult situation if that gamble doesn’t pay off.

Post originally appeared at Bleacher Report.