Agony Analyzed: How Close Is Nebraska Football to Being 6-0?

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Nebraska football fans have endured the most challenging – and surreal – first half of a season in 2015. Under new head coach Mike Riley, Nebraska through six games is 2-4 and 0-2 in conference. But how close is that 2-4 to 6-0 – and what difference does that make to how fans perceive the status of the program under Riley?

First, let’s take a closer look at Nebraska’s losses. Part of what we are going to use is the Agony Clock, a little like the Doomsday Clock from Cold War days, to get an overall impression of just how close Nebraska is to an unblemished regular season record. But we’re also going to look at some of the decisions from Riley and his staff that may have led to the close losses.

BYU

With one second remaining in the game, Nebraska led 28-27. BYU had the ball on Nebraska’s 42, and hit a Hail Mary pass to win the game.

Agony Clock – 0:01

Coaching Mistakes: There’s a good argument to be made that the decision to rush three on the Hail Mary play was overly conservative. But don’t forget that defensive end Jack Gangwish got hurt on the play, meaning Nebraska really only had two pass rushers, and a harder time keeping quarterback Tanner Magnum in the pocket. And even with that, it was a technique breakdown not having anyone in front of the ball in the secondary.

If you want to point at one questionable call within the staff’s control that put Nebraska in a bad position, then you could look at the third-and-two call when Nebraska had the ball on the BYU 22, trying to close out the game. A jet sweep to Jamal Turner was called, losing two yards, and forcing Drew Brown (who had already missed from 40 yards) into a 41-yard attempt.

Miami

With 11:14 left to go in the game, Nebraska was down 33-10. But Nebraska went on a remarkable comeback, getting a two-point conversion after a touchdown with 33 seconds remaining in the game to tie the score.

But in overtime, quarterback Tommy Armstrong threw an interception on Nebraska’s first possession, allowing Miami to set up a game-winning field goal. The overtime issue makes the Agony Clock a little harder to judge, but we’re going to leave it set where it was after BYU.

Agony Clock – 0:01

Coaching Mistakes: Very little about the fourth quarter or overtime was a coaching issue. Armstrong was brilliant in leading Nebraska’s comeback, and putting the ball in his hands for the overtime was the only decision that made sense. Ultimately, the game was lost in the first quarter, and it’s hard not to look at the decision to start Daniel Davie at corner as one of the key factors in the loss. After being torched for 17 points in the first quarter (and being fortunate it was only 17), Davie was substituted and Nebraska only surrendered one touchdown the rest of the game.

Illinois

With 51 seconds remaining, Nebraska led Illinois 13-7 with the Illini having the ball at its own 27 yard line. Illinois quarterback Wes Lunt hit Malik Turner for a 50-yard strike, giving the Illini a first down at the Nebraska 7 yard line. Penalties ended up giving Illinois six (!) shots at the end zone, which the Illini finally converted with a one-yard pass from Lunt to Geronimo Allison to take the lead with ten seconds remaining.

Agony Clock – 0:11

Coaching Mistakes: The decision on third-and-seven to roll Armstrong out will live in infamy for Nebraska fans.  Both coach and player (according to Brent Yarina of the Big Ten Network) agree that the play should have been a run only, but Armstrong attempted a pass which fell incomplete, stopping the clock and preserving Illinois’ chance at a comeback.

Riley took responsibility for the call, which is exactly what he should have done. But the decision – put the ball in the hands of your best playmaker, on the edge where he is most effective – ultimately was the right one. The execution of the decision, and the preparation of the player to be in that circumstance, failed Nebraska. But as we would see a week later, the results of that failure of execution and preparation haunted Nebraska a second time.

Wisconsin

Nebraska led Wisconsin 21-20, and Badgers’ kicker Rafael Gaglione missed a 39-yard field goal with 1:26 remaining. But Nebraska was unable to get a first down and Wisconsin had all three time outs remaining, so the Badgers got the ball back on their own 30 with 1:03 left in the game. Wisconsin drove the ball to the Nebraska 28, and Gaglione redeemed himself by making a 48-yard field goal with 0:04 left to play.

Agony Clock – 0:15

Coaching Mistakes: If there was one game where coaching decisions directly cost Nebraska in the clutch, it was Wisconsin. Nebraska had the ball with 1:26 left to go, and needed one first down to ice the contest. Nebraska chose to bring in Imani Cross, the biggest – and least elusive – of its running backs. Three running plays were called, directly into the middle of an 11-man (!) front from Wisconsin. The play calls almost guaranteed a three-and-out, putting Nebraska’s secondary into a horrific déjà vu scenario.

And this is where the Illinois game comes back. Again, the decision to put Armstrong on the edge to get that necessary first down was the right decision. The failure against Illinois was one of execution and communication, not in play-call. So why did Nebraska instead choose to run three plays into the teeth of the Wisconsin defense, with no chance of success? We’ll never know for sure, but it’s hard not to conclude Riley felt so stung by the third-and-seven at Illinois that he wouldn’t make the same mistake twice.

Which, ironically, led to the overall coaching mistake that cost Nebraska a chance to win.

So What?

Much of the narrative around Riley’s detractors centers around his decision-making costing Nebraska games this year. And there’s plenty of broader-narrative coaching decisions to question about Riley. Game plan questions, like why Nebraska had a game plan to throw the ball 31 times in a tight game against Illinois when it was getting 5.5 yards per carry. Penalty questions, specifically why Nebraska is no. 120 nationally in penalties committed, according to cfbstats.com. And most frustrating, why Nebraska is a national worst no. 128 in pass defense allowing 348.5 yards per game – although the lack of a pass rush, while still a coach’s responsibility, goes a long way to explain those gory numbers.

So this isn’t a get-out-of-jail-free card for Riley and his staff. There’s plenty of mistakes he’s made.

But the narrative of Nebraska being 2-4 because of immediate late-game decisions by Riley isn’t fair. It’s a reaction by fans hurting and angry – and justifiably so – seeing their team lose four of its first six games in comically-painful ways.

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Nebraska Football: ReView of the Cornhuskers’ 36-28 Win Over Southern Mississippi

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On Saturday, Nebraska survived a shaky fourth quarter to beat Southern Mississippi 36-28, and move to 2-2 on the season. Leading 29-7 after three quarters, Nebraska looked poised for a comfortable victory as non-conference play ended. But a 21-point fourth quarter from the Golden Eagles put them in position for a Hail Mary at the end of the game, snuffed out by a Freedom Akinmoladun sack. So, in looking back for Nebraska …

The Good

Freedom! Yeah, cue all the cheesy William Wallace references you want. But Akinmoladun’s sack of Nick Mullens avoided one last test of Nebraska’s shaky secondary – not to mention the coronary health of the Nebraska fanbase.

But Akinmoladun did more than just seal the game for Nebraska. He had four tackles, two tackles for loss, and two sacks in the game. While Nebraska’s struggles in the secondary are the talking point to be sure, his ability to perform at defensive end might be the brightest spot coming out of the contest defensively. A converted tight end seeing playing time due to Jack Gangwish’s injury, Akinmoladun’s growth into the position is crucial for the Blackshirts to right the ship.

A Fullback Sighting. If new head coach Mike Riley wanted to get Nebraska’s old-school fans on board with him, giving the ball to fullback Andy Janovich wasn’t a bad plan. Janovich had five carries for 68 yards (and would have had more absent a penalty), certainly a thrill to Nebraska fans who remember Cory Schlesinger rumbling through an exhausted Miami secondary in January of 1995.

But those runs were more than just an homage to the past. Riley’s offense this year uses a lot of misdirection, and those fullback were a part of the misdirection game. In addition to the jet sweep, opposing defenses now have tape of Nebraska’s tailback going in one direction and the fullback pounding up the middle the opposite way.

For a team still looking to establish a running game (particularly with questionable offensive line performance), adding in the fullback belly play is an important element to Nebraska’s offense.

Continued Excellence. The growth and maturation of Tommy Armstrong as a quarterback might be getting overlooked, or even taken for granted. It shouldn’t be. Armstrong put the ball up 35 times and had a 65.7 percent completion rate for 368 (!) yards, with two touchdowns and one interception. He also ran the ball seven times for 75 yards, meaning he accounted for 443 yards of total offense.

Armstrong is no. 10 nationally – nationally – in total offense after four games (according to cfbstats.com). Some, like this dope, thought that Armstrong was potentially a weakness for Nebraska coming into 2015. Instead, he’s put a team with a struggling defense on his back and willed it through a rough non-conference slate.

The Bad

The Bad Quarter Came Late. If there was a saving grace about the Blackshirts’ troubles earlier this year, it was that Nebraska was able to adjust and staunch the bleeding. While Nebraska avoided a bad quarter early, it almost picked a horrible time to be terrible as Southern Mississippi carved up the defense late.

Inexplicably, the Golden Eagles waited until the end of the game to test Nebraska deep, finding success in attacking the soft underbelly of the defense.

Lacking a Killer Instinct. Sure, the fourth quarter was scary for Nebraska fans. But it shouldn’t have been if Nebraska had done its job in the first half. Nebraska kicker Drew Brown hit five (!) field goals in the first half, and three of those five were inside 30 yards. That’s a shorter kick than the NFL’s current extra point (which, as an aside, is easily the stupidest rule change in modern professional sports history).

Had Nebraska cashed in just those three drives with touchdowns instead of point-blank field goals, the score would have been 34-0 at the half, and the game would have almost certainly looked more like the South Alabama game in the second half.

Yellow Rain. At this rate, this may become a permanent feature of the ReView. Here’s Nebraska’s penalty output in the first four games of 2015.

Opponent Penalties Yards
BYU 12 90
South Alabama 7 80
Miami 13 114
Southern Mississippi 12 98
Average 10.8 91.5
National Average 6.6 59

Stats from cfbstats.com

Sure, some of those penalties – like the Casey Martin flop that drew a pass interference penalty against Joshua Kalu in the fourth quarter and should stifle soccer critics forever – were soft. But Nebraska still is struggling with alignment and personnel fouls. Those penalties helped keep a team like Southern Mississippi in the game in Lincoln. They could prove Nebraska’s undoing against teams like Wisconsin and Michigan State.

And the Elephant in the Room

There’s plenty of ways to find rose-colored glasses about Nebraska’s non-conference performance. BYU and Miami are legitimately good teams with good talent. South Alabama and Southern Mississippi are not on the level of Nebraska’s talent overall, but both have enough playmakers on offense to cause trouble for Power Five teams (such as the Golden Eagles’ 311 yards passing against Mississippi State earlier this year).

But the fact remains that Nebraska is now no. 128 nationally – that’s dead last, Husker fan – in surrendering long pass plays. Take a look (although it might be wise to shield the eyes of young children) at how that breaks down.

Pass Play Yardage Number Number/Game
10+ yards 57 14.25
20+ yards 24 6
30+ yards 14 3.5
40+ yards 6 1.5
50+ yards 5 1.25

Stats from cfbstats.com

If that number/game statistic doesn’t scare you as a Nebraska fan, you’re made of stern stuff. next week, Nebraska faces Wes Lunt at quarterback for Illinois, who has an NFL-caliber arm. Connor Cook for Michigan State still awaits, C.J. Beathard for Iowa is looking good, and at this point even Wisconsin’s Joel Stave has to frighten the NU faithful.

What is even more disturbing is how the continued struggles in the secondary seem to be affecting the confidence of the squad. As Southern Mississippi continued its fourth-quarter comeback, the Nebraska secondary began to resemble a free throw shooter in basketball struggling at the line, or a golfer with the yips on the green.

A smart and particularly handsome analyst gave some suggestions on how the holes in Nebraska’s defense could be plugged. With Nebraska at 2-2 and a challenging – but still navigable – conference schedule approaching, now is the time for the Blackshirts to consider breaking that emergency glass to get things right in a hurry.

Nebraska Football: ReView Of Cornhuskers’ 36-33 Overtime Loss To Miami

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On Saturday, Nebraska lost in overtime, 36-33, to the Hurricanes in Miami. After being down 33-10 with just over 11 minutes in the game, Nebraska stormed back with three touchdowns to tie the contest.

But on the first play in overtime, Tommy Armstrong threw an interception, and a personal foul by left tackle Alex Lewis for a late hit set Miami up for a chip-shot field goal to win the game.

The Good

Tommy! Armstong’s numbers weren’t the best. He was 21-for-45, for 309 yards, four touchdowns, and three interceptions. But those numbers are a little deceiving, as Armstrong was plagued with drops early in the contest.

But the statistics almost don’t matter. Armstrong was Nebraska’s best player on the field, and it was on his shoulders – and his legs – upon which Nebraska was able to make a comeback. Yes, it was his mistake that functionally ended the game. But without Armstrong, Nebraska gets blown out. And even in a loss, this was Armstrong’s coming-out performance as a quarterback that can get Nebraska to Indianapolis.

The Comeback. Anyone else have a flashback to Michigan State last year? Or Iowa? After looking punch-drunk at times in Miami, the last eleven minutes of regulation showed the kind of potential this new-look offense can have when it is working. It showed that the mental toughness Nebraska showed last year. And it showed Nebraska would not allow itself to be embarrassed on national television as it had been last year.

Brown’s Bomb. When Drew Brown trotted on to the field in the middle of the second quarter, it felt more like a surrender. Nebraska had been blitzed for 17 points in the first quarter, and was only able to get the ball to Miami’s 32 before needing to kick a field goal.

And seeing Brown take the field did not inspire confidence. Two weeks ago, it was Brown missing a 40-yard and a 41-yard field goal that put BYU in a position to win the game on a Hail Mary. So Nebraska fans were justified in holding their collective breath when he swung his leg at a 49-yarder.

But Brown’s kick was true, and would have been good from over 50. It ended up to be very important in the game against Miami. But perhaps even more importantly, Nebraska fans – and coaches – have now seen Brown take the field in a hostile environment and be true from long distance. Even in terms of decision-making and giving coaches enough confidence to give him a chance in the future, that’s a big deal.

The Bad

Another Bad Quarter. Against BYU, Nebraska gave up 17 points and looked like it was helpless defensively in the second quarter. Against Miami, the Blackshirts’ dreadful 17-point performance came in the first quarter, and put Nebraska on its back foot the rest of the game.

Yes, Nebraska was able to staunch the bleeding, making schematic and personnel adjustments to neutralize (at some level) Miami’s offense. But Nebraska’s propensity to get bombed early in a game is distressing.

A Bad Mix. A smart and particularly handsome analyst pointed out that the lack of a pass rush and the struggles in the secondary go hand-in-hand. That dynamic was on display again on Saturday. With a four-man rush, Miami quarterback Brad Kaaya had all the time in the world to wait for his receivers to come open.

And while Nebraska’s secondary (particularly Daniel Davie) struggled, it’s unfair to ask them to play single coverage against talented receivers for as long as they are being forced to do so. Nebraska has answered with some blitzes and additional safety help in coverage, which seemed to make some improvements later in the game.

Yellow Rain. And, they’re back. Nebraska improved – sort of – its penalty-committing ways against South Alabama in game two, going from 12 penalties for 90 yards against BYU to 7 penalties for 80 yards against the Jaguars.

But against Miami, the numbers blossomed to the worst performance of the year, 12 penalties for 98 yards. And while some of the penalties were of the spectacularly foolish and damaging kind (looking at you, Alex Lewis), many were still disturbing signs of a transition not yet complete. Nebraska was caught numerous times with an illegal formation on offense, and a substitution infraction for 12 men on the field. Lewis ended the game with two (!) personal foul penalties and an ineligible man downfield.

In fairness, Miami was worse, with 13 penalties for 114 yards, including two ejections for targeting fouls. But given how razor-thin the margin was, even a slightly cleaner game from Nebraska might have made the difference.

And the B1G West Champions-In-Waiting

After the first quarter against Miami, it seemed ludicrous to think that Nebraska would win another game, much less a divisional title this year. It was that bad, reminiscent of the embarrass-the-program performances that ran Bill Callahan and Bo Pelini out of town.

But, much like with BYU, Nebraska was able to steady the ship and come oh-so-close to a grand comeback. The win puts Miami at 3-0 in a navigable ACC conference. BYU is 2-1, with a one-point loss in the Rose Bowl to a UCLA squad many (like Kyle Bonagura of ESPN) are projecting as a playoff team.

Take a look at the rest of Nebraska’s divisional foes. Wisconsin has been far from impressive, most recently beating Troy 28-3 in Madison. If the Badgers are relying on the arm of Joel Stave to win in Lincoln, Nebraska fans have to like their chances. Minnesota, after raising a few eyebrows with a game effort against TCU in week one, haven’t looked worldbeaters either, recently squeaking by Kent State, 10-7, at home.

Northwestern has the best resume, by far, with its 16-6 win over Stanford (made even more impressive by Stanford beating USC in Los Angeles) and a 19-10 win over Duke on the road. Iowa has held serve as well, including wins over an Iowa State squad that regularly gives the Hawkeyes fits and an Alex Henery moment in beating Pitt with a walk-off field goal.

(Save your energy, commenters, I know that Henery’s kick against Colorado wasn’t a walk-off. Same basic idea, though.)

But both Northwestern and Iowa are in Lincoln. Yes, Michigan State looks like a big ask for Nebraska, but it is unlikely that any B1G West squad will have a perfect in-conference record. And if Nebraska can run the table against the division – a result I would say is still more likely than not – then a trip to Indianapolis in December for Nebraska is on the cards even with a 1-2 start.

Nebraska Football: PreView of the Cornhuskers’ Game Against South Alabama

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On Saturday, Nebraska will attempt to bounce back from its last-second loss to BYU, facing the South Alabama Jaguars in Lincoln (7:00 p.m., Big Ten Network). For Cornhusker fans watching the game …

You’ll Be Happy If …

The Rock Is Pounded. Head coach Mike Riley knows that Nebraska’s output from the running backs on Saturday wasn’t good enough. According to Sam McKewon of the Omaha World-Herald, the coaches are considering leaning more on one back as opposed to the rotation we saw on Saturday.

One game is a small sample size, but based on that evidence Mikale Wilbon should be the guy that gets the bulk of those carries. His elusiveness – particularly combined with an offensive line that has been struggling to create running lanes – seems to be the skill set that fits Nebraska’s needs best right now.

Regardless, Nebraska’s offense was out of balance against BYU, gaining 319 yards through the air and 126 on the ground. Even accounting for BYU’s weakness in pass defense and that some of Nebraska’s pass yardage was on screens and other run-substitute plays, more from the ground game would help immensely.

Freedom Rings. One of the glaring deficiencies from Nebraska’s game against BYU was a lack of pressure from the defensive end. Nebraska did better in heating up BYU’s quarterbacks in the second half, in part from bringing blitzes and in part from the interior defensive line finding success against a tiring BYU offensive line.

But if Nebraska is going to be successful, particularly asking its corners to cover one-on-one for extended periods, then the defensive ends have to get home. And that’s where the ascension of Freedom Akinmoladun becomes important. An injury to Jack Gangwish has given Akinmoladun his chance to start and play extended time.

Gangwish beat out Akinmoladun for the position this fall, and as a team captain it is a loss for him to be off the field. But Akinmoladun, a converted tight end just learning the position, has the raw athletic potential to be the difference-making edge rusher unlike anyone else currently on Nebraska’s roster. Throwing him into the fire gives that athletic ability a chance to be on the field at a position of critical need.

Nebraska Converts. Yeah, the last play hurt. But in the three drives before that play, Nebraska had a third-and-one, a third-and-one, and a third-and-three. On each of those, Nebraska couldn’t get the first down, continuing to give BYU a chance to recover.

It doesn’t matter if it’s lining up and pushing ahead for a yard, or hitting a play-action pass, or any other method. If Nebraska makes one of those third-down conversions, BYU likely never has a chance to hit that last pass. Against South Alabama, look at those third-and-short situations and see how Nebraska responds.

You’ll Be Sad If …

Nebraska Needs Its Kickers. I am amazed at how little this aspect of Nebraska’s roster is being discussed in the wake of the BYU loss. At punter, Nebraska is down to its scout team quarterback pressed into punting duties, Tyson Broekemeier. He performed admirably against BYU, but he becomes a net liability for Nebraska going forward.

And Nebraska’s placekicking game is a source of tremendous concern. Drew Brown missed field goals of 40 and 41 yards against BYU, and the lack of those six points gave BYU the chance to win on that last play.

Sure, it’s one game, but it’s not like Brown impressed last year. Brown was 14-of-21 on field goal attempts, with a long of 44 yards. From forty yards and out, Brown now has a 2-for-9 (!) record.

Forty yards isn’t, for a college-level kicker, a long way to kick a football. And unless we see a dramatic improvement in a real hurry, it’s hard to have any confidence in Nebraska’s ability to put three on the board when the need arises.

The Corners Crumble. Nebraska’s defensive structure (particularly with Michael Rose-Ivey returning from suspension) allows the defense to put eight players in the box to stop the run. But it asks the defensive backs, particularly the corners, to play one-on-one coverage and consistently win those battles against opposing receivers.

In the second quarter, as BYU quarterback Taysom Hill carved up the Blackshirts secondary en route to a 17-point performance, it looked as if those corners were struggling. South Alabama runs an up-tempo offense and can score on big plays, as it did last week against Gardner-Webb with scores of 49, 56, and 92 yards. The Jaguars have real speed on their roster in players like Xavier Johnson and Terrence Timmons, who will make the Blackshirts pay for any mistakes on the edges.

Don’t be surprised if South Alabama hits a few home runs against Nebraska on Saturday. Just hope it’s not too many.

The Second Quarter Was Real. Boy, that first quarter felt good, didn’t it? Nebraska quarterback Tommy Armstrong looked in rhythm, the offense was clicking, and the start of the Riley era was a joy to behold.

Then the teams flipped ends of the field, and we saw the Armstrong we saw last year. Flustered, poor mechanics, running for his life and overthrowing open receivers. After starting the game going 10-for-12 throwing the ball, Armstrong was only 4-15 in the second quarter.

Which Armstrong will we see on Saturday? The more of second-quarter Armstrong shows up, the more likely it will be that Nebraska will struggle.

Fearless Forecast

South Alabama has enough talent to do damage, but a mature coaching staff should have the team’s full attention after a heartbreaking loss. Look for Nebraska to win a game that will likely be more comfortable than the score indicates.

Nebraska 31, South Alabama 20

Nebraska Football: ReView of the Cornhuskers’ 33-28 Loss to BYU

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Nebraska lost to BYU, 33-28, on a last-second pass (probably rude to call it a “Hail Mary” from BYU) from backup quarterback Tanner Magnum to Mitch Mathews. It’s a rough start for head coach Mike Riley as head coach of Nebraska, and there’s a lot to digest from the game (not to mention a few game-day snacks that remained un-digestible after Mathews’ receptions).

The Good …

Second-Half Adjustments. After coming out like a house on fire, Nebraska looked for all the world like a team about to collapse in the second quarter. BYU scored 17 unanswered points, and likely left more on the field when running back Algernon Brown dropped a wheel route on fourth down near the end of the quarter. BYU quarterback Taysom Hill was having his way with Nebraska’s defense, and Nebraska quarterback Tommy Armstrong reverted to his 2014 form.

But in the third quarter, after Nate Gerry intercepted Hill, the worm turned. Hill was only 3-7 passing before being replaced by Magnum, and BYU’s offense stalled. The Blackshirts were able to apply pressure, sacking Hill twice in the third quarter. Nebraska was able to establish a rushing attack, and Armstrong rediscovered his first-quarter passing mojo.

Welcome Back, Alonzo. When kick returner and wide receiver De’Mornay Pierson-El went down with injury, one of the many questions raised was who would fill his role as a speed threat for Nebraska’s offense. Against BYU, we may have learned that junior wide receiver Alonzo Moore might be a big answer to that question.

Moore had three receptions for 48 yards, including a sideline-threading touchdown scamper. He was also utilized (along with Jamal Turner) in the running game, getting two carries for 24 yards. Injuries have prevented Moore from making a contribution in previous years. But a healthy Moore might well be a huge part of bridging the gap until Pierson-El’s return.

Freshman Performances. Nebraska had standout performances from true freshmen on both sides of the ball against BYU. Dedrick Young was pressed into service at linebacker, even when Nebraska played more nickel sets than we would normally see from defensive coordinator Mark Banker. Young was ready for the moment, able to make plays in space and stay on his feet to keep lane containment. In quite a trial by fire against BYU, Young has put his name in ink on the depth chart for the foreseeable future.

On offense, wide receiver Stanley Morgan was exactly as advertised. The star of fall camp, Morgan found his way onto the field in the second half, ending the game with two receptions for 19 yards. Tellingly, he was also the guy called on to be the second punt returner (along with Jordan Westerkamp) in response to BYU’s rugby-style punter.

Nebraska has good depth at wide receiver, even with Pierson-El’s injury. But Morgan’s emergence should get the attention of Nebraska fans – not to mention Nebraska recruits like Keyshawn Johnson Jr. (in response to a suggestion that he notice how the #Huskers were using their wide receivers).

The Bad …

The Second Quarter. As the game opened up, it looked like the team with the ball last might win the game, with each team exchanging scores. But then, in the second quarter, things began to unravel. Armstrong started missing receivers high. Running lanes opened against the Blackshirts, and receivers became uncoverable. BYU scored 17 unanswered points, and looked like it was going to run away and hide with the contest.

Anyone having flashbacks of Nebraska’s second quarter in Madison last year could have been forgiven.

This year was always going to be a challenge for Nebraska, trying to transition from Bo Pelini’s schemes and philosophies to Riley’s. It was hard not to see some of the traits of a Pelini-led team in that second quarter, and it allowed BYU to put enough points on the board to ultimately win the game.

Knock It Down! A smart and particularly handsome analyst said this about what could be a deciding factor of this game:

Combine that with BYU’s big receivers (six-foot-six Nick Kurtz and six-foot-six Mitch Mathews) against Nebraska’s cornerbacks (six-foot-one Daniel Davie and six-foot-one Joshua Kalu) and the Cougars could have a favorable matchup to exploit.

(Emphasis added)

It was the aforementioned Mathews who was able to use his big frame to block out Daniel Davie and Nate Gerry to haul in the winning pass.

Kickers. Yikes, does Nebraska have problems kicking the ball now. An injury to punter Sam Foltz has pressed scout team quarterback Tyson Brokemeyer into duty. An area that was one of huge strength for Nebraska in terms of field position has now become a glaring weakness, particularly if Foltz’s injury will keep him out for any length of time.

But what might be more disturbing is the performance of sophomore placekicker Drew Brown, who went 0-2 against BYU. Brown missed both kicks badly, the first a 40-yarder into the wind as time expired in the first half, and the second a 41-yarder with the wind in the fourth quarter as Nebraska was trying to ice the game.

Not to be churlish, but if both those kicks are made – and 40-yard field goals should be an expectation for a kicker on a team intending to win things – then the worst BYU could have done with that last play was a tie.

All of a sudden, Nebraska has a huge question mark in a critical phase of the game.

And Taylor Swift

We’re in uncharted territory, Husker fan. As ABC seemed intent on reminding everyone, Nebraska hadn’t lost a season opener for 29 years. Assuming a win over South Alabama next week, Nebraska will still need a win on the road in Miami to avoid a 1-2 start to the 2015 campaign.

Time to panic? Absolutely not. Remember, this was game one of the Riley era. In the second quarter, you could see Nebraska reverting to form from last season, both offensively and defensively. So that halftime response, where Nebraska came out and dominated on both sides of the ball, was instructive.

You can see what Nebraska is trying to do on offense, stretching the field horizontally with the jet sweep action. You could see Armstrong making anticipation throws, and being effective when in rhythm and not under too much duress.

Defensively, it was a little harder to get a feel for what Nebraska wanted to do. The suspension of linebacker Michael Rose-Ivey likely forced Nebraska into more nickel coverage than it would have otherwise liked, to avoid asking freshmen Young and Luke Gifford to shoulder too much of a load against a stout BYU offense.

Losing an opening game stinks, especially in the manner in which the game was lost. But this loss does nothing to dent Nebraska’s chances at a division title. And Nebraska’s second-half response to BYU should provide hope for a fanbase dealing with being on the other end of a last-second desperation heave.

So shake it off, Husker fan. And mark this game down in a few weeks’ time, when Wisconsin rolls into Lincoln, and see if the tough lessons learned against the Cougars pay dividends against the Badgers.

Nebraska Football: Who Benefits Most From Each Departed Player

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photo and story by Patrick Runge

Nebraska football fans have seen six players depart from the team after spring practice. And while those attritions do ease fears in terms of the 85-man scholarship limit, the question inevitably arises as to who benefits from those departures.

So let’s take a look at Nebraska’s roster and make some determinations as to who might benefit the most from each of the six departures this offseason.

Marcus Newby for David Santos

Of all the departures, Santos might have the most effect on this year’s Nebraska squad. Nebraska now only has four scholarship athletes outside of the incoming freshman class. Three of those four returning linebackers have little or no playing experience.

So there will be plenty of playing time to find for linebackers. Michael Rose-Ivey will likely be a starter after spending the season injured last year. That leaves one space left for competition, and Newby has shown the most potential. Newby did see the field last year, but almost entirely as a pass rush specialist.

Lane Hovey for Jariah Tolbert

Tolbert’s size (six-foot-three, 190 pounds) suggested he would be used more as a possession receiver, his height being an advantage in catching passes in traffic against smaller defensive backs. While Nebraska has a number of players who might be able to benefit from Tolbert’s departure, Hovey might be the best suited.

Hovey’s size (six-foot-four, 205 pounds) certainly is similar to Tolbert’s. And Hovey does have some experience last season, seeing playing time in every game and hauling in five catches for 69 yards. If he’s already earned himself a place in the mix, Tolbert’s departure opens the door further for Hovey to cement his place on the depth chart.

Byerson Cockrell for LeRoy Alexander

Nebraska was without Alexander’s services last year after a suspension, so it may not have been the biggest surprise that he is no longer on the roster. Given Nebraska’s depth in the secondary, Alexander’s loss is one NU can absorb, even though Alexander is a talented and promising defensive back.

Cockrell played at nickel for most of the season last year, but Nebraska under new defensive coordinator Mark Banker will likely use far fewer five-DB sets in favor of extra linebackers. So Cockrell’s experience will put him in prime position to compete for a starting safety position opposite Nate Gerry next season.

Zack Darlington for Johnny Stanton

There’s an argument to be made that Stanton’s departure really doesn’t affect anyone, as he found himself so far buried on the depth chart that he wasn’t really in competition for playing time.

So if you’re going to pick a quarterback to benefit from Stanton’s departure, it’s probably the one that looks to be second on the depth chart. And if I had to guess now, that’s Darlington. Using only the Spring Game as first-hand observation, Darlington was the one quarterback on the roster (including, disturbingly enough, presumed starter Tommy Armstrong) that could make all the throws Nebraska will need to succeed.

Alonzo Moore for Glenn Irons

If Tolbert looked to be a possession receiver, Irons projected as a burner to take the top off opposing defenses. While Irons’ skill set is a little reminiscent of De’Mornay Pierson-El, it’s unlikely there is much that could be done to affect Pierson-El’s critical role in next year’s offense.

So let’s go instead to Moore, a receiver who has the speed and skill set in the mold of Kenny Bell. But injuries have derailed Moore’s ability to stay on the field and make a contribution. If he’s able to do so this year, Moore has a shot to be a playmaker at receiver.

Drew Brown for Mauro Bondi

Much like with Stanton’s departure, it’s hard to find too much benefit for Bondi’s leaving given how far down the depth chart he found himself. But with Bondi leaving the program, all of the placekicking duties should now fall to Brown. This can do nothing but help Brown stay involved throughout the game, keeping him warm and included throughout the contest.

Nebraska Football: Position-by-Position Breakdown of Cornhuskers’ 2015 Roster

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photo and story by Patrick Runge

Nebraska football fans have settled into June, knowing that football season is still some ways away. So while they enjoy their afternoons at the pool, baseball games, and endless yardwork, never far from their minds is the composition of Nebraska’s roster for the upcoming season.

Because, in many ways, spending time in June thinking about the Cornhuskers’ backup right guard is part of what defines a Nebraskan.

So let’s take some time and, position-by-position, go through Nebraska’s 2015 roster as it might look under new head coach Mike Riley.

Quarterback

It seems clear that, barring injury, Tommy Armstrong will be Nebraska’s starting quarterback in 2015. BTN’s Tom Dienhart is one of many who believes that Armstrong’s experience will be crucial in retaining the starting job.

Behind Armstrong is a massive amount of depth, all unproven. Junior Ryker Fyfe has the most experience, which isn’t much, and was a walk-on for a reason. Sophomore Johnny Stanton has all the talent in the world with his Elite 11 background, but has struggled to make a dent on Nebraska’s depth chart. He made a cameo appearance at this year’s Spring Game for a reason as well. Redshirt freshmen Zack Darlington and A.J. Bush saw significant playing time at the Spring Game, but both are raw talents and it would be a big ask for them to overtake Armstrong and his experience.

I-Back

Nebraska has four I-backs on the roster that are legitimate threats for significant playing time; senior Imani Cross, junior Terrell Newby, sophomore Adam Taylor, and redshirt freshman Mikale Wilbon.

Given the distribution of carries at the Spring Game, it’s fair to suspect that Newby will be Nebraska’s starting I-back next season. But that may not mean a lot. Even removing from consideration the changes which could come in the depth chart as a result of fall camp, don’t be surprised to see Nebraska employ a significant rotation of I-backs.

Particularly given the difference in skill-sets (Cross being a bruiser, Newby more of a scat-back speedster, and Taylor and Wilbon something of a mix between the two), Nebraska’s I-back carries are likely to be far more evenly distributed than in years past.

Receivers

Nebraska’s starting lineup at wide receiver looks fairly straightforward. In Jordan Westerkamp and Jamal Turner, Nebraska has two experienced and talented wideouts to lean on.

And then Nebraska has its x-factor, De’Mornay Pierson-El. His dominance as a kick returner and flashes of brilliance on offense have sent Nebraska fans into a tizzy. But exactly how Pierson-El will be deployed on the field remains a mystery.

Will he run the ball out of the jet sweep? Does he have the frame at five-foot-nine and 185 pounds to be an every-down wideout? How Riley and offensive coordinator Danny Langsdorf choose to utilize Pierson-El’s skill-set may well be one of the biggest determining factors in Nebraska’s success in 2015.

Nebraska should be well placed with depth, as well, turning to players like Taariq Allen, Alonzo Moore, Brandon Reilly, and Sam Burtch as part of a rotation. All of these players have struggled with injuries at one point in their careers, and have the potential to press for playing time if fully healthy.

Tight End

Cethan Carter stands out amongst Nebraska’s current tight ends as the one true down-the-field receiving threat. Injuries—and a baffling refusal from Nebraska’s previous staff to utilize the tight end—limited Carter’s production last year, but he looks to be ready for 2015.

Behind Carter are a number of capable players—Sam Cotton, David Sutton, and Trey Foster—but none are offensive threats like Carter. Incoming freshman Matt Snyder looks to be that type of player, though, and could see the field early if he is able to make an impression in fall camp.

Offensive Line

At tackle and center, Nebraska will be returning players with at least some starting experience. Left tackle Alex Lewis will likely be the most experienced, with Paul Thurston having a good shot to start at center and right tackle up for grabs between Givens Price and Zach Sterup.

Guard is a bigger question mark given Nebraska’s attrition to graduation. Chongo Kondolo should make a good case at one starter, while Zach Hannon, Dwayne Johnson, and Ryne Reeves could all be part of the mix at tackle as well.

Nebraska’s 2014 class of offensive linemen—Tanner Farmer, Nick Gates, and Jerald Foster—could also have an opportunity to step forward and earn significant playing time, particularly at some of the unsettled positions on the line.

Defensive Line

The middle of Nebraska’s line is pretty clear cut. Vincent Valentine is a monster of a man (six-foot-three, 320 pounds) who got better and better throughout 2014. And Maliek Collins is already a 2016 NFL first round projected draft pick, according to ESPN’s Todd McShay.

Defensive end remains far murkier in terms of who Nebraska will lean on. Based on experience, Greg McMullen and Jack Gangwish will likely open the season as starters. Marcus Newby saw time last year as a pass rush specialist, so don’t be shocked to see him drop in the mix at defensive end, along with Peyton Newell. The biggest wild card might be converted tight end Freedom Akinmoladun, whose athleticism might help him stand out amongst a competitive field.

Linebacker

It might not be Nebraska’s weakest position, but linebacker is certainly Nebraska’s thinnest. Not counting the incoming freshmen, Nebraska has five (!) scholarship linebackers. Two (David Santos and Michael Rose Ivey) are coming off significant injuries, and one (Marcus Newby) was deployed more as a defensive end or 3-4 outside linebacker than a true linebacker in Nebraska’s 4-3 scheme.

So, yeah, the position is a little thin.

The initial starting lineup looks pretty clear with Josh Banderas in the middle, Santos at the Will, and Rose Ivey at the Sam. Look for early-enrollee Dedrick Young to push for playing time, and it seems almost certain that one of the other freshmen (Antonio Reed, Mohammed Barry, Tyrin Ferguson, and Adrienne Talan) to contribute in 2015 as well.

Secondary

If linebacker is thin for Nebraska, then the secondary is ridiculously deep. If we assume that returning starters Nate Gerry at safety and Daniel Davey at corner retain their positions, then there should be an amazing competition for playing time. This competition could be highlighted by new defensive coordinator Mark Banker’s quarters defensive scheme which focuses on three linebackers on the field.

At corner, Josh Kalu, Charles Jackson, Jonathan Rose, and Chris Jones all have a legitimate case for playing time. At safety, Byerson Cockrell played well last year but will be competing with LeRoy Alexander after his year’s suspension, as well as Kieron Williams. And incoming freshmen Eric Lee and Avery Anderson have the talent to push for playing time right  away.

Special Teams

Where Nebraska is good on special teams, it’s really good. Where it’s not, it’s decidedly mediocre.

In Sam Foltz and De’Mornay Pierson-El, Nebraska might have the best in the country at punter and punt returner respectively. That’s a huge weapon and a huge advantage for Nebraska on both sides of the ball.

But at placekicker, Nebraska will likely be choosing between sophomore Drew Brown and senior Mauro Bondi. Neither impressed last season, although some of Brown’s struggles may be attributable to his youth. Regardless, placekicker (both for field goals and kickoffs) has to be considered a question mark.

And don’t underestimate the uncertainty at long snapper, with true freshman Jordan Ober competing with sophomore Josh Faulkenberry for the position.

 

 

Nebraska Football: Grading Cornhuskers’ Position Group’s 2015 Spring

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photo and story by Patrick Runge

Nebraska football fans have put 2015’s spring practice in the rear view mirror, settling in for a long summer of barbecues, baseball and an absence of football. So before we let spring practice go, let’s take a look back and see how Nebraska under new head coach Mike Riley did this spring.

Offensive Line

The offensive line is one area where it’s very hard to get a read on where players stand. It does look like Alex Lewis has solidified his position at left tackle. Paul Thurston made a good case for himself at center with the injury to Ryne Reeves. And Chongo Kondolo looked like he made progress at tackle. But with injuries to Reeves and David Knevel, it’s hard to know just where the offensive line sits after spring practice.

Grade: Incomplete

Offensive Backs

Well, if nothing else, Nebraska established that it has depth in the backfield. At quarterback, no one has jumped up and taken the job by the horns, although junior Tommy Armstrong still looks to be in pole position as a starter given his experience. Redshirt freshman AJ Bush seemed to be impressive in camp, but struggled in the Spring Game. Redshirt freshman Zack Darlington had almost the opposite trajectory, although it did seem like he improved as spring practice wore on. While the depth is good, some down-grade has to be given for an absence of a starting quarterback that truly inspires confidence.

As for the running backs, the four scholarship players (Terrell Newby, Imani Cross, Adam Taylor, and Mikale Wilbon) all staked their claim for the position, along with walk-ons Graham Nabity and Jordan Nelson. Nebraska looks to be settling into a committee approach to I-back, keeping legs fresh and allowing players to be inserted to maximize their particular skill sets.

Grade: B

Receivers

The receiving corps took one of the biggest hits over the spring when junior tight end Cethan Carter was lost to injury. While Carter should be back in time for fall practice (according to Jon Nyatawa of the Omaha World-Herald), it prevented fans at the Spring Game from getting a good look at what could be a crucial cog in Nebraska’s offense.

There’s plenty of receiver news that was positive, though. Senior Jamal Turner looks ready to go after an injury-plagued career. Redshirt freshman Jariah Tolbert made an impact at the Spring Game, catching three balls for 55 yards and a touchdown, and looking to be a legitimate option in the passing game. Mainstays like Jordan Westerkamp and De’Mornay Pierson-El are still on track to be part of Riley’s new-look offense as well.

Grade: B+

Defensive Line

Nebraska’s defensive line might be the hardest to grade, simply because of the difference between the inside and outside of the line. At tackle, Nebraska might have the best tandem in the conference with Vincent Valentine and Maliek Collins. But at end, big questions remain. Jack Gangwish and Greg McMullen look to be the starters, but in terms of both depth and overall talent level defensive end remains one of Nebraska’s biggest uncertainties going into 2015.

Grade: C+

Linebackers

Outside of the freshman class, Nebraska has five scholarship linebackers, including one (senior David Santos) who missed most of spring practice due to injury. Combine that with new defensive coordinator Mark Banker’s quarters scheme which tends to play three linebackers, and you put a lot of pressure on the few experienced players on the roster or on true freshman to contribute at a key position.

Junior Josh Banderas seems to be settling in for his second go-around as middle linebacker, while junior Michael Rose-Ivey is still working his way back from an injury that cost him the 2014 season. So coming out of spring practice, linebacker still has to be one of the big question mark areas for Nebraska

Grade: B-

Secondary

If depth is a theme for Nebraska’s roster, the secondary has it in spades. How deep? Well, LeRoy Alexander is returning from a year’s suspension, but is one of the most talented players on the roster. He was on the White Team roster for the Spring Game, and is not at all guaranteed to get his starting job back in 2015.

The same can be said for Daniel Davie, arguably Nebraska’s best cornerback last year. An injury has kept him out of practice this spring, and given the competition level at the position it is entirely plausible that he will not be a starter next season.

So while the depth chart itself is still being sorted out, Nebraska’s embarrassment of riches in the secondary qualifies as a “good problem” for Riley and his staff.

Grade: A

Special Teams

Half of Nebraska’s special teams looks to be dominant. Sam Foltz might be the best punter in the country, and his strength and accuracy (not to mention tackling acumen) was on display at the Spring Game. De’Mornay Pierson-El is a game-changer at punt returner and kick returner, giving Nebraska a huge advantage in field position.

But Nebraska’s placekicking position remains a question. Drew Brown and Mauro Bondi remain the scholarship kickers, and neither were standouts in 2014. Nebraska was a pedestrian no. 70 nationally in touchback percentage and no. 80 in field goal percentage, according to CFBStats.com.

So if you take two parts of special teams play that are elite at a national level, and two parts which are (at best) average, then a middling B grade seems about fair.

Grade: B

Nebraska Football: Who Needs To Come Through For Huskers In 2015?

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photo and story by Patrick Runge

Nebraska football fans have been paying lots of attention during spring practice in term of which players might be making the leap, and which might find themselves on the bench this fall. But a different, and perhaps more important, question to ask is which players have to step up and excel for Nebraska to have a successful first season under new head coach Mike Riley. Here are three players whose success is crucial for Nebraska to win in 2015.

Tommy Armstrong

OK, pipe down, I know this is the Captain Obvious pick. But just because it’s obvious doesn’t mean it isn’t true. Sure, there’s no guarantee that Armstrong will even win the job. But if he doesn’t, that means Nebraska will be starting a quarterback with almost no in-game experience. Couple that with a new offensive (and defensive) scheme being introduced and two tough games (BYU and at Miami) in the first three, and Nebraska will have precious little time to get right as the 2015 season starts.

So that puts the pressure squarely on Armstrong’s shoulders to make the necessary improvements (which is columnist-speak for “have a better completion percentage”) and secure the starting quarterback job as quickly as possible. Nebraska isn’t guaranteed a successful 2015 campaign if Armstrong wins the starting job, of course. But if he doesn’t, the chance for Nebraska’s 2015 season to be successful diminish considerably.

Josh Banderas

In one of his spring camp observations, Brian Christopherson of the Lincoln Journal-Star pointed out that Banderas is settling into the middle linebacker position much more comfortably than he did when pressed into service as a true freshman. That’s good news for Nebraska on two fronts. First, getting Banderas on the field and contributing would be putting his considerable skill set to good use.

But perhaps more importantly, Nebraska would have the chance to get solid and consistent play from the middle linebacker. After Michael Rose-Ivey went down just before the season started last year, Nebraska struggled to find anyone that could fill the position appropriately. And particularly at middle linebacker, with the kind of additional leadership role the position requires, inconsistency at the position will sap the effectiveness of the entire linebacker corps, and ultimately the defense as a whole.

If Banderas is able to solidify himself at middle linebacker, especially given new defensive coordinator Mark Banker’s emphasis on three-linebacker sets, the Blackshirts will have an opportunity to take a step forward. Banderas’ ability to make such a leap is a crucial question coming into 2015.

Drew Brown

Oh, good grief, is he talking about kickers again?

Yep. After being spoiled for years, Nebraska toiled through a very average placekicking game in 2014, to the point where NU tried for a long fourth down conversion rather than risk a long field goal.

Like them or hate them (or, more likely, just mock them), having an effective placekicker is a huge strategic advantage for a team—and a huge liability for a team without a reliable kicker. Nebraska does have two rostered kickers in Mauro Bondi and Brown, but given Bondi’s history it seems like Brown is the far more likely candidate to have a breakthrough season in his sophomore campaign.

If Brown is able to show some of the promise he flashed when he arrived in Lincoln, Nebraska’s chances of a successful 2015 campaign go up dramatically.

Nebraska Football: Ranking the Top 5 Surprises for the Huskers This Year

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photo and story by Patrick Runge

Nebraska football fans had an idea of what to expect coming into the 2014 season, but have received a few surprises along the way. As with any season, unexpected twists and turns have popped up, changing expectations from where they were in the summer.

Here are five of the biggest surprises Nebraska fans have seen as the 2014 season has unfolded.

No. 5 – Gregory’s Return?

Last week, Nebraska fans were buzzing at the possibility of defensive end Randy Gregory returning for his senior season in 2015. Fueled by comments from head coach Bo Pelini that “we’re not going to lose any of them” (referring to the defensive line, as reported by Brian Christopherson of the Lincoln Journal-Star), Nebraska fans had a glimmer of hope to see Gregory next year.

After all, many outlets (such as CBS Sports’ Rob Rang) have Gregory as a top-five pick overall in next year’s NFL draft. While Pelini later said he wasn’t implying he knew anything about Gregory’s return next season (according to Brian Rosenthal of the Lincoln Journal-Star), the seed was at least planted that Nebraska might get another year out of the phenomenal defensive talent of Gregory.

No. 4 – Tommy’s Consistency, In A Bad Way

In many ways, quarterback Tommy Armstrong’s numbers don’t look all that different in 2014 than they did in 2013. Take a look:

Completion % TD INT Yards/Att Rating
2013 51.9 9 8 7.4 124.31
2014 53.0 13 8 7.9 131.45

 

While Armstrong has played in nine games this year, the same number as in 2013, it’s hard to make a straight comparison of his statistics. Many times last year, Armstrong played only part of a game, being spelled by Ron Kellogg. This year, the job has been almost exclusively Armstrong’s.

Going into his nineteenth game, it’s not unreasonable to have expected improvement in Armstrong’s performance at quarterback.

No. 3 – Kicking Conundrum

As observed long ago by a smart and particularly handsome analyst, Nebraska has been “Kicker U” recently, producing an inordinate amount of accurate and reliable placekickers. That history has spoiled Nebraska fans a little, leading them to think field goals in college football are near automatic.

Not this year. True freshman Drew Brown is 9-14 in field goal attempts—fairly average nationwide, but perfectly dreadful based on Nebraska’s recent high standards. And while Brown’s (relative) struggles have yet to cost Nebraska a game, seeing NU with anything less than a stellar kicking game is a little jarring.

No. 2 – Failure to Launch

Sure, Ameer Abdullah has been fantastic (unless the opponent was an M-State, be it Michigan or McNeese). But much was expected of the other I-backs in the stable, Imani Cross and Terrell Newby.

While both have a yards/carry average that is respectable (5.19 for Cross, 4.67 for Newby), neither of them have really been able to make a splash and grab the kind of attention Nebraska fans had hoped for. Certainly, in comparison to Abdullah at his best, most running backs will struggle.

But as Nebraska fans saw with the offensive struggles against Purdue in Abdullah’s absence, it’s not unfair to say that the contributions of Cross and Newby at this stage are a little underwhelming.

No. 1 – A Star is Born

There’s little doubt that freshman receiver De’Mornay Pierson-El has been the best surprise Nebraska has found this year. Almost single-handedly, Pierson-El has turned a weakness into a strength in the punt return game. He’s beginning to be worked into the offense as well, looking as if he has claimed the starting third wide receiver position.

And if Abdullah is going to be limited against Wisconsin, Pierson-El may provide a crucial playmaker and weapon, forcing Wisconsin to respect the deep part of the field and opening running lanes for Armstrong, Cross, and Newby.

Stats gathered from CFBStats.com.