Nebraska Football: NU Review, Nebraska 24, Northwestern 13

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On Saturday, Nebraska went on the road for its first conference game and first game away from Memorial Stadium, defeating Northwestern 24-13. Nebraska survived two goal-line fumbles into the end zone and still managed to beat the Purples by eleven. So, for Nebraska fans looking back at the Northwestern game …

The Good

Tommy! And you thought Nebraska quarterback Tommy Armstrong had a legacy-defining performance with his touchdown run against Oregon last week. Against Northwestern, Armstrong ran for 135 yards (!) on 13 carries, and went 18-29 for 246 yards and one touchdown. That’s 381 yards of total offense, one of the best performances of his Nebraska career.

More importantly, Armstrong was not responsible for any turnovers. He nearly was a victim of a pick-six towards the end of the game, but ultimately he was able to put Nebraska on his shoulders and grind out a victory on the road in a conference game.

Three-Headed Monster. Before Nebraska’s trip to Evanston, it looked like Devine Ozigbo was establishing himself as NU’s clear top I-back. But the Purples did a pretty good job bottling Ozigbo up, holding him to 42 yards on 13 carries.

But the depth of Nebraska’s I-back stable got shown off in Evanston. Terrell Newby had 71 yards on 10 carries (never mind the fumble), and Mikale Wilbon got his first real dose of work, going for 55 yards of six carries.

Oh, yeah, and Armstrong had a pretty decent day on the ground, too.

So Nebraska’s ability to find I-backs to be successful is an encouraging sign going forward.

Getting Home. Nebraska lodged four sacks against Northwestern (so, free Big Mac!), and got an additional two quarterback hurries. While much of Nebraska’s struggles last year against the pass should be laid at the feet of the secondary, and absence of a consistent pass rush was a part of last year’s struggles. So seeing more success in bring pressure against opposing quarterbacks, even with an opposing offensive line like Northwestern’s, is encouraging.

The Bad

Clayton The Jet. Last year, Northwestern quarterback Clayton Thorson had nine carries for 126 yards in the Purples’ upset of Nebraska in Lincoln. On Saturday, Thorson had 10 carries for 43 yards, including a touchdown. In 2015, Thorson’s rushing against Nebraska accounted for 31.7 percent of his entire rushing for the season. This year, it’s actually 2130 percent, as Thorson was at negative-two yards rushing before his 43 against Nebraska.

Clearly, Northwestern has been successful at finding ways to use Thorson schematically against defensive coordinator Mark Banker’s Blackshirts. And while Nebraska ended up with a (relatively) comfortable win, that has to be something highlighted for future contests.

Just Get It There! On at least four occasions, Nebraska’s center Dylan Utter either flew or bounced a shotgun snap to Armstrong. Remarkably, none of them resulted in a turnover, but all of them either resulted in lost yardage or a less successful play. These are new struggles for Utter, and it’s hard to tell if it was the first road game, the natural grass surface, or something Northwestern was doing that threw him off. Regardless, though, that’s an an issue that Nebraska needs to fix ASAP.

And the Beginning of the Exorcism

OK, admit it, Husker Fan. With 3:54 left in the game and Nebraska holding on to an 11-point lead, you weren’t entirely confident. Last year left some marks on your college football soul. And when the Purples were able to, relatively easily, move the ball from their own 20 to the Nebraska 27, the ghosts of last year began to haunt you.

But then Josh Kalu’s interception ended Northwestern’s drive (and fundamentally, the game), the 2016 Cornhuskers won the type of game that the 2015 Cornhuskers lost over and over and over again. Just like they did last week against Oregon.

Nebraska is now 4-0 overall, 1-0 in conference, and in the top 15 in both polls. Sure, we’re only a third of the way through the season and there’s a lot left for Mike Riley’s charges to prove.

But this year’s squad is going a long way towards laying the ghosts of last season to rest.

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Nebraska Football: The Five Most Indispensable Cornhuskers

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Nebraska football fans have endured a strange season, with a win over Minnesota last week lifting the team to 3-4 on the 2015 campaign. But now that we are into the second half of the season, we’ve seen the players that are most important to Nebraska’s success. These five are the players Nebraska can least live without for the rest of 2015.

All stats from cfbstats.com unless otherwise indicated.

No. 5: Alonzo Moore

When wide receiver De’Mornay Pierson-El was lost for the start of the season, many Nebraska fans worried who would fill his role. But after struggling with injuries and performance on the field, junior receiver Alonzo Moore stepped in right away and provided a spark to Nebraska’s offense. He’s been effective in what many envisioned Pierson-El’s role in the jet sweep – Moore is Nebraska’s sixth-leading rusher, and second in yards per carry only to Andy Janovich.

And as a receiver, Moore is third on the team in total yardage. He is second in yards per reception to – you guessed it – big-play fullback Janovich. Moore provides a stretch-the-field speed threat that can help open running lanes, and his consistency this year has been an unheralded cog in the transition to new head coach Mike Riley’s offense.

No. 4: Josh Kalu

Yes, I am fully aware that cornerback Josh Kalu is a member of a secondary that boasts the worst pass defense in the FBS. But remember that the transition to new defensive coordinator Mark Banker’s scheme asks the most of the secondary. Sure, it’s been harder (OK, fine, a lot harder) than most anticipated, but that doesn’t mean progress isn’t being made.

And it’s been Kalu that has made the most progress to date in that secondary. As the season has gone on, you can see Kalu doing better in single coverage technique, and getting more confident in making plays on the ball. Ultimately, Nebraska’s pass defense is only going to improve with superior play in the secondary. And Kalu, right now, provides Nebraska’s best shot at getting that level of performance.

No. 3: Jordan Westerkamp

It’s easy to dismiss a guy like Westerkamp as a possession receiver, a steady-Eddie type who won’t ever make the splash plays but is super dependable. Of course, we know that Westerkamp can make plays that are behind-the-back sensational and game-winning critical.

But even with the spectacular in his locker, it is Westerkamp’s consistency which makes him so valuable. He leads the team in reception yardage, and is second only to Moore in touchdown receptions. Westerkamp is a reliable third-down target, crucial for Nebraska’s offense to stay on the field and keep pressure off a beleaguered defense.

No. 2: Maliek Collins

Don’t let the statistics fool you. Right now, defensive tackle Maliek Collins is seventh on the team in tackles, second in tackles for loss, and fourth in sacks. But his presence in the middle is affecting everything else on the front end of Nebraska’s defense.  Collins has been a lynchpin of Nebraska’s rushing defense, currently no. 7 nationally. And as the season is wearing on, you can start to see him becoming more and more of a disruptive force. Particularly against Minnesota last week, you saw Collins able to break through and apply pressure to the quarterback through the middle. And when he has been split outside, Collins has been able to wreak havoc as a pass rusher.

With the return of defensive end Freedom Akinmoladun, Collins may get some additional space to work against opposing offenses. Regardless, his play has been instrumental in Nebraska’s defense, and his loss would be catastrophic going forward.

No. 1: Tommy Armstrong

This one wasn’t really close. A smart and particularly handsome analyst pointed out how critical Armstrong’s performance has been for Nebraska this year.

Opponent Completions Attempts Completion %
BYU 24 41 58.5
South Alabama 26 38 68.4
Miami 21 45 46.7
Southern Miss 23 35 65.7
Illinois 10 31 32.3
Wisconsin 11 28 39.3
Minnesota 18 26 69.2

Games won are in bold.

The analysis is pretty straightforward. When Armstrong is completing more than 60 percent of his passes, Nebraska wins. When he doesn’t, Nebraska loses.

Of course, it’s not just Armstrong’s passing that makes him important to Nebraska. Armstrong’s rushing ability has been crucial, and the inclusion of that element (both planned and unplanned) has been the biggest area of growth in Riley’s new offense.

Losing any other player for Nebraska would be costly, but would leave NU with options. If something happens to Armstrong, though, it’s hard to see how Nebraska would recover.

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: Projecting Who Will Win The Open Starting Positions

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photo and story by Patrick Runge

Nebraska football fans have been looking at the roster, seeing who graduated, and thinking about who might step in and be a new starter in 2015. With new head coach Mike Riley, it’s even harder to guess where players might slot in under a new system with a new set of coaches doing the evaluations.

Of course, with a new coaching staff, most positions are up for grabs. But for purposes of this exercise, we will work of the Holiday Bowl depth chart to determine which positions are open. With that understanding, let’s take a look at the rosters.

Offensive Line

Open positions: Left guard, right guard

Center and right tackle may be positions that shift during the course of fall camp, but for purposes of this exercise the only open positions are at guard with the graduation of Jake Cotton and Mike Moudy.

Chongo Kondolo saw quite a bit of time last season, and looks likely to be first man up in 2015. Given that guard is an easier position for a young player to step into, it would not be a surprise to see one of last year’s offensive line recruits step in and win a starting position. Given that Tanner Farmer was the highest rated of those prospects (according to 247 Sports), he gets the nod for now.

Projected starters: Chongo Kondolo, Tanner Farmer

Backfield

Open position: I-back

Ameer Abdullah’s departure leaves a huge hole at I-back to fill. Nebraska has at least four I-backs with the potential to step in and start, although it seems likely that none will have the same kind of work-load that Abdullah did.

At this point it’s hard to handicap the I-back race. But given how the backs were used in the Spring Game, Terrell Newby should be the leader in the clubhouse to win the starting job. Newby has game-breaking speed, and has shown an ability to run between the tackles. Between those skills and Newby’s game experience, he’s the most likely starter at this point.

Projected starter: Terrell Newby

Receivers

Open position: X receiver

Kenny Bell’s graduation opens up one receiver spot for Nebraska next year. And while Nebraska has a number of talented receivers, Jamal Turner is uniquely qualified to slide into a starting role. Turner received a sixth year of eligibility after an injury robbed him of most of the 2014 season. With his experience and ability—assuming he has fully healed—Turner is a natural selection for a starting wideout.

Projected starter: Jamal Turner

Defensive Line

Open position: Defensive end

Nebraska’s interior defensive line is set with Maliek Collins and Vincent Valentine. Greg McMullen should hold down one defensive end position, leaving the other—the one that Randy Gregory has vacated—left to fill.

Jack Gangwish ended the season as Gregory’s backup, and performed well. Given the lack of depth at the position, especially proven depth, Gangwish looks to be the natural replacement for Gregory.

Projected starter: Jack Gangwish

Linebackers

Open positions: MIKE and WILL linebacker

Linebacker is Nebraska’s shallowest position, with only five scholarship players outside of true freshmen returning in 2015. Much has been written about how Josh Banderas is thriving in Riley’s new system (including this article by Brian Rosenthal of the Lincoln Journal-Star), and it seems likely he will return to the role he was used as a true freshman at middle linebacker.

At weak-side linebacker, Michael Rose-Ivey seems the most likely starter. Returning from an injury that cost him all of 2014, Rose-Ivey will look to recapture the form that had him as a fixture in the starting lineup a year earlier. While Banderas should reclaim the middle linebacker position, Rose-Ivey makes a lot of sense slotting in at weak-side linebacker

Projected starters: Josh Banderas, Michael Rose-Ivey

Secondary

Open positions: Cornerback, safety

Nebraska has one player returning at corner (Daniel Davie) and safety (Nate Gerry), so has one each to fill for 2015. Safety looks to be the easier race to handicap, with LeRoy Alexander returning from a one-year suspension. Alexander was a contender to win one of the starting roles last season, and he should start fall camp with a leg up on his competition for the role in 2015.

Cornerback is a muddier picture, with a number of players competing for the role. While any number of players could ultimately win the position, smart money at this point might be on Josh Kalu. As a true freshman, Kalu fought his way onto the field, and showed leadership with his opportunities. While it’s a crowded field, seeing Kalu win a starting role would not be a shock

Projected starters: LeRoy Alexander, Josh Kalu