Nebraska Football: NU ReView, Wisconsin 23, Nebraska 17

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Nebraska suffered its first loss of the season in heartbreaking fashion, falling in overtime 23-17 to Wisconsin in Madison. After being behind 17-7 going into the fourth quarter, Nebraska scored twice to tie the game, but ultimately was not able to answer Wisconsin’s overtime touchdown. So, for Nebraska fans looking back on the game against Wisconsin …

The Good

Breaking the Wall. Nebraska had no business being successful running the ball at one of the best rushing defenses in the country. Injuries to the offensive line coming into the game made Nebraska’s ability to create space a huge question mark. And when guard Tanner Farmer was carted off the field in the first half, it became difficult to see how Nebraska was going to do much of anything on offense.

But Nebraska still ended the game with 152 yards rushing on 44 attempts. Yeah, it was only 3.5 yards per carry. Terrell Newby led the way with 78 yards on 17 rushes. And while Nebraska’s running attack certainly won’t win any awards, it helped to keep the offense on the field and keep Wisconsin’s defense honest.

Even with a hurting offensive line, Nebraska had 44 rushes to 31 pass attempts, demonstrating a commitment to the run and an offensive game plan. And that plan was oh-so-nearly good enough to get the job done.

Front Four. Nebraska’s defensive front had been a question coming into the season, especially with the departures of Maliek Collins and Vincent Valentine. But against Wisconsin, the front four played one of its best games of the season. Nebraska’s two sacks came from the interior of the line, one from Mick Stoltenberg and one from Carlos Davis.

And Wisconsin, while ultimately doing well against Nebraska on the ground, had to move to the edges to find success. Against an imposing Wisconsin offensive line, Nebraska’s defensive front was more than able to hold its own.

Fourth Quarter Fortitude. Well, here we go again. Nebraska entered the fourth quarter down ten, and in danger of seeing the game slip away. But rather than crumble, Nebraska dug in, scoring early to get the game closer, then getting two Nate Gerry interceptions to allow NU’s offense to tie the score.

Last year, a combination of a new coaching staff and a string of heartbreaking losses tore at the fragility of Nebraska’s psyche. This year, this group of Cornhuskers has definitely achieved a level of confidence to keep swinging late into a contest.

The Bad

Tommy’s Troubles. It is really, really hard to write negative things about Tommy Armstrong. He is such a tough competitor, and such an inspirational character and leader for the team. Going through what he has, with a coaching change and an entire shift in offensive philosophy, is one of the most difficult thing for a quarterback to handle.

The numbers, though, speak for themselves. Armstrong was 12 of 31 for 153 yards, and two interceptions. He had 13 carries for 47 yards. Yes, he made some clutch plays – that’s what Armstrong does, to be certain.

But as compelling as Nebraska’s comeback was – indeed, its play throughout the game – Armstrong’s contribution to that comeback was limited at best. A sharper performance from the quarterback position may very well have been the difference in Nebraska finally putting its Camp Randall ghosts to rest.

Getting Stretched. At the start of the game, Nebraska was having a great deal of success against Wisconsin’s running game. Corey Clement, the Badgers’ starting tailback, was limited to 82 yards on 19 carries. The interior of Nebraska’s defensive line was handling Wisconsin’s attack.

But Wisconsin brought in Dare Ogunbowale, and began to attack Nebraska with stretch concepts, meaning a running play where the offensive line and running back go at an angle to one side with the hope of “stretching” the defense out until a running back can get through a crease in the stretch.

That’s just what Ogunbowale did to great effect, rushing for 120 yards on 11 carries. The big hits that Wisconsin created off of those stretch plays were ultimately the difference that allowed the Badgers to win an incredibly tight contest.

Those No-Calls. On Wisconsin’s first touchdown, defensive end Ross Dzuris was pretty clearly held going after Wisconsin quarterback Alex Hornibrook. Nebraska receiver Stanley Morgan was arguably interfered with on a critical pass attempt. And on third down in overtime, Jordan Westerkamp was body-checked by Wisconsin linebacker Ryan Connelly, with no pass interference called. The Badgers were not flagged once for holding.

Stop it. Just stop it, Husker Fan. Yes, there’s an argument that there were some missed calls in the game. Much like you, my arms were raised in righteous indignation when the flags remain in officials’ pockets.

But you just can’t go there. It’s loser talk, as I remind my kids when they want to bellyache about an umpire’s calls. Nebraska has gotten, and will get, its share of calls, and you won’t remember those for more than five seconds when they go your way. Letting yourself fall into a “we wuz robbed” mentality won’t do anything more than raise your blood pressure even more than being on this roller-coaster of sports fandom already does.

Besides, Nebraska had plenty of opportunities to win this game. There’s plenty of questions to raise about what could have been different to escape Madison with a record unblemished.

Wisconsin won because Wisconsin played a hell of a game. Nebraska lost because Nebraska played a hell of a game, but came up a few plays short. Leave it there – both because it’s right and because it’s far better for your mental health.

And The Moral Victory

OK, I’ll admit it. In the throes of the overtime, I wasn’t terribly interested in hearing the “win or lose, Nebraska has proved itself” narrative. I might have gotten a little shouty about it on Twitter.

But Sherman, set the WayBack Machine for November 15, 2014. With 14:12 to go in the second quarter, Nebraska led Wisconsin 17-3 and had the ball. It looked like – after so long – Nebraska was finally going to play well on a national stage and take a step back towards national recognition.

After that, well, let’s just say that the Huskers.com recap tells the story of Wisconsin’s 59-24 win:

Melvin Gordon ran for an NCAA FBS record 408 yards and four TDs on 25 carries, as Wisconsin rushed for 581 yards and reeled off 56 unanswered points. Gordon set the record despite sitting out the fourth quarter. (Emphasis added)

Nebraska fans had been accustomed to seeing those embarrassing losses on national television. Indeed, one smart and particularly handsome analyst pointed out that epic collapses like that were the defining characteristic of the Bo Pelini era.

You remember that, don’t you Husker Fan? Spending a week or so getting excited for a game, settling in with your diet soda and taco-flavored Doritos to watch a prime-time Nebraska showdown for big stakes? Luxuriating in the national attention brought to you by college football’s pundits discussing the scarlet and cream alongside all the other national powerhouses? Seeing “Nebraska” flash amongst all the other teams in the mix for those coveted four spots in the College Football Playoff commercials?

For years – probably since the 2010 Big XII Championship Game against Oklahoma – Nebraska was buried in those games quickly. Here’s what the halftime scores were for Nebraska against top-15 teams (and Wisconsin):

Wisconsin 2011 UW 27, NU 14 (NU lost 48-17)
Michigan State 2011 NU 10, MSU 3 (NU won 24-3)
South Carolina 2012 USC 16, NU 13 (NU lost 30-13)
Ohio State 2012 OSU 35, NU 24 (NU lost 63-38)
Wisconsin 2012 UW 42, NU 10 (NU lost 70-31)
Georgia 2013 NU 24, UGA 23 (NU lost 45-31)
Michigan State 2013 MSU 20, NU 3 (NU lost 41-28)
Michigan State 2014 MSU 17, NU 0 (NU lost 27-22)
Wisconsin 2014 NU 27, UW 24 (NU lost 59-24)

Under two seasons with Riley, Nebraska has played two teams ranked in the top ten, and four ranked teams in total. Nebraska beat no. 6 Michigan State 39-38 and lost to no. 3 Iowa 28-20 in 2015, and beat no. 22 Oregon 35-32 and lost to no. 11 Wisconsin 23-17 in overtime this year.

Notice something? One point win. Eight point loss. Three point win. Six point loss.

Yes, Nebraska is 2-2 in those games. But that’s the point. Nebraska is in those games. Husker Fan has something to do in the fourth quarter of those big games other than turn of Twitter and see what’s on sale at Restoration Hardware.

That’s reason to hope. Reason to think that Nebraska just might be on the verge of winning more of these games, and of bringing in the quality and quantity of players necessary to win those games on a consistent basis.

Now, let’s be clear. Coming close and losing isn’t good enough, certainly in the long run. Putting up a fight as a plucky underdog and gaining respect in the loss is still a loss, and moral victories won’t get Nebraska where it wants to go, where the program and the fanbase envision it and expect it to be on the national stage.

In the long run, it’s not good enough. But as a salve for the wounds of blowouts past, for the exhausting energy to keep the faith with the scarlet and cream year after year, through all kinds of weather, it’s a start. Not the finish, to be sure, but just maybe this is the tangible evidence that Nebraska is finding a way to come in from the long winter’s night of irrelevance.

Bring on the Buckeyes.

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Nebraska Football: JUCO Transfer Talk Highlight Needs on Defensive Line

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Over the last week, Nebraska has brought in two junior-college transfer candidates on the defensive line for a look at the Huskers. Graduate transfer Stevie Tu’ikolovatu came to Lincoln for his first of five potential visits after receiving his degree from Utah, according to Steven M. Sipple of the Lincoln Journal-Star. And defensive end Raveon Hoston from Valley College of Los Angeles said on Facebook that he has received an offer from Nebraska, according to Sam McEwon of the Omaha World-Herald.

It’s not a huge surprise, of course, that Nebraska is looking for a “break glass in case of emergency” option on the defensive line. The departures of Maliek Collins and Vincent Valentine to the NFL were not unexpected, but left a big hole in the middle of Nebraska’s defensive front. Kevin Williams followed up with his transfer from Nebraska to Michigan State, which put even more stress on the defensive line.

How much stress? Well, only three defensive linemen (Freedom Akinmoladun, Kevin Maurice, and Ross Dzuris) will be back in 2016. According to Athlon Sports, Maurice – the only returning tackle – has one start, while defensive ends Akinmoladun and Dzuris have eight each.

That’s mighty thin for such an important position on the field. At the moment, Nebraska will be leaning heavily on redshirt freshmen Khalil Davis and Carlos Davis and untested sophomores Peyton Newell and Mick Stoltenberg to solidify things up the middle.

So the signing of Tu’ikolovatu for Nebraska would be a massive (literally and figuratively) addition to Nebraska’s defensive line. He played in all 13 games for Utah last year, a team that finished sixth (!) nationally in rushing defense. If Tu’ikolovatu does pick Nebraska, he would almost certainly walk into Lincoln as a starting defensive tackle and give the Davis twins an additional year to develop before being asked to perform as starters.

The pursuit of Hoston is a little more interesting, as Nebraska’s depth at defensive end is (slightly) better than at tackle. Sedrick King, A.J. Natter, and DaiShon Neal should all be competing for playing time, although the experience of Akinmoladun and Dzuris should pencil them in as starters for next season.

Still, Nebraska’s pass rush in 2015 was woeful, checking in at no. 78 nationally in sacks. Nebraska was also no. 122 in pass defense overall, no. 123 in pass defense on third down, and no. 122 in pass defense on third down and 10 or more yards to go. Sure, some of those struggles can be laid at the feet of the secondary, but the lack of a consistent pass rush (which Nebraska struggled with all season) makes the secondary’s job a lot harder.

Hoston had 19 tackles, three sacks, and 5.5 tackles for loss last season. His addition to Nebraska’s roster, if it comes to pass, wouldn’t be the obvious shot in the arm at end that Tu’ikolovatu’s would be at tackle.

But at the very least, the fact that Nebraska is exploring at least two junior college transfers on the defensive line suggests the coaching staff recognizes one of NU’s biggest weaknesses coming into the 2016 campaign. And is looking for a means to address that weakness immediately.

(All stats from cfbstats.com unless otherwise indicated).

Nebraska Football Three Redshirts With Best Chance To Earn Starting Spot in 2015

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photo and story by Patrick Runge

Nebraska football fans have already started to dive into the roster, trying to imagine what next year’s starting lineup will look like. The players who redshirted last year (31 in total) will get their first chance to see the field this fall. Of course, between talent and position depth, some will have a better chance than others to work their way up the depth chart.

Here are three of the most likely redshirt freshmen to win a starting spot next season.

Tanner Farmer

The line is one of the most difficult places for younger players to break in, simply because of the physical demands of the position. At least a year of college-level weight training is usually required before linemen on both sides of the ball can usually be ready to stand up to the demands of the position.

Farmer is one of three redshirts (along with D.J. Foster and Nick Gates) who will be in the mix this year for playing time at offensive line. There are currently six senior offensive linemen, with two of those (Matt Finnin and Chongo Kondolo) limited to reserve roles. Of the five players who are sophomores and juniors on the offensive line, only one (Paul Thurston) has really claimed any significant playing time.

That means the door should be open for the incoming redshirt freshman to fight for and win a starting spot on the line. As the highest-rated recruit (according to 247 Sports), Farmer gets the slight nod over the other two, but all three redshirt freshmen offensive linemen should see a terrific opportunity for themselves in 2015.

Mick Stoltenberg

Other than linebacker, defensive end might be the thinnest position on Nebraska’s roster coming in to 2015. The early departure of Randy Gregory, combined with Avery Moss being denied re-entry to the school, leaves Nebraska with only four defensive ends outside of the redshirt freshmen. Two of those four, Joe Keels and A.J. Natter, have struggled to make any impact since arriving in Lincoln.

The depth is such a concern that (according to Corn Nation) Freedom Akinmoladun is being considered for a move from tight end to defensive end. While Akinmoladun is an impressive athlete, learning a new position is a challenge, meaning that Stoltenberg (who was a higher-ranked recruit, according to 247 Sports, than Sedrick King, the other redshirt freshman defensive end) should be considered to have a better chance at winning a starting role.

Mikale Wilbon

Nebraska will have a huge, Ameer Abdullah-shaped hole in its offense for 2015. And there is no clear-cut candidate to step in and fill the role. Senior Imani Cross has the most experience, but also lacks the speed to be an explosive threat. Junior Terrell Newby has the speed, but has failed to grasp the opportunities he’s been given to earn more playing time to date. Sophomore Adam Taylor has been hampered by injuries, so we really haven’t had a chance to see what he can do at the collegiate level.

Which leaves the door wide open for Wilbon, who has been put “into the same sentence as Ameer Abdullah,” according to Big Red Report’s Josh Harvey. With a new coaching staff and the departure of one of the best I-backs to play in Lincoln, competition for the starting job should be wide open—leaving Wilbon a clear opportunity to win it in 2015.

Nebraska Football: Ranking the 5 Best Redshirt Freshmen for the Cornhuskers

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photo and story by Patrick Runge

Nebraska football fans have long memories, long enough to remember the recruiting hype for the freshmen who redshirted last year and have extended their careers in Lincoln as a result. Of course, there is no real data available to make any kind of informed analysis of where the redshirt freshmen stand.

Having said that, we do have recruiting rankings available, to give at least some idea of a player’s potential. We can also look at the opportunities available to the players, either from roster attrition, a new coaching staff, or both, and make some informed projections about how these players may fit in next season.

All ratings from 247 Sports.

No. 5: Mick Stoltenberg (DT)

Stoltenberg was a three-star recruit (.8296 composite) coming out of high school, and plays a position that should see a lot of competition prior to the 2015 season. With Randy Gregory declaring for the NFL draft, Greg McMullen looks to be the only sure-fire starter returning for Nebraska.

Stoltenberg will be competing with Jack Gangwish, Joe Keels, and A.J. Natter, all who saw playing time last season.

No. 4: Freedom Akinmoladun (TE)

Let’s agree at the start that guessing what new head coach Mike Riley’s offense will look like in 2015 is a fool’s errand. Having said that, given Riley’s history and the fact that his new offensive coordinator is a quarterback coach, it’s a fair conclusion that Nebraska will lean more on the passing game than it did under Bo Pelini.

And if we take past as prologue, we see that the tight end in Oregon State’s offense in the last three years has been either third or fourth in receptions. Compare that to Nebraska’s offense over the same time period, where the tight end has only been fourth one year (Kyler Reed in 2012) and sixth every other year.

In 2015, Nebraska will have a dangerous receiving threat at tight end returning in Cethan Carter. But Akinmoladun looks to be cut from the same mold as Carter, and should have a chance to shine.

No. 3: A.J. Bush (QB)

Bush might be the biggest wild card of all Nebraska’s redshirt freshman. As discussed earlier, we don’t know what Nebraska’s offense is going to look like next year, so it’s hard to guess what skill set the next NU quarterback will need. Tommy Armstrong has off-the-chart intangibles and nearly two years of starting experience under his belt. Johnny Stanton was recruited by Riley at Oregon State, so there’s no question Riley likes what Stanton has to offer.

And yet Bush’s name keeps coming up, even over Nebraska’s other redshirt freshman quarterback Zack Darlington. During preparation for this year’s Holiday Bowl, interim head coach Barney Cotton called Bush “an intriguing guy” (according to Steven M. Sipple of the Lincoln Journal-Star).

With a new coaching staff coming in, all the quarterbacks will be starting with a clean slate. That may give this “intriguing guy” a chance to make an impression and work his way up the depth chart next season.

No. 2: Mikale Wilbon (RB)

The graduation of Ameer Abdullah leaves a huge hole at Nebraska’s I-back position. Returners Imani Cross and Terrell Newby certainly have the advantage of game experience. But that experience has also shown some of the weaknesses in both of their games.

Adam Taylor, if he is able to bounce back from an injury that cost him the 2014 season, looks to provide a middle-ground in skill sets between a bruiser like Cross and a scatback like Newby. A three-star prospect (.8822 composite), Wilbon will have the chance to impress the new coaching staff and make an immediate impact in 2015.

No. 1: Tanner Farmer (OL)

In some ways, picking the redshirt offensive lineman for this list was a challenge, as Nick Gates and Jerald Foster will be in the mix as well. But Farmer’s recruiting pedigree (four-star, .9021 composite) along with his size (six-foot-four, 310 pounds) give him the slight nod in this contest.

Farmer’s familiarity at guard should help, as Nebraska is returning both starting tackles for 2014. But the depth of talent and competition for playing time should be a good problem for new Nebraska offensive line coach Mike Cavanaugh.