Nebraska Football: Three Takeaways from the Firing of Shawn Eichorst

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After Nebraska’s 21-17 loss to Northern Illinois last Saturday, a smart and particularly handsome analyst said that the loss was what the beginning of the end might look like. Well, it looks a lot more like the end after Nebraska’s chancellor Ronnie Green announced that the university had immediately terminated Eichorst’s employment on Thursday.

There’s plenty to digest, but here’s three quick reactions to Eichorst’s ouster.

Riley is coaching for his job

It kinda felt like it even before Thursday’s news broke, but now there’s no question that head coach Mike Riley is fighting to stay in the big chair in Lincoln. An interim athletic director – meaning one who didn’t hire Riley – will be named in the next few days, and it’s almost certain he and Riley will meet and discuss what Riley’s target must be to keep his job.

Is it 7-5, meaning Nebraska wins out except against Wisconsin, Ohio State, and Penn State? Is it 6-6, enough to go to a bowl game? Is it higher? Does it depend on how the record happens as much as what the record is?

That will be up to the interim athletic director, with guidance from the higher powers at the school. But make no mistake, firing Eichorst now was done because Green and university president Hank Bounds saw that there was at least a good chance Riley would have to be fired at the end of 2017.

And if that firing was going to happen, then it makes far more sense to fire Eichorst now. That way, Nebraska isn’t left at the end of 2017 having to hire a new AD, then wait for that AD to come online before initiating a coaching search.

But he’s got a shot to keep it

Green was as emphatic as you could expect with regards to Riley’s status (according to Land of 10).

“Mike Riley is our football coach. We expect him to compete. This is not about Mike Riley,” Green said.

Assuming Riley wants to keep his job, those words – and the swiftness which Nebraska’s higher-ups moved on Eichorst – should sharpen his vision quickly. Riley has nine games left, and will (according to SB Nation’s five-year recruiting averages) have better talent than seven of the nine teams Nebraska will face.

Admittedly, it’s hard to see Nebraska winning one of those games, much less seven, after Saturday’s performance against Northern Illinois. But don’t forget, in 2015 it was hard to imagine Nebraska winning another game after a horrific 55-45 loss to Purdue. Nebraska turned around the next week and knocked off no. 6 Michigan State.

Nebraska doesn’t have to beat the no. 6 team in the country this weekend. It just needs to beat Rutgers, at home, to stop the rot and give itself a chance to salvage the 2017 season – and Riley’s career in Lincoln.

Pelini’s shadow looms over Eichorst

Take a look at what former quarterback Tommy Armstrong had to say on Twitter about Eichorst as news of his firing broke.

And one from former cornerback Josh Mitchell.

That’s quite a bit of venom from two of the strongest leaders from former head coach Bo Pelini’s era. Those guys were there, lived through the whole thing, and we can learn a lot about the team’s mindset listening to them now.

But let’s not forget that their coach, the adult these college kids followed and respected, told them this about Eichorst just after his dismissal (according to the Omaha World-Herald).

“I didn’t really have any relationship with the A.D.,” Pelini said. “The guy, you guys saw him (Sunday), the guy is a total p—-. I mean, he is. He’s a total c—.”

Again, I’m not in any way discounting what Armstrong, Mitchell, or any of the other former Huskers have said about Eichorst and how he handled himself. Heck, check out what Mitchell had to say about Riley.

But I am suggesting that their perceptions of Eichorst may have been colored by the way Pelini chose to handle himself after his dismissal.

And it’s hard not to raise the question about how much lingering bitterness from the team about Pelini’s firing – amplified by Pelini’s own childish and selfish rant – affected the remaining players being able to fully embrace Riley and his new staff.

Look, Nebraska isn’t sitting at 1-2 with a loss to a MAC school because of Bo Pelini. Shawn Eichorst isn’t out of a job because of Bo Pelini. Eichorst’s own ham-fisted handling of the Black Friday scheduling debacle, as noted by a smart and particularly handsome analyst, may very well have been the nail in the coffin of his career in Lincoln.

But the seeds of Eichorst’s dismissal were planted in the way he handled Pelini’s dismissal, and watered by Riley’s underwhelming record over the course of 28 games.

GBR, baby.

 

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Nebraska Football: A Theory on the Cornhuskers’ Collapse Last Season

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Sherman, set the WayBack Machine for October 29, 2016. Nebraska just missed exorcising its demons in Camp Randall with a thrilling 23-17 overtime loss to Wisconsin, but showed to the world that it could stand toe-to-toe and compete on a national stage. That near-miss loss meant that Nebraska was still 7-1 on the season, including an impressive (although, if you believe in win percentage as a metric, unlikely) victory over Oregon. It was encouraging enough for this dope to even end his ReView of the Wisconsin game with defiance, saying “bring on the Buckeyes.”

Yeah, that didn’t exactly work out for Nebraska. After Ohio State’s 62-3 evisceration of NU, the season took on water in a hurry. Nebraska pulled out a gritty 24-17 win over Minnesota, and a comfortable 28-7 victory over an outmanned Maryland, but those wins proved to be paper over the cracks.

On the day after Thanksgiving, Nebraska was dominated 40-10 by Iowa (!), surrendering 264 rushing yards (!!) and 404 total yards (!!!) to the Hawkeyes. Nebraska drew Tennessee in the Music City Bowl, and lost 38-24 to the Volunteers in a game that was nowhere near as close as the score might have indicated.

So Nebraska’s 2016 campaign ended at 9-4, a decided improvement over the 6-7 mark from a season prior. But in Nebraska’s three losses in its final five games last year, it was outscored 140-37, and outgained by total yards in those contests by more than a two-to-one margin, 1519 to 739.

What happened? How did a season that saw Nebraska at 7-0 and ranked no. 7 nationally end with such a resounding thud?

Obviously, a big part of it was that Nebraska’s quality of opposition improved dramatically towards the end of the season. Oregon looked like a great matchup on paper in 2016, but ended the season at 4-8 and a fired head coach. Ohio State, Tennessee, and (gritting teeth) Iowa were dramatically tougher opponents than Nebraska’s early-season victims, so it should not have been surprising that Nebraska had more difficulty at the end of 2016.

Additionally, Nebraska’s 7-0 mark coming into Wisconsin was clearly, in retrospect, inflated. Given the game flow, Nebraska was pretty fortunate to beat what turned out to be a very flawed (if talented) Oregon squad in Lincoln. Other than the Ducks, Nebraska’s best win in that 7-0 stretch was … Northwestern? Wyoming?

Those factors can explain some of what happened at the end of 2016. But it wasn’t just that Nebraska struggled at the end of last year. Let’s be honest. Nebraska collapsed at the end of 2016. Nebraska capitulated to the strongest teams at the end of its schedule. (And yes, that’s officially throwing shade at Minnesota.)

So what else explains the magnitude of Nebraska’s late-season collapse. There’s a whole bunch of factors, of course. And I will state from the outset that this is just rank speculation from a total outsider, observing from a distance. But I would venture an educated guess that there were two significant factors that contributed to last year’s swoon.

The first is the effect of injuries to quarterback Tommy Armstrong. Of course, his terrifying injury against Ohio State threw Ryker Fyfe into duty in Columbus. But Armstrong had been walking wounded for quite some time before his Ohio State scare, and a combination of injuries against Minnesota a week later knocked him out of the following game against Maryland.

Armstrong tried to soldier through his injuries against Iowa, and it showed. He ran six times for 13 yards and was 13-35 throwing for 125 against the Hawkeye defense. Armstrong was a shell of his former self on Black Friday, and everyone – including Iowa’s defense – could clearly see it.

Gamer that he is, Armstrong fought hard to get back on the field for the Music City Bowl, but his injuries simply wouldn’t allow it. Fyfe started against the Volunteers and was … well, he had eight rushes for minus-27 yards, and was 17-36 for 243 yards passing with two touchdowns.

It’s fair to say, then, that Armstrong’s injury was a significant factor in Nebraska’s late-season struggle. But it’s more than that. Fyfe was Nebraska’s best option as Armstrong’s backup. God bless the kid from Grand Island, he’s a good athlete, worked very hard, and did the best he possibly could in the situation in which he found himself.

But it was clear to any observer from the outset that Fyfe was never good enough for Nebraska to be competitive against a sturdy opponent. And, more importantly, it had to have been clear to the Nebraska squad that going into games against Iowa and (especially) Tennessee, having a quarterback as limited as Fyfe gave NU almost no chance to be competitive.

Outside of perhaps a goaltender in hockey, there is no position in sports more important than the quarterback in football. If there was one fatal flaw in former head coach Bo Pelini’s time in Lincoln (well, apart from the obvious), it was Pelini’s inability to get his signal-caller right.

Between Armstrong and Taylor Martinez, Pelini’s quarterbacks were dynamic and dual-threat, but ultimately limited due to their inability to pass effectively and avoid turnovers put a ceiling on how effective Nebraska’s offense could be. But maybe even more damning of an indictment might be how poor the depth at quarterback has been in Lincoln.

And that lack of depth ultimately undid Nebraska last season. A loss to Ohio State in Columbus was, in retrospect, not a surprising result. And asking Fyfe to come in for an injured Armstrong, with Nebraska already down 21 points, would have made anything other than a blowout surprising.

So really we’re down to two big losses – Iowa (!) and Tennessee – that defined Nebraska’s 2016 season. Why did Nebraska capitulate so badly in those games?

Let’s take as a given that both teams are very good, and worthy winners. But it’s hard not to see Nebraska’s collapse, in part, as a subconscious response by a team knowing that their quarterback gave them no chance to be successful on that day.

Against Iowa, Armstrong gamely tried to play, but it was clear from the start that his injury was going to rob him of his effective rushing of the ball. And without that threat of a run, Armstrong simply was not good enough as a quarterback to be effective.

Against Tennessee, Nebraska was asking Fyfe to go up against an SEC defense (including a future NFL first-round draft pick in defensive end Derek Barnett). Fyfe, as he always did, but up his best effort. But his best effort ended up being a sub-50 percent completion rate. Remarkably, Nebraska remained within a couple of scores throughout the game, but the outcome was never in doubt.

And it’s hard not to think that part of the reason Nebraska couldn’t hold up against Tennessee was because, at some level, the team knew that they couldn’t be successful with Fyfe under center.

Now, my caveats again. I wasn’t in that locker room, and I don’t know anyone that was. But I’ve been an observer of the game for a long time, and I know what my expectations were going into the Music City Bowl. I know what my expectations were against Iowa once it was clear that Armstrong couldn’t run. And if I knew that, it’s hard to imagine that the team didn’t at some level think that too.

And keep in mind, this was a team that had expended a lot of emotional energy that year. The sudden death of punter Sam Foltz just before the season started shocked and saddened the team, and the fan base overall. Throughout the year, the team remembered Foltz before each game, and accepted the support of opposing teams who wanted to sympathize in Foltz’s death as well.

Which, of course, was exactly the right thing to do. It was inspiring to see those young men rally around each other in their grief and memory of a remarkable student athlete taken too soon. I defy you not to tear up when you watch the “missing man” delay of game penalty tribute Nebraska took against Fresno State to honor Foltz’ loss.

But that kind of emotional energy, week after week during a hard campaign, had to take a toll on a group of young men. Add it that toll the disappointment of an overtime loss against Wisconsin, and then the unspoken futility of sub-optimal quarterback play, and you have a recipe for a collapse.

Is that what happened? I don’t know. Is it a plausible explanation, at least as a contributing factor, to how Nebraska could surrender 40 points to Iowa and 521 total yards to Tennessee at the end of a particularly grueling 2016 campaign?

I think it could have been. And if that’s the case, it provides a reason to be hopeful for a 2017 season that is otherwise chock full of questions.

Nebraska Football: Five Things To Watch For at the Red-White Spring Game

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On Saturday, Nebraska will have its fifteenth and final spring practice play the annual Red-White Spring Game before a crowd likely to be north of 80,000 in Memorial Stadium. As year three of Mike Riley’s tenure as Nebraska’s head coach begins, fans will be wondering what to expect after last year’s record was an improvement over the prior season, but saw some ugly losses to Ohio State, Tennessee, and (shudder) Iowa.

So what should a smart fan (and a DXP reader, but of course that’s redundant) be looking for from Saturday’s glorified final practice? Well …

Can The Quarterbacks Complete Passes?

I know, that sounds mean. But here’s Nebraska’s completion percentage from 2009-2016:

2009 57.7
2010 57.8
2011 56.0
2012 62.0
2013 57.7
2014 52.9
2015 55.9
2016 50.3

The last three years, of course, were with Tommy Armstrong as starting quarterback. And those numbers are simply not good enough for Nebraska to expect success on the field.

This year, with Armstrong’s departure, the quarterback battle looks to be between redshirt junior transfer Tanner Lee and redshirt freshman Patrick O’Brien. Lee played two years at Tulane, and many fans hope his experience will help him win the job and lead Nebraska’s offense out of the doldrums.

His career stats? A 53.6 completion percentage and a 23/21 TD/INT ratio. Sure, that was at Tulane, not Nebraska. But still, those aren’t numbers that inspire confidence.

With the threat of a quarterback run game now gone, Nebraska will need significantly more efficient play from the passing game to be effective on offense. Whether the starter is Lee or O’Brien, we will at least get a glimpse of what to expect from them on Saturday.

Can The Offensive Line Hold Up?

Nebraska’s passing game was a mess last year, and much of that comes from the signal-callers and their limitations throwing the ball. But part of the problem has been an offensive line that has struggled to perform at a high level. Injuries were a part of the problem last season, of course. But it’s rare to finish a season without some attrition on the offensive line from injury.

Going into Saturday, we do not yet have a good grasp on who will be starting up front on offense. We also don’t know exactly how the Red and White squads will be divided, so it may very well be that a full first-team offensive line won’t be on the field at the same time on Saturday.

But we will get at least some look at how this year’s version of the Pipeline will look come September.

Can The Running Game Get Established?

Yes, it’s fair to say that this question will hinge in large part on the answer to the last question about the offensive line. But it’s also fair to say that Nebraska has a whole bunch of I-Backs to pick from, none of whom have yet to show the ability to take over a game. For the three primary returning backs, here’s their yards per carry from 2016.

Mikale Wilbon 5.93 (15 carries)
Devine Ozigbo 4.25 (97 carries)
Tre Bryant 4.00 (43 carries)

Last year, Nebraska had the no. 73 ranked rushing attack nationally – and that was with Armstrong’s running ability factored in as a part of the offense. This year’s offense will likely not feature a quarterback run game, but will (hopefully, for Nebraska’s sake) have a more efficient passing attack. On Saturday, we will get at least a glimpse of how that effects Nebraska’s ability to run the ball.

Will The New 3-4 Defensive Scheme Take Time To Learn?

62-3. 40-10. 38-24.

Those were the scores of Nebraska’s last three losses (to Ohio State, (shudder) Iowa, and Tennessee), and were a significant factor in why Bob Diaco and not Mark Banker is Nebraska’s defensive coordinator in 2017.  But it’s not like Nebraska was dreadful on defense overall last year. NU was no. 30 nationally in total defense, and no. 33 in scoring defense.

So, on the good side, that means Diaco has a good platform on which to build. But, on the concerning side, it also means that a substantial shift in defensive scheme (from 4-3 to 3-4) runs the risk of upsetting the proverbial apple cart.

Diaco said (according to Rich Kaipust of the Omaha World-Herald) that the Spring Game will be more of a “dress rehearsal” than an audition, and that “[i]f you’re interested in filming the spring game to figure out what we’re going to do on defense, you’re going to waste a lot of film and footage.”

OK, sure, a smart reader like you might expect that Diaco wouldn’t come out with a quote like “hey, Nebraska opponents, make sure to check out the Spring Game because we’re totally going to show you all our sneaky trick defensive plays.” So of course what will be on the field this Saturday will be a pretty sanitized version of the Blackshirts compared to this September.

(And, at the risk of being snarky, it would be helpful to let Diaco know that most recording is now done digitally instead of using something like this. Although, in fairness, the latter is far cooler.)

Can Nebraska Generate Pressure on the Quarterback?

While we should be able to learn something about Nebraska’s new-look Blackshirts on Saturday, it is fair to say that we might know less about Nebraska’s ability to pressure the quarterback in 2017. Even if the offensive line is a question mark (see supra), it is unlikely that Nebraska will be calling any elaborate blitzing or pressure schemes.

Still, one of the advantages of a 3-4 front is to permit even four-man pressure from multiple locations, potentially causing confusion to opposing offenses (as discussed by Kaipust of the Omaha World-Herald). And Nebraska could use the help on that front, checking in at no. 65 nationally in sacks and no. 85 in tackles for loss last year.

So even without the blitzes or other extra schemes, getting a look at how a 3-4 front attacks an opposing offense should give fans at least a taste of what’s to come in 2017.

All stats courtesy of cfbstats.com.

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

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

THE GOOD

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

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

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

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

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

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

THE BAD

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

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

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

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

AND THE TRUE END OF AN ERA

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

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

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

Nebraska Football: 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.

Nebraska Football: NU ReView, Nebraska 27, Indiana 22

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Nebraska survived what might have been the trickiest game on its schedule to date, traveling to Bloomington and beating Indiana 27-22. After roaring out to a 17-0 lead, Nebraska held on for dear life, getting a long fourth-quarter drive to finally put the game out of reach. So for Nebraska fans watching the Indiana game …

The Good

Fast Start. Indiana became a trendy pick to upset Nebraska. Even this dope thought Nebraska would get stung in Bloomington at the start of the season. So if Nebraska was going to avoid an upset on the road, it needed to get out of the gates quickly—something it has not excelled at this season.

Well, Judas Priest, Nebraska delivered on that score. Nebraska scored ten points on its first two offensive possessions, then cornerback Chris Jones intercepted a Richard Lagow pass and took it back for a touchdown to give NU a 17-0 lead with 4:33 left in the first quarter.

That’s how you start a game to avoid an upset. Of course, things didn’t continue to go as well game wore on (more on that later), but Nebraska at the very least now has a blueprint for how to start well on the road.

Defensive Masterclass. Nebraska’s offense was … well, it wasn’t the best we’ve seen. But the Blackshirts more than made up for NU’s offensive woes with a dominant performance. The Hoosiers were held to 4.8 yards per play, far fewer than the 5.98 Indiana has averaged this season. Indiana was held to 5-for-15 on third down, and 0-2 on fourth down, meaning that the Blackshirts were able to get stops at critical times.

Last season, it was fair to wonder if Nebraska’s defense would ever be a strength for the squad. On Saturday, the defense was able to help Nebraska survive and advance in the B1G this season.

Gritty Ending. We had all heard the stories about how dominant Nebraska had been in the fourth quarter this season. You know, 78-6 and all. But this game wasn’t about fourth quarter dominance so much as having the mental strength to make the final plays when needed at the end of the game.

After Tommy Armstrong hit Stanley Morgan for a 72-yard touchdown, Nebraska looked ready to pull away and finish off the Hoosiers. But Indiana responded with a five-play, 85-yard drive in just 1:13 to bring the score back to 24-22. Rather than a fourth quarter domination, Nebraska was faced with a challenge late in the contest and on the road.

And Nebraska responded. Perhaps most importantly, with 8:26 left in the game, NU ripped off a 15-play, 60-yard drive that took 7:41 off the clock. While the drive only resulted in a field goal, it left Indiana with only 45 seconds to respond, and needing a touchdown. That pressure undoubtedly contributed to the game-sealing interception by Aaron Williams.

So not only has Nebraska demonstrated an ability to dominate lesser opponents late in games, it has also shown that it has the ability to grit out a win on the road against a salty conference foe.

The Bad

The Stuff In The Middle. Nebraska’s first quarter against Indiana was awesome. Nebraska’s last drive to salt the game away, combined with the game-sealing interception, was tremendous.

Everything between those two events? Eh ….

Nebraska was 5-of-15 on third down against Indiana. Tommy Armstrong was 10-for-26 passing, with two interceptions to go with his two touchdowns. On the ground, Nebraska was held to 3.4 yards per attempted rush, down from a season average of 4.69 (according to cfbstats.com). And those numbers are for the entire game, not just the lull between the good parts.

Nebraska went nine – nine – possessions without a point against Indiana. It’s tough to weather a dry spell like that – and Nebraska very nearly did not.

Depth Charges. Yeah, yeah, football is a tough game, and injuries aren’t an excuse for anything. That’s true, if somewhat simplistic. But, good heavens, does Nebraska have some depth problems.

With injuries to Nick Gates and David Knevel, Nebraska will be down to two healthy offensive linemen that started the season. Top wide receiver Jordan Westerkamp was out against Indiana, as was top tight end Cethan Carter. Alonzo Moore was hampered with injury, as was Devine Ozigbo.

And that was coming off a bye week.

Nebraska will face Purdue on Saturday, which just fired its head coach. Assuming the MASH unit that is Nebraska’s offense can get by the Boilermakers, it still makes for heavy weather when Nebraska looks at trips in consecutive weeks to Wisconsin and Ohio State.

Dropped Kicks. It’s hard to complain about Nebraska’s special teams when placekicker Drew Brown is 5-6 in field goals and 26-26 in extra points. But Nebraska’s punting game has left something to be desired. It’s not fair, of course, to be overly-critical of true freshman Caleb Lightbourn, who was thrust into the position of starting punter after the death of Sam Foltz.

But it is inarguable that Nebraska’s punting game has been a liability. With two blocks on the season, Nebraska has now had a punt blocked once every three games. Against Indiana, the blocked punt notched two points for the Hoosiers on a safety as the ball squirted through the end zone – and could easily have been six.

More importantly, though, the blocked punt provided a spark for Indiana and seemed to rattle Nebraska more than a little bit. While neither blocked punt has cost Nebraska a game, clearly against the more difficult opposition NU is about to face, it cannot afford to be surrendering that yardage and momentum in the future.

And BOWL ELIGIBLE!!!!!11!!!1!!

Sherman, set the WayBack Machine for October 31, 2015. It’s not quite a year ago, but given what’s happened in between it can feel like an eternity. So let’s look back at where Nebraska was on Hallowe’en one year ago. After a glimmer of hope with a 48-25 defeat of Minnesota in Minneapolis, Nebraska lost to Northwestern in Lincoln. And then came the trip to Purdue, with an injured Armstrong giving way to Ryker Fyfe and Nebraska losing 55-45 to arguably the worst team to beat NU in the last decade.

At that point, Nebraska was 3-6 under new head coach Mike Riley. The fanbase was in a mixture of rage, shock, and horror.

Fast forward to the present, and Nebraska fans are reading about NU’s chance to make the College Football Playoff. They are engaging in their favorite pastime, loathing ESPN’s Kirk Herbstriet for mocking Nebraska being a top-10 team.

Say what you will about ESPN’s sarcastic chuckling, but remember this. Nebraska is ranked in the top ten! Less than a year after being 3-6 and losing to freaking Purdue!

Nebraska has quite a gauntlet to run in the next few weeks (after Saturday’s contest against Purdue), with three of the five games being road contests at Wisconsin, Ohio State, and Iowa. The glittering undefeated season may look as bruised as Armstrong’s ankle in a few weeks.

So if and when that happens, Husker Fan, please don’t forget where we’ve been in the last year. Yes, it would be great to see Nebraska go 12-0 and reprise Iowa’s 2015 season (although hopefully with a better bowl outcome).

But don’t get too greedy. 2016 has been far kinder to Nebraska than anyone had a right to hope for. A bit of a regression to the mean by the end of this season won’t signify failure.

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.

Nebraska Football: NU ReView, Nebraska 35, Oregon 32

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On Saturday, Nebraska won a thriller in Memorial Stadium, taking the lead on a Tommy Armstrong rushing touchdown and holding off an Oregon comeback. My photos of the game are here. So, for Nebraska fans looking back on a famous win …

The Good

Dispelling Hobgoblins. Admit it. Deep into the fourth quarter, when you saw a speedy Oregon wide receiver five yards behind the Nebraska secondary, your scarlet-and-cream heart sank. Your mind flashed back to last year’s BYU. Or Illinois. Or Wisconsin. Or … well, you get the idea. The idea was the same – once again, you thought, Nebraska was showing consistent struggles in late-game situations against the deep ball.

Well, you know what they say about consistency. And thanks to a great play by safety Keiron Williams (and, in all fairness, an underthrown ball by Oregon quarterback Dakota Prukop), Nebraska could put a sword into the heart of that particular hobgoblin.

The Price of Hubris. Boy, it looked pretty sharp for Oregon at the start. The Ducks ate up yardage on their first drive, scoring a touchdown with alarming ease. Then, for the conversion, Oregon brought out the swinging gate play and got a two-point conversion, pushing the score to 8-0 early in the contest.

Seemed bad for Nebraska, so Oregon decided to try it again. And again. And again. And again. Four more times over the course of the contest, the Ducks tried for two and failed. That’s two points on five conversion attempts after touchdowns, leaving Oregon three points shy of where it would have most likely been had it just kicked the darn ball.

Which, of course, was Nebraska’s margin of victory. Two lessons to be learned here. First, never, ever chase points with two-point conversions unless you absolutely have to. And, two, do not tempt the Gods of Football Karma.

Impressing The Kids. No, it’s not about the DJ Khaled tifo unfurled by the Boneyard (as described by Erin Sorensen of Hail Varsity), Nebraska’s student section – although that was pretty freaking awesome. No, this is about how one day after Nebraska knocked off Oregon, it picked up the commit of Deiontae Watts, a three-star defensive tackle (according to 247 Sports) from Texas. That commit brings Nebraska’s overall ranking on 247 Sports to no. 23.

Sure, it’s reductive to think that the win over Oregon was why Watts signed. But the big-game atmosphere was one of Nebraska’s selling points. More wins mean more big-game atmospheres, and (theoretically) an easier sell to recruits. And, better recruits lead to more wins, which help lead to better recruits in a virtuous circle.

Let’s not get ahead of ourselves, it’s one game and a three-star defensive tackle. But it’s certainly encouraging news for Nebraska, both this year and going forward.

The Bad

Swinging. Nebraska had only one turnover, and that was awesome for NU. But the turnover itself was pretty cringe-inducing. It’s bad enough to not be able to execute a swing pass – which Armstrong has a disturbing tendency to execute poorly. But it’s even more disturbing when the throw goes backwards and becomes a live ball – particularly when Nebraska benefited from the exact same mistake by an opponent the week before.

“Not As Bad” Still Isn’t “Good.”  Sure, Oregon’s 13 penalties (!) for 126 yards (!!) was a huge factor in Nebraska’s victory. But Nebraska still had seven flags for 55 yards. The yardage wasn’t as damaging as in weeks past, and the only penalty that really affected the game was a mysterious offside call in the fourth quarter that helped keep Oregon’s drive to take the lead alive.

It’s unlikely to see a game where a team will have no penalties at all. But it would be nice to see a number lower than seven for Nebraska going forward.

Better Lucky Than Talented. OK, first let me say that Nebraska played an amazing game against a very strong opponent, and deserved every little bit of this milestone win. But Nebraska was helped by some by the Ducks, as well. The two-point conversion fetish of Oregon head coach Mark Helfrich we discussed supra. Oregon’s orgy of penalties, if nothing else, helped Nebraska see what life was like on the receiving end of all that yardage. And the injury to running back Royce Freeman certainly didn’t do Oregon’s offense any favors.

Yes, Nebraska had its share of hardships to overcome as well. Please don’t see this as taking anything away from Nebraska’s win on Saturday. But it wouldn’t be fair to at least acknowledge that Nebraska got a few breaks from Oregon on Saturday – and took advantage of them.

And the Beckoning Opportunity.

Sure, it’s easy to say after Nebraska wins. But in all fairness, this game carried far more upside than downside for Nebraska. A loss, while certainly painful, did not derail the primary season goal of winning the B1G West. And given how far Nebraska’s national perception has fallen, a loss to Oregon (other than a humiliation) would have just left NU in the national obscurity in which it has languished.

Instead, the game was an opportunity. Lose, and Nebraska really just stayed where it was. But win … well, a win for Nebraska gets a foothold back into the national spotlight. Almost assuredly Nebraska will return to the Top 25, the first time since the end of 2014.

And the upcoming schedule for Nebraska provides another opportunity. Nebraska should be favored in every game between now and Wisconsin, so if it can take care of business NU could find itself in the top 15 as it faces off against the Badgers. That kind of exposure and excitement is invaluable, not only for the confidence of the current squad, but for recruiting momentum.

Of course, it’s just opportunity. Nebraska had opportunities before, under Frank Solich, Bill Callahan and Bo Pelini. Nebraska could easily squander this opportunity and slink back to national obscurity.

But the opportunity is there for Nebraska. This year. Admit it – when Nebraska was 3-6 and coming off a loss to a truly dreadful Purdue squad – you didn’t really expect this kind of opportunity to be available for the scarlet and cream in 2016. Enjoy it, Husker Fan.

Nebraska Football: NU ReView, Nebraska 52, Wyoming 17

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On Saturday, Nebraska scored 28 points in the fourth quarter to pull away and beat Wyoming 52-17. My photos of the game are here. Early in the game, Nebraska seems like it would be able to pull away and get a comfortable victory over the Cowboys. But a Tommy Armstrong interception at the goal line taking points off the board put things on hold, and an end-of-half Hail Mary touchdown for Wyoming gave the Cowboys enough momentum to be within four as the fourth quarter started. Nebraska’s defense forced enough turnovers to pull away and balloon the score at the end.

So, for Nebraska fans against Wyoming (with apologies to Sam McKewon of the Omaha World-Herald for mimicking his numerical analysis) …

The Good

3.5. As in plus-3.5, which is Nebraska’s net turnover margin average over one game. That’s no. 1 nationally, according to cfbstats.com. Yeah, it’s two games against sub-par opponents. And yeah, Tommy Armstrong’s one interception at the goal line was not only horrible, but terrifyingly reminiscent of the mental errors that have haunted his career.

But we’re now one-sixth of the way through the season (!), and Nebraska is not only 2-0 but doing a much better job at taking care of the football.

10. That’s the number of receivers that caught at least one pass against Wyoming. Yes, Run The Ball Guy didn’t care for the game plan against Wyoming, but having that depth at receiver makes Nebraska exceptionally hard to defend. It can also lead to success in the running game, with teams unable to (as both Fresno State and Wyoming did) load the box and dare Nebraska to throw.

A deep pool of talent at receiver can be a critical element of Nebraska’s offensive success – if (and it’s a big if) Armstrong can continue to avoid interceptions.

2.89. That’s the average yards-per-carry allowed by Nebraska’s defense this season. While Nebraska’s pass defense was what terrified most fans coming into the season, it’s always critical to be stout against the run. And yes, Fresno State and Wyoming are no Wisconsin and Ohio State. But they’re no slouches either, particularly Wyoming.

So having such outstanding success against the run for Nebraska in its first two games is an encouraging sign for the Blackshirts in 2016.

The Bad

52.6. That’s the percentage of Nebraska’s points scored in the fourth quarter. After three quarters, Nebraska was only up by 11 (21-10) against Fresno State and by seven (24-17) against Wyoming. For those of you who haven’t blocked out most of the 2015 season as a defense mechanism, allow me to remind you that Nebraska has demonstrated a disturbing history of seeing teams roar back in the fourth quarter to win.

Now, maybe Nebraska’s new-found dominance in the fourth quarter is excising those demons. But it seems an unsustainable pattern to wait for the final period before exploding on the scoreboard.

7/96. That’s the number of penalties and the total yardage of those penalties Nebraska had against Wyoming. While at least Nebraska did not draw a targeting flag this week, penalties still loomed a large factor. Late hit calls on quarterbacks and unsportsmanlike conduct calls kept Wyoming’s offense on the field, and offensive penalties took two Nebraska touchdowns off the board.

Against teams like Fresno State and Wyoming, Nebraska’s talent advantage is sufficient to avoid disastrous consequences. But against teams with equal to or superior talent – like, say, a frighteningly-fast Oregon team coming to Lincoln this Saturday – giving up nearly a football field worth of penalties will likely be a hole too deep for Nebraska to dig out of.

Stop the Insanity. OK, this one is just for those in the stadium. In the third and fourth quarters against both Fresno State and Wyoming – when the game was still at some level in contention – the crowd inexplicably started the wave. Not just a little bit during commercial breaks either, but a full-blown variable-speed wave that was going while the game was in play.

Now, look, I’m really trying not to be That Guy who complains about people having fun at a game. If the result isn’t in doubt, I’m fine with the wave – and Nebraska fans have gotten pretty good at doing the normal-to-slow-to-fast wave, in all fairness.

But here’s a pretty good rule of thumb. If the starters are still in the game, then you have no business doing the wave, fer cryin’ out loud.

(Honorable mention to Mixed Loyalty Guy, of which there were a bizarre amount of against Wyoming, wearing gear for both teams playing, such as a Wyoming hat and a Nebraska shirt. Look, if for whatever reason you have ties to both teams, I get it. I’m an unabashed Jaysker, and the Nebraska-Creighton basketball and baseball games are confusing for me. But if there’s any rule to follow, it’s that you can’t try to wear both teams’ gear to a game).

And The Papering Over Of The Cracks

So Nebraska is 2-0, after outscoring its two opponents by a total of 65 points. All’s right with the world, isn’t it?

Nope. Nebraska was in a two-score game as the fourth quarter began against a frankly terrible Fresno State club, and within seven points going into the final period against a Wyoming squad that’s only marginally better.

Sure, Nebraska pulled away late and won both games comfortably – and believe me, that’s better for Nebraska than the alternative we saw over and over again last year. But that doesn’t mean Nebraska has been grinding minnows under its heel getting ready for the Ducks to arrive on Saturday.

Maybe these late surges are evidence of a confident squad ready to make a big statement on national television. The Ducks, also 2-0, have exhibited a defensive frailty that should provide some optimism to the scarlet and cream faithful. But Nebraska fans should not look at the lopsided scores of its first two games and lull themselves into believing NU is as good as those gaudy numbers would indicate.

Nebraska Football: Three Players Who Need To Improve in 2016

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Coming off a 6-7 campaign, it’s fair to say that there might be more than three players who need to improve for Nebraska’s 2016 season to impress. But for Nebraska to right the ship (and, according to one smart and particularly handsome analyst, be favored to win the B1G West title next season), there are three critical players on the roster who need to significantly outperform their 2015 season.

Not Featured: Tommy Armstrong Jr.

I know, I know, this doesn’t make sense. How can Armstrong not be a player that needs improvement when this dope already said that his completion percentage and touchdown-to-interception ratio weren’t good enough for Nebraska to win a division title?

Because, to be honest, at this point it’s unreasonable to expect those numbers to change. Armstrong is going to be a senior in 2016. For those two most important statistics, here’s what his career numbers look like.

Year Attempts Comp. % TD-to-INT
2015 402 55.2 1.375
2014 345 53.3 1.833
2013 131 51.9 1.125

As you can see, Armstrong’s completion percentage has – barely – been improving in his three years under center. His ratio, which was atrocious in his freshman season, actually got worse last year after some promising signs of improvement in 2014.

Sure, a new coaching staff and a new offensive philosophy can explain a lot of Armstrong’s struggles last season. And sure, it’s possible that a second year under offensive coordinator Danny Langsdorf might help Armstrong make a leap in both categories.

But at this point, it’s really hard to assume or even expect that. Armstrong is a senior, who has played 33 games for Nebraska. Much like Taylor Martinez before him, at this point in his career Armstrong is likely who he is going to be – in his case, a great leader, a tough competitor, a dangerous playmaker, and an inaccurate and turnover-prone quarterback.

If Armstrong develops into something more in his senior campaign, then it’s a bonus for Nebraska. But for now, we have to expect Armstrong to deliver about what he has delivered throughout his career.

Nate Gerry

Gerry has had an … interesting career at Nebraska. As a freshman, then-head coach Bo Pelini moved Gerry to linebacker in an attempt to find his best position. Gerry returned to his position at safety as a sophomore, and looked like he was going to be a world-beater.

But then Pelini was dismissed, and in came head coach Mike Riley with defensive coordinator Mark Banker.  Pelini’s defensive schemes put a prime on defending the pass, at the expense of the running game. Banker’s quarters-style defensive strategy is the opposite, focused on stopping the pass at the expense of the deep middle passing game.

That’s a huge change for a safety, and Gerry’s transition was – not ideal. We know what Nebraska’s pass defense, particularly in the fourth quarter looked like last year.

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You want numbers? Take a look at these comparisons.

  2014 2015
Pass yards allowed/game (nat’l rating) 205.8 (33) 290.5 (122)
Scoring defense (nat’l rating) 26.4 (60) 27.8 (75)
Total defense (nat’l rating) 383.7 (53) 400.4 (64)

What do these numbers tell us? Well, that Nebraska wasn’t all that much different in terms of both total defense and scoring defense between 2014 and 2015 – with a pass defense that went from no. 32 nationally to no. 122.

That means if Nebraska pass defense improves even to average, then Nebraska’s overall defense should be much better in 2016. It will have to be, if this smart and particularly handsome analyst is right and Nebraska looks to be in contention for the B1G West this year. Gerry, as a senior, will be one of the team leaders, and it’s up to him in his second season under Banker to find his sophomore form.

Freedom Akinmoladun

Buddy Ryan, the architect of the 1985 Chicago Bears defense (and puncher of fellow coaches) recently died. And while his personality might be the perfect polar opposite of Riley’s, he could not have been more right about how a pass rush helps a secondary. Here’s what Ryan had to say about how a pass rush helped a secondary.

“A quarterback has never completed a pass when he was flat on his back.” (courtesy of the Houston Chronicle).

Nebraska was no. 78 nationally in sacks. Yes, the pass defense last year was atrocious, and it’s easy to point fingers at the secondary. But the lack of pass rush was a huge contributing factor to Nebraska’s woes defending the long ball.

Unfortunately, there doesn’t appear to be much of a cavalry riding in to the rescue. While Riley’s 2016 recruiting class was impressive, given that Riley was coming off a 6-7 campaign, one glaring deficiency was a true pass rush specialist.

It falls, then, to the players on the roster to heat up the opposing quarterback. And of all the pass rushers on the roster, Akinmoladun looks to be the one most likely to shine. Last year was his first at defensive end after moving from tight end, and Akinmoladun possesses the raw athletic ability to get past an opposing tackle and get home.

For Nebraska to be successful next season, Akinmoladun will need to make that leap.

Nick Gates

OK, here’s a comprehensive list of the starters on Nebraska’s offensive line who will be playing in the same positions they manned in 2015.

If that doesn’t frighten you as a Nebraska fan coming into the new season, then you aren’t paying attention.  Nebraska’s offensive line will be undergoing a huge transition, with three new starters being broken in and two players likely shifting positions from 2015.

Of the players shifting positions, Gates will be the one with the most on his shoulders.  Last year, Gates played at right tackle, but looks (based on projections from Ourlads) to be playing left tackle in 2016. That position (especially with a right-handed quarterback) is the most important on the offensive line, and it looks to be filled next year by a redshirt sophomore who has not started a game at left tackle in his college career.

For Nebraska to reach its goals in 2016, Gates will have to excel in his new home on the offensive line quickly.

All stats from cfbstats.com.