Nebraska Football: How the Cornhuskers Get to Ten Wins in 2016

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Earlier this week, the sports gambling site Five Dimes set Nebraska’s over-under total at 9.5 for wins in 2016. For the non-gamblers among you, the bet is just what the name of it suggests – you put your money down as to whether you think Nebraska’s win total will be over or under the number selected, in this case nine-and-a-half.

That means this particular sports book thinks the most likely scenario for Nebraska in 2016 is to win between nine and ten games. That’s a pretty bold statement for a team coming off a 6-7 season in 2015.

So, is Five Dimes just counting on rabid Nebraska fans making irrationally exuberant investment decisions? Maybe to an extent, although “souvenir” bets like that are usually on tickets to win a national title put down by chumps like me on trips to Las Vegas. An over-under line set too high will be pounced on by sharks, and could end up costing a sports book lots of money.

That means the book makers at Five Dimes must have some confidence that Nebraska can get to ten wins in 2016 – besides just listening to this smart and particularly handsome analyst who picked Nebraska as the B1G West favorite next season. Here’s what has to happen for Nebraska to get ten wins next season.

Beat Oregon

A ten-win season almost certainly would require knocking off Oregon in Lincoln on September 16. Given where the two programs have been over the last few years, that sounds like a tall order for Nebraska.

But Oregon isn’t quite what it has been in years past. Quarterback is a huge question mark for the Ducks, hoping FCS transfer Dakota Prukop will be the heir to Heisman trophy winner Marcus Mariota.  Former Michigan head coach Brady Hoke will be taking over Oregon’s defense, bringing his skill set to Eugene but asking the Ducks to learn a new scheme next season.

Nebraska will likely come into this game as an underdog. But with the game in Lincoln, and Nebraska being Oregon’s first big test of 2016 (with no disrespect to UC Davis or Virginia), a win over the Ducks could help put NU on the map. And if the over ticket for Nebraska is to be cashed, NU will almost certainly have to pull the upset.

Avoid the Toe-Stubber

Yeah, a 5-7 regular season was pretty dreadful for Nebraska last season. But that record includes two head-scratching losses to Illinois and Purdue, both on the road.

The two upsets were very different. Nebraska’s loss to Illinois involved asking Tommy Armstrong to make 31 passes in high winds, while the loss to Purdue had much to do with tossing backup quarterback Ryker Fyfe into the fire due to Armstrong’s injury.

Either way, though, those two games were inexplicable losses when comparing the relative talent levels of the two teams. If Nebraska wins those games, even with everything else that went wrong in 2015, the season would have ended at 8-4. The distance between 8-4 and 10-2 seems far more manageable than the actual records earned last year.

Win on the Road

If Nebraska is going to win ten games, it’s going to have to get work done on the road in conference. Trips to Northwestern, Wisconsin, and Iowa will likely determine Nebraska’s fate in the B1G West. Last year, Nebraska had its contests against those divisional rivals in Lincoln, and lost all three in excruciating fashion.

In 2016, the schedule flips and Nebraska will have to face those teams on the road. And if Nebraska is to reach the ten-win plateau, it will have to do better on the road in 2016 than it did at home in 2015.

Get the Bounces

Nebraska’s struggles in close games could not have been more well documented. And it would be falling prey to the Gambler’s Fallacy to think that Nebraska was due a run of good luck to make up for all the bad bounces it got in 2015.

Instead, perhaps it’s more reasonable to think that Nebraska’s secondary won’t be quite as vulnerable to the deep ball as it was throughout much of 2015 – a weakness that clearly cost it games against BYU, Miami, Illinois, Wisconsin, and (exhausted deep breath) Northwestern. Add to that a second year in an offense to help Armstrong avoid at least some of the turnovers that doomed Nebraska (such as against Iowa), and you have a recipe to turn those close losses into wins.

If Nebraska is to win ten games in 2016, it will have to find ways to convert those close losses into victories.

Nebraska Football: How Far Are The Cornhuskers From Clemson?

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On January 01, 2009, a fourth-quarter goal line stand helped Nebraska beat Clemson 26-21 to give Bo Pelini a win in his first (non-interim) bowl game. Pelini’s Cornhuskers gave Dabo Swinney a loss in his first bowl game in charge of the Tigers, and at the time it seemed a good foundation upon which to base future success.

Well, we know how that worked out. By 2015, Swinney’s Tigers were a special teams unit away from beating Nick Saban and the mighty Alabama Crimson Tide for a national title. Pelini’s 2015 saw him finishing a 5-6 season in charge at FCS Youngstown State, with his former club needing a win in the Foster Farms Bowl to finish the year at 6-7.

So what’s the difference? Both Pelini and Swinney started at the same time. How did Clemson scale the mountain to reach college football’s elite, while Nebraska languished in the “others receiving votes” valley?

Recruiting

The most glaring difference between Nebraska and Clemson between 2008 and now is how the two teams have recruited. As Dave Bartoo from CFB Matrix has observed, talent level is a critical factor in a winning college football program. Fans don’t like to admit it, but teams that win on National Signing Day are the teams most likely to win over the New Year’s weekend.

So take a look at how Nebraska and Clemson have recruited since that fateful Gator Bowl matchup in 2009. All recruiting rankings are 247 Sports national composite team rankings. I’ve also included the team’s record for that year under each coach, to get an idea of how each team performed.

Year Clemson Recruiting Clemson Record Nebraska Recruiting Nebraska Record
2009 31 9-5 42 9-4
2010 28 6-7 27 10-4
2011 10 10-4 16 10-4
2012 15 11-2 30 9-4
2013 15 11-2 22 10-4
2014 17 10-3 36 9-3
2015 8 14-1 30 6-7
2016 (to date) 11 ??? 34 ???

As you can see, at the start of the Pelini/Swinney era, there wasn’t a huge difference in the recruiting profile between the two schools. Their records bore that out, with Pelini looking like he had the brighter future.

But beginning in 2011, Clemson kicked its recruiting into gear, going from outside the top 25 to well within the top 15. As of 2011, Clemson’s average recruiting ranking nationally was 12.6, while Nebraska averaged 28 in the same time period.

It’s no coincidence that Clemson’s ability to break out of the four-loss quagmire that Nebraska languished in under Pelini coincided with its establishing a top-15 recruiting presence on a regular basis.

A Difference-Making Quarterback

If you watched the national championship game on Monday, you know that Clemson’s ability to compete with Alabama hinged on the brilliance of sophomore quarterback Deshaun Watson. His 478 total yards (!) broke Vince Young’s record, and that was done against Alabama’s NFL-caliber defense.

Alabama was able to overcome Watson looking like the second coming of Russell Wilson only through big plays in the passing game and otherworldly special teams production. As Deadspin observed, Watson deserved better for the performance he gave.

We’ve seen that improved recruiting was able to move Clemson from an also-ran to a player on the national stage. But it was superlative quarterback play that vaulted Clemson to a true national title contender.

How has Nebraska’s starting quarterback play been since 2008? Well …

Name Comp. Att. Comp. % TD INT TD/INT ratio
Taylor Martinez (2008-2012) 575 962 59.8 56 29 1.93
Tommy Armstrong (2013-2015) 474 878 54.0 53 36 1.47
Overall QB output (2008-2015) 1049 1857 56.5 109 65 1.68

As a smart and particularly handsome analyst observed, those numbers aren’t good enough to win the B1G West. They’re sure as heck not good enough for Nebraska to put itself on the national stage in college football. And, disturbingly, Armstrong’s performance on the two most important quarterback metrics (completion percentage and TD/INT ratio) are significantly worse than Martinez’s.

Yes, those numbers don’t take into account rushing yards, or the intangibles that a kid like Armstrong brings to the huddle. But the fact remains that Clemson found itself a difference-making quarterback and was two special teams plays away from lifting a national championship trophy. Nebraska has struggled with inconsistent quarterback performances and is stuck in the “also receiving votes” category.

Clemsoning

It wasn’t all that long ago that Clemson wasn’t really taken all that seriously as a national title contender. Sure, the Tigers had an impressive resume since 2011. But Clemson also had a habit of getting everyone’s hopes up, only to fall flat against lesser opposition.

Thanks to The Solid Verbal (a brilliant college football podcast that you should be listening to on a regular basis if you’ve read this far), this phenomenon of disappointment became known as “Clemsoning.” And, social media being what it is, #clemsoning became a big deal over the years. A big enough deal, in fact, that Swinney went on a three-minute rant about how unfair it was to single his team out for toe-stubbing (according to USA Today).

Nebraska fans should shudder how similar this sounds. Indeed, when SB Nation’s Football Study Hall looked into which teams “Clemsoned” the most, Nebraska was no. 5 on the list when blowouts were factored in.

What does that mean? That it can get better. After Monday’s performance, Clemsoning as a thing is done. Nebraska’s 2015 season was full of Clemsoning (Illinois and Purdue being the two clearest examples). So if NU wants to duplicate Clemson’s rise in the college football world, avoiding the creation of #nebraskaing (thank heaven that doesn’t roll off the tongue) would be a good place to start.

Nebraska Football: The Six Turning Points Of The 2015 Season

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So Sally can wait, she knows it’s too late as she’s walking on by

My soul slides away, but don’t look back in anger I heard you say.

  • Oasis, “Don’t Look Back In Anger”

It’s fair to say that Mike Riley’s first season in charge at Nebraska was full of surprises. A 5-7 campaign was a surprise to just about everyone (except one smart and particularly handsome analyst), made all the more difficult to take by how close it could have been to something else.

Football is a game of fine margins, and most teams can point to a play here and there that would have dramatically changed their fortunes. But Nebraska’s 2015 season seemed filled with those turning points.

So here are six turning points of the 2015 season, on which the results of the campaign rested.

No. 6: The Third-and-Seven Playcall against Wisconsin

The Illinois and Wisconsin games have to be looked at together. You can’t really understand the one without knowing what happened in the other. And in this case, it’s a perfect example of one team letting another beat them twice.

Nebraska went back and forth with Wisconsin in an ugly slugfest, but after an electrifying Andy Janovich touchdown (which would have been the play of the season in a fairer world), Nebraska held a 21-20 lead with 3:38 to go. Wisconsin missed a 39-yard field goal on its next drive, giving Nebraska the ball with 1:26 remaining.

Now, this is where the Illinois game comes in. The week before, Nebraska had a chance to bleed the clock and hold on for an ugly win against Illinois. But an incomplete pass on third-and-seven left enough time for the Illini to victimize Nebraska’s shaky secondary and steal a win.

A week later, Riley and offensive coordinator Danny Langsdorf were clearly haunted by the ghost of a week prior. After two runs, Nebraska faced another third-and-seven, and elected to run the ball into a (functionally) eleven-man Wisconsin defense. The play had no chance at all to be successful, Nebraska was forced to punt, and Wisconsin was able to repeat Illinois’ success against the Blackshirts’ secondary.

The loss against Illinois hurt Nebraska badly. But the ghost of that third-and-seven against Illinois cost Nebraska any legitimate shot at knocking off a reeling Wisconsin team the following week, too.

No. 5: Tommy Armstrong’s Interception in Overtime against Miami

Good grief, the game against Miami didn’t start well for Nebraska. Down 33-10 with 11:14 left in the game, Nebraska was well on its way to being embarrassed on national television.

But then quarterback Tommy Armstrong (with some assist from the now-fired Al Golden, Miami head coach) led Nebraska on an amazing comeback, tying the score at 33 with 33 seconds left and sending the game into overtime.

Nebraska had all the momentum, and a miracle comeback win looked to fill the scarlet and cream sails with positive energy heading into conference play.

And then, on Nebraska’s first play in overtime, Armstrong throws a terrible interception straight into the waiting arms of Miami’s Corn Elder (yes, God help me, that’s his name) and squanders all of the positive momentum gained from that fourth quarter comeback. We’re left to guess what the rest of the 2015 season would have looked like had Nebraska carried that positive momentum forward.

No. 4: Freedom Akinmoladun’s sack against Southern Mississippi

With everything else that happened in 2015, the Southern Mississippi game is easy to forget. But it almost wasn’t.

With 9:30 left in the game, Nebraska had just scored a touchdown and led the Golden Eagles 36-21. In what was a pattern of the 2015 season, though, that lead was far from safe. Southern Mississippi answered with a touchdown to make the score 36-28 with 6:55 left. Nebraska drove to the Golden Eagles’ 8, but Drew Brown’s 29-yard field goal was blocked. Southern Mississippi had the ball with 29 seconds left at its own 20, down a touchdown.

The Golden Eagles got the ball to the Nebraska 40, with time for a Hail Mary. Memorial Stadium was well aware of what happened the last time an opponent tried that play – and that Southern Mississippi knocked off Nebraska in Bill Callahan’s first year in charge as well. So the tension level was high when quarterback Nick Mullens dropped back to heave the ball towards the end zone.

But he never got the chance. Defensive end Freedom Akinmoladun got home and sacked Mullens, preventing Southern Mississippi from asking any questions of a reeling Nebraska secondary. It’s hard to imagine given the way 2015 broke down, but were it not for Akinmoladun’s sack, the season could have been much worse.

No. 3: Mitch Mathews’ Hail Mary Catch for BYU

Welcome to Lincoln, Coach Riley. Mitch Mathews’ Hail Mary catch was one of the iconic moments of the 2015 season nationally (according to ESPN’s Mitch Sherman). And it certainly set the tone for Nebraska’s 2015 season.

Just about everything went wrong for Nebraska on that play. Nebraska chose to rush three, leaving nine back in coverage against BYU’s cadre of tall receivers. One of those three rushers was injured on the play, leaving BYU quarterback Tanner Mangum plenty of time to roll out and heave the ball deep. It didn’t make it, but with no Nebraska defender in front of the play, Mathews’ big body was able to fall into the end zone after making the grab.

The BYU game is really more of an exercise in what-ifs. Had Nebraska held on and won that game, would its mindset have been different going into Miami? Into Champaign? We’ll never know, of course, but it’s hard not to imagine that a hard-fought win over the Cougars would have translated into a far better performance in the rest of the 2015 season.

No. 2: The Third-and-Seven against Illinois

If there was any play that really sunk Nebraska’s season, it was this one. Even after a sloppy, ugly performance, Nebraska had a 13-7 lead with just over a minute to go. It was third-and-seven on the Illinois 27. The Illini had no time outs, so any play that keeps the clock running gives Illinois the ball with about 20 seconds and the length of the field to go, needing a touchdown.

Instead, Armstrong threw an incomplete pass to Janovich. You know the rest of the story.

The thing is, rolling Armstrong out was a perfectly legitimate call. Armstrong just has to know – and coaches have to make sure he knows – that he can’t let the clock stop. And yet that’s just what happened on that fateful third-and-seven, which set the events in motion that cost Nebraska the game.

And not only the game. As discussed earlier, the ghost of this loss haunted Nebraska and led to the doomed-to-fail third down call against Wisconsin that cost Nebraska another game.

So imagine if Armstrong slides instead of throwing the ball, and Nebraska escapes Champaign with an ugly 13-7 win. Then, not haunted by that play, Nebraska does something other than beat its collective head against an eleven-man Wisconsin front, gets a first down, and holds on to beat the Badgers. Even if everything else remains the same, the season ends at 7-5, and feels a heck of a lot different.

No. 1: Brandon Reilly’s Touchdown against Michigan State

I toyed with where this play should be, or even if it should be on the list. Ultimately, it’s here because Nebraska’s win over the Spartans rescued Riley’s fledgling career in Lincoln. A loss to Michigan State puts Nebraska at best at 4-8, and very possibly at 3-9 given the negativity surrounding the program at the time. Riley’s a positive guy, but that would have made for a very, very difficult offseason.

Instead, the win gave Nebraska fans – and Nebraska players – a desperately needed taste of hope for the future. This is what Nebraska can be, beating a top-10 team on national television, when things go right. The celebration of the players after that game told the story of just how important the win was for the program. If Nebraska goes on to win a conference title in the next two or three years (a legitimate possibility, if things break right), then the Michigan State 2015 win was the bedrock upon which those championships were built.

And yet, the argument could be made that the specific play wasn’t all that critical. First of all, the decision not to call Reilly ineligible for going out of bounds was, at best soft. Even Riley himself said he was expecting the penalty to be called.

But so what if it was? Anyone who was watching the Michigan State secondary and how in-rhythm Armstrong was would be comfortably sure that Nebraska would have been likely to score anyway. It’s no guarantee, of course, so that’s why the play remains at the top of the list. But I’m convinced that even if the flag would have been thrown, Nebraska would have won that game regardless.

Nebraska Football: Five Things We Learned From the Cornhuskers’ 2015 Season

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After Nebraska’s 28-20 loss to Iowa left the Cornhuskers at 5-7 for the 2015 season, NU’s fans were left looking to the future. While a bowl game looks to be in the cards, most Nebraska fans are more than ready to turn the page on 2015. But before we let the season go, it’s time to learn what lessons have been learned.

Change Is Hard

Some, like this dope, thought that Nebraska wouldn’t miss a beat when Mike Riley took over from Bo Pelini. Nebraska would be able to retain the best of what it did previously, clean up its mistakes, and take a step forward.

Others, like this smart and particularly handsome analyst, saw Nebraska’s 5-7 season coming.

A new offense and a new defense – and, most importantly, a roster full of players not recruited for the coaches’ system – is a recipe for a rough transition. And even though some of the losses were of the heartbreaking and head-shaking variety, the fact remains that Nebraska had seven of them in 2015.

Hopefully for Nebraska fans, the extra practice from a bowl game (and NU fans better not ever complain about “too many bowls” again) along with an extra year in the system should make 2016 a much better experience.

The Quarterback Is Important

Now that the jury’s in on the 2015 season, let’s take a look at how Tommy Armstrong did.

Year Attempts Completions Yards Comp. % TD INT
2014 345 184 2695 53.3 22 12
2015 428 235 3152 54.9 21 20

Clearly, Armstrong was asked to do more this year than last, with an extra 83 passing attempts (an additional 6.92 attempts per game). Some of that was due to the change in offenses with a new staff, and some was due to the absence of a game-changing back like Ameer Abdullah.

Unfortunately, at the end of 2015 Armstrong’s results didn’t look that much difference than Armstrong in 2014. Armstrong’s completion percentage made a marginal improvement, certainly not enough for Nebraska to be successful. And, worryingly, Armstrong’s touchdown-to-interception ratio got significantly worse, going from 1.83 in 2014 to an abysmal 1.05 in 2015.

Against Iowa, we saw what that number means. Nebraska outperformed Iowa in just about every statistical category. Nebraska’s defense – the source of distress for most of the season – did more than enough to win the game. But Armstrong’s four interceptions were the difference between victory and defeat in this year’s Heroes Game.

That’s to take nothing away from Iowa’s win. The Hawkeyes are a solid squad of ham-and-eggers, doing what they do and waiting for you to make the mistake. That formula has earned Iowa a trip to Indianapolis for, functionally, a play-in game for the College Football Playoff.

Armstrong’s performance this year was not good enough for Nebraska to achieve its goals – just like it wasn’t good enough last year. In 2016, a different quarterback has to be under center for Nebraska. Perhaps it’s a different Armstrong, one who can use his remarkable talents and learn to avoid the back-breaking mistakes. Perhaps it’s four-star phenom Patrick O’Brien, who looks to enroll early and get a head start on learning Riley’s offense. Perhaps it’s one of the other quarterbacks on the roster, like Ryker Fyfe, A.J. Bush, or (my dark-horse pick) Zack Darlington, with an additional year learning the system.

But without improvement at the quarterback position, Nebraska has no chance to advance in 2016.

Old Habits Die Hard

Nebraska found a number of creative ways to lose a football game in 2015. But against Iowa, the refrain was hauntingly similar to losses of Huskers past. Turnovers (four interceptions, and a minus-three turnover ratio) and penalties (eight for 95 yards, compared to Iowa’s six for 54) turned a game that Nebraska dominated statistically into an eight-point loss.

Last year, Nebraska was no. 75 nationally in turnover margin, and no. 56 nationally in penalties (according to cfbstats.com). Against Iowa, the problems that plagued Nebraska in years past came back to cost Nebraska a chance at a winning season in 2015.

Lincoln Ain’t Corvallis

Riley is no stranger to seasons like Nebraska’s 2015. In his second stint at Oregon State, Riley finished 5-7 or worse four times in 12 years. By the end of his tenure in Corvalis, Riley was beginning to feel some heat as a result of the team’s performance.

A sub-.500 record one year in four might earn you 12 years in Corvalis, but not in Lincoln. At least some Nebraska fans are willing to give Riley a pass on 2015, given the combination of a new coach and a host of injuries. But Riley has to know that in Lincoln, 5-7 has to be an anomaly, not a recurring theme.

Patience is No Fun

2015 hasn’t been much fun. A series of losses and catastrophic injuries has made Nebraska’s season one to endure more than enjoy. The hope for Nebraska fans has to be that the spade work of 2015 – learning a new system and adapting the roster to meet the demands of the new scheme – will pay off in years to come.

Thanks to a whole bunch of new made-for-TV bowl games, Nebraska should make a post-season appearance. That means Nebraska will get the extra bowl practices, and a head-start on preparations for the 2016 season.

A smart and particularly handsome analyst has said Nebraska should be favored to win the B1G West next season. 2016 seems like a long ways away – and there’s certainly no guarantee of success – but if the crucible of 2015 produces a trip to Indianapolis in 2016, it will all be worth it.

Nebraska Football: Mike Riley’s Magic Number for Winning

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“Sixty percent completion rate, it’s a magic number. Yes it is, it’s a magic number.”

– to the tune of “Three Is A Magic Number,” Schoolhouse Rock

With Nebraska off to its worst start in football since the pre-Bob Devaney era, Nebraska fans are freaked out. In trying to grapple with a reality that involves Nebraska needing to win out to avoid a 6-6 season (and the need to change the patch on its uniform to “Nebraska Football – A Non-Losing Tradition”), people have looked all over for answers. It’s the coach. It’s the defense. It’s the injuries.

Of course, sober and rational fans know that there are any number of nuances and competing factors contributing to five losses by a total of 13 points. But this is A Blog on The Internets, so a “silver bullet” answer is needed to fix Nebraska’s woes.

And as luck may have it, a look at the numbers might suggest something along those lines. A smart and particularly handsome analyst has already observed the striking correlation between Nebraska completing 60 percent or more of its pass attempts and winning. Here’s that table, updated for the Northwestern game.

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
Northwestern 24 48 50.0

Games won are in bold.

The theory holds up perfectly for Nebraska this year. Nebraska is 3-0 in games where Armstrong’s completion percentage is 60 percent or over, and 0-5 when it is under 60 percent.

But how does that hold up in Riley’s history? Well, thanks to the fine folks at cfbstats.com, we can crack open the record books and take a look back at least to 2008.

Year Record with rate >= 60% Record with rate <60%
2015 3-0 0-5
2014 6-4 1-2
2013 3-3 2-4
2012 7-1 2-3
2011 3-7 0-2
2010 4-1 1-6
2009 8-4 0-1
2008 5-3 4-1
Overall 66-23 (.742 win pct.) 10-24 (.294 win pct.)

In other words, since 2008 Riley’s teams have won nearly three in four games where his team’s completion percentage is 60 percent or greater, and lost more than three in every four games where that completion percentage is less than 60 percent.

It does make some sense, though, when you look at how Riley’s teams have run the ball since 2008 (again, from cfbstats.com).

Year Yards/Carry
2015 4.94
2014 3.77
2013 3.46
2012 3.66
2011 3.27
2010 3.76
2009 4.13
2008 4.22

While this year’s yards-per-carry is more than acceptable (and might suggest an offensive game plan, particularly if quarterback Tommy Armstrong is unable to play against Purdue this Saturday, as reported by Michael Bruntz of Huskers Illustrated), history suggests that Riley-coached teams have never run the ball effectively. Therefore, it stands to reason that Riley relies on a quarterback completing a high percentage of his throws to move the ball effectively.

Watching Nebraska this year on offense tends to lend credence to the theory. Even with a nearly five-yards-per-carry average, Nebraska’s offense has very much relied on the pass to establish the run rather than vice versa. When Armstrong is in a rhythm and completing passes, everything else clicks. But when he isn’t (or, in fairness, his passes are being dropped), Nebraska’s offense bogs down.

Which makes for the potential of a fascinating experiment on Saturday. Should backup quarterback Ryker Fyfe play due to Armstrong’s injury, look to see if he’s able to hit that magical sixty-percent completion rate against Purdue. If he can hit that number, it will be interesting to see what Nebraska’s offense looks like.

Yes, it’s Purdue, and a good performance by Fyfe wouldn’t (and shouldn’t) displace Armstrong as the starter next week against Michigan State. But the completion percentage number is a good one to keep your eye on throughout the rest of this season – and to keep in the back of your mind as Nebraska looks towards 2016.

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: ReView of the Cornhuskers’ 48-25 Win Over Minnesota

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Nebraska got its first conference win of 2015 with an emphatic 48-25 win over Minnesota in Minneapolis. Breaking a two-game losing streak to the Gophers, Nebraska nearly hung a fifty-burger on a team whose defense had not allowed more than 27 all season. The win gets Nebraska to 3-4 overall and 1-2 in B1G play. So, for Nebraska fans …

The Good

Getting The Bounces. Sure, you make your own luck. But this time, the ball started bouncing Nebraska’s way. The best example was at the end of the first quarter, with Nebraska up 14-7. Nebraska faced a third-and-four, and fullback Andy Janovich fumbled the ball. Given the way Nebraska’s fortunes had been going, this would have been an opportunity for Minnesota to get the turnover, score on the short field, and put more pressure on the snakebit Cornhuskers.

But this time, the ball bounced right back into Janovich’s arms, allowing Nebraska to not only retain possession but fall forward for the first down. Finally, it seemed, the worm had turned in Nebraska’s favor.

Tommy’s Back. There’s plenty of stats to chew on in understanding the difference between a heartbreaking loss (or three) and a comfortable win. But take a look at Nebraska quarterback Tommy Armstrong’s numbers:

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.

There’s a couple of interesting things to observe here. First, Armstrong’s passing attempts have been consistently decreasing, likely an adaptation of head coach Mike Riley and offense coordinator Danny Langsdorf to Armstrong’s skill set.

Second, and more interestingly, is how completion percentage correlates to success. When Armstrong is completing more than 60 percent of his passes, Nebraska wins. Less than 60 percent for Armstrong, and Nebraska loses. Correlation isn’t causation, but at this point it’s fair to say that Nebraska’s is keyed on Armstrong being accurate with the football.

The Courage Of Your Convictions. Here we go again. Against Illinois with a critical third down to ice the game, Nebraska put Armstrong on a roll-out. He threw an incompletion, and gave Illinois enough time to win the game.

Against Wisconsin (as observed by a smart and particularly handsome analyst), the ghost of that play haunted Nebraska. With another critical third-down conversion, Nebraska ran three times straight into the teeth of an eleven-man Wisconsin front, giving the Badgers possession and time to win the game.

So once again, Nebraska was facing a crucial third down, this time needing six yards from its own 42 with 5:42 left in the game. Minnesota had cut Nebraska’s lead to 38-25, and the ghosts of collapses past were haunting the Nebraska fanbase. The reaction of fans on social media could be fairly summarized as follows:

Dear Coach Riley:

Run. The. Ball.

Sincerely, Twitter.

Instead, Armstrong dropped back and completed a 27-yard pass to Jordan Westerkamp, getting a first down and keeping the drive alive. Nebraska would eventually kick a field goal, stretching its lead to 41-25, and leaving Minnesota only 3:03 left for a two score comeback.

While fans’ reaction to the pass call was mainly NONONONONOYESSSSSSSSSSS, Riley should be commended for having the guts to make the pass call. Against Wisconsin, the decision to run up the middle was coaching not to lose. Against Minnesota, even with all the heat he would have caught had it not worked out, Riley trusted his offense and his quarterback – and was rewarded for his courage.

The Bad

No Hiding. We’ve talked before about how Nebraska’s struggles in the secondary came in no small part from a lack of a pass rush. Well, that wasn’t the case against Minnesota. Both with a four-man rush and with a blitz, Nebraska heated up and harassed Minnesota quarterback Mitch Leidner for most of the game.

Leidner – who came into the game completing 57.8 percent of his passes – went 26-40 for 301 yards passing. Minnesota’s previous best game passing this season was 264 yards – against Ohio.

Numbers can, indeed, lie. But there’s no escaping the conclusions from both the statistics and from watching the games. Nebraska’s secondary is a huge liability, one that was overcome against Minnesota. But absent a massive improvement going forward – which is not reasonable to assume being seven games into the season – then Nebraska will struggle throughout the 2015 season.

A Work In Progress. The return of De’Mornay Pierson-El is without question a huge boost for Nebraska’s offense. His first punt return, a 42-yarder, reminded Nebraska fans of just how dangerous he can be. His tip-drill touchdown reception to help win the game for Nebraska is a glimpse of what the offense will look like with him as a participant.

But he’s not the complete package yet. Twice, he let fieldable punts hit the ground, allowing Minnesota to stick Nebraska with horrific field position. Whether it’s a combination of rust and skittishness from his muffed punt against Illinois last week, Pierson-El has to make better decisions in terms of fielding punts deep in his own territory.

Helping The Enemy. Let’s start with the obvious – beating Minnesota was a very good thing for Nebraska. But it may have the inadvertent effect of putting the B1G West out of reach.

Iowa is 3-0 in conference play, in comparison to Nebraska’s 1-2. The Hawkeyes’ remaining schedule is Maryland, at Indiana, Minnesota, Purdue, and at Nebraska. Given what Iowa has left, it is entirely possible – even likely at this point – that Iowa will be undefeated coming into Black Friday against Nebraska.

With a two-game lead and a soft schedule, Nebraska’s defeat of Minnesota may have gone a long way in guaranteeing Iowa a trip to Indianapolis.

And The REAL B1G Trophy

You all know what a big deal it was for Nebraska to get off the schneid and save its 2015 season. So let’s take this time to focus on what’s really cool about this game.

When Nebraska came into the B1G in 2011, its game with Iowa was anointed the “Heroes Game” with an associated focus-group-approved Heroes Trophy. Last year, for reasons known to absolutely no one, the Nebraska-Wisconsin game was saddled with the ridiculous sailboat-like Freedom Trophy. Neither of these trophies have any of the personality or charm of trophies like Floyd of Rosedale or the Old Oaken Bucket.

No more. Nebraska and Minnesota are now playing for the Bits of Broken Chair Trophy. The idea was born on Twitter between Minnesota’s mascot, Goldie, and Nebraska’s favorite parody coach account, @FauxPelini.

But, you say, that can’t be a real thing, can it? Well …

Welcome to the B1G, Nebraska. Finally.

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

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

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

BYU

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

Agony Clock – 0:01

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

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

Miami

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

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

Agony Clock – 0:01

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

Illinois

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

Agony Clock – 0:11

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

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

Wisconsin

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

Agony Clock – 0:15

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

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

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

So What?

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

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

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

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

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

The Good

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Bad

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stats from cfbstats.com

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

And the Elephant in the Room

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

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

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

Stats from cfbstats.com

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Good

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Bad

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And the B1G West Champions-In-Waiting

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

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

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

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

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

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