Nebraska Football: PreView of the Cornhuskers’ Game Against Miami

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Nebraska faces its first road test of the season and with new head coach Mike Riley in charge, traveling to Coral Gables to face the Miami Hurricanes. For Nebraska fans watching the game at 2:30 p.m. central time on ABC:

You’ll Be Happy If …

Tommy Continues His Progress. Coming into the season, this dope thought that Tommy Armstrong could be a weakness for Nebraska, given his struggles with completion percentages and interceptions. But in two games, Armstrong has a completion percentage of 63.4 percent and a 5/1 touchdown-to-interception ratio.

Those are numbers good enough to win a divisional title, and compete for a conference title. And if Armstrong can keep those numbers up against the most talented team Nebraska has faced so far this season – and on the road for the first time as well – Nebraska will be in great shape.

Kaaya Gets Heated Up. Yes, Nebraska’s secondary has struggled mightily this year. But that comes in large part from Nebraska unable to generate a pass rush, especially with only its front four. That’s got to change if Nebraska is going to be successful against Miami. Miami quarterback Brad Kaaya is too talented and has too many weapons to be allowed time in the pocket.

So whether it’s Maliek Collins in the middle learning how to deal with double and triple teams, or defensive end Freedom Akinmoladun translating his athletic ability into quarterback pressure, the Blackshirts’ ability to put Kaaya on the ground will be critical for a Nebraska win.

Carter’s Return Is Triumphant. After a two-game suspension, tight end Cethan Carter returns to the lineup for Nebraska. That’s a big deal for a Nebraska squad already thin from injuries with Sam Cotton lost against BYU. Plus, even with Nebraska’s tight end squad fully healthy, Carter is by far the most dangerous offensive weapon of the bunch.

Miami hasn’t seen any tape of Carter in Riley’s offense, and Carter will have a point to prove after missing the first two games. Don’t be surprised if he ends up a huge factor in a Nebraska victory.

You’ll Be Sad If …

There’s A Banderas-sized Hole. Middle linebacker Josh Banderas has been struggling with injury all week, but is expected to play against Miami on Saturday (according to Brian Christopherson of the Lincoln Journal-Star). That’s a big deal, as Nebraska has not yet been able to see its two most experienced linebackers – Banderas and Michael Rose-Ivey – on the field at the same time.

But expected to play doesn’t necessarily mean fully healed. And if Banderas is limited, or has a setback and isn’t able to play at all, then Nebraska’s defense is significantly hampered against the most talented offense NU has faced all season.

The Yellow Emerges. Against BYU, Nebraska had 12 penalties for 90 yards, and it’s hard not to see that as a factor in NU’s razor-thin loss to the Cougars. Against South Alabama, Nebraska was better – but still not good – in penalties, drawing 7 flags for 80 yards.

This game already looks to be chippy, after a fiercely competitive matchup last year in Lincoln. But Nebraska can’t afford to give yardage away against Miami with a flurry of penalties. If the yellow comes out in large quantities for Nebraska, Miami has a huge advantage.

Golden Is, Well … Miami coach Al Golden has struggled to return the Hurricanes to glory. SB Nation posted an interview with Golden that discussed whether he was on the hot seat as a result of his relative underachievement.

Dave Bartoo of the CFB Matrix has developed an analytical tool to tell how much difference – positive or negative – a coach can make on a team’s success in what he calls the “Coach Effect.” Last year’s coach effect saw Riley (then at Oregon State) at no. 11 amongst power-five schools, and Golden at no. 41.

Those numbers suggest that, all things being equal, a Riley-coached team should beat a Golden-coached team. And Miami and Nebraska are pretty equal, talent-wise. But the game is in Miami, and if Golden is able to over-perform his coaching history, Nebraska is likely to struggle.

Investment Advice

Miami is a three-point favorite at home (according to Covers), suggesting that the gamblers view the two teams as nearly even. But Nebraska looks like it is building steam and starting to settle in to what Riley is asking for on offense and defense. And Golden’s coaching history does not inspire confidence. Take Nebraska and the points.

Fearless forecast: Nebraska 31, Miami 28.

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

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

You’ll Be Happy If …

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You’ll Be Sad If …

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fearless Forecast

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

Nebraska 31, South Alabama 20

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

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

The Good …

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Bad …

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

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

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

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

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

(Emphasis added)

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

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

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

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

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

And Taylor Swift

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nebraska Football: The 5 Most Indispensable Cornhuskers in 2015

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Nebraska football fans know that in an era of scholarship limits, it’s hard to lose any players. But some players on a roster are harder to lose than others, and the effect of their absence on the squad is greater. As we prepare for new head coach Mike Riley’s first test, here are five of the players that Nebraska can least afford to lose.

No. 5 : De’Mornay Pierson-El

I know, I know, he’s hurt and is going to miss six to eight weeks (according to the Omaha World-Herald). But as a smart and particularly handsome analyst has observed already, if that timetable holds true then Nebraska might be well set to withstand his loss for those games, getting him back for the real meat of the season.

And make no mistake, Nebraska is much better with a healthy Pierson-El. More than anyone else on the roster, Pierson-El is a proven game-changer in the return game, and was beginning to show his promise as a receiver. Add him in to Riley’s offense (with the jet sweeps alone) and he changes Nebraska’s offense and how defenses have to react.

With recent news that Pierson-El might be out longer than the original timeframe given (according to Samuel McKewon of the Omaha World-Herald), Nebraska fans are rightly concerned about what impact the injury will have on the 2015 season. And while Riley should not give in to temptation and leave Pierson-El on the sideline until he can return without unreasonable risk of re-injury, his loss will be keenly felt if it does go longer than six to eight games.

No. 4: Tommy Armstrong

Armstrong might not be the quarterback Riley would have picked to run his offense, but he’s the quarterback Riley has inherited. And given the in ability of any other quarterback on the roster to legitimately challenge Armstrong for the position, it has to be assumed that Riley and his staff have concluded that Armstrong’s skill set gives Nebraska its best chance to be successful on offense.

Indeed, in the installation of this year’s offense, the scheme is tailored to fit Armstrong’s strengths and desires. According to The Best College Sports News Network, offensive coordinator Danny Langsdorf said that he makes sure Armstrong is comfortable with a particular play before putting it into a game plan.

That’s great news for Nebraska fans having nervous flashbacks to 2004, watching Joe Dailey try to run a Bill Callahan offense for which he was woefully unsuited. But it also means big trouble for Nebraska if Armstrong goes down and one of the backups has to get significant playing time.

No. 3: Alex Lewis

There’s good news coming from Nebraska camp about the NU offensive line coming into the season. According to 247 Sports, the offensive line is “beginning to gel,” which is crucial for Nebraska to have any chance at offensive success in a year when an new system is being implemented.

But there’s only one returning starter on that line, senior left tackle Alex Lewis. His presence, particularly at such a crucially important position on the line for a right-handed quarterback, is central to Nebraska’s ability to get good play from its offensive line. And without that good play, it’s very difficult to see how Nebraska will succeed either running or throwing the ball.

No. 2: Maliek Collins

A survey of most reports from Nebraska’s fall camp has defensive tackle Collins being the best player on the team. According to Brian Christopherson of the Lincoln Journal-Star, Collins was one of the players cited by the Big Ten Network’s crew in their annual pre-season visit of B1G teams. And ESPN NFL draft analyst Todd McShay has Collins as a first-round pick in the 2016 NFL draft.

That’s the kind of talent that is hard to replace. While defensive line is an area of strength for Nebraska, particularly on the interior with Vincent Valentine and Kevin Williams, the loss of Collins would be a huge step backwards.

No. 1: Josh Banderas

OK, so maybe the emergence of freshmen like Dedrick Young, Tyrin Ferguson, and Luke Gifford (according to Brian Christopherson of the Lincoln Journal-Star) can help quell the tinges of panic felt by Nebraska fans when they realize that there’s only one linebacker on the roster who started a game last year.

But if something happens to that guy – specifically, middle linebacker Josh Banderas – then feel free to resume full-blown panic. Nebraska would then be left without any returning experience at a position of critical importance, particularly in new defensive coordinator Mark Banker’s quarters scheme.

Which, of course is why practice reports from 247 Sports about Banderas being “day to day” with a groin injury should be terrifying for Nebraska fans. Less than two weeks away from taking the field against Taysom Hill and a solid BYU club, Nebraska’s only returning starter at linebacker isn’t practicing. According to 247 Sports, if Banderas couldn’t play then the middle linebacker spot would likely be filled by Ferguson or Chris Weber.

Wrap your head around that, Husker fan. Nebraska could be facing BYU with a middle linebacker – you know, the guy who runs the back half of the defense – who is either a true freshman or a sophomore with a grand total of six career tackles.

It may turn out to be nothing, but this groin injury to Banderas may very well be the biggest story being ignored in the run-up to the start of the 2015 season.

Nebraska Football: Key Questions for Cornhuskers Against BYU

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Nebraska football fans have just one more week to wait before BYU week beginning. As a result, it’s not too early to start looking ahead and wondering what it might take for new head coach Mike Riley to lead Nebraska to a victory to start the 2015 season. Here are three questions that will be answered – one way or the other – in Nebraska’s lid-lifter.

Can the Blackshirts Stop Hill?

Even before the coaching change, this was the biggest question coming into the contest against BYU. Quarterback Taysom Hill is a remarkable talent, particularly as a runner. Bruce Feldman of Fox Sports talks about Hill as a darkhorse Heisman candidate, and Matt Brown of SB Nation argues that Hill is BYU’s most talented quarterback since Steve Young (even if he doesn’t win the Heisman).

That’s a tall order for Nebraska’s first opponent of the season, particularly when NU will be putting a brand new defensive scheme in place. While the quarters scheme run by defensive coordinator Mark Banker should be more effective against the run (as observed by a smart and particularly handsome analyst), how the Blackshirts fare against Hill will be the primary determining factor in whether Nebraska can start 2015 with a win.

How Will the Offense Work?

There’s been encouraging signs coming out of fall camp for Nebraska’s offense, particularly for fans who can remember an offensive sea-change under a certain Bill Callahan. In reporting that Nebraska’s offense is “fully installed” for the 2015 season, the Best College Sports News Network quoted offensive coordinator Danny Langsdorf as follows:

As we narrow our game plan down a lot, we want to make sure he [quarterback Tommy Armstrong] is comfortable, give him some thoughts and then really rank them (plays) that he likes. We get into a game, we have a menu of plays—we want to make sure the quarterback that is making the decision is comfortable with the play and feels good about it.

That’s just a little bit different than when Callahan showed up in 2004 and tried to pound a Joe Dailey-shaped peg into a West Coast Offense-shaped hole, with predictable results. Predictable, as in a 19 completions from 42 (!) passing attempts performance on a windy November afternoon in Ames, en route to a 34-27 loss.

So at least we know Riley and company are attempting to tailor Nebraska’s new-look offense to the talent on the roster, rather than installing his preferred pro-style offense. How that hybrid will work, especially against a BYU defense with a national recruiting base, will be a fascinating question to answer.

How Will Nebraska Replace Pierson-El?

As the 2014 season wore on, De’Mornay Pierson-El evolved from an option on special teams, to a game-changing punt returner, to Nebraska’s leading receiver against USC in the Holiday Bowl.

Losing Pierson-El for six to eight weeks is a big blow, then, for a coaching staff already struggling to find an identity (as well as filling an Ameer Abdullah-shaped hole in last year’s offensive production). As a result, Nebraska will need to find a player (or collection of players) to fill that void.

First in line might be senior wide receiver Jamal Turner, who had a strong performance in an inter-squad scrimmage, according to Sam McKewon of the Omaha World-Herald. If Turner, in his sixth season after getting a medical hardship from last season’s campaign, can live up to some of his untapped potential, Nebraska might have a chance to replace some of Pierson-El’s playmaking skills.

Nebraska Football: Worst-Case Scenario For the 2015 Season

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While Nebraska football fans can be forgiven for their optimism, deep down they know that disaster could be lurking around the corner. Coaching transitions are always difficult, and new head man Mike Riley is bringing in a new philosophy on offense and defense for Nebraska to absorb. And while a smart and particularly handsome analyst has already talked sunshine and unicorns about Nebraska’s run this year to the College Football Playoff, there’s also a scenario that goes far worse for the scarlet and cream.

A Brutal Start

If the wheels come off for Nebraska this year, it could be in large part based on the challenging first three games. Riley’s career at Nebraska starts by facing a BYU team led by potential Heisman darkhorse quarterback Taysom Hill. Bruce Feldman of FOX Sports is one of many pundits highlighting Hill’s size and athleticism as a reason why he could be a star in 2015.

Directional State, this ain’t, for a first game in charge for Riley and company. If the Blackshirts struggle with new defensive coordinator Mark Banker’s quarters scheme in their first live game, Nebraska could easily find itself 0-1 to start the season.

Then, after a bit of a breather with South Alabama (although the Jaguars did go to a bowl game last year), Nebraska heads to south Florida to face Miami. The Hurricanes will be led by sophomore quarterback Brad Kaaya, who went 28-42 against Nebraska last year for 359 yards and two touchdowns. Miami’s talent is better than Nebraska’s, according to the 2014 rankings from CFB Matrix, suggesting the Hurricanes will have an on-field advantage. And this will be Riley’s first road game in his Nebraska career.

Especially coming after an opening-game loss, it’s not at all inconceivable that Nebraska could get beaten by Miami and start the 2015 campaign 1-2.

Armstrong Doesn’t Progress

Although much has been made about Riley adapting his offense to meet his personnel, it’s hard to see how Nebraska has success on offense without quarterback Tommy Armstrong improving his completion percentage. Which is why this quote from BTN’s Tom Dienhart, after watching some fall practice, should be terrifying.

After watching two practices, I have concerns. Armstrong lacks consistent touch and accuracy. He has a rep for being sharper on long passes than he is on shorter ones. Not good in Riley’s pro-style/West Coast attack.

If Armstrong doesn’t progress from the career 52.9 completion percentage passer he’s been, Nebraska’s offense will struggle. And without a star like Ameer Abdullah in the backfield to bail him out, that could make Nebraska ripe for the picking as conference play unfolds.

The B1G Meat Grinder

Nebraska’s two toughest conference games, Wisconsin and Michigan State, are at home. But it’s not like Nebraska has enjoyed a great deal of success against either team recently. Last year, Nebraska lost to the Spartans in East Lansing in a game that wasn’t nearly as close as the 27-22 score would indicate.

Sadly, Nebraska’s 59-24 loss to Wisconsin in Madison last year wasn’t as close as that score indicated, either.

So let’s say Nebraska falls to both Wisconsin and Michigan State. What else is on the schedule? Well, Minnesota holds a two-game winning streak over Nebraska, and gets NU in Minneapolis. While there are ample reasons to think Riley will make Nebraska a better matchup, history suggests the Gophers could well extend their streak to three.

How about Northwestern? Other than last year’s contest, every game Nebraska has played against the Purples has been a challenge. There’s a good argument to be made that, since Nebraska’s entry into the B1G, Northwestern should have been 3-0 against the scarlet and cream going into last year’s contest. So it’s not impossible to imagine the Purples coming to Lincoln and upsetting Nebraska in Riley’s first year.

And then there’s Iowa. While Nebraska fans would love nothing more than to dismiss the Hawkeyes, the fact remains that Iowa beat Nebraska last time the teams met in Memorial Stadium. And Nebraska needed a De’Mornay Pierson-El punt return (and criminally-negligent game management from Iowa head coach Kirk Ferentz) to overcome a 10-point fourth-quarter deficit and win the game in overtime.

So there’s every reason to think Iowa can hang with – and ultimately beat – Nebraska at home on Black Friday in 2015.

Wisconsin. Michigan State. Minnesota. Northwestern. Iowa. Sure, it’s not likely that Nebraska would lose all of those games. But it’s certainly not impossible. And if Nebraska starts dropping games, momentum could make losing more games likely.

That would lead to Nebraska ending the 2015 season at 5-7, and providing disturbing flashbacks to the last time a new head coach with a West Coast offensive philosophy arrived in Lincoln. And while this dystopian view of 2015 is less likely than the rose-colored vision discussed earlier, fans should discount it at their peril.

Nebraska Football: Best-Case Scenario for the 2015 Season

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photo and story by Patrick Runge

Nebraska football fans are greeting the start of fall camp with optimism, as new head coach Mike Riley prepares for his first season in charge. Before a ball is snapped in anger, the possibilities for Nebraska’s 2015 season are limitless, and the winds of change that have blown through Lincoln are giving hope to all of the scarlet and cream faithful.

So let’s run with that optimism a little, and see what Nebraska’s season would look like if everything broke the right way. Here’s the big things that would need to happen for Nebraska’s 2015 season to sparkle, and what the end result might be.

Tommy Armstrong finds his groove

It’s not a big surprise to regular visitors to know that the two stats of focus for Tommy Armstrong here are his completion percentage and his touchdown-to-interception ratio. Last year, here were Armstrong’s stats in Nebraska’s wins and losses in the regular season:

  Completion % TD-to-INT ratio
Wins 53.2 2.125 (17/8)
Losses 47.5 0.667 (2/3)

The numbers tell a pretty clear picture, especially the touchdown-to-interception ratio. Neither completion ratio is stellar, but a sub-.500 ratio is a recipe to lose games. The TD-to-INT ratio, though, is the real differential between the two numbers. It may be a small sample size, but Armstrong’s ratio difference between wins and losses says a lot about why those outcomes came about.

If Armstrong is able to post – or improve – his statistics throughout the season, Nebraska’s chances for a stellar season improve dramatically.

(In fairness, Nebraska’s loss in the bowl game to USC is a bit of an outlier, as Armstrong had a 62.7 completion ratio and a 3-to-1 TD-to-INT ratio.  But with the interim coach and all the upheaval from Bo Pelini’s dismissal, it’s hard to know what to make of that game. If Armstrong puts up his Holiday Bowl numbers this season, though, Nebraska should win the B1G West.)

The linebackers and offensive line click

While there are question marks for the whole team with a transition to a new head coach, the two biggest areas of concern are at linebacker and offensive line. At linebacker, Nebraska only returns one player (Josh Banderas) with any starting experience, and only two (Banderas and Michael Rose-Ivey) with any starting experience at all.

It will be up to returning players Luke Gifford and Marcus Newby, along with incoming freshmen like Dedrick Young and Mohammed Barry, to make an impact at a critical position for the Blackshirts.

Similarly, Nebraska’s offensive line has only one player returning with significant starting experience in left tackle Alex Lewis. All four other offensive line positions have question marks, including the critical position of center.

It’s a little frightening to think that Nebraska is so unsettled at such critical positions. But if Nebraska is able to make things work right off the bat at both linebacker and offensive line, then the strengths NU has at other positions should shine through.

The season ends with a Playoff appearance

Scoff if you want, but Nebraska is set up – if everything clicks – to make college football’s final four. It would likely being 12-0 going into the B1G title game. That would mean wins over BYU and Miami in the non-conference, a daunting but not impossible task for a new head coach.

The conference schedule actually sets up well for Nebraska. The most difficult games – Wisconsin, Michigan State, and Iowa – are all in Lincoln. The most challenging road game is at Minnesota, but the change in defensive scheme should make the Gophers a better matchup for Nebraska.

So let’s say Nebraska makes a perfect run through the regular season, likely matching up with the defending national champion Ohio State in Indianapolis. The Buckeyes would be a prohibitive favorite, and should be given the relative talent profiles of the two teams.

However, Ohio State wasn’t a dominant force last year. It’s easy to forget after the Buckeyes demolished Wisconsin in the B1G title game (with then-coach Gary Anderson leaving Madison days later) and steamrolled through the playoffs, of course.

But Ohio State also lost to an average Virginia Tech team. It also went to overtime against Penn State and struggled mightily with Minnesota. Nebraska might not be on a talent level with Ohio State, but it certainly is on a level with the teams that either beat or ran Ohio State very close in 2014. If those teams could play with the Buckeyes, there’s no reason a 12-0 Nebraska couldn’t rise up for one game.

Of course, this is a best-case scenario, with the new offense and defense clicking right away and the injury bug staying away from Lincoln. But if all those things happen, a surprise Playoff appearance isn’t an unachievable goal for Riley in year one.

Nebraska Football: Strengths, Weaknesses, and Secret Weapons

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photo and story by Patrick Runge

Nebraska football fans are anxiously awaiting the start of fall camp under new head coach Mike Riley. As they wait, they will be looking through the roster and wondering what the secrets to a successful Nebraska season could be in 2015.

What will be Nebraska’s strengths to exploit? Its weaknesses to avoid? And what secret weapons can Nebraska fans talk about and look smart to their friends around a late summer barbecue? Here are a few options to consider.

Strength: Defensive Tackle

An argument could be made that the strongest overall position might be at defensive tackle. Maliek Collins is getting rave pre-season reviews, pegged by ESPN NFL analyst Todd McShay as a first-round pick in next year’s draft. Alongside Collins will be Vincent Valentine, who was tabbed as a third-string all-Big Ten player by Phil Steele and Athlon Sports.

Being dominant on the interior of a defensive line can help a team stop the run and get a straight-line pass rush. It frees up defensive ends and linebackers, makes play-action passing less effective, and helps a secondary by decreasing the amount of time needed to cover receivers. Nebraska fans have seen what a dominant defensive tackle in Ndamukong Suh can do for the rest of a defensive unit.

No, neither Collins nor Valentine are in Suh’s class. But seeing how Suh affected the Blackshirts – and opposing offenses – gives some idea of how important Collins and Valentine could be to Nebraska.

Strength: De’Mornay Pierson-El

It’s not exactly breaking news that Pierson-El is Nebraska’s most dangerous offensive weapon returning. With the departure of Ameer Abdullah and the questions surrounding Nebraska at quarterback (more on that in a bit), Pierson-El provides the kind of threat NU will need to attack opposing defenses.

Pierson-El’s value goes up when you consider what Riley’s offenses, and the players who have succeeded in those offenses, have looked like. At Oregon State, Riley used a steady diet of screen passes and jet sweeps designed to get shifty playmakers the ball in space and challenge defenses horizontally. Pierson-El’s speed and elusiveness make him ideally suited for those roles, or as a decoy in a straight-ahead rushing attack.

It’s hard not to see a little of Jacquizz Rodgers when you see Pierson-El. Rodgers, like Pierson-El, is small, shifty, and lightning-fast. At Oregon State, Riley was able to ride Rodgers to a win over then-no. 1 USC and make him the Pac-10 Offensive Player of the Year in 2008.

Weakness: Tommy Armstrong

Hear me out on this one. Yes, Armstrong has been successful as Nebraska’s quarterback. Yes, he’s the guy with the most experience and the most ready to take on the starting job next season.

But you can’t get away from the numbers. Armstrong has a career 52.9 percent completion rate, and a 31/20 touchdown-to-interception ratio. Those numbers are simply not good enough for Nebraska to compete for a conference title.

Of course, with a new coaching staff, it’s entirely possible that Armstrong’s numbers could improve next season. Riley and new offensive coordinator Danny Langsdorf have a history of success with signal-callers. Armstrong, with an off-season of work with Riley and Langsdorf, may be the beneficiary of that skill.

If Nebraska wants to contend for a conference title in 2015, he’ll need to be.

Weakness: New Coaching Staff

Debate over the wisdom of firing Bo Pelini and hiring Riley started almost immediately after Pelini’s dismissal, and will not be resolved for some years to come. But whether the decision was wise or foolish in the long term, for this year there is no escaping the fact that Nebraska will be learning an entirely new offensive and defensive scheme. Not only that, but Nebraska will be in the no-man’s land of trying to fit players from an old scheme into a new game plan, and fitting a new scheme around the talents of the players currently on the roster.

In other words, year one of any new coaching staff has unique challenges. And given the front-loaded nature of Nebraska’s schedule, with games against BYU and at Miami in the first three contests, NU will have to be ready to play right away.

Secret Weapon: Receiver Depth

Sure, we know Pierson-El is an amazing talent. But look past him on the depth chart and Nebraska has a sneaky-good roster at receiver.

Jordan Westerkamp returns as one of Nebraska’s most reliable targets. Jamal Turner gets an extra year of eligibility and will have his final chance to be the breakout talent he was seen to be when he arrived in Lincoln. Cethan Carter has the athletic skills to create mismatches at tight end, and should be healthy enough (and in an offense which can feature a tight end) to be a factor. Alonzo Moore has speed to rival Kenny Bell, but has not been able to stay healthy enough to make a true impact.

Until the season starts, we’re not going to know how Nebraska’s run-pass balance will look on offense. But when Nebraska does decide to air it out, there will be lots of receiving options to work with.

Secret Weapon: Sam Foltz

Yes, a punter can be a weapon. Get used to it.

Field position matters in football. Take a look at a site like FBSDriveStats.com, and you can take a look at average starting field position and what a difference it makes to a team’s bottom line. The efficiency ratings from advanced analytical sites like Football Outsiders take field position into account as a primary indicia of a team’s success. Bill Connelly lists field position as one of the five most important statistics in understanding the relative merits of college football teams.

Connelly summarizes the importance of field position in one sentence. “If you win the field position battle (using average starting field position), you win 72 percent of the time.”

A punter is a crucial weapon in that field position battle. According to the NCAA, last year the difference between the no. 1 and no. 50 teams in terms of net punting average was 6.22 yards, while the difference in kick returns was only 4.74 yards.

That differential suggests that a punter, more than any other single specialist, can affect a team’s field position. And a team’s field position, as we have seen, can lead to wins.

Foltz is set up to be one of the conference’s best punters, according to Tom Dienhart of the Big Ten Network. Sure, punters get no respect, even less than placekickers in the eyes of most football fans. But if Foltz is able to help Nebraska win field position battles, his foot might carry NU to wins it would not otherwise achieve next season.

Nebraska Football 2015 Quarterback Fall Practice Preview: Depth Chart and Analysis

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photo and story by Patrick Runge

As we get closer to the start of fall practice, now is a good time to start looking at the Nebraska football roster and depth chart to get a better idea of what we might see this season. There’s no more important position on the field than quarterback, so it makes sense to start with the signal-caller.

New head coach Mike Riley will be bringing a different offensive philosophy to Lincoln, so it’s still a little difficult to guess what Nebraska will look like on that side of the ball. But given what we know so far, here is what Nebraska’s depth chart should look like—and why.

Starter: Tommy Armstrong Jr.

Armstrong’s experience makes him the clear choice to start the season under center for Nebraska. After the Spring Game (according to the Omaha World-Herald), Riley said of Armstrong that “[t]he thing that never wavered about Tommy was, and is a separator for him right now, and that’s his confidence. He’s a confident guy and he plays like it.”

As a starter, Armstrong is 15-5. His underlying statistics, though, do not inspire confidence. He has a 52.9 completion percentage, and has a 31/20 touchdown-to-interception ratio. It is very hard to construct a scenario where Nebraska wins a conference title when its quarterback has those statistics.

Riley has a history of producing quarterbacks, though. His most recent protégé, Sean Mannion, broke the Pac-12’s all-time passing record and was drafted by the St. Louis Rams. Riley will need to work that magic on Armstrong’s efficiency numbers to get Nebraska where it wants to go in 2015.

No. 2: A.J. Bush OR Zack Darlington

At the Spring Game, it was pretty clear that Bush and Darlington were next in line at quarterback for Nebraska. The two quarterbacks have very different skill sets. Bush, at 6-foot-3 and 220 pounds, is much more imposing and able to move the ball with his legs. Darlington, while able to move, looks to be more effective in the pocket throwing the ball.

Admittedly, the Spring Game is a terribly small sample size, and as such should be used with caution to make any judgments. But from that limited data set, Darlington was the only quarterback on Nebraska’s roster who appeared to have the accuracy and arm strength to make the throws NU will need to be successful next season.

Player Comp. Att. Yds. TD Int
Tommy Armstrong Jr. 6 12 77 1 0
AJ Bush 12 22 124 0 2
Zack Darlington 7 11 70 1 0
Ryker Fyfe 2 6 57 1 0

Again, small sample size. Darlington isn’t going to be considered as a starter just because of a good Spring Game performance. But it is that type of performance Nebraska will need from its quarterback to be successful going forward.

No. 4: Ryker Fyfe

Fyfe’s standout performance as a walkon freshman earned him a scholarship, and playing time in a live game against Michigan State last season. He has the size (6-foot-2, 210 pounds) and physical ability to compete as a Nebraska quarterback, an impressive accomplishment for a walk-on. And he played well enough to keep an Elite-11 participant in Johnny Stanton behind him on the depth chart, ultimately causing him to transfer.

But while Fyfe’s accomplishments are impressive, he still is behind the other three on the depth chart. Armstrong’s experience gives him a clear advantage over all the quarterbacks on the roster. And the athleticism and potential of both Bush and Darlington give them the advantage over Fyfe.

Nebraska Football: Cornhuskers’ Most Important Player At Each Position

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photo and story by Patrick Runge

Nebraska football fans are well into barbecue season, enjoying the warm weather and wondering why the American League All-Star team will be almost entirely populated by Kansas City Royals. But the 2015 depth chart is never far from their minds, and over these lazy summer months it’s a useful exercise to think about which players are most important at each position.

It’s not necessarily a consideration of who is the best player, mind you, although it usually works out that way. Rather, it’s a question of who is the most important—which player at each position Nebraska (and new head coach Mike Riley) needs the most. With that in mind, let’s take a look at the roster.

Offensive Line

Alex Lewis

While Nebraska has decent depth on the offensive line, there is a concern about the lack of returning starters (at least based on the Holiday Bowl depth chart). Lewis is the only returning starter who held down a starting position the entire year in 2014. Givens Price and Matt Finnin were listed at right tackle for the Holiday Bowl, while Paul Thurston and Dylan Utter were listed at center.

None of those four spent the season at their position, and Finnin will likely not be in the mix at tackle in 2015. Lewis, on the other hand, was Nebraska’s starting left tackle throughout 2014. Combine that experience with the importance of the position (between left tackle for a right-handed quarterback and center arguably being the most important) and Lewis is the first name to consider at offensive line for Nebraska in 2015.

Quarterback

Tommy Armstrong

The no-brainer to end all no-brainers, particularly given how none of the other quarterbacks on the roster appeared to seriously challenge Armstrong’s position in the spring. While Nebraska does have good depth at quarterback—perhaps for the first time since before former head coach Bo Pelini arrived in 2008—the 2015 season will likely rise and fall with Armstrong’s performance.

Riley had a history of developing quarterbacks in his time at Oregon State, most recently shepherding Sean Mannion to breaking the Pac-12 career yardage record and being an NFL draft pick. Armstrong will need the same kind of tutelage if Nebraska is to be successful in 2015.

I-Back

Terrell Newby

If there was any position where one person isn’t as important for Nebraska this year, it might be I-Back.  Based on observations from the spring (including the Omaha World-Herald’s Sam McKewon and a certain smart and particularly handsome analyst), Newby looks the early favorite to win the starting I-Back position.

But Nebraska has amazing depth at the position, with Imani Cross, Adam Taylor, and Mikale Wilbon all competing for carries (and that’s not counting walk-ons like Graham Nabity who could be in the mix as well). So while Newby at this stage is the most important given his likely starting status, there are a number of contenders waiting in the wings.

Receiver

De’Mornay Pierson-El

It’s tempting at this point to think outside the box a little and select Jordan Westerkamp for his consistency or Jamal Turner for his potential and his senior leadership. It may very well be that both of those players will be cruicial cogs in Nebraska’s offense this season.

But, come on, let’s be real. Pierson-El is without question Nebraska’s most dangerous and dynamic offensive weapon. And Riley will likely find creative ways to get Pierson-El the ball, such as the jet sweeps we saw in the Spring Game. Pierson-El might not have the most touches for Nebraska next season. But he will be the one that will affect opposing defenses more than any other player.

Defensive Line

Maliek Collins

Last year, Nebraska had a beast at defensive end in Randy Gregory, and was worried about interior defensive line play. This year, Nebraska has two beasts on the inside in Vincent Valentine and Collins, with questions on the exterior.

While it’s hard not to view Valentine and Collins as a unit, it’s Collins that is getting the pre-season attention. Collins is a first-round NFL draft pick according to ESPN’s Todd McShay, and just misses the first-round cut according to ESPN’s Mel Kiper.

Based on that projection alone, then, Collins nudges Valentine in importance for Nebraska in 2015.

Linebacker

Josh Banderas

It was tempting to put “a warm body” in place here, as Nebraska only has four scholarship linebackers who are not true freshman on the roster after the departure of David Santos. Of those four, one (Michael Rose-Ivey) is coming off missing a season to injury, one (Marcus Newby) played sparingly as a pass-rush specialist, and one (Luke Gifford) is a redshirt freshman after sitting out last season.

That means Nebraska only has one (!) linebacker on the roster with any meaningful playing experience since 2013. Banderas will be pressed into a leadership role, anchoring Nebraska’s linebacker corps as the young players behind him (hopefully) grow up in a hurry.

Secondary                          

Daniel Davie

It was very tempting to pick Nate Gerry at safety, as it could have been argued he was Nebraska’s defensive MVP last year. But with a transition to Mark Bankers’ new quarters defensive scheme, the importance of the safety will likely be diminished with the amount of time all three linebackers should be on the field, placing more emphasis on the cornerback being able to take away an opponent’s primary receiving threat.

That task will fall to Davie, taking over from Josh Mitchell as Nebraska’s primary cornerback this season. Davie was a consistent performer for Nebraska last year, and the Blackshirts will need him to stand up against the best receivers they will face if NU is to be successful next year.

Special Teams

De’Mornay Pierson-El

Yes, it’s him again. Pierson-El might be Nebraska’s most important weapon on offense next year. But there’s no doubt he will be a game-changer for Nebraska as a punt returner. His ability to flip the field—and score—off a punt return gives Nebraska so many different benefits. Against Michigan State, it was Pierson-El’s return that put Nebraska in position to win after being dominated for most of the game. And against Iowa, it was Pierson-El’s return that keyed Nebraska’s comeback, ultimately returning the Heroes Game trophy to Lincoln.

(I know. It’s a ridiculously anodyne and sanitized thing. But admit it, Husker fan. It burned you to see the Hawkeyes race across the turf in Memorial Stadium in 2013, grab the trophy, and carry it back to their locker room. And it felt good to see the boys in scarlet and cream return the favor in 2014.)

A strong case could be made for Sam Foltz, who could end the season as the nation’s best punter. But Pierson-El’s returns—and the field position that comes from the mere intimidation of opposing punters—gives him the nod in this category.