Nebraska Football: Five Toughest Quarterbacks Cornhuskers Will Face in 2015

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photo and story by Patrick Runge

Nebraska football fans know that the quarterback is the most important part of an offense, so the teams with the best quarterbacks will be the hardest to beat. Next season, Nebraska will face a number of talented signal-callers as new head coach Mike Riley learns the ropes of his position.

Here are the five quarterbacks Nebraska is likely to have the most trouble with next season.

All stats courtesy of cfbstats.com.

No. 5: Mitch Leidner, Minnesota

It seems odd to think of a quarterback from the offensively-challenged Gophers to make this list. But Leidner led Minnesota into Lincoln last year and beat Nebraska, so NU fans should think twice before dismissing his ability.

Leidner’s statistics aren’t jaw-dropping (51.5 percent completion rate, 11/8 touchdown-to-interception ratio in 2014). But in Jerry Kill’s smash-mouth offense the quarterback does not need to be the primary weapon. Instead, the quarterback merely directs the offense and makes plays when necessary.

Which is exactly what Leidner did last year against Nebraska, going 8-of-17 for 135 yards through the air, and carrying the ball 22 times for 111 yards on the ground. If Leidner is able to match those numbers against Nebraska this year, NU will struggle to avoid a third straight defeat.

No. 4: Wes Lunt, Illinois

Injuries derailed Lunt’s 2014 season at Illinois after transferring from Oklahoma State. Even in the eight games he played last year, though, Lunt amassed a 63.5 percent completion rate and a 14/3 touchdown-to-interception ratio. Those numbers are enough to make any defensive coordinator nervous.

Although Illinois’ weapons are certainly limited, a healthy Lunt will be able to get the best out of them, and provide a challenge for Nebraska’s new-look defense.

No. 3: Taysom Hill, BYU

Much like Illinois’ Lunt, injuries robbed Hill of what could have been a darkhorse Heisman candidacy last year. Hill’s primary threat is with his legs, having rushed for 463 yards on 86 carries and scoring 8 touchdowns in only seven games last year.

But Hill is also effective as a passer, with a 66.7 completion rate and a 7/3 touchdown-to-interception ratio. Hill’s dual-threat skill set represents a huge challenge for opposing defenses, and the fact that he is the first quarterback Nebraska will face under Riley’s leadership makes him all the more dangerous.

No. 2: Brad Kaaya, Miami

It’s not like Kaaya had a bad game against Nebraska last year. As a true freshman in a hostile atmosphere, Kaaya went 28-of-42 for 359 yards passing and three touchdowns. But he also threw two interceptions, and that in combination with Miami’s inability to stop Ameer Abdullah helped Nebraska to a ten-point victory.

But in 2015, the game will be in Miami. Abdullah will not be wearing scarlet and cream, and Nebraska will be taking its first road trip under Riley. Kaaya will have a full year of experience under his belt, while Nebraska will be in only the third game learning a new defensive scheme. And Miami will be looking for payback after a chippy game in Lincoln last year.

No. 1: Connor Cook, Michigan State

Cook probably doesn’t get the respect he deserves. He’s not flashy or gaudy, and Michigan State is much more known for its defense than its offense.

But NFL scouts have their eyes on Cook. CBS Sports has Cook as the no. 1 quarterback prospect for 2016, and Walter Football projects Cook as the no. 6 overall pick in next year’s NFL Draft.

Between those lofty projections, and the salty defense he will have protecting him, Cook will provide Nebraska with the sternest challenge as a signal-caller in 2015.

Nebraska Football: How the Cornhuskers Can Avoid Looking Ahead to Michigan State

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photo and story by Patrick Runge

Nebraska football fans will still be savoring the Cornhuskers’ win over Miami last week, but by this stage will already be worrying about facing Illinois on Saturday. Not about the Illini themselves, of course, but about how Nebraska could be overlooking Illinois in preparation for a monster game against Michigan State the following week.

Of course, if Nebraska stubs its toe against Illinois on Saturday, that game in East Lansing won’t be nearly as monster as it would be otherwise. So how will Nebraska stay focused and get the job done on Homecoming against Illinois?

Remember Wes Lunt and Josh Ferguson

Yes, Illinois is 3-1, but that’s with needing comeback wins over football powerhouses like Youngstown State, Western Kentucky, and Texas State.  So it would be easy to dismiss Illinois as a cakewalk for Nebraska after a big win against a talented (if undercoached) Miami squad.

But Illinois has talent. Quarterback Wes Lunt, a transfer from Oklahoma State, has a big arm—maybe the best raw talent at quarterback Nebraska will face all season.  While Illinois has much poorer talent at both receiver and offensive line than Miami, Lunt will make throws and ask questions of Nebraska’s secondary.

And Josh Ferguson has the potential to be a big-time back in the Big Ten. The junior is averaging 6.38 yards per carry with three touchdowns in four games (courtesy of cfbstats.com). He’s no Duke Johnson from Miami, but Ferguson has plenty in the tank to give the Blackshirts problems. And when combined with Lunt’s arm, Illinois’ offense can carry a one-two punch that could threaten Nebraska if given an opportunity.

Bo Pelini and the coaching staff will surely point this out to the Blackshirts this week in practice, which should get their attention.

Remember McNeese State

In fairness, other than Miami, McNeese State might be the most talented team Nebraska has faced in 2014. And yes, that as much an indictment of Florida Atlantic and Fresno State as it is a compliment to the Cowboys. But at the end of the day, McNeese State and Nebraska were tied with 20 seconds to go in the game, and it was only a miraculous (perhaps Heisman-esque?) play by Ameer Abdullah to spare NU’s blushes at home.

After the contest, Nebraska knew it dodged a bullet. Abdullah said that the team “didn’t respect the game,” in preparation for the Cowboys (as quoted by Brian Christopherson of the Lincoln Journal-Star). And in the next two games, against Fresno State and Miami, Nebraska has looked sharper and more focused, perhaps taking Abdullah’s advice to heart.

“I was reluctant to say something,” Abdullah said about his concerns regarding the team’s preparation for McNeese State, “but I promise that is the last time it will happen.”

After his performance against Miami, Abdullah and the coaching staff should have the team’s full attention, making a letdown against Illinois less likely.

Remember Red Rising

In addition to a bizarre 8:00 p.m. kickoff time, Nebraska will be breaking out the alternate “Red Rising” uniforms against Illinois. While the alternate uniforms haven’t always been a success (see UCLA last season), as a fan of the superhero costumes I can only hope that Nebraska will find success with the cool threads and avoid further superstitions.

After all, it took seven years for Nebraska to break out the “Stormtrooper” all-white look against Fresno State this year. The convincing win should, hopefully, wash away the taste of the “surrender white” look Nebraska had in Bill Callahan’s last game, a loss to Colorado in Boulder.

One can only hope that the extra juice of coming onto the field in alternate uniforms will help sharpen Nebraska’s play on Saturday night.

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