As the 2016 opener approaches, questions abound. I’ve got 5 major, pressing, pivotal questions concerning the 2016 Nebraska Cornhuskers. I’ll release them each Saturday in July as part of a series. Thanks for reading and enjoy.
After a marathon drive home from a wonderful Christmas celebration, I sat down just in time to catch the late kickoff from the bay area. I was not looking forward to watching this Husker bowl game. Not only was it the lowly Foster Farms bowl, a name that doesn’t exactly exude prestige, but I thought my boys were in for an ass whoopin. The UCLA Bruins spent the better part of the year in the hunt for a division title, and in the top 25. They had NFL talent up and down that roster. As the game progressed, it was the Huskers doing the kicking. It was shocking. The Big Red were absolutely slamming the ball down UCLA’s throat. It was gorgeous. NU ran for a staggering 326 yards, an average of 5.3 yards per carry. This approach has become something of a rallying cry for the fan base. Many think that approach, or something similar, will lead to a succesful attack in 2016. NU ran the ball 62 times that night, with only 19 passes. Surely that cant be the strategy each Saturday this fall. This begs the question, what is the optimal approach for NU going forward?
Lets first examine the Nebraska run game. This facet of the Nebraska offense was effective at times last season, but was highly inconsistent. Even when the run was working, Danny Langsdorf and company refused to stick with it. The Illinois loss is first to come to mind. NU ran 34 times for 187 yards, an average of 5.5 yards per rush. Even in the face of a stiff wind and a struggling QB, Langsdorf would not stick with it, throwing the ball a maddening 31 times, for a lousy 105 yards, in a ridiculous loss to the Illini. This was a microcosm of NU’s offensive struggles in 2015. Even when the run was working, NU insisted on calling pass plays. Don’t get me wrong, there were several times the Huskers could not run the ball. 4 times last year Nebraska ran for less than 3.6 yards per attempt. NU went winless in those games. Additionally, 6 times NU threw more than they ran, winning just once. Personally, I would like to see more of a diligent approach to the run game. A balance must be reached. Certainly a 3/1 run to pass ratio, like the one against UCLA, isn’t going to work. Give Mike Riley/Danny Langsdorf credit for that gameplan, but that is not a sustainable approach for a variety of reasons. NU must find a good blend to both lean on the run game and take some of the load off of Tommy Armstrong.
Lets start this paragraph with a disclaimer. I like Tommy Armstrong. He’s a good kid who has been put in a tough spot. This offense is not suited to his strengths in any way. He was a soldier for this team and never complained. He’s a first class individual. That being said, Tommy CAN NOT drop back and throw the ball every down. That’s not a knock on him, few can. Still there were times last year that Mike Riley and his staff insisted on dropping him back time after time. It puts this team in a perilous spot. Last year there were 5 games in which Armstrong threw 35 times or more. In those games, NU was 1-4, with 10 Armstrong INTs. It would be beneficial to roll Armtrong out, using his mobility. They didn’t do that often enough in 2015. An effective Nebraska offense relies on the run game, uses Armstrong’s legs more often, but doesn’t put everything on Tommy’s back. If that means the coaching staff has to do things that they aren’t necessarily comfortable with, so be it. Its their job to use the tools at hand to produce a winner on the field. They must adjust the way they do things to be successful. I firmly believe Armstrong can be a damn good QB on a great team, but he simply cant carry the load as he was so often asked to in 2015.
Allright then. Great!! NU runs the ball more in 2016 balancing out the offense and taking the load off of Tommy Armstrong. Super!! Well, not so much. The very best position unit the Huskers have is at WR, and its not close. This group is outstanding. Jordan Westercamp might be the best WR in the Big 10. Brandon Reilly is a big bodied WR that had over 750 yards last year. Stanley Morgan may have the highest ceiling of any WR, and he’s just a Sophmore. Alonzo Moore averaged more than 16 yards per catch and 6 TDs last fall. Lets not forget De’Mornay Pierson-El, who was hurt in 2015, but has top level explosiveness. I could go on all day singing their praises. They are outstanding, perhaps the best group this program has ever produced. To achieve maximum effectiveness, this group must be leaned on. This is where Nebraska’s offensive playmakers reside. Ignoring this group is not only foolhardy, its damn near criminal. How can NU have a run heavy offense, many times going away from its best offensive players?
The ultimate question for the Nebraska offense in 2016 is how to juggle all the preceding factors to produce a championship level unit. Its a tough nut to crack, but that is what Mike Riley gets paid for. Regardless, how the staff handles this task will likely determine whether this season is another washout or a successful rebound. It will make the difference between contending for a title, or speculating on Riley’s job security. Heavy is the crown in Lincoln Nebraska. This team has the talent on hand to contend for a Big 10 West title. There is no monster in this division. That puts the onus squarely on Mike Riley and company to get this team to Indianapolis. Anything short of that is a failure. Getting this offense humming with the right balance is paramount to achieving that goal.