2017 Nebraska Football Offensive Preview

As the dog days of summer wane, the glory of fall gets closer and closer. Soon we will be celebrating game day, analyzing every snap, reacting and over reacting to each thing we see. Naturally, I am extremely excited. The 2017 Nebraska Cornhuskers are a big bag of unknowns on both sides of the ball. It is hard to believe that we go into year 3 of Mike Riley’s tenure and don’t know what to expect from his offense. Years 1 and 2 were a mish mash of the personnel’s strengths blended with what Riley and offensive Coordinator Danny Langsdorf were comfortable mixing in. The results were lopsided. Sometimes, the offense hummed. But against good defenses, like Ohio State or Wisconsin, this offense struggled. Mightily. As an avid observer I was often frustrated and sometimes infuriated with NU’s struggles offensively. This year the training wheels come off. What that looks like remains to be seen. There is plenty of potential. The realization of that potential is up to both the players and coaching staff and will determine the success of this offense and probably the team as a whole. This is big boy football. It is not little league. We aren’t here to play patty cake and slap each other on the ass. If the players or coaches can’t cut it, then we need to find those that will. Here is a look at each of the offensive position groups.

Quarterback

Out goes Tommy Armstrong, in comes Tanner Lee a Tulane transfer with loads of upside. Lee is big, standing 6-4, and by all accounts extremely poised with a precise arm capable of picking defenses apart. In his short time in Lincoln he has earned the respect of his team mates to a point where Riley saw fit to send him to Big 10 media days. That is no small feat. Former NFL GM Phil Savage recently gushed with praise for Lee, stating that he could be one of the top QBs coming out of college football by next spring. That would be a significant jump at a position that has seemed lost since the day Riley and Langsdorf took over. Lets be very honest, with all compliments to Tommy Armstrong, he was not a fit for what Riley and Langsdorf wanted to do offensively. In many ways it was like a shoe that was too small for the offensive staff. Apparently, Lee has both the skills and the physical tools necessary for success in this system and beyond. I’m extremely excited to see how he fares in this offense. It’s put up or shut up time, particularly for Langsdorf a noted QB guru. The door is open for him to produce. If he doesn’t, its time to push him out of it.

Running Back

This group is annoying the be-jesus out of me. I would like one of them to step up, become a true RB1. Take the bull by the horns for Christs sake!! The coaches appear to be begging for it as well. Still, no separation. What we have is a bunch of players who individually are pretty good at a few things, but none that are outstanding in every area. Mikale Wilbon is elusive, adept at making defenders miss. Devine Ozigbo is a horse, very difficult to bring down. Tre Bryant appears to have it all, but has been riddled by injuries during fall camp. Nobody has taken this job and asserted themselves as the feature back. It is to the point where incoming freshman Jaylin Bradley is gaining consideration for playing time. This chaps my ass. There should be more than enough talent from the 3 returning RBs to bury Bradley on the depth chart and cause him to redshirt. Why haven’t those 3 developed to a point where they can hold off Bradley and why can’t one of them separate himself from the others and take the spot as a clear #1? Something isn’t right with this group. I am not against a running back by committee approach, when done effectively. It has seemed clunky in the previous 2 seasons under this staff. Here is to hoping that by the time Wisconsin comes to town we have a horse we can count on every down.

Wide Receiver

Put a candle in the window for the WRs this fall. Make no mistake, I really like the overall talent WR coach Keith Williams has on hand. But there is absolutely zero depth. None. Stan Morgan, in my mind, has the potential to be an all Big 10 type receiver. He is a fantastic player that checks all the boxes for a great WR. I look for Stan to have a monster 2017. Demornay Pierson-El provides a terrific option that can be moved all over the field. Supposedly, DPE is finally healthy. If that is so, he can be a game breaker for this offense. J.D Spielman has drawn loads of praise throughout this fall camp. Tyjon Lindsay is the next Big Red superstar. Bryan Reimers and Keyan Williams will be solid rotation players who can cause problems in their own right. There is talent, but Lord it is paper thin. NU can ill afford any serious health issues at this position. At this point the top 6 are very capable. After that the drop off is substantial. If NU is to achieve its sizable potential this fall, it will require this group to remain in tact. Kenny Bell and Jordan Westercamp aren’t walking through that door. What you see is what you have. Mark my words, if this season goes to hell, it starts with one of the top WRs missing significant time.

Offensive Line

One of the most maddening things about the 2016 Nebraska Cornhuskers was the absolute lack of depth on the offensive line. As the season wore on, that depth was as obvious as the nose on your face. Cole Conrad was forced to play tackle, Sam Hahn played guard. Nick Gates was badly hobbled by an injured ankle. By seasons end this unit was a trainwreck for everyone to see. Fortunately, it appears this years line will have some depth. Along with returning starters Nick Gates, Tanner Farmer, Cole Conrad, David Knevel and Jerald Foster, there are a slew of seemingly competent backups. Matt Farniok, Brendan Jaimes and Christian Gaylord at Tackle, John Raridon, Jalin Barnett and Boe Wilson at Guard and Michael Decker at Center, form at least adequate depth. Thank freaking goodness!! Offensive line is so physical that injuries are inevitable. It’s just part of the game. There is simply no getting around it. The 2017 O-line at least in theory has a plan in place for when those injuries occur. It makes you wonder where that plan was at this time last year. Don’t get me started on that.

Key Themes Heading in to 2017

How good is Tanner Lee? It is perhaps the single biggest question heading into this season. Is Lee the kind of QB that can dissect Big 10 defenses with both his mind and arm? Some say yes. His numbers at Tulane, frankly, say no. However, the talent on hand in Lincoln is not even remotely comparable with what he had with the Green Wave. Stanley Morgan, Demornay Pierson-El and company have the talent to be a significant threat in the Big 10 west. But like so many teams, they need a point man. Lee is that guy for at least this coming season. NU’s offense the last couple seasons has been inconsistent at best. Pretty good against lower tier competition, but no match for the big boys in this league. It is Lee’s task to change that.

How creative can the offensive staff be with the newcomers? Players like Tyjon Lindsay, Austin Allen and Kurt Rafdal may not be ready for an every down role with the first team offense, but that doesn’t mean that their skills should go unutilized. I would like to see Danny Langsdorf devise a package to use Lindsay’s explosiveness in space. Jet sweeps, bubble screens, option routes, that sort of thing. Put him in situations where his explosiveness can be best utilized. Seems pretty simple. Apparently not. I’ve been routinely underwhelmed these last couple seasons at the creativity of the offensive staff. I also would like to see packages for our talented young Tight Ends. Austin Allen and Kurt Rafdal measure 6-8 and 6-7 respectively. You can’t teach that kind of length. Surely it can be used somewhere. Cough, cough, red zone? Be creative and come up with unique packages to get these youngsters on the field. It could give this offense a major boost and perhaps swing a game or two this fall.

With a new pocket passer QB this offensive line will have to be better. The sack numbers last year weren’t bad but Armstrong was consistently pressured. Tommy was so good at avoiding rushers, he makes it seem like NU was a decent pass blocking team. That is not exactly true. Tanner Lee has limited mobility. We don’t want to see him running for his life behind the line of scrimmage the way Armstrong would. It is incumbent upon the offensive line to protect him better and to produce greater numbers in the running game. 6 times in 2016 NU failed to rush for more than 4 yards per carry. Specifically, NU rushed for 2.2 ypc against Tennessee, 2.9 against Iowa and 3.2 against Wyoming. Yuck!! In case you haven’t yet lost your lunch, Nebraska ranked 10th in the Big 10 in rushing yards per carry and 11th in points per game in conference play. That dog simply won’t hunt. If Big Red is going to be playing in Indianapolis on December 2nd this offensive line has to grow up and become a force. Can they do that? I believe there are horses in the barn. I detailed the improved depth earlier. But this unit, under the leadership of Mike Cavanaugh, must improve significantly for this team to achieve its goals.

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4 Questions for Nebraska Football in 2017

Will A More Suitable Fit at QB = Greater Production and Efficiency?
For all the love that Mike Riley and Danny Langsdorf showered upon Tommy Armstrong last year, it’s clear that he was not their ideal QB. Langsdorf’s offense tried to cater to Armstrong’s strengths, with some success, but overall the offense was inconsistent at best. Against Big 10 competition, the Nebraska offense ranked 11th in points per game, 9th in rushing, 8th in passing, and 12th in completion percentage. That will simply not do if this program wants to contend for anything other than the Taxslayer.com bowl. Incoming QB Tanner Lee has drawn a substantial amount of praise from those inside and outside the program. Many say he has a prototypical NFL size and arm strength. Whatever. Will his physical attributes make for a better Husker offense?  It is clear he is a better fit for the type of offense Mike Riley and Danny Langsdorf like to run. That counts for something. How much remains to be seen. Tommy Armstrong struggled with reads, at times with accuracy and always with the short pass. He only completed 51% of his passes, for just 7.4 yards per attempt and less than a 2-1 TD to Int ratio. I don’t want to beat up on Tom. He was a warrior for this program. 2016 would have been awful without him. But going forward, at least statistically, there is plenty of room for improvement from that position. It is put up or shut up time, particularly for Langsdorf.  This offense needs to be both more consistent and more productive. If substantial improvement is not seen, perhaps its time to show Riley’s buddy Dan to the door.

 

Can Stan Morgan Become an All Big 10 Caliber Receiver?
The Nebraska offense lost a boatload of WR talent from its 2016 squad. Gone are Alonzo Moore, Brandon Reilly and all-timer Jordan Westercamp. Those 3 combined for 1,313 yards and 9 of NU’s 14 receiving TDs. Yikes!! Filling those shoes will be no easy task. Nebraska is incredibly thin at that position. What this offense needs is a certifiable stud on the outside. Someone who can cause opposing DCs to wet the bed preparing for the game with NU. Fortunately for Nebraska fans, there is a capable player on this roster. Stanley Morgan has the tools, the physical stature, and the moxy of an alpha male #1 WR. For all the good things you can say about Tommy Armstrong, he tended to lock onto his favorite receivers. For the better part of his first 2 seasons, that has not been Morgan. Rest assured Morgan will be getting plenty of targets this fall. He has to. This offense needs for him to come through and be the true thoroughbred that I feel he can be. Morgan caught 33 passes for 453 yards, and just 2 TDs last fall.  This offense may need him to double his catches and yards and triple his TDs. Provided he stays healthy, he will have every opportunity. Will he make the most of it and become the true playmaker this offense sorely needs? It sure would be nice.

Will This Offensive Line Continue to Be a Liability?
I’m going to be straight with you. The offensive line was a big part of the problem in 2016. The lack of a consistent running game was a big reason why NU struggled against top level competition. Consider that 6 times last year NU averaged less than 3.5 yards per carry. Specifically, the Huskers averaged just 3.2 ypc against Wyoming, 3.4 @Indiana, 2.9 in a beatdown to Iowa, and 2.2 in the bowl game. Thats right, 2.2 yards per carry against Tennessee!! Are you sick yet? Those numbers are enough to make anyone’s milk curdle. Overall, Nebraska ranked 9th in the league in run offense despite a substantial commitment and running QB. That’s not good enough. Believe it or not it could have been worse. I will say Tommy Armstrong’s allusiveness prevented both sacks and gained rushing yards. Too often he was the crutch that Danny Langsdorf leaned upon. That crutch will no longer be there. This line needs to stand on its own two feet. Push some folks around. Assert their will do some degree. Depth will, in theory, be improved. Offensive line coach Mike Cavanaugh redshirted at least 3 players last year that will be on the 2 deep come September 2. That may not have been wise, but that train has long left the station. That’s a topic for another time. The fact is that this unit should have better depth this fall. But will that translate to more production/better protection. Tanner Lee will not be scrambling like Tommy Armstrong. They will need to protect him. Armstrong was as good as I’ve ever seen at alluding a rush.  Lee may not be a sack of potatoes, but he wont be evading a rush the way Tom did. Obviously, a solid running game would be beneficial. 152 yards on 44 attempts against your chief rival (Wisconsin) does not qualify. It’s reasonable to believe that NU’s, uh, experience should pay dividends in 17. That is true. But it is also true that a repeat performance will spell doom for this offense and most likely this team.

The Defense
Admittedly, this is a total cop out. This portion is a catch all for everything on one particular side of the ball. But its appropriate.  As of today we know absolutely nothing about this defense, beyond the roster. Bob Diaco has taken over and installed his versatile 3-4 scheme that was such a huge success at Notre Dame. This is a great hire. I applaud Mike Riley for making a change and going out and getting the top defensive mind available. Arkansas was hot for Diaco, but Riley (and the NU pocketbook) lured in a big fish. Beautiful!! Great news!! But we have no idea how NU’s current defensive roster will fare within the scheme. We have not seen any of these players in a 3-4. The roles and assignments are different all the way around. We do know that Chris Jones is pretty awesome. Aaron Williams is a ball hawk. Big Mick Stoltenberg is a load in the middle.  We know the players on hand. That’s about it. What we don’t know is how it will all come together. If Diaco comes in and works miracles, and this unit becomes a top unit in the Big 10, the ceiling for this season goes up dramatically. If this whole thing is a god damn dumpster fire, this team could struggle to win 6 games. The swing is that great. I personally don’t have a feel for this one way or the other. We saw absolutely nothing from the defense in the spring game. If you came up with something from that dog and pony show, it is a total fabrication of your imagination. The questions about this particular unit are plenty. Will this pass rush be able to generate consistent pressure? If so, from where? How will the defensive line will adjust to their new roles? How will Josh Kalu fare at Free Safety? Will this versatile defense be able to adjust to the vast array of offenses NU will see this fall? Let me make this plain. I trust Diaco. I really like this hire. He’s our guy. He is the kind of top shelf assistant all staff’s need. But as of today this defense as a whole is an enormous question. It could go to either extreme or anywhere in between. It’s that large of a variable. One that likely wont be fully answered until somewhere around Halloween.

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Buckeye Beatdown

Well folks, it happened. Yep, that score and the impending soreness is very real. 62-3 is a reality. The Nebraska Cornhuskers got absolutely curb stomped Saturday night. It was every bit the scene from American History X. The Buckeyes told NU to bite the curb and the Huskers were left with no choice. I’m not going to make excuses. This thing was ugly from the outset. Any talk of OSU being a “beatable” team is completely laughable the morning after a 59 point ass kicking. I could go on about how horrendous the offense was under the direction of Ryker Fyfe and their meager 204 yards of total offense. I could point to the Buckeye drive chart and shudder at the amount of TDs given up or the OSU 11-15 3rd down conversion rate. None of that is worthy of my time and effort. I highly doubt you want to hear about it either. Rather than beleaguer the point, I’m going to look forward.

Ass kickings like this happen. It’s a part of sports. Over the years I’ve seen several. There was the 70-10 shallacking in Lubbock in 2005. Who can forget 41-6 to the Missouri Tigers in 2007 or the 52-17 shit kicking the following year? These things happen. It sucks, but its all part of being a sports fan. So where do we go from here? Its time for everyone, fans included, to put on our collective big boy pants and move forward.  Put the thorough domination of Saturday night in the rear view and focus on the windshield. This team sits at 7-2 with 3 to play. Those 3 are incredibly winable. The next 2, to the Minnesota Gophers and Maryland Terrapins, are both at home. Those are chicken soup games. After 2 games against excellent competition in extremely tough environments the Big Red come home to the friendly confines of Memorial Stadium and all of their fans. That should give this team a boost. Then, of course, there is the Black Friday matchup with the Iowa Hawkeyes who got their own wheels blown off last night. That game will be no gimme, but its a game NU should absolutely win. My point here is that these games are all winable. A 10-2 season is at their feet. That’s a great season. Especially when you consider the atrocities of 2015. There is still plenty to play for.

How does NU go about moving forward? Anyone who has ever tried anything has failed at some point. Perhaps it wasn’t as spectacular as 62-3 or seen by as many people, but we have all experienced failure. It’s a part of life. All there is to do is learn from it and move forward. That is all Nebraska can do. The naysayers and doubters will be out in droves, the Huskers will plummet down the rankings, and the criticism will the thick. So what? Its all bullshit right now anyway. This team needs to collectively look within, accept the ass kicking, and move on. The worst thing that can come of this is for the Huskers to throw a pity party. I’ve seen it too many times. A team gets beaten and it so thoroughly demoralizes them that they never get their act together. Mike Riley and the leaders on this team have to make sure that doesn’t happen. Don’t let Ohio State beat you twice. This is where the character and makeup of a team matters, not when you are 7-0 and in the top 10. Adversity has solidly landed on the Huskers and its incumbent upon them to get off the mat and prepare for the stretch run.

There are a few logistical issues with winning out. First, Tommy Armstrong needs to come back. Ryker Fyfe is awful. I’m not here to make it personal, so Grand Island people please save your ire. There is no way you can look at Fyfe and think that he is a workable piece. What does he do well? If there is anything, I haven’t seen it. Tommy needs to be back. We all saw him laying there motionless on the field Saturday night. He was out cold. It was a scary scene to be sure, but his subsequent actions indicate that he is going to be allright. One thing is certain, this offense needs him in the most serious way. For all Armstrong’s various flaws, he is the life blood of this offense and maybe this team. If NU is going to finish strong and salvage this season they will need #4.

As important as Tommy Armstrong will be to finishing the season strong, Danny Langsdorf and Mike Riley need to recommit to this running game. These last few games it seems that NU has lost its way in that regard. Saturday night was a good example. Armstrong and Fyfe combined for 9/33 passing for 126 yards and 2 INTs. That is an average of just 3.8 yards per attempt. That should make everyone want to puke in their cereal. The NU run game was in no way good, but it averaged 3.3 yards per carry. The entire 2nd half I pulled my hair out wondering why Langsdorf insisted on chucking the ball around. More than anything, that philosophy led to the score being so extreme. Run the ball, and move the clock. Additionally, it helps the defense. The defense has been up and down, obviously last night was down, but the offense has to do their share. Doing their share involves not leaving a steaming pile in their lap time after time. A re-commitment to the running game helps everyone. Getting David Knevel and potentially Tanner Farmer back should help in getting a push, but also not playing 2 of the top 3 defenses in the Big 10 will make a difference as well. If NU can get the run game going, it will help the entire squad. That task falls squarely on the entire offensive staff.

This season is not lost folks. I had a pretty good idea that last night would go the way it did. Ohio State played angry. Nebraska offered little resistance. It’s tough coming off an emotionally draining game, like the one in Madison last week, only to play one of the best teams in college football. A beat down was foreseeable. Although, I must admit, I didn’t think it would get that out of hand. Mike Riley did absolutely zero damage control once the train went off the tracks. Whatever. It matters little. Saturday night happened and now we all must move forward. Live in the windshield. The next 3 games will go a long way to define just what type of season 2016 is.

 

Offensively Challenged

I knew it. It was too good to be true. I just knew it. As Chris Jones took the ball into the endzone in the first quarter to give Nebraska a 17-0 lead, I knew that what I was seeing was not reality. I would have loved nothing more than to watch my beloved Huskers steamroll a quality conference opponent. To really stick it to someone for all to see. It looked promising. But I knew it was not to be. From that point forth the Huskers offense collapsed, while the special teams wilted and the defense fought its ass off to stay alive. Don’t get me wrong, a win is a win. I’m very happy with being 6-0 and really enjoy the resolve this team shows. This team has a lot of intangibles you really can’t teach.  That’s the good news. The bad news is this was an extremely uneven performance that should not have resulted in a W.

I’m just going to say it. The Husker offense was utter garbage for a large chunk of this game. It was absolutely putrid. But don’t take my word for it. Lets look at the drive chart. Between the Terrell Newby TD in the first quarter and the outrageously lucky Stanley Morgan TD in the 4th, the drive chart goes as follows: punt, safety, punt, interception, end of half, punt, punt, punt, interception. In case you weren’t counting that is 5 punts, 2 Ints, and a safety. 4 of those punts were the result of drives that lasted less than 5 plays.  Good grief. It was some of the worst NU offense I have seen in a very long time. The Huskers had no answer for the Hoosiers swarming defense. None. Short passes didn’t work. Neither did long passes, nor screens. The run game was all but abandoned for the better part of the afternoon. Nothing worked and the line is largely to blame. The patchwork line was awful for the better part of Saturday afternoon. There were no holes for runners and the pass protection was just as poor. Time after time Tommy Armstrong was running for his life. But lets not let him off the hook either.

Tommy was bad. Really, really bad. His numbers appear fairly pedestrian. 10/26 for 208 yards 1 TD and 2 INTs. Typically, mediocre numbers like that don’t warrant a skewering. This was not a typical performance. The 2 Ints were both completely unacceptable. One of which was a total jackpot, toss up that you might see at your local elementary school. Thats not hyperbole, check it out yourself. I expect better decision making from my senior 4 year starter. Much better. The yardage is also deceiving. 72 yards came on a total keystone cop moment by the IU defense. 3 defenders collided while Stanley Morgan caught the ball and went to the house. 45 more came on a miracle catch by Brandon Reilly that should have been a pick. Take those 117 yards out and you get 91 yards on 8/24 passing. Awful. One particular time Alonzo Moore got free deep. A TD would have went a long way toward securing the W. Tom missed him, badly. I don’t know if Tommy isn’t healthy or if the Hoosier defense rattled him. Frankly, it’s irrelevant. QB play that poor gets you beat. It’s that simple. Armstrong has to be better. I’m sure he would be the first to tell you that.  He is a major cog in this offense. If he plays like that the rest of this season could have several long afternoons.

Well, that feels better. I needed to vent about the offense. They were infuriating. By all rights this unit should have cost NU the game. But there is a silver lining.

The beleaguered and much maligned Nebraska offense took the field with 8:26 to go and nursing a very tenuous 2 point lead. Somehow, NU found a way to run the ball. For the 2nd straight game Terrell Newby was a stud. He avoided a near fumble that was as close as it gets and churned out yards to salt this thing away. Along the way Mike Riley went for it on 4th and short near mid field. The NU offense had no consistent push, but Riley made the call. That call took considerable onions. Riley deserves credit for such a bold call. After that conversion the Nebraska offense gets a FG and milks the clock to under a minute. The drive may go down as a season definer. Despite the monumental struggles of the Husker offense, when the chips were down this unit came up with a 15 play, 60 yard drive that burned an astonishing 7:41 off the clock and all but assured a Husker victory. That deserves kudos, even if the rest of the day was largely hot garbage.

This defense turned in a performance Husker fans can be proud of. Despite the offense consistently laying a steaming pile in their lap, this unit answered the call time and again. Coming in I was concerned that the NU rush defense would allow Indiana RB Devine Redding and his powerful frame to run wild. That never materialized. The NU rush defense held the Hoosiers to below 3 yards per carry despite a 33 yard TD run in the 3rd quarter. The pass defense was also largely terrific. Chris Jones Josh Kalu and company were all over the place. Did they allow some yardage?  Sure. But this is a pretty crafty offense. They will distribute more than their share of headaches before this season is over. Still, Indiana was held to less than 6.5 yards per attempt passing. That is pretty damn good. The defense had a ton of looks thrown at them and they adjusted nicely. Of Indiana’s 4 scoring drives, 2 were started deep in Husker territory due to turnover or special teams play. Otherwise Indiana had difficulty putting points on the board. Another bright spot was the pass rush which created pressure without the blitz. That was super encouraging to see. Lets hope that continues as the season progresses. In general my aggravation with the Husker performance had little to do with the defense. This group hung tough in difficult circumstances for the majority of the afternoon. They earned their stripes Saturday. They are the reason that NU wins a tough game on the road and improves to 6-0.

There is no doubt that 6-0 feels great. It’s been a long time coming. This team has managed to navigate the various potholes of the schedule to this point. That fact should not be overlooked. There is a certain team directly to the East of NU that wishes it could say the same. But they can’t. Still, one cannot disregard the various shortcomings of this squad. Today it would have been great to absolutely squash Indiana. The Big Red had the chance. Up 17-0 early, the opportunity to break their spirit with another score presented itself. Unfortunately, the Huskers could not capitalize. That is a problem. Great teams bury their opposition in situations like that. Let’s make no mistake, there are a couple great teams forthcoming. If Nebraska plays like it did Saturday, they will get absolutely curb stomped. Indiana is a good team, this might be NU’s best win to date, but the likes of Wisconsin and Ohio State will trailer park slap the Huskers with a performance like that. Those dates should loom over this team like a dark cloud. Get better or else.

Lovie and the Illini Come to Town

Well Husker fans, it appears that dear ole NU has something good cookin. Nevermind the fact that Oregon is now 2-2 after losing at home to Colorado, Wyoming is 2-2 after losing to Eastern Michigan and Northwestern is now 1-3 after the defeat we handed them Saturday night. Yeah, those teams aren’t exactly murderers row, but you play the schedule in front of you. 4-0 is all the same, particularly after the plane crashed into the mountain last year. This Saturday the Illinois Fighting Illini come to town for a 2:30 tilt. They bring a coach a lot of people will recognize, a QB with a big arm, but otherwise a big bag of nothing. This is not a good team. Need proof? Check the stats of their two losses to FBS opponents by a combined 49 points. The Illini shouldn’t do much to cause your hair to go gray on Saturday. Here are a few things to look for.

*Illinois Run Defense– The Huskers have made no secret that they want to run the ball. All that talk in the offseason about committing to the run game wasn’t just noise. Its worked out pretty well for the Big Red thus far. NU is averaging 242 yards per game and over five yards per carry for the season. Meanwhile, the Illini  have had a tough time stopping the run in their two FBS games. Both North Carolina and Western Michigan averaged more than five yards per carry. Specifially, the Broncos ran for 287 yards in a 34-10 demolishing in Champaign. Look for Nebraska to hold true to form and pound the ball down the Illini’s throat with tremendous success Saturday.

*Wes Lunt– This dude passes the eye test big time. Lunt is 6-5 and has a big, impressive arm. Unfortunately for the Illini, he has largely underachieved in his college career. A look at the stats reveals that while Lunt completes an impressive 62 % of his passes, he does so for an average of 6.7 yards per attempt. That dink and dunk show ranks 89th nationally. In Illinois’ game with North Carolina, Lunt’s YPA was 3.6. That is horrendous. Despite Lunt’s impressive build and arms strength, he is really quite sub par. Against what is likely the best secondary he has faced, in his first road game of 2016, its doubtful he has much more success.

*Pressure Packages– I have to hand it to Mark Banker, with a defensive line that lacks a true pass rushing presence, Banker has found creative ways to get to the QB. Whether it is blitzes with four down lineman, or interesting nickle and dime packages, there have been no shortage of looks for opposing offenses to prepare for. As the season rolls on, I’m looking to see what else Banker has up his sleeve as well as how frequently he brings pressure. With a secondary that is as strong as NU’s, I think Banker can afford to roll the dice with more blitzes.

*Running Back Rotation– Through four games it has become obvious to me that a simple 1-2 punch at RB will not be enough. I really like Devine Ozigbo, but I have severe doubts about his durability as his carries increase. I would like to keep him fresh and punishing defenders. Terrell Newby looks improved this year, but I don’t think he can be counted on to carry the bulk of the load. Insert Mikale Wilbon. He looked fantastic against Northwestern. He is quick, shifty and can make a defender miss. I think he is can fill a role within this offense. Tre Bryant is another option, but his ball security questions concern me. I think Wilbon is the answer here and I hope Mike Riley and Danny Langsdorf agree.

*Block Out the Noise-Its been a hectic week in Huskerville. The death of Milt Tenopir is a major blow. Tenopir wan an all time great. There will no doubt be many heavy hearts inside Memorial Stadium on Saturday. Meanwhile the stance taken by the three kneeling Huskers have sparked a heated debate on a variety of subjects. Saturday it is back to football, back to the tie that binds. Its time we all get together and cheer on the Big Red and celebrate the life of a Husker legend. As for the team, I expect them to remain focused despite everything else that has been happening this week. It will do them well to get out there and play an actual game. It’s bound to be an emotional day inside Memorial Stadium, and I’m eager to see if this team can stay focused on the task at hand and dispose of the Illini properly.

*Prediction– Huskers roll over the Illini 42-14. Perhaps Lovie Smith can get that program moving in the right direction, but at this point it’s a bad team. The Huskers grind them into a fine powder Saturday.

Survive and Advance

The Nebraska/Northwestern series continues to be a head scratcher. I just cant get my head around it. It never seems to go as you would think. There have been upsets, thrillers, and heartbreakers. I hate the saying throw out the record book, but….well, you do. The 2016 version was more of the same. On paper, the Huskers were the superior team riding a wave of momentum from a nice victory while Northwestern was 1-2 with losses to a MAC team and an FCS team. Throw that out the window. While this seemed like an easy Big Red win, that did not take place. Saturday night the Wildcats fought their ass off, while the Huskers milled around and kept them in the game. It was an ugly effort for the Big Red. In the end NU wins the game and moves forward. While I would have liked a crisper effort, a more decisive victory, that was not in the cards. This one was extremely competitive from start to finish. The Huskers may not have played their best, but ultimately they are 4-0 and move a step closer to a date with the Wisconsin Badgers Halloween weekend.

I was quite distressed with the Huskers play on the defensive side of the ball. The Wildcats came in as a team that was struggling to move the ball. The Cats moved the ball consistently enough to give me gray hairs. Fortunately, their drives mostly stalled due to their lack of playmakers. NW QB Clayton Thorson, who is mediocre at best, threw for 250 yards and ran for another 79 and 2 total TDs. His success was pretty disconcerting. It seemed that Nebraska’s secondary was giving quite a cushion to the Northwestern WRs. I could not figure this out. It appeared all night that NU was superior in this area, yet Thorson was able to complete quick, short passes all night long. Personally, I would have liked to see Nebraska’s secondary challenge the NW receiving core.  I doubt they would have been able to beat NU over the top and it would have minimized the short passing game and stifled their entire attack. As much as the Nebraska defense struggled against the Cats they did make plays when they had to make them. Aaron Williams intercepted a pass in the end zone. NW was 0-2 on 4th down and 5-14 on 3rd down. Also the NU defense was able to get to Thorson to the tune of 4 sacks. Those are good numbers. The bad numbers are that Nebraska gave up 388 yards on the night and allowed NW to hang in there.  While I was generally annoyed and displeased with the performance of the defense it’s hard to argue with the 13 points given up as well as the timely plays made defensively. The really aggravating part is that I know this unit can do better. There was sloppy tackling and inconsistent play all around. My expectations for this defense are much higher than the effort I saw Saturday.

Offensively the Huskers fumbled twice into the end zone spoiling drives. The first one Terrell Newby loses control as he thrusts to the end zone after a long run. Infuriating.The 2nd Devine Ozigbo loses the ball after his progress was stopped. I don’t know why a whistle was not blown. Still these two turnovers cost NU 14 points and are completely unacceptable. Those two gaffes aside, the offense was pretty damn good Saturday night. Danny Lansgdorf did a great job calling plays and by and large the offense was efficient executing the game plan. In particular the QB runs were well conceived. As a result, Tommy Armstrong had a really solid performance. He ran for 132 yards on 10 carries, and was 18/29 for 246 yards and  TD through the air. He did miss on a couple passes, but he did so in a way that would not result in an interception. That is progress. His playmaking ability kept this offense humming for the better part of the game. Northwestern insisted on giving NU receivers a large cushion for the better part of the night. Armstrong made it look easy time and again. On the ground the Big Red ran for 310 yards with an average of 6.6 yards per carry. That is tremendous. Everyone seemed to get in on the act. In particular, it was great to see Mikale Wilbon, who ran 6 times for 55 yards. He was shifty and elusive. He needs to be part of the rotation going forward. On a night where the defense struggled this unit carried the torch. I don’t like the 2 fumbles into the end zone at all. But all things considered, this offense moved the ball consistently and at key times to ensure the win.

It’s good to have this one behind us with a notch in the w column. Northwestern is always a pain in the butt. Saturday was no exception. Pat Fitzgerald’s teams always fight to the end. Additionally, the Huskers did not play their best ball. The Huskers made enough plays to get out of Evanston with a win. That is the good news. The bad news is that the anty has been upped in the Big 10 West. Did you seen Wisconsin go into Spartan Stadium and beat the brakes off of Michigan State? If not, educate yourself. The Badgers are for real. The Husker’s had better get their act fine tuned over the next few weeks. There are a few also rans along the way, but that’s a date to look forward to. Nebraska should be 7-0 going into Madison Halloween weekend.Saturday night was great. It was good to beat Northwestern, but this is not the goal. As of Saturday, it appears a division title goes through Madison.

Next Up: Chi-Town Kitties

As we put the thrilling Oregon game in the rear view, the Northwestern Wildcats come into the windshield. If history is any indication, this will be a fun game. Since joining the Big 10 in 2011, the Husker/Wildcat games have been incredibly close. Take out the second half drubbing of 2014, and the rest of the contests have been decided by three points or less. In five games, the home team has won just once (the Hail Mary game in 2013). This year’s Northwestern squad is 1-2 with losses to Western Michigan and Illinois State by a combined total of three points. Pat Fitzgerald’s squad is always tough on defense. But this offense, led by sophomore QB Clayton Thorson, has not been good. Despite having a terrific RB in Justin Jackson, the Cats are 118th in rushing yards per game with 98.3. They only put up 17 points per game despite playing an FCS team, a MAC team and a basketball school out of the ACC. ALl that may not matter. You can throw out the trends and record books when these two get together. I expect a Northwestern team that will be ready for a brawl. NU had better buckle their chin strap for this one. The Huskers will need to focus and give their best effort to walk out of the windy city with a W. Here are a few things to look for.

*Focus Focus Focus- Too often in college sports there is a tendency to overlook an opponent. This is especially true when a team is coming off a big win. Nebraska must put the Oregon game behind them and focus on Northwestern. The nice words from around the country and top 20 ranking are terrific, but they are meaningless if you blow this one. Coach Riley and company are saying all the right things this week. We will see if Northwestern really has their full attention.

*Zone Read Defense-Oregon gave NU fits with their zone read game last Saturday. The Husker defense really had no answer for it all day long. That’s not surprising considering Oregon’s personnel. Dakota Prukop and that stable of speedy backs will cause their fair share of heartburn this fall. Rest assured, Northwestern saw that tape and will attempt to have similar success. Unlike Oregon, if it is working, they will stick with it. Clayton Thorson is not nearly as slippery of a runner as Dakota Prukop, but he torched the Huskers last year to the tune of 126 yards. Justin Jackson is a terrific RB, particularly when he gets some space. I expect the Cats to go to the zone read early and often and to stick with it if they find success.

*Pass Rush– The Nebraska front four was significantly better against the pass last week compared to the Wyoming game. While this group didn’t record a sack on a four man rush, they also didn’t let Dakota Prukop get comfortable. Let’s hope for a similar improvement this week. Last week against Duke, Northwestern allowed five sacks. I expect similar productivity from the Blackshirts. While getting pressure and sacks with the blitz is great, its not ideal. I would like to see this front four wreak havoc in the pass game. This week is a real opportunity to make an enormous difference in the game.

*Beleaguered Northwestern Secondary– The Cats will be without three of their top four cornerbacks and a starting safety. That kind of bad luck in the defensive backfield should have Danny Langsdorf and Mike Riley salivating. Covering these Nebraska wideouts is a chore with all of your top personnel available. Without it, the Big Red are at a substantial advantage. Then again, Brandon Reilly and Alonzo Moore are both questionable for the game. Look for Stanley Morgan and Jordan Westerkamp to have big games. This would be a great time to get Demornay Pierson-El going. Lets not forget Cethan Carter. The options are many for the Husker squad.  Northwestern does not have that luxury.

*Prediction– A close game early, Nebraska breaks out in the 2nd half. 31-10.