A (small) Step Forward

It has been a crazy week in Huskerville. From perhaps the worst loss in program history to the dismissal of AD Sean Eichorst, to the job security of Mike Riley, I think we were all ready to get back to the field. Luckily, some chicken soup for the Husker soul showed up in the form of the Rutgers Scarlet Knights. This team is not good.  So the Huskers rolled, right? Not quite. NU fumbled and fooled around with Rutgers for most of the afternoon. It was extremely distressing. I doubt a loss would have sent Mike Riley out the door, but it might have. Fortunately, that is not a conversation we have to endure. NU made some key plays in vital moments to beat a lousy Rutgers team. That is a step forward, albeit a small one. Still, all conference wins are good ones. There are bigger games ahead and NU must get better, but Saturday NU evened up their record and improved to 1-0 in Big 10 play. After the week we have seen, that is something to be pleased with.

This offense came into Saturday in full blown crisis mode. Last week was some of the very worst offense this program has ever experienced. I would love to report that Saturday changed all that. It did no such thing. This offense is still quite flaccid. For too long Saturday, this group fooled around and kept Rutgers in the game. A 3rd quarter pick 6 gave the Scarlet Knights a lead that lasted until nearly the 4th quarter. Yuck!! It is painful to watch this group. Tanner Lee has exhausted the patience of Husker fans, this one included. Personally, I’m sick of making excuses. His turnovers and inaccurate passes are killing drives and shortening life spans. To his credit, there were a couple of times Saturday where Lee put a ball in a tight spot at a crucial time. The 3rd quarter TD pass to DPE comes to mind. But overall Lee was poor, throwing for a paltry 109 yards on 26 attempts, for a disgusting 4.19 yards per attempt. That is simply not good enough. NU salted this game away by finding #22 Devine Ozigbo, who has been on the milk carton thus far this season. Deuce deuce ran for just over 100 tough yards. The Offensive Line was better Saturday, there was nowhere else to go, but still were not terribly productive. Ozigbo grounded out yardage and kept the Rutgers defense on its heels. This blogger is hoping to see more of #22 as the season wears on. His hard nose running style is a breath of fresh air and can maximize the holes the sub par offensive line opens up. The offense was certainly better Saturday than it was in the embarrassment last week, but that is not saying much. It was the Defense that stole the show.

Lost in the shuffle, this unit is getting a whole lot better each and every week. Despite being extremely hindered by injuries, this defense turned in a lights out effort. Gone were Josh Kalu, Marcus Newby, and after a targeting call in the first series, Aaron Williams. Still, this unit stuck its foot in the ground and shut down the Rutgers offense. The Scarlet Knights failed to cross the 200 yard mark for the day.  That was after a 75 yard TD drive to open the game. After that the Rutgers drives stalled time and again. Rutgers had 7 drives that lasted less than 5 plays. Had NU not thrown a silly pick 6 early in the 3rd NU fans would have flooded O street much earlier. Rutgers especially had a difficult time on the ground, averaging just 2.8 yards per attempt. I can’t say enough good things about this defense that is coming together to form a top flight unit. Late in the game, Defensive Coordinator Bob Diaco dialed up a couple of nifty blitzes in obvious passing situations that completely stunned the Scarlet Knights. Rutgers had little chance against such pressure. I am extremely excited to see this defense progress. From what I have seen the last few weeks, I know that the sky is the limit for this unit, particularly this front 4.

Look, this wasn’t the 85 Bears, it was Rutgers. This team is hands down the very worst this conference has to offer. Still, all conference wins are good wins. Give NU credit for bouncing back and getting the W despite being extremely shorthanded. Lets be clear, it was far from pretty. There were plenty of hairy times during this one. But this team pulled through behind an outrageous defensive performance overcoming more lackluster offense. Both units are no doubt a work in progress. It was great to see an outstanding punt return from DPE that set up a Husker TD. That is the kind of help this team may require from the special teams. The Big Red train chugs along. Next up is an Illinois squad that is of a similar caliber as Rutgers. This is certainly a game NU should win. The interesting part is that it is on the road and on a Friday night. It should matter little. That is the kind of game the Huskers should win. I think we all would like to see the offense progress and develop some kind of identity. That has not happened to this point. A win like this can only do so much. The chatter will not end with a win over the Scarlet Knights. This game did very little to secure Mike Riley’s job status, but a loss would have almost certainly sealed his fate.

follow on Twitter: @jakeanderson884

Advertisements

The Honeymoon is Over

It appears that I fell into my old trap this summer. As usual, I drank the kool-aid. I bought into all the malarkey that Mike Riley and the Big Red hype machine was selling. Hook, line and sinker. All the good vibes about energy and positivity had me feeling that this team in general, and this defense specifically, were primed for a very good fall. Through 2 games, those illusions of grandeur are long gone. That was evident as I sat in an isolated corner of my house at halftime with the score 42-14. I then wrote the following:

I spent the last 6 days looking for reasons, rationalizing why the defense was inadequate against Arkansas State. I looked at stats like yards per play and considered the new system and inexperienced players were the main reasons for NU’s relative struggles in the season opener. Rationalization can be a very powerful thing. In many ways I turned a blind eye toward their obvious shortcomings. But I absolutely believed they would come out and play much better in game #2. I did not, in any way, sense that Nebraska defensively would come out and get their doors blown off the way they did. It was completely inconceivable. Perhaps that makes me a homer. I’ll wear that label. This much is certain, the Husker defense was horrendous Saturday. There is no excuse for the sort of incompetence we experienced Saturday. None. It has been an absolute embarrassment of the highest order.

Bob Diaco drew sharp criticism from some for not talking to the media after the season opener. I thought that was overblown. I don’t really care if he does or not. What I do care about is a quality product. Diaco took the podium early in the week. He was defiant, even arrogant. He claimed his plan worked perfectly. He was not the least bit contrite about the performance against the Red Wolves. I was OK with that because to me it signaled that he was confident his unit would come out and perform well in this early season showdown. After getting boat raced Saturday, where is that bravado? I suggest that rather than playing Little Red Riding Hood, like he did last week, that he get to work and figure out what will make this defense work. I would not be surprised if Diaco privately was not pleased with the personnel available to him. That is fine. They were not recruited for this system, I would be shocked to learn that he was 100% happy with the tools at his disposal. But it doesn’t matter. Not one freaking bit. His job, for which he is paid handsomely, is to take the players on hand and mold them into a top defensive unit. To this point he has failed spectacularly. The proof is there for everyone to see. I don’t need to go over the gory details. He has to figure out a way to make this unit functional. I do not want to hear about youth in the secondary. Every team has inexperience in a variety of places. So what!! Coach them up. That is what you are paid so well to do. That secondary, which has been lauded by him personally several times, just got its ass pasted for 3 TD passes in the first half alone. I can only imagine the horrors of the 2nd half.

As we all know the NU defense came out and was a completely different unit after halftime. Adjustments were made and they were incredibly successful. I was shocked. Oregon failed to score in the 2nd half and the Husker D forced 2 turnovers and several 3 and outs.  They flew around and swarmed to the ball. Team defense and a commitment to stopping the run was there for everyone to see. The effort was outstanding, there is no other way to put it. Hopefully, this is a glimpse of what this defense can be. But it can’t be for just a half. You simply can’t spot a team 42 first half points and count on winning. This unit deserves a substantial amount of credit for the resolve they showed. It would have been easy to hang their heads and mail it in. I’ve seen that too many times. The grit showed enabled NU to get back into the game. However, the fact that it took until halftime, and 42 points to make the adjustments and collect themselves is appalling. Bob Diaco simply cannot sit and wait to adjust while the opposing offense lights up the scoreboard like the 4th of July. Also the total output for the Ducks is not acceptable, regardless of what was done in the 2nd half. 516 total yards including 11.1 yards per pass gets you beat every Saturday. Diaco has to figure out a number of issues with this unit. How can they successfully generate a pass rush? What to do about the secondary? How can they make adjustments on the fly? What about 3rd down defense, which was a sore spot on Saturday? Big money Bob has a whole lot of work in front of him. Lets hope he doesn’t wait until halfway through the season to do it.

The slow start absolutely killed the Huskers. It was 14-0 before you knew what happened. Husker heads were spinning far and wide. From there NU was behind the 8-ball all afternoon. That is not a winning recipe. I don’t know how good or bad Oregon is. Maybe they are a top shelf Pac-12 team that simply needed retooling. Maybe they are just a slightly above average team trying to find their way. Time will bear that out. But this is a game that NU wins if they make the proper defensive adjustments in a timely fashion. Some of the defenses troubles bled over to the offense. I have to believe that NU sticks with the run more if they weren’t shooting for the moon every possession. That contributed to 41 Tanner Lee passing attempts and 4 Ints. The offense has its own issues, worthy of its own column. But at this point I am far more concerned about this defense and what we saw in the first half. My optimism for this season was largely based on having an adequate defense. If the Huskers don’t have that, where does that leave them against one of the toughest schedules in the country? It could be a very long, and grueling fall.

 

follow on twitter: @jakeanderson884

2017 Nebraska Cornhusker Defensive Preview

They say fortune favors the bold. If that is true then Mike Riley is due for a few lucky breaks going into his 3rd year in Lincoln. Riley shook up his staff in a major way last winter firing lifelong friend Mark Banker and hiring hot shot DC Bob Diaco. It would have been easy for Riley to stick with Banker. The defense made significant strides in 2016 and while it wasn’t the 85 Bears, it was more than adequate. There were a few games that the defense held up the offense. Then there were games like Ohio State, Iowa and Tennessee where the defense, like the offense, was absolutely overwhelmed. This prompted a move that nobody saw coming. January 11th Riley called Banker and told him he would not be retained. The hunt was on. Riley found a fit in newly unemployed Bob Diaco who has a rich track record of producing top defensive units. The two met and mutually agreed that it would be a good fit. The NU brass opened up the pocketbook to make Diaco the highest paid assistant in Nebraska Football history. Clearly, this is a move that took vision. Diaco’s defensive scheme is extremely versatile which will be useful in a league like the Big 10 that sees such a variety of offensive attacks. As usual, there is no time for a learning curve in Lincoln. Expectations exist and Diaco must get this unit up to speed and in a hurry. How he teaches his scheme and molds it to the talent on hand will ultimately determine how successful this team can be.

Defensive Line

I really like this group. Going forward, the defensive line is going to be a strength of this defense. It all starts with #44 Big Mick Stoltenburg. He is mountain on the interior. At 6-5, 315 the Gretna product will be counted on to soak up blocks and wreak havoc. He is the cornerstone for this defensive line. Junior Freedom Akinmoladun led the team in sacks in 2016 and while his numbers need to improve, he has potential aplenty. Then there are the Davis twins, Carlos and Khalil. Every report I read from camp has something complimentary to say about one or both of them. The term explosive is routinely used. The twins will be the breakout stars of 2017 and are the future of this defensive unit. Peyton Newell, Daishon Neal, Ben Stille and true Freshman Deontre Thomas will provide solid depth on the defensive line. The greatest variable for the defensive line is how they will adjust to the new scheme. Not all 3-4/multiple schemes are the same. Some require their defensive linemen to basically wrestle with O-lineman and let the linebackers make all the plays. From what I have seen from Diaco’s days at Notre Dame and Connecticut, that is not the approach the D-line will take. I look for this unit to rotate heavily and be disruptive. A big reason for my bullish disposition is DL coach John Parella. I’m a bit biased, being from the same high school, but I’ve heard nothing but good things about the job he is doing both on the recruiting trail and on the practice field. We saw returns last season when his unit more than held their own despite being substantially undermanned. I think Parella is a rising star in this business and I’m pleased he is on this staff. His mantra of “All gas, no brakes” is perfectly suited for this program and his energy is second to none. This defensive line may be overlooked going into 2017, but I suspect that will change, and quickly.

Linebackers

This is where the success or failure of the newly installed defense will lie. This unit has far and away the most question marks. Inside Dedrick Young and Chris Weber look to be the starters. Weber, in particular, is a program guy who the coaches trust, but must step up big time. He had just 17 tackles in a smaller role last fall. He will need to have a big jump in production to keep that job. Avery Roberts and Mo Barry backup those two in the middle. Both have sizable potential and could push for playing time should either Weber or Young prove ineffective. On the outside for Big Red, Luke Gifford and Marcus Newby man one spot. Those 2 are the best tandem the LB unit has to offer. I’m not worried about them.  Both bring experience and athleticism. Diaco and LB coach Trent Bray will get good production between those 2. The other side is a major unknown. Reports have Alex Davis getting reps with the 1st team. He has a terrific frame at 6-5 255 but played last year as a pass rush specialist at DE. Also, Davis has limited experience playing the game of football. According to his NU bio, he only started playing football his Sr. year of high school!! So by my count this is his 4th year, and we are counting on him to be our starting OLB. That makes me very queasy. Sedrick King, who has limited experience as well will back him up. This unit makes me nervous. While there are some returning experience, there isn’t a lot of production. This unit badly needs the emergence of a star. Someone fans and coaches can look to to lead this defense. Could it be Weber? Young? Gifford? It is a major question make for this team. This is where Bray and Diaco will earn their pay this fall.

Defensive Backs

It pains me to write about the defensive backs because I am immediately reminded of Chris Jones’ injury. I was looking for Jones to have an outrageous season and move up draft boards. I feel terribly for him. In his absence I am pleased with what remains. CB Lamar Jackson is long and lanky with all the potential you could ask for. Eric Lee on the other side is equally promising. There was talk of making a place on the field for Lee even with Jones in the lineup. I feel good about these two as well as Dicaprio Bootle, who has made a bid for playing time. In the wake of the Jones injury I was very concerned about the CB situation, but at this point my mind is at ease. Tony Butler has moved from Safety for depth as will Avery Anderson. CB is in good shape and if Jones were to return, it will be even better. You can’t have too many good cover corners. Safety is in great hands with Aaron Williams and Josh Kalu. You will remember Kalu from his role as a CB the last 3 seasons. Diaco praised Kalu recently, calling him All-American caliber. I don’t know about that. Perhaps the new DC was trying to pump up one of his Sr. leaders. I’m not sure. I really don’t see a scenario where Kalu could earn that kind of acclaim. Still, I expect a solid FS, capable of covering whoever is thrown at him. We also know he can tackle. Safety is a good fit for someone with Kalu’s skill set. I also trust Aaron Williams and Kieron Williams back there. Safety is in really good hands between those 3. They will be counted on to coordinate the defense and make the correct adjustments. They are also capable of making big plays. The 3 of them combined for 9 Ints last year. Safety may be the strongest position this team has to offer. While I do not expect anyone to make the All-American team, I do think these defensive backs will the backbone of this defense. There may be some growing pains from the corners, but by Halloween this entire group should be fast and disruptive. They will be loads of fun to watch.

Key Themes for the 2017 Defense

How is the install going? Surely Diaco’s defensive scheme and principles can’t be fully implemented in less than a calendar year. So how does he simplify things so that this defense can be successful this season? I’m sure he has an answer. He better. Diaco has been very complimentary of this team to this point, but I am not sure that means anything. How many mental mistakes are made by a unit that has yet to play a game within this new system? Breakdowns result in big plays and points. That could cost games. How much of that kind of thing we see could be the difference in a good or bad season.

Can NU improve their sub par pash rush numbers? I feel like I ask this every year. Last year Big Red had 26 sacks. That is tied for 65th nationally with the likes of Army and Middle Tennessee and behind powerhouses like UTSA and 4-8 Misery. Yuck!! 2015 was even worse with 24 sacks. The term horrendous comes to mind. You can blame Mark Banker’s scheme if you wish, but I won’t. I thought Banker drew up several interesting looks last year that produced pressure. NU was simply not getting to the QB without some kind of blitz. No doubt, Bob Diaco has ideas of his own for how to create pressure up front. But some of it comes down to winning individual battles. Beat the man in front of you!! There simply hasn’t been enough of that in the last couple of years. If NU wants to make a move toward contention in the Big 10 this has to change and in a big time way.

The buzz word out of camp is energy. Energy from the coaches, the players, from Diaco himself. The BTN crew noticed it on their visit and Riley has mentioned it several times in interviews. It is even palpable in the interviews with players. Energy is a very positive sign that things are going well for this defense. As we are so often reminded, it is a marathon, not a sprint. Will the grind of the regular season wear down that energy? Will the team run out of juice before the meat of the schedule arrives? It is something to keep an eye on.

The Chris Jones saga. Personally, I am not counting on him at all. I think it is best to think of it that way. If he does get back, great. That is all gravy. Jones himself has made it a point to be seen by the media not walking with crutches or wearing a knee brace. I question how much of that is authentic. Jones is a competitor, a team leader. You love that about the guy. But at some point it is counter productive. If he is not physically ready to play I would rather him stay on the sidelines. We will not hear the end of this. It will be a lingering storyline throughout the year. Again, I remain extremely skeptical about his return or the quality of play if he does.

Schedule Analysis/Season Prediction

This schedule is a Bear. An absolute bear. It is very possible that NU could be better in a number of areas and still come away with a worse record than it had a year ago. For starters there are 3, yes 3, teams on NU’s schedule in the preseason top 10!!  I am not sure any schedule in the country can make that claim. Ohio State and Wisconsin come to Lincoln, while Big Red takes its show on the road to Happy Valley the week before Thanksgiving. We all know that Ohio State is playing on a different level than Nebraska. But Wisconsin has beaten NU by a combined 8 points the last 2 seasons. I expect that game to be a dogfight, and it is in Lincoln. I like Big Red’s chances. There is also a week 2 trip to Eugene Oregon to take on the Ducks. That is a team that will be much better. We will see how quickly NU can adapt to its new scheme/personnel. That game is a coin toss. Throw in visits from Northwestern and Iowa and a trip to the twin cities and it is easy to see, this season will be no cakewalk. The Huskers are going to have to get it together and fast and avoid major injury at critical positions. While the schedule is rough, I do not expect this season to go in the toilet. I’ll spoil the fun and say NU isn’t a contender for the playoff, but I do think a quality season that this program can build upon is on the table. The floor is 6-6. That would be awful and would make me question the leadership of this program. I don’t think that will happen. If NU catches a few breaks I could see the ceiling being 10-11 wins. That would be glorious. The planets would have to align just perfectly. This too is unlikely. I will say this team will perform closer to the ceiling than the floor. Give me Big Red to win 9 games, with losses to Ohio State and some combination of Wisconsin, Penn State, Iowa, Oregon and Northwestern. The record could be 8-4 pretty easily, but I’ll call for Big Red to go 3-2 in the previously mentioned games. No Big 10 West title. That will go to Wisconsin. A more favorable schedule gives them the firm edge over the Huskers. Still, this will be a quality season that ramps up toward next fall where I believe NU will contend for a playoff spot.

Thanks for reading, and of course GO BIG RED!!

follow on twitter: @jakeanderson884

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.

follow on twitter: @jakeanderson884

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.

follow on twitter: @jakeanderson884

 

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.