Unforgettable Embarrasment

For the most part, this has been a feel good fall for the Huskers. Coming off an abysmal 6-7 campaign, this season has been a breath of fresh air, a reason to believe that Mike Riley might be the right man to lead NU back to the mountain top. On their way to a 9-2 record, this team showed guts and moments of brilliance. Those moments seemed miles away during the Black Friday meltdown we saw yesterday. A very mediocre Iowa team trailor parked slapped the Big Red 40-10.  40-10!! Its difficult to believe. A few weeks ago when NU got housed by Ohio State, that was completely believable. Ohio State is amongst the very best teams in the country. A team that could win the national championship. Most of those players will be playing on an NFL team near you sooner or later. This is Iowa. A team that has lost in their own building to Northwestern, North Dakota State, and Wisconsin this season. Its a team that appears incapable, by their structure if nothing else, of blowing the doors off of opponents. Well forget all of that. This game will be a permanent blemish on Mike Riley’s ledger. Losses like this were unacceptable for Bo Pelini as well as Frank Solich and Bill Callahan before him. They damn sure are unacceptable for a team that, at one point, appeared to have turned the corner. The road to relevancy appears extremely long on this Saturday morning.

There is plenty of blame to go around. Lets start at the top. How was this team so ill prepared for a game that could have drastically altered the perception of their season? Its unthinkable. Offensively Danny Langsdorf and Mike Riley formulated a lackluster game plan. With a gimpy Tommy Armstrong a strong game plan was necessary. Defensively, The Blackshirts got absolutely bullied around by the Iowa offensive line. It was painful to watch. The Hawkeyes ran for 264 yards and C.J Bethard was rarely bothered by the Nebraska front. Then there is the special teams. Bruce Reed’s special teams are fairly pathetic. Through 12 games, NU has virtually no punt return, no kickoff return, a shaky (at best) punt unit, and a punt coverage unit that got lit up Friday against Iowa. In short, Nebraska was poor in all phases of the game. Not surprisingly, this falls on the staff. Mike Riley and company did a piss poor job getting this team ready to play. Its that simple.

Tommy Armstrong deserves to stand before the firing squad as well. Tom was terrible, no way around it. I expect my 4 year starting QB to do better than 13-35 passing, regardless of his condition. Armstrong was all over the map. His accuracy and decision making absolutely killed NU Friday. At times there were open receivers. Tommy either missed them or threw the ball elsewhere. He was locking onto receivers all afternoon. It was one of the worst performances of his career. To make matters worse, Tommy was essentially a sack of potatoes in the pocket. There was no elusiveness nor explosiveness. Those are major reasons why Armstrong is a good QB. He was anything but Friday. Sure, he was injured. Nobody can deny the man’s will to play. But if he is so banged up that he cant be his usual effective self, then he shouldn’t have been playing at all. That is on both the coaches and Armstrong himself.

Ultimately a shit kicking like the one we endured Friday falls on the players as well. This senior laden group really messed the bed against the Hawks. From consistent over pursuit to knucklehead penalties, there were plenty of head scratching moments. After one of my many maddening runs by Akrum Wadley, I turned and said “who is this team?” They looked like impostors out there. I would have expected some of that sloppiness in week 2, not on Black Friday. This team was not mentally sharp, that is on them. Nate Gerry’s roughing the kicker penalty in the 4th perfectly summed up the day for the Huskers. Just when it seemed they had done something positive, an air head play negates the whole thing. Iowa is not immensely more talented than Nebraska, if at all. The fact that NU lost by 30 freaking points means something more is at play. It falls on everyone. The players are in no way exempt from responsibility for this monumental embarrassment.

So where, exactly, do we go from here? A good season seemed to go down in spectacular flames against the Hawks. There is no reason why Nebraska should lose to Iowa by 30 points. EVER!! Unfortunately it happened. Mike Riley and this entire Husker team needs to take a good, long look in the mirror. We have known for weeks that this was a flawed team. This defensive line, specifically, has played over its head for the better part of the fall. They got smashed against the adequate Iowa front. Likewise the Husker Oline was overmatched against the Iowa front 7. That is an area that this program has to improve. There is no doubt about that. To be honest I’m not exactly sure where we go from here. Its a debilitating, humiliating defeat. The kind that makes you want to bury your head in the sand. It hurts. Is this program ultimately headed in the right direction? I think so, but I was a whole lot more certain before 2:30 on Friday.

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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.

It Feels Like More

As Tommy Armstrong scored with 2 and a half minutes to go, the Anderson house went nuts. Even then, with my heart about to explode, I said that regardless of the outcome, the objective for this season remained in tact. Its true. Beating Oregon is not the ultimate goal. Then we did it. I was ridiculously overjoyed.I couldn’t get my head around why. The Oregon Ducks are not the same squad that went to the National Title game 2 years ago. Nor are they a conference foe. The outcome of this game has no bearing on NU’s final goal for 2016.  So why am I jumping around acting like a maniac? Its a great question. To be sure, this victory feels much greater than it looks on paper. This team fought its ass off Saturday afternoon. That grit is a far cry from a year ago. It was far from a flawless effort. In fact there are still a lot of areas to clean up. But this win represents a change for this program. This isn’t a team that is going to piss away every game like it did a year ago.  This team is tougher, more focused. The goals remain clear, a Big 10 West title. But after that dog fight Saturday, I feel much better about the makeup of this squad going forward.

The Husker offense was all over the map Saturday. Early on, this unit struggled to get any traction on the ground against a speedy Oregon defense. It was through the air that NU made its bones. Tommy Armstrong hit Jordan Westercamp twice in the first half for scores. After halftime it was a different story. The boys up front began to assert their will on the Ducks. Devine Ozigbo and company plowed ahead for 2 consecutive TDs to start the half. It was absolutely gorgeous. Its a shame that Terrell Newby left the game early with an injury. He looked terrific in the first half and I thought he was well on his way to his best game as a Husker. Last week I was pretty hard on Tommy Armstrong. Despite his considerable numbers, I pounded him for his inaccuracy and decision making. Saturday Tom was an absolute stud. He was a god damn baller.  He threw for 200 yards, ran for 96 more including the game winning score with 2:30 to go. Despite some apparent cramping, Armstrong showed his true mettle. His toughness and leadership were on display for everyone to see. He was a big time player and torch bearer for this offense. Best of all, Armstrong never made the big mistake. He was responsible for a turnover late in the first half, but I chalk that up to an asinine call by Danny Langsdorf. On this day, the offense was pretty good. Not perfect, to be sure, but productive enough to earn a win against a quality opponent.

The Nebraska defense had its hands full against the Ducks. It became clear very early that Oregon was substantially more athletic than the Huskers. Oregon ran for 327 yards, an average of 7 yards per attempt. The zone read game with Prukop and whichever back they threw out there was particularly troublesome for the Blackshirts. If I’m an Oregon fan, I’m pissed they didn’t use it more. It appeared the NU defense never really got its arms around it. 3rd downs were a big problem for the defense. 2 of Oregon’s TDs came on 3rd down, there was a 3rd and 26 debacle and the Ducks were consistently able to sustain drives on 3rd down. NU threw a wide variety of looks at Prukop and the Oregon offense. They often used the 3 down lineman nickel look they have unveiled thus far this season. Sometimes it worked, producing pressure and thwarting Duck drives. Other times Prukop picked apart the package. The Husker’s had their hands full with the myriad of weapons the Duck’s posses. There were times this unit got absolutely gashed. The 10 play 97 yard drive comes to mind. This was not a pretty victory for the defense. They certainly took their lumps. Regardless, this unit saved the game, twice. Trailing 28-32 halfway through the 4th quarter a Duck TD would have spelled doom. They responded with a 3 and out. After the game winning TD run by Armstrong there was still 2:32 on the clock, and a 3 point lead. That’s plenty of time for the Ducks. But this unit stepped up once more. That should not be overlooked. For all their struggles Saturday, the Husker defense stepped up and salted this one away. That fact commands respect.

This game is extra meaningful for Mike Riley. A win like this, against his old nemesis, has to carry a special feeling. It won’t hurt that his team played pretty well. Riley made some decisions that were a bit out of character. In the first half NU went for it in Oregon territory on a 4th and long. They were unsuccessful. Then, with 3 minutes to play, and 3 timeouts, he went for it on 4th and 8 just on NU’s side of the field. This time Armstrong hit Westercamp for a 14 yard gain and the Huskers scored the game’s winning score. That took some serious onions. Coach Riley deserves a lot of credit for making that difficult decision. If NU punts the ball there, perhaps they don’t get the ball back. Unfortunately, the coaching wasn’t all good. On a drive toward the end of the first half NU was rolling. The running game was just getting traction and Tommy Armstrong was sharp. Danny Langsdorf called this ridiculous backward pass that resulted in a turnover, good field position, and ultimately a TD for Oregon. Can someone tell me what the point of that was? Langsdorf needs to learn not to overthink things. When something is working, there is no need for trickery. Pound the ball, get points and move on. Choices like that cost you points and games. Langsdorf had better understand what a perilous spot he put this team in.

This is a great win for this program. This was a hell of a test for the Huskers. A win like this changes things. Oregon has been tremendously successful over the last decade or so. They have become a standard on the west coast. Is this team as good as those in the past?  I highly doubt it. Still, this is a terrific win for this program under Mike Riley. It also cements my opinion that NU is a pretty good team this year. However, good teams don’t stub their toe at Northwestern next week, or at home to Illinois or Purdue. Good teams go into Bloomington and pillage the damn place. The Huskers should win each of their next 4 games against the bottom of this conference. I expect it, and so should you. That would put NU 7-0 and headed toward a date with Wisconsin Halloween weekend. Camp Randall, Saturday night, with all the students dressed in their Donald Trump costumes. That place is something of a house of horrors for the Huskers. But at this point, this squad appears set to break out from the horrors of years past. That is why a win like this feels greater than it is on paper. It represents progress and change going forward. I couldn’t be happier.

Don’t Be Fooled

College Football is a fascinating and extremely volatile game. It can turn on a dime. Husker fans saw that first hand Saturday. It appeared the Huskers were cruising, up 17-0 with :12 left in the 1st half. Wyoming was stuck with a kicker that had already shanked 2 FG chances and a 4th and 12. Wyoming QB Josh Allen rolled right, alluding a strong pass rush. He throws an absolute dart to Tanner Gentry in the back of the end zone. Shit! From that point until well into the 4th quarter the Huskers had a dog fight on their hands. The defense seemed perplexed. The offense was bumbling all over themselves. There was a curious fake punt and just bad football all around. It seemed a dark cloud had come over Lincoln. Eventually, Wyoming made a series of mistakes, and the Huskers capitalized. Don’t be fooled by the score. This one was extremely tight for quite a while.

Offensively the Huskers were an absolute mixed bag. Early on the Huskers seemed to do whatever they wanted on the outside. It seemed Wyoming was intent on stuffing the run and that opened up the passing lanes. Alonzo Moore had a career day with 3 catches for 109 yards including a 63 yarder where he flashed his considerable speed. Tommy Armstrong threw for 377 yards, which is good, but I was unhappy with his performance. Tom made some bad choices including an INT in the end zone on 1st down. Armstrong threw it right to the defender on that play. Inexcusable. There were other times he missed open receivers or made poor choices. NU had a substantial advantage on the outside. It was obvious. As plain as the sun in the sky. The Wyoming secondary could not match the athleticism Nebraska has at WR. Considering that, Armstrong should have had a much more productive day. Perhaps it seems like I’m being too hard on Tommy when you look at his stats. Watch the game. See the open receivers he misses or the questionable choices he makes. The stats don’t tell the whole story here. If NU is to become a championship contender, Armstrong needs to be better. It’s that simple.

The Nebraska offensive line was coming off an outstanding performance last week. The Fresno defense was simply pummeled by this group. This week NU had a substantial size advantage, outweighing the Wyoming front by an average of 46 pounds. This undersized Cowboy front gave the Huskers fits. NU had tremendous difficulty sustaining any kind of success on the ground. A week after rushing for an average of 5.7 yards per carry, the Huskers managed just 3.2.  That won’t cut it. The pass protection wasn’t great either. The offensive line had a hard time picking up the frequent Wyoming blitzes. Armstrong was often dodging defenders in order to throw the ball. On one particular 3rd down play, both Tackles, David Knevel and Nick Gates, got torched off the edge and Armstrong went down. Both were left standing as Armstrong peeled himself off the turf. This too, is inexcusable. In general I was not very happy with the play of this group. Wyoming certainly presented a unique challenge but it’s not a test I feel the unit handled well at all.

Don’t be fooled by some of the defensive numbers you will hear. Holding an opponent to 17 points and producing 6 turnovers is great, but in this case, it’s incredibly misleading. For a good chunk of this game the Huskers pass defense was on its heels. Wyoming QB Josh Allen was confounding NU defenders with his scrambling and accurate passes. Until it all came apart he was quite impressive. One good reason NU was having such trouble is a lack of a pass rush from the front 4. This is something you will hear about all season. NU struggled to get to Allen. When there was penetration Allen was able to buy time and find a receiver. Like on that TD pass before the half. The defensive backs cant cover forever. The rush has to get there. Mark Banker eventually began to blitz the bejesus out of Allen. That worked to put this thing away. Good Qbs will pick those blitzes apart. You would like to be able to get to pressure with just your front 4, particularly against a team like Wyoming. In the end, as Wyoming fell behind, Allen began forcing passes and NU made them pay. The Pokes last 4 possessions were all turnovers, 3 were INTs. Don’t be deceived. Those numbers look great, but this unit really struggled for the better part of the afternoon. Better offenses are ahead and this team needs to figure out what works.

If you read my Husker football questions in the preseason you will know that I was pretty tough on Mark Banker. I thought his defense was too soft and bland last year. He did nothing to inspire confidence. Thus far I have been impressed with some of creativity shown by Mark Banker. He has used personnel groups effectively. The nickel package is a great example. There are 3 down lineman and a combination of nickel back, LB and safeties for a 6 man front. Sometimes he brings a blitz, other times he plays coverage. It’s a pretty interesting look. After 2 games, offenses are confused. Additionally, it looks like the defense is getting plenty of players into the lineup which tells me Banker likes the depth of his unit. These are good signs. That said, this unit needs to be much more cohesive going forward. I saw some blown coverages and some sloppy tackling. That dog wont hunt next week, or when NU makes a trip to Madison.

A game like this was good for this squad. This thing was a freaking dog fight for quite a while. Make no mistake, there are plenty of dog fights ahead for this team. That experience will serve this squad well. Thats the sunny side. Overall, I was generally displeased with the performance. Despite a few bright spots, this team spent most of the afternoon playing like garbage. There were more of the personal foul penalties that chapped Mike Riley’s ass a week ago. 2 TDS were negated by penalties that were absolutely avoidable. There was a general sloppiness for the better part of the afternoon. I was extremely annoyed. In the end, the Cowboys folded. The moment was too big for them. That’s a young team that essentially messed itself at its big opportunity. NU was the beneficiary. That doesn’t change the fact that Nebraska needs to fix some of these problem areas and fast. Next week Oregon comes to town. Think what you will about the Ducks, if Nebraska plays like this they run the risk of getting boat raced in their own building. That’s a message I would like Riley to pound home this week.

2016 Nebraska Football Season Preview

The only thing that saves the month of August from being a complete crotch kick is the excitement of the upcoming football season. It is the light at the end of the tunnel. This particular season is completely unique from any I’ve ever experienced. There is very real optimism and excitement for this upcoming campaign. This is odd for a fan base, accustomed to nine or ten win seasons, coming off a six win season. Mike Riley has managed, through his own personal charm and off-field successes, to create a real buzz without winning a single game. It’s really quite remarkable. It’s as though folks have forgotten the numerous blown games last fall. There will be no hiding once the season kicks off in a couple weeks. There will be weekly reminders of exactly how the Mike Riley era is progressing. There is plenty of reason to be optimistic. Holes may exist on this roster but so does a solid core of experienced players set to make their mark on Husker lore. From Tommy Armstrong, to Jordan Westerkamp, to Michael Rose-Ivey, and Nate Gerry, these guys seem intent on breaking through and making 2016 one to remember. There is a hungry fan base that would absolutely love to see that happen. In just two weeks’ time, we will release the red balloons and we will be underway. I’m absolutely stoked, as I imagine you are. Here is one man’s guide to the 2016 Nebraska Cornhuskers.

Five Keys to Success in 2016

Vastly superior turnover margin
A young, yet ferocious, pass rush
A solid, go-to, Running Back emerging from the committee
Better game management from the coaching staff
A difference-making LB corps and their mark on this defense

Five Breakout Players

Josh Banderas
Kevin Maurice
Tanner Farmer
Cethan Carter
Chris Jones

Defensive Backfield

This group is looking to bounce back after an extremely rough 2015. The defensive backfield certainly took it on the chin, ranking 121st nationally in pass defense. That experience has folks feeling oddly optimistic about this group going forward. Cornerbacks Josh Kalu and Chris Jones both showed promise despite their struggles. Sophomore Aaron Williams will man one Safety spot. Williams has a nose for the ball that you just can’t teach. 3rd year starter Nate Gerry will continue to occupy the other safety spot. Gerry also struggled in 2015 and must return to form for this unit to be a strength. There is a lot of talk about being in year two of Mark Banker’s scheme and how the experience gained from their struggles will pay off in spades. Maybe there is truth in that, but I don’t buy it as enthusiastically as they are selling it. I look for this unit to improve dramatically. I simply don’t believe the defensive backs are as bad as the stats from last year indicate. I see plenty of athleticism as well. Look for the defensive backs to surprise some people with their play this fall.

Linebackers

Its funny how a year changes things. A year ago this linebacker group was considered a weakness with barely enough bodies to run a base defense. Now, depth abounds. I project Josh Banderas, Dedrick Young and Michael Rose-Ivey (providing he can stay healthy) to be the starters. They all return from a year ago and have substantial experience. They all have shown talent at some point in their careers. Backing them up are Marcus Newby, Luke Gifford, and Chris Weber who all played a lot in 2015. Then there are young, supposedly talented players waiting in the wings. In just one year’s time the linebacking corps has gone from a liability to the best unit on the defense. Mark Banker has a problem you want to have with all these talented bodies at his disposal. It’s his job to find a role for all of them and get this unit to lead the defense. There are countless ways to use them creatively. Look for this unit to break out in 2016. If they do not, and the LBs struggle, this defense is dead in the water. I don’t see that happening. The LBs will be awesome in 2016.

Defensive Line

Conversely, the last 12 months have not been kind to the defensive line. The Huskers lost five big time contributors from last year’s unit. That hurts a team that does not have a boat load of experience in the depth chart. There is loads and loads of youth within this group. Projected starters Kevin Maurice and Ross Dzuris are both Seniors. Freedom Akinmoladun started four games in 2015 and picked up 4.5 sacks. The experience drops off considerably from there. Carlos and Khalil Davis are both highly touted Redshirt Freshmen, who both pass the eyeball test, but have no playing experience. Daishon Neal is another Redshirt Freshman who figures to be in the mix. Mick Stoltenberg and Peyton Newell are both Sophmores that will likely see the field. You get the point. There is plenty of potential with this group but they are extremely short on experience.  First year defensive line coach John Parella has his work cut out for him. If this unit can be productive against both the run and pass, then this defense will have a substantial leg up. Taking up blocks and keeping the linebackers free to make plays is a winning recipe as well. There are a few ways to skin that cat. The success of this young group will go a very long way toward determining how successful this defense is.

Quarterback

Tommy Armstrong comes into 2016 as a four year starter. He has been largely above average but has struggled mightily at times. I like Tommy, I think he does a lot of positive things. The turnovers are as maddening as they are unacceptable. In no year has Armstrong posted a 2-1 TD-Int ratio. That ratio is the mark of any good QB. His counterpart to the East, C.J Bethard was more than 3-1 in 2015. This ratio has to improve. Tommy has a wonderful lively arm, you can’t teach that, but he simply has to make better decisions. Accuracy also factors into those turnovers. Tommy can be erratic as a passer. He has gotten better each year and I look to see him make the next step. I also look for Danny Langsdorf and Mike Riley to use him more outside the pocket. Armstrong is terrific on roll outs and bootlegs. I don’t think we saw that enough last year. Calls like that use Armstrong’s best attributes and put this offense in the best possible position. That’s good for everyone.

Running Back

Husker fans have been spoiled over the last 7 years or so. The Running Back position has seen some marvelous players in scarlet and cream. From Roy Helu, to Rex Burkhead and the unforgettable Ameer Abdulah, this position has been filled with wonderful, terrific talents. There is nobody like that currently on this roster. I view this group very negatively. The RB position is up for grabs during this camp, largely due to the fact that none of them are good enough to take the bull by the balls. Terrell Newby and Devine Ozigbo are both taking first team reps, but I don’t consider either to be outstanding. Perhaps Ozigbo will get there, he is just a sophomore, but after three years we know what Newby is. Unfortunately, he is mediocre. The fact that fresh out of high school Tre Bryant is getting reps with the top unit tells you all you need to know about the quality that exists at RB. This unit needs either a solid workhorse or a dynamic playmaker. As of today, I can safely say they have neither. I hope I am wrong about this position group, but at this point this is the weakest unit on the team. I’m not sure it’s even close.

Wide Receiver

The best term to describe the wide receiver corps at Nebraska is loaded. This group is fantastically stacked. For starters there is Jordan Westerkamp, who will hold many of the school’s receiving records by Thanksgiving. Westy is an awesome speedster with terrific hands. We will be watching him on Sundays for a long time. Brandon Reilly is a very good big-bodied receiver with good speed and hands. Reilly, himself, had over 750 yards in 2015. Stanley Morgan is a sophomore with loads of upside. He might have the highest ceiling of all, with his combination of youth, physicality and hands. Alonzo Moore is somehow lost in this mix, despite six TDs in 2015. That says nothing about Cethan Carter and Demornay Pierson-El, who are both outstanding talents. This is far and away the best position group on the team. The one negative is the DUI from WR coach Keith Williams. Williams will be suspended through the end of the month and not allowed to coach the first 4 games. Perhaps that turmoil could disrupt what is sure to be a very good fall for this group. Otherwise, the sky is the limit with this embarrassment of riches on the outside.

Offensive Line

I don’t think I am alone when I say that last year’s offensive line was mostly underwhelming. NU was middle of the pack in both yards per game and yards per carry in Big 10 play.  It seemed like Tommy Armstrong was always getting flushed out of the pocket and running for his life. So forgive me when I don’t sob over the departure of four contributors from last years OL. It’s time for some new blood up front. I really like the way this line looks on paper. Nick Gates will man the left tackle spot after gaining a year’s experience on the other side. I expect Gates to make a big jump this fall. Papillion product, Dylan Utter, moves to center from Guard, where he started every game a year ago. I think that is an upgrade over Ryne Reeves who seemed slow off the ball and consistently high on his snaps. David Knevel  is a ridiculous 6-9 315 lbs. OL Coach Mike Cavanaugh is banking that he can turn that frame into an effective right tackle. I’ll bet he is right. The two that I was the most excited about were guards Tanner Farmer and Jerald Foster. Farmer is said to be extremely strong and has trimmed down. Unfortunately, Foster is lost for the year with a knee injury. That is a big loss as I had big hopes for him. In his absence freshman Jalin Barnett looks to make his mark. Like Foster, Barnett has a big upside. Perhaps I am being especially bullish on this group for no particular reason. There is no track record nor experience to speak of. I look at the bodies occupying these spots, as well as the depth being built behind them, and feel that productive Saturdays are in store for this unit. It may take a while for this unit to gel, but I think this unit will be a strength by seasons end.

Schedule Analysis/Season Prediction

Overall, this schedule is tough, but not rough. There are several challenging games along the way, including several on the road. But if you want to be a good team in this league, these are games you can’t be afraid of. Let’s start with the one unwinnable game. November 5th, our beloved Big Red go to Columbus, Ohio to take on the mighty Buckeyes. I don’t see any way this team comes out of Columbus with a W. That team is on a different level at this particular point. September 24th, the Oregon Ducks come to town. Oregon is stumbling off its worst season in 8 years, just lost its offensive coordinator, and is unsettled at QB. That does not mean that they can’t come into Lincoln and win. If the NU defense is not clicking Oregon’s skill players will take the Blackshirts apart. Still, this is a winnable game. Beyond those 2 games there are several tough, but manageable road games. A trip to Northwestern is always a test, but one I feel this team should pass. Another to Madison comes at the tail end of murderers row for the Badgers.  In a 6 week period, UW plays at Michigan State, at Michigan, Ohio State, at Iowa, and then Nebraska. There is a good chance the Badgers will be totally destroyed by the time NU comes to town. Then of course there is a Black Friday trip to Iowa City. The road team has won the last 4 in this series including an awesome comeback from down 24-7 the last time this game was played here. This game is a total toss up.

There are no shortage of potholes on this schedule, but is largely manageable. If this team wants to contend for a division and conference title the door is wide open. The schedule maker has all but eliminated both Wisconsin and Northwestern, leaving Nebraska and Iowa.  Once again the schedule looks relatively easy for the Iowa Hawkeyes. They draw a trip to Penn State and a visit from Michigan from the east, as well as home games against the other West contenders.  The door is in no way closed for NU.  They will certainly need a win on Black Friday or a win in Madison, but I feel like that is realistic. If this defense can gel much earlier than it did a year ago and NU can effectively run the ball, everything is possible. I’ll play the Husker homeboy and call for that to happen and for the Huskers to be playing on Black Friday for the Big 10 west title. I’ll go a step further and say NU wins that game, winning the west and finishing 9-3.

(Pass) Defenseless

Lets take a trip down memory lane. September 26th 2015, the Southern Miss Golden Eagles came to Lincoln as a 21 point underdog. After 3 quarters, the Huskers led 29-7 and looked to be cruising. Southern Miss head coach Todd Monken threw the game plan away and started simply hucking the ball downfield at a vulnerable Nebraska secondary. The Husker pass defense was utterly helpless against Nick Mullens and spark plug WR Casey Martin. This game turned into a dog fight in the 4th quarter. Southern Miss had the ball in Husker territory in the game’s final minute down just one possession. This is all due to the terrible pass defense that was on the display each Saturday last year. The Nebraska pitiful pass defense cost them at minimum 3 games last season. The stats are every bit as bad as the anecdotes. The Huskers ranked 121st nationally in pass defense, surrendering 288 yards per game. NU picked off just 10 passes while allowing 22 passing TDs. It was depressing. If the Huskers hope to reach their goals in 2016 this must be shored up. Otherwise, the Huskers are sunk, and my liver will be in for a very rough fall.

One way NU can expect a better pass defense this fall is through its personnel. Corners Josh Kalu and Chris Jones both took their lumps, repeatedly, but also showed some promise by years end. I like Jones, he is a big physical corner who showed his inexperience but also flashed some skills. Josh Kalu was the most hot and cold of any NU defender. He had 3 INTs and was tied for the team lead for passes defended, but was burned plenty of times. Still, his improvement through the year was easy to see.  If he and Jones can learn from their experiences in 2015 and build upon their successes, this defense will be improved considerably. The biggest X-factor for this entire defense, not just the pass defense, is Safety Nate Gerry. Full disclosure, Gerry is one of my favorite Huskers, but he was bad last year.  Painfully bad. Too often he was in poor position, or would miss a tackle.  He was not himself. Often it looked like there was an impostor wearing number 25. Gerry has all Big 10 capabilities. His vision, physicality and smarts should make him one of the best in the conference, if not the country. If he can return to form, I think this pass defense improves considerably and this defense has a good chance to be good enough for NU to win this division.

In order to take some of the pressure off the Nebraska secondary, the pass rush must improve this fall. The Huskers front 7 were exceptional against the run, but they were mediocre, to God awful, creating pressure. 6 times last fall the Nebraska defense recorded 1 or fewer sacks, amassing just 24 all season. Nebraska ranked 10th in the Big 10 in sacks in conference play. Those stats make me cringe, but accurately high-lite the ineffective pass rush. The lack of a pass rush gave opposing QBs all the time in the world to pick apart the beleaguered Husker secondary. It seemed to happen every Saturday.  Defensive Coordinator Mark Banker must find creative ways to get to the QB and rattle them. The good news is it appears NU has a bevy of options at Linebacker. Last fall the injury bug was relentless. Michael Rose missed 6 games, Josh Banderas missed 4, while Chris Weber missed 3. That is horrendous luck. This year the Big Red return the top 8 at that position. This group will be a strength and Banker must manipulate their talents into production, something that wasn’t done in 2015. Nebraska’s top 5 LBs recorded just 1 sack last fall. That is completely unacceptable. Banker must be more creative this time around. Blitzes, packages, whatever can be done to put the likes of C.J Bethard on their ass. Defensive Lineman like Freedom Akinmolodun and Ross Dzuris must also do their part to help the pass defense. If the Huskers can get to opposing QBs with their front 4 that is a recipe for success. That’s a lot to ask for from a unit trying to break in 6 new members in their 2 deep. Its Mark Banker’s job to work with the experience at LB and inexperience up front to find a way to have a productive pass rush. The success of the 2016 Huskers depends on it.

I have very real and very grave concerns about Defensive Coordinator Mark Banker. Based upon what I saw last fall, he is not a great DC. It took the defense far too long to gel and even when it did there were glaring holes. Perhaps part of that was personnel, injuries, transition to a new system, etc. We have all heard the excuses. Its put up or shut up time for coach Banker. This unit simply cannot be as atrocious as it was against the pass. That must change. The returning experience and improvement made toward the end of the year indicate that is possible. Likely even. Call me jaded, but I need to see it. The tools are there for this defense to be better against the pass and be far more productive overall. That’s all sunshine and rainbows but I’m here to tell you that if this pass defense isn’t better in 2016, the Huskers will not be competing for anything meaningful. If this is the case, heads should roll. It starts with Banker.