Southern Miss (36-28)
Well, that was a pretty good microcosm of the 2015 Huskers. In fact, of the 2010s Huskers. At times, they played really well. At times, they looked sloppy and disinterested. They showed the potential of being a top 10 team and they showed why they’re no longer relevant on the national scene. In the end, they left us scratching our heads wondering if things are moving in the right or wrong direction or just spinning in circles. It’s pretty easy to find the good (Armstrong’s passing, red zone defense, a fullback!!!) and the bad (penalties, unfinished drives, pass coverage, the second half in general) from the game against Southern Miss. So I’m taking a different tack with this post, looking at the good and bad from the first third of the season—that is the optimistic and pessimistic views after non-conference play.
The Good (The Glass is Half Full)
So Close: Nebraska is just a few plays away from being undefeated. They had multiple chances to put BYU away, most notably by playing semi-competent defense on the game’s final play, and despite a woeful first three quarters against Miami, had all the momentum heading into OT. If Armstrong puts that final pass on the money, it’s very likely the Huskers are 4-0 right now. Similarly, a few third-down conversions in the first half Saturday could have turned 22-0 into 30-0 or 34-0, and instead of a nail-biter, the second half collapse would have just been typical big lead sloppiness. In such a case, Nebraska is probably the West favorite and ranked in the top 15 or 20.
Red Storm: The offense has shown signs of improvement. Particularly, Tommy has developed as a passer (especially on rollouts). He’s a physical, game-breaking runner and his leadership and toughness are exactly what Nebraska needs at the position. He may not be an All-American and there’s still room for improvement, but he’s more than adequate. There’s plenty of skill at WR and RB, and the cream will rise to the top. Danny Langsdorf has brought creativity and diversity (screens, pump and go routes, jet sweeps, the fullback!!!) to the offense and the Huskers seem capable of having one of the Big Ten’s best offenses.
Boning Up: Defensively, many of the struggles can be attributed to youth and injuries. Once the Huskers are fully healthy and straighten out a few coverage issues, they have the potential to be stifling. Already, they’ve come up with a number of big red zone stops, bending but not breaking. They’ve also created several game-changing turnovers, an area that was sorely lacking last year.
The Road to Indy: Overall, there are some bumps to be expected, but you have to figure the coaching staff will figure out the strengths and weaknesses of their team and the players will buy in more and adapt to the new philosophies. Nebraska’s mistakes are largely self-inflicted and therefore curable. While they don’t have many cupcakes on the conference schedule, nobody in the West has distinguished themselves as a frontrunner, and the toughest games on the schedule (Wisconsin and Michigan State) are both in Lincoln. With steady improvement, the Huskers still have a good chance of getting to nine wins, which in a transition year, surely would count as a success.
The Bad (The Glass is Half Empty)
Stumbling From the Gate: The Huskers had to survive a hapless (in recent years) Southern Miss team to claw out a 2-2 non-conference record. They were dominated for three quarters by Miami and needed a handful of Hurricane miscues to stage a once-in-a-lifetime comeback. The BYU win is looking less impressive after the Cougars were throttled by Michigan (and their first-year coach) and had it not been for an injury to Taysom Hill and a timely Nate Gerry pick, that game was trending toward a BYU blowout.
. . . Master of None: Tommy has improved somewhat, but still is inconsistent on short, touch passes and makes one or two cringe-worthy throws a game. There’s no consistency from the running back position (or in determining who lines up in it), and it’s hard to tell what Danny Langsdorf’s bread and butter is, if he even has one. Is this a running team? A passing team? A “multiple” team? A take-what-the-defense-gives-us team? And for all the creativity and ingenuity, why does it seem that the Huskers play caller keeps outthinking the room, dialing up unsuccessful red zone trick plays and failing to use his best weapons at crunch time? Sure, the offense is racking up yards and points now, but we’ve seen September production dwindle into November slumps in recent years.
Defenseless: The defense has generated little push up front, aside from Freedom Akinmoladun (who is the next Ndamukong Suh, if only in that he’ll be a senior before the media comes to consensus on how to pronounce his name). The dynamic duo of Maliek Collins and Vincent Valentine has been missing in action (or inaction, in VV’s case), the linebackers can’t stay healthy, and the defensive backs look lost, to put it kindly. Mark Banker’s easier scheme seems one step behind offenses that aren’t exactly cutting edge in their approach, and the Huskers have yet to be tested by a physical Big Ten running game that is likely to exploit tackling that hasn’t improved as much as we’d hoped.
Gutter Balls: The Huskers have failed to clean up their sloppy penalties (procedural issues, personal fouls, unsportsmanlike conducts), drops, and clock management issues. There’s also no clear improvement from game one to game four on defense (in fact, it almost looks like regression) or in O-line play. The 2015 Huskers look an awful lot like the team getting out-executed by Michigan State, out-fundamentaled by Iowa, out-toughed by Minnesota, and outright dominated by Wisconsin in recent years. (Not to mention an improved Northwestern team that has given the Huskers fits.) Forget about conference titles and nine wins . . . right now, going bowling would be an accomplishment.
At the End of the Day
The bottom line, and join in and sing along to this familiar chorus, is that it’s too early to tell. There are legitimate reasons for optimism and plenty of causes for concern. I was leaning a little more toward the glass being half full after a rousing comeback against Miami, but after the Huskers nearly pulled defeat from the jaws of victory against Southern Miss, I’m wavering. I still think the swing game is Minnesota. Barring a significant upset, the Huskers will be 3-3 when they head to the Twin Cities. A win over the Gophers gives them a chance to maybe build momentum before Sparty comes to town, and a reasonable shot at a decent bowl game and extension of the nine-win streak (growing up in the Osborne era, I kind of cherish that benchmark). A loss to Ski-U-Mah, and the Huskers are looking up at a tough climb to a winning season. Nick Saban’s first Alabama team went 6-6 and lost at home to UL-Monroe, and that turned out all right, so I don’t think 6-6 is necessarily panic time. Transitions can be bumpy. But anything short of a bowl game is unacceptable at Nebraska. Equally important as the W-L record after the game with the Gophers will be the Big Red’s improvement (or lack thereof). I’d almost rather take 3-4 but with less penalties, an identity on offense, and a more consistent defense than 4-3 with all the same bugaboos and miscues we’ve seen over the last four weeks (and years). The 2015 season, while important in its own right, is a foundation for the future. But is it a foundation to Big Ten championships and a prominent place on the national scene, or to more ups and downs as the Huskers drift into mediocrity? Too soon to tell.
Jordan Westerkamp, if he can stay healthy, is going to make a serious run at All-Conference. He catches everything and is a playmaker with the ball in his hands. He can only benefit when DPE comes back, and I’d put them both back to return punts (and take a page out of Utah’s playbook to dial up a little trickeration).
Speaking of Utah, did you see the smackdown they laid on the Ducks in Autzen? It was only one game, but perhaps a glimpse into what Oregon is becoming post-Chip Kelly and post-Marcus Mariotta. Remember, UO comes to Lincoln next year for the 350th consecutive sellout at Memorial Stadium.
Speaking of Memorial Stadium, that is the name, not “Cornhusker Stadium” as one of ESPN’s commentators called it during the telecast yesterday. I don’t really want to get into personal attacks, but that was not the Mothership’s finest announcer team. I’ll leave it at that.
The eyes of Texas . . . are hiding behind their hands. Last week they lose after shanking a game-tying extra point in the final minutes, and this week they lose because their punter dropped a snap in the final minutes. Yikes.
Illinois has become something of a laughingstock in college football, but they do have a few playmakers, and Nebraska’s defense hasn’t offered much resistance this year. So I expect the Illini to put up some points. Fortunately, their defense hasn’t been real stout since the days of Hardy Nickerson, either. If the Huskers avoid the big mistakes (pick sixes leading to 14-point swings, point-nullifying penalties, or pass coverage that allows Illinois receivers to, as my grandpa would say, “run around eating cookies,” in the secondary) they should win comfortably. I expect a dialed in team after a somewhat lethargic performance against the Golden Eagles, and I’ll pick the Huskers to win 45-24.