One way to soften the concerns about Nebraska's first four games under Mike Riley is to point out that the Huskers could be 4-0, if not for two scores on the final play of the game. That view isn't exactly wrong, but as we saw against Southern Miss, it wouldn't have taken much for Nebraska to be 1-3 at this point. Nebraska started strong, but frankly, you got the feeling at times that Southern Miss wasn't interested in taking advantage of Nebraska's known weaknesses. At least, not until it was almost too late.
Nebraska has the worst pass defense in the country: 127th out of 127 1-A schools, giving up 379.5 yards per game. Some of that is simply because Nebraska has faced more pass attempts than almost anybody, but still, Nebraska ranks 102nd in pass efficiency defense. The lone bright spot is Nebraska's rush defense, which ranks seventh in the nation. Some people aren't as concerned about the situation as the Huskers move into the Big Ten schedule. Maybe the vision of Melvin Gordon is burned into their retinas, but let's not forget: that was then, this is now. Iowa's C.J. Beathard is averaging 240 yards a game passing, and it gets worse: Minnesota's Mitch Leidner is averaging 219 yards passing and even Wisconsin's Joel Stave is averaging 207 yards per game through the air.
So yes, Nebraska has to fix their pass defense - and quickly. Illinois' Wes Lunt might be the best passer in the Big Ten's West division, and he's up next for the Nebraska defense to face. And let's be honest, there's no where to go but up. Here's the report card; as always, give us your feedback in the comments below.
QB: It's easy to be too negative with the start of the season, so it's important to point out one of the biggest bright spots: Tommy Armstrong, who's responded well to the quarterback tutelage of Danny Langsdorf. You may not realize it, but Armstrong is eighth nationally in passing yards this season. He's not running as much as he did last season, but arguably more efficiently. I do worry about his sudden propensity for hurdling defenders; groin injuries have become a problem this season, and Nebraska can ill-afford to lose Armstrong. And he needs to be a little smarter in trying to tackle a defender after an interception; some wondered if he was going to be ejected after leading with his helmet. Who knows what would have happened yesterday - or next week, with a first half suspension - without Armstrong leading the Huskers. Grade: B+
Is Nebraska's QB going to be ejected for targeting?
— Brandon Vogel (@brandonlvogel) September 26, 2015
I-Back: Terrell Newby does fine when the offensive line sets up the ideal seam, but struggles when he has to pick his hole. He's just too tentative at times, either letting the play string out going east/west, or (even worse) just stopping. Nebraska tried switching to Imani Cross at the start of the second half, but that experiment ended when Cross fumbled. It's becoming painfully clear that Newby and Cross aren't the answer at I-back, so fans are rightfully asking where Mikale Wilbon is. He looked pretty good in spot action in the first two games, but Langsdorf says that Wilbon has to earn his carries in practice. Hopefully he gets the message soon, because he's missing out on one heck of an opportunity. And the situation is looking sort of dire, quite frankly. Grade: D+
Fullback: This week, Andy Janovich deserves special mention for his play. Langsdorf, like most offensive coordinators, recognizes that the fullback is a bit of a dinosaur in this spread age. But in the right situation, it's effective. And frankly, Janovich is making plays that other running backs and tight ends aren't making. It goes without saying that he should get the ball more. Grade: A+
Wide Receivers: It seems that the game plan was geared to getting the ball to Jordan Westerkamp - perhaps a little too much. Throwing the ball deep to Westy on third and long in the second half wasn't the best choice of play call, though. I'm still trying to figure out what Stanley Morgan did to draw an offensive pass interference call in the second quarter. Taariq Allen's effort on that screen pass also deserves a huge pat on the back as well. But this grade has to get docked for the play of Cethan Carter, who just seems to be struggling. Many of Armstrong's worst incompletions seem to be in Carter's direction, which isn't a coincidence. You can see Carter struggling to catch the ball, and you have to assume that Carter is struggling to get himself into position to make the catch. Grade: B+
Offensive Line: Nick Gates started the game strong with a couple of devastating blocks to set the edge for much of Newby's early success. But penalties continue to be a huge issue: false starts, late snaps (which get flagged as false starts) and holding calls. Yet Mike Cavanaugh steadfastly refuses to substitute. Grace: C+
Defensive Line: Some forgiveness is due, with the injuries to Vincent Valentine, Jack Gangwish and now Kevin Williams. Greg McMullen bounced back from a slow start to this season, and Freedom Akinmoladun is emerging quickly as a future star on this line. When some of these missing pieces return, we might get a better read on this line. Until then, we're going to have to deal with inconsistency. A pass rush would really be helpful to solve this awful pass defense; it's not all on the secondary. Grade: D+
Linebacker: Forgiveness here is even more crucial, because the list of injured here is long. One linebacker with a groin injury is bad; two is worse. With Marcus Newby's injury, three linebackers with groin injuries appears a systemic training issue. Fortunately, walk-on Chris Weber played really well in relief - arguably better than the starter has this season. Dedrick Young is solid stopping the run and on the blitz - but is proving to be a liability at this point in pass coverage. Grade: C-
Secondary: We can stop blaming Daniel Davie for the secondary issues; the problem is much, much bigger than that. I see two core issues that continue to plague the Huskers on pass defense: a lack of a pass rush and then soft coverage that turns the passing game into simple pitch and catch. Casey Martin first burned Byerson Cockrell then Josh Kalu when they played soft in the fourth quarter, resulting in touchdowns. But it wasn't just in the passing game that the secondary struggled; Nate Gerry got trucked twice by Southern Miss running backs with awful tackles. Was he still feeling the effects of the flu?
In any event, Mark Banker is getting a little too much credit for the first half shutout. Southern Miss seemed content to try and run the ball much of the afternoon rather than challenge the secondary until the fourth quarter. A nearly 50/50 mix between rush and pass dug Southern Miss into a 29-7 deficit at the end of the 3rd quarter. Calling 21 pass plays and only two rushes in the fourth quarter drove the comeback. Certainly Big Ten offensive coordinators will figure this out sooner than Todd Monken did. Grade: F
Overall: C- Winning ugly is better than losing. But somebody needs to find an answer - and fast. Talent does not explain why Nebraska is dead last in college football in pass defense and 102nd in total defense. Some of these same coaches were on the hot seat at their previous job due to issues, and so far, they seem to have brought their problems to Nebraska instead of leaving them behind.
Elsewhere in College Football
State of Arizona: 0 Arizona and Arizona State were beat down badly.
Los Angeles: A What injuries? UCLA and Southern Cal both dominated.
TCU: B+ Anybody think Nebraska couldn't use Aaron Green right now?
BYU: F Nothing left in the tank, it appears.