The final Carriker Chronicles of the season!
Five take aways from last year and five things to look forward to this year.
1- The Huskers finished the season strong. After a rough start to the season, which was culminated by an extremely tough loss to Purdue, Nebraska was able to get the ball rolling in the right direction headed into the off season.
Safety Nate Gerry was quoted after the Purdue game as saying, "We all just kind of looked at each other and decided to buy in." The loss to the Boilermakers was rock bottom, and since then, the Huskers beat sixth-ranked and eventual Big Ten Champion and College Football Playoff bound Michigan State. That's still an impressive win. Even after the loss to an incredibly good Alabama team, the Spartans are 8-2 against their last 10 opponents ranked in the top five. Nebraska also defeated Rutgers in convincing fashion, 31-14. The Huskers followed that by outplaying at the time third-ranked Iowa, but couldn't overcome too many turnovers in a close loss. Then they beat, in fairly convincing fashion, a very good and somewhat heavily favored UCLA team in the bowl game.
That gives good reason for optimism next season. In my opinion, that's a solid way to close out the last four games of the year. Considering that the Huskers' seven losses came by a combined 31 points, it's reasonable to believe that this team is a lot better than its record. The biggest issue I saw this year was players not letting go of the past and buying into their new coach Mike Riley. After the Purdue game when the team hit rock bottom, they had the choice to either fold or come together. They clearly banded together, and the difference was obvious.
As long as they don't buy into their own hype, we should have the best receiving core in the conference next year, along with an athletic tight end in Cethan Carter who's starting to flash some of his potential. Also taking into consideration that half a dozen freshman played major roles in contributing to the bowl game victory over the Bruins, and there are several players who will be coming off redshirts next season who have looked good in practice, I think it's safe to say with everyone now on the same page that we can have much higher expectations for next season and the future. The Big Ten West is not a loaded division, and if our guys can make some decent strides in a few key areas, I believe a run at the division title and Big Ten Championship game is legitimately possible next season.
2- Tommy Armstrong has gone from being considered the best quarterback in the Big Ten West to a guy who was written off by a lot of people after the Iowa game. He's a guy who's name just keeps climbing higher in the Nebraska record books, but might not even start next year. He shows flashes of Tommie Frazier one week and the frustrating version of Taylor Martinez the next.
I believe Armstrong's determined to prove the doubters wrong and he will improve his mechanics (as much as he can at this point), and his decision making will also be improved next season. I do believe he needs to be more consistent. His gunslinger mentality has gotten him into trouble, but it's also part of what makes him so mentally tough. I believe he was done a great disservice by offensive coordinator Danny Langsdorf at times this year with the play calling. He was asked to pass too much and not asked to run with the ball enough.
Patrick O'Brien is a highly-touted true freshman who will enroll in school this month and will have the advantage of participating in winter conditioning as well as spring practice. I have no doubt he will push Armstrong for the starting quarterback job. I do believe it is Armstrong's job unless O'Brien takes it away from him. The senior with almost three years of starting experience should get the benefit of the doubt. You also don't want to rush the young freshman too soon and damage his confidence. Now, if O'Brien proves to be ready much like UCLA quarterback and freshman All-American Josh Rosen, then play the man. I just hope the coaches are able to balance play calling between the mobile senior quarterback and the young pocket passing freshman who's the possible future of the offense.
3- The little things.
Something that is often overlooked is Special teams. With the conference's best punter Sam Foltz and a healthy De'Mornay Pierson-El back returning kicks, I believe we should have the edge in field position almost every week. Drew Brown is one of the best kickers out there as well. We struggled at times on special teams last year. I see no reason why they can't be a strength for us next season.
Turnovers and penalties. In 12 regular season games Nebraska had 27 turnovers, which tied for 115th (out of 127 teams) in the FBS. They also had 88 penalties (many of them at inopportune times), which ranked 108th in the country. That's more than seven penalties and almost three turnovers a game.
It doesn't take Albert Einstein to figure out that needs to get better next year. Mike Riley-coached teams have a history of being highly penalized. That's something coach Riley needs to address within himself and also needs to be a major focus going forward. You already have an opponent you have to beat; there's no point in beating yourself, too.
4- The Blackshirts had a very rough start to the season. They struggled to get a consistent pass rush up front. The secondary gave up quite a few big plays and the linebacking core was hit by suspensions and frequent injuries.
In my opinion, there was talent on the defensive side of the ball that wasn't living up to it's potential for two thirds of the season. But like I said, after the Purdue game their attitude and demeanor completely changed, and the results on the field were noticeably improved.
Next season the pass rush can be addressed with a little more speed up front coming off the edge from guys like Freedom Akinmoladun. The secondary should be better with much improved communication in their second year in the system. Just getting healthy at the linebacker position will help a lot. At at times against UCLA, the Blackshirts had seven or more sophomores or younger on the field together. Once again, the Huskers have some good up-and-coming talent. I've always believed it takes a different type of person to play defense and it's a prestigious thing to wear a Blackshirt. The defense didn't all of a sudden turn into the ‘85 Bears those last four games, but they clearly found the appropriate attitude that's needed to represent the skull and crossbones.
5- Coach Riley and his staff have come under heavy criticism at times this past season. With some of the tough losses and questionable game management at times, a good portion of the criticism was probably justified.
I do hope the coaching staff learned a few things about the team, their personnel and football in the state of Nebraska this past year. I also hope Husker fans realize how close we are. I'm not going to celebrate not getting blown out this year, but it's been a while since we've beaten a top ranked team and have been in every game of the season from beginning to end. Here's a fun fact, as we know our seven losses were by a combined 31 points, while Iowa's two losses were by a combined 32 points. Obviously they had far fewer losses and seven losses is not acceptable, but I honestly believe this team is right on the verge of doing some really good things. Early on in the season it was as if they found ways to lose. By the end of the year, I believe this team was learning to find ways to win.
The jury is still out on Coach Riley and his staff. Typically three seasons is how long a new coach gets to show what he can do. The best thing Husker fans can do is to be patient. We need to back and support whoever is our quarterback, the team and our coach. Players, coaches and recruits all feed off the fan base. If you don't think you have an impact, you're wrong. Part of what I love about Nebraska football is the fans! It's cliche to say because everybody says it, but when I say this it's the truth because I've never said it about any other fan base; Nebraska fans are truly the greatest fans on God's green earth.
6- I'd like to thank everyone who took the time to read the Carriker Chronicles this past season. I hope you enjoyed reading them every week as much as I enjoyed writing them. Keep your eyes peeled however, you never know when I might pop up with a random Chronicles every now and then with something Husker related. After all I'm retired, not the Carriker Chronicles. In the mean time if you'd like to stay up to date on all things Adam Carriker related, you can do that on my Facebook pagentil next time Husker Nation...Go Big Red Baby!