Husker fans are looking at Nebraska's shiny 4-0 record and remarking at how things seem so different compared to 2015. And they are. Fans are throwing out lots of theories about "buy in" and other nebulous reasons to explain the issue. I get that, because it's easier to scapegoat the people who left. (Nevermind that players said the whole "buy in" issue was bogus in the first place.)
No, the biggest reason is sitting right there in front of everybody. We've seen it week after week. It shows on the stat sheet. What is it?
Nebraska is running the damn ball.
Case in point: Northwestern. Last year, Tommy Armstrong threw 48 passes in a two point loss. This year, just 29.
The thing is, it's not just running the ball more, it's also running the ball better. And that's where I think Husker fans can talk about "buy in" this season. But it's not what fans who talk about "buy in" meant; in fact, it's the exact opposite. It's not "buy in" by players, it's "buy in" by this coaching staff. It's a coaching staff "buying in" to running the ball and trying to find ways to embrace and enhance the talents of the players they inherited. It's rethinking philosophies that didn't work so well at Oregon State anymore, and devising new approaches.
The newest member of the CN staff, Ryan Reuter diagrammed last week how Danny Langsdorf unveiled a new wrinkle that he dubbed the "Comet" against Oregon. Yes, it's a passing formation primarily. But as it initially rolled out, it started with a quarterback draw. This week, we saw it get Mikale Wilbon on the field more, and opened up all sorts of new wrinkles, such as another Cethan Carter end around. That's just one example; we're seeing more adjustments. Fewer jet sweeps (that frequently didn't work). Asking Tommy Armstrong to throw the ball less, and thus throw fewer interceptions. A better understanding of how to implement a running game.
It's the primary reason Nebraska is 4-0. With that, we're on with this week's report card. As always, your comments are welcome!
QB: You are really getting a sense that this new approach is really making Tommy Armstrong a better quarterback period. He's a more confident leader now, and that's resulting in better decisions on the field. Yes, he sometimes still throws a YOLO ball that he shouldn't, but he's throwing less of them. And making more and more better plays. He's now being allowed to be Tommy Armstrong Jr rather than Sean Mannion Jr. And that's a good thing. Grade: A-
I-Back: Two fumbles inside the one yard line made this game much closer than it should have been. In fact, it took well over a quarter for Nebraska to recover from Terrell Newby's fumble. Remember, the Huskers had gone 74 yards in just three plays to open the game. Without that fumble, Nebraska seizes control of the game right away, but instead Northwestern has the momentum. And between that first and last drive, both Newby and Devine Ozigbo really struggled...and I mean REALLY stuggled. Newby's last nine carries netted just 20 yards; Ozigbo's first 10 carries gained just 19 yards in the game. Enter the guy I've wanted to see more of for the last year: Mikale Wilbon. Primarily a decoy in the Comet package, he got a couple of carries and then a couple of series, and looked just as good as I hoped. His 9.2 yards per carry average screams "more next week" quite loudly. Grade: D+
Receivers: I thought the receivers had a pretty good game from my perspective. Alonzo Moore did a great job adjusting on that deep bomb, and Stanley Morgan got a shout-out on Twitter from former NFL-er Chad "Ochocinco" Johnson on his footwork. Cethan Carter caught everything thrown his direction, as did Sam Cotton. OK, maybe the blocking could have been better, but all in all, a fine game. Grade: B+
Offensive Line: Well, here's where things got a little ugly. Dylan Utter misfired on multiple snaps, and the blocking was just not very good at times. It just wasn't the best performance of this young season. Grade: C-
Defensive Line: Very, very quiet evening for the line, who couldn't get any pass rush without help. The interior tackles seemed to have a better evening than the ends; Kevin Maurice did get back-to-back sacks in the second quarter. Grade: C-
Linebackers: Josh Banderas seemed to rebound a bit from an off-day against Oregon the week before. Dedrick Young certainly showed up in the stat sheet; Michael Rose-Ivey? Not so much. But this is where I point that Northwestern rolled up 54 yards more than their average against the Blackshirts, so I have to grade accordingly. Grade: B-
Secondary: If Aaron Williams doesn't intercept that pass on Northwestern's opening series of the second half, I have to wonder how much closer this game would have been. There were a handful of very good plays in the secondary to be sure, but again, Thorson, a 50% passer throughout his career, completed 65% of his passes. And because of that, I have to grade pretty low here, with a C+.
Unspecial Teams: Northwestern punted six times, but none were returned. In fact, Nebraska had to burn a timeout late in the third quarter because of this.
Nebraska's punt return unit a total mess there. Riley has to burn a TO. NU had about 6 guys on the field and Rose-Ivey/DPE (same no.) on fld— Samuel McKewon (@swmckewonOWH) September 25, 2016
You know, maybe Mike Riley needs to dedicate a full-time assistant coach to special teams, rather than allow mistakes like this to continue to occur in games. It's just a thought. Grade: D
Overall: C Northwestern's Pat Fitzgerald lamented about the number of self-inflicted wounds the Wildcats inflicted on themselves in this game. Despite that, Nebraska never really put the Wildcats away until the fourth quarter. This is a game Nebraska should have locked up much sooner than it did.
Elsewhere in College Football
Iowa: C Well, the Hawkeyes managed to hold off a comeback by Mighty Rutgers and won despite being outgained 383-355.
Notre Dame: F It's time to reset expectations of the Irish....and the teams that beat the Irish now that the mighty Dookies accomplished the same things.
Michigan State: F Remember the Spartans team that struggled with the 1-AA opponent in the season opener? Those might be the real Spartans.
Wisconsin: A+ Your new favorites to win the Big Ten West.
Oregon: D Colorado's upset of the Ducks sure takes the shine off of Nebraska's victory last week.