Mike Riley received a lot of acclaim for his Foster Farms Bowl gameplan, which featured 62 runs and just 19 passes. The resulting victory left Husker fans with a smile going into the offseason. But I wondered: was this a one time thing, or very much a real commitment.
Well, game one of 2016 was a doubling down: 51 passes and 13 passes. Now, this could be another situation where simple scouting showed that Fresno State was extremely vulnerable to a ground attack last season. Or maybe it really shows a new dedication by this coaching staff to adapt to the team they adopted.
Don’t expect Nebraska to continue with an 80/20 run/pass ratio all season long. That would be even worse, because there are at least 11 more teams on Nebraska’s schedule that have better rush defenses than Fresno State. But should Nebraska continue to rely primarily on running the ball?
Absolutely. And I’ll give you one simple statistic:
For those of you counting, Nebraska has only one turnover in the last two games. Certainly that’s something at even the most die-hard supporter of the passing game can appreciate. Below is this week’s report card with my thoughts on what I saw. Keep in mind, we probably won’t have enough perspective on how good Nebraska (or Fresno State) is or isn’t for a couple more weeks, so we’re going to have to make some assumptions. As always, your comments and feedback are welcome in the comments!
QB: After the game, I was leaning towards a C+ or B-, based on his shaky start. Then I saw a highlight of Armstrong, in tears on the sideline, during the tribute to Sam Foltz. So you know what I’m going to do? Throw all of that out. As the game went on, he regained his composure and played pretty well. The deep bomb to Alonzo Moore was a bit underthrown, but you don’t want to overthrow him in that situation either. It really appears that the coaches have really accepted who Armstrong is and what he’s capable of accomplishing. He’ll have to throw more in future weeks, but it’ll be as a complementary role to a ground attack. Grade: B+
I-Back: While Terrell Newby looked fine, Devine Ozigbo ran powerfully. I would like to see one back get 20-25 carries each week moving forward instead of rotating them around. Newby is more of a game breaker back who could go 70 yards at any time, while Ozigbo just seems like a dependable back who’s going probably get a little extra on most runs. It’s clear that the coaches love Tre Bryant’s pass protection, but in order to keep it honest, he’s going to have to carry the ball occasionally before garbage time sets in. Bryant certainly ran well late in the game when he got his chance to run the ball. The best run of the day, however, was Mikale Wilbon’s 16 yard scamper late. Wilbon is going to frustrate those of us who suspect he’s probably the Big Red’s best ball carrier once again this season. Grade: B+
Wide Receivers: This group will probably feel short-changed this season if the coaches stick with a ground game in 2016. But they’ll have their opportunities, and frankly, play action should actually give them more highlight reel opportunities on deep plays. Against Fresno State, it was Alonzo Moore with the pretty touchdown catch. This offense will open up in a couple of weeks, and they’ll get their chances. Grade: A-
Offensive Line: Is Nick Gates really only a sophomore? Goodness, is he going to be a good one. Of course, I need to be careful in overvaluing this performance, considering the opponent level. They did what they probably should have done against Fresno. My biggest concern? The Keystone Kops substitution routine when David Knevel had to leave the game due to an injury. Nobody on the sideline knew who should come in, and when someone finally came in, everybody seemed confuse who was shifting where. Against Fresno in the fourth quarter, it’s funny. Against Oregon, it won’t be nearly as amusing when Nebraska is forced to take a timeout. Grade: B
Defensive Line: Ross Dzuris played a game worthy of his mustache, while Freedom Akinmoladun was being mugged all night long. Two noteworthy things: this line generated a pass rush without the aid of a blitz. Second, the coaches unveiled a three man line, with three linebackers and five defensive backs in passing situations. Our Brian Towle has suspected that Nebraska was heading in the direction of a 3-4 defense, and this might be the first step. And for a first game, John Parella’s group gets a very good grade, considering that four potential starters left the team after the bowl game. (Thanks, Hank.) Grade: A-
Linebackers: This year’s wrinkle on defense is a wholesale rotation of linebackers in passing situations, where Michael Rose-Ivey and Luke Gifford enter the game. At least until one of them gets thrown out for targeting. And like Nate Gerry’s targeting calls last season, Gifford’s is tough to accept. Gifford hit Chason Virgil in the arm; he didn’t lead with the head.
Late hit? Maybe. Targeting? Nope. He led with the arms, and hit him numbers high. If that’s a “high hit” and illegal, then we’re changing the rules of the game again.
As for the play, it seemed a little uneven. Fine on run support, but pass coverage left a little to be desired - especially considering the opponent. Grade: B
Secondary: Kieron Williams had a strong game, as did Aaron Williams. Get Nate Gerry back on the field, and you’ve probably got a fairly salty defense. When injuries and suspensions put Marcus Newby into the role of dime defensive back, things probably aren’t going to go well. In that light, 243 yards isn’t very good, but 110 yards came on two drives with the backup, Zach Kline. Whether Kline is just that much better than Virgil or the defense was reeling after the Gifford ejection isn’t clear. But it’s worthy of a demerit. Grade: B-
Special Teams: This is probably the key area of concern at this point. A punt was blocked, and that one is not the fault of a freshman punter. Fielding of punts was best described as an adventure, as the normally reliable and sure handed Jordan Westerkamp looked downright confused. I suspect because he wasn’t confident of his downfield support. This is where I’m reminded that Bruce Read has “one job to do” - and it’s still not being done very well.
I also have an issue with running the two-point conversion try in the fourth quarter in garbage time. Some defenders suggest that it gives opponents something else to prepare for - which is true, except Nebraska showed the formation all game long. They will be preparing for it. Except now, Nebraska played that card at a meaningless point, so the opportunity for surprise is gone for that play. If they want to run another two-point conversion out of this formation, they’ll want to have another play to offer out of it. As it was, it was more like running up the score at that point in the game. Grade: D
Overall: B A rough start and a few too many mistakes made. But it was the first game, and there were extenuating circumstances. So it’s a solid opening game, all things considered.
Fresno State: A+++ The sportsmanship that Tim DeRuyter and his team showed during the Sam Foltz tribute deserves special mention. They all joined the fans and Nebraska players in applauding the memory of Foltz, and then immediately declined the delay of game penalty. Thanks men.
Memorial Stadium Infrastructure: F A really rough start to the season. When I arrived at the stadium, all of the televisions were out of order. No menu boards nad no replay screens. (They were on by halftime though.) The stadium WiFi completely stopped working just before kickoff, and didn’t really work again until the fourth quarter. That, in turn, overloaded the cell phone systems and shut that down. If anybody’s interested, I have about 6-8 tweets stuck in my drafts folder that probably don’t make any sense now.
Elsewhere in College Football
esssssssssseeeeeeeeccccc Grade: C I see you Alabama. Boy do I see Alabama. But then I see Bert and Tennessee and Kentucky and....
Mississippi State Grade: F I remember South Alabama. They struggled to beat a middling 1-AA team in last year’s season opener. Looks like these Sun Belt schools need to quit messing around with the FCS and load up on SEC patsies.
Ohio State Grade: A+ Any concerns about only having six returning starters look pretty meaningless now.
College Football Opening Day: Grade A There was no excuse for not being able to watch even a little football Saturday, as the opening Saturday games stretched for a record breaking 21 hours. The Boston College/Georgia Tech game kicked off at 6:30 am in Dublin and the day finished at 3:30 am Sunday with a rain-delayed Wyoming/Northern Illinois game. The only shame is not having more games today and Monday to enjoy.