It’s OK to admit it; I suspect most Husker fans wouldn’t have been too upset if Tanner Lee had been benched after throwing his nation-leading ninth interception of the season. In four games, Lee has thrown the same number of interceptions thrown in 13 games last season by Tommy Armstrong and Ryker Fyfe combined. When Lee came back onto the field, boos echoed throughout Memorial Stadium. Whether those boos were aimed at Lee or at the coaching staff for not switching quarterbacks will never be known. It’s clear, though, that patience is wearing thin.
When Nebraska took over the ball at their own three yard line, my mindset was “safety”. Instead, we may have seen the season finally turn. Mikale Wilbon rushed for 11 yards, then five and then 15 yards. Suddenly Nebraska was outside the shadow of their own goal posts, and Lee transformed himself, completing seven of nine passes on the drive. On the next drive, Devine Ozigbo took over and Lee faded into the background. Nebraska only threw two passes in that fourth quarter, running out the clock for the victory.
Only throwing two passes is a bit extreme, but Nebraska just might have found a recipe to win in 2017. And wouldn’t you know, it’s the same recipe we’ve been hearing about throughout Mike Riley’s time in Lincoln:
Yep, there it is again. It’s not what Mike Riley and Danny Langsdorf like to do. But time and time again, it turns out to be what Nebraska needs to do to win. Whether Riley’s preferred scheme could EVER work with a true NFL caliber quarterback (as opposed to one prematurely anointed by idiots in the media), we may never know. We just know that it wasn’t working at Oregon State and hasn’t worked at Nebraska thus far. Moving forward, look for the Huskers to become much more run heavy (60%-65% of playcalls) on offense if Mike Riley wants any chance to last past Thanksgiving weekend.
Why am I not already condemning Riley to the firing list? Look at Bob Diaco’s defense, which held Rutgers to ten points and 194 yards. Mike Riley spent the last two offseasons correcting his initial hiring screwups on defense and special teams; if Nebraska can somehow get to seven or eight wins, Riley could earn an opportunity to de-Corvallis his offense with a new offensive coordinator, offensive line assistant and running backs coach. Diaco’s progress on defense should give us hope that Riley can exit his comfort zone and change his stripes. But he’s got to earn that opportunity.
With that, here’s this week’s report card; your comments and observations always welcome in the comments.
QB: Frankly, I’m not sure I’ve been less confident in a Nebraska quarterback’s ability to pass since 1990 with Mickey Joseph. (That season, my brother-in-law and I would regularly scream “Run Mickey Run!” every time he dropped back to throw. Can’t do that now; Lee is not terribly mobile.) This week, you could see the coaches trying to keep Lee in manageable situations; he only threw twice on first downs the entire game. The secret is out on Lee; get any sort of pressure on him and he falls apart. (Witness that ugly duck he threw off his back foot in the second quarter; I yelled “Oh nooooo!” immediately as it left his hand.) Why aren’t we seeing Patrick O’Brien? It might say more about O’Brien; remember that before the season, there was talk that Tristan Gebbia was pushing O’Brien for the backup spot. Lee’s clutch throws on that 97 yard drive upped his grade off of an “F” up to a D-.
I-Back: Devine Ozigbo was all the talk after the game, with his 16 carry, 70 yard fourth quarter. But let’s make one thing clear: Nebraska doesn’t win the game without Mikale Wilbon; he was Nebraska’s best skill player on each of the Huskers’ three touchdown drives. Hoss did point out that Wilbon could have been even better with less dancing this week; that might have been a factor with the decision to go with Ozigbo down the stretch to hold the lead. Jaylin Bradley also got a few carries as well, though I didn’t see enough to suggest he’ll stay in the top three when Tre Bryant gets back. Grade: A
Wide Receivers: With Stanley Morgan sidelined, I’m struggling to understand why De’Mornay Pierson-El never was involved in the passing game until that 97 yard drive in the third quarter. Everybody knows he’s electric with the ball, and in an anemic offense looking for a spark, he needs to get the ball more. He was a quarterback in high school; how about some wildcat looks in October? One of the big problems in the running game is the poor blocking by the tight ends; I think we’re missing Cethan Carter and Sam Cotton much more in those aspects of the game than we ever realized. Grade: D
Offensive Line: One of the biggest complaints about Mike Cavanaugh is that he picks his favorite top five offensive linemen and sticks with them no matter what happens. If they can physically walk onto the field, he’s not taking them out. (Witness David Knevel and Nick Gates last season, who never were really allowed to get better last season after being injured mid-season.) Cole Conrad was declared unable to play, forcing Michael Decker to play at center...and man, did Decker play well. And now that we know Matt Farniok has a broken wrist, we can only wonder why Farniok was left out there to struggle last week. Brendan Jaimes did well as his replacement this week. As the game got on, the line did better. That’s something to build on. Grade: B
Defensive Line: I’m really starting to like what I see from Nebraska’s three men line. It’s not so much showing up on the stat sheet as much as consuming blockers to free up others to make plays. Deontre Thomas is a keeper at nose tackle, while Carlos Davis brought th eheat with a couple of quarterback hurries. Grade: A
Linebackers: Ben Stille is a name I think we’re going to hear about quite a bit moving forward. Pressed into service due to injuries to Tyrin Ferguson and Marcus Newby, he looks like a good run stopper. In the Big Ten, you never can have too many of them. Luke Gifford is really starting to excel in his role, while the inside linebackers of Chris Weber and Dedrick Young are also playing well. Grade: A
Secondary: If I told you that Nebraska would be down three of their top four defensive backs (Chris Jones, Joshua Kalu, and then Aaron Williams being ejected for targeting) in a game and hold a team under 200 yards of total offense, you probably wouldn’t believe me. The light went on for these guys at halftime of the Oregon game, and this defense is playing really really well. Credit Antonio Reed for a big performance in this one. Grade: A
Overall: C I’m not sure how long the defense can cover up this inept offense in conference play, but I also figure that eventually, something has to change there.
How would you grade the Huskers for their 27-17 victory over Rutgers?
This poll is closed
A for Amazing Defense. (I kept my eyes closed when Nebraska was on offense.)
B Better than last week. The Blackshirts are looking really good now.
C Good defense, bad offense.
D Diaco’s defense can’t carry the offense’s load when the Huskers get into the teeth of the conference schedule.
F It was against ‘effin Rutgers.
Elsewhere in College Football
Central Florida: A Thrashed a Maryland team that’s now down to their third string quarterback. Those Scott Frost rumors are only going to get louder ... and louder ... and louder, I suspect.
Penn State: C The Nitts nearly squandered a Heisman-clinching performance by Saquan Barkley.
573 total yards to just 273 for Iowa, yet trailed until the final play of the game?
Clempson: B- It used to mean choking at the end of the game; this week, it was struggling for the first three quarters (tied 7-7 with Boston College) then running away with the game in the fourth.