The Nebraska Cornhuskers come to town for Saturday's game confident, a week after taking down previously unbeaten Michigan State. At 4-6, they are every bit in need of a win as much as Rutgers is, as both teams are fighting to become bowl eligible. The team that loses tomorrow will be unable to qualify. However, if not enough teams qualify overall, it's possible both schools could make a bowl with 5 wins. Both teams have a high APR score, which is the tiebreaker used.
To find out more about the situation at Nebraska, we spoke with our colleagues at SB Nation's site CornNation. It's been such a interesting season for the Cornhuskers that we were fortunate to not just speak with one, but three experts on the state of the team. Thanks to Jon Johnston, Joe Canale and Jill Heemstra for answering our questions. Let's find out what they had to say!
It's been a strange Fall for Nebraska, after all the close losses and the past two weeks serving as bookends for the highs and lows you've experienced this season. Has this been the strangest season in Nebraska history? How low was the fanbase after the Purdue game and has the upset win over Michigan State restored faith in new head coach Mike Riley? Does the fanbase believe he is the answer long term?
Jon Johnston: I’m older than everybody else, I think by a ways. Yes, it has been the strangest season in my lifetime. There was a period between WWII and the arrival of Bob Devaney (1962) during which Nebraska didn’t win a lot of games, but those are easily disregarded because few were around for them.
I don’t know if the win restored faith in Riley (losing to Purdue, especially THIS Purdue team… ugh), but it gives us a week where we can at least feel good about where we’re going. Right now, that’s what I see happening - living week to week with the football team to see what happens next.
I don’t know if Mike Riley is the answer, I don’t think anyone does. I’m sure there are plenty who have already written him off. I am eternally hopeful to a fault.
Joe Canale: Weirdest in my lifetime. A couple of the Callahan seasons were almost this bad, but not nearly as gut wrenching. Even the wins have been nerve wracking. People wanted Bo out because he didn’t seem to win games like last week. My fear is that Riley will be capable of winning huge upsets, but when a Nebraska win is an upset things aren’t good for Nebraska.
Ranchbabe: It has been weird, especially to be on the losing end of so many close ones, especially to some truly awful teams. As far whether Riley is the long-term answer, that is hard to say. Both of the national championship winning coaches in Nebraska history (Devaney and Osborne) have told stories of influential people later telling them they would have been fired if they had lost one more game. Patience worked Nebraska’s way with both of them (but neither one EVER posted a season like this). Riley seems to be building a solid operation behind the scenes and bringing a sense of professionalism to football operations. I want to believe the on-field results will follow, but I guess we will have to wait and see.
Health has been an issue for Nebraska this season. Which potential starters or key players have been hurt recently and what is their status for this Saturday's game?
Joe: This is football, by now every one of these guys has probably endured injuries that would keep us all in the hospital. That said I don’t think there have been less than three major contributors out every week, so just pick any three (Please not Armstrong).
Ranchbabe: Who is hurt? Everyone. Before the Michigan State game media folks were saying that Nebraska has started 40 different players this year (offense and defense) - which is crazy. At this point, I expect most to be available but possibly on a snap count or rotating with an equally unhealthy teammate in order to make it through the game. With Nebraska needing to win out to assure a bowl bid, I do not expect anyone to be ‘rested’. There probably will be a couple that are ruled out at the Thursday press conference, but it is anyone’s guess right now who that will be.
Greg: Jordan Westerkamp took a couple of hard shots in the game against Sparty. That’s what he does. He goes through the middle. But I haven’t heard anymore about his availability. To paraphrase what Ranchbabe said, I’m sure it will be an "all hands on deck" approach.
Tommy Armstrong returned for the Michigan State game after sitting out with turf toe the week before. He was named the Big Ten Offensive Player of the Week for his performance against the Spartans. He is currently second in the Big Ten in touchdowns and passing yards, how has his game improved and changed from previous seasons?
Joe: He seems to be able to complete a greater variety of passes. He’s always thrown a nice deep ball, but Riley is no doubt introducing him to new routes and throws. That said he still has a ways to go with his accuracy and touch on short passes. He’s also been incredibly inconsistent.
Ranchbabe: He is showing a little more touch on his passes and puts them in places where the receiver can catch it in stride (rather than jumping or diving for a 100 mph fastball). He has a ways to go in that area, but….baby steps. His ability to improvise and run over safeties (even some LB’s) when he takes off is pretty awesome. He is as tough as they come. He simply does not know how to give up. Riley has been wise to not completely take away that aspect of Tommy’s game (and try to turn him into a more polished pocket passer than he is) even though Tommy’s tendency to never give up on a play can lead to some negative results at times.
Greg: I think at the beginning of the season we saw a Tommy Armstrong we hoped to have all season long. But this season has not gone the way we would have hoped, and while I blame no one person for the games we have lost, some of Tommy’s decisions leave much to be desired. He is often shown throwing off his back foot. I’d really like him to step into some of his throws. But I’d also like to see more Imani Cross on First and Goal from the freakin’ 5-yard line. GAH!
The defense has struggled this year, most obviously against Purdue when they gave up a season high 55 points. Has Mike Riley changed defensive schemes and personnel significantly from last season? What is their biggest weakness?
Joe: We can’t ever make the big stop when we need to. I was sure that Michigan State was going to win on the last drive because every other team has made it happen when they absolutely needed to. Maybe that is progress. They can’t cover anyone. Look for your QB to have his best passing day of the season.
Ranchbabe: The scheme, as described to us in the offseason, is almost the polar opposite of Pelini’s in many ways. There have been quite a few starters from last year that kept their jobs, but some turnover is inevitable. The injuries have led to more new faces than the change in schemes. Biggest weakness? HAHAHA! The #124 ranked pass defense overtook Indiana a couple weeks ago to climb out of the B1G basement. They’ll need a couple of really good performances to overtake the #122 Scarlet Knight pass defense - but look out Rutgers, the Huskers are coming! (And yes, your QB will have a great day. Caroo too if he can play).
Husker Mike: The Pelini scheme was optimized to stop the pass in the spread-happy Big XII. But then Nebraska moved to the Big Ten, and /WisconsinScoredAgain. So out goes Bo, in comes Mike Riley, who brings in Mark Banker. Banker believes in stopping the run first, so the safeties primary responsibility is to stop the run, and depend on the cornerbacks to defend the receivers. So Nebraska is a little better against the run this season, but now the quarterbacks from Wisconsin and Minnesota are throwing for 300+ yards. Clearly, something’s gotta change this offseason.
Kicker Drew Brown is 7-7 on field goal attempts from 40+ yards in the past 4 games and has emerged in his sophomore season. Is he the strength of the special teams unit and how have they performed overall this season? With Janarion Grant set to face Nebraska this weekend, how have the coverage units fared on defending kick returns?
Joe: The return game hasn’t been very good on either side. Much of that is due to De’Mornay Pierson-El being hurt. Brown is a keeper and our Punter Sam Foltz is a pretty good punter as well.
Ranchbabe: Actually Foltz is probably the best specialist we have, although Brown is no pushover. Stanley Morgan (freshman wide receiver) has emerged the past couple games with a 30 yard average in kick returns. As far as defending kickoff returns, Nebraska (#19) only ranks a couple spots behind Rutgers (#17) in yards allowed - 18.6 per kickoff. I am not sure if they have faced a returner with Grant’s speed (but I admit I am going off limited information). I am sure he has the attention of our very expensive full-time special teams coach (Yes, really. We have a dedicated special teams coach. Sigh).
Greg: I like Drew Brown. He’s got a helluva leg. And overall, I’m pretty pleased with how our kickoff return team has fared (*knocks on wood*). Let’s just have a Touchback Saturday.
Do you expect Nebraska fans to travel well for this game and what is the general feeling of the fanbase towards Rutgers joining the Big Ten?
Jon: Nebraska fans always travel well; the tickets should be cheaper this season! Having lived in Big Ten country since 1987 (I live in Minnesota), it’s kind of weird having Rutgers in the Big Ten. I’ve always thought of Rutgers as more Ivy League like in a snooty kind of way, maybe because of that Dowling fellow. Also, New Jersey geographically seems as foreign to midwesterners who were used to the Big Eight and Big 12 as Nebraska seems to Rutgersites (?).
Joe: I think my dad and brother are going as Rutgers is the closest to New York. Since Nebraska is new to the Big 10 I don’t know that our fan base has much of an opinion.
Ranchbabe: I have been surprised by the number of commenters on Corn Nation that have mentioned that they are going. Nebraska generally travels well and opportunities to see new stadiums and B1G locations is always a draw. Even though we are relatively new to this conference, it feels like we have always belonged. It was a great fit. The Rutgers/Maryland additions were made for more strategic ($) reasons and feel more forced. That is not meant as a criticism (it’s not like we’ve set the Big Ten on fire) just an observation.
What is your prediction for the game?
Joe: I don’t like to predict the Husker games this year as I blame my predictions for their horrible play. I will predict that at some point my dad will say Damnit!!!. Listen for it.
Ranchbabe: I have no idea on a score. This Nebraska team has a tendency to disappear for a quarter (or five) at a time and roar back to score 24-29 points in 10 minutes. They have stood toe-to-toe with some good teams and lost to bad ones. No result or score would really surprise me at this point. Injuries and fatigue will probably be the deciding factor. The three things I can confidently predict: 1) the Huskers will not give up 2) if the Huskers are less than 30 points behind at the start of the 4th quarter - watch out. They have you right where they want you. 3) if Rutgers is behind at the start of the 4th quarter - tell your OC to pass the ball - a comeback is imminent. As much as the Husker offense can score in the 4th, the Husker defense cannot protect a lead in the 4th.
Jon: This is a team that lost to Purdue and beat Michigan State, and you expect a rational prediction… This time the team has turned the corner! They’ll destroy Rutgers by at least 40! And I’ll quit drinking so much! And this time I mean it. Really. Nebraska 42 Rutgers 2
Greg: Let me put this in entertainment terms we can all understand...Nebraska scores Johnny Carson points while Rutgers scores Jay and Silent Bob points. (I’m kidding...I love Kevin Smith). Nebraska 48 Rutgers 31
Thanks again to Jon, Joe and Jill for taking the time to give us insight on the Nebraska football team. To learn more, check out CornNation for everything about Nebraska athletics. To check out my answers about Rutgers Football, click here.