The Big Ten opener for Rutgers football has the potential to be a very interesting game this weekend. As you probably know by now, Nebraska enters this matchup on a two game losing streak after suffering defeats against Oregon and Northern Illinois. While Rutgers has also lost to teams from the PAC-12 and the MAC, in Washington and Eastern Michigan, the Scarlet Knights at least have some positive momentum entering this game after a 65-0 victory over Morgan State.
To call the current climate in Nebraska tense after the loss to Northern Illinois would be a massive understatement. The fan base is up in arms after a 1-2 start in the third season of the Mike Riley era. While it might be a terrible time to play a likely, angry Nebraska team this Saturday, I also think Rutgers has nothing to lose in this game and all of the pressure is on the Cornhuskers.
In an effort to find out more on the current state of Nebraska football, I reached out to our SB Nation counterparts at Corn Nation. There is so much to discuss, they were nice enough to assemble a full crew of contributors to answer my questions. Let’s dive in!
Editor’s Note: These questions were answered before Thursday afternoon’s news that Nebraska dismissed athletic director Shawn Eichorst. For more on that story, click here.
Is the Mike Riley era salvageable and what is the current panic level within the fan base after the loss to Northern Illinois?
Nate McHugh: Yes, but he is going to have to make some tough decisions either during the season or right after to address issues on the offensive side of the ball. He has been willing to make those tough decisions before in the past. He fired his long time defensive coordinator this past off season as well as the defensive line coach and has upgraded at both coaching positions.
Mike: Mike Riley may be running out of time to show some progress, as he’s been burned by bring along much of the staff that wasn’t working at Oregon State. He’s fired two of them, but three more with Corvallis roots (offensive coordinator Danny Langsdorf, offensive line coach Mike Cavanaugh and running backs coach Reggie Davis) have underperformed since arriving in Lincoln. If Nebraska gets to a bowl game, Mike Riley probably gets a chance to replace those three; if they lose seven games again, Nebraska pushes the eject button and starts clean.
Joe Canale: Yes it is salvageable, (the era, maybe not the season). Panic level is high, but if you take a deep breath you realize that these are the growing pains you should expect with such a transition. If our recruiting continues to improve as it has we are good. If it tails off because of a mediocre season? Then we are looking at justifiable ship-abandoning.
Andy: No. Shockingly, it turns out he’s exactly the guy that was advertised at Oregon St. We have gone from “we need to get to the next level” to a rebuild situation. It’s not one game. He’s 16-13 overall here and 3-6 in his last nine. There’s no evidence anywhere in his past that this will improve.
Nebraska had an edge in most statistical categories against Northern Illinois and seemed to lose because of several critical mistakes. Has there been any trends so far this season with mistakes in certain areas and how much of this has been a staple of the Mike Riley era.
Nate M: Well the most obvious trend this season would be interceptions thrown by Tanner Lee. Some are his fault, some are the fault of the offensive line. Interceptions that the defense returns for touchdowns are the ultimate equalizer when one “superior” team is playing an “inferior” team.
Jon: The offensive line isn’t good. They aren’t explosive off the ball, they frequently miss assignments, and they don’t pass protect worth a damn. This is a weakness that’s been in existence for a while now at Nebraska, which in the past has taken a lot of pride in its offensive lines. If it doesn’t fix itself in the next couple games, this coaching staff can probably consider themselves done at Nebraska.
Andy: The line isn’t very good at protection, but again, we brought in a position coach whose lines repeatedly led the Pac-12 in sacks given up and hoped for the best. Tanner Lee was a 52% passer at Tulane with a fairly even TD/INT ratio and is also that in Lincoln after 3 games, an admittedly small sample size. Uneven line play has been consistent for the Riley Era although last year, it managed to smokescreen some people with their “success” at taking over games late against lousy teams. Not too many of those left this season. Uh oh.
Joe Canale: One constant in the Riley era has been horrible interceptions. If we can turn those into wonderful touchdowns, we should be fine.
It seems like injuries have been a big issue this season and there are several key players that are questionable or will not play on Saturday. can you provide any updates?
Nate M: The offensive line has struggled the past two weeks and it might get worse as Matt Farniok will miss the game with a broken bone in his hand. It also sounds like Josh Kalu (who is the best player on the defense) might also miss this game against Rutgers. Also notable is Tre Bryant at this point looks like he might not be playing. He ran for over 100 yard the first two games before he was injured.
Andy: Right now, it sounds like there’s a lot of if’s and-Hey! What the hell do I want to help you guys out for, anyway? Keep guessing, suckers.
Joe Canale: I hurt my foot kicking the wall after the last interception last week, if that is what you mean.
Jon: Starting offensive tackle David Knevel has been out as well. Chris Jones, Nebraska’s best defensive back was lost to a knee injury before the season started.
Tanner Lee has struggled in his first year starting at quarterback, having completed just 52% of his passes so far this season and throwing for three interceptions in the loss to Northern Illinois. What are the strengths and weaknesses of his game and who are his favorite targets in the pass game? Is he still the unquestioned starter and if not, who else may Nebraska go to behind center this weekend?
Nate M: I really do not have a clue. At this point he might just be a really good practice/camp player. It is either he is not a gamer, or the offensive line has been so bad he really hasn’t had a chance. Plus the receivers have also been dropping some balls.
Jon: Weaknesses include poor decision making and an incredible ability to throw a soft, touch pass when he should be zipping the ball at a receiver. I’d like to be optimistic, but at this point, he’s an average quarterback that continually makes poor decisions about where he’s throwing the ball. He is the unquestioned starter at this point because either our backup Patrick O’Brien is completely incapable of walking on the field or our offensive coordinator is a doorknob.
Mike: I think Danny Langsdorf has about as much creativity as a doorknob right now, but the truth is that you probably don’t want to put a redshirt freshman who’s never played in potential danger by putting him behind Mike Cavanaugh’s disfunctional offensive line.
Joe Canale: If he struggles for the first half as much as he has the last two games we will see Patrick O’Brien. If HE struggles, we may see the redshirt come off of Tristian Gebbia, who may be the most talented of the bunch. That would be drastic though.
Tre Bryant seems to be having a solid season so far as the featured back. What are his strengths and who else should Rutgers fans be familiar with in the run game?
Nate M: Well you might not see Try Bryant this weekend. He is an all purpose back, and if he had high end speed and could pull away from defenders he’d probably be playing in the NFL in a couple years. Rutgers will probably see Mikale Wilbon or Devine Ozigbo. Mikale is more of a shifty runner while Devine is more of a power back. There is a true freshman who is waiting in the wings, but the coaching staff may be hoping to redshirt him.
Mike: Bryant has a troublesome knee that held him out last week, with Mikale Wilbon replacing him last week. Wilbon didn’t put great numbers last week (averaging under 4 yards per carry) until you look at yards-after-contact, which probably averaged closer to five or six yards per carry, thanks to a woefull offensive line performance.
Andy: I’ll catch grief for this, But I don’t think Tre would have gone for 30 yards against NIU. Against Arkansas St & Oregon, two pretty lousy defenses, he was given some pretty big openings at times and didn’t really stretch anything beyond contact. I thought he left 100 yards on the table against Arky. He does pass block well however and that was sorely missing against NIU, even though Wilbon somehow managed to turn getting hit in the backfield about 80% of the time into 90 yards rushing. He planted a few people showing some power to go with the speed & moves.Hey, here’s a wild idea - since one has lousy knees & probably shouldn’t be running it 30 times/game and the other can’t block, how about splitting some carries and utilizing them both?
Joe Canale: He’s just a good all around running back. Big enough to be effective at pass blocking and shifty enough to be a 3 down back. Also might be injured enough to not play.
The offensive line struggled in the loss to Northern Illinois and had protection issues against a much smaller defensive line. How much of a concern is there with this group now that Big Ten play is beginning?
Nate M: I’m not sure what is scarier, the movie IT or the idea of this offensive line going up against a Big Ten defensive line. People are going to get killed.
Mike: I’m on record as saying that offensive line coach Mike Cavanaugh should have been fired immediately after the Northern Illinois loss.
Andy: I’m on record as saying Cavanaugh never should have been brought in, should definitely have been fired after last year and should have gotten a Pat Haden tarmac-like firing on the field after Northern Illinois. To quote the great Thunderlips, “You’re in a lotta trouble, Mac!!”
Joe Canale: How much concern would be “the most” because that’s how much there is.
It doesn't seem like Bob Diaco is off to a great start in his tenure as defensive coordinator. How much concern is there about his performance and behavior so far and what is the current state of the defense entering this game?
Nate M: Instead of it being the tale of two halves, I’d say the Diaco defense this season has been the tale of two series of 6 quarters. The first 6 quarters of this season the defense gave up something like 78 points and over 900 yard of total offense. The last 6 quarters the defense has given up two touchdowns and less than 400 yard of total offense. It is a new system and the players are learning to get more comfortable.
Andy: The defense’s improved performance combined with the Lee/O-line shit show last Saturday has taken the heat lamps off Handsome Bob for at least a week, but if he keeps insisting on playing four linebackers against spreads and 4-receiver sets, they’ll be shining again soon enough.
Joe C: It’s only been three games with a whole new system. Next Question.
How have specials teams play been so far any who should Rutgers fans be aware of?
Nate M: With the exception of our former all-american punt returner, special teams has been great. Drew Brown is probably going to be kicking field goals in the NFL next year and Caleb Lighbourn (who struggled last year as a punter) has definitely improved and his consistency has been a bright spot.
Andy: Lightbourn has been the usung hero. He was comedy reel last year after being thrown into an unbelievable fire following the death of Sam Foltz. This season he is crushing punts and burying them deep. The turnaround is staggering and I couldn’t be happier for the guy.
Joe C: Punting and kicking have been good. Punt returning has been bad.
For any Rutgers fans traveling out for the game, any recommendations for things to do and places to visit on gameday?
Nate M: Depends if you have children with you or not. If you are into off the beaten path museums there is the National Museum of Roller Skating. I probably haven’t been there in 20 years. Let me know if it is any good. In regards to food, most would probably suggest Misty’s for a good steak. But generally just head down to the Haymarket area and have a good time.
Huskrboneyard: If you are coming into Lincoln Friday morning and like agriculture then visit the Nebraska Tractor Test Lab on East Campus. For the routine on Saturday, get breakfast at Barry's with a few drinks. Walk to the tailgating near the baseball stadium with Rutgers gear on for free drinks and food. Get to the stadium at least a half hour early for the pregame stuff. After the game, go to Sandys for a pitcher or two of Elk Creek Water. That's usually what my routine ends up being.
Andy: Go west out O Street and see if you can find that rotting barn and rusty windmill that the networks try to convince everyone is the heart of downtown Lincoln.
What is your prediction for Saturday's game?
Nate M: Oh man. I guess we should probably win by double digits, but at this point I don’t know if I can give you any reason why.
Jon: Can you tell I hate everything right now and have little faith in this team or this coaching staff? I don’t recall the last time I was this negative. Rutgers 28, Nebraska 20. 21 of the Scarlet Knight points come because of turnovers. Nebraska burns itself to the ground, then sells what little assets are left to the Chinese.
Andy: Ok, I know they were mad & embarrassed after Arkansas St almost beat them. And then they were really, really mad & embarrassed after Oregon beat them. Now, they’re really, really, really mad and embarrassed and confused and sorry and...Sweet mother, they sound like a Tri Delt pledge who just caught her backup nickel back boyfriend in the shower with her pledge mom after buying the story that they were just being drunk and stupid the two other times she caught them making out in the alley. Rutgers and Illinois next week are the two most winnable games left on the schedule. We’re going to cry ourselves to sleep in our pillow again but hopefully not this week. Huskers 19 Rutgers 12
Joe C: We need a blowout. Sadly I don’t think we get it. But I think we need a win and we’ll take the 23-17 victory as a small step in the right direction.
Thanks so much to all of the Corn Nation contributors for their insightful answers on Nebraska football. You can visit them to read more on the Cornhuskers here.