In preparation for the game, I reached out to a Corn Nation to find out more about the Huskies’ opponent. Jill Heemstra and Andy Ketterson were kind enough to answer my questions.
1. Last season Nebraska started off really strong. This season has not been the same, as the Huskers survived a close call with Arkansas State and then fell last week to Oregon. Tell us a little about the overall state of the program right now, and are fans happy with what they’ve seen so far in 2017?
Jill: Unhappy is an understatement as many fans are ready to bring out the torches and pitchforks if we don’t see some better defense, especially before halftime. As far as the overall state of the program, it is hard to say. The behind-the-scenes and recruiting operation is far better than under Riley’s predecessor. It is the game planning and game management that seem to have reverted to 2015 form. I am a bit disappointed in that after the somewhat masterful job of scheming we saw for the personnel we had in 2016.
Andy: I said before this season that we are staring 8-4 and maybe 7-5 right in the face and for most that won’t be acceptable. Pelini bashers loved Riley’s smoother edges, but I think people are starting to realize that when you replace a guy who won 9-10 games for 7 straight seasons with a guy who managed to do that only 4 times in 14 years, you’re going to get exactly what you bought. It’s also kind of hard to swallow the logic that following a 67-27 record over those 7 seasons, Riley is entitled to 4-5 years of “patience” as if this is now some sort of rebuilding project when the whole idea of the coaching change was to find someone to take us past 9-10 wins to that next level of once again competing for conference & national titles. Instead, we appear to just be fighting to get back to where Pelini had the program. So yes. Unhappiness brewing.
2. Tre Bryant has really been a star for the offense so far. The sophomore running back has surpassed 100 yards rushing in both contests this season, including a huge 192 yard game against the Red Wolves. Last week he left the Oregon game early with an apparent injury though. Will Bryant be ready for the NIU game and what can the Huskies’ fans/defense expect to see from him if he plays?
Jill: Bryant has been very good. I’m not sure if he will be ready or not. It sounds like a chronic thing he had before getting to Nebraska, so it may be a tweak that just needs some rest - or it could be more serious. I really don’t know. Even if he can’t play, I feel pretty good about our other backs, Devine Ozigbo and Mikale Wilbon. Devine is a bruiser while Mikale has a bit more speed and lateral ability. Wilbon’s issue has apparently been in pass protection, but he has been on the field a bit this season. I am not sure why Ozigbo hasn’t seen the field. Either he is in the coach’s doghouse or Coach Riley really meant it when he said they were going to pick a back and stick with him - not rotate. The coaches have also said they are pulling Jaylin Bradley’s redshirt as he will suit up for special teams and be put in the practice rotation at RB.
Andy: Bryant has been very good but that’s about it. Personally, I don’t know if he plays or not, but I don’t really don’t see any drop off behind him with Wilbon & Ozigbo. I took some grief for saying this, but I thought Bryant left 100 yards or more on the table against Ark St. as the blocking consistently got him to the secondary where he went down on 1st contact quite a bit and failed to create breakaways. He does hit open holes very hard and is solid in pass protection, one place that Wilbon is lacking, however Wilbon can find yards where none exist with his quickness & vision. I guess Ozigbo must’ve stolen some crab legs or something to be forgotten so quickly - he’s a bruiser who also excels at catching out of the backfield.
3. Quarterback Tanner Lee has been rather inconsistent so far, only completing 52% of his passes, and he threw four picks last week. He’ll be facing a rather strong Huskie secondary that has amassed 39 interceptions since the start of the 2015 season, including three already this year. What does Lee have to do this week to be successful and how do you see WRs Stanley Morgan and De’Mornay Pierson-El matching up with NIU?
Jill: I expect [OK, I hope] to see OC Danny Langsdorf emphasize the run game and use that to open up some play action and use tight end Tyler Hoppes for some confidence-building plays for Tanner Lee. I hope the OL has been working on pass pro technique as Lee didn’t have much of a pocket to work with last weekend. He got rattled and starting sailing passes early and often.
Morgan and Pierson-El are both capable of taking any catch a long way. Morgan has been the deep threat so far this season. Pierson-El will also probably be used on a jet sweep or two as well as running routes. If your secondary focuses too much on them, true freshman J.D. Spielman may escape for a play or two. The youngster has some jets. He is also our primary kickoff returner.
Andy: Much like Riley, Tanner came from a program that we deemed inferior and convinced ourselves that he would shine once surrounded by Huskers and free of his poor, hapless team which gave him no chance. Through 2 games, he is mirroring his old stats for completion % and TD/INT ratio. And those two games haven’t exactly been against the Steel Curtain. That’s a lot of picks by you guys incidentally. Dammit. (Pouring a morning drink)
4. Nebraska has always had a strong defensive unit but so far this year they’ve been giving up a lot of yards, especially through the air. Do you see NIU having the same kind of success that Arkansas State and Oregon did through the air? And what players should Huskie fans be on the lookout for?
Jill: Do I see NIU having that kind of success? Why not? Especially before halftime. Sigh. You don’t have a few perimeter screens in your playbook do you? If so, I advise against using them. They would make our defenders and fans feel bad.
Players to watch? DLs Mick Stoltenberg and Deontre Thomas have been singled out by one of the advanced stats sites for their performances as has LB Luke Gifford. Josh Kalu moved from corner to safety in the offseason and has performed well. Unfortunately, he was injured (hamstring) against Oregon and is considered doubtful. We have a couple of decent safeties behind him and the [lack of] adjustment to the new defensive scheme seems to be a bigger problem than personnel right now. You certainly won’t have to keep an eye on the pass rush. Another sigh.
Andy: Unfortunately, “always had a strong defensive unit” ended back in the early 2000’s. As far as strategy from what I can see this year so far, throw bubble screens. Lots of them. Diaco has been locked in his office with a copy of NCAA 2013 and a case of Jim Beam Apple trying to figure out how Oklahoma’s defense with the AI on Regular can consistently blow up his Louisville all bubble screen offense for an average gain of 0.7 yards. I guess we’ll find out how that plays out for him this week, Cotton.
5. Alright, now the fun part. It’s prediction time. What do you see happening in this game and who you got winning?
Jill: It is a nail-biter through the first half, possibly even a shootout. The defense tightens up in the second half but the offense has a stretch where they get butterfingers and brainfarts. It takes a surprising and valiant defensive effort until the offense rights the ship and grounds, pounds, and checkdowns their way to eating up the clock and making the score look a little better than it should in the end. Placekicker Drew Brown has to salvage a couple of possessions by nailing absurdly long field goals to give the Big Red some breathing room.
Note: I may or may not have written the above paragraph a couple of years ago and refined it through experience to a point where I decided to keep it handy for repeated copy and paste into predictions articles.
Huskers 44 Huskies 31
Andy: If you still had Jordan Lynch, I’d probably be vomiting green chili and cursing uncontrollably before kickoff. Fortunately, that’s no longer the case, but I do still see a game similar to Arkansas St. Santacaterina, in addition to having one of the greatest names ever, is going to find some seams. Boston College was not a bad loss as they appear to be getting their groove back a little going back to last season. If Lee can fix some mistakes and get a little protection, that will open things up for whoever gets the carries and the ’Skers depth should wear down the ‘Skies in the 2nd half.
Huskers 42 Huskies 23