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Feit Can Write
I’ll admit it: I went into the game knowing very little about Nebraska’s opponent. I incorrectly assumed that South Alabama was a lower tier FCS school along the lines of McNeese State. After some quick Wiki-based research, I found that the Jag-wars (or is it Jag-wires?) are actually a FBS team from the Sun Belt conference playing just their seventh season of football. In other words, their program is younger than my first grade daughter.
Despite being light on tradition and history, South Alabama has some decent talent – thanks in part to the University of Alabama-Birmingham cutting their football program last year. At least five of South Alabama’s starters on offense were UAB refugees, including receiver Josh Magee who had 147 yards and USA’s lone touchdown.
I’m guessing my ignorance of NU’s opponent was not uncommon among the 89,822 who watched the game on Saturday – approximately 22 of which were in South Alabama gear. I say this with no disrespect to our guests from…let me look it up real quick…Mobile, but let’s face it: This game was all about Nebraska. This was not the first game in a future rivalry, an interesting clash between a football power that has been selling out their stadium (1962) longer than the University of South Alabama existed (1964), or even a way to get Nebraska recruiting exposure in SEC country.
This is Nebraska throwing a six figure check at a school so they can make a seven figure pay day from a home game. It’s doing your best to buy an easy win for your program – although ask Arkansas, Auburn, and others how easy it is to buy a win these days. It’s giving your program a chance to have a tune up before you face a tough ACC team on the road.
And let’s be perfectly clear: I’m absolutely okay with that. I’ve always felt that the things that make Nebraska Football great – the players, the traditions, the atmosphere, the success – are great if it’s against Alabama or South Alabama. Obviously, the atmosphere and pride of victory are greater when its the Crimson Tide, but games against the so-called “directional schools” are important too. Done correctly, like we saw Saturday night, they are a chance to build confidence, get younger players some valuable playing time, and work out those early season kinks.
I get that some fans may not like these gimme games. I understand the frustration of a season ticket holder paying full price – plus “donation” – for this game. But how many of us attended our first Nebraska game against teams like Pacific, Utah State, or Northern Illinois because our dad knew somebody with tickets who didn’t want to go to Lincoln to watch some no-name team get blown out?
So what did we learn?
Nebraska played hard for 60 minutes. Sometimes in these games where it is clear that one team is physically superior, they’ll relax and give up some garbage yards or points or get sloppy on offense. I never really saw that from Nebraska. The defense had two strong stops in the red zone, stopping USA on 4th and goal from the four yard line and allowing a field goal. South Alabama’s lone touchdown was on an impressive catch in the fourth quarter that was well defended.
On offense, Nebraska never stopped attacking until the final drive. An argument could be made that some of the starters should have gone out a series or two earlier than they did, but all in all, I was impressed with the effort put forth.
Nebraska is stacked with receivers and running backs. The depth of Nebraska’s skill players is outstanding. De’Mornay Pierson-El remains sidelined and Jordan Westerkamp only had three receptions. But Nebraska had big contributions from Brandon Reilly, Alonzo Moore, Lane Hovey, and Stanley Morgan. They made plays all night long. Talented players like Tariq Allen, Cethan Carter, and Trey Foster either didn’t play or didn’t get many opportunities.
Meanwhile at running back, Terrell Newby did the bulk of the work, but Mikale Wilbon, Imani Cross, Devine Ozigbo, and others were ready and waiting for their chance.
Bottom line: there is a ton of talent and potential among the guys who will catch and carry the ball. If they can receive good blocking up front and strong quarterback play, the depth should be outstanding.
The Blackshirts look better through Rose colored glasses. This game marked the return of linebacker Michael Rose-Ivey and cornerback Jonathan Rose from suspensions. It was clear all night long that the defense is much better with both of them on the field.
Jonathan Rose played well at corner, and provided some big hits. Rose-Ivey was a force who made his presence known all over the field. Rose-Ivey and Rose were the top two tacklers for Nebraska against USA.
The next step will be to see how well the defense can look when they get Josh Banderas and Dedrick Young back from injuries that kept them out of the game. There is a lot of playmaking potential in that group.
So what don’t we know?
Is the running game fixed? After an abysmal rushing performance against BYU, Coach Riley vowed to establish the run against South Alabama. Mission accomplished, at least for one game. But what about the rest of the season? Is the running attack – both backs and line play – up to where it needs to be for the conference slate? Will Riley stick with Newby getting almost all of the snaps?
I think it’s too soon to tell. I really liked what I saw from the offensive line on Saturday (as well as the blocking of tight ends, fullback Andy Janovich, receivers, and even Tommy Armstrong). Terrell Newby easily played his best game as a Cornhusker. But I need to see more before I dismiss the rushing performance against BYU.
The Cougars may turn out to be a much better defensive team that we originally gave them credit for. And South Alabama may prove to be a weak Sun Belt school. I like the effort and the results, but it will take more than one game to convince me that NU can consistently get yards on the ground.
Should you be concerned about the pass defense? During the second quarter, I saw somebody tweet that South Alabama’s third down strategy was to yell “YOLO!” and throw it deep. It worked often, as the Jaguars converted multiple third and long plays. For the game, South Alabama threw for 313 yards – the second time in as many games that a team has put up over 300 yards passing on Nebraska. Many of the passes on Saturday were targeted at the guy presumed to be Nebraska’s best cornerback – senior Daniel Davie, who was yanked in the second half.
I’m not losing sleep over the pass defense. Remember: Mark Banker’s defensive philosophy is based on stopping the run. South Alabama rushed for 19 yards on Saturday (47 yards, if you don’t include sacks). I’ve asked this question before, and it bears repeating: Do you want to get beat by the running attacks of Wisconsin, Minnesota, and other conference teams, or will you take your chances against the quarterbacks of the Big Ten West beating you with their arms? Me too.
Is Nebraska ready to take their show on the road? Next week, Nebraska travels to down to Miami to take on the Hurricanes. Mike Riley’s team has looked pretty good in two home games, but it is still unknown how they’ll react in a hostile environment against a team looking for payback from last year’s defeat. I see no reason why Nebraska can’t win this game, but playing Miami in Miami has never been an easy task for this program.
5 Players I Loved
- Terrell Newby. Raise your hand if you wondered why Newby was starting over (insert name of your preferred back here). From his first carry, Newby ran with burst, balance, and vision reminiscent of the guy who started last year (Ameer something or other). More bluntly, he ran like somebody trying to keep the other backs from taking his reps. It certainly worked on Saturday as he rarely left the field while recording 236 yards of offense and three touchdowns – including a beautiful one-handed catch.
- Offensive Line. The line was maligned here and across the state last week – and deservedly so. Therefore, it was refreshing to see them bounce back in a big way. It’s fine if you want to put a Sun Belt asterisk next to their performance, but know they were greatly improved from what we saw against BYU. Special recognition to right tackle Nick Gates and center Ryan Reeves for looking especially good. It was not a coincidence that Newby’s best runs were right up the middle or offtackle on the right side.
- Michael Rose-Ivey. Here’s how long it’s been since #15 appeared in one of these recaps: the last time I wrote about him, he was still going by “Michael Rose”. Despite the long layoff, he was as good – if not better – than ever. Ten tackles, including one for loss, a quarterback hurry, and he was a factor from sideline to sideline. Rose-Ivey, Banderas, and Young should make an excellent and athletic linebacking corps.
- Tommy Armstrong, Jr. The best blocking quarterback in the country had a good night throwing passes, as well as blocks for Terrell Newby. He was 21 of 30 passing for 270 yards, with two touchdowns, and zero interceptions. He was very efficient, and led the offense precisely all night. If anybody doubts Armstrong, I politely suggest you take a look at how the offense looked when Armstrong was on the bench. That’s also why I’m okay with Tommy only carrying the ball twice.
- Freedom Akinmoladun. I don’t know what is harder for me to grasp: that Akinmoladun is just a redshirt freshman or that he has only been a defensive end for a few months. Regardless, I’ve been very impressed with the play of Akinmoladun in the first two games. He has a strong motor and a good sense for the ball. He looks like somebody who could be special.
Honorable Mention: Gretna Dragon Mick Stoltenberg’s first sack in his first game, Nate Gerry, Kevin Maurice, Imani Cross’s spin move, the 1965 team, Lane Hovey, Alonzo Moore, Brandon Reilly, Jordan Ober
5 Areas for Improvement
- Daniel Davie. I’ll stand by my statement above that allowing some big passes is a trade-off we need to accept for stopping the run – and stopping the run is key to winning the Big Ten West. But Daniel Davie is a better player than what he showed Saturday night. He made some plays, but got beat more than you want to see from a senior with Davie’s experience – and probably should have been flagged a couple of other times for holding/pass interference. I’m hopeful he will bounce back against Miami.
- Trick Plays in the Red Zone. In the first quarter, Jamal Turner took the hand off on an end around and through it into the end zone. Against BYU, Nebraska ran a different trick play in the red zone. I’m not a fan of using trickery and gadget plays inside the red zone; it often feels like an offensive coordinator is saying “our regular offense isn’t good enough to punch in touchdowns”. Besides – do you really need a trick play to beat a Sun Belt team?
- Unneccessary Roughness penalties. Memo to Byerson Cockrell: instead of hitting a receiver in the air with your shoulder (something that looked perfectly legal to me), next time dive at his ankles. The odds are good that won’t be flagged.
- End of half management. I’m not really sure what Nebraska was trying to do to end the first half. They took over with 1:40 left, two timeouts, and the ball at their four yard line. In theory, you would just run out the clock and go into the half happy with a 21-0 lead. But Newby got a quick first down, and it felt for a while like they wanted to throw downfield. But on a 3rd and 4, they ran Armstrong on a designed keeper (one of two QB runs called on the day) which was stuffed. The Jags called time out and forced NU to punt – a move that backfired when they fumbled the fair catch, leading to a Drew Brown field goal. Langsdorf was bailed out, but Big Ten teams won’t be that accommodating as South Alabama.
- Brandon McKee’s acting. Early in the fourth quarter, South Alabama’s punter got off a punt. Maliek Collins had crashed through the protectors and applied some late pressure. After the punt was well away, Collins brushed by McKee, who promptly flopped down as if he was shot by a sniper – or maybe it was fear of being that close to big Maliek. My research on the University of South Alabama shows that they have a Department of Theatre & Dance. You may want to look into a class for the spring semester.