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This season opener is a bit of a rarity for Nebraska. The Huskers debuted a new defense, revamped special teams, and an offense with more passing capabilities, and no reliance on the QB run game. All there were lots of new faces manning key spots in these new schemes. Typically, when you see that level of change there is also a head coach working his first Game Day. Instead, there is Mike Riley entering his third year as Nebraska’s head coach.
Obviously, with so many question marks and unknowns all across the football team, fans want to base their season expectations on what they saw Saturday night. As I hope you know, that is a mistake.
While we certainly got some indicators on how the various units may perform, it would be foolish to project a 12+ game season off of the first snaps of the season. If this sounds a lot like my annual “don’t overreact to what you see in Week 1” reminder…well, it is just that.
Want to freak out because Nebraska gave up almost 500 yards to a Sun Belt school? You can, but think about how much of the game the Blackshirts played from their base defense, with no hint of blitzing.
Want to book reservations in Indianapolis based on Tre Byrant’s 190 yards or Tanner Lee’s precision passing? You can, but let’s see how better defenses do – especially after they’ve been able to study film.
I know that we as fans are conditioned to look for the easy conclusions and attempt to simulate an entire season based on four quarters. But let’s exercise some patience and a rational grasp on where NU is at. Most importantly, enjoy the ride. The season will be over before we know it.
So what did we learn?
This is – and is not – what we should expect from Diaco’s defense. Between Saturday’s mega vanilla plan and the 4-3 he ran in the Spring Game, it’s clear that Diaco does not want the inner secrets of Nebraska’s 3-4 scheme revealed unless absolutely necessary.
But enough has been said and alluded to for us to draw some conclusions about what we should expect from the new look Blackshirts:
- The “bend, but don’t break” label can probably be applied.
- If you’re going to beat Nebraska, they want you to do it with sustained drives, not big plays.
- Very little pressure on the quarterback from the defensive linemen.
- There are some square pegs playing in round holes – especially at outside linebacker – that could lead to match up problems.
Bob Diaco’s 3-4 defense needs help…from his head coach and offensive coordinator. Yes, the debut of Diaco-fense was – at best – underwhelming. Nobody expected 36 points, 415 yards of passing, and a game that came down to the final seconds. But the game could have been a lot less tense had Nebraska managed the clock better in two key moments:
Less than 2 minutes in the first half, a 26 yard pass to Stanley Morgan set NU up at the Arkansas State 23. A rush on first down and a completion on second down netted little, setting up a 3rd and 11 with the clock ticking down towards one minute. For some reason, Nebraska called timeout early in the play clock, stopping the clock. The 3rd down pass was incomplete, leading to a Drew Brown field goal. The ensuing kickoff went out of bounds, giving Arkansas State the ball back at the 35 with 1:02 left. They drove down and hit a field goal as the half ended.
9:26 left in the 4th quarter, NU is up 12 with the ball and a chance to put the game away – or at least run some clock. NU picks up one first down, and runs Tre Bryant for 5 yards setting up 2nd and 5 from the Red Wolves’ 40. Conventional wisdom says give Bryant – averaging over 6 yards a carry – two tries to get those five yards. If he fails, you still take another minute off the game clock. Instead, Lee threw two incomplete passes leading to a NU punt.
In fairness, Nebraska won the time of possession battle by almost four and a half minutes. But with some better clock management, NU could have kept points off the board and breathed a little easier at the end of the game.
This Tanner Lee guy is pretty good. Throughout the offseason, it was tough to go more than a few weeks without a highly regarded football mind raving about Tanner Lee’s arm, aptitude, and abilities. The hype for a guy who had a rather unspectacular season at Tulane was off the charts, and just grew stronger by the day.
He looked pretty good in the spring, but few knew how he would fare under the bright lights – and the weight of those lofty expectations. From a statistical standpoint, his Husker debut was pretty good: 19 of 32 (59.4%) for 238 yards, 2 touchdowns, and no interceptions.
But for a fan base that has spent the better part of the last eight years watching Taylor Martinez and Tommy Armstrong attempt to truly be dual threats, Lee’s performance was impressive. He showed a strong, accurate arm and the ability to thread the needle.
As an example: NU started a 3rd quarter drive from their 10. On first down, Lee threw a little flare pass to tight end Tyler Hoppes, despite two Arkansas State defenders in the vicinity. It was the type of throw that a year ago would probably have been incomplete – or a pick-six. Instead, Lee got it to his big tight end, who broke a tackle and picked up 13 yards.
Did Lee measure up to the hype? It’s too soon to tell. But considering that Nebraska quarterbacks have traditionally struggled with concepts like footwork and hitting receivers in stride, Tanner Lee had a strong opening performance.
So what don’t we know?
Is the “Running Back By Committee” Meeting over? Remember last week when the running back depth chart came out with more “OR”s than a P.J. Fleck motivational metaphor? Or when nobody knew who would get the first carry, but it seemed likely that three – if not four – different backs would play?
Then the game started and “All Day” Tre Bryant gained 20 yards over his first three carries, and never looked back. Bryant finished with 192 yards and a touchdown on 31 carries for a 6.2 yard average per carry. He only had two negative rushes, including a safety on a play that had little chance of success. Meanwhile, nobody else had more than two carries, and two backs (Devine Ozigbo and Jaylin Bradley) never entered an offensive huddle.
It made sense. Bryant attacked the hole with a burst that has been missing for a few years. His cuts were strong and decisive, and he showed an impressive combination of power and elusiveness. It will be interesting to watch the conversation shift from a committee approach being bad to concern over Bryant’s workload – 31 carries a game is probably an unsustainable workload for a back.
Were the adjustments non-existent – or just kept on the shelf? Of Arkansas State’s 415 passing yards, it appeared as if 410 of them came on the same play – a little bubble screen to the sideline. With Nebraska playing a base defense, and the defensive backs providing an overly ample cushion, Arkansas State was able to get yards at will.
I’m guessing most fans were hoping/expecting some type of defensive adjustment to shut down the Red Wolves’ bread and butter play – either during the game, or at halftime. But to my untrained eye, it didn’t appear as if any adjustments were made. So did Diaco and staff not react, or did they not want to tip their hand for future opponents? Frankly, in a game that came down to the final gun, I’m not sure if there is a correct answer.
Can Nebraska beat Oregon? Nebraska had to fight until the bitter end to hold off Arkansas State. Meanwhile, Oregon scored the most points in the last 100 years of the program (77) in a cakewalk over an FCS school. Both teams went through big changes, so the 2016 result isn’t very helpful. Oregon’s Autzen Stadium is regarded as a loud place to play, but I have a hunch Nebraska fans are going to be there in big numbers. Vegas has the Huskers as a 14 point underdog. So can they win?
Yes, they can. It won’t be easy – and will likely require strong performances in all three phases of the game – but when you have a talented quarterback and a good kicker, you can keep yourself in a lot of games.
5 Players I Loved
- Tanner Lee & Tre Bryant. It would be easy to come away from this game discouraged or concerned about how good Nebraska can be. But what I saw from quarterback Tanner Lee and running back Tre Bryant gives me a lot of hope that NU can have a strong season. A good quarterback will keep you in a lot of games, and a strong back can help ice them away.
- J.D. Spielman. I did a double take at a guy walking through my section wearing a Chris Spielman Ohio State jersey. But he apparently knew that Chris’s nephew was going to burst on the scene in a big way, taking his first touch for a touchdown and hauling in a nice 35 yard catch.
- Caleb Lightbourn. It is no secret that Lightbourn had a rough 2016 season. He went from an all-but-guaranteed redshirt year to being thrust into a starting job, replacing an all-conference level talent who was a beloved member of the team. It was an impossible situation, and he struggled for much of the year. Since one of Lightbourn’s issues was consistency, it would be premature to say he’s “fixed” after averaging 42.4 yards on five punts, including two downed inside the 10. Regardless, it is a positive start, and one that is greatly deserved.
- Luke Gifford. How many times have you watched a guy dominate the Red-White Scrimmage, and never make a peep in the regular season? It’s just one game, but Luke Gifford looks to be an exception to that rule. He played fast in run support and coverage, displayed a strong instinct for the ball, and led the team in tackles. I’m excited about where his season can go.
- Iron N. In case you missed it, the wife of Arkansas State head coach Blake Anderson had surgery days before the game to remove a cancerous growth. The Iron N student section hung a banner supporting her and the Red Wolves team. There may be louder student sections. There are probably rowdier sections. But show me one that has the same level of class and respect for opponents than Nebraska.
Honorable Mention: Stanley Morgan, Mohammad Barry, Dicaprio Bootle, Joshua Kalu, Deontre Thomas, Lamar Jackson, new HuskerVision screens, Dr. Tim Gay and the return of “Football Physics”
5 Areas for Improvement
- Nebraska football media. As you likely know, defensive coordinator Bob Diaco did not do any interviews after the game. The reason you likely know this is from the indignant tweets from nearly every member of the football media as well as condescending – if not personal – attacks from Omaha and Lincoln columnists. Look: I get that you guys (and gals) rely on quotes to fill articles and highlight packages. And you were under the impression that Diaco was going to take questions about an ugly performance. But don’t try to spin a lack of coach-speak cliches into an attack on fans spending their “hard-earned dollars”. I’m guessing most fans would prefer the media to report the news, and not be the news.
- Luke McNitt. Luke, I’m a fullback guy. Especially an in-state, walk-on fullback guy. I want the fullback involved in the offense as more than just a lead blocker. So when you get a rare carry on 1st and Goal from the 1, you gotta punch it in. Otherwise, great game.
- Penalties. Eight flags for 75 yards isn’t excessive, but one of those flags (a roughing the passer penalty) extended a drive that resulted in a touchdown.
- Offensive Line. It’s possible I’m being too harsh, especially when a back gets close to 200 yards, and the quarterback doesn’t see a lot of pressure. But there were a couple of critical busts that led to Lee getting crushed and a Tre Bryant safety. Let’s just say there is room for improvement.
- New ribbon board utilization. I like the idea of a second ribbon board in East Stadium, as there is much that can be done to enhance the in-stadium experience for fans (more stats, other scores, tweets, etc.). But it seemed as if 90% (or more) of the new board’s usage was ads. Meanwhile, the only place I could find scores of other games was a small wedge under the stats on the North Stadium big screen.