Over the next couple of weeks, Gopher Illustrated will take an early look at the Minnesota Gophers football team’s opponents throughout the 2016 regular season. Today, we preview the Nebraska Cornhuskers.
Minnesota Golden Gophers vs. Nebraska Cornhuskers
Memorial Stadium, Lincoln, Neb.
November 12, 2016, 6:30 PM kickoff
Nebraska head coach: Mike Riley (2nd season)
Coordinators: Danny Langsdorf (Offensive coordinator; 2nd season) and Mark Banker (defensive coordinator; 2nd season)
Nebraska 2015 record – 6-7 (3-5 B1G): The 2015 season was a season of close losses and what could have been for the Cornhuskers. They lose on the road to a two win Purdue team, and then come back the next week and beat a very good Michigan State team.
2015 offensive stats: 34th nationally in total offense (446.9 YPG), 43rd in scoring offense (32.8 PPG), 33rd in passing offense (266.9 YPG), 52nd in rushing offense (180.0 YPG)
2015 defensive stats: 64th nationally in total defense (400.4 YPG), 76th in scoring defense (27.8 PPG), 121st in passing defense (290.5 YPG), 9th in rushing defense (109.8 YPG)
Returning leading passer – QB Tommy Armstrong (3030 yards, 22 TD, 16 INT on 222-of-402 passing): The Nebraska offense goes as Tommy Armstrong goes as he's the engine of this Cornhusker offense.
Returning leading rusher – RB Terrell Newby (765 yards, 6 TD on 147 carries): Newby was the leading rusher for the Cornhuskers in their three headed rushing attack last fall.
Returning leading receiver – WR Jordan Westerkamp (918 yards, 7 TD on 65 catches): Westerkamp is one of the best returning receivers in the Big Ten and looks primed to have a big senior year with Armstrong at QB.
Returning leading tackler – DB Nate Gerry (79 tackles): Senior defensive back Nate Gerry led the Huskers in tackles as a junior last fall and looks to be the guy with a large workload this fall.
Returning leader in interceptions – DB Nate Gerry (Four picks): Clark also leads Nebraska in interceptions for returning players with four.
FIVE QUESTIONS ANSWERED BY JOSH HARVEY OF THE BIG RED REPORT
What was the biggest thing about this Nebraska team that you drew from watching spring practices and its spring game?
JH: I saw a lot of confidence on both sides of the football after Nebraska’s victory UCLA in the Foster Farms Bowl. It definitely provided for an extra step in their pep during spring practices. It showed the players the scheme, on both sides of the football, can work. It was a confidence missing last spring and even during the fall. The 2015 season hit Nebraska like a speeding train – nobody saw 5-7 in the regular season coming. Watching spring practices, you would have been hard-pressed to know the worst season since the 1950s happened.
What are the three biggest story lines to follow this season?
JH: 1.) Tommy Armstrong’s senior year – It seems very cliché to say, but the senior quarterback will determine what type of record Nebraska has this year. The senior is extremely talented, but still can make some dumb decisions with the football. After 33 starts, does he cut down on those mistakes?
2.) Passing defense - Last year the Nebraska pass defense has issues, ranking in the 100s in total pass yards. The secondary settled late in the season and down the stretch looked more like an average squad. While everyone in the backend mostly returns, the problem is Nebraska’s biggest pass rush threat is gone in Maliek Collins. Quarterbacks can’t sit back there all day. Will the front four generate any sort of viable pass rush? If not the secondary could struggle and it might not even be their fault.
3.) Coaching questions – Last year was an adjustment for everybody, not just the players. Mike Riley and crew were not only getting used to the Big Ten, but also adjusting to a quarterback with a different skill-set than their traditional option. I thought in the bowl game they were really able to use the break to see what Armstrong did well during the season and protect him from costly mistakes. What other coaching changes do we see with the staff knowing their guys better?
What are Nebraska's greatest strengths for the 2016 season?
JH: A good portion of the Nebraska fan base wants to see the Huskers run the football, but the wideout unit is one of the best in the Big Ten and the country. Senior Jordan Westerkamp would start on any team in the conference. Senior Brandon Reilly came on last season with 754 yards and sophomore Stanley Morgan looks to improve on his 20+ catch campaign. Alonzo Moore had six receiving touchdowns in 2015 and looked better in the spring. And when healthy, De’Mornay Pierson-El is one of the most electric players in the country with the ball in his hands.
What are the Cornhuskers’ greatest weaknesses?
JH: The Nebraska defensive line will not only be breaking in two new starters at defensive tackle, but will struggle to complete a two-deep at the defensive end spot. Nebraska fans have to cross their fingers and hope a rash of injuries don’t hit the group. In addition, a pass rush or two has to emerge. There is definitely some potential there, but that is all it is right now – potential.
What is your outlook for the 2016 season for Nebraska and what's your way too early prediction for their game against the Gophers?
JH: I think Nebraska will take a step forward in year two of the Mike Riley era. Former head coach Bo Pelini never won less than nine games in Lincoln. Riley and crew will return to the nine-win mark this season.
Minnesota definitely got the best of the Huskers in 2013 and 2014, but I look for a similar result to 2015 this fall. Nebraska has just a little more talent at this point. The previous Nebraska coaching staff was just outcoached against Jerry Kill and his crew in the Huskers’ two losses. Mike Riley’s staff isn’t one to get outcoached.
You can follow Josh Harvey on Twitter @JoshHarveyScout.
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COMPLETED EARLY OPPONENT PREVIEWS:
Nov. 19 vs. Northwestern
Nov. 26 at Wisconsin