It was quite the juxtaposition last night watching Nebraska without Bo Pelini on the sidelines, the players paying their tribute to him anyway they could while Mike Riley was seen in the stands and heard on the television broadcast. Riley was definitely an interested party though with his future team taking on a familiar opponent.
There were definitely things to feel good and concerned about watching the Huskers taking on the USC Trojans last night in the Holiday Bowl.
Capable of great effort – Some made the argument that the game last night was a throw away. Others – myself included – felt like it could be a rallying cry. The Huskers gave a very talented, but young USC team everything that they could take. Nebraska took the shots on the chin and gave some back. The Huskers could have folded a number of times on the heels of big plays by USC. Nebraska pushed on like you hoped they would.Weapons to work with on offense – I am going to get some criticism and yes, I saw the dropped interceptions by the USC defense in the first half, but Tommy Armstrong kept working. He made some solid decisions down the stretch keeping Nebraska in the game particularly with running the football. Cethan Carter had only five receptions on the year and could play a bigger role. Demornay Pierson-El is an amazing talent both on offense and on special teams. The Huskers will bring back Jordan Westerkamp who is one of the most, sure-handed receivers ever to play at Nebraska. You have to also mention the players beyond Tommy Armstrong that will push him for the spot in the spring like Johnny Stanton and Ryker Fyfe. Terrell Newby, Imani Cross, Adam Taylor and Mikale Wilbon all trying to fill in the big hole at running back. Interior of the defensive line – Nebraska’s defensive line had a hard time comparing to that of USC’s, but that’s not because the Huskers are without talent. Maliek Collins has played huge at times this season and had some big plays last night. Vincent Valentin, Kevin Williams and Kevin Maurice will really take some pressure off of re-vamping a defense that needs to find ways to free up the linebackers, likely play more athletic yet inexperienced linebackers in the recruiting class like Dedrick Young and Tyrin Ferguson and are capable of playing in either a two-gap or single-gap style front. If Nebraska can hang onto recruits Carlos Davis and Khalil Davis it will really bolster depth as well as bringing in two tackles with defensive end type athleticism and range. It will also be fun to see how Nebraska plans to use Kieron Williams going forward who really showed well against USC last night.
Inconsistent play at QB - While Armstrong might be a potential weapon on offense to work with in the spring there are some things to work on. It would appear that Armstrong can work on the mechanics of the position. Armstrong has a tendency to be high on his passes. What’s more is situational type of work that might be helped with some more micro film break down sessions talking about where to go with the ball, making better decisions throwing the ball to go along with the great decisions that he’s making running the ball also body posture on the field and demeanor coming off of it. The offense and the entire team can draw from the calm, collected actions of the signal-caller. I expect that there will be a completely open competition this spring and things are obviously going to change from the offense under Tim Beck/Pelini to what Riley wants to run. The player that can handle change the best will earn the respect of the staff as well as the team.
Replacing Ameer Abdullah - Tough to do for sure, but the stable is not empty. The Huskers have a lot of talent returning at the position and appear to be interested in bringing in a running back as part of the 2015 recruiting class. Not one guy will be able to do for the team what Abdullah did for this team in 2014. But like Billy Beane in Moneyball, the Huskers have to recreate Abdullah in the aggregate and they definitely have some talented players that seem capable of doing just that.
Figuring out what to do at linebacker - All season there has been injuries that really prohibited anyone from seeing what the group could have done. Isolating the linebackers in space against the run or the pass plagued this defense all season long. Again, injuries were partly to blame for some of those breakdowns, but the Huskers will have to be better equipped at the second level to get to get back to being a top 10 team.
Limiting the big play - All season long the Nebraska defense allowed the big play. They allowed big performances. There seemed to be at times no way that the opposing offense could complete a pass into double coverage only to that receiver come out on the other side holding the ball. There is a need to get back to basics, getting some confidence in the legs as well as playing instinctively and with less tentativeness caught up thinking about what needs to happen. These are all reasons why Nebraska was susceptible to big plays all season. You have to get back to the basics and address this from the ground up.
All in all, Riley had to be pleased with what is returning on both sides of the football after last night’s performance. If there is something that can be said about Riley’s teams in the past it’s that they can perform in big games. I expect the team next year to take a step ahead in physicality and that will lead to a mental edge that has been missing from the team as well.
It’s the end of an era and the beginning of another in Lincoln. It’s going to be extremely fun to watch and see what happens with the rest of the recruiting class as well with the spring. I think that the Nebraska defense will have even more young players play big roles for the defense next year with all of the mid-year players coming in as well as looking at the redshirt freshmen in the class of 2014.