Big Ten Spring Review: Nebraska

Nebraska hopes to be in the Big Ten race with a new head coach, but the Huskers will have to become more consistent on both sides of the ball under Mike Riley and replace key playmakers to compete for a league crown.

Our review of spring football across the Big Ten continues with Nebraska, one of the Big Ten West teams Ohio State will face only if both teams make the Big Ten Championship Game.

Quick 2014 review: A close call against McNeese State notwithstanding, Nebraska enjoyed a fine start to the season with a 5-0 September. The Cornhuskers fell in a big hole they could not emerge from Oct. 4 at Michigan State, where they lost 27-22, but they were still 8-1 after a Nov. 1 win over Purdue.

They controlled their own destiny in the Big Ten West, a status they promptly squandered with back-to-back losses to Wisconsin and Minnesota, the former a humiliating 59-24 defeat in which Melvin Gordon ran for more yards in one game than any FBS back before him. They topped Iowa in the season finale in overtime, but that was not enough to save head coach Bo Pelini’s job.

Nebraska had a run-oriented offense with a passing game whose success was predicated on the big play. Quarterback Tommy Armstrong Jr. was only 10th in the Big Ten in completion percentage but finished fifth in passing efficiency and yards while throwing 22 touchdowns passes. Defensively, the Huskers put up elite numbers from a passing standpoint but struggle dot stop the run and finished just eighth in the Big Ten in total defense and ninth in points allowed.

The Football Outsiders advanced stats ranked Nebraska fourth overall with overall numbers on each side of the ball that don’t differ very much from the story told by the traditional stats. Most notable are low marks for the Nebraska defensive line, which struggled to rush the passer and ranked 93rd nationally in FO’s “adjusted line yards.” (The offensive line got high marks for the most part, though.) The Huskers were pretty good at forcing three-and-outs but susceptible to explosive drives and big plays. The run defense ranked 86th nationally and worst in the Big Ten in S&P+, a measure that combined play-by-play efficiency and explosiveness.

Spring game recap: Armstrong helped lead the Red to a 24-15 victory over the White before a crowd of 76,881 at Memorial Stadium on April 11. Armstrong completed 6 of 12 passes for 77 yards and a touchdown while backup Zach Darlington went 7 for 11 for 70 yards and a score. A.J. Bush threw for 124 yards for the losing team but also tossed a pair of interceptions. Four players ran for at least 40 yards, led by the Red’s Graham Nabity, who had 66 yards. Terrell Newby added 53 yards for the Red while Mikale Wilbon had 42 yards and Jordan Nelson added 40 for the White squad. Josiah Tolbert, Jordan Nelson, Jamal Turner and De’Mornay Pierson-El all caught touchdown passes.

Issues addressed: Big guns Ameer Abdullah and Kenny Bell, the Cornhuskers’ best running back and wide receiver respectively, are gone, but Armstrong returns to run a new attack. Will he be the starter? New head coach Mike Riley did not specify after the spring game but had positive things to say about the veteran.

“I thought he did a really good job of learning (the new system), and there's some new football that he's dealing with,” Riley said. “The thing that never wavered about Tommy was, and is a separator for him right now, and that's his confidence. He's a confident guy and he plays like it. When something doesn't go exactly right he doesn't blink, he goes right back out there and plays. I like that about him.”

As for who will become the top weapons for the quarterback to utilize, Newby and Pierson-El stated their cases at I-back and receiver, respectively.

“I think that his ability was pretty evident today,” Riley said of the 5-10, 200-pound junior from Los Angeles.

"I think he is a versatile athlete. He's a good back, good runner. I think he understands pass protection and I think he can catch the ball well. A guy with what we've done in the past with those things can function pretty well.”

Pierson-El, who was a weapon on special teams and trails only Jordan Westerkamp as far as returning players in receiving yards, showed he can help both as a pass catcher and a runner.

“De'Mornay looks like that kind of guy that can make something exciting happen,” Riley said. “I think that sweep play is always going to be something that is part of our identity. There's some other stuff that goes with it that has always been fun to do, and it's nice to see it take shape like that because when it's going it gives you another running weapon in your offense.”

Of course the more sore subject over the past couple of seasons has been the defense, which enjoyed a renaissance early in the Pelini era but suffered a decline as the years wore on. Finding out anything concrete about the new Blackshirts might have to wait until games get going for real this fall.

"As you could see today, we were pretty vanilla on defense,” Riley said. “What it all boils down to at the end is a guy's ability to get off a block and make a play. I think that the more you practice like that, the better it is for you defensively. The other parts can come and all the curveballs you can play with. We have learned a lot about what the guys can do, like defeating a block and making a play or seeing something and making a play. That will be good information going into fall camp."

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