Things are looking up for Mike Riley and the Cornhuskers.
Postgame celebrations like the one Nebraska and coach Mike Riley shared after Saturday’s win over Oregon were in short supply last season. After all, a 6-7 record in Lincoln isn’t much reason for celebration – especially when a bowl bid was only awarded because there weren’t enough eligible teams.
But the Cornhuskers had plenty of reason to celebrate on Saturday. The 35-32 victory over the Ducks pushed Riley’s team to 3-0 and a No. 20 ranking in the Associated Press poll. That’s quite a different feeling for Nebraska after last year’s 6-7 record.
Now with Big Ten play on tap, Nebraska can use the victory over Oregon to build momentum and take a step forward in the win column this year. Based upon what the Cornhuskers have showed through the first three weeks of 2016, all of the pieces are in place to challenge for a nine-win season and the Big Ten West Division title.
While one game doesn’t completely change the outlook of any program or coach, the victory over the Ducks was a huge step forward for the Cornhuskers.
Need evidence of why Nebraska is poised to improve in 2016? Take a look at a few things from Saturday’s game:
Nebraska struggled in close games last season, losing six by eight points or less. On Saturday, a familiar theme popped up. The Cornhuskers faced a deficit late in the fourth quarter. Unlike 2015, Nebraska found a way to win. Quarterback Tommy Armstrong led the Cornhuskers on an 80-yard drive, which culminated in the senior rushing for a 34-yard touchdown to put Nebraska up 35-32.
The early returns are positive for Nebraska’s ground game. The Cornhuskers finished sixth in the Big Ten last year, averaging 180 yards per game. Through three contests, Nebraska is averaging 219.3 yards per game and has reached paydirt nine times. However, after reaching 200 or more yards four times for the entire 2015 season, the Cornhuskers have already hit that total twice in 2016. In Saturday’s win over Oregon, Nebraska pounded the Ducks for 228 yards and a 4.9 per-carry average. That propelled the Cornhuskers to own a 35:05 to 24:55 edge in time of possession, which kept the high-powered Oregon offense on the sideline. A more productive Nebraska running game also means less pressure on a rebuilt front seven on defense and quarterback Tommy Armstrong.
Last year’s turnover problems are well documented. The Cornhuskers were minus-12 in turnover margin, which undoubtedly cost this team a few games. There’s a lot of luck in forcing and recovering turnovers, so some natural improvement was expected in this area. However, limiting the mistakes by Armstrong was essential, and the senior has tossed only one pick through 77 pass attempts. Most importantly, Armstrong did not toss an interception in Saturday’s game. Through three weeks, Nebraska ranks third in the Big Ten with a plus-six turnover margin. Can that pace continue in Big Ten play? If the Cornhuskers can limit the giveaways, as Saturday’s game against Oregon showed, it could be the difference between a win or loss.
A rebuilt defensive line made two critical plays on Oregon’s final drive. On third down, quarterback Dakota Prukop was pressured and end Freedom Akinmoladun forced a fumble, which was recovered by one of the Ducks' offensive linemen. On fourth down, the Cornhuskers pressured Prukop once again, which forced him to step up in the pocket where he was eventually tackled after a modest three-yard gain. Sure, the Ducks ran for 336 yards (7.1 yards per play), but Nebraska’s defensive front stepped up with the game on line.
As mentioned above, Armstrong’s turnover problems last season were no secret entering 2016. But so far, the senior has limited the mistakes and is averaging 8.9 yards per pass attempt – up from 7.5 in 2015. Additionally, Armstrong made a handful of clutch plays in Saturday’s win and accounted for 295 overall yards. The senior is going to be streaky as a passer, but he’s also better than most of the quarterbacks remaining on Nebraska’s schedule. To put it another way - Armstrong is going to make a mistake or two, but he’s also good enough to deliver a performance like he did against Oregon.
The Future... Recruiting
On-field performance and wins are always important to any coach looking to build a program in just his second year on the job. Despite the 6-7 record last season, Riley inked the No. 25 recruiting class – the program’s highest since a No. 22 rank in 2013. Additionally, the Cornhuskers have the No. 23 class with 15 commitments so far for 2017. A lot is going to change between now and Signing Day, but Riley and this staff are recruiting well and the on-field momentum is only going to help attract talent.
What’s Next for Nebraska
The schedule isn’t too daunting for Nebraska over the next few weeks. A trip to Northwestern is this Saturday, followed by games against Illinois, Indiana (away) and Purdue before a road date at Wisconsin on Oct. 29. There’s a good chance the Cornhuskers are 7-0 going into that date against the Badgers. Question marks surround every team in the Big Ten’s West Division, but Iowa, Wisconsin and Nebraska are the favorites. The loss to North Dakota State shouldn’t knock the Hawkeyes out as the front-runner as most predicted this offseason. Wisconsin’s schedule also is the most difficult out of this trio, as coach Paul Chryst’s team still has to play Ohio State, Michigan and Michigan State.
It’s a long way until the Big Ten Championship Game in December. But there are encouraging signs for Nebraska. Yes, the run defense has to play better, and this team still needs to work on eliminating turnovers and penalties. At 3-0 and with a favorable schedule upcoming, the Cornhuskers seem poised to make a run at Iowa and Wisconsin for the Big Ten West title. Even if this program falls short of a trip to Indianapolis, there are plenty of signs Riley has this team going in the right direction after a disappointing debut in 2015.