It doesn’t seem possible, but the Nebraska’s 2015 football season is already one third of the way complete. It hasn’t exactly been a smooth ride for Husker nation, as Nebraska is 2-2 at the end of non-conference play for the first time since 1981. Just like with any college football teams, there have been some pleasant surprises for this Husker team, as well as some major question marks that need to be addressed going forward into conference play. Here are the five ups and five downs of Nebraska’s wild non-conference stretch.
Ups and Downs from Nebraska’s first 4 games
#1: Tommy Armstrong’s Rise
The number one question in Lincoln during spring ball and fall camp was whether Tommy Armstrong could make the transition from zone read running quarterback to a polished pocket passer in Mike Riley’s pro style offense. Well it is safe to say that we have our answer, as Armstrong has been on fire through four games this year. The junior from Cibolo, Texas leads the Big 10 and is eighth in the nation in passing yards with 1,266 yards while throwing 12 touchdowns and only 5 interceptions. Armstrong is on pace to finish the regular season with 3,798 passing yards 36 touchdowns, marks that would shatter Nebraska’s current single season records. More important than stats however is the way Armstrong has carried the team so far this year, as the Junior singlehandedly brought Nebraska back into the Miami game and made big plays when Nebraska needed them against the Southern Miss Golden Eagles. Armstrong has gone from a major question mark to being arguably the third best quarterback in the Big 10 behind Michigan State’s Connor Cook and Ohio State’s three-man rotation.
#2: Freshmen Are Stepping Up
Nebraska was never big on having freshman play major roles during the Bo Pelini era. With very few exceptions, freshmen were redshirted under Pelini and didn’t see consistent playing time until their sophomore or even their junior year. Well it is safe to say that things have changed now that Mike Riley is at the helm, as Freedom Akinmoladun, Stanley Morgan, Nick Gates, Dedrick Young, Luke Gifford, and Aaron Williams have seen significant playing time as true or redshirt freshman. Gates, Morgan, and Akinmoladun have stood out in particular. Nick Gates has arguably been Nebraska’s best offensive lineman through 4 games, as the Las Vegas native has allowed just 1 sack thus far in the season and was Nebraska’s best run blocker against Southern Miss. Stanley Morgan has emerged as a consistent number three option for Tommy Armstrong, catching 11 passes for 158 yards through 4 games. Morgan has caught one touchdown, an 8 yard touchdown against Miami that tied the game at 33 with less than a minute remaining in the game. But when you are talking about freshmen, none have been as impressive as Freedom Akinmoladun. The Grandview, Missouri native was initially switched over from tight end to defensive end to give Nebraska enough bodies to get through spring ball; and he was considered to0 raw to make much of an impact in 2015. An injury to senior Jack Gangwish changed plans though, as Akinmoladun was thrust into the starting lineup against South Alabama and has excelled ever since. Akinmoladun currently leads Nebraska with six tackles for a loss and four sacks. His latest sack was as clutch as it gets, as Akinmoladun sacked Southern Miss quarterback Nick Mullens on the final play of the fourth quarter and ended the Golden Eagles furious comeback attempt.
#3: The Wide Receiving Unit May be the Best in the Big 10.
Nebraska had lost two of the top wide receivers in their program’s history the past two years, as Quincy Enunwa and Kenny Bell have moved on to NFL careers. It was perfectly logical to expect a drop off from the receivers, especially with sophomore stud Demornay Pierson-El suffering a foot injury in fall camp that has kept him out of action so far this season. Luckily for Husker fans, the Nebraska receivers have thrived under new wide receivers coach Keith Williams’ tutelage and are excelling in Danny Langsdorf’s scheme. Junior Jordan Westerkamp and Brandon Reilly have emerged as the top two targets early in the season, as both are on pace for 1,000 yards receiving – something that has never happened at Nebraska. Junior Alonzo Moore has resurrected his career after appearing lost in 2014, catching 3 touchdown passes and emerging as a solid runner out of jet sweep packages. Freshman Stanley Morgan and Junior Lane Hovey round out a deep and talented five-man receiving corps, one that will get even better when Pierson-El returns from injury against either Illinois or Wisconsin.
#1: Seniors are Flopping
Nebraska has always relied heavily on senior production to power their teams. From Nate Swift to Ndamukong Suh to Quincy Enunwa to Ammeer Abdullah, Nebraska always seemed to have one senior that took his game to another level and became a star. Well thus far in 2015 that hasn’t happened. Left Tackle Alex Lewis and Defensive Tackle Kevin Williams have spent more time making fools of themselves on social media and in front of reporters than they have excelling on the football field. Wide Receivers Taariq Allen and Jamal Turner have struggled to crack into Nebraska’s deep wide receiver rotation, and will see their reps decrease once Pierson-El returns. Cornerbacks Daniel Davie, Jonathan Rose, an safety Byerson Cockrell have been the main culprits for the nation’s worst pass defense. The only senior that hasn’t disappointed thus far in the season has been center Ryne Reeves, and he has been solid but unspectacular.
#2: What Happened to the Secondary?
Nebraska’s defense was full of question marks heading into the season, but the one area that was supposed to be a strength for the blackshirts was the secondary. The secondary returned three starters from the 2014 secondary, and had a plethora of talented youngsters to replace the departed Josh Mitchell. Well, after four games Nebraska’s perceived strength has become a frighteningly bad unit. Daniel Davie was expected to be the star of the 2015 secondary, but he has been a complete liability and did not play a single snap against Southern Miss last Saturday. Sophomore Josh Kalu has seen his share of struggles as well, as he was routinely picked on against Southern Miss in the second half. Even Junior Nate Gerry hasn’t been blameless, as the star safety struggled mightily against the Southern Miss Golden Eagles, missing 3 tackles and being a complete non-factor against the pass. Nebraska is currently last in the FBS in pass defense at 379.5 yards per game. Until Nebraska fixes it’s woes in the secondary, it will not be able to compete against the better offenses in the Big 10 and will struggle to return to its 9 win standard.
#3: All the Penalties
Nebraska was never known for its discipline under Bo Pelini, as the Cornhuskers were routinely one of the worst teams in the Big 10 in terms of penalty yardage under Pelini. Things were supposed to change when the borderline psychotic Pelini was replaced with the nicest guy in college football, Mike Riley. Well through 4 games that hasn’t happened, as Nebraska is last in the FBS in penalties per game, averaging just under 11 penalties per game. Nebraska also has shown the maddening snowball tendency that it showed under Pelini, as Nebraska continued to turn one mistake into many more as pressure mounted during games. The most obvious example was the Southern Miss game. At halftime, Nebraska held a 22-0 lead and had committed just two penalties; but in the second half as Southern Miss made its comeback Nebraska was called for 10 penalties. One nullified a potentially game ending interception and another that cost Nebraska a game clinching touchdown with less than two minutes left in the game.
So what do you think of Nebraska’s first four games of the season? Do you consider the Huskers to be a team that could surprise and make a run at the Big 10 West title? Or do you think the up and down non-conference performance will lead to a mediocre season for the Scarlet & Cream? Comment Below.