The Hail Varsity staff offers three final takeaways from Nebraska’s 31-16 win over Illinois.
Senior tight end Cethan Carter is one of the Huskers’ best weapons on offense, and seeing him stay down on the turf after taking a hard hit following his only reception of the game can’t have been a pleasant sight for the Huskers’ offensive staff and players.
However, with Carter out of commission, his fellow seniors Trey Foster and Sam Cotton stepped up and made big plays at tight end. Both reserves are known more for their blocking than their receiving, but even so quarterback Tommy Armstrong Jr. expressed confidence in them.
“[Losing Carter] didn’t limit [the play-calling] at all,” Armstrong said. “Those guys as a unit, those three guys are seniors. They know exactly what they’re doing. Like I told Trey, ‘hey, just step up and make plays.’ That’s what it’s all about. You never know what may happen. And unfortunately, Cethan went down, but those guys went in and made key blocks and had key catches late in the game. Those guys rotate in and out every week like they’re the starters, so they are well-prepared for things like that.”
In the third quarter, the Huskers faced a third-and-5 inside the Illinois 25-yard line. Armstrong felt some pressure, bought himself some time then fired downfield. Cotton made a tremendous grab, snatching the ball out of the air inside the 15 for a 12-yard gain. The Huskers did not end up capitalizing, as running back Mikale Wilbon fumbled the ball two plays later, but even so, Cotton’s effort gave them a chance at a touchdown.
Even bigger was Foster’s play in the fourth quarter. Clinging to a one-point lead and facing a third-and-goal from the Illinois 6-yard line, Armstrong dropped back to pass, bought his receivers some time again, then hit Foster wide open in the end zone to stretch the lead to eight. It was the former walk-on’s second career catch and his second career touchdown.
Cethan Carter gets most of the attention and deservedly so, but he isn’t the only tight end on the roster who can make an impact. When asked to step up, both Sam Cotton and Trey Foster did so. Nebraska is going to lose a valuable group of tight ends after this season, and with little in the way of proven commodities behind the seniors, that position might not be quite the strength it is this year.
Nebraska does have some talented young prospects working under Tavita Thompson, but they’d do well to study Carter, Foster and Cotton while they still have the opportunity. Because next year, it’s going to be one or more of them that will be asked to step up.
Kicker Drew Brown admitted the wind had changed. It didn’t matter because as Brown put it, “you can’t worry about it because you can’t control it.”
When Coach Mike Riley decided to let Brown attempt a 56-yard field goal, Brown was ready – wind or no wind.
“I told Coach Riley that if we get around the 35 then I’m good to kick,” Brown said. “I think the ball was on the 39 so we were close to it and he trusted me. I appreciated that because it’s good to get out there and get some longer kicks because all of mine have been shorter.”
Brown unfortunately missed that 56-yard field goal attempt. It snapped his streak of 13 consecutive made field goals, which Riley took the blame for.
“That was a bad decision by me, and I would take that back right now,” Riley said. “The wind had been going back, we didn’t have a good gauge on the wind. It had been going back and forth, so it wasn’t smart at all.”
It didn’t bother Brown, though. The opportunity to attempt a long field goal was worth it for the experience.
“You never really know what’s going to end up happening in a game, like North Carolina kicked a game-winning 54-yard field goal so you never know what’s going to happen,” Brown said.
Plus, the length of the kick didn’t faze Brown. That’s something he’s learned over time: treat every kick equally.
“I try to treat extra points and 56-yarders exactly the same because, you know, if you get into a comfort zone like that then every kick should be exactly the same to me,” Brown said. “I was excited to be out there and it stinks that I didn’t make it but I had the kick the very next drive that gave us the lead at that point and as a kicker, you’ve got to be able to take what you did and put it behind you, good or bad.”
To be clear, Nebraska isn’t really pushing the envelope on a national scale when it comes to going for it on fourth down. The Huskers have eight attempts, which ranks 42nd nationally.
Nebraska has converted five of those attempts (62.5 percent), which ranks 41st nationally. In Lincoln of late, that qualifies as an accelerated rate.
By going 5-for-8 on fourth down through five games in 2016, the Huskers have already equaled their total number of attempts and conversions from 2015. Since 2008, Nebraska’s season high for fourth-down attempts in a season is 16, set during the 2011 season. The Huskers’ best conversion rate (66.67 percent) over that span came during the 2013 season.
Nebraska has a little work to do to reach that rate, but it’s the attempts that are the more interesting story. At it’s current rate, Nebraska will have more than 20 fourth-down attempts depending upon the number of games played. Those calls can be easily critiqued based on context, but the numbers say going for it is almost always the right decision.
Maybe Mike Riley’s is leaning on his still-new analytics department? I’m not really confident that is what’s going on — Nebraska’s fourth-down attempts have still felt more like they’re based on “feel” — but whatever works.
Just keep going for it.