The Hail Varsity staff offers some final thoughts from Nebraska’s 38-24 loss to Tennessee in the Music City Bowl.
Nebraska was without its best quarterback and wide receiver and lost its best running back early in the game, so struggling on offense against Tennessee shouldn’t have come as a surprise. However, even at full strength I’m not sure the skill position players would have made a significant defense.
Nebraska had 61 net rushing yards on 28 carries, and that includes a 44-yard run by Devine Ozigbo. Heading into the bowl game, Tennessee had surrendered 400 or more yards on the ground three times and they allowed a fourth opponent to go over 350. The 61 yards were the second-fewest the Tennessee had allowed this season behind the 60 yards Tennessee Tech rushed for.
The box score has Tennessee down for seven tackles for loss including four sacks and seven quarterback hurries. Fyfe was under pressure all night long and while he did manage to find some success for stretches, it wasn’t nearly enough to truly threaten the Volunteers.
Six different questions for Nebraska during the post-game press conference referenced future NFL first round pick Derek Barnett or the rest of the Tennessee defensive front and the pressure they were applying on the Nebraska offense.
I think everybody knows where I’m going here. The offensive line has to improve or games like this will continue to happen regardless of who is taking snaps behind center. Nick Gates struggled mightily with future first round pick Derek Barnett, and the rest of the line didn’t fare much better.
The question now becomes: what will the line look like next year? Dylan Utter is the only senior starting, so the Huskers are guaranteed to have a new center. However, other jobs will be up for grabs as well.
Despite his struggles, Gates should be locked in at left tackle and Jerald Foster is a pretty safe bet to start at left guard. Michael Decker and John Raridon will likely battle it out for that spot with perhaps someone else getting in the mix. Tanner Farmer will have to hold off Boe Wilson and others. Matt Farniok will likely have as good of a shot to win the right tackle job as incumbents David Knevel and Cole Conrad. That doesn’t even factor in any of the incoming freshmen that the Huskers have committed or are still going after.
Regardless of who the five players are that step onto the field come Sept. 2, 2017, if Nebraska doesn’t get significantly improved line play, the Huskers won’t truly be in the mix for division or conference titles any time soon.
Nebraska cannot afford to miss on the 2016 and 2017 recruiting classes like we’ve seen them do over the last few years.
I took a special interest in Nebraska’s special teams this year. Not in the ‘Hey, how much does Bruce Read make?’ kind of way, but more of a sincere interest in the group. I was especially interested in the kickers and how they would respond to the loss of Sam Foltz. I interviewed “Uncle Drew” for our website and freshman punter Caleb Lightbourn for our magazine, plus shared countless other stories on the kickers and punters over the last few months. Needless to say, I became very well-versed on this group.
I also watched as the opinions on players like Lightbourn ebbed and flowed. He was loved one minute and hated the next. It sort of comes with the territory of being a punter with big shoes to fill, but I often wondered how Lightbourn would respond.
Well, Lightbourn gave me my answer on Friday against Tennessee. In an otherwise forgettable game, Lightbourn was a star. He had seven punts for 299 yards, averaging 42.7 yards per punt. While none of his punts were touchbacks, 5-of-7 were fair catches. Considering he was often in his own endzone (or close to it), that’s pretty good.
So, what changed over the last month?
“I just kind of went out there and didn’t think about it a whole lot. It was mostly mental,” Lightbourn said. “I did a lot of reps the last month or so. I just went out there and I didn’t really think about it. I wasn’t really worried about it. I knew the guys were going to hold up well and I think we did a pretty good job on our special teams at least today.”
Lightbourn also worked quite a bit with graduate assistant Nick Smith and coach Mike Riley. Between the two, he never skipped a beat when Read was fired. He just got better and so did his teammates.
“We’re a lot more focused,” Lightbourn said. “When you see a coach leave, people sometimes start freaking out and acting like they don’t know what they’re going to do but we did the opposite. Coach Riley just told us to focus up and he helped us with that and we were just really comfortable. We just continued to do the same kind of protections we have done all year with some very small minor adjustments.”
There’s a reason Nebraska football always tweets that “special teams is for special people.” Foltz used to say that. He even said it in an interview I had with him two summers ago. But the reality is that it does take a special group of people to go out there and keep kicking, even after the last one went wrong.
I feel good about this group in 2017. It’s not going to win football games on its own, but it’s a vital part of the whole game. After Friday, Husker fans should feel a little bit better about this group heading into the new year.
Football never stops in places like Nebraska. The 2016 season is done? OK. Let’s talk 2017. Why wait?
That was the conversation late last night as three members of our staff, myself including, sat around with a beer and a class breakdown trying to work out the puzzle pieces of the next Huskers roster.
I keep coming back to one idea when I spin things forward to 2017 — That team feels like the first one that will be fully Mike Riley’s. The quarterback is in the Oregon State mold (big, thrower, decision-maker). The bulk of the roster will either have been recruited by Riley & Co. or been coached for at least two years by this staff.
“It’s building on the foundation that we’ve laid,” offensive coordinator Danny Langsdorf said. “There’s going to be some guys that it’s not brand new to them. That’s the tough thing about year one and sometimes year two. As you get into that third year, you have a group of guys that has a better understanding of what we’re doing. I think it usually takes you a couple of years to get going. We’ll expect a lot out of our group in year three.”
Husker fans will, too, despite the fact that there are numerous questions to answer here beyond just who starts at quarterback. How does the running game, without the threat of QB run, get going? Will the offensive line feel like a unit despite having what looks like a pretty young group.
Defensively, Nebraska looks good at defensive tackle and experienced at least in the secondary. But the tough thing when you fast forward this roster becomes trying to identify the surefire playmakers next season. Who are the players who are preseason all-conference type of players?
Those are tough to identify right now. It’s a strange spot to be in entering year three under a new coach, but it looks like Riley’s reality right now.
Brandon is the Managing Editor for Hail Varsity and has covered Nebraska athletics for the magazine and web since 2012, Hail Varsity’s first season on the scene. His sports writing has also been featured by Fox Sports, The Guardian and CBS Sports.