On Saturday, 19 seniors will set foot on Tom Osborne Field at Memorial Stadium for the final time as Nebraska football players. The match-up against Michigan State is Nebraska’s last home game of the season and defensive coordinator Erik Chinander said it’s going to be “a little bittersweet.”
“Those guys have done a great job in helping transform the direction of the program, the culture of the program, setting the stage for what’s to come in the next few years,” Chinander said about the seniors. “They understand that but it’s going to be kind of bittersweet to have them go the last time without them experiencing what they created. I hope they’re back forever. I hope they feel they can come back for any meeting, any practice, any game and to be a part of this team. They’re always going to be a part of this team no matter where it goes. I think it’s going to be really good in the future and I hope they realize how big of a part they’re going to have in that.”
Luke Gifford, a co-captain from Lincoln, is one of those seniors who has spent the last five years of his life as a Husker. He said he’s already gotten a little emotional about his upcoming senior day but it still trying to stay focused on the task at hand.
“It’s been hard,” Gifford said. “I’ve been thinking about it this week and it doesn’t seem real that this is my last game in Memorial Stadium. But at the end of the day, we still have a job to do and go out and finish this thing the right way. We want to close it out with a couple of wins. It’s tough to balance it but I think you can kind of find the right balance between playing with a lot of emotion and keeping your head and doing what you’re supposed to be doing. If you kind of channel it the right way, you can really use it.”
Fifth-year seniors like Gifford have experienced three different head coaches, numerous changes to their coaching staffs and now two losing seasons during their careers, but Gifford said he is proud of what this class has accomplished in the midst of everything they’ve been through.
“I’m extremely thankful and blessed to be where I’m at and to be with these guys and these seniors that have been through so much,” Gifford dais. “We wouldn’t be as close as we are now if we hadn’t gone through the things we have and to have Coach Frost come in here our last year, couldn’t have finished it a better way with a better coaching staff. We’re excited for it. We want to obviously keep this going in the right direction and set the path and that starts with a couple wins to end the season.”
The Spartans will travel to Lincoln with the 13th-ranked scoring offense in the Big Ten, ahead of only lowly Rutgers. Michigan State is averaging just under 22 points per game this season. A big part of the problem has been inconsistency at quarterback as Michigan State has switched back and forth between injured junior Brian Lewerke, who is completing 54.4 percent of his passes and has more interceptions than touchdowns, and redshirt freshman Rocky Lombardi, who is completing just 48.6 percent of his throws.
“With their two guys, it’s kind of what plays they run,” Chinander said. “I don’t know if the skill sets are completely different. I think they both do a good job of running their offense. The third guy is obviously a guy we recruited at UCF that is more of a Wildcat type guy, so I think you've got a few things to prepare for but you’ve got to kind of do some of it in the good-on-good periods against our offense and some of it through the scout team work. I think there’s a lot of stuff to prepare for and not only that but a lot of different personnel groupings they can present you with.”
Lewerke had a strong sophomore season but has struggled this season while playing through a shoulder injury that has affected his ability to throw the ball. He hasn’t been particularly effective as a runner this season either, averaging 1.6 yards per carry on 74 attempts, but he did rush the ball 124 times at 4.5 a pop last season and CHinander said the Huskers have to be ready to defend the quarterback run game, something that needs a lot of work after AJ Bush racked up 187 yards on 25 carries for Illinois last week.
“You’ve got to be ready for it,” Chinander said. “We get some work obviously against our offense, against Adrian [Martinez] and Noah [Vedral] doing that. But it’s going to be a small chunk for right now and the bigger portion is going to have to be in the offseason when we can really sit down and see what personnel we have moving forward and how to best take care of that.”
Chinander said poor eye discipline contributed heavily to the defense’s struggles to slow down Bush against the Illini, but Illinois also ran the triple option a fair amount. Michigan State is much more of a pro-style, power run team. Chinander said he’s looking forward to seeing the team’s continued progress against those types of teams.
“I think we went into that Michigan game and the guys kind of didn’t know what we had yet,” Chinander said. “It was starting to build. I don’t know if we were at the point where we thought ‘We’re going to go win this football game.’ When we played Ohio State, the guys were at the point where ‘We’re going to go win this football game.’ I’m anxious to see how it will carry over, just the attitude and energy and where we start the game as opposed to where we started against Michigan, how we defend this thing right from the whistle, if we can shut it down a little bit and make them do some other things or if we’re going to be in for a fist fight all day. It’s going to be fun to watch.”
Other notes from practice:
>> Saturday against Illinois was arguably Nebraska’s best special teams performance of the season. The Huskers didn’t score any touchdowns like they did against Bethune-Cookman with JD Spielman’s punt return, but their coverage units were solid.
The Huskers did not allow a return over 20 yards and the best starting field position off of a kickoff was the 28-yard line. Nebraska tackled one returner at the 7-yard line, recovered a muffed punt and blocked a punt that went out of the back of the end zone for a safety.
“We finally had a good one,” special teams coordinator Jovan Dewitt said. “Truthfully what it came down to, I think, as you really go back and watch the film, schematically it’s not like it was any different. It was really the same people. I think there was just a complete fundamental understanding of what we expected and what we wanted from those guys. The effort that we’ve got on it was quite superior to some of the things you’ve seen. If you watch the one kickoff where he tackled him inside the 10-yard line, there was a host of red jerseys around him before he even had full possession of the football. When you look at the fumbled punts that they had, again, we had guys diving on the ground going after the loose football. I know the one guy picked it up and [Wyatt] Mazour dove on it again and knocked it loose again. Chase Urbach I think recovered the first one and that was really good to see.”
Sometimes it’s better to be lucky than good, though, and Dewitt said the blocked punt didn’t exactly happen like he drew it up.
“On the blocked punt, truthfully we had a designed game to get somebody else free,” Dewitt said. “[Marquel] Dismuke ended up blocking it and it was not at all intended for him to be able to block the point. So the best laid plans of mice and men, so to speak.”
>> Another of the seniors gearing up for his final home game, former walk-on wide receiver Bryan Reimers, shared some of his favorite moments of the season.
“Just being around all the receivers,” Reimers said. “We are such a close, tight-knit group. Everyone gets along wise. Game-wise, getting that first win was definitely a highlight. All of that hard work we had put in during the offseason, the reward didn’t come right away. After that first win, there was no better feeling than that.”
>> In order to keep the players as healthy as possible heading into the stretch run of the season, inside linebackers coach Barrett Ruud said they’ve had to take it a bit easier in practice than the coaches would have liked over the last few weeks.
“The only negative is we’ve known that as coaches,” Ruud said. “Sometimes you have to watch how hard you go in practice with live reps. We’d like to do a little bit more live stuff. We haven’t been able to the past four of five weeks especially.”