Things rarely play out the way they’re laid out in the off-season. Exhibit A: Who would have projected in July that by November Nebraska would be a team led by its defense?
Exhibit B: Who was projecting that Stanley Morgan Jr. would be leading the Huskers in receptions and receiving yards with three games to go in the regular season? It wasn’t that people were unimpressed by the sophomore receiver. People were plenty impressed after a 25-catch freshman campaign, but that was only one more than seniors Alonzo Moore and Cethan Carter and off the pace of Jordan Westerkamp or Brandon Reilly. All of those guys were coming back in 2016.
Yet here we are 75 percent of the way through the regular season and Morgan leads Nebraska with 26 catches and 385 yards. You could chalk some of that up to the fact that Morgan is one of the two receivers (De’Mornay Pierson-El being the other) who has played in all nine games to this point, but not all of it. Morgan’s 2.9 receptions per game are tied with Westerkamp for the the team lead.
The bigger factor here might be Morgan’s knack for getting the ball on third down. Per ESPN’s splits, 11 of Morgan’s 26 catches have come on the money down. Only one of those came on third-and-short. Four more came on third-and-medium (between 3 and 7 yards to go), where Morgan is averaging 9.8 yards per catch. But the real eye-opener is Morgan’s performance when the chips are down. Six of his receptions this season (nearly a quarter of his total) have come on third-and-8 or longer. On those catches, he’s averaging 28.3 yards. Now, that includes the 72-yard touchdown against Indiana, but even if you remove that one he’s still at 19.6 yards per catch.
This isn’t a one-year phenomenon, either. Ten of Morgan’s 25 catches in 2015 were third-down catches as well. What gives? Some of it may be the reason few people identified Morgan as Nebraska’s most reliable receiver (which he might be right now) — the attention the others draw. When Westerkamp is out there, everyone on the field is aware that he’s often Tommy Armstrong Jr.’s preferred option. Moore, Reilly and Carter also pose threats. Maybe Morgan still gets lost a little bit.
With the more games he has under his belt, however, that argument becomes tougher to make. The easier explanation — he’s just really good at his craft. You see it in the way he blocks. You see it in his reliability. You see it perfectly on third down.
When the defense has the advantage is when Morgan does the most damage.
Keep an eye on that on Saturday. I fully Nebraska to be in classic Minnesota-type slug fest. The Gophers’ defense will likely hold up early, but it’s not particularly great on third down.
The Grab Bag
- ICYMI: Slew of injury updates from last night’s practice.
- Star-Tribune blogger Michael Rand asks if Gopher fans are “sufficiently excited” for this meeting of 7-2 teams. Good column.
- Nebraska has a lot of broadcast firsts over its history and now it can add virtual reality to the list.
- It’s no longer just a report: Jeff Tedford will be the next coach at Fresno State. Great hire for the Bulldogs.
- According to an ESPN report, Baylor offensive coordinator Kendal Briles met with NCAA officials this week regarding potential recruiting violations.
Today’s Song of Today