WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. – A bye week is oftentimes a period of self-reflection for football teams and their coaches, and that was certainly the case for Mike Riley and the Huskers last week. With no game to prepare for last week, coaches spent time usually devoted to studying the next opponent looking at themselves instead and finding ways for the team to improve for the stretch run.
During the week leading up to Saturday’s game at Purdue, Mike Riley and Danny Langsdorf offered a few hints about some of the things they determined during their time of self-reflection, and the game plan in Nebraska’s come-from-behind 25-24 win against the Boilermakers backed up their words.
During his weekly Monday press conference, Riley showered true freshman running back Jaylin Bradley with praise as he compared him to sophomore Tre Bryant, who posted some big-time numbers before succumbing to a knee injury.
“We’re really excited about him. I think that when you look at those two guys, I think they would both go into the category of possibly being an every-down back. I think that Jaylin is talented and we like all that about him, and that’s really why we kept him active, and knowing the running back position and how hard it is, and we’re looking at it right now with really the loss, this year, of Tre, that [Bradley’s] important. And who knows where that will surface with him before the year’s out, but he’s an exciting player.”
After practice Monday night, offensive coordinator Danny Langsdorf said Bryant was “deserving of some more work,” although the coaches didn’t want to overload him by putting too much on his plate.
On Saturday, with Nebraska struggling to gain any ground with the rest of its runners, the Huskers turned to the true freshman. After getting seven carries for 23 yards heading into Saturday, Bradley got seven carries and turned them into 42 yards. He also caught three passes for 31 yards.
“I think everybody got a chance to see kind of what we’ve been talking about tonight,” Riley said after the game. “He’s got some real burst, he’s got great feet, great vision. Pretty exciting. We didn’t get a lot going in the running game, but what he did in the running game might have made a big difference in the game.”
Those like myself who saw Bradley set records at Bellevue West were already familiar with Bradley’s talent and style, but Saturday was his coming out party for the rest of the Nebraska fan base. Just how much he’ll see the field will be determined by situation, but he’s done enough to at the very least avoid logging any more DNP-CDs.
Another area the coaches expressed dissatisfaction in was the production from the tight end position. Through the first seven games, tights ends had accounted for 15 of Nebraska’s 138 receptions, with senior Tyler Hoppes logging 14 and redshirt freshman Jack Stoll recording the other one.
“We haven’t been able to use the tight ends like I anticipated,” Riley said on Monday. “I think that it’s kind of part of the overall picture of where we’ve been productivity-wise offensively. Are we continuing to work on that? Absolutely. I think that there are people in that group that are weapons that can be used like that and I think that they can play a significant role of balancing our pass-receiving corps which is what tight ends can do for you.”
Hoppes’ 14 catches had produced just 151 yards and one score. He caught three passes for 40 yards in the season-opener, two catches for 37 yards the following week then proceeded to top 20 yards just once through the last five games, a 27-yard outing against Illinois.
“If we’re featuring [Hoppes] as the No. 1 throw on a play, that can help,” Langsdorf said on Monday. “Stoll being in there on a rotation is a good thing to help keep those guys fresh and ready to win on some one-on-one match-ups. It hasn’t been a lot of production and we’re trying to work towards featuring those guys more and just take some pressure off the receivers.”
On Saturday, Lee targeted Hoppes six times and the 6-foot-4 tight end hauled in five of them for 105 yards and a touchdown, nearly mirroring what Morgan produced.
“We drew up some plays for the tight end,” Hoppes said. “They play a lot of zone, so we really tried to hit the seams [and] find the open areas where they weren’t going to be.”
Hoppes got open consistently and Lee went to him in some of the biggest moments of the game, including during the game-winning drive.
Despite the Huskers delivering the promised tweaks offensively, it still took a last-minute drive to pull out a win against a Purdue team that lost to Rutgers last week. A few more carries for Bradley and a few more targets for Hoppes didn’t fix all that ails Nebraska.
The Huskers also said they used their bye week to get back to the basics and work on individual fundamentals.
“We had a lot of really good detailed work, I thought, last week without a game looming,” Langsdorf said on Monday. “We were able to go back on some things and fine-tune some runs and some patterns. Now we’re getting into Purdue, and we got a jump on them last week, but we were able to take some time with some detailed fundamentals. I think it was good work, it was really enthusiastic and the guys worked hard and came with a great effort and attitude today about working.”
That sounds wonderful, but the fundamentals were pretty lacking on Saturday. Nebraska committed nine penalties from false starts to holds to pass interference and more, and it cost them 95 yards.
There were communication and assignment issues along the offensive line throughout the night as the Boilermakers recorded three sacks and seven tackles for loss with defensive tackle Gelen Robinson having a monster day.
Missed tackles continued to plague the defense and defensive backs let receivers get deep on them multiple times only to be bailed out by drops. And on the other side of the ball, Nebraska left some catches out on the field as well. The Huskers ventured into the Purdue red zone five times and had to settle for a field goal on four of them.
Nebraska’s effort on Saturday night was good enough to beat Purdue (just barely). However, that same effort probably won’t be enough against Northwestern or Iowa, and it certainly won’t be enough to hang with Penn State. Nebraska needs to tighten up those fundamentals it spent so much time working on during the bye week to go along with the increased roles for Bradley and Hoppes.
There are only four weeks left in the regular season and Nebraska still has a long way to go.
Jacob is in his third year with Hail Varsity covering Husker athletics. He has also written extensively for SB Nation’s Bright Side of the Sun and The Creightonian. His love of basketball can best be described as an obsession and if you need to find him, he’s probably in a gym somewhere watching, coaching or playing hoops.