With easily the Huskers’ biggest game of the season to date on Saturday when No. 8 Wisconsin comes to town, Nebraska might be as healthy as its been since the season began.
On Thursday, head coach Mike Riley announced a slew of Huskers would be making their returns to the field after missing time with various injuries. Cornerback Chris Jones, who was cleared this week to return to practice after suffering a torn meniscus before the season, will play in a limited role against the Badgers on Saturday.
“Chris looks good,” Riley said. “You don’t get cleared from that kind of injury without really being able to do all of the physical things that they put him through in the test. He looks fine, looks confident.”
Riley added they’ll take it slow with Jones, who’s yet to play in a game this season and has just four days of practice currently under his belt, but is pleased with what he’s seen from the senior in terms of the shape he’s in.
Safety Joshua Kalu, who left the Oregon game on Sep. 9 with a hamstring injury and has yet to play since, also returned to practice this week and will play on Saturday in a rotation role. Riley said the staff expects Kalu to play, and that he’s also in good shape, but almost cautioned to not expect too much from Kalu in his return.
“Josh Kalu has played like six quarters of safety in his life, so it’s not like a guy who’s been playing his whole career is coming back to play safety,” Riley said. “However, we are happy to have him back. He’s instinctive, he’s tough, it’s a great addition.”
Linebacker Marcus Newby will also be returning after a hamstring injury forced him out of the Rutgers game on Sep. 23. Riley said Newby will rejoin an outside linebacker rotation that includes Luke Gifford, Ben Stille, Tyrin Ferguson and Sedrick King.
When asked whether Newby would regain his role as a starter or work his way into the game, Riley kept his cards close to the chest.
“You’ll see on Saturday night what we do with the outside backers,” he said.
Right tackle David Knevel, who hasn’t played since the season opener on Sep. 2, is also expected to return after suffering an ankle sprain and stress fracture in his foot. Riley said Knevel is still not 100 percent and true freshman Brenden Jaimes will make his third-straight start, but Knevel will be available to play.
Running back Mikale Wilbon suffered a sprained ankle in the Illinois game and did not practice Thursday, but Riley said he expects Wilbon to be available either in a rotation role or as an emergency option.
Other news and notes
>> Sophomore center Michael Decker will make his third-straight start in the middle for the Huskers again on Saturday. Riley did not offer an update on former starter Cole Conrad.
>> With Kalu’s return to the lineup, the Huskers know are faced with what to do about safety Antonio Reed.
“We want to keep Antonio Reed active and playing in the games,” Riley said. “He’s a good player and with him and Aaron Williams playing at safety the defense has actually grown and done a nice job.”
Riley said the staff will be looking at how to handle a rotation at safety and “finalizing that kind of rotation in the next 24 hours.”
>> Riley also likes what he’s seen from Wisconsin tailback Jonathan Taylor and quarterback Alex Hornibrook.
He called Taylor a complete, all-around back despite being a true freshman. As for Hornibrook, now a redshirt sophomore, Riley sees poise.
“He’s a very efficient guy,” Riley said. “He knows where to go with the ball, has good, quick decision making, he’s accurate with the ball and he knows the offense.”
Riley also expects to see some new looks from the Badgers’ defense that might not be on tape yet.
“They’re pretty versatile with their pressure and their pressure is predicated on the type of team that they’re playing, what kind of offense they’re seeing,” he said. “We anticipate a different flavor of what they might do in the blitz game.”
>> When asked what his team needs to do to upset Wisconsin on Saturday, Riley offered two big ones.
“The formula for us has to be running the ball and protection,” he said. “If we can keep the ball moving on the ground and be somewhat consistent with it, and then protect the quarterback. They had eight sacks last week. We can’t let them get off the ground and get in a sack frenzy.”
Riley added that the Huskers have to win the “critical plays” in the red zone and on third down, keep their turnovers low and control the clock.
Sounds pretty self-explanatory, right? Well, Northwestern won the turnover battle, controlled time of possession and was good on third downs and yet still lost a week ago to the Badgers. Why? Explosive plays. Riley knows the Huskers need to avoid those on Saturday too.
“Northwestern was really, really in the game until they gave up big third-quarter, play-action passes,” he said. “You’ve got to have great eyes defensively and be very sound down the field.”
Derek is a newbie on the Hail Varsity staff covering Husker athletics. In college, he was best known as ‘that guy from Twitter.’ He has covered a Sugar Bowl, a tennis national championship and almost everything in between (except an NCAA men’s basketball tournament game… *tears*). In his spare time, he can be found arguing with literally anyone about sports.