Oregon put us in a pickle. Nebraska is now two games into its season and we still don’t really know what kind of team we have on our hands, at least from an offensive standpoint.
In week one, the Huskers were inconsistent offensively. They looked awful at times and they looked darn good at other times. The problem was there was just so much situational work and so many fluky things happening that you really have to throw that game out the window when evaluating the team.
Then Oregon comes along and the Nebraska offense looks off-kilter in the first half, really pretty solid in the third quarter and then back to poo poo in the fourth quarter and yet, despite all of that, Nebraska had a 100-yard rusher, a 100-yard receiver and the chance to tie or even win the game on the final possession. If I had told you back in August that the Huskers would lose by seven to Oregon on the road, you would have been pretty happy.
The problem was, they were in such a huge hole so early on, they had to completely throw out the offensive gameplan to try and scratch and claw back in it. You really think the Huskers want quarterback Tanner Lee throwing the ball 41 times a game?
Take this from offensive coordinator Danny Langsdorf:
“We were just so up and down at times. We were great at times and then we’d stall out and then we’d go back and play well. We were just kind of like a roller coaster today … Unfortunately, when we had that kind of game we were in, we were putting a lot of our eggs in the basket of having to throw and get back in it and we don’t want to have to throw that many times.”
Is Nebraska a really good team that is just struggling to put everything together on a play-to-play, drive-to-drive basis, or are they a really young team that’s still a year away but showing glimpses of the future? I struggled to nail down a topic for this week, but I think in re-watching the game and re-listening to comments from pretty much everyone on the offense I’ve got one. You can disagree with me on this and that’s completely fine, such is the nature of not being able to definitively answer that above question, but it feels as if this is going to be a really, really good offense sooner rather than later. Here’s why.
Nebraska has a special talent at quarterback in Tanner Lee. In the season-opener, Lee was tremendous, dropping a dime to wide receiver Stanley Morgan Jr., placing a back-shoulder throw to tight end Tyler Hoppes in the absolute perfect spot and dropping one in over wideout JD Spielman’s shoulder as he ran down the sideline.
The four picks against Oregon were bad, there’s not really a way to spin that, and I wrote after the performance on how Lee needs to be better moving forward, but there were still signs of his ability. I mean, look at this throw.
There are others in that game too, like the first interception that found its way into Morgan’s hands despite double coverage, it just went through those hands and off his facemask. Should he have looked off Morgan given the coverage? Maybe, but head coach Mike Riley said they want to get Morgan the ball, and there are times where Lee just needs to throw it up for him to go get it. That worked against Arkansas State, it just didn’t work as often against the Ducks. But even when it didn’t – take the third quarter toss to Morgan in double coverage that Lee somehow managed to squeeze into a spot only his guy could get it, for example – it still almost did. Point being, Lee has all the tools to make all the throws a great team needs its quarterback to make.
And about Morgan. Nebraska has a guy in the wide receiver who seems to have Lee’s full trust, speed to take the top off a defense, hands to make tough grabs, footwork to create separation and the confidence to put it all together in a dangerous package. He’s the first Nebraska wideout ever to open a season with two straight 100-yard games and that is quite the accomplishment given the storied history of this program. Going down the line, too, the Huskers appear to have some pretty solid options at receiver with senior De'Mornay Pierson-El, redshirt freshman JD Spielman and freshman Tyjon Lindsey.
Nebraska also has the running back in Tre Bryant, who has really burst onto the scene. The “or” designation by his name atop the Huskers’ depth chart disappeared this week and even though it’s been his job for two weeks, it’s now officially his to lose. That means Bryant, if healthy, gets every carry and every snap he can handle. In week one, that load was the second-most yards of any Husker rusher in the Mike Riley era while trampling a quality Arkansas State front line to the tune of 192 yards.
He re-aggravated a pesky knee problem in week two against the Ducks and had to leave the game, but still managed 102 more yards with an impressive 5.4 yards-per-carry average. It’s not just about the yardage though, it’s about how Bryant gets it. He doesn’t have real breakaway speed and he’s not some bowling ball that overmatches defenders, he’s just very fundamentally sound. Through two weeks he hasn’t danced once; he waits for his blocking to develop, makes a cut if need be and hits the hole hard with his legs constantly moving. Bryant is tied for seventh in the country – with Penn State’s Heisman hopeful Saquon Barkley – for runs longer than 10 yards (nine) and he’s tied for eighth in the nation in 20-yard-plus carries (three). Those bigger runs are a direct result of smaller runs like this.
Now add in tight end Tyler Hoppes, who can do just about everything head coach Mike Riley wants him to do. Against the Ducks in the second quarter, Hoppes threw a key block downfield that turned what would have been a 5-yard carry from Tre Bryant into a 25-yard pickup. Literally two plays later, Hoppes runs a crossing pattern over the middle of the field, beats his man coverage and picks up another 35 yards through the air.
“We didn’t play to our full potential and we still put up some good numbers,” Hoppes said Tuesday.
I asked Langsdorf about that on Monday and he said almost the same thing.
“When we’re good, we’re really good,” he said. “We have our moments when there’s a false start or a busted assignment or something goes bad and it kind of snowballs and until we come out of the freefall we’re just really up and down.”
Basically describing a young team there, Coach. To be fair, that’s what the Huskers are right now, but there’s reason to believe they’ll figure it out as this thing moves along. Even with all the sloppy, roller-coaster-like play and ranking No. 103 of 130 schools in third-down percentage (gross), they’re still averaging 39 points a contest, good for No. 35 nationally (not so gross). What’s more, they’re outscoring teams 37-10 in the second half this season, you know, when the game is supposed to tighten up.
Hail Varsity’s Brandon Vogel wrote after Saturday’s final that the Huskers might just be a team that spends most of this season growing up, which is a correct assessment, but I think it’s more the defense than the offense. With a visit from Northern Illinois – a defense that gave up nearly 200 yards passing to a former three-star redshirt freshman quarterback making his first start – and a sick feeling in their stomach, this weekend might be the weekend for the offense to finally pop.
If not, feel free to tag @OldTakesExposed on me
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.