Where Does Recent Attrition Leave the Huskers' Roster?
Photo Credit: Aaron Babcock

The Petey Post: What Have We Learned From Nebraska’s Recent Play?

September 27, 2017

Whenever I used to come home from school, my mom would ask me “so what did you learn today?” Did you guys ever get those questions? I hated those questions, like, more than anything. I’d always come up with some dumb, minuscule thing that happened to end the conversation and then go eat half a can of Pringles or plop down in front of the Xbox or whatever else kids do.

Now, I love the question. I feel like, as a sports writer, we answer that “what did you learn” question almost every day. Especially during weeks like this where I’m sitting here trying to think about the Huskers' 27-17 win over Rutgers where we saw some good storylines emerge but didn’t really learn anything new about the team. If I were to go home and talk to my mom about that question now – which would be a pretty long and dumb drive given I have a cell phone – I imagine the conversation going something like this:

“What did you learn?”

Well, Rutgers is not good at football. That’s not really any new information but that idea was solidified when the Huskers averaged 4 yards per pass attempt, threw another pick-six and still won by double-digits.

“What did you learn?”

At this point, you should probably just stop betting the Huskers. The line for the Rutgers game was Nebraska -11. Rutgers covered. What?

“What did you learn?”

Quarterback Tanner Lee needs to make smart decisions with the football. He knows he can throw it out of bounds, right? Or take a sack? He’s already getting hit, might as well hold onto the ball and get another chance to get smacked around like a rag doll.

“What did you learn?”

Well, nothing really. All of the things mentioned above? Yeah, those were already pretty common knowledge heading into Saturday’s showdown with the Scarlet Knights. But, I’m being completely honest, I did learn a couple new things, and that’s going to be the basis for this week’s Petey Post. Strap in folks, the hot takes are coming.

WDYL No. 1: Michael Decker needs to start.

Let me preface this by saying I don’t think it’s fair for a starter to lose his job because of an injury, but, clearly things weren’t working on the offensive line before starting center Cole Conrad went down last week and clearly backup Michael Decker had an impact on that line putting a few things together in Conrad’s absence.

Offensive line coach Mike Cavanaugh said the Huskers ran the same running play 31 times against Rutgers. A power play called Csonka. That’s something he’d never done before. Part of that has to do with the consistency up front that Decker brought to the table.

“The guy is strong, he’s explosive, he’s very smart, he’s got all the tools so he put it together and I’ve been waiting for that,” Cavanaugh said.

Decker’s biggest asset might be his mind. Cavanaugh praised the “cerebral” and “analytical” approach of the Omaha product and from veteran tackle Nick Gates to true freshman newcomer Brenden Jaimes, everyone thought the communication at the line of scrimmage and on the sidelines between drives was better than it has been. Decker was able to consistently identify looks from the defense and call out protection schemes, and then spearhead conversations on the sidelines about what went wrong when things broke down.

“I think I’m just a little bit more at ease out there,” Decker said of what has changed in his game since he arrived at Nebraska. “The more and more you play at a certain level, the more comfortable you are with not only the speed, but the body language of the guys and wherever the defense is declaring their intentions.

“I think I did well with my communication back on the sidelines and making sure we stayed on top of whatever the stuff was they did in the game.”

That’s the approach you need from a starting center. That’s the leadership you need from a starting center. Cavanaugh said it’s an open competition right now for playing time, and when Conrad comes back 100 percent healthy, he’s going to have to earn his starting spot back.

Given the praise Decker has gotten from just about every member of the offensive unit and the fact that the Huskers were able to produce their best rushing game since the opener – 201 yards with a 4.5 average after 85 yards and a 2.4 average a week ago – the job needs to be Decker’s to lose going forward.

WDYL No. 2: No more featuring, time to use a committee

To be fair, head coach Mike Riley hinted at this after the Rutgers game ended. He said that, given the individual performances from both junior Mikale Wilbon (78 yards after 90 the week before) and junior Devine Ozigbo (101 yards in his first real action), the coaching staff was going to have something to discuss when it came to snaps and playing time moving forward.

It’s time to see more of Ozigbo. Despite getting passed up and then buried on the depth chart, with no real explanation of why, he continued to work in practice and earned his way back onto the field. On a team that’s 2-2 and going to find itself in dogfights for most of this season, that’s the work ethic and mentality that needs to be rewarded.

It’s time to see more of Wilbon, too. The shifty back gives Nebraska a little of everything – quick feet, solid pass blocking this season and hard running – and he’s got 168 yards in the last two weeks.

But honestly, this statement has more to do with starter Tre Bryant than it does with Ozigbo and Wilbon. It seems like it’s been years since Bryant rumbled for 192 yards in the season opener, doesn’t it? He’s got 299 yards in a game and a half of work and I understand wanting to keep that kind of production on the field at all times – Bryant is also solid in pass game and an underrated blocker when kept in for pass protection.

But here’s a question the coaching staff needs to ask itself: would you rather get 10 carries out of Bryant every game, or 30 carries once every three?

Bryant’s knees are the equivalent of a ticking time bomb and sticking him in a featured role is like clipping the wrong wire and having the timer on that bomb speed up. After the opener against Arkansas State, offensive coordinator Danny Langsdorf said Bryant probably received more carries than he should have and he missed several practices early during the ensuing week. After he left in the third quarter of the Oregon game in week two, Riley said he didn’t suffer a new injury but rather reaggravated the same troublesome knee.

It’s not a question of should at this point, it’s really a matter of necessity. Bryant’s ability as a runner does Nebraska no use if he misses chunks of the season. They need to move back to a rotation and Ozigbo and Wilbon have shown in the last two weeks that such a move won't mean a drop in production.

Riley has said repeatedly this season the Huskers have “three better backs than a year ago, they just all happen to be the same guy,” so why not use all of them?

Now, where's my can of Pringles?

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