LINCOLN, Neb. – Mike Riley met with the media after Thursday’s practice, as he does every week, and came bearing both good news and bad on the injury front.
Riley began with an update on the offensive line, where left tackle Nick Gates, the team’s best lineman, has missed the previous few practices after playing through a sprained ankle at Indiana last Saturday.
“Nick Gates practiced some today,” Riley said. “He didn’t necessarily go every play all day long with the ones, but he did some practicing which was encouraging. [Right tackle] David Knevel practiced. [Center] Dylan Utter has had the dislocated finger so we kept him out of some stuff here late today. It’s pretty sore, but we anticipate him being fine by the time we get to the game.”
At this point, Riley said it would be hard for him to say what Gates’ status will be for Saturday.
“Probably part of it will be how he reacts to the work that he did today, how he feels tomorrow,” Riley said. “We’ve had Cole Conrad practicing there a good part of the week and a lot today. We’ll make a good decision about Nick when we know more tomorrow.”
Senior wide receiver Jordan Westerkamp, however, has not returned to practice yet and will be inactive alongside tight end Cethan Carter for the second straight week.
“[Westerkamp] will not play but he’s doing well … He was running nicely today,” Riley said. “I think it’s one of those things with that extensive of an injury that we’ll just, now that he feels pretty good, let him work to get ready for next Tuesday’s practice.”
Riley also said he doesn’t know yet what kind of work load they will give sophomore running back Devine Ozigbo, who has been working through his own injuries.
“He’s kind of been back and forth in practice this week and stepped out of practice yesterday,” Riley said. “He practiced the whole day today. We’ll see how that goes tomorrow and then make a decision about him tomorrow.”
Riley discussed quarterback Tommy Armstrong Jr. playing through pain and said that if he’s able to play, the senior doesn’t really change his game.
“I think that Tommy is a competitor and I don’t know that he thinks that way,” Riley said. “I think he just kind of plays through his assignments, his reads, his choices that he has to make. I think that when he gets out there and reacts, if he has to run the ball or whatever he has to do, he can handle it. If he couldn’t physically, then we wouldn’t have him in there. He is certainly at a point where, like a lot of football players right now, you’re not at 100 percent physically. Something’s always probably bothering you a little bit but I think Tommy goes and plays, competes.”
Riley also looked ahead to the game against Purdue and highlighted some of the key things he is looking for from his team on Saturday.
“We certainly want to run the ball more consistently and better than we did a week ago,” Riley said. “You can take comparisons to just the most recent outing and I thought that was a pretty inconsistent outing by our offense. The consistency could start by running the ball effectively, consistently. That will be a big factor. Obviously doing well in the red zone and scoring points and touchdowns. I think that driving, running, all that stuff will be a part of it, but we have to get some points.
“Then defensively, they’re the number one passing team in the league so we’ve got to be really, really sound. We can’t give them big hits. They’ll probably complete some passes; we’ve got to be good tacklers and not give them many runs after the catch. So good tacklers and no deep balls, and then kind of solidify what we do up front against the run and not let them all of a sudden have a balanced game that look good that way. They hurt us tremendously with misdirection passes a year ago, so we have to handle the boot game well; we’ll see more of that for sure until we prove we can do better against it than last year.”
The Huskers have struggled to find early down success rate in the last couple of games after putting forth a great effort on first downs against Northwestern. Riley addressed how they are trying to improve in that area.
“Running the ball,” Riley said. “I think that’s a matter of sustaining blocks. We were getting beat the last two weeks up front pretty early. The one goal that a lineman has with the guy that he’s blocking is to get the ball past your block. There are a whole bunch of individuals that have to do that and accomplish that, and we were very inconsistent with it. That sure is nice when you can get 5 yards, 6 yards on first down. It makes a big difference in the rest of that series. That’s kind of what our goal has to be. We feel like as part of our identity, that’s what we have to do well.”
Riley stressed that the burden to improve the running game is on the entire unit.
“I think that the backs have to look at it very analytically and what might be there and the cuts they can make,” Riley said. “But that running game is truly a group effort and has to be done well throughout the group, whether it’s the fullback also involved or the tight end … We just have to be more consistent throughout our assignments with that whole group.”
Finally, Riley addressed the punt unit, which has struggled mightily this season.
“The whole punt team has to get better,” Riley said. “We were in that situation where we didn’t look good in protection, didn’t look good in coverage, so what good is there? I think Caleb actually, poise-wise, has been fine. I think that we have to do a great job around him. A lot of returns are the responsibility of the whole group, but the punter has to do a nice job. It’s about hang time and direction, so he’s got to do his part. He’s been doing OK when given the opportunity and then the rest of the group, it has to start with the snap and protection and then we’ve got to cover better. We broke all the rules of coverage last week in that long return. That group has a lot of improving to do.”