Photo by Aaron Babcock
Nebraska Football

Huskers Needed to Be Perfect Against Wisconsin, They Weren't

October 9, 2017
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When head coach Mike Riley got up to speak for his weekly Monday morning press conference, he’d had time to look at the film from a disappointing 38-17 loss to Wisconsin at home last Saturday. When he did, he saw a Wisconsin team as good as any in the country and a Nebraska team with a razor thin margin for error.

Riley used the phrase “perfect” a number of times when describing the way his team needed to play but didn’t on either side of the ball against the Badgers. His running game, led by a third-straight 100-yard showing from tailback Devine Ozigbo, produced but was too inconsistent.

“It’s just feast or famine, [there’s] some good runs but just too many nothing runs so we’ve got to be more consistent in our running game,” he said.

Quarterback Tanner Lee was productive – 262 yards, an 80-yard touchdown and a 122.8 passer rating – but threw the pick-six on the opening drive of the game. The offensive line didn’t give up a sack for only the second time this season, but Riley felt Lee faced too much heat to be able to confidently say the line played well.

“We had some good-looking run plays, the protection in general was better and we didn’t get sacked, but that doesn’t hide from the fact that it wasn’t all perfect either,” he said.

Riley said there were “some good moments on special teams” but felt like the team failed to capitalize on a few “great chances” to down Wisconsin inside the 10-yard line. Nebraska consistently drove inside Wisconsin territory, but was just 1-for-3 on converting red zone chances.

“Those kinds of situations in that game, with the other team the way they were, those are all big,” Riley said.

On defense, Riley singled out linebackers Luke Gifford, Chris Weber and Dedrick Young II, saying all had good individual performances despite the poor overall result. There was no mention of the defensive line though, and that wasn’t by accident. Riley felt there was too much inconsistency up front, too many breakdowns in gap responsibility when the Huskers needed to be perfect.

“When you’re playing a team like that, that is a condensed offensive team with tight ends involved, sometimes the receivers in tight involved, the magnitude of not being in a gap or being in position by this much on the wrong side of the head of somebody can be magnified into plays, and it was magnified in big plays,” he said. “The consistency of doing it was probably the key factor there.”

As a team, Wisconsin ran it down the Huskers’ throat to the tune of 353 yards on 49 carries.  There were plenty of missed tackles at the second level of the defense to pass blame around, but Riley felt the breadth of what really happened came from breakdowns up front, causing the backend to press.

“When you are struggling run defense, somebody’s trying to overcompensate,” he said. “It’s got to be real team defense along the board and we weren’t always perfect in that way. Somebody’s trying to overcompensate for what’s happened and it gets you into more trouble.”

Riley also knows the Huskers will be in a similar situation this weekend when No. 8 Ohio State comes to town. The Buckeyes are coming off a 62-14 beatdown of Maryland in which the defense gave up six first downs and 66 total yards and the offense exploded (303 yards passing, 281 yards rushing).

“They’re playing at a high level since that one loss and outscoring opponents,” Riley said. “They’re versatile and productive offensively in almost every category, near the top of everything. Same thing defensively. It’s a major, major challenge for us.”

Riley said he knows there will be questions about the team’s mental state heading into a second top-10 opponent in as many weeks, but said he’s not worried.

“We’re working to get this team better each day,” he said. “We’ll do that through the week and they’ll be ready for their best on Saturday night.”

Other news and notes

>> Riley said running back Mikale Wilbon has “gotten better” and could practice Monday after suffering an ankle injury on Sep. 29 that resulted in him missing the Wisconsin game.

Safety Aaron Williams is still dealing with a soft tissue issue in his neck and Riley said he doesn’t expect Williams to work out Monday, but isn’t overly concerned about his status for the game. Safety Antonio Reed injured his knee against Wisconsin and Riley said he’s “questionable, leading to doubtful for the weekend.” Right tackle David Knevel is “the healthiest he’s been for a while,” Riley said, and center Cole Conrad should be close to returning despite reaggravating an ankle sprain last week.

>> With cornerback Chris Jones (knee) and safety Joshua Kalu (hamstring) both returning to the field against Wisconsin, the Huskers’ lone key player still on the shelf is running back Tre Bryant.

Bryant hasn’t seen the field since midway through the Oregon game on Sep. 9 and has been battling a knee injury that Riley has said is just part of what comes with the Bryant package.

When asked if a medical redshirt could be in play, Riley said “absolutely,” but that would be a conversation that includes Bryant’s family.

“We’re going to be really careful with every decision made about Tre Bryant,” Riley said. “First of all, we want him to feel good and healthy if he does indeed play again.”

However, Riley did say that Bryant has made good progress and could return to practice this week, though there’s still “mystery” on when or in what capacity.

>> When looking at the differences between Wisconsin and Nebraska, there are two major things that stand out to Riley: the offensive line and the edge linebackers.

Riley said the Badgers’ front line is one that has developed through the years and that’s something the Huskers are trying to do both with the guys they have in house and the guys they recruit.

As for the linebackers, Riley said with the shift to the 3-4 defense, it’s important for Nebraska to find that hybrid edge guy that can play coverage and rush the passer. That’s a guy like five-star recruit Micah Parsons – who was in Lincoln on Saturday on an official visit – and it’s the type of player the Huskers are trying to develop right now.

“As we look at the future and recruit, it has to be a balanced class between skill players that we get – big skill players that we get – and maybe you’re talking about those outside linebacker types and then … you’ve got to get the linemen,” Riley said.

>> What Nebraska does have though on defense is a bright future.

The Davis twins up front – Carlos and Khalil – are both sophomores who play “really serious minutes and play numbers” for Nebraska already. Deontre Thomas has thrown the Nebraska staff a “great curveball,” Riley said, with his unexpected play as a true freshman. Damion Daniels is another true freshman that has redshirted but Riley said could physically play right now.

>> Riley said they won’t take too much from last year’s tape against Ohio State.

“There wasn’t a lot there that’s going to be real exciting, that we say well this is a good thing,” he said.

The Huskers lost 62-3 to the Buckeyes last season in Columbus. They’ll look at it because Ohio State will look at it, but Riley doesn’t expect to gain much, especially considering the offense has changed with the pocket-passing Tanner Lee replacing the dual-threat Tommy Armstrong Jr. at quarterback and the defense changing from a 4-3 to a 3-4 look.

He does, though, look at Ohio State as the standard of the Big Ten conference.

“That’s where we want to go,” Riley said. “If you want to win a championship, then you look at that team that’s been up in there competing for that for quite a few years now.”

>> Riley loved the atmosphere in Memorial Stadium Saturday night.

“I think that kind of atmosphere, that kind of crowd, that kind of excitement is the identity of Nebraska and the whole country sees it,” he said. “I know they’ll bring it again.”

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