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UNIQUE POST-GAME ANALYSIS

Lane Grindle provides a weekly look at Nebraska athletics. Installments of Lane’s blog will appear on this page after each week’s gridiron contest.

SPORTS NIGHTLY AUDIO CONTEST

Each week, a special audio clip from the last Nebraska football game will be loaded here. Sports Nightly listeners will be asked to identify the clip on Wednesday night for a chance to win great prizes from the Nebraska Lottery. The program airs weeknights from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. (Central Time).

FOSTER FARMS BOWL VS. UCLA

Yes, Nebraska beat Michigan State earlier in the season. Yes, the Spartans are in the CFB playoff. However, I would argue that the Huskers performance in the Foster Farms Bowl vs. UCLA on Saturday was their most complete performance of the season.

Nebraska ran the football downhill with a physical, grind-it-out mentality. It was really a beautiful thing to watch from the sideline. One of the perks of my job is that I get an up-close view of the action. When a team is truly the more physical team, it doesn’t take long to see it from the sideline. That applied on Saturday. Within minutes of the game getting underway, you could tell the Huskers were ready to go. They were flying to the ball, they were “talking” a little bit, and they were finishing runs with a punishing tone. The only critique from early on might have been missed tackles. However, those were due to the aggression Nebraska was playing with and, as a result, over pursuing at times. We can all live with that, especially if you can settle in later… and Nebraska did.

It was good to see Devine Ozhigbo get a chance at an extended role in this game. He answered the call and really showed that he is a complete running back. He’ll get a greatly expanded role in 2016. He’s able to get tough between the tackles while also possessing the ability to stretch a run wide too.

The catch by Stanley Morgan was insane; as good as I’ve seen in person. Keep in mind the only two players I’ve mentioned thus far are freshmen!

Antonio Reed also got an expanded role on defense, as did Aaron Williams. Both had their freshman moments, but overall, both were impressive and showed us what the future should look like in the secondary with sophomores Chris Jones & Joshua Kalu also factoring in.

How about the call on Nate Gerry? It was as bad as I’ve seen. I’ve seen a lot of the negativity directed at the officials on the heels of that call. Well, that’s understandable. However, just as culpable should be the rule makers that have taken player protection to an unrealistic level. Don’t get me wrong: player protection is important and we should strive to make the game as safe as possible. However, changing the game to a point where refs are so nervous that they throw a flag every time there’s a big collision is a slippery slope. We’ve put too much “gray area” on these matters for officials. The ejection that accompanies this rule is also bad. This needs to be addressed in the offseason. If there’s anything good to come of the Gerry ejection it is this: it garnered enough national attention that it should definitely be a topic at the next football rules committee meeting.

Tommy Armstrong Jr. was exactly what the Huskers need him to be in 2016. He was efficient, smart with the football, and ran hard when his number was called. It’s important not to ask Tommy to be something he’s not. The Huskers used him more as a complement to the diversity of the rest of the offense, and he thrived in that role. I hope that the Huskers will stay with this look on offense for the foreseeable future. There’s something very fitting about it.

This win, like all bowl wins, should provide some momentum. How much is always debatable. What’s not debatable, though, is the need for this win from a recruiting standpoint. Nebraska needs to finish strong over the final five weeks of the recruiting season, and they are in on numerous top prospects. They need to win these battles. The bowl win definitely should help in that regard.

That’s the priority during the next cycle of Husker football. Let’s hope it finishes strong!

Thanks for reading in 2015!

GAME 12 VS. IOWA

Well, the regular season is complete, and the Huskers have finished below .500 for the first time since 2007. Here’s the difference: Nebraska still has a chance to go bowling due to 80 spots available and only 75 (at the current time) bowl-eligible teams. So Friday’s loss to the #4 Iowa Hawkeyes may not have been the final time you’ll watch the Big Red.

Coming off of back-to-back wins over Michigan State and Rutgers, it was the popular thing to predict a Husker upset on Black Friday over the Hawks. However, what many failed to recognize with that prediction is that Iowa had really been a staple of consistency throughout the year (see also, 12-0 record) and Nebraska just never could find that consistent formula. I think that will be the most frustrating thing to 2015 when we look back upon it: unrealized potential. The Huskers showed flashes of brilliance. They showed that they had the ability to play with anyone. Yet, they also showed that they can lose to anyone (see also, 2-10 Purdue defeats Nebraska). 2015 was a roller coaster ride. Here’s to hoping a foundation has been laid that will help this team develop the consistency and toughness that will be necessary for the Huskers to take that next step. Great teams get up for Purdue, just like they get up for Michigan State. The Huskers have to learn these things. Leadership during this offseason will be paramount.

In the 28-20 loss to the Hawkeyes on Friday, Nebraska played well defensively for the most part. In fact, the Big Red outgained Iowa by almost 200 yards in the contest. Yes, Nebraska committed 4 turnovers. However, it only lead to seven points. Tommy Armstrong clearly didn’t have his best day. The zone scheme in the Hawkeyes secondary had him confused at times, and the wrong read was made multiple times (not just the interceptions).

The Huskers had a chance in the 4th quarter to win this game or push it into overtime. It was, however, the Huskers that seemingly stopped themselves at times on Friday (whether interceptions or lack of execution). I think that will be a big takeaway from the Iowa game for me. Iowa finished off a 12-0 season with comparable talent to Nebraska’s. They did it by not beating themselves. Too often, the Huskers were their own worst enemy in 2015 (see also, 5-7 record). Here’s the good news, another year in this system and familiarity between staff and players should have a very positive impact on the future. Next year’s schedule is arguably tougher than the 2015 version was. The Husker will need to make some positive strides in all areas to get themselves back into the conversation of winning the Big Ten West and competing for a big time bowl game at the conclusion of 2016.

GAME 11 VS. RUTGERS

Two wins in a row. It seems crazy to think that it has been over a year since Nebraska had experienced that. It was, though. No more. The Huskers raced out to a quick 21-0 lead on Rutgers on Saturday afternoon and, albeit for a brief moment in the late 2nd quarter and early 3rd quarter, never looked back in route to a 31-14 win. The win improved the Huskers to 5-6 and 3-4 in the Big Ten. The Big Red now enjoys their only bye weekend of the season (a much needed one), a weekend off that they’ll use to get healthy and prepare for the currently undefeated Hawkeyes of Iowa on the Friday after Thanksgiving.

So that’s the quick overview. Let’s get into the details and then talk about bowl scenarios.

Nebraska ran the ball early and effectively on the opening drive. There was more of the Imani Cross we saw from the Michigan State game. It helped the Huskers really establish themselves in this one. Cross finished with 90 yards on the day and delivered his second consecutive solid day carrying the ball.

Tommy Armstrong began 8-8 and looked to be really on his game. Then he overthrew a receiver, and it got picked and returned to the 6 yard line. Two more interceptions followed. For a while there in the early goings of the 3rd quarter it felt like Nebraska was inviting Rutgers to be a part of this game.

Rutgers, though, is a bad football team right now. Their coach is embattled. Their players are discouraged. Their best player is not 100%. It showed on Saturday. Even when the Huskers made a mistake or left the door open for the Scarlet Knights, they did virtually nothing with those opportunities.

For the Huskers to take that next step, and to be a consistent football team that doesn’t ride the roller coaster (many times within the games), Armstrong has to limit the big mistakes and become a more efficient quarterback. I still believe he can do it. He needs to play his best game of the year against the Hawkeyes. He’s a tremendous competitor, and I think he will.

Big kudos to the defensive line on Saturday. Six sacks and eleven tackles for loss is a good day at the office. It’s an even better day for a defensive front that has struggled to generate a pass rush this year. It was nice to see not only Maliek Collins, but guys like Ross Dzuris and Greg McMullin getting after it off the edge. It’s amazing how much better a pass defense looks when you’re getting pressure, isn’t it?

Speaking of the secondary, Chris Jones & Josh Kalu are going to be good ones. Yes, they’ve taken their licks this year. However, these two are not short on confidence, and keep coming back and competing. I think their future is very bright. Nate Gerry is also playing at a higher level over the last few weeks.

At 5-6, even if the Huskers don’t beat Iowa and get to bowl eligibility, a bowl game is still likely. A number of 5-7 teams are sure to get bowl waivers this year, and Nebraska is sure to be one of them. However, a 5-7 record probably sends the Big Red to Ft. Worth and the Armed Forces bowl vs. a Mountain West opponent. If the Huskers can get to 6-6 with a 2nd win over a top 10 opponent in their final three games, I think it’s much harder to figure out. Most likely you are looking at the Pinstripe Bowl in NYC, the Foster Farms Bowl in San Francisco, or perhaps maybe even the Music City Bowl in Nashville, TN (although less likely.)

Regardless of bowl selections/assignments, the big key for Nebraska is the opportunity at Memorial Stadium next Friday. It’s a chance to knock off a top 10 team and perhaps ruin their perfect season. It’s a chance to legitimately change the narrative of the season to undeniable momentum. It would be a VERY valuable win, and a turn of events on the recruiting trail for Mike Riley’s bunch.

GAME 10 VS. MICHIGAN STATE

I can’t recall a better atmosphere at Memorial Stadium in the past 10 years. I can’t recall a more needed performance from the Huskers. Man, we all needed that didn’t we?

The unbeaten and top 10 ranked Michigan State Spartans came calling on Saturday night, and very few outside the Husker locker room gave the Big Red a chance.

On paper, the Spartans had some serious advantages: an NFL quarterback versus a Husker secondary that has struggled, a run defense that is among the best in the country, and a 19-3 road record in the Big Ten conference since 2010. Those aren’t stats that favored Nebraska. However, the Huskers finally put together as complete a performance as anyone could have asked for.

To win this game they needed the following: 1. Fast start, shake off those negative vibes from the week prior. 2. Play even in the turnover category. 3. Establish a semblance of a running game. The Huskers accomplished two of those three (they were negative in the turnover category). Nebraska raced out to a 10-0 lead, and played well pretty much all night. They never quit. They eventually turned the tables on the last-second narrative that has haunted them all year. This time, it was the Huskers that broke the hearts of the Spartans and ruined a perfect season in the process.

Kudos to Tommy Armstrong. In my ten years on the sideline, I’ve not seen a better competitor. There’s been some great ones. He’s perhaps the best. He’s imperfect, sure. But he has toughness and heart that can’t be taught. It’s really fun to watch, and we should appreciate what we have under center right now.

Brandon Reilly and Jordan Westerkamp are dudes. They are special. They are reliable. It’s been fun to watch this entire unit step up.

I also think that while the secondary has been criticized, two young corners are going to be special. The athleticism of Josh Kalu and Chris Jones should not go unnoticed.

Yes, Nebraska is still 4-6, and no, that’s not the record that anybody wants. However this win, this top 10 upset on national TV, this win that sent Memorial Stadium into a frenzy, should be looked at as the official jumping off point for the Mike Riley era.

Nebraska needs now to run the table. Win the final two. Do that, and you officially will capture the attention of the country. Recruiting should explode, and the momentum should be evident. That’s the goal. That’s what Nebraska is playing for: a solid foundation to build upon for the future.

GAME 9 VS. PURDUE

Another week, and another tough loss for the Big Red. It’s weird to think that two weeks ago it appeared this team had turned a corner after their dismantling of Minnesota.

The Huskers traveled to Purdue to take on a team that had one conference win over the past three seasons. Now it has two. Purdue took advantage of two major things on Saturday: Nebraska’s injuries, and the Huskers’ turnovers. Make no mistake about it; both played a big part in the final outcome. However, both are also a part of the game. Purdue was also playing without their starting running back and leading tackler. Purdue had a redshirt freshman quarterback. Purdue scored 55 points. Turnovers or not, that’s too many, obviously.

I’m not really sure where Mike Riley and his staff go from here as they search for answers. Some will call for a youth movement and at 3-6, that is a legitimate conversation. However, I’m not sure that will have a profound impact. This is much more about the Husker players, whoever is on the field, finding a way to play better football, period. The penalties, missed tackles and missed assignments are largely correctable. Instead of letting a 3-6 record and disappointing season to this point drag you down further, leaders need to step up and stop the bleeding. Focusing on the little things and letting the rest fall in place is how good teams become great. Nebraska has to get locked in on the little things. If they don’t, this season could continue in a difficult direction. We can talk about Xs and Os all you want. Right now, the rest of this season is on the leaders (coaches, captains, etc.) to find a way to pick this team up off the mat and compete at a high level over the final three games.

GAME 8 VS. NORTHWESTERN

Sometimes I feel like my iPod is stuck on “repeat” mode. This Huskers season feels like it’s on a loop. Nebraska, coming off of a convincing victory over Minnesota the week prior, couldn’t establish a running game in route to a 30-28 loss to Northwestern. As solid of an outing as the week previous was, it was a step backward in front of 89,000+ fans in Memorial Stadium this past weekend.

The Huskers could never get into rhythm offensively. On a day in which the defense played about as well as it has this year, the offense just couldn’t get untracked. Tommy Armstrong struggled again with accuracy and making the right reads. He seemed to be speeding himself up at times. The screen game continues to be out of whack also. All of these things contributed to the difficult day for the offense. However, it was the inability to run the ball, particularly on first down, that was the most frustrating part. The Huskers have a consistency issue on offense. There’s no other way to spin it.

Defensively, Nebraska let QB Clayton Thorson get loose for 60+ and 40+ yard “scrambles.” Other than that though, it was a very solid first 3 quarters for the unit. They stopped the tailback run game and defended the pass better than they have at any point in the season. Open field tackling though, was not at its finest.

DeMornay Pierson-El has to be a bigger factor for the Huskers moving forward. He has essentially been bottled up so far. Outside of a touchdown catch and a punt return for about 40+ yards, his first 4 games back have seen him with a limited impact. He’s too good and too important for that to remain that way.

The team seems a bit shell shocked by 5 losses by a combined 13 points. It’s hard to explain really. They have to keep fighting and improving to try and lay a foundation for this program moving forward. What they do over the final 4 regular season games will impact the 2016 season greatly. Character will show over this final stretch run.

GAME 7 VS. MINNESOTA

Nebraska football needed a win. That’s an understatement. After 4 losses in their first 6 games, all by the narrowest of margins, the Huskers needed a heaping of “feel good.” They got it on Saturday in the Twin Cities.

This one started a little nervously. The Gophers went right down the field, and made it look easy for their opening score. However, Terrell Newby would run 69 yards untouched a few plays later to tie it up. Shortly after that, Nebraska took control of the game, and would eventually finish the game with a 48-25 domination.

What impressed me in this contest were two main things. #1: the offense. It’s pretty hard to critique Danny Langsdorf’s unit on Saturday. They were balanced, efficient, and downright dominant for much of the game. Kudos to the game plan overall, but especially to work Jordan Westerkamp into the game early and often. He simply had not been targeted enough in the first two weeks of conference play. Also vastly improved was the offensive line play. While not perfect, I would argue that it was their best day of 2015. Also good to see Demornay Pierson-El get into the fun returning punts and catching a tipped touchdown pass. The Huskers just had a rhythm about them, like we saw in the 4th quarter against Miami, or we saw in the 2nd quarter against BYU. We saw that same rhythm for pretty much all 4 quarters at TCF Bank Stadium.

Defensively Nebraska continued to stuff the run. However, Mitch Leidner and the Gopher offense threw for 301 yards. It was the first time in the Jerry Kill era that the Gophers surpassed 300 yards through the air. The secondary just plain has to improve. I’m not sure the answer there, but Mark Banker and Brian Stewart are likely working overtime to try and fix it.

Good news though: Nebraska created turnovers and drastically reduced the penalties. It was very clear that this team was focused from the start.

Okay, #2. Did you think I’d forget the other thing the really impressed me? It was the demeanor of the locker room following the win. Coach Riley’s speech was solid and to the point. The team seemed somewhat relieved to walk off the field with a meaningful win. They also seemed like a group that knows right now they have to stay “locked in” and keep grinding toward another solid performance next week vs. Northwestern.

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