There are no if’s, and’s or but’s about it — Nebraska Cornhuskers football fans are hungry for championship football to return to Lincoln, Neb. Most are sick of being the bridesmaids of the Big 12 or now the Big Ten.
It is safe to say that most fans were not exactly happy with the returns of their beloved Huskers in new head coach Mike Riley’s first season at the helm. Going below .500 in the regular season after countless nine-win seasons under previous head coach Bo Pelini will do that to a guy.
However, the fans figured out just how depleted the program was and Riley got to the work of understanding how to maximize the potential of what he has on the team heading in to 2016.
Anything short of a winning season in 2016 and the hot seat would be on fire for Riley. The early returns on that equation? Let’s just say the seat is as cool as it has been in quite some time in Lincoln, Neb.
So, what is the verdict on the Huskers after non-conference play has finished? Let’s take a look at the state of the Nebraska football program.
The Good News:
Sometimes it takes a coach awhile to find his identity within a program and define what football under his leadership will be about at any given school. To say head coach Mike Riley struggled with that in 2015 would be an understatement.
To say that his team has figured out that identity and gelled together as a family in 2016 wouldn’t be an understatement at all. Nebraska is simply hitting on all cylinders so far this season, including a defense that is giving up under 20 points per game and a quarterback that is as capable of throwing for 300 yards as he is at rushing for 100 yards.
Depth at wide receiver has been incredible and the play along both the offensive and defensive lines has been much improved as well. Simply put, this team is night and day different from the one that Riley tried to mesh together in 2015.
It has all led to a team that is 3-0 and will take on Northwestern in its Big Ten opener. Defense has set the tone, but no longer is this team one-dimensional on offense and that has to scare the crap out of most Big Ten teams.
The Bad News:
For all that has gone right with Nebraska’s sudden turnaround from a boring team to watch to an exciting one, there is one glaring hole that has to worry the coaching staff and fans heading in to Big Ten play. That issue? Big Plays.
Nebraska has been great at cutting down the run game of opponents, probably better than most thought with all the turmoil up front on the defensive line. However, this group had its weakness exposed last week despite Royce Freeman only getting 5 carries before getting injured. Oregon managed to have four different players register a run of 20 yards or over, including a 50-yard run by Taj Griffin and a 46-yard run by Kani Benoit.
Those kind of plays can’t happen in Big Ten play, especially with the big-play happy offenses like Indiana, Maryland and Ohio State on the schedule. It seems as if speed is still an issue for the Huskers defense, and one that can’t be corrected overnight.
Nebraska has to find a way to limit opponents from the big play or it is going to have way more games like this past weekend against even the bottom of the B1G.
Craziest Stat: 35
That is the number of points off turnovers that the Huskers have created already this season. Yes, that means the team has scored five touchdowns off of eight turnovers. A 3-0 start wasn’t exactly what most predicted given the turmoil of change last season and all that was lost going in to 2016 for the Huskers.
Instead, they’ve responded to adversity and become a true contender in the Big Ten West division. A lot of that has to do with a defense that has gotten seven interceptions in just three games. If that trend, or anything close to it, continues in Big Ten play, we could be looking at a real national contender as well.
Player Who Has Stepped Up: Nate Gerry, S
Few players serve a suspension for a violation of team rules while also still getting voted a captain. That’s what Gerry was able to accomplish to start the season, missing the opener against Fresno State. However, he has more than made up for it already with some of the best play we’ve seen from him in his entire career.
In just two games, Gerry has racked up 16 tackles, 3 tackles for loss, 2 interceptions and 2 pass break ups.
Not too bad for a safety, huh? It should be noted that Gerry has been instrumental in the turnaround of the Huskers defense despite his own trouble earlier this offseason. His leadership on the field and refocus off of it has seemed to inspire the teammates around him.
If he continues to play at this high of a level the 2016 season might go down as one of the best performances by any secondary in Nebraska history. That’s saying a lot, but the early returns suggest it is possible.
Player Who Needs to Step Up: Devine Ozigbo, RB
Really this award could go to the entire running back group, because none of them have proven to be all that special so far in 2016. Ozigbo is a bruising back that can do some damage, but hasn’t been consistent enough early on this season. He’s had 53 carries already this year, but has produced just 242 yards on those carries.
The four touchdowns on the ground in three games is nice, no doubt about that. But, this is a program that needs a dynamic running back. Between Ozigbo and Terrell Newby there just really hasn’t been that big of a spark.
Meanwhile, the young Mikael Wilbon still is waiting on his chance. If Ozigbo can’t pick it up at more than a 4.6 yards per carry average, it may be time for the offense to give the rock to some other options.