It’s welcome back to the upper middle class for Nebraska, which made it back to the nine-win mark without Tommy Armstrong and without second-half drama.
Breaking out of mold they’ve cast for themselves, Nebraska played three nice quarters of football and a coasted to the finish for a secure but underwhelming 28-7 victory that clinched only the second undefeated home season for the Cornhuskers since 2001.
Getting back to this level is a tremendout improvement over Riley’s maiden voyage. The Huskers went out and won all the games they should have won, climbing back as far as anyone reasonably expected them to go after a 6-7 season. Next up is a tough road game against a rejuvenated Iowa team. The Hawkeyes appear to be playing their best football of the season, but Nebraska has a longshot chance at making the Big Ten Championship. The question of the week will be whether Armstrong’s injured hamstring will improve enough to allow him to play.
No fourth-quarter heroics were needed this time. In fact, the Terrapins won the final quarter, while the Huskers looked flat and unable to comprehend some adjustments Maryland’s run defense made during the second half. More on that later.
The best news for Husker fans Saturday was that the Blackshirts completely shut down the running game of Maryland, which came into the day as the fourth-best rushing team in the conference. NU held Maryland to just 11 net yards rushing on 25 carries. It should be an interesting Black Friday in Iowa City. The first team to 20 probably wins.
Seniors Nate Gerry, Michael Rose-Ivey, Josh Banderas and Kevin Maurice made sure they left Memorial Stadium as winners one last time, keeping Maryland’s freshman quarterback, Max Bortenschlager, bottled up for most of the day. One major breakdown — a 92-yard screen pass to D.J. Moore where several Huskers whiffed on tackles — was all that stood between Nebraska and its first shutout since Ndamukong Suh roamed the field. That one play almost doubled Maryland’s total offense output for the game.
It was a taste of redemption for backup quarterback Ryker Fyfe, who found out early in the week that Armstrong’s hamstring injury would not allow him to play. Fyfe made the best of his opportunity to wash away the memory of his only other start — a 55-45 loss at Purdue last season. Fyfe was more than enough for the Huskers at quarterback against the Terps, completing 23 of 37 passes for 220 yards and a touchdown with no turnovers.
Fyfe could not have envisioned that he would be walking off the field at Memorial Stadium one final time without his old high school friend, Sam Foltz, whose untimely death last July continues to have a huge effect on his teammates. This senior class has shown excellent resiliency and good leadership even without Foltz, last season’s all-conference punter.
“This bunch has a lot of pride in each other and a lot of close friendships,” said Riley, who acknowledged the irony of Fyfe being the most visible Grand island athlete on the field on Senior Day.
The kicking game absorbed another short-term hit Saturday when placekicker Drew Brown left the game after getting “dinged” while making the tackle on the opening kickoff. He was replaced by senior Spencer Lindsay, who spent much of his career rooming with Foltz. Lindsay kicked all four extra points. Unfortunately, there was yet another kicking game breakdown when Lindsay had a field goal blocked as a Husker lineman missed an assignment on his second-quarter attempt. Brown will have to go through concussion protocol this week and is not guaranteed to play against Iowa, although he seemed to be in excellent spirits on the sidelines, congratulating Lindsay on several occasions.
The victory was good, but there are concerns. We got a look at post-Tommy Armstrong offense. It was not all that impressive against a subpar defensive unit. That’s mainly because Nebraska’s offensive line lost momentum in the second half. It continues to lose momentum in the second half of the season.
A Top 20 finish seems about right for the Huskers this season. That appears to be the ceiling right now for the Big Red, which have a Top 10-caliber defense but an offense that was losing momentum even with Armstrong in the lineup because it can’t get much production out of its offensive line.
It was curious and disappointing that after keeping the Maryland defense on the field for most of the game, the Husker first-string offense couldn’t do anything in the fourth quarter against what should have been a worn-down bunch of Terrapins. Nebraska went three-and-out three times in the fourth quarter. NU made good on six of eight third-down conversions by halftime, but converted only two of nine in the second half.
Senior Terrell Newby ran for 98 yards and three touchdowns and freshman Tre Bryant had 58 yards on 13 carries. Both squeezed out every yard they could without much blocking.
With four sophomore starters — tackles Nick Gates and Cole Conrad, guards Jerald Foster and Tanner Farmer — I still think things will be better in 2017. The line has struggled with injury problems most of the season. This is where most of the improvement needs to happen if the Huskers are to break out of the middle class and return to the upper level of college football. I thought we’d see better things out of this unit in 2016, but Mike Cavanaugh and Danny Langsdorf apparently believe they’re getting all they can for the time being.
Going forward, Langsdorf needs more creativity in the running game, including countersweeps and toss sweeps. Langsdorf said Saturday that injuries have kept the guards from pulling effectively, so apparently he’s decided to keep the playbook simple. If Armstrong can’t go against the Hawkeyes, the Blackshirts will need to play their best game of the season to get the Huskers any farther down the road.
Formerly the sports editor at the North Platte Bulletin and a sportswriter/columnist for the North Platte Telegraph, Tad Stryker started writing for this website in 2008. You can e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Stryker is a freelance writer, favoring topics related to Nebraska history or Christianity. You can buy his recent book at this link.
Fyfe gets a win on Senior Day
Blackshirts shut down Maryland running game, clinch unbeaten home season
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