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ThotDoc's Brain Droppings on the Rutgers Game

Nicked up Nebraska Navigates a Needed Win by Knocking off the Knights in the Nineties

On an extremely warm autumn afternoon, the Nebraska Cornhuskers rallied from a second half deficit and defeated the Rutgers Scarlet Knights 27-17 on Homecoming in Memorial Stadium. The loss extends the Rutgers conference losing streak to 15 games but the result was in doubt well into the 4th quarter. The 1-2 Huskers entered the contest after a turbulent week that saw Athletic Director Shawn Eichorst fired and Mike Riley squarely on the coaching hot seat. After all, Harry Truman was President the last time Nebraska opened a season 1-3. This win by no means secured Riley’s employment, but probably delayed any changes until after the Huskers face Wisconsin and Ohio State.

The Huskers played today without two of its top four outside linebackers, Marcus Newby and Tyrin Ferguson, as well as their top safety Joshua Kalu. On the first series of the game, the other starting safety, Aaron Williams was ejected on a targeting call. On offense, they played without their starting running back, Tre Bryant, the Big Ten’s leading receiver, Stanley Morgan, Jr., their starting center, Cole Conrad, and their top two right tackles, David Knevel and Matt Farniok. They also played with the quarterback who leads the nation in interceptions and picks returned for touchdowns and he managed to add to both those totals. The fact that Nebraska played with that type of adversity and still prevailed is a credit to the defense and the running game (and a pretty darn good punt return by De’Mornay Pierson-El).

How bad does Mike Riley think second string quarterback Patrick O’Brien must be? How must O’Brien feel to see that the guy ahead of him has thrown nine interceptions in four games and he can’t even sniff the field? I’m not suggesting that O’Brien will be God’s gift to the offense, but how bad does it have to get? Tommy Armstrong had eight picks through 13 games last year. Over the past ten quarters, the Blackshirts have given up two offensive touchdowns, while in the last eight quarters Tanner Lee has gifted the opposition 21 points. He has essentially kept the opponents in the game all by himself. The difference between last week’s loss and this week’s win was a 4th quarter in which we ran the ball almost exclusively. In this game’s final period, we rushed 18 times and threw two passes, the last toss a 7-yard completion with just under 13 minutes to play.

On offense, the team looked sharp on their first possession, a 7 play 75-yard scoring drive and then seemed disoriented through the next seven drives in which they netted just 44 yards. The play-calling was consistently inconsistent, especially third and short, where throwing the ball long seemed to be in vogue. Especially maddening was the Huskers getting the ball at the Rutgers 49 with two minutes until half, and we go three and out with two incomplete passes and squander a golden scoring opportunity. Thankfully, the drive of the game began at the NU 3-yard line with 10:59 left in the 3rd quarter and the Huskers trailing 17-14. The 17 play, 97-yard drive that consumed 8:10 on the clock included 9 rushes and 8 pass plays, of which only two were over 10 yards. It’s amazing how good Lee can look when the play-calling plays to his strengths. The Rutgers defense never recovered and the Huskers offensive line dominated to the end. In the second half, Nebraska held a 22:50 – 7:10 advantage in time of possession.

The second half featured the reemergence of Devine Ozigbo (24 rushes for 101 yards) in which he had 85 rushing yards after intermission, including a 20-yard scamper the first play after Antonio Reed’s interception. The 24 carries are a career high. I don’t know what put him in the doghouse the first three games, but I’m glad they have let Ziggy out to play. Mikale Wilbon (14 rushes for 78 yards) added a 4-yard touchdown that was set up by Pierson-El’s punt return. I am kind of partial to one play scoring drives as well. True freshman Jaylin Bradley (6 carries for 16 yards) burned his redshirt, as this week, with Tre Bryant missing again, the coaches decided that running back by committee was the best approach.

With Morgan on the DL, redshirt freshman JD Spielman (5 catches for 46 yards) led the team in both categories and caught his first career touchdown pass on an 18-yard reception in the first quarter. De’Mornay Pierson-El (3 catches for 22 yards) added an 8-yard touchdown catch that concluded the long 3rd quarter scoring drive. Gabe Rahn (2 catches for 27 yards) got his first career start and had his first receptions on the season.

Although struggling through much of the first half, the offensive line were in sync throughout the second half and wore down the Scarlet Knights defenders. True freshman Brendan Jaimes started at right tackle and played admirably given that he was only the fifth true freshman offensive lineman to start for the Huskers. Center Michael Decker also got his first career start in place of Cole Conrad, and Nick Gates made his 21st straight start at left tackle, the longest streak by a Husker at that position since Richie Incognito started 22 straight games at the position in 2002-03.

On defense, the Blackshirts held Rutgers to 194 yards of total offense and to just 58 yards in the second half. Today’s total was the fewest yards by a NU opponent under Head Coach Mike Riley and last week’s 213 yards was the second fewest. Nebraska has held five straight opponents at Memorial Stadium to 100 or fewer rushing yards, including Rutgers’ 68 rushing yards today. The defense, soft coverage and all, appears to be getting better. One note of concern though is that for the fourth straight week, Nebraska gave up a touchdown drive on the opening possession of the game, as Rutgers marched 75 yards on 11 plays, aided by a circus ankle to butt catch and the Aaron Williams targeting foul.

Antonio Reed (6 tackles) shared for the team lead in stops and had a third-quarter interception to set up a Nebraska field goal, which was Reed’s first career pick. Reed was also in on two crucial back to back stops in the 2nd quarter when Rutgers went for it on 3rd and short and 4th and 1 from midfield. This kid seems like he is improving each week and his play became even more important with Kalu and Aaron Williams both missing from the secondary. Luke Gifford (6 tackles including 1 for loss) added a 4th quarter interception allowing Nebraska to kneel out the clock. Dedrick Young (6 tackles including 1 for loss and a QB hurry) played well throughout. Lamar Jackson added four stops but seemed like he was consistently giving defenders a ten yard cushion in coverage. Linebacker Sedrick King made his first career start but failed to record a tackle. Carlos Davis (3 tackles) continues to improve his ability to pressure as he added two quarterback hurries.

Special teams play was highlighted by De’Mornay Pierson-El’s 63-yard punt return to set up a touchdown in the second quarter. This was the 12th return of at least 25 yards in Pierson-El’s career. His other two punt returns netted -7 yards. Caleb Lightbourn averaged 38.8 on 5 punts but placed three of them inside the 20-yard line and had a career-long 64-yard punt in the fourth quarter. His previous long was 58 against Oregon last season. Drew Brown connected on a pair of fourth-quarter field goals, giving him 52 career field goals, and had 4 touchbacks on 6 kickoffs. Also of note, Jeremiah Stovall of Omaha Creighton Prep blew up one kick return at the 15.

Earlier in the week, the Big Ten Rankings (by BTN) rated Nebraska at 13th and Rutgers at 14th (or dead last) in the conference. The victory is small reassurance that we are not the worst team in the B1G. Oh, how the mighty have fallen. Next Friday night, we get a chance to slide up at least a slot as we face #12 Illinois in Champaign. I will be on a cruise ship in Alaska on my way across the Pacific to Japan. This team remains in a very precarious position. I hope we can get the win on the road, and get some players healthy, because the task gets much more difficult after that. Go Big Red!!

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