Season Record: 4-5 (3-3 B1G)
Head Coach: Mike Riley (19-16, 3rd year at Nebraska)
2017 S&P+ Overall Ranking: 78th
2016 S&P+ Overall Ranking: 46th
It’s been 20 years since Tom Osborne retired as head coach at Nebraska after a perfect 13-0 season, claiming the top ranking in the coaches’ poll. Since then, the Cornhuskers have had four different coaches at the helm, migrated from the Big 12 to the Big Ten, and notched one lonely conference championship. I can’t even remember the last time Nebraska was in the conversation for the national championship. And it doesn’t appear Mike Riley will be the head coach to help the Huskers rejoin that conversation, as his firing is a near certainty now that Nebraska has hired a new athletic director and the football program teeters on the edge of its second losing season in three years.
It’s hard to imagine a worse turn of events for Nebraska, especially when you consider that Riley’s predecessor, Bo Pelini, was fired after winning at least nine games in each of his seven seasons as head coach. The grass isn’t always greener, apparently.
Junior quarterback Tanner Lee has been a bit inconsistent in his first season as the starting signal caller. He is fourth in the Big Ten with 17 passing touchdowns and third in passing yards with 2,365, but Lee has also thrown the second most interceptions (13) in all of college football. During a three-game stretch early in the year, Lee actually threw nine interceptions and completed exactly 50 percent of his passes. He followed that up with a four-game stretch that saw him average 310.5 passing yards per game. Lee also completed 61 percent of his passes and threw for eight touchdowns and one interception over that same stretch.
Lee certainly has weapons in the passing game. Junior wide receiver Stanley Morgan, Jr. is almost certain to find the end zone on Saturday, having scored a touchdown in all but three games this season. He leads the Huskers with 43 receptions, 690 receiving yards, and seven touchdowns. Redshirt freshman wide receiver J.D. Spielman, an Eden Prairie native, is a rising star. The versatile Spielman, who is also a playmaker on special teams, had a breakout game against Ohio State in which he hauled in 11 receptions for 200 yards and one touchdown. Senior wideout De’Morney Pierson-El rounds out the Huskers’ receiving corps with 35 receptions, 467 receiving yards, and four touchdowns.
The offensive line, which doesn’t have a single senior among the starting five, has kept Lee clean for the most part. The Huskers are tied for 31st in the country in sacks allowed, averaging 1.44 per game this season. But when Lee has struggled, it has been when the defense is able to apply pressure and force him into making bad decisions.
The Huskers’ rushing attack has been anemic to say the least, averaging 120.8 rushing yards per game, which ranks 107th nationally. Sophomore Tre Bryant was the starter to open the season, but hasn’t played since Week 2 against Oregon after suffering a knee injury. Junior running back Devin Ozigbo has shouldered the load in his absence, with mixed success (109 carries, 403 rushing yards, 1 touchdown). The fact that Ozigbo is the lone back to have passed Bryant’s two games of production is indicative of their struggles in the running game.
Verdict: I feel confident we won’t see a repeat of last week, when Michigan rushed for nearly 400 yards against the Gopher defense. The question will be whether the Minnesota secondary can hold up against the Huskers’ talented receiving corps. Having starting cornerbacks Antonio Shenault and Kiondre Thomas healthy and on the field will help, but the Gophers’ defensive backs will need to cut down on the mental mistakes that have been costly in recent weeks.
The Huskers’ defense, under new coordinator Bob Diaco, has not even remotely resembled the “Blackshirts” of the past. Nebraska ranks 81st in the country in rushing defense (176.9 rushing yards per game), 71st in passing defense (223.8 passing yards per game), and 92nd in scoring defense (30.1 points per game). Diaco has cited poor tackling and the switch from a 4-3 base defense to a 3-4 as reasons for their struggles, explaining that his players need a full year of strength and conditioning, skill development and "intellectual conditioning" to get acclimated.
Senior middle linebacker Chris Weber is the leader on defense, with a team-leading 77 tackles, seven tackles for loss, one sack, and one interception. Close behind is junior linebacker Dedrick Young with 64 tackles, 3 tackles for loss, and one sack. The linebackers have obviously contributed to the Huskers’ poor run defense, but outside linebackers Luke Gifford and Alex Davis have also struggled when asked to cover tight ends and wide receivers.
The defensive line, anchored by redshirt sophomore defensive end Carlos Davis, seems to have struggled the most with the transition from 4-3 to 3-4, which has effectively altered their role and asked them to fill space and allow the linebackers to make plays. With how much opposing teams have run wild against this defensive front — Northwestern racked up 232 rushing yards last week — their shortcomings have been front and center.
Wisconsin, for example, tailored their running game to attack the edge of the Huskers’ defense, forcing the secondary to come up in run support and make tackles in open space. In particular, Nebraska’s inexperience at cornerback was exposed early in the season, which is why the Blackshirts felt some relief in the form of senior Chris Jones, who suffered a torn ACL in the spring but returned to action against Wisconsin and started the following week.
Junior safety Aaron Williams has been their most consistent defender in the secondary, with 41 tackles, one tackle for loss, two interceptions, and one pass break-up.
Verdict: In all but one of their five losses, the Huskers have allowed the opposing team to rack up at least 200 rushing yards. For once, the Gophers won’t have to depend on the arm of Demry Croft to beat a team, as long as they’re able to get the ground game going. Nebraska has fared better defensively against Big Ten teams with lackluster offenses — Rutgers, Illinois, and Purdue — so Minnesota will still need to take a step forward from the inept performances we’ve seen the last two weeks. But the opportunity will be there.
Prediction: Minnesota 24, Nebraska 21. This is very likely the Gophers’ last winnable game this season. I’m not going to predict a loss. I have zero confidence in Minnesota’s offense at the moment, but I’m hoping for a pleasant surprise on Saturday.