Despite a losing record — the school's first since 2007 — in Mike Riley's first season, Nebraska fans remain optimistic about the former Oregon State coach's second campaign as head of the Cornhuskers.
Nebraska did finish on a high note, winning three of its last four games including a 37-29 victory over UCLA in the Foster Farms Bowl as one of the rare 5-7 teams to play in the postseason. However, the Cornhuskers seemed to invent ways to lose and were wildly inconsistent. Five of the seven losses came on the final possession, but they lost to Purdue before beating Big Ten champion Michigan State (although in controversial fashion) the following week.
Riley has talented players to work with, but needs to formulate some stability at the quarterback spot with Tommy Armstrong and get his guys to quit turning the ball over. Nebraska finished -12 in turnover margin in 2015, tied for 117th in the country.
Let's take a closer look at Riley's second Nebraska team.
Somehow, Tommy Armstrong still has college eligibility left and is one of seven returning starters on an offense that ranked second in the Big Ten in 2015 with 446.9 yards per game. The Huskers averaged 32.8 points per game (third in the conference) but couldn't stop giving the ball to the other team and putting their defense in terrible spots.
Armstrong is a brilliant athlete, and his feet and legs allow him to extend plays and avoid sacks. He needs to show a progression in the passing game, however, for Riley to keep him atop the depth chart and not take a long look at four-star freshman Patrick O'Brien who enrolled in January. Armstrong threw 16 interceptions last season to run his career total to 36 against 53 touchdowns. For the offense to be more consistent, it all starts with him.
In front of Armstrong, Nebraska lost four starters on its offensive line including second-team All-Big Ten performer left tackle Alex Lewis. Depth looks better on the inside with lone returning starter Dylan Utter, who shifted from guard to center for his senior year a la Ohio State's Pat Elflein.
|Head Coach||Mike Riley (2nd season, 6-7 career record)|
|2015 Record||6-7, 3-5 (Finished fourth in the B1G West)|
|2015 Postseason||Beat UCLA 37-29 in Foster Farms Bowl|
|Biggest Losses||Four starters on OL, Safety Byerson Cockrell, DT Maliek Collins|
|Biggest Returnees||QB Tommy Armstrong, 3 senior WRs, CB Joshua Kalu|
|Summary||Nebraska returns loads of talent. What can Mike Riley do in Year 2?|
|Matchup||Nov. 5, 2016: Nebraska at Ohio State, kickoff 8 p.m.|
Nebraska scourged UCLA for 326 yards on the ground in the bowl game, running it 62 times and scoring four touchdowns. Armstrong ran for the most touchdowns on the team in 2015, scoring seven while Terrell Newby and Imani Cross each had six. In the team's first year without All-American Ameer Abdullah, Nebraska didn't really have a true starter at running back. Cross graduated, so Newby should be the guy but Riley likes sophomore Devine Ozigbo — he ran it 20 times for 80 yards against the Bruins.
At receiver, Jordan Westerkamp is one of the Big Ten's best. He fell just short of becoming the school's first 1,000-yard receiver in 2015, tallying 918 on 65 receptions to go with seven touchdowns. Brandon Reilly and Alonzo Moore also return, which gives Nebraska its top-3 pass catchers (all seniors) back in the lineup for 2016.
Outside of Armstrong — who must play like he did in 2013 when he took over for Taylor Martinez for then-quarterbacks coach Tim Beck — the offense's X-factor is De'Mornay Pierson-El. A gifted returner who is perfect for fly sweeps and difficult to handle in space, Pierson-El only played in six games last season due to foot and leg injuries.
Nebraska is loaded with talent on offense, but will only go as far as Armstrong's decision-making takes it. He should improve in Year 2 under Riley, but expect the Cornhuskers to run the ball — a lot.
Nebraska's defense finished 10th in the Big Ten last season both in scoring (27.8 points per game allowed) and yards allowed per game (400.4). It isn't easy constantly getting put in rough situations because the offense turned the ball over so much, but the unit as a whole needs to do better at putting pressure on opponents.
Defensive coordinator Mark Banker worked with Riley at Oregon State before coming with him to Lincoln and welcomes John Parrella this offseason as his defensive line coach. Parrella has his work cut out for him — all four starters from last year are gone, including third-team All-Big Ten performer Maliek Collins.
Nebraska's 24 sacks in 13 games last season was 10th-best in the conference, so the youth in the trenches must do better to get after the quarterback in 2016. Look for sophomore end Freedom Akinmoladun to be counted on early.
Essentially all of Nebraska's linebackers who saw time last season return, many of whom missed time a year ago because of injuries. The senior in the middle is Josh Banderas, who led the team with 6.8 tackles per game despite missing four because he was hurt.
Three defensive backs — Nate Gerry, Joshua Kalu and Byerson Cockrell — led the team in tackles, essentially because they stayed healthy. Cockrell graduated and though the unit as a whole took a step back statistically in Riley's first year, it should be better in 2016 because of its depth and having a full season under its belt in a new scheme.
As long as Nebraska's starters can stay healthy and Parrella fills holes on the defensive line, Riley's defense should among the Big Ten's most improved groups this fall.
Nebraska finished on both sides of late-game heroics last season. BYU beat it on a Hail Mary as time expired in the season opener, but the Cornhuskers topped Michigan State 39-38 on Brandon Reilly's 30-yard touchdown reception that stood after video review even though he clearly went out of bounds before catching it. Miami (FL) also beat the Huskers in overtime, and Illinois won 14-13 when it scored two touchdowns in the fourth quarter, the last one with 10 seconds left in the game.
Regardless, Tommy Armstrong's heroics late against the Spartans (led a 91-yard drive in the final minute) and the team's strong finish showed its potential moving ahead. Mike Riley keeps his coaching staff mostly intact wherever he goes — offensive coordinator Danny Langsdorf worked with him for 10 years before heading to Lincoln and defensive coordinator Banker has been under him since 1997. These "lieutenants" as Riley calls them, need to do more to show improvement and a higher stress on not turning the ball over and taking it away. Armstrong must be better too.
Nebraska visited Columbus in 2012 and led Ohio State 24-21 in the second quarter before the Buckeyes scored six touchdowns on their final eight possessions to win going away 63-38. The Cornhuskers and Buckeyes play under the lights in early November, both a rarity and an indication of how big the game could be as we enter the final third of the season.