The dog days are coming, and that’s a good thing. With Big Ten Media Days kicking off Monday, Land Of 10 is breaking down the three biggest questions each team is hoping to answer coming out of Chicago. We’ll post two per day, with one from each division, turning this time in the Big Ten West to the …
1. Surely, the luck has got to change, right?
You’d think. Nebraska’s seven defeats last fall came by an an average margin of 4.4 points — and four of those setbacks came by a soul-crushing gap of three points or less.
More remarkably, it was the second seven-loss campaign in Lincoln in a decade, at a place where seven-loss seasons go over about as well as pickles on a snow cone. All of which made for a very short honeymoon for new coach Mike Riley, especially given the contentious departure of predecessor Bo Pelini.
So blame the regime change. Blame the scheme change. The Huskers were better than 6-7 on paper — just not so much better that they could overcome a minus-12 turnover ratio in a division where, perhaps only Purdue aside, “gimme” weeks were tough to come by. And lest we forget, Nebraska lost to the Boilermakers last year, a 55-45 brain cramp in West Lafayette that stands as Riley’s nadir to date.
A stronger commitment to the old Husker mantras — namely, physicality and the run game — should minimize some of those risks; Nebrasks quarterbacks tossed 21 picks last fall, 16 by starter Tommy Armstrong Jr.
We’ll go out on a limb and wager that the Big Red won’t find as many astonishingly varied ways to drop games this autumn the way they did in 2015. We just won’t go out too far.
2. More of a worry: The new faces on the defensive line or offensive line?
Given the square-peg-in-a-round-hole approach Riley tried with Armstrong last year — and more on that in a minute — you’d probably go with the latter.
Senior Dylan Utter (6-foot-1, 295 pounds) figures to be a rock in the middle, but Nebraska’s corps of returning blockers has just 24 career starts combined.
If you’re curious, that’s the fewest of any offensive line group in the Big Ten and lowest of any unit among Power 5 programs aside from Missouri (11 combined starts), Arizona State (15), Kansas State (17) and Texas A&M (21). A good scheme can fake a lot of things in a pinch. But it can’t fake tough.
3. Can Armstrong and Riley really, truly, effectively co-exist?
If there was an overarching sin in Riley’s debut season, it was how he handled his then-junior quarterback, casting the athletic Armstrong in the mold of the pro-style, pass-first guys he had under center at Oregon State.
Only Armstrong wasn’t that. And might still not be that.
What he does offer is an athletic run-pass threat, the kind Big Red fans have seen for — well, pretty much decades.
Armstrong and Riley are continuing to adjust to one another, but you get the feeling that the more the coach plays to his quarterback’s strengths, rather than trying to shoe horn him into “the system,” the better off the Huskers will be.
And if you don’t believe us, there’s this: The Huskers were 3-1 when they threw it 29 times or fewer last fall, 3-6 when chucking it 30 times or more.
And this: At the Foster Farms Bowl. Nebraska ran it 62 times for 326 yards and passed only 19 times in a 37-29 upset of UCLA. That ratio might be more traditional Big Red than traditional Riley, but sometimes, you’ve got to suck it up and dance with the one that brought you.
You can reach Sean Keeler via email at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @seankeeler