LINCOLN, Neb. – There was a lot of talk after Nebraska’s 40-10 loss to Iowa about rinsing the bad taste of a disappointing 9-3 season out of its mouth.
The Huskers will have a chance to do just that in the Music City Bowl against Tennessee.
But Nebraska will have to turn around quite a bit.
Here are the three most important things Nebraska has to change to beat Tennessee on Dec. 30.
The 2016 season really caught up with Nebraska.
Senior quarterback Tommy Armstrong played with only one good hamstring against Iowa, which hurt an already struggling offense. Senior receiver Alonzo Moore didn’t play because of a leg injury, sophomore running back Devine Ozigbo hasn’t played much since the Illinois game in September. In general, Nebraska hasn’t been healthy for months.
And Armstrong’s situation sounds discouraging.
“We’ll still have lingering questions about the health of our quarterbacks,” coach Mike Riley said Tuesday.
Nebraska will have a few weeks until bowl week to heal during which Riley and his coaching staff will balance getting players ready to play against re-agitating injuries.
Health remains the No. 1 priority for Nebraska going into this game.
Run the ball effectively
Nebraska was 2-2 in its final four games because of an inability to run the ball. Riley and offensive coordinator Danny Langsdorf are insistent that Nebraska has to establish a run game and not put senior quarterback Armstrong in third-and-long throws that he couldn’t complete.
With questions surrounding Armstrong’s health, Langsdorf and Riley need to develop a consistent running game.
The jet sweep run with De’Mornay Pierson-El or any other receiver was abandoned near the end of the season because Langsdorf and Riley didn’t think they were “identity runs,” but, in these next few weeks, the offense needs to find creative ways to move the ball on the ground.
Runs up the middle have not been effective for either senior running back Terrell Newby or freshman running back Tre Bryant. Nebraska has to get more players involved, or in different ways – especially since Tennessee’s run defense is clearly a weakness.
Tennessee allowed more than 400 yards rushing in two of its last three games. Runs that typically yield a few yards could result in 10 yards, and gains of 15 turn into touchdown runs against this Volunteers defense. Against Kentucky, two Wildcats had runs of 70-plus yards. Against Missouri, the 3-8 Tigers averaged 6.2 yards per carry.
Nebraska won’t find many vulnerabilities with Tennessee, so it needs to figure out how to take advantage of this one.
Stop the run
Near the end of the season, a pattern emerged on how to beat Nebraska: stop the run, and then run like crazy on the Blackshirts.
Ohio State ran for 238 yards. Wisconsin ran for a cool 223 the next week. And Iowa almost had two running backs go over 100 yards in the first half alone.
Tennessee doesn’t always run well. But when it does, it’s deadly.
Dobbs ran for more than 150 yards in two of Tennessee’s final three games. Against Kentucky, Dobbs ran 14 times for 147 yards and two touchdowns.
Nebraska’s done a decent job all year securing the edge and bouncing runners inside. But as Iowa showed time and time again, run straight up the middle between the tackles and Nebraska will eventually break.
Nebraska’s run defense has shown glimpses of great all season. Against Tennessee, they’ll have to put together a full game of solid run defense against a good opponent for the first time all year.