LINCOLN, Neb. — Five weeks into the season, it’s clear there are plenty of blemishes in Nebraska’s game, even if there are none in its record.
The Huskers are the only undefeated team in the Big Ten West and have cleaned up a lot of last year’s mistakes, including holding on to leads late in the fourth quarter. But there are still things they need to clean up if they want to run the table in the Big Ten.
Senior RB Terrell Newby said after Saturday’s 31-16 win over Illinois that his big concern is taking care of the ball. Senior center Dylan Utter wants the offensive line to sustain their blocks longer. Offensive coordinator Danny Langsdorf wants to clean up the offense in general.
But more than anything, the Huskers need to get healthy. And they know it. Every single coach and player available to the media after the Illinois game said that is the No. 1 concern over the next week.
“We’d like to get guys as healthy as we can,” coach Mike Riley said after the win.
He’s got quite a few key Huskers hurting.
Senior WR Alonzo Moore and sophomore OL Tanner Farmer were both out before the game with injuries. Senior TE Cethan Carter, one of senior QB Tommy Armstrong’s top targets, left in the first quarter with a hyperextended elbow, which made a few people squeamish in Twitter during the replay. Riley didn’t say how long he’d be out for. Sophomore RB Devine Ozigbo, the team’s leader in carries, left in the fourth quarter with an ankle injury and was in a boot after the game, Utter said.
And maybe most serious of all, senior WR Jordan Westerkamp was hurt twice on Saturday. First when he rolled an ankle and was helped off the field in the first half, and then again in the second half on a hit in his lower back. Westerkamp was taken to the hospital and, according to the Nebraska athletic department, released from the hospital shortly after the game. There have been no updates on the extent of his injury, or what it was specifically, as of Sunday afternoon.
“Summarizing, looking at our team, and watching that take place today appears to be a really good time for a bye week,” Riley said.
Coaches have been praising Nebraska all year with having a good “next man up” mentality when starters go down. On Saturday specifically, Riley liked the play of sophomore Cole Conrad, who stepped in for the injured Farmer.
But at some point, when the injuries start adding up, it starts to hurt the psyche of the team.
“It’s like, damn,” junior WR Stanley Morgan Jr. said. “Those are great guys going down.”
Nebraska will need to get healthy with the second —and tougher —half of its season looming.
Indiana, the Huskers next opponent in two weeks, knocked off No. 17 Michigan State on Saturday. And after playing an improved Purdue team, the Huskers will travel to Wisconsin for what could be the game for the Big Ten West, and then will have No. 2 Ohio State waiting after that.
On the field, Riley wants to work on offensive situations over the bye week. Two-minute drills, four-minute offense, end of the half situations.
“Just some specific deals that I’ve been writing down for the past week on scheme situations,” Riley said.
On the defensive side of the ball, he actually didn’t see many positives at all against Illinois. A lot of missed tackles, only a handful of good plays in the secondary. Defensive coordinator Mark Banker was frustrated with his group’s play on Saturday, too.
But before any of those things get fixed, Nebraska needs its starters healthy. That’s the priority.
“A lot of guys are banged up,” Newby said. “This is a great time for a bye week.”