At the midway point of the 2016 season, Nebraska looks like the Big Ten’s new Rorschach test.
The Huskers are 6-0 for the first time since 2001, but making sense of where Nebraska fits in the conference landscape is tricky. After fending off an improved Indiana squad Saturday, Nebraska is alone atop the Big Ten West standings.
Not unlike Iowa a year ago, the Huskers are doing just enough to win games but not enough to ease concerns completely. Are the Huskers the team to beat in the West, though? This was far from a convincing victory.
Maybe the Hoosiers end up being the third-best team in the East and winning anywhere on the road against a bowl-caliber team is more important than style points. Or maybe Nebraska just played pretty close to a draw against a mid-pack team.
The plays (71-69, in favor of Nebraska), total yards (360-333), first downs (17-18) and turnovers (two each) were almost identical. After everything that happened, the difference was that Nebraska scored a defensive touchdown and Indiana wasn’t able to recover the blocked punt before it went out of the back of the end zone.
The offense started strong and then disappeared for about half of the game against Indiana’s much-improved defense. Tommy Armstrong looked more like the inconsistent, poor decision-maker from last season than the guy who played so well, particularly in the second half, in the first five games.
Terrell Newby put in some solid work in the fourth quarter, but a defensive touchdown and an awkward pass into triple coverage before defenders ran into each other provided two of the three touchdowns.
The defense looked worthy of winning the West for much of the first three quarters, but missed assignments on a fake reverse led to one Indiana touchdown and then the Hoosiers carved up the Huskers for a fourth-quarter touchdown.
Indiana also blocked a punt for a safety and used a huge punt return to set up a touchdown, so special teams had issues as well.
Armstrong’s inconsistencies seem like the perfect starting point for this team. When he’s playing well, Nebraska looks like a top-10 team. When he doesn’t, the Huskers look like a vulnerable group left to the mercy of how the ball bounces.
The defense looks like it belongs to a second tier behind Ohio State, Michigan and Wisconsin. Let’s call it the “really good, but not great” group that might also include Iowa but certainly does not include Michigan State.
The case for Nebraska in the West lies with Armstrong. Newby can be terrific, like he was in the fourth quarter while the Huskers tried to grind out a drive and kill the game. An efficient Armstrong combined with Newby and this defense might be enough to stay ahead of Wisconsin and Iowa and earn a trip to Indianapolis for the Big Ten championship game.
Games at Wisconsin and at Ohio State are looming after what should be a lay-up against Purdue. Are the Huskers capable of winning on the road against one of those teams? They don’t need to win both. Just beating the Badgers would make them overwhelming favorites to win the division.
There are six games of data to pour over with this Nebraska team. Making any sort of bold proclamations about any of it seems like a bad idea.
The Huskers are better than they were in 2015. They might be good enough to win the West.
Do you believe that? Guess it depends on what you see.