Five burning questions heading into Rutgers week

Robin Washut, Senior Writer
Husker Online
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1. Can Nebraska save its season?

In the past 56 years of Nebraska football, the Huskers have only started off a season with a 1-2 record three times.

It just so happens that two of those instances have come during head coach Mike Riley’s first three years in Lincoln.

The reality is that NU is just one last-second defensive stand away from potentially being 0-3 right now, and the schedule only gets significantly more difficult from here on out.

The Huskers enter this week as 10-point favorites over Rutgers, and there might not be many more match-ups the rest of the way where they will go in expected to win.

Nebraska’s 2017 season is at a major crossroads, and how it responds this week will go a long way in determining how the rest of the season plays out.

2. Will Bryant be back in action this week?

One of the the brightest spots of an otherwise dim start to the year has been the play of sophomore running back Tre Bryant, who racked up 299 rushing yards in the first two games before missing last week’s loss with a knee injury.

Junior Mikale Wilbon held his own in his first career start in Bryant’s absence, especially with his ability to turn positive yardage after contact, finishing with 90 yards on 24 carries.

But this offense seems to have a different feel with Bryant carrying the bulk of the load in the running game. His patience in waiting for blocks to develop is something that is very difficult to teach, and that proved to be a huge asset for NU’s offensive line.

His availability this week would be a nice boost for a Husker offense desperately needing a shot in the arm after last week’s debacle.

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3. Will the offensive line get better?

Yes, Tanner Lee put together his second straight dreadful stat line with three more interceptions against Northern Illinois, placing him in the nation’s lead for the most picks thrown (seven) through three weeks.

But the blame hardly rests entirely on his shoulders.

Nebraska’s offensive line was downright bad on Saturday, giving up three sacks and multiple other hits and pressures on Lee that made the entire passing game an uncomfortable effort from the opening kickoff.

Offensive coordinator Danny Langsdorf said after the game that he never imagined NU would have this many problems protecting the quarterback, and that going forward they would have to leave a tight end and/or a running back in to help block.

This is an offensive line that was supposed to be a veteran group ready to make a step forward this season, but so far it’s only gotten worse by the week. That has to change in a hurry for the Huskers to get back on track.

4. Can the defense continue to improve?

There weren’t many positives at all to take away from the loss to Northern Illinois, which some have argued might be the program’s worst home defeat in more than a decade.

But if nothing else, Nebraska’s defense took at least a small step in the right direction versus an opponent it was supposed to fair well against.

Allowing only 213 total yards and just one offensive touchdown and picking up two sacks, the Huskers did their part defensively for almost the entire day.

The lone breakdown came at the absolute worst time, when NU allowed Northern Illinois to march down the field for the game-winning touchdown late in the fourth quarter.

Still, it was an overall strong improvement from the porous efforts in the first two weeks of the season. Can the Blackshirts build upon that and keep the trend going in the right direction?

5. Can Pierson-El return to his old form?

De’Mornay Pierson-El was supposed to be Nebraska’s X-factor at punt returner this season, but so far he’s almost been more of a liability than an asset.

The senior has fielded just five punts through three games for a total of 13 return yards, 10 of those coming on one runback.

That’s not even counting the questionable decisions he’s made in not catching punts that ended up rolling deep into NU territory or others where he opted to call for a fair catch when there was an opportunity for a return.

Nebraska needs all the spark it can get right now, and if Pierson-El can get back to the player who was one of the best return men in college football a few years ago, it would be a huge boost in turning things around.

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