For every time Nebraska’s offense has looked like the sharp and potent unit some thought it could be this season, there have been just as many instances of it being the complete opposite.
After an impressive start to the year, junior quarterback Tanner Lee has regressed by the week and now leads all of FBS with seven interceptions through just three games.
The Huskers also posted back-to-back 200-yard efforts in the first two weeks, but followed that up with just 85 yards on 36 carries against Northern Illinois.
The offensive line has now given up six sacks in three games, including three last week vs. the Huskies, and Lee has been getting hit and pressured regularly after hardly getting touched in the season opener.
In fact, Nebraska currently ranks 71st nationally in total offense, 91st in rushing offense, 47th in passing offense, and 62nd in scoring offense. The Huskers also don’t rank any higher than sixth in the Big Ten Conference in any of those statistics.
“I don’t think we’ve played consistent offense all year, so we have work to do, and it came to a crescendo the other day,” head coach Mike Riley said. “So we’ve really got to go back to work and be solid and give these guys some real concrete stuff to get better. The biggest motivator for these guys right now will be information on how this is going to work.”
Riley hinted several times during his Monday press conference of potential changes to Nebraska’s offensive game plan this week.
He stressed that NU might need to trim down its playbook a bit and focus on executing a handful of plays really well that it can rely on every game.
Some of that could also be changing the types of pass plays the Huskers call, opting for more quicker throws that don’t leave Lee in the pocket at long and help the offensive line’s protection.
“We’re not going to reinvent the wheel,” Riley said. “You’re not going to see a whole different style of offense. The thing that we really lack is execution.”
The impact of Nebraska’s adjustments will remain to be seen, but the players also releaize it doesn’t matter what the coaches call if they don’t execute the plays effectively.
“I feel like in fall camp and even spring camp we were pretty sharp, pretty consistent,” junior running back Mikale Wilbon said. “But this game against NIU … we looked kind of out of sync, not in rhythm. That’s not like us.”
Injuries could force major shakeups on offensive line
Nebraska’s offensive line has been a major topic of conversation the past few days, and with some new injury news revealed on Monday, the unit becomes an even bigger focal point this week.
With senior right tackle David Knevel still listed as questionable after missing the past two weeks with an ankle injury, the status of his backup is now uncertain after redshirt freshman Matt Farniok broke a bone in his wrist against Northern Illinois.
Riley was unsure whether Knevel or Farniok would be able to play this week vs. Rutgers, but did say Farniok would be limited at best.
If neither are able to go, Riley said NU’s next options at right tackle would be true freshman Brenden Jaimes and redshirt freshman Christian Gaylord.
“You know, the lineup as we look at it right now, will be shaken up, and probably loss by injury right now,” Riley said. “Brenden Jaimes is a true freshman, and I just talked about him maybe starting in a game.”
Riley said they would closely monitor Knevel and Farniok throughout the week, and the hope was at least one of them would be healthy enough to handle the starting right tackle duties.
Riley was obviously nervous one the idea of throwing another freshman into the fire for a debut start, as Farniok just started his first game as a Husker two weeks ago at Oregon.
There could be other options for Nebraska to choose from, such as moving center Cole Conrad - who started five games at right tackle in 2016 - back outside and giving Michael Decker the start at center.
Decker looked good when he briefly subbed in when Conrad suffered an injury on Saturday.
“We’ve talked about all that,” Riley said. “One thing you have to be careful of is that guys are placed as starters for a reason, and if you do that, are you weakening yourself at two spots too much? But those are all good questions and things that are being examined.”
Wilbon impresses in first start
Coming into the season, Wilbon had carried the ball just 24 times over the previous two seasons for a total of 133 yards.
The Chicago native and former four-star prospect nearly equaled both of those numbers in his first career start as a Husker on Saturday.
After rushing just five times through the first two games, Wilbon got the starting nod with sophomore Tre Bryant sidelined with a knee injury, and he ended up setting career highs with 24 carries for 90 yards on the day.
“I actually think Mikale Wilbon ran hard and made some good runs,” Riley said, “and many times was his own blocker and made some good yards.”
The 5-foot-9, 200-pounder said he felt good to go after recording far and away the biggest workload of his collegiate career.
With Bryant still listed as questionable entering this week of practice, there’s a chance Wilbon will be counted on to shoulder just as much of the running game again vs. Rutgers.
While his final numbers were solid, Wilbon knows NU’s running game must improve from the 88 total yards it registered against the Huskies regardless of who the top back was.
“It is very important for our balance as an offense,” Wilbon said. “It opens up the passing game and if the passing game isn’t going, it opens up the running game. So we’ve got to get the running game going and also the passing game going, too.”
Huskers still working to get Pierson-El back on track
De’Mornay Pierson-El’s sudden struggles at punt returner have been well documented over the past few weeks, and Saturday’s effort didn’t do much to calm the concerns.
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 goes along with a number of other poor decisions on when and when not to field or fair catch punts.
Riley said the coaching staff was obviously aware of Pierson-El’s issues, and the plan was to work with him as much as possible to get him back to his Freshman All-American level.
“The decision making in that area is a big, big factor,” Riley said. “I think that De’Mornay in particular is a dynamic returner and exciting, and there were glimpses of us getting out of the box with a good one.
“But those other parts of it, especially in that area down there at the 10-yard line and some of those things, I think we have to help him by creating more and more situations where he is more prepared.
“We need to do that, because I think the other side of De’Mornay is he can break a game open for you.”
***Here are the players who sat out of Monday’s practice: Tre Bryant, Joshua Kalu, Marcus Newby, Tyrin Ferguson, David Knevel, Matt Farniok, and Stanley Morgan.
***Offensive coordinator Danny Langsdorf said improving third downs was “a huge part of our deal” when looking at the offense’s struggles. He said there were two third-and-two plays that NU couldn’t convert, and those were examples of “critical” plays that NU just had to make.
***Langsdorf again said he wasn’t worried at all about Tanner Lee’s confidence after two straight rough games. He said Lee was naturally “a little shaken” after throwing seven picks in two games and getting hit as many times as he has, but Lee came back Monday with the same focus he’s had the whole time.
***Langsdorf said the interceptions weren’t an issue of Lee trying to do too much, as “half of them weren’t even his fault.”
***Langsdorf said Lee’s first interception on Saturday was just a case of the cornerback gambling and making a play. He said even though the CB telegraphed the play from the snap, it was a play that Nebraska hadn’t run out of that formation or with that personnel all season, so it wasn’t because NIU had scouted out the play.
***Langsdorf and offensive line coach Mike Cavanaugh said if Knevel and Farniok can’t play, it was a “50/50” competition between Christian Gaylord and Brenden Jaimes for who would start at right tackle. They’ll let the situation play out and make a final decision on that later in the week.
***Cavanaugh said it was not an option at all to move Cole Conrad back to right tackle. Cavanaugh said Conrad was too valuable at center to move him.
***Receivers coach Keith Williams said this could be the week that his son, wide out Keyan Williams, could return to action after missing weeks with a hamstring injury. Keith said Keyan will test his hamstring out on Tuesday to see where he’s at.
***Keith Williams said the third-down pass to Bryan Reimers late in the NIU game - which Reimers dropped - was a play that Reimers had repped all week, and he was supposed to be in for that particular play.