After several lineup shakeups due to injuries over the past few weeks, Nebraska will face an interesting question each week as it moves forward with its offensive line.
The Huskers currently have eight different players who have started on their line in 2017.
Right tackles David Knevel (foot) and Matt Farniok (wrist) and center Cole Conrad (knee) have been replaced the last two weeks with sophomore center Michael Decker and freshman tackle Brenden Jaimes stepping in.
“They all get reps and they all get ready," offensive line coach Mike Cavanaugh said. "They all have to prepare and keep working.”
NU is 2-0 with Decker and Jaimes in the starting lineup, and you get the sense they could be the guys potentially again this week vs. No. 9 Wisconsin, despite the fact Knevel, Farniok, and Conrad should all be available.
“Right now, as it stands today, until we know that David Knevel practices and practices full-time and feels good, it’s not yet that final conversation. We think he’s healthy, so we will look at it this week. But if we were playing today, Jaimes would start,” Riley said.
A big part of it will be if Knevel can show his foot is back to 100 percent.
“It’s strength," Cavanaugh said when asked what he'll be looking at with Knevel this week. "Is it bothering him when he’s pushing? You have to be able to push as an offensive lineman.”
Decker’s recent play at center has also been hard to ignore, as the pass protection and run game consistency has been better the last two weeks with him making the calls and checks.
“It’s definitely a factor there. It’s definitely a big discussion by us,” Riley said of Decker’s recent play. “We really appreciate both players, Decker and Conrad, and we’re thankful, as we know what can happen, that you team can get sometimes stronger eventually, even though the injuries can be devastating.”
The positive through all of this is the Huskers now feel like they have eight guys that can play and contribute at a high level. You could also probably add redshirt freshman Boe Wilson into that discussion as well, giving them nine.
“You lose Knevel, you lose Conrad. If those other guys can go in and play well and play better, then your team, when those other guys get back, will be stronger,” Riley said. “How that sorts itself out will be based on strictly about competition and who we feel gives us the best chance to win.”
- Sean Callahan
Badgers' secondary to pose physical test for NU passing game
One of the things that makes Wisconsin’s defense so effective is how difficult it makes life for opposing quarterbacks and wide receivers.
With a combination of physical, aggressive defensive backs and versatile linebackers who are just as good in coverage as they are against the run, the Badgers boast one of the best pass defenses in all of college football.
Giving up just 172.8 passing yards per game on the year, UW is fourth in the Big Ten and 24th nationally in pass defense while ranking tied for first in the league in interceptions (7) and second in sacks (16).
“I think it’s how disciplined they are,” quarterback Tanner Lee said. “They seem comfortable in their coverages, and they seem to be responding well to their first-year defensive coordinator and are playing good, confident football.”
In Nebraska’s first meeting with Wisconsin under Riley in 2015, the Huskers completed just 11-of-28 passes for 129 yards and a touchdown. In the 2016 rematch at Camp Randall Stadium, NU was 12-of-31 for 153 yards and two interceptions.
Senior receiver De’Mornay Pierson-El called the Badgers one of the most physical secondaries he’s faced in the Big Ten, and knows Nebraska’s passing game needs to be at its best to meet the challenge on Saturday night.
“It really has to be on us to know their personnel and give ourselves the best shot to know and anticipate how they’re going to play us,” Pierson-El said.
- Robin Washut
Blackshirts thrive on bend-don't-break mentality
Bend, don’t break.
That was the mantra surrounding defensive coordinator Bob Diaco’s new scheme at Nebraska, an extension of Diaco saying he wasn’t worried about yards, only points.
Since halftime at Oregon on Sept. 9, the Huskers have made good on that idea, allowing just two offensive touchdowns in the past 14 quarters of play. NU punctuated that streak with multiple red zone stops against Illinois, including forcing a field goal after the Illini had first and goal from the 3.
“When we get into the red zone, it’s kind of like another switch flips on,” freshman cornerback Dicaprio Bootle said. “Just because they’re down there doesn’t mean they have to get any points, so we try to keep them as far away from the touchdown as we can.”
Keeping point totals low has always been a focus of Diaco’s defenses. When he won the Broyles Award for the nation’s top assistant coach in 2012, Notre Dame led the nation in scoring defense, allowing just under 10 points per game in the regular season.
The bend-don’t-break mentality has been contagious for the Blackshirts in recent weeks, and players have said something clicks when they have their backs against the wall.
“We’re just treating the red zone not as a bad thing but more of an opportunity,” junior nose tackle Mick Stoltenberg said. “When someone’s got you backed up that far, obviously they’re not going to be able to do as many things. They’re not going to be as dynamic because they have less space to work with.”
Bootle said while there’s a different level of intensity in the red zone, the unit tries to keep that up at any place on the field. But with a short field and a feeling of greater responsibility, the defense takes an attacking approach.
“I wouldn’t set a completely different mindset because we’re tough anywhere we are on the field,” Bootle said. “We just keep defending and try not to give up anything, really, not even a field goal.”
- Matt Reynoldson
Huskers hoping night home game magic continues
While some have already written off Nebraska’s chances of pulling off an upset over No. 9 Wisconsin on Saturday night, there is one very important stat in play that might not be being considered enough.
The Huskers are 46-5 all-time in home night games, including having won their past 20 in a row, marking the longest active such streak in college football.
Nebraska is a perfect 7-0 against Big Ten teams in primetime at Memorial Stadium, and it hasn’t lost a home night contest since 2008 against Missouri.
Riley, who is 5-0 in home night games at NU, said there was just something different about the atmosphere inside Memorial Stadium when the sun goes down.
“All the (home) games are an unbelievable experience,” Riley said, “but the night games are really electric.”
Stoltenberg has not only played in plenty of those home night game victories, he also attended multiple others as a fan while growing up in Gretna, Neb.
“I don’t know if it really controls how we play or not, but it’s something that I don’t know how you couldn’t be fired up seeing all those fans there and how excited they are,” Stoltenberg said. “I grew up going to those night games, and they were always the most fun to go to and watch. It’s definitely one of the best atmospheres in the country. It’s really exciting to play in front of that crowd at night.”
Despite that impressive track record, the Huskers opened the week as 13-point underdogs to the Badgers, though the line has since dropped to +11.5 as of Monday afternoon.
Pierson-El said Nebraska would have to make the most of getting the Badgers at home in a primetime setting.
“It definitely gives you a higher atmosphere to be at home and it’s a night game,” Pierson-El said. “You really get the Sea of Red effect and we’ve just got to use it to our advantage.”
- Robin Washut
***Cornerback Chris Jones and safety Joshua Kalu both practiced on Monday. Safety Aaron Williams and receiver De’Mornay Pierson-El practiced with green no-contact jerseys.
***Running backs Mikale Wilbon and Tre Bryant and receiver Keyan Williams all sat out of Monday practice.
***Offensive coordinator Danny Langsdorf said Wisconsin’s defense would “easily” be the best unit Nebraska has faced so far this season.
***Langsdorf said with the Badgers’ ability to create turnovers through interceptions and get to the quarterback with the pass rush, NU had to be very smart with its protection schemes and its pass routes. He said they can’t leave the quarterback in the pocket to take hits and force throws under pressure.
***Langsdorf said this week feels a lot different preparing for Wisconsin’s defense because they’ve spent the past 10 months working against a 3-4 scheme every day in practice. They used to have to prepare against a 3-4 in just a week’s span, but now it’s really more about continuing what they’ve been doing all offseason.
***Offensive line coach Mike Cavanaugh did not give any hints as to who would start at center and right tackle this week. He said they’ll continue to wait and see how guys progress through the week and make a decision later on.
***Cavanaugh noted that it’s hard to say how Wisconsin’s defense will matchup with Nebraska’s offense because the Badgers have only faced three-wide receiver schemes. He said Saturday will be the first time this season they will have faced an offense similar to their own.
***Running backs coach Reggie Davis said they’re taking a wait-and-see approach on Wilbon this week, but said Jaylin Bradley would have to be ready to go if they need him for a bigger role.
***Receiver Stanley Morgan, who had at least four drops against Illinois along with his big game, spent several minutes after practice catching balls out of the football throwing machine.
***Cavanaugh said he wasn't too worried about Tanner Farmer's personal foul penalty against Illinois, even though Farmer was pulled out of the game after the penalty.
***Numerous players from both sides of the ball had to run wind sprints after practice, and there were some coaches running with them. One of those coaches was defensive coordinator Bob Diaco.