After seeing an opportunity to potentially change the course of its 2017 season fly out of Memorial Stadium in Saturday night’s 38-17 loss to Wisconsin, Nebraska once again faces a critical juncture as it enters this week of practice.
Now at 3-3 overall and 2-1 in Big Ten play, the Huskers must find a way to put the loss to the Badgers behind them as quickly as possible, as the level of difficulty only increases this week with No. 9 Ohio State coming to town.
Having to face two straight top-10 teams at home for the first time in program history, NU knows how critical a bounce-back week of practice will be in trying to keep the season from spiraling even further out of control.
“It’s definitely something you have to keep an eye on at this stage of the year and what was a disappointing loss and another great opponent following right away,” head coach Mike Riley said. “There has to be real energy and excitement to the learning and the opportunity in order to succeed. I know the staff will be like that, and I really trust that the players will be too.”
While Riley said it would be on the coaching staff just as much as the players to set the tone right away during Monday’s practice, junior nose tackle Mick Stoltenberg said it would be up to the players to determine what direction the team would take going forward.
“I think it can be (difficult), especially for guys who haven’t been through it,” Stoltenberg said. “It’s going to be really important this week that some of our leaders step up and guys really kind of bring everyone along.
“If this week starts off wrong and we don’t prepare well right off the bat, then (Ohio State) is definitely a game that could get away from us. It’s the type of thing where guys need to step up and bring everyone along and make sure that we’re all on the same page.”
Junior quarterback Tanner Lee agreed, saying Nebraska’s captains had to be as vocal and positive as ever to keep the morale high both on the practice field and in the locker room this week.
“Obviously being competitive and you want to win and you want to win big games, so that that game was tough,” Lee said. “But we have to put it behind us, there’s really no other option.
"So we’ll focus on that, especially as leaders and captains, it’s our job to steer the ship and make sure everyone’s doing the right things and continuing to work hard and bringing a focus and a motivation this week to get a big win.”
Riley has noted all season that this team has been good about maintaining a consistent level of focus during practices and preparation regardless of what distractions have gone on around them.
That characteristic will be needed now more than ever in order to prevent one disappointing loss from turning into back-to-back season-changing defeats.
“It starts with the makeup of the character of the team from the very beginning on how you respond to different things, because there’s always some stuff usually in seasons that are going to be good and that aren’t going to be so good,” Riley said. “I think that it’s not something that’s just invented overnight, it’s something built up through time. That’s why I think this team will respond…
“It’s a process of every week building confidence. Sometimes it is harder, because you come off of a loss and you wonder how that’s going to be. But if you’ve built up a foundation of ‘this is how we do things’ and we don’t have to change it because of how we feel, that we’re strong than that and we’ve built that up, then you have a good chance of getting ready to play the next game and win.”
- Robin Washut
Huskers exploring potential medical redshirt for Bryant
After a breakout first six quarters of the season, Tre Bryant has not only missed the past four and a half games since re-aggravating a knee injury early in the third quarter at Oregon, he hasn’t even suited up for a single practice.
The good news is that Riley said the sophomore running back could potentially try to do some work during Monday’s practice, but his status for this week’s game vs. Ohio State was still considered questionable at best.
“There’s a real mystery there on how that (knee) is and how much he’ll do, if anything, today,” Riley said. “But we’ll see.”
Bryant’s lack of progress in his recovery from the injury has led to increased speculation about him potentially medically redshirting this season, especially since he’s played well below the cutoff of 30 percent of the season.
Riley was asked whether the staff was considering that as a possible option, and he made it clear that a medical redshirt could definitely be in the cards for Bryant.
“Absolutely,” Riley said. “We’re going to be really careful with every decision made about Tre Bryant. First of all, we want him to feel good and healthy if he does indeed play again (this season).
“Then that next part of the question about redshirting would be a discussion with our staff and then obviously with him and his family.”
- Robin Washut
Jones will continue to see expanded role at cornerback
Nebraska’s defense got a familiar face back in the lineup against Wisconsin, as cornerback Chris Jones made his 2017 debut after missing the first five games to a knee injury he suffered in July.
Jones did not start and had a fairly limited role in NU’s cornerback rotation, finishing the game with just two tackles.
But Riley said the senior didn’t experience any setbacks in the loss and would continue to be more and more of a factor as the season goes along.
“Chris Jones gives us exactly what we anticipated in the spring,” Riley said. “I don’t think again he’s ready for a full-time, all-the-time status, but the ability to rotate and play four corners instead of three to let guys concentrate on boundary corner, field corner, is a real bonus for us right now.
“We feel there are four guys there that can functionally rotate in the game like that. That’s a good thing.”
- Robin Washut
***Riley said running back Mikale Wilbon (ankle) was feeling better and they would see how he looked during Monday's practice. Wilbon said his ankle still hurt too much during pre-game warmups for him to play vs. Wisconsin, but said he felt much better on Monday morning.
***Riley said safety Aaron Williams (neck) will be held out of practice on Monday.
***Riley said safety Joshua Kalu (hamstring) and linebacker Marcus Newby (hamstring) both made it through the Wisconsin game without any setbacks.
***Riley said safety Antonio Reed (knee) is considered questionable right now and "leaning to doubtful" for the Ohio State game.
***Riley said right tackle David Knevel (foot) is "the healthiest he’s been in a while", and center Cole Conrad "re-turned" his ankle last week in practice but should be better this week.
***Riley said both sides of the ball on the offensive and defensive lines did OK, "but I'd probably leave it at that." He said everybody had their moments in the game, but the consistency just wasn't there for either unit.
***Riley said they still need to recruit elite level defensive linemen, especially players that fit the mold of what they want at the CAT linebacker role.
***Riley said they want a balance in their recruiting classes, but games like Saturday night's show you that "you've got to get the linemen."