Nebraska Preview: Cornhuskers Host Rutgers
Just three games into 2017, not only does the fate of the Nebraska football season hang in the balance, but to a large part the direction of the entire program rests on what happens to the Cornhuskers as they prepare for what many believed heading into the year was one of the most winnable games on the schedule.
But nothing is certain in Lincoln these days as the Big Red opens Big Ten Conference play against Rutgers at Memorial Stadium, Saturday (September 23).
After struggling to beat Arkansas State in week one, falling behind 42-14 at Oregon in week two, and losing to Northern Illinois last week, full panic mode has hit the Nebraska campus - and already we're dealing with the fallout.
It began with the sudden firing of athletic director Shawn Eichorst, Thursday (September 21), and could be followed very shortly by the dismissal of head coach Mike Riley, if things don't change quickly.
Nebraska (1-2) comes into the game with the Scarlet Knights losers in back-to-back non-conference games for the first time since Dwight Eisenhower was President (1957).
On the surface, the schedule seems to be serving up a team that should give the Huskers a chance to stop the bleeding, for at least one week. But after grossly under performing against inferior opponents like Arkansas State and Northern Illinois, nothing is certain when it comes to Big Red football these days.
Rutgers (1-2) is coming off a dismal season, which saw them win just two non-conference games and go 0-8 in the Big Ten.
Last year's Scarlet Knight team wasn't just losing, they were getting beaten by astronomical sums. Against Ohio State, Michigan, Michigan State, and Penn State, they were outscored 224-0.
But they are slowly starting to rebuild under second-year head coach Chris Ash, a former assistant at both Iowa and Wisconsin.
During this off-season, the Scarlet Knights hired former Minnesota head coach Jerry Kill to run their offense, and its already paying dividends. Kill's run-first approach has added 50 yards per game to the Rutgers ground attack, and nearly doubled their points per game on offense.
That ability to run the football effectively has the Scarlet Knights in the Top 20 in the nation in time of possession after three weeks.
Quarterback Kyle Bolin, a transfer from Louisville, is a traditional pocket passer. He's been helped by the addition on freshman Jonathan Lewis, who subs in on short yardage plays and has already run for four scores.
At running back, Miami transfer Gus Edwards carries the ball the majority of the time, while Robert Martin averages about five yards a carry.
On the outside, receivers Janarion Grant and Jerome Washington get most of the catches. Grant is also explosive returning kicks on special teams.
Defensively, Rutgers is physical up front with ends Darnell Davis and Kemoko Turay and linebackers Deonte Roberts and Trevor Morris. But they haven't been able to get much pressure on opposing quarterbacks, with just three sacks in three games.
Injuries will play a big role for Nebraska Saturday.
Running back Tre Bryant (knee) and safety Joshua Kalu (hamstring) will both be out for the second straight week. Linebacker Marcus Newby (hamstring) won't play Saturday. Wide receiver Stanley Morgan Jr. (neck) is questionable.
The already depleted offensive line will be even thinner for the Rutgers game, as back up right tackle Matt Farniok, the Sioux Falls native, won't start after breaking his wrist. Freshman third stringer Brenden Jaimes will make his first career start.
Kickoff is 2:30 PM, Saturday in Lincoln. You can catch all of the action on ESPN 99.1.
That offensive line was at the center of the 21-17 loss to Northern Illinois last week, allowing three sacks and seven quarterback hurries on Tanner Lee. That constant pressure and aggressive approach played a role in Lee's three interceptions, including two picks that were returned for touchdowns on Nebraska's first four drives.
Defensively, the Huskers had one of their best games of the season, keeping the Huskies out of the end zone for three quarters.
But after Nebraska finally grabbed its first lead of the day, 17-14 with 11 minutes to play, the Big Red defense faltered, allowing a 47-yard pass play on the first play of the ensuing drive, as Northern Illinois scored, what proved to be the game winning touchdown, five plays later.
On special teams, Nebraska had a 55-yard punt from Caleb Lightbourn and a 50-yard kickoff return from JD Spielman, but also had a Drew Brown 37-yard field goal blocked right before halftime.
I talked with the 'Voice of the Huskers', Greg Sharpe, about the Northern Illinois loss and the Big Ten opener with Rutgers: