The staff of Corn Nation, SB Nation’s Nebraska Cornhuskers site, joins us to preview Saturday night’s major clash between Nebraska and Wisconsin in Madison. Part 1 covering Nebraska’s offense and injury situation is below; Part 2 covers the Huskers’ defense and predictions for the game. Both parts have been condensed and edited for clarity.
1. Nebraska is 7-0 and riding high at No. 7 in the nation. The Huskers have owned the fourth quarter, outscoring their opponents by 85 points in those final 15 minutes, best in the nation. What’s led to the impressive start for the Huskers?
Ryan Hoss: Familiarity with the coaching staff and system that didn’t exist last year along with a culture much more conducive to winning football games. The underwhelming competition cannot be understated, either. We are a product of our schedule. It’s hard to gauge how good we are right now, but I think that the true nature of how good this team is or could be will be answered in the final month of the regular season.
Greg: Underwhelming competition. Partially serious. At the time, we thought the win over the then-No. 22 Mighty Ducks of Oregon was a quality win. Then the Ducks lost the next four after that. So you could say we broke the Ducks. While I’m not complaining about the start of the season, I think I speak for many Husker fans when I say we’re waiting for the other shoe to drop. That being said, they’re winning games this year that they would have lost a year ago. In a way, I think last year’s heartbreaks galvanized this year’s team. They’re playing with a mental toughness. They’re down, but not out. And sometimes they’re up, but not out. What I like most about this team is they aren’t being driven off the field in blowout fashion.
Mike: The short answer is that the coaches and players adapted to each other. Last year’s idea of throwing the ball 40 or more times a game turned out to be a disaster (#PurdueTrucksNebraska) and Mark Banker never could figure out how to teach his quarters coverage. Now Nebraska is trying to run the ball consistently and force defenses to shut that down first to open the passing game.
Keith: Schedule luck. Nebraska caught Oregon on a downturn, and only beat them by three points. Fresno State used to be a MWC contender, and they are awful. Northwestern was just starting to find themselves, and playing Wyoming, Illinois, Purdue, and Indiana is not exactly tough.
Jill: Schedule is probably the biggest part of it, but this team is making the plays that slipped by them last year. The coaches are teaching and calling plays to the strength of their players and managing to make it a cohesive plan.
Pat Janssen: At least until the injury bug took a chomp out of the offensive line, it was improved performance on both lines. That seems weird considering the D-line lost considerable talent up front when you factor in the loss of the entire defensive front (including two draft picks), but there’s been a more physical nature up front on both sides of the ball. The coaching staff seemed to realize that a certain brand of football was required of this team, both from an identity standpoint and schematically to fit the skills on the roster. Unfortunately, as Wisconsin is well aware, such a brand of football can take a toll on a team physically. But at least the mental side is there 100 percent with this team more so than it was under a certain screaming lunatic.
2. Injury report time. Are the Huskers returning their standout wide receiver Jordan Westerkamp, and who else could or could not play Saturday night?
Greg: I’m first to comment, so I’ll let others correct me as necessary, but I *think* Westerkamp returns this week. I don’t think Cethan Carter is ready just yet. The offensive line should be one step closer to health.
Mike: Cethan Carter still isn’t practicing yet, so he’s out. But Carter’s replacement at tight end, Sam Cotton, catches the ball better than Carter. He’s not nearly as good of an athlete as Carter is, though.
Jon: Seems like the entire offensive line is a beat up bunch of guys. I suppose that’s normal when you continually mash 300-pound guys into each other for fun, but at any time one of them could fall down and not be getting back up. It’s a “Next Man Up” ordeal each week now.
Jill: Westerkamp will be back, which will be great for third-down and red-zone production. The offensive linemen, especially the tackles, are in rough shape, but are planning to play. Whether they finish the game remains to be seen. Tommy Armstrong’s ankle is not 100 percent but he is starting to look more like himself in the run game. I don’t know if RB1a/b Devine Ozigbo will be a full go or not. He’s been in on a few snaps the past two games (?I think) but nothing near his normal workload. Nebraska does have four backs that are reasonably capable—assuming the O-line can hold its ground.
Ryan: Westerkamp will be back, as will Devine Ozigbo, according to the coaching staff. Cethan Carter will not be active, although I wish he would be because Carter blocking the outside linebackers and defensive ends of Wisconsin would be a sight to behold. Offensive line-wise, I believe that everyone is full-go, although I have to believe that there still may be some lingering injuries that Gates and Knevel will grit through.
Pat: I’m glad that certain bodies will be back, but what scares me is that there will potentially be a bunch of rusty and not-exactly-100-percent bodies out there. When Nebraska got housed in Madison a couple years ago, Ameer Abdullah was a shell of himself and it showed. Not that Ameer could have stopped Melvin Gordon from rushing for 9,347 yards against the Huskers, but the offense was especially stagnant in that game. I think the most worrisome injury is Carter’s. His absence has had a huge effect on the offense. He’s the best overall athlete, and while he can make plays with the football, it’s his ability to help out the run game that has been missing in these last few weeks. It’s no coincidence that the running game has not been in the same since he went out. All that said, the defense appears healthy (apart from Chris Jones missing a series last week). And I think that’s the most important part of this game. If Nebraska (or anyone for that matter) gets down a few scores against this Badger defense, it’s tough sledding. The key will be whether or not the Blackshirts can keep Nebraska in the game long enough for Tommy Armstrong and crew to make plays.
3. Nebraska is averaging 34.1 points per game, and Tommy Armstrong leads the offense (he's second in the conference in total offense). How has the quarterback progressed this season compared to last?
Greg: It’s still a bit of a crap shoot with TA2. I love his grit and how he seems to will his team to victory. And he is a leader, no doubt about that. And at the beginning of the season, I thought we were seeing a Tommy Arm-So-Strong that was making better decisions. But at times he still reverts back to the “hope and a prayer” mentality of, “I hope I get this pass off and I pray it’s not intercepted.” We’ve had mixed results on that one.
Mike: Simple. Nebraska is trying to win with Armstrong’s legs more and putting less pressure on him to make plays with his arm. Fewer passes means fewer turnovers, and thus a more consistent offense.
Keith: Well he appears to be ditching the yolo fade down the sideline in favor of taking a couple more short or intermediate throws. He will still have three or four passes a game where you just ask yourself what is he thinking.
Jill: Playcalling. Danny Langsdorf has been masterful in how he deploys Armstrong so far this season. In games where he’s been hobbled and less able to run (cutting out chunks of the playbook) we’ve seen a little more of YOLO Tommy. Hopefully his ankle is improved enough to return some of the designed runs that have helped move the chains.
Ryan: Well, Tommy looks more comfortable in the offensive system of Mike Riley and Danny Langsdorf this year, which has allowed him to play more efficiently and less prone to errors. However, when pass protection has not stood up to pressure this season, he's shown a tendency to revert back to last year with poor mechanics, not seeing underneath defenders in coverage, and still throwing off of his back foot to get the ball out of his hands before pressure arrives. The mistakes are still present, but have not gotten as bad as last year (yet). Last year I used to remark to my friends while watching games that Tommy can be both our biggest weapon and our biggest detriment, which can be summed up into “Tommy giveth away, Tommy taketh away.” What cannot be underscored is how he is used in the run game though. His bread and butter play this year has been the QB draw and he's shown he can be lethal on that play. And I do mean lethal.
Pat: Tommy Armstrong is Tommy Armstrong. He’s always been explosive, both on the ground and through the air. He’s always been prone to mistakes. He’s made some technical strides, and as long as he hangs onto those advances, he’s fine. But his biggest attribute remains that ethereal “toughness.” I think he’s made for games like these. Low-scoring affairs (which is what this seems to be shaping up to be) are by nature close games, and there’s not a person who thrives on that kind of drama more than Tommy Armstrong.