Feit: Northern Illinois Reaction and Recap

How do you sum up one of the most shocking losses in school history?

How do you accurately account for all of the things that went wrong?

How does a loss like this impact the big picture – for Mike Riley, Shawn Eichorst, and the program as a whole?

Frankly, I don’t know. I’m still processing it. So I’m going to pass on any sweeping proclamations, knee jerk reactions, scalding hot takes, or calls for anybody to be fired.

For now.

So what did we learn?

This is going to be a long year. Think back on the time between the end of the Spring Game and the start of the season. It was one of quietest and most drama free summers of recent memory. The vast majority of the news was positive – big name commitments, positive reviews about Bob Diaco’s defense, and several glowing reviews of Tanner Lee’s skill and potential. Some folks refer to the summer months as the “Kool Aid Season”, and this year’s batch was as sweet and delicious as it had been in years.

And then the season started.

We’re just three weeks in, and have already endured two painful losses and a very close call, several key injuries, a defense that can allow yards (and points) by the bushel, an offense that is maddeningly inconsistent, and a coaching staff that seems to make a questionable decision every week.

Off the field that has a been a controversy about a coordinator not talking to the press after a game, a controversy about potentially losing the Black Friday game, angst over a contract extension signed a few months ago, and coaching seats that get hotter by the hour. The athletic director – who prefers to stay out of the spotlight – has spoken publicly twice this week. Fans are becoming divided on the future of the program. And it’s technically still summer.

Let’s say Nebraska wins eight of their last nine games. Even in what appears to be a best-case scenario, it still seems likely that the drama and division will continue to grow.

The offensive line is not good. Nebraska finished with a total of 85 yards on 36 carries – an average of just 2.4 yards. Tanner Lee was sacked three times, hurried on seven other plays, and finished with one of the weirdest stat lines you’ll see: 7 carries for -18 yards and 2 touchdowns.

In addition, three of Nebraska’s five penalties were against the offensive line. I’d love to know which lineman graded out the highest, because I honestly have no clue who played the best – or, the least worst, if you prefer.

The defense came to play. One of the biggest questions from the Oregon game was if the second half shutout was a fluke, Oregon taking their foot off the gas, or a turning point for Bob Diaco’s defense.

While not conclusive, the Blackshirts made a strong statement against NIU, holding them to just 116 yards (and zero offensive points) through three quarters. Unfortunately, the defense couldn’t get the big stop they needed after Nebraska took the lead. Northern Illinois flew 75 yards down the field in 2:28 to regain the lead. But the defense certainly held their own. The key – as with everything on this team – is consistency.

So what don’t we know?

Where are the substitutions on the offensive line? I know Mike Cavanaugh prefers to keep the same five linemen on the field throughout the game, as he feels collective unit benefits from the continuity. In theory, I agree with this approach.

But in real life, the approach raises more questions than answers. How do you develop players and build depth? When a player is clearly struggling to handle what the defense is throwing at him, doesn’t his presence weaken the entire unit? And then there are injuries…

During the game, center Cole Conrad left briefly with an injury. He returned shortly after, but could be seen limping in the fourth quarter. Right tackle Matt Farniok apparently broke a bone in his wrist at some point during the game. Yet, both played almost the entire game.

I’ve made my peace with Conrad, a former walk-on, starting over other highly touted recruits. If he’s truly the best man for the job, he should play. But the equation changes when a guy is hurt. Is Cavanaugh telling us that a starter at, say, 80% health is still preferable over his backup? If so, that raises some serious questions about depth and player development – especially of former four-star recruits. If not, doesn’t that put more of a burden on the rest of the offense to compensate for an injured teammate?

Is DeMornay Pierson-El the best option at punt return? Wow, that is sentence I never thought I would type. But there is a part of me that wonders if that role is based more on what he did in 2014, than on what he’s done since. Here are the numbers:

2014: 34 returns; 17.5 yards per return, three touchdowns.
2015, 2016, first three games of 2017: 32 returns; 7.2 yards per return, zero touchdowns.

In fairness, the 2015 and 2016 version of Pierson-El had to battle multiple injuries, as well as punt return schemes designed by Bruce Read.

But his senior season as a returner has not gotten off to a great start. Against Oregon, he broke a cardinal rule by fair catching a ball inside his own 10. Later, he appeared upset with himself after calling for a fair catch late in the game with his team needing a spark. Against Northern Illinois, he fielded a ball at the 7, fumbled a return, and appeared to be pressing. His best return of the day was negated by a penalty.

I have nothing but respect for DPE, his abilities, his potential, and how he has come back from injuries that may have ended the careers of other players. But I have a nagging feeling that if it wasn’t for a special season before those injuries, somebody else would be returning punts for NU.

How do we account for Tanner Lee’s struggles? On the season, Lee is completing just 52.5% of his passes, with a upside-down TD:INT ratio of 5:7. None of this matches up with the expectations Husker fans had going into the season. So what is going on?

To my eye, there are many factors at play. From biggest to smallest, I would point towards:

  • A porous offensive line. Lee has been sacked six times in three games, and has faced constant pressure. Lee appears to get flustered by pressure, which leads to bad throws and interceptions.
  • Drops by his receivers. I haven’t found a good source to count drops and “shoulda caught its” by backs and receivers, but it certainly feels like there have been several – and often at critical moments.
  • Over-aggressiveness. Lee has a strong arm and the potential for pin-point accuracy. In the Arkansas State game, he had a couple of passes that went through a narrow window. Against Oregon and Northern Illinois, those passes were knocked down or intercepted. Additionally, Lee appears reluctant to throw the ball away when under pressure.
  • Mechanics. I’m no QB coach, but it appears to my untrained eye that Lee occasionally throws off his back foot. I’ve also noticed a tendency to stare down a primary target.

There are probably others that I’m missing, but those seem to be the biggest culprits. The good news is, these are all things that can be corrected.

5 Players I Loved

  1. Caleb Lightbourn. It certainly felt like a day where the punter should be the MVP, and Lightbourn delivered. He averaged over 47 yards on six kicks, which played a big role in the shutout the defense pitched for three quarters.
  2. Antonio Reed. Going solely off the stat sheet, one would think Reed played a pretty decent game (second on the team with 5 tackles, including one for loss). But the stat sheet doesn’t tell you that Reed, who is battling injury, was essentially playing with one hand. His recognition of Northern Illinois’ trick play prevented a big play.
  3. J.D. Spielman. I really like this kid. He made big plays in the passing game. He had an impressive 50 yard kickoff return. And he had the presence of mind to get Tyjon Lindsey to take a touchback after bobbling the opening kickoff.
  4. Khalil and Carlos Davis. The twin defensive lineman made a big impact on the Northern Illinois offense. Carlos had five tackles and part of a sack, and Khalil played his best game as a Husker with a half sack, another TFL, forced fumble, and a deflected pass. The defense needs pressure on the quarterback and the twins delivered.
  5. De’Mornay Pierson-El. DPE had one of his best games as a receiver, racking up 101 yards on eight catches. It’s great to see him making big plays.

Honorable Mention: Former Navy SEAL Damian Jackson carrying the American flag, Mikale Wilbon, yards after catch by the receivers, Tanner Lee scoring two rushing TDs, Stanley Morgan Jr., biased announcer Les Miles, all of the fans who held their balloons through halftime until NU scored.

5 Areas for Improvement

  1. Offensive Line. Yes, this is the third time I’ve called out the line in this piece. But I believe it is warranted. Any discussion about benching Lee is worthless until we see what he does with good protection.
  2. Tanner Lee. That said, Lee needs to make some better decisions. Throw it away or check it down to a back. Stop forcing passes unless your receiver is the only one who can catch it.
  3. Receiver drops. And speaking of the receivers, there were some very savage drops and passes that probably should have been caught. It would be easy to point at some of the bigger moments – Spielman dropping a sure thing on 3rd and short; Connor Ketter short arming a wide open touchdown – and point to the inexperience of the players involved. But if that is the case, the QB (and/or offensive coordinator) should not be putting those guys in that position.
  4. Lamar Jackson. The young cornerback is here for two unfortunate plays. The first was his attempt to shove a NIU receiver out of bounds after a catch. The problem was the receiver was 4-5 yards in bounds, so the shove didn’t accomplish anything. The second is an unsportsmanlike penalty that resulted from his frustrations boiling over.
  5. Memorial Stadium atmosphere. 11 am games suck. We all acknowledge this. The crowd is late to arrive, and slow to provide any sort of home field advantage. On Saturday, it was obvious by halftime that the team was in trouble and could use a jolt. Going into the fourth quarter, it was almost painfully silent. Nebraska needs to do something to spark the crowd. As my buddy Nate observed, “Wisconsin has ‘Jump Around’, and we have the Hy-Vee tailgate of the game”. Nebraska can – and should – do better.

Dave Feit is a freelance writer living in Lincoln. Additional thoughts on the Huskers (and everything else) can be found on his site: www.feitcanwrite.com

Follow him on Twitter (@FeitCanWrite) or Facebook (www.facebook.com/feitcanwrite).