Stryker: Huskers keep believing, stay unbeaten at season’s midpoint

Category: Football

Stryker: Huskers keep believing, stay unbeaten at season’s midpoint

Chris Jones leads strong performance by defensive backfield as NU wins seventh in a row

What in the world is a new generation of Husker fans to make of their football team?

A hang-on-by-your-fingernails 27-22 win over a talented and very respectable Indiana team that threw a lot of challenges at the Husker offense … it sure gives folks a lot to think about.

About 1,000 red-clad people spent an anxious Saturday afternoon watching the state’s largest TV screen in Lincoln’s Railyard, punctuated with roars of delight whenever the Cornhuskers made a big play. Most were young enough that they likely had no clear recollection of a Nebraska football team being undefeated in mid-October, they seemed eager to buy into the experience.

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Is this a Top 10 team? Well, right now it is. The Cornhuskers are very fortunate to be 6-0, but then again they were extremely unfortunate to be 2-4 after six games last season. Ultimately, you make most of your own breaks, and the Huskers have fought for everything they’ve gotten, including two confidence-building road wins. Their next two road trips, however, will be much tougher.

This generation of fans is watching the young Huskers develop trust in each other as they work through their growing pains, led by a sometimes-erratic but always courageous quarterback and his fellow seniors, who clearly want to grab all the good memories they can this fall.

These Cornhuskers have decent talent overall, but are young in the offensive and defensive lines, and they’re fighting through a series of injuries. The main thing they have going for them is a “can-do” attitude in the clutch and an overall belief in themselves. Whether that’s driven more by Mike Riley’s even-keel approach, or by Sam Foltz smiling down on the Huskers, is not yet evident, but it could be enough to take them a long way this season.

Nebraska showed a lot of character on its seven-minute, 41-second fourth-quarter drive, which ended in a 39-yard field goal by ever-dependable Drew Brown. The Huskers also got lucky when Tommy Armstrong scrambled to field a bobbled snap on a fourth-down quarterback sneak, then converted the first down, helped by a timely push from fullback Luke McNitt. Then they got a little luckier when officials ruled that Terrell Newby’s knee was down before he fumbled the ball at the Indiana 20-yard line.

Most of the breaks that went against Nebraska on Riley’s maiden voyage are going in the Huskers’ favor this season.

But most of that speculation will get hidden in the brightness of these facts: this is the first time the Huskers have ever started 3-0 in Big Ten play, and their seven-game winning streak is the program’s longest in 15 years.

It was not easy to get there. It was a tough go in Bloomington. Although his team is only 3-3, Kevin Wilson has the Hoosier program on the upswing. No doubt ‘80s pop/rock star John Mellencamp is feeling better every day about all the money he’s poured into his home-state Hoosier football program.

The Huskers had a great 17-point run to start the game, and they put together a courageous finish. In between, there were a lot of questions, plenty of doubts and enough lackluster, sloppy play on offense to keep Danny Langsdorf up late at night. He’ll look for help from the NU training staff, because the absence of Jordan Westerkamp and Cethan Carter was a liability, as was the quick departure of David Knevel (after only one snap) and the lack of playing time for Devine Ozigbo (only one carry). Not to mention Nick Gates, the Huskers’ best bet for an offensive player to make first-team all-conference, who played most of the game with a sprained ankle.

Nine penalties for 53 yards will have Langsdorf, Riley and the Huskers searching for consistency again this week in practice.

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When Nebraska struggles to run the football, it’s really not a very good offensive team. That had a lot to do with Armstrong’s poor day throwing the ball (10 of 26 for 208 yards, with one touchdown and two interceptions). Through the first three quarters, NU’s offensive line was ineffective. Somehow, they pulled it together in the fourth quarter.

The defensive backfierld — possibly the Huskers’ major weakness in 2015, has pretty much figured out what Mark Banker and Brian Stewart’s scheme, and has rapidly become the strength of this team. They failed just once Saturday, on Indiana’s lightning-fast fourth-quarter touchdown drive when the Hoosiers went 75 yards on four pass completions.

Even with a mediocre pass rush, the Husker secondary is tough. Through half the regular season, the Huskers have given up just 6.2 yards per pass attempt. (That figure was 7.5 last season.) Nate Gerry and Chris Jones are in the running for first-team all-conference honors. Jones has three interceptions, none bigger than his 33-yard pick-six in the first quarter that provided the margin of victory for the Big Red.

Let’s not overthink it at the highly-successful midpoint of the season. Rough waters are ahead, but if the Huskers keep believing in themselves, that might just make the ride more enjoyable.

Formerly the sports editor at the North Platte Bulletin and a sportswriter/columnist for the North Platte Telegraph, Tad Stryker started writing for this website in 2008. You can e-mail him at Stryker is a freelance writer, favoring topics related to Nebraska history or Christianity. You can buy his recent book at this link.