Stryker: Staying the course, Riley, Huskers find fourth-quarter benefits

Category: Football

Stryker: Staying the course, Riley, Huskers find fourth-quarter benefits

Positive signs in offensive line, I-backs, turnover margin to name a few

All kinds of bad things happened to Mike Riley at the end of games last season, so it was a nice change of pace to see a bunch of things go his way in the fourth quarter as Nebraska finished a 43-10 beatdown of Fresno State in front of 90,013 at Memorial Stadium.

Remember those runaway fourth quarters under Tom Osborne — the ones where opposing defensive lines wilted under the weight of the NU running game and second- and third-teamers got valuable snaps? I didn’t think so. We haven’t seen many lately, so let’s enjoy this one.

First and foremost, Riley is responsible for his own good fortune by sticking with the running game even when the Bulldogs closed to within 14-10 at halftime and the Huskers went stagnant for several series. He and Danny Langsdorf seemed to recall their success running the ball against UCLA last December, and looked determined to duplicate it. Devine Ozigbo, who piled up a career-high 103 rushing yards, ran hard and effectively, and Terrell Newby looked more determined between the tackles than he ever has. The young offensive line looked promising, even quite capable at times. It was not responsible for any negative-yard rushing plays.

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The I-backs carried the ball a combined 34 times — something this team needed to realize it could accomplish.

The fourth quarter belonged to the Big Red from the first play, when senior quarterback Tommy Armstrong capitalized on the Huskers’ success running the ball by going deep to Alonzo Moore for a 57-yard touchdown. The benefits just started rolling in after that. For example:

• The Blackshirts developed a longer attention span than they ever showed last year. Nobody took a play off (and Fresno State ran 69 of them). They didn’t give up big chunks of yardage. The second-stringers stopped FSU in the red zone late in the game. Holding the Bulldogs to 10 points and 274 total yards is a decent start.

• Freshman cornerback Lamar Jackson gained confidence. He lost a few battles against big-bodied NFL prospect Aaron Peck, (including allowing a second-quarter TD pass), but he won a few battles in the fourth quarter against Peck.

• A young offfensive line gained continuity, and freshman Tre Bryant got to play behind that No. 1 line, a scenario which was well handled by Riley and Langsdorf. Bryant, who rushed for 36 yards and a touchdown on five carries, is going to be very good.

• Ryker Fyfe also got to play behind the No. 1 line, and despite the big lead, Riley and Langsdorf let him try a few passes to help his timing. In my opinion, those were meaningful snaps for Fyfe, even though in the game was not in doubt.

• In an all-too-rare burst of common sense and reasoning, the officiating crew decided not to penalize Aaron Williams for targeting in the final minute, although they correctly flagged him for unsportsmanlike conduct. Riley has one more defensive back to work with next week against Wyoming.

• The late interception by Chris Jones, also against Peck, will pay off in a big way this season. This secondary is developing ball skills, something that has been missing for a long time. Did I mention that the Huskers went plus-two in turnover margin? Not a bad way to start the season.

Maybe the biggest practical benefit from the end-game scenario was simply this: Husker players making plays late in the game. Nebraska lived up to expectations. Nebraska covered the spread. On a day when Wisconsin got a huge win, and Ohio State and Michigan looked menacing, Nebraska gave the Big Ten one more reason to feel good about itself.

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On the game’s first series, Riley gave the Cornhusker State and the entire nation one more reason to feel good when he paid tribute to Sam Foltz by using the missing player formation on NU’s first punting situation. Fresno State responded with class by refusing the delay of game penalty. It was one of the finest and most emotional moments the old stadium has ever seen. BTN’s sideline shot of Armstrong’s face streaming with tears was superb.

It was a night to relish the fine moments.

Are there problems? Yes. The passing game needs work. For some reason, Huskers still having big problems setting up screen passes. I’m optimistic that this will improve. Allowing a rusher to come free up the middle to block a punt was very ugly. The punt team seemed to get that solved. Caleb Lightbourn is pretty rough; we’ll see if he comes along.

Too many penalties? Yes, especially the Huskers’ only two in the first half, one of which nullified a first-down pass to Cethan Carter and the other which resulted in the ejection of sophomore linebacker Luke Gifford and allowed the Bulldogs to kick a field goal on the final play of the first half.

It was not a huge win in the scheme of things, but it just felt promising. And that’s something we didn’t feel too often last fall. Check off Game 1 as extremely worthwhile.

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 [email protected]. Stryker is a freelance writer, favoring topics related to Nebraska history or Christianity. You can buy his recent book at this link.