Nebraska’s 2015 6-7 record was littered with “almosts.”
The Cornhuskers almost got stops, almost converted when it mattered and, well, almost didn’t make it to a bowl game.
The 2016 Huskers are a different breed. They’re more mature, their chemistry is improved, and they’re simply more confident. They’re becoming Mike Riley’s version of what Nebraska can and will be.
The Big Red head coach was able to deliver a black and white message to his team after the boneheaded penalties made against Fresno State and Wyoming, and his players clearly took it to heart.
“I just told them if we’re going to play like we did in the first two games with those kinds of penalties, then games like today we would have lost.”
It’s not hard to imagine fans talking about “pulling a Riley” if Nebraska didn’t play more disciplined football and lost to the Quack Attack. Not only did they do that, they played four quarters of it. The Huskers’ head man said that the team seemed tight at the beginning of the game, but as it wore on, this squad was out to show that it could put the sputtering starts of the past two games behind it.
The Blackshirts faced a major challenge in Oregon’s speed, and the Ducks were able to gash the Big Red, exposing the Huskers’ inability to get to the edge on zone read runs. While Nebraska’s defense may not have walked away with a turnover this week, it stopped Oregon from doing something that 82 teams in a row couldn’t. The Ducks didn’t throw for a touchdown. Not one.
Senior safety Nate Gerry and his teammates feel they can right the wrongs that led to a miserable campaign last year. A 35-32 win over No. 22 Oregon helps emphasize that the foundation laid in the offseason is being properly built upon.
“We have something to prove all year, we have the same guys as we had last year. It was tough on a lot of people last year with the transition but everyone is bought in right now. We have a chip on our shoulder. We are capable of something and the sky is the limit for us,” Gerry said following the win over Oregon.
Yes, Nebraska gave up 336 yards and five touchdowns on the ground, but remember this was a secondary that was torched like gas-soaked kindling a season ago. Oregon quarterback Dakota Prukop completed 61 percent of his passes, but for only 146 yards. That manner of pass defense is worthy of a Top-25 ranking.
Tip your cap to true freshman Caleb Lightbourn, who was shaky in his first two starts. However, under the brightest spotlight he’s ever seen, he averaged 47 yards on five punts including a long of 58, pinning three inside the Ducks’ 20-yard line.
Finally, I would be remiss if Tommy Armstrong didn’t get applause for his work on Saturday. Yes, he made a couple of mistakes, but he did everything a senior quarterback has to do for his team to win big games. He threw for 200 yards and a touchdown, tossed no interceptions and ran for an additional 95 on the ground, including the game-winning 34-yard score despite severe cramping.
Nebraska wide receiver Jordan Westerkamp put it best when it came to Armstrong leading the drive that won the game for the Big Red.
“You know Tommy (Armstrong), he is the biggest competitor out on the field, made a great throw right in there, first down. Tommy runs it in for the touchdown, end of story we win.”
That was then, this is now. 3-0 and headed into the Top 25.