The air was thick with emotion as Nebraska eventually dismantled the Fresno State Bulldogs this past weekend.
There were so many tributes to the lost Sam Foltz. His nephews were part of the Tunnel Walk entrance; the Missing Man punting formation was unforgettable; and the student section did its part with banners. Then, of course, there was the actual football game. If there is something Nebraskans can rally around while healing from the loss of one of their own, it’s the game.
In that game, the Huskers made mistakes that could cost Nebraska against a more talented team — Wyoming for example.
No, the Cowboys aren’t Ohio State, but they’ll likely pose a far bigger problem for the Huskers than Fresno State did. Mike Riley expanded on this in Monday’s press conference.
“Wyoming, they have some notable players. Defensive end, No. 91 (Carl Granderson) is very quick. No. 7 (D.J. May) and No. 45 (Lucas Wacha) are good linebackers that we’ve already noted. Their two safeties are good players. I think that No. 28 (Andrew Wingard) was a freshman All-American a year ago, good player,” he said.
“They have a real good runner, No. 5 (Brian) Hill. Their quarterback (Josh Allen) is really strong. Big guy, 6-5. I haven’t seen the whole film yet, but I guess he scrambled for the winning score the other night in overtime for a touchdown. No. 83 (Jake Maulhardt) is a good receiver for them, No. 4 (Tanner Gentry) is a fast guy that they run the fly sweep with.”
Riley’s right to identify Allen as someone the Huskers will have to keep a lid on.
Let’s offer this point of comparison with Fresno State: Bulldog redshirt freshman quarterback Chason Virgil managed to complete 17 of 32 passes against the Blackshirts for 133 yards with a touchdown and an interception. Not only was his youth working against him; he had a brand new offensive coordinator behind the scenes.
Allen will be a different animal as he stands tall in the pocket. In last Saturday’s home opener, he completed 66 percent of his passes against Northern Illinois for 245 yards and two touchdowns with no picks to speak of. Allen led the Cowboys to a 40-34 win over Northern Illinois, dramatically changing his team’s outlook for the season after a brutal 2015 campaign.
Riley was also sure to mention Wyoming’s excellent return unit, which produced touchdowns that were ultimately called back against Northern Illinois. The Cowboys demonstrated competence in all three phases of the game — perhaps not to an equal extent, but certainly far better than at any point over the course of the 2015 season under head coach Craig Bohl.
Nebraska has to expect a test on Saturday, even if it doesn’t get one. Vigilance needs to become the Huskers’ friend in this game.
While it was no doubt exhilarating for wide receiver and NU emergency quarterback Zack Darlington to score on a two-point conversion against Fresno State, spinning the ball after the fact (while understandable) still means a 15-yard penalty. Riley knows the other errors that resulted in unwanted laundry on the field can be taken care of if the Huskers keep their heads in the game.
“You can eliminate the celebration penalties, I think you can eliminate the targeting, you can certainly eliminate the late hit unsportsmanlike play, you can eliminate the illegal formation, we can be cleaner on substitution.”
The long and short of it is that Nebraska may not be able to afford a sputtering start against the Cowboys. Despite opening as a 24-point underdog, they’re a capable squad that will give Big Red more to handle than Fresno State could.
Consider Riley’s words a warning for his team. It’s not that there shouldn’t be silly mistakes again; there can’t be, especially down the line.