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Mike Riley’s Team Shows Promise for 2016 With Win Over UCLA

Photo: Zach Bolinger/Icon Sportswire

Standing on the podium next to the Foster Farms Bowl Trophy, Mike Riley answered the critics who said Nebraska didn’t belong in a bowl game with a losing record.

“I guess we did,” Riley said.

Though it’s still disputable whether a 5-7 team is worthy of a bid for a postseason appearance, Nebraska proved it was a better team than its record indicated. Saturday night’s 37-29 win over UCLA in the Foster Farms Bowl also provided a glimpse of what the future of Nebraska football could behold under Riley.

“We probably played our best football game tonight,” Riley said in the post-game presser, per Omaha.com.

Despite the unattractive record heading into Santa Clara, Nebraska’s opportunity to continue its season proved to be a healthy prescription for an otherwise forgettable year. The Huskers showcased new dimensions that were unknown in the regular season. Riley and the coaching staff appeared to have addressed the importance of the running game – and it paid off exponentially.

At the end of the night, Nebraska totaled 326 yards on the ground on 62 carries and scored four touchdowns. What’s most impressive about Saturday’s new-look offense was its incorporation of nine separate ball carriers, not one of which eclipsed the 100-yard mark.

Freshman Devine Ozigbo, who had just 18 touches out of the backfield in the entire regular season, led the way with 80 yards on 20 carries.

“I think it helps everything,” Riley said of the running game. “That line of scrimmage was moving in our favor really nicely.”

The effectiveness in the running game allowed for a more successful passing attack, as well. Tommy Armstrong, who entered the Foster Farms Bowl throwing eight interceptions in his previous nine quarters of play, didn’t throw a single interception all evening. After averaging 35 passes per game this year, Armstrong threw just 19 balls, completing 12 of those for 174 yards and a touchdown.

He was just as potent with his legs, too, adding 76 yards and another touchdown to his total.

It was arguably the most complete performance Armstrong had summoned all season and it translated to Nebraska’s most impressive win, as well.

That’s why this bowl game – though unearned – was monumental for Riley as he enters his second season. It’s like a month-long extension on book report that’s still a rough draft. A berth in the postseason gave Riley and his staff some leeway before handing in the finished product.

After a month it’s easy to see that this version is much more polished than the one that left the field in November. The eight-point win over UCLA should provide encouragement and optimism as the Huskers head into the offseason.

Ozigbo, who was the leading rusher in the Foster Farms Bowl, is more than capable of becoming an influential part of the run game with Terrell Newby next season. Standout receivers Jordan Westerkamp, Brandon Reilly, Stanley Morgan and De’Mornay Pierson-El all return to the field.

Potentially this biggest reason this team can succeed next season is because of its quarterback. On Saturday, Armstrong was put in a position where he wasn’t forced to do too much. It allowed him to target open receivers and scramble less often.  For the first time this season, Armstrong didn’t feel the pressure of frequent, third down, long yardage situations.

His performance provided plenty of foresight for next season if a more run-heavy offensive approach is adopted.

If the Huskers hadn’t been granted a bowl bid it’s hard to believe there’d be many – if any – positives to take away from the 2015 campaign. At the very least, any confidence and optimism heading into Riley’s second season would’ve seemed unfounded and without evidence.

Luckily for Nebraska, it received the extension on this year’s book report. It’s now left people waiting to read the next one.

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