After an undefeated start and No. 7 College Football Ranking through seven games last season, it appeared head coach Mike Riley had Nebraska clicking.
That’s when the Cornhuskers started a downward spiral. Since the Oct. 29, 2016, loss at Wisconsin, Nebraska is 6-10. The Huskers’ only wins in that span came against Minnesota, Maryland, Arkansas State, Illinois, Purdue and Rutgers.
Coming off a 33-point loss to the Golden Gophers, Nebraska (4-6) is trying to find its footing in Happy Valley. To help break down the Huskers, we spoke to Parker Gabriel — the Nebraska beat writer for the Lincoln Journal Star.
Q: It just hasn’t been Nebraska’s year. There’s seemingly a lot wrong in Lincoln, but what’s the main reason why Nebraska is sitting here at 4-6?
A: Ask a Husker fan this question and you’d better settle in for a lecture about the past 15 years. This particular team, though, hasn’t produced enough stops on defense and hasn’t found something it can hang its hat on offensively. The offensive line has suffered some injury attrition, but it entered as a veteran group that wanted to be among the Big Ten’s best. Instead, it’s been inconsistent at best. Sophomore running back Tre Bryant had 299 yards in seven quarters before a season-ending injury Week 2. Nebraska’s averaged 3.2 yards per carry in eight games since.
Q: JD Spielman and Stanley Morgan Jr. are second and third in the Big Ten with 734 and 727 receiving yards, respectively. What makes them so effective?
A: Morgan’s the latest in a long line of split ends in Mike Riley’s offensive system. Riley called it a position that can catch 90 balls earlier this season. Morgan is physical, isn’t afraid to work over the middle of the field and is good after the catch. Spielman has come on fast midway through his redshirt freshman year. He’s a conversion-down machine — 27 catches on third and fourth down combined, tied for best in the country — and the past five weeks has averaged 12.4 targets, seven catches and 108 yards.
Q: Who would you say is an unsung hero of this team? Someone who could make an impact Saturday that Penn State fans aren’t familiar with?
A: Maybe not so much an unsung hero, but keep an eye on freshman running back Jaylin Bradley. His first extensive action came Oct. 28 against Purdue, and he had 73 total yards on 10 touches. He sprained an ankle, though, and has missed the past two games. He’s NU’s most explosive backfield threat and could see a sizable role as the Huskers look for an offensive jolt.
Q: Like everyone in college football, I’m sure there are plenty of Penn State fans interested in the Cornhuskers’ coaching situation. The name on everyone’s lips is UCF’s Scott Frost, assuming Mike Riley is finished in Lincoln. But if it’s not Frost, who do you see as potential candidates that would fit and why?
A: Hard to say. In most fans’ eyes, Frost is Option A, Option B and Options C-Z. Past that, it’s the names you’d maybe expect at any school looking for a head coach this offseason: Iowa State’s Matt Campbell, Mississippi State’s Dan Mullen plus maybe Wyoming’s Craig Bohl (a former defensive coordinator in Lincoln). Personally, I count myself among the Joe Moorhead Fan Club. One name that seems very, very unlikely despite the obvious connection with new NU athletic director Bill Moos: Mike Leach.
Q: Do you have a prediction for Saturday’s game?
A: The Huskers don’t have much left to play for besides pride and, coming off a 33-point loss to Minnesota, there doesn’t seem to be a lot of reason to think they’re going to well up and put together an inspired performance. Penn State 48, Nebraska 17.