SANTA CLARA, California — Levi’s Stadium felt more like the lobby of a luxury hotel than a house of pain. Soon to host Super Bowl 50, this joint is somebody’s tax dollars at serious work.
Nebraska certainly got its money’s worth in a 37-29 win over UCLA, as did coach Mike Riley, who got to take his young grandson, Eli, into the postgame press auditorium. Riley adores the kid, who ate a hot dog in the front row while grandpa explained how his team’s tough-minded, run-first-and-run-often gameplan can be a “common denominator for winning championships.”
“It’s as much a statement as it is a goal,” Riley said. “Whenever I’ve talked to you guys all year long, I’ve always stated that about the running game and all of our players know it. I think it just helps everything — it helps protection, it helps the passing game, it helps all the way around.”
But Riley and offensive coordinator Danny Langsdorf showed more resolve with that plan. More determination. Sixty-two runs — 23 more than the previous season high and third-highest total since 2008 — said as much. This resolve is what Nebraska fans could have only hoped to see in a bowl game that, before kickoff, seemed to have as many risks as rewards.
“It wasn’t just 2 or 3 yards, it was 5-plus, and that feels good,” Riley said as to why NU kept plowing away. “All those second-down situations and third-down situations became easier because of that ... I could really feel it on the sidelines. They were really feeling it on the field. Excited to run. The line gets pumped up. That line of scrimmage was moving in our favor really nice.”
This win — and how Nebraska won — couldn’t have come at a better time for recruiting. If Husker coaches play it right, whipping the Bruins is a gift that can last through signing day. At least in recruiting circles, UCLA is a name program, and this game will turn some heads. The Bruins are talent darlings and the game fell on the Saturday night right after Christmas. It was a football night.
Prospective recruits either saw what Nebraska did or will hear of it. Husker coaches have to close on them now.
NU still needs some offensive linemen for the 2016 class. Riley and offensive line coach Mike Cavanaugh can just turn on the tape. I suggest they find the Tommy Armstrong run where right tackle Nick Gates not only pancakes a UCLA linebacker 6 yards downfield, but lands on top of him. That looked like fun.
On the defensive side, well — do you see that “Help Wanted” sign in the window? Nebraska needs it on the defensive line now that Maliek Collins is officially gone and Vincent Valentine is strongly considering it. Nebraska still needs better pass rushers — though they had a few moments Saturday night. More help in the secondary wouldn’t hurt, either.
Yes, Riley and his boss, Athletic Director Shawn Eichorst, were the top beneficiaries of the win Saturday. Their critics will wonder where Riley was hiding that gameplan for most of the season, but they’ll also have to acknowledge Riley actually has it, too — and can use it as a blueprint for 2016, when the schedule is more demanding.
Armstrong earned himself an easier offseason, too. Aside from a fumble that should have been negated by a facemask call, Armstrong played under control. He threw a pretty touchdown pass to Stanley Morgan where only Morgan could catch it.
Armstrong was less risky with the ball than UCLA’s Josh Rosen — though Rosen started to have no choice when the Bruins stopped trying to run the ball. He was a decisive runner in the second half. You can win some big games with this Armstrong. He’s a huge favorite to start next season.
Quietly, defensive coordinator Mark Banker must be thrilled Nebraska’s offense possessed the ball a whopping 38:15, for his secondary lost safety Nate Gerry for a half and was holding on in that fourth quarter against UCLA’s fast-paced system. His unit forced four punts and intercepted two passes. It’ll have to do. Whatever the injury and transition issues, Banker’s bunch just wasn’t good enough until the final four games — and it was shaky at times against UCLA.
Over time, stats don’t lie too much. The defenses of the last five Big Ten champions gave up an average of 18.7 points per game, 315.27 yards per game and 4.88 yards per play. Nebraska finished this season at 27.8, 400.4 and 5.88 in those categories, against a schedule that included the Nos. 84, 85, 88, 94, 101, 103 and 115 offenses. NU will also lose at least two and possibly three defensive line starters.
Banker has to do better, in other words. Better than he did in 2015 — better than he’s done in five of the last six seasons. Riley has to be tough-minded with that unit, as tough-minded as he appeared to be with Armstrong and the offense the last month.
You figure he was because of the product on the field. Nebraska looked controlled, patient, physical and unyielding. Running back Devine Ozigbo looked like the back of the future. Tight end Cethan Carter blocked tough and made a few plays of his own. Carter’s emergence as a weapon will be a key storyline in 2016. And NU’s wideouts will be one of the Big Ten’s best units next season.
Nebraska’s offense took it more on the chin than it probably deserved this season. Chalk it up to Husker fans who have power football in their blood, who have seen good offense for a half decade, who could probably close their eyes and just tell by the pad-popping how a play turned out.
If they closed their eyes Saturday night, they must have smiled as wide as Riley did with his grandson. They heard ghosts of Husker football past, trying to find a place in the future.
I see you
Defensive tackle Maliek Collins: He will be missed. Collins was a very good defensive tackle, but the time he spent with younger players after practice — no coaches, just Collins, some teammates and blocking pads — was almost as valuable. Collins turns over the mantle to Kevin Maurice, who could become the best player on the interior line whether Vincent Valentine stays or not.
Fullback Andy Janovich: He will be missed for his blocking, his special teams tackles and his good burst as a runner. Janovich was ignored during his career by former offensive coordinator Tim Beck — who failed to see Janovich's worth and incorporate it into the offense — and wasn't used quite enough by offensive coordinator Danny Langsdorf. Still, kudos to Langsdorf for seeing something.
The Nebraska offensive line: Including Paul Thurston, who filled in for an injured Ryne Reeves in the second half. Strong performance, from those guys. I voted that bunch, not Armstrong, MVP.
Safety Nate Gerry: Victim of a poor call for targeting, but an even worse rule. As written, the rule is just too broad.
Tight ends coach Tavita Thompson: He helped make Carter the player he is this season. Carter had all kinds of natural gifts, no doubt, but Thompson helped unlock more of them. The few times Carter does talk, he credits Thompson.
Wideout Stanley Morgan: Nebraska really hit the jackpot with this kid. He has good hands, he breaks tackles and blocks willingly. Morgan was good in fall camp and stayed good in the bowl game. Strong freshman year.
Running back Devine Ozigbo: He pretty clearly took most of Terrell Newby's carries in the Foster Farms Bowl, and I have little problem with that. Ozigbo has good agility and balance for a player his size.
UCLA defensive tackle Kenny Clark: Notched 11 tackles and two tackles for loss. He's a future NFL star and the only Bruin in that front seven who played particularly well.
Safeties Antonio Reed and Aaron Williams: The freshmen had difficult assignments on Saturday night, since UCLA's wideouts are really athletic guys. The Big Ten will be more kind to both of them next season.
Cornerback Josh Kalu: Went a whole season without conducting an interview. If he continues to progress as a player, he'll have to revise that policy next season.
UCLA quarterback Josh Rosen: Near-effortless thrower of the ball. His fourth quarter touchdown and two-point conversion passes were works of art, and I watched Rosen throw them just like that in warmups. Those throws were not by accident.
The terrible, no-good, awfully-written targeting rule: Gerry got nailed with a bad call, but the rule, as written, allows for it. Check the language: “No player shall target and initiate contact to the head or neck area of a defenseless opponent with the helmet, forearm, fist, elbow or shoulder. When in question, it is a foul.”
Gerry had a form tackle — he wrapped up with two hands and never left his feet as he tackled — but it could be argued that his shoulder was somewhere around the neck of UCLA running back Paul Perkins. As bad of a judgment call as it might have been, heck, the “neck area” can be a shoulder blade, if you really want it to be. And I read “when in question” to mean “if it feels like it, sure, eject a guy.” Rewrite the rule. An ejection for an intentional, avoidable, vicious play, and nothing more. And make an ejection for the chin up.
Special teams play: Nebraska was mediocre on Saturday night. Enough with the offsides penalties on extra points.
A long offseason without college football: In roughly two weeks, it'll be reality, and it'll be a harsh one.
14: Sacks allowed by Nebraska's offensive line this season. That's roughly one per game. Armstrong wriggled himself out of some, of course.
Seven: Times Nebraska has topped 300 rushing yards against a Power Five conference team since joining the Big Ten. 458 against Illinois in 2014, 346 against Minnesota in 2011, 343 against Miami in 2014, 335 against Illinois in 2013, 326 against UCLA, 313 against Michigan State in 2012 and 309 against Washington in 2011.
57.9: Completion rate allowed by Nebraska's defense this season. The 2007 defense allowed a 57.7 percent completion rate. It was rough.
Five: Games this season in which Nebraska's defense held the opponent to fewer than 100 rushing yards. That's the best total since the 2009 defense, which held eight teams to fewer than 100 yards rushing.
7-6: Nebraska's all-time record against UCLA. NU had lost three of the last five in this series, dating back to 1988.
A warm fire as the snow rolls in. While you're snowbound early this week, find the Foster Farms Bowl game in your DVR library and enjoy.
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