Shatel: Instead of mastering basics, Huskers throw up bombs

Nebraska averaged 2.2 yards per rush against Tennessee in the Music City Bowl.

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Can Tanner Lee block or tackle? The answer to that rhetorical question is: Let’s hope it’s not required.

Nebraska football lost the Music City Bowl on Friday, 38-24, to a Tennessee team that was probably too talented to be in this game.

But Tennessee talent isn’t the headline today. Nor is it the absence of three Husker stars in this game. Or how the program moves forward to a fresh outlook, with a new quarterback at the helm.

Lee might be all that and a bag of Runzas, but the quarterback transfer from Tulane won’t have a magic wand to fix what holds back Husker football.

It was on display again here before a chilly, animated sellout crowd at Nissan Stadium.

Missing were quarterback Tommy Armstrong and receiver Jordan Westerkamp, two all-time NU record-holders.

But present and accounted for were offensive linemen Nick Gates, Jerald Foster, Dylan Utter, Tanner Farmer and Cole Conrad.

And Nebraska rushed 28 times for 61 yards against Tennessee’s defense.

Yes, Vols defensive end Derek Barnett does a nice Reggie White imitation. But Tennessee’s defense gave up 420 yards rushing to Missouri in November.

A month ago, the Vols gave up 192 yards on the ground to Vanderbilt.

And the Huskers go for 2.2 yards per rush against these guys?

Meanwhile, on defense, senior safety Nate Gerry — arguably the best talent on the team — was out. Suspended. Gerry is a special guy. But he is one guy.

Vols quarterback Joshua Dobbs is also a special guy. He runs, he throws and drives you crazy. He throws to large receivers. They have speed.

But this isn’t the Blackshirts’ first rodeo. They give up 521 yards of offense, look like they’re running in sand, grasping at air instead of making tackles. And when the team needs them to make a play, they can’t.

This wasn’t about Ryker Fyfe. It’s about a Nebraska formula that has worn itself out.

Fyfe, the career backup making his first bowl start, played admirably. Played well, with gusto and smarts. He and senior receiver Brandon Reilly made some plays that had you shaking your head and believing in comebacks.

But as Fyfe and Reilly dazzled the crowd with their sleight of hand, it was an all-too-familiar look for Nebraska fans.

That is: Husker football has become reliant on the highlight play. The skill position talent making plays to bail the team out of a fix. Throwing deep or hitting the big play to erase earlier sins.

Few teams this side of Alabama and Ohio State have the kind of depth to overcome what NU has lost to injuries this season. But when that happens, what’s the fallback? What’s the proverbial bread-and-butter, the cliche known as identity?

You know, the stuff that NU used to be all about?

A big, strong offensive line that can move earth.

A tough, stingy defense that doesn’t care about talent or speed across the line. It flies to the ball and tackles, tackles, tackles.

Nebraska has gotten away from these pillars of strength. It’s become about Taylor Martinez, Ameer Abdullah or Tommy Armstrong or Jordan Westerkamp making a play or three.

That’s no way to win a championship. For sure, it’s a way to 9-4.

This erosion of values has happened over time and coaching changes. It’s not Mike Riley’s fault that Nebraska has gotten to this place. But it’s Riley’s job to change the course of the future.

Can he? Will NU change course? These are good questions. The coaches know the right answers.

“The tackling was very suspect,” said defensive coordinator Mark Banker. “We missed a lot of tackles.

“I’m very disappointed in how we were able to go to the ball. I don’t think it was (lack of) effort. It looked like we were gassed.”

Lack of confidence. Hesitation. These were not rookies on the field. There are veterans on this defense, and younger guys who are no longer young.

Tennessee talent? Good answer, but we saw some of the same stuff in Iowa City, where they don’t have Tennessee talent.

So what gives?

“We had a really good 2½ weeks of practice,” Banker said. “Players were really into it. But things they executed in practice, they didn’t in the game.”

The Blackshirts had some good moments this season, particularly against Wisconsin. But the last two games are just perplexing.

It’s too late to blame the previous coaching staff. That doesn’t work anymore. Banker and his staff have had enough time to mold these players.

Riley’s longtime coordinator talked about the need to add a couple of new “pieces” in the offseason. There’s potential up front and in the back.

But flying to the ball, making the basic tackles, is where good defense starts. It’s back to the drawing board for Banker, who is already drawing the ire of fans.

That’s tackling. What about blocking?

The Huskers have to replace Utter at center, but the line has potential to be better next season. Now, what will the Huskers do about it?

It’s a good question because this was a day to lean on the big boys up front, many of them playing with fresh legs. Take the pressure off Fyfe, keep Barnett from dominating and getting in the offense’s head and cut back on Dobbs’ possessions.

You do that by running it, establishing it early and keeping it going. It should be an automatic-pilot thing. I mean, this is a Big Ten team, right?

That’s the thing. Nebraska football has fallen in love with quarterbacks and big-name skill position recruits. It needs to be infatuated with having the biggest, baddest offensive line in the Big Ten.

You can win the Big Ten without having a great quarterback. It’s hard to without a great offensive line.

Danny Langsdorf seems to get that.

“The good teams in the league have good offensive lines,” Langsdorf said. “We’ve got to get our group to improve. They’ve got to have a big off-season.”

This group needs work. When the Huskers did run, Tennessee defenders were hard to move. And Fyfe was hounded and flushed out of the pocket a lot.

Asked about the run game, Langsdorf said it would be important to “find some run plays that will work” but also “complete passes on the early downs to help that.”

Tanner Lee sounds like the kind of quarterback who can do that. He’ll make the right reads, spread it around, rely less on the long-shot home run ball.

But he won’t do much if he’s on his back.

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