Husker Notes: Mike Riley gives full review of opener with praise for offensive balance

Husker Notes: Mike Riley gives full review of opener with praise for offensive balance
World-Herald News Service

LINCOLN — Each Monday, coach Mike Riley offers an in-depth review of the previous game, highlighting highs and lows. The trend won’t change in 2017.

» Riley liked the offensive balance between run and pass and NU’s third-down conversion rate (50 percent), although Riley added the conversion rate could have been better. The Huskers had six drives of seven plays or more, “which is good,” Riley said, and 12 plays that NU’s coaching staff identified as “explosive” on offense. Arkansas State, Riley said, had just five.

“We look for 15 percent of our plays being explosive plays,” Riley said. The Huskers were at 17 percent.

» On offense, Riley praised offensive tackle Nick Gates, some “beautiful plays” from quarterback Tanner Lee, running back Tre Bryant and tight end Tyler Hoppes.

» On defense, safety Joshua Kalu made a “big-time play” on his fourth-quarter interception. Riley said, in general, the defense’s struggles — allowing 497 yards and 32 first downs — could be attributed as much to a new crop of defenders as defensive coordinator Bob Diaco’s new 3-4 scheme. NU’s three cornerbacks — Lamar Jackson, Dicaprio Bootle and Eric Lee — had a combined one career start.

“I was proud of how they battled,” Riley said of the corners. “I think that game will be good for their growth.”

» Punter Caleb Lightbourn had a “consistent” game, Riley said, while kicker Drew Brown did well aside from the first penalty of his career on a kickoff that went out of bounds. Receiver JD Spielman had a 99-yard kickoff return for a touchdown.

Perhaps the most disappointing play for Riley was the safety incurred by NU’s offense when ASU linebacker Kyle Wilson tackled Bryant in the end zone. Wilson came on a blitz unabated to Bryant.

“I’m really disappointed in that because I think you should take great pride in bringing it out of your own end, and we get, of all things, tackled in the backfield,” Riley said.

Substitution issues on special teams — particularly when Nebraska’s defense stayed on the field to cover punts in fourth-down-and-manageable situations, could also use some sprucing up, Riley said. Nebraska incurred a 12-men-on-the-field penalty last season in such a situation.

Huskers mostly healthy

Nebraska remained healthy coming out of the Arkansas State game. Wideout De’Mornay Pierson-El (shoulder) and outside linebacker Marcus Newby (hamstring) are probable for Saturday’s game against Oregon but may miss some practice early in the week. Bryant (swollen knee) will be limited in practice this week but is expected to play against the Ducks.

Bryant carries big load

Bryant had a career-high 31 carries Saturday night. Not just in college. In high school, too.

Bryant played at St. Louis Christian Brothers College High School, a football power in Missouri. Some games, Bryant said, he’d get fewer than 10 carries because of the talent around him on the field.

Against ASU, Bryant kept getting fed the ball, and Nebraska’s coaches decided in the days before the game to nix any kind of rotation. Bryant received all but two of the running back carries. Mikale Wilbon rushed twice for 15 yards and a touchdown because Bryant tapped out of the game after a 24-yard run full of broken tackles.

“Get a little water,” Bryant said when asked what he was thinking the one time he asked out of the game.

Riley said he wanted to see one back — in this case, Bryant — carry the load and get better as the game progressed. Bryant’s longest run of the game — 35 yards — came in the third quarter. The repeated runs gave the line and Bryant “a better feel.”

“Maybe even those other guys deserve more in the competition that we had,” Riley said of Wilbon and Devine Ozigbo.

Ozigbo, Riley said, is playing the “best ball” of his career. In the 2016 season opener, he had 17 carries for a career-high 103 yards. On Saturday, zero.

“I think we have three better backs than we did a year ago. They just happen to be the same guys,” Riley said. “And that’s OK, that’s a good sign.”

Frustrating finish for offense

Nebraska’s offense controlled the ball for 11 minutes and 31 seconds of the third quarter. In the fourth — when the Huskers unsuccessfully tried to put the game away — it was just 6:25.

Riley said Monday he wanted his team to finish the game on the field, and he and offensive coordinator Danny Langsdorf had a long conversation about not doing so.

“Just one more first down, somewhere in there,” Riley said.

One frustration, Riley said, was Nebraska’s final offensive play, a third-and-4 from the NU 28. Lee looked for Spielman, found him covered, and threw the ball out of harm’s way. That stopped the clock and forced NU to punt.

“We had a really good third-down call, and what we didn’t have — what they did with their robber, their extra player, took that play away — was adding that good next option,” Riley said. “You can’t change the play, but you’ve got to have another good choice for the quarterback, so we’ve got to explore that one a little bit because that threw a curveball into that.”

Trust paying off

Hoppes calls it probably the best catch he’s ever made in a football game. And it wouldn’t have happened without some faith from his quarterback.

The senior tight end made the first three catches (for 40 yards) of his Nebraska career Saturday. His second came on an out route on second-and-11 in the third quarter, when Lee sent his 6-foot-4 teammate a high pass toward the front end of the south end zone.

With a defensive back draped on him, Hoppes pulled in the ball before falling out of bounds, setting up Bryant’s 1-yard touchdown run that extended Nebraska’s lead to 34-26.

“He threw it up there, and I just figured that (if) he trusts me enough to throw it up to me, I might as well go get it,” Hoppes said Monday. “… We did a ton of work during the offseason to gain that trust with the quarterbacks. I’m glad it’s showing here.”

Riley identified Hoppes during his Monday press conference as one of the players to make “the biggest jump on our football team.”

Hoppes said the compliment may stem from a productive offseason and his mentality of preparing every day as if it’s game day.

“I think the biggest thing for me was really pushing to be an every-down guy, not just a receiving tight end but to be a blocker on the running downs as well,” Hoppes said.

More consistency from LBs

Nebraska linebackers coach Trent Bray was out of breath Monday when he walked over to reporters for an interview.

He had just completed a series of up-downs — where one jogs in place, drops to the ground flat on his stomach, then jumps up — to the clapping metronome of his boss, Diaco. Bray conducted the up-downs with his top players. Other defenders ran wind sprints inside the Hawks Championship Center.

What was going on?

“Top secret,” Bray said, smiling. “Game-related.”

On the whole, Bray said, his linebackers “really helped in under coverage,” which helped the Huskers’ back end feel comfortable in staying “over the top” against Arkansas State’s receivers.

Bray said he wants more “consistency” from his unit.

“Just cleaner eyes, really, seeing high hat/low hat, run or pass,” Bray said.

Jackson comes through

Donte Williams didn’t do any up-downs.

Williams said he was happy with Jackson’s play. Jackson had his second career start.

“Besides one play where he ducked inside, he executed the game plan,” Williams said. “He made some plays when they tried to block him at the line of scrimmage, and he tackled extremely well in that game. At the end of the game, the last two plays, he came up big. One was a pass breakup, and the other one, Aaron Williams undercut the ball like he’s supposed to and Lamar was on his guy. He definitely grew up, a lot, in that game.”

Williams said he didn’t talk too much to Jackson after the game.

“All I could think about was they threw the ball 68 times!” Williams said. “I came to this conference thinking that the max they throw is 30 times, and we play an out-of-conference game and they throw 68! I felt like I was back in the Pac-12.”

Quick hits

» Nebraska has only played Oregon away from Lincoln once, and it was a 28-13 win in Portland in 1952. Multnomah Field, where the game was played at night, still stands, but it’s been renamed Providence Park, where it’s home to Portland State’s FCS football team and the Portland Timbers of Major League Soccer.

» Bray said it was part of the game plan to let Arkansas State complete a lot of quick throws. The strategy, Bray said, was to make Arkansas State put together a long drive. “You make them go 10 to 15 play drives, they get a false start. They end up doing something to help us. If we don’t do things to put ourselves in a hole, make them go long. Not let them get those 50- to 40-yard passes to make them score.”

Arkansas State completed a school-record 46 passes.

» Bray said the crowd at Autzen Stadium in Eugene is “probably the nastiest I’ve ever been around.” Bray played at Oregon as an Oregon State linebacker in the early 2000s, then coached against Oregon in the 2010s at the same school. “They’re right on you. Four-year-old kids saying unspeakable words yelling at you. It’s a different environment, but you can have fun with that, too.”

Nebraska at Oregon

When: 3:30 p.m. Saturday

Where: Autzen Stadium, Eugene

Radio: 103.1 FM

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