LINCOLN — Nebraska center Tanner Farmer is one of those fifth-year Husker seniors who has been through three head coaches and at least that many position coaches. He’s felt anger, resolve and now — happiness. NU stands at 3-7 — almost certain not to make a bowl game — Farmer said he’s never been happier in his life.
“Even though this isn’t the most successful season I’ve had, this the happiest I’ve ever been, this season, I can tell you that,” Farmer said. “By far. This entire season combined is the happiest time of my life.”
“I feel like I belong somewhere,” Farmer said. “I feel like I’m accepted. I love my coaches and I feel like they love me. In fact, I know they love me. Being able to be a part of something like that, there’s no better experience than that.”
Safety Tre Neal, who played for coach Scott Frost at Central Florida and now at Nebraska, said Frost’s youth and charisma helps him relate with players.
“I remember talking to him about playing (video games) with him,” Neal said. “Not a lot of coaches do that.”
Rise and shine, recruits
Frost likes 11 a.m. kickoffs because it gives him a chance to eat dinner and play with his son, who had his first birthday last week.
The Nebraska-Michigan State game, televised nationally on Fox, is actually one of the marquee Big Ten matchups of the weekend, but it will be the Huskers’ fourth straight morning kick. That makes it hard for recruits from other states to attend the game on time, if at all.
Frost said Monday that it may keep away one or two of the many prospects slated to visit, but not all of them.
“If we win more games we’ll be in better time slots,” Frost said. “But it’s tough, getting kids from out of state, when you play at 11 in the morning. … We’ll be able to get most of the guys in this week. There’s a couple that I think that’ll show up after the game starts.”
Multiple junior college players — including Moorpark (Calif.) College pass rusher Dru Mathis and Coffeyville (Kan.) Community College safety Markquese Bell — will visit NU this weekend. The Huskers already have three junior college commits for the 2019 recruiting class and are pursuing several more.
“If we feel like we need an older guy to help, we’re going to go look,” Frost said.
Nebraska will likely take at least 25 prospects and perhaps more in the 2019 recruiting class, Frost said. Though schools only have 25 scholarships to hand out each year, programs can back-date scholarships for early enrollees. NU could, in theory, take 30 prospects or more.
Running challenge for NU
The redemption of Nebraska’s running game has been fun, players say. Another big performance Saturday would give it some high-profile validation.
Senior offensive lineman Jerald Foster was one of multiple Huskers to point to that matchup as one to watch Saturday. Nebraska’s 22nd-ranked rushing offense (226.5 yards per game) will go up against Michigan State’s top-rated rushing defense (76.5 yards allowed per game).
Only three times have the Spartans allowed an opponent to top 100 rushing yards in a game this year. NU has done it nine times, including 316 yards against Illinois last weekend.
“That’s going to be a whole lot of fun to play against a stout group like that,” Foster said. “I don’t see us changing up anything in our game. We’re still gonna work, still gonna try to get the run accomplished.”
Running back Devine Ozigbo — whose 162 yards rushing and three touchdowns on 11 carries made him Big Ten offensive player of the week — said MSU is very sound, if not complicated. Quarterback Adrian Martinez said he’s confident any pressure the Spartans want to bring can be countered effectively by Nebraska’s own scheme and playmakers.
Frost called plays for Oregon against Michigan State in 2014 (a 46-27 Oregon win) and 2015 (MSU won 31-28). He said this group is more varied in its looks, mixing in early-down pressure and single-high safeties.
The coach said since the Spartans don’t give up big plays, Nebraska will have to create them, adding “if we can score on our first drive this week, I’ll be really happy.”
MSU ranks 17th in scoring defense (19.7 points per game) and 21st in total defense (327.3 yards). Nebraska is 41st in scoring offense (32.3) and 13th in total offense (482.6).
“This is close to, or as good a defense as we’ve faced all year, and I’ve only watched them for one day,” Frost said. “I got a ton of respect for what they do. They know their schemes, they know their issues and places that people have tried to hit them. And they have answers for that.”
For senior captains, pride comes from knowing Huskers have bright future because of them
LINCOLN — Mick Stoltenberg didn’t realize the cold number attached to his remaining time as a Husker until Scott Frost brought it up during a team meeting Monday.
In moments like those, the senior can see his college career flash before his eyes. Like most of his classmates, he was a Bo Pelini recruit who rose through the ranks under Mike Riley. Now, as Nebraska closes out a down-and-up first season under Scott Frost, excuse him if he takes a beat Saturday to soak in a “bittersweet” moment or two before his final home game.
“We get a big opportunity this weekend,” said the defensive lineman from Gretna. “Yet it’s the last time we get to play in this stadium.”
As emotional as it will be for 19 Nebraska seniors, none have been more physically, mentally and vocally invested in the day-by-day process than the the three in-state co-captains of Stoltenberg and former Lincoln Southeast teammates Jerald Foster and Luke Gifford.
All three overcame serious injuries during their careers. All three cycled through position coaches. All three made sure the Frost era began with the full backing of Nebraska’s senior class.
“We took it upon ourselves to not be the problem,” said Foster, the starting left guard. “We took it upon ourselves to be the solution and really to push forward.”
Their impacts are obvious. The deep voice of Stoltenberg imploring teammates to practice well as he runs up and down a drill line during warmups. Foster setting an emotional tone, whether that’s making jokes or speaking to reporters after a loss when no one else wants to. The linebacker Gifford inspiring others as he worked back from a hip injury that kept him out for most of the offseason.
When Frost and his staff arrived, they floated the idea of no permanent captains in their first year. But players chose the lifelong Nebraskans — along with New Orleans native and record-breaking receiver Stanley Morgan — to represent the team all season.
“They grew up watching Husker football,” senior defensive lineman Peyton Newell said. “You couldn’t ask for a better core group of leaders. Nebraska is the only team they’ve followed.”
The captains wanted to be more involved. Even as Stoltenberg missed multiple games rehabbing from a procedure on his knee, he checked in with teammates about their classes and other responsibilities. He wanted to know about any player indiscretions before the coaches did. Any concerns the Huskers had went through their captains and, if necessary, to the staff.
Junior cornerback Lamar Jackson said the senior leaders busted up cliques that may have formed last season and “give us no choice but to bond, to be together.” Senior center Tanner Farmer said they lead by example.
“It’s not easy to come here and push a group of guys, without a winning season, to keep practicing hard and keep developing and getting better,” Morgan said. “But these captains have done a great job of doing that.”
Said freshman quarterback Adrian Martinez: “I want them to be known, that they laid the foundation for what we’re about to become.”
Frost said he couldn’t help but be impressed by Stoltenberg’s speech to the team following Saturday’s win over Illinois that challenged NU to finish the season strong with wins over Michigan State and Iowa. It’s a good sign, the coach added, when the seniors are jealous of the younger players who get to stay in the program whose culture they helped create.
“Obviously we still have some work to do this season, but I know this thing’s going up,” Stoltenberg said. “I’m going to be so proud of these guys when it’s a year or two from now and they’re winning tons of games and having a lot of success here.”
Ozigbo enjoys Big Ten honor
Devine Ozigbo named Big Ten Offensive Player of the Week
The ad-libbed introduction caught Ozigbo by surprise Monday. But he kept his composure as Foster complimented his haircut and smile in front of a group of reporters.
“He’s looking amazing today!” Foster said. “There he is!”
It was that kind of day for Ozigbo, the senior running back who learned earlier in the morning of his conference honor, the first of his career.
“It’s just an honor,” Ozigbo said. “It goes to show how far this team has come and people are taking notice.”
The occasion gave teammates an excuse to compliment the man who has surprised many — including coaches, Frost said — with his explosive play. Foster thinks the Texan is three steps faster than last year. Frost said he felt like “a dumb coach” for not getting Ozigbo the ball more against Illinois and the playmaker is “an example of how kids should be and what they should do.”
Combined with his ability to read the field and bust through at the next level of a defense, he’s now 42 yards from becoming the first Husker to crack 1,000 yards rushing since Ameer Abdullah in 2014.
He didn’t start NU’s first three contests but has in each one since.
“He just kept coming to work, doing his job, getting better,” Frost said. “It’s even more special when someone has a great season when they persevere through something like that. What a great teammate and a great person. I really believe he’s put himself in position to keep playing football and not have his Nebraska career be the end of his career.”
Neal keeps up with UCF
Tre Neal keeps in contact with his former UCF teammates.
“All the time,” said Neal, who transferred to NU from UCF. “I talk a little trash here and there but you know, it’s all love.”
So he’s well aware of how excited they are in Orlando this week with ESPN’s “College GameDay” on its way.
“They don’t get the respect or recognition that a lot of teams get,” Neal said. “They have a lot of talent down there and I think people don’t really realize it because they don’t play the marquee games and may not be the marquee program.”
Neal said UCF has talent “oozing everywhere at every position” and is glad to see his former teammates have success, and get the exposure on primetime TV.
“Just having ‘College GameDay’ come there and just see how the campus is and see the lifestyle those guys have for them will be good for them and the program.”
New man on kickoffs
Freshman placekicker Barret Pickering will continue handling kickoff duties this week and “probably going forward,” Scott Frost said.
Pickering took over last weekend for the first time. He replaces junior Caleb Lightbourn, who had previously lost his starting punting job and made national blooper reels after almost whiffing an onside kick at Ohio State.
“We want the ball to go where it’s supposed to go,” Frost said.
Michigan State at Nebraska
When: 11 a.m. Saturday
Where: Memorial Stadium, Lincoln
Radio: 103.1 FM