Nebraska Cornhuskers: Tommy Armstrong

Michigan's defense controlled play throughout the spring game Saturday at Michigan Stadium, echoing a theme throughout most of the league that day.

Several Big Ten squads held scrimmages or open practices, and the defenses had the edge in most of them. The offenses stepped up in a few, and several quarterbacks appear to be separating themselves.

Let's recap the weekend scrimmages. (Note: Scrimmages that were closed to the media and had no available statistics.)

WISCONSIN

Despite a new-look front seven and several position changes, Wisconsin's defense dominated Saturday's scrimmage. Cornerbacks Sojourn Shelton and Darius Hillary both had good days against an undermanned receiving corps, and coach Gary Andersen called the quarterback play very average. "We have a long way to go in the throw game, and that's disappointing," Andersen said. "If we want to be a good team, we have to figure that out." The defense also shined against the run, even against top backs Melvin Gordon and Corey Clement.

PURDUE

Technically, the Boilers' offense won Saturday's jersey scrimmage at Ross-Ade Stadium. But the defense looked stronger for much of the day, recording seven sacks and two takeaways. Unofficially, five Boilers recorded sacks, including two from tackle Michael Rouse III, who finished with three tackles for loss. Coach Darrell Hazell said of the defensive line, "They played in the [offensive] backfield."

Top quarterbacks Danny Etling and Austin Appleby struggled, combining to complete 21 of 42 passes for 205 yards with a touchdown (Etling) and an interception (Appleby). Running back Raheem Mostert highlighted the offense with 134 yards and two touchdowns on only nine carries. Mostert is making a strong push this spring to be Purdue's No. 1 running back.

MINNESOTA

The Gophers' defense loses top performers Ra'Shede Hageman and Brock Vereen from last fall's unit, but it controlled play on Saturday. Minnesota's D held the offense without a point on its first seven possessions in the scrimmage. Safety Cedric Thompson had an excellent interception off a deflection on the first drive. The offense picked it up later in the scrimmage, as quarterback Mitch Leidner found KJ Maye for a 50-yard touchdown strike, and both Leidner and Berkley Edwards had long touchdown runs.

NEBRASKA

Here's one offense that flexed its muscles on Saturday after being subdued earlier in the week. Quarterback Tommy Armstrong Jr. had an "efficient" performance, according to coach Bo Pelini, as he continues to look like the team's top signal-caller. Armstrong ran for two touchdowns. Sophomore Terrell Newby received a lot of work at running back as Ameer Abdullah sat out, and receiver Jordan Westerkamp turned a short pass into a long gain. Defensive tackle Aaron Curry left the field with a neck injury, but Pelini thinks he'll be fine.

MICHIGAN STATE

The offense recorded a 27-25 win against the defense in MSU's first spring jersey scrimmage, as quarterback Connor Cook completed 15 of 21 passes for 187 yards with two touchdowns and an interception. Wide receiver DeAnthony Arnett, who has been relatively quiet since transferring from Tennessee, had five receptions for 67 yards and a touchdown. Tyler O'Connor, competing for the backup quarterback job, had a good day (10-for-15 passing, 132 yards, TD).

After allowing a touchdown on the opening possession, the defense forced four consecutive stops. Standouts included safety Kurtis Drummond (six tackles, 1 TFL, interception), end Shilique Calhoun (two sacks) and linebacker Chris Frey, an early enrollee, who had two sacks and three tackles for loss.

ILLINOIS

The Illini had their second off-site practice of the spring, traveling to Sacred Heart-Griffin High School in Springfield for a controlled scrimmage on Friday night. Quarterback Wes Lunt continues to look like Illinois' starter. According to Rivals.com's Doug Buchson, Lunt completed his first 14 pass attempts against the second-string defense for about 250 yards and two touchdowns. Freshman wideout Mike Dudek continues his strong spring, and receiver Geronimo Allison had a 45-yard touchdown catch from Lunt.

Defensive linemen Kenny Nelson and DeJazz Woods stood out against the second-team offensive line, consistently penetrating the backfield. Cornerback Caleb Day also looked good.

RUTGERS

The most important thing coming out of Rutgers' first spring scrimmage was some clarity at quarterback, as Gary Nova, Mike Bimonte and Chris Laviano all worked with the first-team offense. Although a rash of injuries made it tough to get a true gauge, Bimonte had the best day, leading two touchdown drives. Coach Kyle Flood said all three signal-callers will continue to work with the top offense. Flood singled out defensive linemen Darius Hamilton and Kemoko Turay for their play during the scrimmage.

NORTHWESTERN

Like several other Big Ten teams, Northwestern can't have full-blown scrimmages because of its injury situation. But the Wildcats had their top units match up for stretches of Saturday's practice on the lakefront. Trevor Siemian entered the spring as the No. 1 quarterback and appears to be ending it the same way. Siemian looked sharp on his first series, completing all three of his attempts. Dropped passes were a problem for much of the day, but wide receiver Kyle Prater, a USC transfer who has battled injuries for much of his career, had a one-handed grab on a pass from Zack Oliver. Cornerback Matt Harris and safety Kyle Queiro both made plays for the defense.

OHIO STATE

The Buckeyes invited students inside the Woody Hayes Athletic Center for Saturday's practice, creating some cool scenes. Several young players stood out, namely cornerback Eli Apple, who had two interceptions and a big hit. Running back Curtis Samuel, an early enrollee, also sparked the crowd with a 50-yard touchdown run. Linebacker has been an area of concern for Ohio State, but Darron Lee and Chris Worley both made some plays on the outside. Ezekiel Elliott is looking more like Ohio State's top running back, as he showed his size and versatility during the practice.

Big Ten Monday mailbag

March, 10, 2014
Mar 10
4:00
PM ET
I had a good time covering Arch Madness this past weekend. My astute, professional opinion: Wichita State is really, really good.

But the hoops moonlighting is over. Back to football -- and more of your emails ...

Luke from Lincoln, Neb., writes: What's your take on Jamal Turner getting reps at QB? I know he has gotten reps in previous years but less significant reps. Will anything come of it, or is it just some spring experiment?

Brian Bennett: First of all, I commend Bo Pelini for giving us media types something interesting to write/blog/debate so early in spring practice. So bravo on that. I suspect this is mostly an experimental thing. Turner is a senior, so he doesn't need a ton of spring reps at QB. But it also gives Nebraska some options, especially in some potential Wildcat alignments. Tommy Armstrong Jr. is not the runner that Taylor Martinez was, at least not yet in his career, and Ameer Abdullah gets enough carries. Turner could bring a speed element to the quarterback spot, a place where the Huskers have no experience behind Armstrong as is. If nothing else, it gives Nebraska's early-season opponents something to think about as they game plan this spring and summer.

 




Kevin from Rock Island, Ill., writes: To me, it seems the Illinois QB race will come down to Wes Lunt and Aaron Bailey. If Lunt wins the job (as many expect), does Bailey stay at QB for limited sets, and as a backup, or do they use his athleticism to help fill a position of need at WR? Lunt has had injury issues in his past (why he lost his job at OSU), but Illinois is desperately in need of more playmakers.

Brian Bennett: While I understand why Illinois' coaches want to term this as an open competition, I'd frankly be very surprised if anyone other than Lunt is the team's starting quarterback. His skill set just seems to fit Bill Cubit's offense perfectly. Bailey is an interesting case. He's too good of an athlete for the Illini to keep him off the field, and Reilly O'Toole is a serviceable backup. I think receiver is a natural potential landing spot for Bailey, especially given the team's need there. But prepping him now at quarterback is still a good idea, especially with Lunt's injury history.

 




@HawkFlies via Twitter writes: Any chance there is a QB controversy in Iowa City this spring?

Brian Bennett: I doubt it. Kirk Ferentz said he will let C.J. Beathard compete with Jake Rudock for the job, and there's no question that Iowa needs better play in general from the quarterback position. But as Ferentz also said on signing day, "C.J. still has some catching up to do. Jake has really accelerated." I find it hard to believe that Ferentz will make a switch after Rudock started all 13 games last fall, unless Beathard makes great strides this spring or Rudock really falters. And given that the Hawkeyes play things pretty close to the vest, I doubt we'll see or hear much this spring that would actually lead to any sort of controversy.

 




Jeff from Whitewater, Wis., writes: In your opinion, is Wisconsin a possible darkhorse to make a BCS bowl? Outside of the LSU game, the toughest games the Badgers will have are at Iowa, at Northwestern and then home against Nebraska. If the receivers can be somewhat productive and secondary can eliminate some of their lapses, I think they can run away with the West.

Brian Bennett: The Badgers are a real long shot to make a BCS bowl this fall since BCS bowls no longer exist. What you probably mean is a contract bowl. Time to adjust our college football vocabulary. Really, the goal now has to be the College Football Playoff, though realistically Wisconsin would probably have to beat LSU and then run the table or maybe lose just once to make the four-team event (and remember for this coming season, the Rose Bowl is a national semifinal). The playoff committee will also choose teams for the other four major bowls. But I get your point. Gary Andersen's team has a great schedule in 2014, though some lingering questions about the passing game and the defense must be answered. I could easily see Wisconsin winning nine or 10 games with that schedule, and the Badgers are a major West Division threat.

 




John from Brighton, Mich., writes: I've had this argument with a friend several times. It regards the outlook of the conference over the next 10 years or so. I think projecting forward, Michigan State has overtaken Michigan as a program, and the top of the conference is going to be a battle between the Spartans and Ohio State for the next decade. Am I misguided in my view, and do you think that Michigan is going to be "back" to what it was?

Brian Bennett: Trying to project a decade in advance might make for fun arguments with your friends, but it's nearly impossible to forecast with any level of accuracy or confidence. Boom and bust cycles are just too short. Look at where Florida State and Texas were just a few shorts years ago compared to now. Michigan State is clearly riding high right now and is in better shape than Michigan. As long as Mark Hollis and Mark Dantonio are around, I expect the Spartans to remain a major factor. But will that be the case in 10 years? Who knows? Michigan has resources that only a few programs can match. Eventually that sleeping giant will come to life, whether it's under Brady Hoke or someone else. At least I think so.

 




Corey from East Lansing, Mich., writes: Speaking as a Spartan fan, I can't say UofM switching to a 3-4 is all that scary. My thinking is that they don't have the bodies to put three 300-pound linemen on the field together. Hoke and his staff have recruited for running a base 4-3 and have to stick with it. Mixing in the 3-4 is a nice change of pace possibly, but running it as their base doesn't seem like the answer to me. I'm more interested to see if more Big Ten teams don't start copying Pat Narduzzi's aggressive 4-3 zone schemes, especially since Urban Meyer is coming out and saying he wants to be more aggressive. What do you guys see happening in the near future?

Brian Bennett: Some teams have borrowed bits and pieces from the Spartans' defensive scheme, but for as successful as Narduzzi has been with it, you'd expect even more copycatting. Part of the reason is that most coaches and defensive coordinators don't have the stomach (or the personnel, for that matter) for playing as much man-to-man pass coverage as Michigan State does. As Narduzzi told me in late November, "People know what we’re doing, but they don’t know how we do it. We’re the only team in the country that does zone pressure like this. There’s a risk to it if you don’t know what you’re doing.”

Defenses in the Big Ten need to be big enough up front to take on the power run game but also have enough speed to counter the proliferating spread offenses. Whether that comes out of a 4-3 or 3-4 isn't really as important as having great athletes, a consistent philosophy and experience within the system. One of the overlooked aspects of Michigan State's success was how so many guys had learned and practiced just one position in the same system for years and years. It's often not so simple as changing a scheme and expecting a quick fix.

Big Ten lunch links

March, 10, 2014
Mar 10
12:00
PM ET
How 'bout Nebrasketball? Impressed with what's happening in Lincoln.
Just three weeks into our ultimate Big Ten road trip, I've logged visits to Ireland, Oregon and Texas, while Adam has seen three potentially historic games. What does Week 4 hold?

For those just joining us, we're picking one game featuring a Big Ten team to attend throughout the 2014 season. There's no travel budget or nagging editors. We can go where we want to see who we want. Our choices are based on matchup quality, how often we've seen certain teams play, location and other factors.

Here are our options for Week 4:

Sept. 20

Texas State at Illinois
Indiana at Missouri
Iowa at Pitt
Maryland at Syracuse
Utah at Michigan
Eastern Michigan at Michigan State
San Jose State at Minnesota
Miami at Nebraska
Western Illinois at Northwestern
UMass at Penn State
Southern Illinois at Purdue
Rutgers at Navy
Bowling Green at Wisconsin

Open week: Ohio State

Brian Bennett's pick: Miami at Nebraska

Week 4 doesn't the most appetizing slate of games, so the choice here becomes a pretty easy one. While the stakes in this showdown between the Hurricanes and Cornhuskers aren't quite what they were in 1983 or 2001 (or '88, '91 or '94, for that matter), this could still be an important nonconference game for both teams.

Assuming Nebraska survives its trip to Fresno State, this looms as the biggest test before league play for Bo Pelini's team. That kind of challenge didn't end so well the last two years, as the Huskers lost to UCLA both on the road and at home. But while the Bruins were on the upswing, Miami still seems locked in a kind of purgatory, unable to escape mediocrity. Both programs are looking to recapture past glory, and win here wouldn't be a bad place to start on that climb.

The Canes, as always, will bring high-level athletes, so this should provide a nice early gauge of where Nebraska is. Pelini's defense has a chance to be really good, with a lot of players returning in the front seven, led by defensive end Randy Gregory. Will Tommy Armstrong Jr. have grasped control of the offense by this point, or will Johnny Stanton or someone else be at the controls? And in a big spot like this, you'd expect an all-out performance from Ameer Abdullah.

This matchup easily ranks as the most intriguing of Week 4, thanks to the brand names, the talent involved and, of course, the history. I'm sure Tom Osborne will be watching closely.

Adam Rittenberg's pick: Miami at Nebraska

OK, Mr. World Traveler, looks like I'll be seeing you in Husker Country. The Big Ten slate is really bland in Week 4, and while I considered Iowa-Pitt, this is a fairly easy call. I haven't been to Lincoln since 2012, Nebraska is a fascinating team that should contend in the West Division, and looking at the Huskers' remaining home schedule -- Illinois, Rutgers, Purdue and Minnesota -- this is my best bet to visit one of the great settings in college football.

The game itself should be a lot of fun. Neither team carries the prestige it did in the 1990s, but both have talented players and high hopes for 2014. Pelini enters a pivotal season, and this is the type of game that could springboard his team before Big Ten play. Miami also is looking to take an important step under Al Golden and boasts some weapons, such as explosive running back Duke Johnson. The matchup between Johnson and Abdullah is a nice subplot.

Miami's offense could provide a good challenge for the Blackshirts, who will turn the corner if the linebackers hold up and several key parts are replaced in the secondary. The transition from Stephen Morris to a new quarterback, most likely Ryan Williams, could be good for the Canes. Nebraska should win this game, especially at home, but the Huskers have to play for four quarters, not a half, as they did against UCLA.

History has been my unofficial theme, and these two teams certainly have some, splitting 10 meetings. This marks their first regular-season contest since 1975 after matching up in four Orange Bowls and a Rose Bowl (national championship) between 1983 and 2001.

Bottom line: It's been far too long since I've been to Lincoln. My arteries miss Misty's. Maybe I'll even get a Runza this time around. Meet you in the heartland, Bennett.

Road trip itinerary

Week 1: Brian at Penn State-UCF (in Dublin, Ireland); Adam at Wisconsin-LSU (in Houston)
Week 2: Adam at Michigan-Notre Dame; Brian at Michigan State-Oregon
Week 3: Brian at Minnesota-TCU; Adam at Penn State-Rutgers

Big Ten Wednesday mailbag

February, 26, 2014
Feb 26
5:00
PM ET
Time for my second mailbag of the week already. Just can't get enough of your emails. And don't forget to follow us on Twitter. Maybe you'll get lucky and win a fabulous prize* by becoming our 100,000th follower.

(*-offer not valid)

Grant from San Francisco writes: Jeremy Gallon's performance against Indiana is really going to be your top individual performance of the season? In your own explanation you say, "The list takes into account the difficulty of opponent and stakes of the game..." How then does Jeremy Gallon's performance against a NON-DIVISIONAL OPPONENT with the WORST defense in the league even come close to the top of the list? Were his stats impressive in the game? Yes. But the top individual performance this year, based on the criteria listed above? Not even close. The only thing that could top Connor Cook's B1GCG performance (No. 2 on your list) is his Rose Bowl performance. How does an impressive receiving performance against Indiana even compare to propelling MSU to a Rose Bowl victory against perennial national championship contender Stanford?

Brian Bennett: Yes, I took into account the stakes of the game and the opponent. But, as I went on to say in the opening of all those posts, I tried to identify "record-breaking, honor-winning, jaw-dropping games" by Big Ten players. Hey, I love what Connor Cook did in both the Big Ten title game and the Rose Bowl (though, as I wrote, players were limited to one appearance only on the list). And Indiana's defense was awful. But ... come on. Gallon had the second-most receiving yards in an FBS game ever. He shattered the Big Ten receiving yards record. I don't care if you're playing against air -- 369 receiving yards is an insane performance, and it was entirely deserving of the No. 1 spot.


Cody from Omaha writes: Explain to me how a team like the Huskers, who had not only the league's leading rusher, but the league leader in sacks as well as many other good skill position players, doesn't crack the individual performance top 10? You would think somewhere along the way of leading the league in those categories they would of put up a top-10 individual for a game. Thoughts?

Brian Bennett: When I first sat down to make the list of top individual performances, I came up with about 20 of them. It was an incredibly difficult process to pare it down to 10, even with the caveat that players were limited to only one entry.

I really figured I would include Ameer Abdullah in there somewhere, but as I begin to narrow things down, it became clear to me that Abdullah's best trait in 2013 was his incredible consistency. He had one game of more than 165 yards rushing, and that was against Illinois' terrible defense. His 225-yard, two-touchdown performance there was impressive, but not as great as Carlos Hyde's destruction of the Illini. Abdullah's second-best rushing day came in a double-digit loss at Minnesota, and his third-best came against Penn State in a game in which he didn't score a touchdown. While I love Abdullah's game as much as anyone and remember many incredible moments, such as his fourth-down catch vs. Northwestern, I just didn't see a top-10 overall performance there.

I also considered Randy Gregory for his showing against Michigan, but ultimately it fell just outside the top 10. No offense to the Huskers; it was just an exclusive list that also didn't include many other standout performances throughout the league.


Pat from Iowa writes: How is Kevonte Martin-Manley NOT on your top 10 individual performances for returning two punts for touchdowns against Western Michigan? That is an incredible stat, even if it is against a poor opponent! Shame on you!

Brian Bennett: Let's save the shame when we're talking about accomplishments vs. Western Michigan, which finished 1-11. Those two punt returns by Martin-Manley were great, but they came against one of the weakest opponents in the FBS, and he also had just one catch for six yards in that game. Moving on.


William from Hastings, Neb., writes: I was reading your article celebrating the diversity of the B1G, and I caught myself thinking "hmm... old news." Even before Nebraska's entry into the B1G, I always respected the ability of all member institutions to not only embrace diversity, but in many cases, also be the pioneers in that respect. Granted, not always so much in football, but certainly in a lot of other sports, and the B1G really went unquestioned when it came to academic opportunities. Was I just completely off base on that perception, or does the B1G, like any other corporate entity, just need to ensure that even the work of the trailblazers be shared?

Brian Bennett: William, I think you're right that the Big Ten, for the most part, has a rich history of embracing diversity, at least in comparison to some other leagues throughout the country. Several schools were pioneers in integration, Ohio State's Gene Smith is one of the most influential African-American athletic directors and, as Jim Delany suggested, hiring minorities in basketball hasn't been an issue. Still, football is the Big Ten's premier sport, and the fact that the league did not have a single African-American football head coach for a decade was notable. Other factors such as coaching stability at several schools played a factor. The league has made progress on that front with its most recent hires, although the number of minority head coaches across the nation is still too low.


Lance S. from Greensboro, N.C., writes: While I'm happy to see more diversity among B1G football coaches, why does no one give Wisconsin credit for having a Hispanic as head football coach and/or athletic director for the past 34 years? Because Coach [Barry] Alvarez's family comes from Spain rather than Latin America, no one seems to recognize that he's a highly successful Hispanic-American. Probably good to be color-blind, but he does seem to fall through the cracks in these discussions.

Brian Bennett: A good point, Lance, and one I should have mentioned in the story. Hispanic and Latino Americans traditionally have been underrepresented in college sports.


Husker from Minneapolis writes: You wrote: "Sophomore Tommy Armstrong Jr. entered the offseason as the clear No. 1 quarterback for the first time after taking over for the injured Taylor Martinez (and splitting some snaps with Ron Kellogg III) last season." Huh? Clear No. 1? He was a Band-Aid last year and if he's going to be the "clear No. 1" he's going to have to improve exponentially from last year. In reality, it's an open competition where Tim Beck will have to pick from his 2012, 2013, and 2014 top dual-threat QB recruits. Armstrong has some game experience, but should by no means have much else above the competition.

Brian Bennett: Husker, I'll answer your "Huh?" with a "Huh?" of my own. How can you dispute that Armstrong entered the offseason as the No. 1 quarterback for Nebraska? He played in eight games last year and was 6-1 as a starter, including the bowl win over Georgia. Was he great last year? No, not even close. But as a redshirt freshman thrown into a difficult situation, he showed excellent poise. I know there's nothing fans love more than the promising backup quarterback, and maybe Johnny Stanton or Zack Darlington or A.J. Bush are future superstars. But the fact is that none of them has ever stepped foot on the field in a college game, so we have no idea. One of them conceivably could beat out Armstrong this spring or summer. Given Armstrong's huge experience edge, however, he's clearly the No. 1 guy for now.


Kamil Z. from Greenwich, Conn., writes: What's up, Brian? I just started coming here after the addition of Rutgers, and I love seeing RU mentioned on this awesome blog. My question to you is whether you plan on showing up to Rutgers for a game in the upcoming season? I believe you were there in 2009 for the opening vs. the Cincinnati Bearcats (you liked it, too, I think). Thanks.

Brian Bennett: I was there for that Labor Day opener in 2009, one of several enjoyable visits I've made to Rutgers. It's way too soon for us to know our game assignments for 2014, but I would be surprised if one of us is not at the Sept. 13 game vs. Penn State. That will be the Scarlet Knights' first-ever Big Ten game, there are not a lot of other big games that weekend and the atmosphere should be great. Save me a stool at Harvest Moon just in case.
The last two seasons have shown that two-quarterback systems can work in the Big Ten.

Northwestern recorded 10 wins in 2012 while rotating Kain Colter and Trevor Siemian. Indiana led the Big Ten and ranked ninth nationally in total offense last fall while alternating between Tre Roberson and Nate Sudfeld.

[+] EnlargeJoey Bosa, Connor Cook
Gregory Shamus/Getty ImagesAfter taking over the quarterback job in Week 5, Connor Cook led the Spartans to 10 consecutive wins.
Given the recent success, my next statement might surprise you: Every Big Ten team would be best served picking one quarterback and sticking with him in 2014. That includes Indiana and Northwestern.

Quarterback rotations can be successful in the short term, but they are rarely sustainable or desirable. We saw this at Northwestern last fall, as the Wildcats never established a consistent offensive rhythm and operated with a reduced playbook, in part because of injuries but also because the unit lacked a clear identity. Northwestern finished 10th in the league in scoring.

Minnesota alternated between quarterbacks Philip Nelson and Mitch Leidner during several games, including the Texas Bowl against Syracuse. Although the Gophers had a nice surge during Big Ten play and recorded eight wins, they also finished 11th in the league in scoring and last in passing.

Nebraska had some success using two quarterbacks (Tommy Armstrong Jr. and Ron Kellogg III) last season but did so out of necessity following Taylor Martinez's injury. The Huskers also struggled to pass the ball, finishing 11th in the league.

The strongest argument for picking a quarterback and sticking with him comes from the Big Ten's best team in 2013. Michigan State's offense was a train wreck in non-league play as the Spartans used three quarterbacks. After a Week 4 loss to Notre Dame, the coaches decided Connor Cook would be their guy. You all know what happened next, but what struck me was Cook's mindset at the time.

"We went through spring ball competition and fall camp competition, it was the most stressed out I've ever been in my entire life just trying to be the quarterback," Cook said last month before the Rose Bowl. "After I got the starting job and started a couple of games, the stress went away and it turned to focus, me being focused and knowing they're not going to use other quarterbacks in the game and not stress too much that go if I make a bad play I'm going to be pulled.

"That's when the stress went out the window."

Players like Northwestern's Siemian and Indiana's Roberson and Sudfeld are more accustomed to sharing time than Cook was, but each of them, like any quarterback, would rather be the clear-cut starter.

Illinois' Nathan Scheelhaase is another good example of a player who benefited from an unambiguous role. He struggled from the middle of the 2011 season through all of 2012, raising the possibility of a rotation last season. Instead, Scheelhaase started every game and led the Big Ten in passing (3,272 yards).

[+] EnlargeTommy Armstrong Jr.
Rick Osentoski/USA TODAY SportsAfter playing well in place of Taylor Martinez, sophomore signal-caller Tommy Armstrong Jr. is the favorite to start for the Cornhuskers in 2014.
I'm all for competition at quarterback, and the Big Ten will feature plenty of it this spring and summer. Only five quarterbacks -- Ohio State's Braxton Miller, Penn State's Christian Hackenberg, Michigan State's Cook, Iowa's Jake Rudock and Michigan's Devin Gardner -- can feel pretty secure about their starting roles. Gardner has been mentioned as a possible rotation candidate with Shane Morris -- some Michigan fans wouldn't mind seeing Gardner line up at wide receiver, a position of need -- but I'd be surprised if Morris leapfrogs the senior.

I'm also OK with teams employing change-up quarterbacks for a package of plays, be it the Wildcat or something else. Michigan State could be a candidate for this in 2014 with dynamic redshirt freshman Damion Terry possibly spelling Cook from time to time.

The first few games also provide a platform to use multiple quarterbacks in settings that can't be replicated on the practice field. Former Ohio State coach Jim Tressel often did this with his younger quarterbacks, giving them a first-half series or two. It makes sense. But by Week 4, roles must be identified.

The offseason is full of Big Ten quarterback questions:

  • Will Oklahoma State transfer Wes Lunt take the reins at Illinois?
  • How will Gardner and Hackenberg fare with new offensive coordinators?
  • After Nelson's transfer, who emerges at Minnesota among Leidner, Chris Streveler and possibly a young quarterback such as Dimonic McKinzy?
  • Nebraska's Armstrong went 6-1 as a freshman starter, but can he hold off Johnny Stanton?
  • Can Gary Nova retain his job at Rutgers?
  • Will Danny Etling keep the top job at Purdue, or will Austin Appleby and possibly early enrollee David Blough enter the mix?
  • How does Siemian bounce back at Northwestern, and do the Wildcats look at Matt Alviti and Zack Oliver?
  • Will either Roberson or Sudfeld finally separate himself at IU?

Ultimately, these questions must be answered. The teams that avoid prolonged rotations should be better off for it.

Big Ten Wednesday mailbag

January, 15, 2014
Jan 15
5:00
PM ET
Mail time ...

Ed S. from Belleville, Ill., writes: Please ask James Franklin how he can justify going after kids he recruited for Vanderbilt and whether he is going out of his way to try to wreck the Vanderbilt football program. What happened to his "fierce loyalty" to the Commodores and what does he now think of recruits who renege on their commitments to other schools?

Brian Bennett: Ed, those are fair questions. Some coaches say they won't recruit players who committed to their previous school when they switch jobs. There are a couple of things to keep in mind here. One, the better players in Vanderbilt's class almost certainly committed to the Commodores because of Franklin, so it makes sense that they'd be interested in following him to another school. Given Penn State's scholarship limitations, he may feel an even bigger need to flip some of those Vandy recruits. And this is who Franklin is, a guy who's going to be aggressive in everything he does, especially so in recruiting. He's going to push the envelope and ruffle some feathers.


Glenn K. from Leesburg, Fla., writes: Brian, regarding your article about BIG ticket sales for bowl games, don't you think attendance might also have been affected by the economy and the weather? If you want to enjoy the whole enchilada with your team before the actual game, including airfare, hotel, parties, tours, etc., you're looking at thousands of dollars (I know from experience), plus thousands more if you're taking your whole family. I wouldn't think that the weather in the Midwest and East helped much, either, as far as traveling goes.

Brian Bennett: The economy absolutely plays a factor, Glenn, and I mentioned the costs in my post. Airfare and hotel rates have gone up, and I was astounded at how expensive hotels in south Florida were over New Year's. These are not cheap trips, for the most part, especially because the majority of Big Ten bowl sites are located more than a comfortable driving distance away from campuses. I doubt very much that weather played a role in keeping people away, since you really need to book these kinds of trips a couple of weeks in advance to have any success finding good deals. If anything, the weather fosters more travel as Midwesterners love any excuse to escape the winter. But there's little question that bowl trips are becoming more difficult for the average fan, and it will be interesting to see how fans travel if their team can make it to a Big Ten championship game, national semifinal and national title game all in about a month's time under the new playoff system.


Kevin from Saline, Mich., writes: What is it that has made this 2013 MSU football team so much more successful than the 2011 Spartans? Every skill position on that 2011 team was terrific, the defense was still elite, and the chemistry and leadership with Kirk Cousins at the helm was extremely good as well. Is it just finding the inches, as Mark Dantonio always says? I was convinced that 2011 team was destined to be the team to break our Rose Bowl drought. I couldn't be happier with this season and this team, but when I compare them side-by-side with the 2011 version, that 2011 version seems more talented to me.

Brian Bennett: Kevin, you're right that the 2011 Michigan State team was awfully good and probably still a bit underrated in hindsight. The offense was much more experienced in 2011 with Cousins and B.J. Cunningham and Keshawn Martin at receiver. The defense was very good, though not quite as elite as the 2013 team. The 2011 team turned in a couple of clunkers, however, including an 18-point loss at Notre Dame and a 24-3 defeat at Nebraska in which the Spartans looked completely flat a week after beating Wisconsin on the Hail Mary.

Still, that team was extremely close to making the Rose Bowl, losing a back-and-forth Big Ten championship game to Russell Wilson's Wisconsin team that turned on a late running-into-the-punter penalty. And those Spartans went on to beat Georgia in the Outback Bowl. This year's team might have benefited from an easier schedule leading up to the Big Ten title game -- the 2011 squad, for example, played three teams ranked in the top 15 in the regular season, while the 2013 squad faced none. But this year's Spartans turned it on when it really mattered and "found the inches," as Dantonio said. That last step from being a very good team to a championship one is sometimes the steepest.


David K. from New Haven, Ind., writes: Brian, any chance that IU might actually spend what it takes to get a proven defensive coordinator? I think Kevin Wilson has the program going in the right direction, but unless they get somebody in there who knows what he is doing and has been with a winning program, I fear he is doomed to fail because of the awful defense. You get what you pay for, and if they go that way, then the Hoosiers and Wilson are doomed.

Brian Bennett: David, every Big Ten team has money. It's good to see teams like Michigan State, Penn State and Michigan making major commitments to coaching salaries this winter, because that is what it's going to take to win at the big-boy table. Indiana doesn't have quite the deep pockets as some other schools, mainly because of the Hoosiers' attendance problems. Wilson's highest-paid assistant is offensive coordinator Seth Littrell, who is making $356,500 -- and earning it, based on IU's offensive numbers in 2013. I doubt you would see Indiana go much higher than that on the defensive side. Just how many superstar coordinators would be interested in coming to a program that has struggled on defense for so long and now has an offense-first mentality? That remains a major question. There's nothing wrong with finding an up-and-comer to run the defense. Indiana's challenge will be to keep top assistants such as Littrell when they become hot commodities.


Samuel from Iowa City, Iowa, writes: Hey, Brian. Some big coaching moves in the East got me wondering about Iowa. Kirk Ferentz is one of the best-paid head coaches. But what about the assistants? Did I read correctly last week that Iowa is once again one of the most valuable football programs in the country? Does Iowa have the resources the make some big assistant coaching moves like OSU is doing?

Brian Bennett: Iowa does have strong resources. Not quite Ohio State or Michigan level, but certainly in the upper half of the Big Ten. Much of those resources are going to pay Ferentz close to $4 million per year. Neither defensive coordinator Phil Parker nor offensive coordinator Greg Davis are among the top 10 in salary among assistants in the Big Ten. That has been the pattern under Ferentz, who promoted Parker from within and hired Davis after he had been out of football for a year. Perhaps whenever Ferentz retires, the pay scale between the Iowa head coach and his assistants will tilt a little.


Andrew from San Ramon, Calif., writes: Hi, Brian. I've done some research, and the Huskers have an OK schedule coming up this year. Notable teams like Fresno State and Miami lose a lot of key players to the draft. Seven home games and five away games. With the win of the Gator Bowl on their shoulders and new recruits coming in, what do you think the Huskers' chances are at going possibly 10-2 or 11-1? (Losses might be @ Wisconsin and/or Michigan State.)

Brian Bennett: It's entirely too soon to start predicting team records for 2014. I do like Nebraska right now as the early favorite to win the West Division, but I think the conference schedule is a little harder than you make it out to be. The Huskers not only have to travel to Michigan State and Wisconsin but also to Northwestern -- which has played Nebraska extremely tough and should bounce back from an abysmal 2013 -- and Iowa, which just won in Lincoln to close out the recently completed regular season. Compare that to new division rival Wisconsin, which does not play Michigan State, Ohio State, Michigan or Penn State from the East and whose hardest conference road games are Iowa and Northwestern.

I like the potential for Nebraska's young defense in 2014, and if quarterback Tommy Armstrong makes a significant jump in the offseason, the offense could be really good, too. But Bo Pelini's team is going to have to get some work done on the road in league play to get back to the Big Ten championship game.

Season wrap: Nebraska

January, 15, 2014
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All paths lead back to the same place for Nebraska -- or so it seems after a sixth consecutive season under coach Bo Pelini with nine or 10 wins and four losses. This season, the Huskers finished 9-4, but the ride was anything but mundane as Nebraska lost starting QB Taylor Martinez for all but one game of Big Ten play.

It needed late-game heroics to escape at home against Northwestern and to win at Michigan and Penn State, an impressive double even in a down year for the traditional league powers. Freshman quarterback Tommy Armstrong emerged. The defense showed solid improvement. And a TaxSlayer.com Gator Bowl win over Georgia sent the Huskers into the offseason with a warm, fuzzy feeling.

Offensive MVP: I-back Ameer Abdullah. He stepped into a leadership role in Martinez's absence and at times carried the Huskers. Abdullah set an example with his work ethic. He rushed for 1,690 yards, the top total in the Big Ten this season and fourth on Nebraska’s single-season charts. And he’s coming back as a senior.

Defensive MVP: Defensive end Randy Gregory. The sophomore newcomer arrived in Lincoln only a month before the season opener but needed little time to acclimate. He was a force from the start off the edge as a pass-rusher, accumulating 10 sacks. Gregory, despite playing underweight most of the season, posed huge problems for opponents because of his athleticism.

Best moment: A 49-yard Hail Mary pass from senior quarterback Ron Kellogg III to freshman Jordan Westerkamp provided the winning points in Nebraska’s 27-24 defeat of Northwestern on Nov. 2 at Memorial Stadium. Things appeared decided in the waning minutes before Kellogg, a former walk-on, engineered an 83-yard drive. Only its final play, though, will live in Husker history.

Worst moment: Just a week before the miraculous finish against Northwestern, the Huskers lost 34-23 at Minnesota, marking the Golden Gophers’ first win in 17 tries against Nebraska, dating to 1960. More disheartening than the outcome, though, was the method through which Minnesota won: The Gophers pounded the Huskers, piling up 271 rushing yards against the Blackshirts.

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- Five thousand or so Nebraska fans still sat in their soaked seats at EverBank Field about 15 minutes after the Huskers wrapped up a 24-19 win on New Year’s Day over No. 22 Georgia in the Taxslayer.com Gator Bowl. They chanted, “Bo, Bo, Bo,” as hugs and handshakes ruled the day below around the trophy stand.

Coach Bo Pelini took the mike. He thanked TaxSlayer.com, the sponsor. (So polished, that Bo.)

He lauded MVP Quincy Enunwa, who caught the longest pass in college football history in the third quarter. Pelini said he’s never been more proud of a group of players.

“We’re looking forward to some championships in the near future,” the coach said.

Where were we? Did someone hit the reset button on the season or transport everyone here five years into the future or past?

[+] EnlargeQuincy Enunwa
AP Photo/Stephen B. MortonQuincy Enunwa caught two touchdown passes in Nebraska's victory over Georgia in Jacksonville, Fla.
This is not the Nebraska football team we last saw on Nov. 28, losing by three touchdowns on its home turf to Iowa as Pelini ranted in the postgame circus as if he had his bags packed in the office upstairs.

The Huskers were fundamentally sound Wednesday. They tackled exceptionally well. They were smart, making good decisions under duress. They adjusted well at halftime. They won the turnover battle. They scored twice after takeaways. They were ultra-efficient in the red zone -- on both sides.

Nebraska did not botch a punt return. The Huskers won a game against an SEC team despite being outgained by more than 100 yards.

This is what Nebraska football can be.

Pelini said he doesn’t believe the solid performance will have a carryover effect in Lincoln. The Huskers won’t reconvene on the practice field until March. They don’t play again for almost eight months. So much will change before the meat of the next nonconference season against Fresno State and Miami.

The Huskers ought to remember what they can from Wednesday, though.

“I think what it does is serve as an example for your football team,” Pelini said.

Nebraska, in October and November, was minus-16 in turnover margin. That ranked dead last in the nation; no other program was worse than minus-12. Since 2008, Nebraska is minus-31 in turnover margin -- 106th nationally, the worst by 42 spots among programs that won 70 percent of their games.

Nebraska couldn’t get out of its own way this season. When penalties struck, the timing was often bad. When they missed tackles, it happened in bunches.

In other words, the Huskers operated regularly like the opposite of a championship team.

Pelini said the Nebraska coaches talked with their players before the Gator Bowl about the areas that hurt the Huskers this season. They’ve been talking for six years.

Did it finally sink in? If so, run with it.

“It’s the first game of the new year,” defensive end Randy Gregory said. “I think we intend on taking this momentum through the rest of the year.”

Gregory got tangled early with Georgia left tackle Kenarious Gates, and it got worse from there. Twice, fights nearly erupted. Gregory said he liked it.

“I haven’t really been a fan of the SEC,” Gregory said. “To go out there and play against these guys, I think it was big for all of us.”

He contributed a sack on Wednesday, his 10th of the season. Gregory is an SEC-caliber defender. He said after the game that he’s definitely set to return as a fourth-year junior in 2014.

“I’m here,” he said. “I’m behind Bo.”

I-back Ameer Abdullah wasn’t so certain. He’ll soon make a decision on the NFL after rushing for 122 yards against Georgia -- his 11th triple-digit game – to reach 1,690 yards this season. That total is fourth in school history.

Beyond Gregory and Abdullah, the Huskers aren’t stocked with SEC-type talent. This isn’t the 1990s. The dynamic has changed drastically since that championship era, a reality Nebraska and its fans can accept.

What they shouldn’t accept is mistake-filled football. The Huskers beat Georgia largely by avoiding mistakes. In the Big Ten, they can win big that way.

After the Bulldogs scored their lone touchdown to pull within five points on the first play of the fourth quarter and the teams traded punts, freshman quarterback Tommy Armstrong gathered his teammates on the sideline.

“We’re in control of this game,” Armstrong said he told them. “The defense is going to get stops. Just stay calm and run our offense.”

The Huskers won as Georgia stalled at the Nebraska 16-yard line with less than 30 seconds to play. Armstrong was right. He was calm and cool, as usual, in the aftermath.

"I think he’s going to lead this team to a championship,” offensive tackle Jeremiah Sirles said after his final game.

Sounds kind of simple, the formula of strong leadership and fundamental, opportunistic play.

Six years in the making -- three years after a seismic shift to the Big Ten -- the Huskers saw on Wednesday what they can be. Where from here? We’ll know in about nine months.

Nebraska keys to victory in Gator Bowl

December, 31, 2013
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JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – Nebraska seeks a sixth consecutive nine-win season on Wednesday in the TaxSlayer.com Gator Bowl, facing No. 22 Georgia at noon ET on ESPN2.

Here are three keys to a Husker upset victory:

Run the football: Ameer Abdullah needs to get loose. The Huskers’ junior I-back is surely capable. He topped 100 yards in 10 games this season, including a stretch of eight straight that featured a 123-yard effort against Michigan State -- the nation’s No. 1-ranked defense against the run. Georgia is solid in rush defense, ranking fifth in the SEC and 42nd nationally. But Nebraska is healthier on the offensive line than for any game since mid-October. And with Tommy Armstrong Jr. back to full speed or close, the traditional option and zone-read running game re-enter the equation for offensive coordinator Tim Beck.

Stop the run: Notice a trend? Without starting quarterbacks Aaron Murray of Georgia and Taylor Martinez from Nebraska, the winner of this game will earn its keep in the trenches. Like Nebraska, the Bulldogs have a horse in the backfield in Todd Gurley, who averaged more than 6 yards per carry and scored 15 touchdowns in nine games. Georgia rushed for 176 yards per game, while Nebraska allowed 161. Advantage UGA, right? Probably. Though the Huskers were much improved in nearly all aspects on the defensive side this season, they slammed the door on an opponent’s running attack only against Michigan over the final six games.

Play smart: Much easier said than done this year for the Huskers, who posted a minus-12 turnover margin and repeatedly committed errors in the punt-return game to lose valuable yards of field position. Often, Nebraska simply couldn’t get out of its own way. Had it simply broken even in turnovers and avoided most of the special teams mistakes, you’re likely looking at a 10-win team, even without Martinez for all but four games. That speaks to the manageable nature of the schedule this year. Georgia, despite four losses of its own, is arguably the most talented team the Huskers have seen. Nebraska probably must win the turnover battle and finish ahead in the kicking game, too.
New Year’s Day is near, along with the end to long layoffs for No. 22 Georgia and Nebraska.

Mitch Sherman and David Ching come together for a final discussion on the TaxSlayer.com Gator Bowl, set for Wednesday at noon ET on ESPN2:

How motivated is Georgia to win this game and why?

Ching: That's the big question entering this game, isn't it? It doesn't feel like either fan base is particularly jazzed about this matchup since these teams just played in a bowl a year ago. It wouldn't be a surprise if the teams deal with the same problem. Georgia seems like the more talented team here, but the coaches have to convince the Bulldogs that this is a game worth playing their best.

Sherman: I don’t expect motivation to be a problem for Nebraska. The Huskers don’t want their streak of nine-win seasons -- a point of much discussion and pride -- to end. A victory over an SEC opponent would serve as boost for Bo Pelini’s program and the Big Ten. Moreover, it has been a long, trying season in Lincoln; playing well in the Gator Bowl could change the narrative and allow the Huskers and their fans to focus on positives.

What do you expect out of the quarterback position?

Ching: Hutson Mason has the benefit of already making one start in a huge game. He started slowly against Georgia Tech in the regular-season finale, but helped the Bulldogs rally for a double-overtime win. Nebraska has a talented secondary that will test him, but I expect Mason to perform well. He has waited his turn behind Aaron Murray, but is well prepared to become a solid performer as a senior in 2014.

Sherman: We saw at the Big House in November that Tommy Armstrong has a knack for playing well under the spotlight. And for a redshirt freshman with seven starts under his belt, New Year’s Day is big. Armstrong is motivated. His linemen are healthier than at any point since late October. His receivers are healed up, and while Kenny Bell and Quincy Enunwa won’t surprise Georgia with their athleticism after last year, look for the Huskers to make plays in the passing game.

Who holds the edge when Nebraska has the football?

[+] EnlargeTodd Gurley, Ahmad Christian
Dale Zanine/USA TODAY SportsGeorgia tailback Todd Gurley has been effective since returning for injury, rushing for six touchdowns in his last five games.
Ching: Probably Nebraska. I know the Huskers have struggled on offense for most of the season without Taylor Martinez, but Georgia's defense has only dominated against the least of its competition this season. I expect Nebraska to produce decent yardage and point totals against the Bulldogs, considering how half of their opponents this season generated at least 400 yards of offense and eight scored at least 30 points.

Sherman: If we’re answering based off the second half of the season, it’s Georgia, despite its defensive injuries and propensity to allow chunks of yardage. Offensively, Nebraska simply hit a wall after mid-October, with the exception of the Michigan State game. The Huskers didn’t once scored 30 points after all-conference guard Spencer Long went down on Oct. 12 at Purdue. Injuries are the wild card, though. Long remains out, but most of the others who missed time are back. If Nebraska creates some momentum early, it could top 400 yards for the first time in five games.

Who holds the edge when UGA has the football?

Ching: Georgia. The Huskers haven't defended the run particularly well -- they're 60th nationally at 161.2 yards per game -- and that doesn't bode well for stopping Todd Gurley after he's had a month to allow his injured ankle to heal. Nebraska's defense has been fairly average in every way, so even with someone other than Murray at the helm, I expect Georgia's high-scoring offense to keep rolling in Jacksonville.

Sherman: Season-long statistics don’t tell the whole story of this Nebraska defense. The Blackshirts are much improved from September, when they were trampled in the opening quarter by an FCS-level foe. Since Nov. 1, the Huskers rank among the top 20 defensive units nationally. They’re especially strong against the pass. And with time to prepare, Pelini will devise a scheme to test Mason. As for Gurley, well, he could pose a problem. The Huskers will miss defensive end Avery Moss. And Big Ten results so far this bowl season don’t bode well for Nebraska.

Bold predictions for Nebraska in 2014

December, 25, 2013
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Who would have guessed a year ago that Nebraska coach Bo Pelini would find himself embroiled in a controversy in September over an audiotape that sat harmless nearly for two years?

Or that Randy Gregory would show up on campus in August out of junior college, where he didn’t play last year, and turn into the Big Ten’s most feared pass rusher?

Or that that Ron Kellogg III, the third-string former walk-on, fifth-year senior quarterback, in the first game-deciding moment of his career, would produce a play for the ages that may have saved the Huskers from a .500 season or worse?

Or that Ameer Abdullah would make Nebraska fans forget about Rex Burkhead? OK, that didn’t happen, but Abdullah’s 1,568 rushing yards -- the most by a Husker since 1997 -- behind a group of offensive linemen who couldn’t field a full unit for practice after Nov. 1, was almost as unlikely.

In the always interesting world of Nebraska football, reality is often better than the stuff of imagination. So with that, here are 10 predictions (some serious and some not) for 2014:

1. Pelini will be lauded in February for the Huskers’ signing of a group of recruits that promises to reinforce the defense with immediate help out of junior college. The coach’s critics will point to a mediocre class ranking.

2. Quarterback Tommy Armstrong will dazzle in the Red-White game, running a basic offense unlikely to resemble the system in the fall designed to fit his strengths.

3. Nebraska coaches will praise the emergence of defensive backs Jonathan Rose, Charles Jackson, D.J. Singleton and others as the key development of spring practice.

4. Rumblings out of the conditioning drills of the summer will focus on the leadership attributes and work ethic of Johnny Stanton, Nebraska’s solid No. 2 QB after his strong spring.

5. Several reported sightings will go unconfirmed at Nebraska’s season opener of Carl Pelini, older brother of Bo and former coach at Florida Atlantic. The Huskers will beat the Owls 49-3, the same score from their meeting in 2009.

6. Nebraska will lose at Fresno State. Speculation about Bo Pelini’s job status will resume.

7. Athletic director Shawn Eichorst will work remotely from Alaska in the week before the Huskers face Miami, his former school. A group of Nebraska fans who live in the state will foil his attempt to avoid detection. Eichorst will decline comment.

8. The Huskers will beat Miami and open Big Ten play with a homecoming win over Illinois and a victory as a 10-point road underdog over Michigan State, arguably Pelini’s biggest win in seven seasons. After a bye week, Nebraska will lose at Northwestern as Armstrong’s Hail Mary is knocked down.

9. Abdullah, in the season’s eighth game, will become the first Nebraska back to post a third 1,000-yard season as Rutgers as fails to avenge its 1920 loss to the Huskers at the Polo Grounds.

10. Nebraska will lose at Wisconsin in overtime, then win out to claim a share of the Big Ten West. The Badgers will get the trip to Indianapolis via the tiebreaker as the Huskers celebrate Pelini’s sixth nine-win season in seven years and point to three losses by a combined 17 points as a sign of progress.

Concern, optimism abound for Nebraska

December, 24, 2013
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LINCOLN, Neb. – The lows were low, and the highs, well, they were nice.

Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and many observers of the past season in Nebraska football relish a November that featured road wins at Michigan and Penn State after a miraculous finish at Memorial Stadium to beat Northwestern.

Others dwell on the reality that 14 years have passed since the Huskers’ last conference title and 12 since Nebraska played in a BCS bowl game. More so than any time in the past decade, the feelings about Nebraska football range from hope to despair.

Here’s a sampling of both as we review 2013.

Three reasons for concern

[+] EnlargeBo Pelini
AP Photo/Nati HarnikBo Pelini knows a bowl win over an SEC power will cure a lot of ills in the Nebraska program.
Is this Groundhog Day? A sense exists that Nebraska is living the same season on repeat. Bo Pelini inserts new characters and varies the schedule, but the results look the same. Here are Nebraska’s final records since 2008: 9-4, 10-4, 10-4, 9-4 and 10-4. This year, with a win, the Huskers can reach 9-4. Like Bill Murray’s character in the movie, some Nebraska fans grow more frustrated with each cycle, particularly as the Huskers’ relevance on a national level diminishes. Alongside those records, here are Nebraska’s final rankings in the AP poll since 2009: 14th, 20th, 24th and 25th. This year, the Huskers are unranked before the bowl game. Notice a trend?

Fundamental errors. The problems that plague Nebraska often come back to basics -- ball security, discipline, tackling. This year, Nebraska sits minus-12 in turnover margin, better than only three teams nationally. Since 2008, the Huskers rank 109th at minus-32. And the timing of the turnovers couldn’t have been much worse this year. Nebraska lost the football five times in its own territory against Michigan State, handing 24 points to the Spartans. It was a similar story against Iowa. When the Huskers held on to the football, they couldn’t take it away. Generally, this team -- like others before it -- failed to get out of its own way.

Communication, or lack thereof. For all the sensationalism that accompanied the final weeks of the regular season, as media speculation turned rampant over Pelini’s job status, the problems began -- and could have ended -- within the athletic-department offices in the north wing of Memorial Stadium. The policy of first-year athletic director Shawn Eichorst to withhold comment during the season would have worked just fine if Pelini knew where he stood. No one need a weekly assurance of the boss’ stance on matters in the program, but some kind of internal communication could have served to prevent matters from reaching the boiling point they hit on the day after Thanksgiving. Clearly, Pelini and Eichorst must find a better way to understand each other.

Three reasons for optimism

An infusion of young talent. Even the most Scrooge-like among those who follow the Huskers must admit they made important strides on defense this year. It happened primarily because of the maturing group of youngsters that arrived at Nebraska after a refocused recruiting effort took shape two years ago. That’s when the Huskers signed linebacker Michael Rose and defensive linemen Vincent Valentine and Avery Moss. The trio of redshirt freshman teamed with newcomer Randy Gregory to help form an imposing front seven that ought to have its moments of dominance next year. More than anything, they’re built for the Big Ten. Nebraska has appeared, in its 2013 and under-construction 2014 class, to further capitalize on that enhanced recruiting vision.

Tommy Armstrong Jr. and Johnny Stanton. In place of injured senior quarterback Taylor Martinez, Armstrong made his share of mistakes this year, committing nine turnovers in seven starts. He also led a game-winning drive at the Big House to complete a 5-0 beginning to his career. He lost to Michigan State, then aggravated an ankle injury and sat for the final seven quarters of the regular season. But we saw enough to know Armstrong has got the moxie and a few other special qualities that could help push the Huskers over the hump. Stanton, who redshirted this fall, reputedly possesses many of the same traits. Their athletic strengths are different, but both QBs are proven winners and strong leaders. Ought to make for a fun spring.

Consistency. Say all you want about the stagnant nature of Nebraska under Pelini, but he has brought winning ways back to Lincoln. With a victory in the TaxSlayer.com Gator Bowl over Georgia, Pelini would become the seventh coach of a BCS conference program ever to win nine games or more in each of his first six seasons -- and the first to do it after inheriting a team with a losing record. His staff has remained largely intact. The offensive system under coordinator Tim Beck has taken firm hold. With healthy players, it would likely flourish. Pelini is unwavering in his approach toward the game, on an off the field, and his players appreciate his straightforwardness. Now, with just a little more patience …

Injuries impacted UGA, Nebraska seasons

December, 23, 2013
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This season's similarities are striking for the combatants in this season's TaxSlayer.com Gator Bowl, Georgia and Nebraska. Perhaps the most notable similarity between the Bulldogs (8-4) and Cornhuskers (8-4), though, is the numerous injuries that helped prevent them from playing up to their potential.

ESPN.com's David Ching and Mitch Sherman discussed how injuries affected the teams' seasons and what might have been if not for all the physical ailments.

1. Out of all of the injuries they sustained this season, which one was the costliest and why?

Ching: There are a lot of directions you could go here, but Todd Gurley's ankle injury and ensuing three-and-a-half-game absence probably hurt the most. Gurley is one of the biggest difference-makers in the country, and Georgia's potent offense simply wasn't as good without him in the lineup -- particularly when fellow tailback Keith Marshall suffered a season-ending knee injury the week after Gurley went down against LSU. It's not a coincidence that Georgia bounced back from a two-game losing streak upon Gurley's return, nor that the Bulldogs went 4-1 down the stretch once he was back. He totaled 755 yards and 10 touchdowns in those five games.

Sherman: Taylor Martinez began this season as most indispensable Husker -- and by November, we saw why. Without the fifth-year senior, who started a school-record 43 games at quarterback, including four this season, the Nebraska offense shifted from the strength of this team to a liability. The Huskers failed to gain 400 yards in each of their final four games. Tommy Armstrong Jr. and Ron Kellogg III performed admirably, but their numbers paled in comparison to the production expected from a healthy Martinez. In good position to become the second QB in FBS history to surpass 9,000 career passing yards and 3,000 rushing yards, he suffered the fateful foot injury in Nebraska’s season opener. By mid-September, his limitations were painfully apparent, stamped into the record books with losses to UCLA and Minnesota in Martinez’s final two starts.

2. Which position group dealt with the most injury issues?

Sherman: Problems on the offensive line began on the opening series of the sixth game against Purdue as All-Big Ten right guard Spencer Long went down with a season-ending knee injury. Long was the leader of the line and a motivating force for the entire team as a senior captain and former walk-on turned solid NFL prospect. As soon as his linemates began to wear Long’s jersey No. 61 as a tribute, the injury bug spread. First, it was left guard Jake Cotton. Tackles Jeremiah Sirles and Brent Qvale, despite staying in the lineup, dealt with injuries, too, as did center-turned-guard Cole Pensick. Long’s replacement, Mike Moudy, missed the final four games. The injuries hurt most in practice, and Long’s injury got the snowball rolling. Before the Purdue game, Nebraska rushed for 285 yards or more in four of five games. After Purdue, it never topped 195 on the ground.

Ching: Georgia's safeties could make a reasonable argument here, but let's go with the receivers. Malcolm Mitchell suffered perhaps the most bizarre injury of the season when he tore an ACL while leaping into the air to celebrate Gurley's 75-yard touchdown run against Clemson on the Bulldogs' second offensive possession of the fall. Justin Scott-Wesley, who essentially caught the game-winning touchdown passes in the fourth quarter against South Carolina and LSU, tore an ACL while covering a punt against Tennessee. Michael Bennett and Chris Conley also missed multiple games with midseason injuries, and junior college transfer Jonathon Rumph didn't play until Game 8 against Florida after injuring his hamstring in August. Because of the regular lineup shuffling, six Bulldogs have at least 20 catches this season.

[+] EnlargeTodd Gurley
Todd Kirkland/Icon SMIGeorgia went 4-1 after sophomore RB Todd Gurley returned to the lineup, and the only loss was the 'Miracle at Jordan-Hare.'
3. What do you think this team might have accomplished if health hadn't become such a factor?

Ching: I hesitate to say Georgia would have been a BCS title contender because its defense was probably not championship caliber. But it's hard to predict what might have been with any certainty since the Bulldogs started losing key contributors in the first quarter of the first game. I'll go so far as to say the Bulldogs at least would have won a third straight SEC East title and been in the running for an at-large BCS bowl spot. With Aaron Murray, who suffered a season-ending knee injury of his own against Kentucky, at the trigger and an impressive array of skill talent, this had the potential to be the scariest offense Georgia has ever put on the field, but we never saw the full complement for even one full game.

Sherman: It’s difficult to quantify in wins and losses, considering the other problems that plagued these Huskers, notably with turnovers and on special teams. Nebraska could have outscored Minnesota with a healthy Martinez and Long. And it’s likely that the second-half meltdown against UCLA never would have happened if Martinez was operating at full strength. The Huskers moved the ball well in a 41-28 loss to Michigan State. Injuries weren’t the issue against the Spartans; turnovers were, but freshmen committed all five. And Martinez, while turnover-prone since his freshman season, torched the Spartans a year ago. But even at 10-2, Nebraska would have missed a repeat trip to the Big Ten title game.
Big Ten bloggers Adam Rittenberg and Brian Bennett will occasionally give their takes on a burning question facing the league. We'll both have strong opinions, but not necessarily the same view. We'll let you decide which blogger is right.

Coaches always harp on the importance of the 15 bowl practices, not just for the development of their young players but the entire team. Although the Big Ten went 2-5 in bowls last season, teams such as Minnesota and Michigan made strides even in losing efforts.

Today's Take Two topic is: Which of the Big Ten's seven bowl teams -- Michigan State, Ohio State, Wisconsin, Iowa, Michigan, Nebraska and Minnesota -- will make the most improvement before kickoff?

Take 1: Adam Rittenberg

To me, this comes down to teams with weaknesses that can be fixed in several weeks of practices and those who are what they are with certain elements. Ohio State's pass defense, for example, is what it is and likely will be exposed by Clemson's ridiculously good wide receivers. I feel the same way about Wisconsin's passing game, although Jared Abbrederis could have a big performance in his final collegiate game. Michigan's offensive line looked better against Ohio State, partially because of the scheme, and should progress with some added practice time. My concern there, however, is the health of quarterback Devin Gardner. So I'm hesitant to go with the Wolverines.

My pick here is Minnesota, mainly because we saw the way the Gophers improve on offense between the end of the regular season and last year's Texas Bowl. The offensive line stepped up as Minnesota piled up 222 rush yards and 31 points. The group carried that over into this season, and Minnesota ranks fifth in the Big Ten in rushing at 200.9 yards per game. Minnesota needs to see the same type of progress from its passing game before returning to the Texas Bowl to face Syracuse on Dec. 27. I think it can happen. Quarterback Philip Nelson has a chance to get healthy and improve his chemistry with promising young wide receivers Drew Wolitarsky and Donovahn Jones. It'll be tough without top wideout Derrick Engel, but I expect a strong offensive showing from Minnesota in Houston and a double-digit win.

Take 2: Brian Bennett

I'm with you on Michigan, which would likely be my pick if we knew with more confidence how healthy Gardner would be. But good health is a reason I'll go with Nebraska.

The Huskers were a seriously beat-up team by the second half of the season, and their offensive line was being held together by spit and string because of so many injuries. I think that greatly contributed to Nebraska's poor performance in the finale against Iowa (though the Hawkeyes had an awful lot to do with that as well). The break between the regular season and the bowl game has already helped many of those players heal up, including quarterback Tommy Armstrong Jr., who was hobbled by an ankle problem. The offensive line should be as close to full strength as it has been in a long time.

And don't forget how many young players and first-time starters Bo Pelini played on defense this year, including several freshmen in the front seven. Extra bowl practices should prove very beneficial for them, and this is a defense I think has a chance to be special in the next year or two. The players also shouldn't be worrying about the status of their head coach as some undoubtedly were in November.

Add all that up, and I expect the Cornhuskers to look much better than they did while limping to the regular-season finish line. Whether that's good enough to beat Georgia remains to be seen.

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