Thursday notebook: Gates not ruled out yet for Purdue
Nebraska’s banged up offensive line could once again be short-handed for Saturday’s game against Purdue, but arguably its most important piece hasn't been officially sidelined just yet.
Sophomore left tackle Nick Gates was able to return to practice for Thursday's half-pads session after missing the past four days while recovering from an ankle sprain he suffered at Indiana.
Gates was able to play through the pain and finish the game, but Riley said they would evaluate how his ankle responded to Thursday's practice and make a final decision on his status for Purdue on Friday.
"Nick Gates practiced some today," Riley said. "He didn't necessarily go every play all day long with the ones, but he did some practicing, which is encouraging...
"It's hard for me to say. Probably part of it will be how he reacts to the work he did today, how he feels tomorrow."
With two huge road contests at No. 10 Wisconsin and No. 2 Ohio State looming, some have argued the right decision would be to sit Gates out vs. Purdue and give the standout left tackle more time to heal.
If Gates is unable to play, Riley said that sophomore walk-on Cole Conrad would be the next left tackle up on Saturday.
"We've had Cole Conrad practicing there a good part of the week and a lot today," Riley said. "So we'll make a good decision about Nick when we really know more tomorrow."
If worst comes to worst, the Huskers also have the option of putting either senior Corey Whitaker or senior Sam Hahn at tackle if needed. Hahn spent his whole NU career at tackle before taking over as the starting left guard to start the season.
“I mean tackle is where I’ve been for years, so I’ll bounce out there if I need to do something,” Hahn said. “If not, I’ll stay at guard. Just whatever needs to be done, I’ll do it.”
- Robin Washut
Huskers hope to get other RBs more involved vs. Purdue
Terrell Newby has earned plenty of praise for his fourth-quarter efforts the past two games, and deservingly so.
But while Nebraska has been waiting for one of its running backs to emerge as the go-to workhorse for the past year and a half, the hope is to give Newby a little more help in the running game going forward.
In the win over Indiana, the senior had 22 of the Huskers 45 rushing attempts, including 11 of NU’s 17 carries in the fourth quarter.
The rest of the running backs combined for just six rushes for three yards for the entire game.
A big reason for that was because Devine Ozigbo has been hobbled by an ankle sprain he suffered two weeks ago against Illinois. The sophomore missed most of last week with an ankle injury and carried the ball just once for two yards against the Hoosiers.
Riley said he wasn’t sure yet how much bigger Ozigbo’s role would be this week. Ozigbo had to leave Wednesday’s practice early because his ankle was hurting, but he fully practiced on Thursday.
Like Gates, Riley said they would evaluate Ozigbo on Friday and make a final decision on his status.
“Last game he hadn’t practiced much, so we didn’t want to give him much because he hadn’t practiced the whole time,” running backs coach Reggie Davis said. “We put him in there, we thought we needed a spark and wanted to see if he could do that.
“But we didn’t quite get that out of him. We’ll see what’s going on this week and see if he’s ready to go.”
- Robin Washut
Improving third-down conversions a top priority
There was a lot for Nebraska to feel good about following its win at Indiana, but the victory certainly didn’t come without its share of concerns.
One area that perturbed offensive coordinator Danny Langsdorf as much as anything was the Huskers’ inefficiency on third downs. Overall, NU was just 5-of-15 (33 percent) on third-down conversions.
That marked Nebraska’s lowest third-down percentage of the season and just the second time in six games it had finished below 45 percent. The week before against Illinois, the offense converted 10-of-14 third downs (71 percent) for its highest rate of the year.
“Yeah, it was not good last week,” Langsdorf said. “We went from 70 percent at Illinois to 33 percent. Overall, I think we have been very good. We took a step back last week and didn’t make as many plays and we are missing a couple of those third-down weapons.
“That’s an excuse, and we need a couple guys to pick up the slack, and we’ve talked to that in practice.”
One way quarterback Tommy Armstrong thinks the Huskers can get their third-down numbers back up is by being more effective on first down than they were vs. the Hoosiers.
“We aim to be second-and-4 each second down, and we found ourselves in second-and 8, second-and-9, averaging one yard last week, and we don’t want that.
“So we’ve just got to make sure that offensive line, we protect up front and we run hard in the backfield and catch the ball out wide, so as a unit, we’ve just got to make sure we execute.”
- Robin Washut
***Dylan Utter suffered a dislocated pinky finger during the Indiana game last week and had to miss a play or two while getting it put back in place. Utter returned and finished the game, but Riley said the finger was still pretty sore and they’ve held Utter out a bit to help it heal. Riley said Utter should “be fine” to play against Purdue.
***If for some reason Utter would have to miss any time on Saturday, Riley said Michael Decker would be the No. 2 center. Riley said Decker worked at center with the No. 2 offense all week, and the coaches “feel really good about his development.”
***Riley said David Knevel (foot) practiced all week and should be good to go.
***Riley said Jordan Westerkamp (back) was able to get some running in on Thursday and looked pretty good doing it. Riley said Westerkamp is still out for Purdue, but they’re encouraged by his rehab so far.
***Cethan Carter (elbow) is also officially out for Saturday.
***Riley said one thing he really wants to see against Purdue is the offense running the ball with far more consistency than they did at Indiana. He said that comes down to the running backs, quarterback and offensive line as a group.
***Riley said they expect Purdue to complete a few passes on Saturday, so open field tackling will be crucial to not let short passes turn into big gains because of missed tackles.
***With games against No. 10 Wisconsin and No. 2 Ohio State up next on the schedule, Riley said he hasn’t seen the Huskers overlook Purdue one bit this week. He said the team was a “mature group” with strong player leadership that wouldn’t allow for anyone to look past a game, especially with how close every game has been this season.