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Thursday notebook: Ozigbo likely to play vs. Indiana

Nebraska head coach Mike Riley announced some pleasant and somewhat unexpected news following Thursday’s practice, as he revealed that sophomore running back Devine Ozigbo would likely play in Staurday’s game at Indiana.

Ozigbo suffered an ankle sprain in the Huskers' win over Illinois two weeks ago, and he was held out of practice all last week and then through Tuesday of this week.

However, Riley said Ozigbo was able to get some work in on Wednesday and then was a full participant for Thursday’s half-pads session, leaving NU feeling very good about the chances of Ozigbo being ready to go for the Hoosiers.

“It looks like Devine Ozigbo will play,” Riley said. “He looked good today, had a pretty good workout yesterday. We didn’t know today what was going to happen, but just watching him - he had quite a few reps in practice today, and he will travel with us.”

Ozigbo’s sudden availability gives Nebraska one of its top rushers back in the mix. The native of Sachse, Texas, has already racked up 318 rushing yards and four touchdowns on a team-high 76 carries despite being the No. 2 back behind senior starter Terrell Newby (59 carries, 327 yards, three TDs).

Earlier this week Riley hinted that Nebraska was preparing to work some of its younger running backs like Mikale Wilbon and Tre Bryant more into the rotation if Ozigbo was unable to play, but Riley said his return wouldn’t drastically change the game plan NU already had in place.

“It really hasn’t changed the game plan, it just improves our depth of players who have already played in the game,” Riley said. “That’s probably the biggest deal. I like Devine a lot. It’s comforting to have him.

“He’s played now for us for a year and a half, and he becomes one of those guys that you can rely on. So when they’re healthy and they can play, that’s a good thing for your team.”

- Robin Washut

Red zone will be key for Huskers vs. Hoosiers

As the scouting of Indiana has progressed over the course of the week, the common theme has been how potent and explosive the Hoosiers’ offense has been this season.

The numbers certainly back that up, as IU comes into Saturday’s game ranked first in the Big Ten in passing offense (293.0) and fourth in total offense (453.6). However, a closer look reveals the Hoosiers certainly aren’t without some problems.

In particular, Indiana has struggled the most when it gets the ball inside its opponents’ 20-yard line. On 18 red zone opportunities this year, IU has managed just 12 total scores and only eight touchdowns, ranking 12th in the conference in that category at 66.7 percent.

Of the six failed red zone possessions, four resulted in turnovers on downs, while two were interceptions and two were missed field goals.

As a result of that red zone inefficiency, the Hoosiers only rank eighth in the league at 26.6 per game despite the big yardage its put up.

This certainly plays into Nebraska’s favor, as its defense has relied on a bend-but-don’t-break approach all season long. The Huskers have only allowed five touchdowns and four field goals on 12 opponent red zone opportunities.

For Indiana, a lack of a power running game has been a big factor in the limited red zone success, as only two of the Hoosiers’ 16 offensive touchdowns have come on the ground.

That said, Nebraska knows it must improve its overall tackling in a big way for that to continue to Saturday.

“We were just disappointed in the Illinois game in the way we showed up,” defensive coordinator Mark Banker said. “A lot of it had to do with we were a little bit out of position, and not a positive position. We were more in a negative position to make tackles. We didn’t bring our feet, we didn’t strike with the proper shoulder and things of that nature.”

- Robin Washut

Right tackle David Knevel is ready to return to the starting lineup this week at Indiana.
Right tackle David Knevel is ready to return to the starting lineup this week at Indiana. (Tyler Krecklow)

Knevel 'feeling great' after nagging foot injury

After playing through a foot injury the two previous games, David Knevel finally reached the point where he couldn’t stand the pain any longer in the first quarter of Nebraska’s win over Illinois.

The senior right tackle had to leave the game after just one drive, forcing NU to put in sophomore walk-on Cole Conrad in his place.

Fortunately the Huskers’ bye gave Knevel two full weeks to rest and rehab his injured foot, and now he says he ready to return to action this week at Indiana.

“It’s feeling great,” Knevel said. “After the week of the bye week and the few days off it feels really good.”

Along with pain, the other main issues the injury presented were hindering Knevel when he dropped back into pass protection and when he tried to shuffle to his left.

He said he re-aggravated the his foot twice during NU’s opening drive vs. Illinois when the Huskers ran three quarterback sneaks in the series.

“On two of them I got it banged up and the second one it was pretty bad,” Knevel said. “I really contemplated staying down. But Tre (Bryant) picked me up and I tried to battle through it.”

Now healthy again, Knevel said he’s excited to return to action along side right guard Tanner Farmer, who is also expected back after missing the Illinois game with an ankle sprain.

“It’s great going forward,” Knevel said. “Cole and Corey (Whitaker) did really well when they went in there. It was really good to put guys in and not look back and only move forward.

“Going against a good defensive line like Illinois running the ball as well as we did in the second half. It was really great to see that.”

- Robin Washut

Bryant ready for another opportunity

Though Ozigbo is expected to play this week at Indiana with an ankle injury, the window of opportunity could still open back up a bit for Nebraska’s other running backs.

While senior Terrell Newby and Ozigbo are expected to handle the bulk of the workload, younger backs like Mikale Wilbon and Tre Bryant could have a chance to factor into the rotation on Saturday.

“Mikale has shown some good stuff and improvement all the time, and I think Tre Bryant is a good player,” Riley said. “I even made note of the fact that - not knowing about Devine - we probably need to get Tre back and involved.”

Bryant exploded onto the scene with an impressive fall camp and earned the No. 3 spot on the running back depth chart going into the season opener. But after fumbling the football twice on his first 13 carries, the true freshman all but vanished from the rotation.

That’s why Bryant is looking at this week as a golden opportunity to earn back some of that trust he may have lost with his coaches after his early ball security problems.

“Especially for me, I put two on the ground,” Bryant said. “I got them back, but I still put them on the ground, and there’s no excuse for that. I’ve just been focusing on keeping two hands on the ball and making sure I’m aware of everything around me at all times.

“That’s the main thing, just earning the trust and showing I can protect the ball in crucial situations. I want to show them I’m ready for that.”

- Robin Washut

Freshman running back Tre Bryant is looking to earn back his coaches' trust on Saturday.
Freshman running back Tre Bryant is looking to earn back his coaches' trust on Saturday. (Tyler Krecklow)

Quick hits

***Riley officially ruled out receiver Jordan Westerkamp (back) and tight end Cethan Carter (elbow) for Indiana, adding that neither player would travel to Bloomington.

***Other good news on the injury front was that Riley said he expected receiver Alonzo Moore (shoulder) to be ready to go on Saturday.

***Riley said he thinks Nebraska will be OK despite losing Westerkamp this week, but admitted losing Carter does impact that game plan a bit more offensively. However, Riley said Sam Cotton has been having "a really good year" and thinks others like Trey Foster and Luke McNitt will be able to step up and provide depth.

***Nebraska currently ranks third in the nation in third down conversion percentage at 53 percent. Riley said he's seen very few teams maintain a rate above 50 percent for an entire season, and that would be the goal for NU the rest of the way.

***Riley said Brad Simpson is the leading point scorer for Nebraska's special teams through the first five games. He said points can be scored for all sorts of things like blocking and tackles, and because Simpson plays on so many teams he's led the way in total points.

***Riley said he has been a proponent for the idea of adding a 10th assistant coach "for 10 years now", saying college football teams had the "worst student/teacher ratio in all of sports" because of the large number of players with so few coaches.

He said the more hands on deck coaching staffs could have the better, but he wouldn't go as far as to say this idea will pass easily.

"Nothing comes easy with these types of things," Riley said.