Wednesday notebook: Armstrong, others sit out practice with injuries
There was a temporary major scare as Nebraska’s players walked off the Hawks Center practice field on Wednesday afternoon.
Not only was senior quarterback Tommy Armstrong not practicing and in street clothes, he was wearing a protective walking boot on his left foot.
But before panic could fully set in around Husker Nation regarding Armstrong’s potential status for next week’s game at Indiana, head coach Mike Riley quickly put those fears to rest.
“I think Tommy is going to be fine,” Riley said. “It’s a sprained ankle. He had it before and never missed any practice time, but he aggravated it in the (Illinois) game. They thought the best thing to do was to was take a couple days of rest, get it healthier.
“I hope he can do something tomorrow (Thursday), but I think we’ll be really sure he can do something on Sunday.”
So, just to be clear, was Riley concerned at all about Armstrong being out against Indiana?
“No, I’m not,” he said. “I don’t think that way at all. I think he’ll play.”
While that was some good news on the injury front, the Huskers remain pretty beat up during their week off after a 5-0 start.
Wide receiver Jordan Westerkamp (back) and Cethan Carter (elbow) both didn’t practice Wednesday and are still considered doubtful for Indiana. Carter was seen wearing a large brace on his left arm following Wednesday’s practice.
“With the bye at least they’re closer to playing in the upcoming games,” Riley said. “But I don’t know what that means for sure.”
Other players who sat out included running back Devine Ozigbo, right guard Tanner Farmer, and right tackle David Knevel, all of which are nursing ankle injuries.
On the positive side, Riley seemed optimistic about senior wide receiver Alonzo Moore returning to action next week after sitting out the Illinois game with a lingering shoulder injury.
“Alonzo is running and feels pretty good,” Riley said. “So I’m hopeful for Alonzo.”
- Robin Washut
Improved tackling key to fixing run defense
Once one of the more promising aspects of Nebraska’s defense earlier in the season, stopping the run has become a growing issue for the Huskers over the past three games.
After holding both Fresno State and Wyoming under 100 rushing yards to open the year, Oregon ran for over 350 yards and five touchdowns in Week 3.
Northwestern and Illinois then both managed to have success on the ground, especially in picking up huge chunks of yardage on big running plays.
With a week off to take a step back and review the first five games, Riley said it didn’t take long to spot one of the main reasons for NU’s sudden turn in performance against the run.
“We have given up some of those runs kind of unnecessarily because of missed tackles,” Riley said. “We feel like if we can tighten some of that down - we’ve let some guys get away kind of with yards after first contact that haven’t been very pretty. We don’t like that.”
The Huskers currently rank eighth in the Big Ten rush defense at 151.8 yards per game, and they rank 11th in the conference at 4.8 yards allowed per carry.
In an effort to improve those numbers, senior linebacker Josh Banderas said the Blackshirts have used the bye week to go back and review some “base concepts” of the defense from fall camp.
“A lot of times it’s just that lapse of discipline,” Banderas said. “Just that one guy out of his gap and there goes the ball… Just those little gaps that we need to clean up. If we could just eliminate those big plays, which is completely doable, we could be a top of the line run defense.”
- Robin Washut
Trust in run game leading to more confidence on 4th down
Coming into the season Nebraska made it clear that success in running the football was an important part of what they wanted to accomplish on offense.
Through five games the Huskers rank third in the conference, behind only Ohio State and Maryland, in averaging 234.2 yards on the ground per game.
Left tackle Nick Gates says the success on the ground has been exciting for the offensive line to see so far and feels it has helped to wear teams down by the fourth quarter.
“It’s exciting, we definitely like to run the ball and be physical up in there and it helps,” Gates said. “You can see in the fourth quarter we’re scoring and it’s wearing on teams so it definitely helps.”
The successful rushing attack has also helped influence Mike Riley to go for it on several fourth downs so far as NU has already converted five out of eight times matching its entire total from a season ago.
Gates said he and the o-line feed off that confidence Riley has in them to get that extra yard or two.
“I think that’s all just a game time decision,” Gates said of the decisions to go for it on fourth down. “It’s us being physical up front and they trust us to get that one yard, two yards that we need and we usually just get the QB sneak going. We get a good push and I think it definitely helps and puts trust in us that we can run the ball like that, especially on fourth down.
“When the offense stays out there on fourth down we all kind of smile and say, ‘We’ve got to get this.’ Most of the time we usually do.”
Running backs hoping to hear plenty of "beeping" this week
Nebraska I-backs have coughed up the football more than they’d like to see so far this season. It’s especially been costly in their own red zone taking potential points off the board.
With the bye week, Huskers offensive coordinator Danny Langsdorf said it was a good time to bring out the beeping footballs to work on ball security.
“We’ve had to bring out the beeping balls again,” Langsdorf said. “The ones that makes sure we’re holding them properly to make sure we’re high and tight with the ball and securing it.
“This guy developed this ball that if you hold it properly it will make a noise. It’s a great idea and we bought a couple in the offseason and they make sure the backs are holding it high and tight. If they are it beeps at them.”
Langsdorf said he thinks the idea originally came from a Division II football coach and he remembers seeing the Baltimore Ravens work with them. The whole idea is just to reinforce ball security which has been needed.
“Yeah, we’ve had to get them beeping a lot this week,” Langsdorf said.
***Along with tackling, Riley said two of the biggest focuses for the defense this week were “tightening” their pass coverage and doing a better job of getting off blocks, as the Huskers were getting cut too easily by blockers.
***Riley said this week has been a great opportunity for the scout team players to get some live work with the actual offensive and defensive systems.
He said on Tuesday they did individual and team work with the scout teams, and then Wednesday held a “mini World Series” where the scout offense played the scout defense in a scrimmage setting with everything getting put on film.
They will do the same thing on Thursday and then again on every Sunday through the rest of the season.
***Riley said Nebraska has been “markedly better” in its two-minute offense this year compared to where it was back in fall camp. He credited a big reason for that to Armstrong being more comfortable in the offense.
***With Nebraska taking both Friday and Saturday off, Riley said the coaching staff will be on the road recruiting in full force this weekend during the bye.
***Offensive coordinator Danny Langsdorf said along with Sam Cotton and Trey Foster needing to step up in Carter’s absence, Tyler Hoppes would also need to be ready to contribute. Langsdorf said Hoppes was already a really good receiver but has also improved his blocking in a big way.
***Nick Gates said the offensive line has loved Riley’s willingness to go for it on fourth down more this season. He said whenever the offense is in a fourth-and-short situation they plead with the sideline to go for it, and Riley has given them the green light a lot already. He said that confidence translates into the offensive line’s play, which is why NU is 5-of-8 on fourth downs this year.