Wednesday notebook: NU hoping for healthy WRs vs. Wildcats
Of all the weeks to have two of its top wide receivers dealing with injuries, this week might be more inopportune than most considering the potentially huge advantage Nebraska could have against Northwestern.
Senior wide outs Brandon Reilly (hamstring) and Alonzo Moore (shoulder) are working their way though ailments that have forced them to miss both game and practice time the past couple weeks.
Reilly tweaked his hamstring in the Huskers’ win over Wyoming, forcing him to miss all of practice last week and Saturday’s game vs. Oregon. The good news was that Reilly returned to action on Tuesday and practiced again on Wednesday, but he will continue to be monitored through the week.
"Yeah, I definitely feel a lot better," Reilly said. "Obviously sitting out last week was pretty tough, but seeing the guys get the win definitely helped out."
Moore also sat out most of last week while dealing with a shoulder injury, but he was able to play against the Ducks. However, Moore has not practiced the past two days and is considered questionable for Saturday.
Having either Reilly or Moore available would be a huge asset against Northwestern this week, as the Wildcats feature a secondary that has been decimated by injuries in its own right over the first three games.
Northwestern will face the Huskers without three of its original four starting defensive backs.
Starting cornerback Keith Watkins II was lost for the year before the season even began, and then the Wildcats’ other starting cornerback, Matt Harris, was injured in their loss to Illinois State and did not play last week vs. Duke.
On top of that, starting safety Kyle Queiro missed the Duke game due to an injury. As of Wednesday, all three players are again expected to be out vs. Nebraska. That leaves safety Godwin Igwebuike as the lone active starter remaining from Northwestern’s original secondary.
Along with Igwebuike, the Huskers will face a trio of sophomore Montre Hartage, redshirt freshman Trae Williams and Jared McGee, who boast a combined total of five career starts between them.
Because of the rash of secondary injuries, The Wildcats currently rank dead last in the Big Ten and 101st nationally in pass defense (261.3 yards per game).
- Robin Washut
Reimers makes 'dream come true' with first catch, touchdown
When Bryan Reimers returned to his locker following Nebraska’s win over Oregon last Saturday, he took out his cell phone and had to do a double-take at what he saw.
The sophomore walk-on wide receiver from Lincoln East had already received more than 150 text messages by the end of the game, and that number only continued to grow over the following few days.
That’s what happens when the very first reception of your career is a 22-yard touchdown catch in one of your home-state school’s biggest victories in years.
“It’s awesome knowing I have that kind of support from everyone around me,” Reimers said. “Even some people I haven’t heard from in a few years have been texting me. It’s been great… Growing up and coming to these games, you always dream about scoring for Nebraska. To do it against Oregon makes it even better. It’s just a dream come true.”
With just under 12 minutes left in the third quarter, Nebraska was driving down the field hoping to take its first lead over the Ducks. Though the play was originally designed to go to tight end Cethan Carter, Oregon's cornerback dropped off of Reimers to cover Carter on his route several yards underneath.
That left the 6-foot-5, 210-pound Reimers wide open near the goal line, and quarterback Tommy Armstrong didn’t hesitate to fire the ball his way.
“He has been making great catches,” Armstrong said. “I have been saying that for the last year or so. He is a great kid. He buys into the system. Those guys believe in him and before he ever stepped foot out there on the field, I knew as soon as he got out there he was going to make a play if we threw the ball to him.
“He has worked his tail off to get out there and make a play like that. We knew from the beginning of this season that if he had a chance, he would go out there and make plays. That is one of the great many plays that you will see out of him.”
After the play, nearly every member of Nebraska’s wide receiver corps rushed to the end zone to celebrate Reimers’ career moment.
“That just shows how the wideouts are a family and how everyone supports each other and everyone is so happy for each other,” Reimers said. “I think Brandon (Reilly) was almost more excited than I was on that touchdown. It’s just great knowing that we have each other’s back each and every play.”
- Robin Washut
Offensive line struggles a major concern for Wildcats
Despite coming off his team’s first victory of the season, Northwestern head coach Pat Fitzgerald was far from satisfied about the Wildcats’ offensive performance through the first three weeks.
In particular, it’s been the undeniable struggles of the offensive line that have irked him more than anything.
Even with one of the most talented running backs in the conference in senior Justin Jackson, Northwestern ranks last in the Big Ten and 118th nationally in rushing offense (98.3 ypg). The Wildcats also are last in the league and 108th nationally in total offense (334.0 ypg).
As if that weren’t enough, Northwestern has given up a staggering 11 sacks through just three games, three more than any other Big Ten team and 113th-most in the country.
That’s why when Fitzgerald was asked who the best player on his offensive had been during his press conference this week, he declined to nominate anyone on a group that that had been “consistently inconsistent” all season.
“We’re moving the ball, the plan’s working, we just got to finish drives,” Fitzgerald said. “Guys have got to finish. I told the guys: ‘I’m getting tired of not finishing drives, It’s like a broken frickin’ record… Right now I don’t think we have enough guys who trust themselves.
“A couple guys who are way too sensitive. You miss a block, who cares? Learn from it and block him on the next play… Keep playing and good things are going to happen. If I had a little more depth I’d make some more changes, just to get guys, if anything else, to step back for a second, exhale, relax and then go back in... Some guys right now just have to settle down and play.”
- Robin Washut
Huskers know Walker presents major challenge
He may only be entering his junior season at Northwestern, but Anthony Walker is already being discussed as possibly the best linebacker ever to play for the Wildcats - including over his head coach.
The numbers so far certainly back that title up.
In 2015, Walker ranked third in the Big Ten with 122 total tackles to go along with a league-best 20.5 tackles for loss, four sacks, an interception and a forced fumble. His play earned him first-team all-conference honors.
Through three games this season the 6-foot-1, 245-pounder has already racked up 19 tackles, including 2.5 for loss and one sack.
While Northwestern’s early struggles have somewhat cooled the hype surrounding him, Walker remains one of the early favorites for the Big Ten’s Defensive Player of the Year award and will no doubt once again be a potential All-American candidate.
Nebraska knows full well how disruptive Walker can be. In last year's 30-28 loss to the Wildcats' in Lincoln, Walker racked up a game-high 13 tackles and one tackle for loss.
“He just gets a good push up front,” Armstrong said. “He just puts a lot of stress on the offensive line. We have just got to make sure that we are able to just get a lot of time and moving the chains, getting those guys tired…
“When we are out there on the field we have just got to make sure that we gradually keep wearing those guys down, and a good guy like (Walker), we have just got to make sure that we keep our offense on the field and wear down as best as we can.”
- Robin Washut
***Offensive coordinator Danny Langsdorf, offensive line coach Mike Cavanaugh, and running backs coach Reggie Davis all said last year’s loss to Northwestern was one of the most frustrating games they had all season because of the way the Huskers were “whipped” up front and couldn’t run the ball effectively.
***In fact, Davis said he’s been having a hard time even watching film of that game this week because of how poorly NU’s running game was.
***Langsdorf said senior Terrell Newby remains the starter, and he’s liked the change of pace he and Devine Ozigbo have brought to the run game. Langsdorf said they would continue to “ride the hot hand” at running back every week.
***Davis said for guys like Mikale Wilbon and Tre Bryant, it comes down to building trust with the coaches in order to expand their roles.
***Cavanaugh said left tackle Nick Gates was played “nails” this season. Left guard Sam Hahn said Gates leads the offensive line is pretty much every blocking stat on the year.
***Cavanaugh said the starting five offensive linemen played all 88 snaps vs. Oregon, and there were no substitutions in the game.
***Langsdorf downplayed the impact Northwestern’s natural grass field would have on Nebraska’s offense. He said the Huskers would have to pay close attention during pre-game warmups to their footing and make sure they have the right cleats on.
***Langsdorf said that while Northwestern’s pass defense ranks at the bottom of the Big Ten, the Wildcats have “bent but haven’t broken very much” when it comes to allowing opponents into the end zone for touchdowns. He said they have given up a lot of yards, but red zone scoring has been a real challenge for teams against them.