LINCOLN – Back in the day it was a cliché on football Saturdays in Nebraska — that first game was always a bit rusty, but NU would almost always show vast improvements in game two.
In recent memory that hasn’t been the case, as Nebraska under Bo Pelini often rode the roller coaster of inconsistency — even from play to play.
Against South Alabama Saturday in Lincoln, Mike Riley and his coaching staff put its acumen on display for all to see in a 48-9 win.
The injury bug took its toll even before kickoff, and on one of the thinnest positions on the field — linebacker. Riley and his staff were fortunate to get Michael Rose-Ivey back, but lost Josh Banderas and Dedrick Young to injuries at week’s end.
Just another day in the life of this new staff. The tests keep coming.
Still, NU was aggressive and hard-nosed on defense, established the run on offense, and committed fewer mistakes.
Clearly they have the chops to make adjustments — both during a game and from week to week.
Nebraska was better this week against a team you won’t see in the national semi-final anytime soon, but for now that’s OK. In a game like this where Nebraska could be its own worst enemy, NU stayed out of the way.
Though beating South Alabama was a feel-good win, you get the idea this team has little margin for error.
Nebraska’s talent isn’t overwhelming, so there is premium on execution in all facets of the game. That’s how many of Tom Osborne’s teams thrived — not on talent but by playing mistake-free.
Like it or not, this is a building process and this was the kind of opponent NU needed to remove that bad taste. Nothing spells relief like a game where the running game is clicking on all cylinders, the defense is aggressive and hard-hitting, and Tommy Armstrong makes good decisions with the ball.
We saw all of that against the Jaguars.
This team showed up, played hard against South Alabama at a time when it would have been easy to lament the Hail Mary loss to BYU and the end of a 29-game winning streak by Nebraska in season-openers.
Time for a trip to Miami.
There are so many reasons why Nebraska may not win that game, but we really have no idea what kind of road team this staff will put together.
The Hurricanes will be nasty, pushing the limit on every play, sneaking in an occasional punch at the bottom of piles, pushing play beyond the whistle — you name it.
Last season was a real dog fight against Miami in Lincoln — ending with a Nebraska victory and a Miami player flipping off Husker fans while leaving the field.
A disciplined, mistake-free effort will be in order for Nebraska to pull off a big road win.
Expect nothing less from Miami this time around.
We will find out just how tough this Nebraska team is, in a game that will undoubtedly set the tone for the rest of the 2015 season – like it or not.
There are reasons for hope.
So exactly how did Nebraska adjust in game two?
In game one against BYU we saw a markedly different team in the second half that was better on both sides of the ball after the break.
In game two— albeit against an outmanned Jaguar team — Nebraska coaches realized the running back rotation was too crowded and the practice legend Terrell Newby didn’t have that chance to shine when the lights come on.
Newby ran hard, played inspired and showed brilliance at times, by finding the holes when things jammed up on the offensive line, or by reversing field when there was nowhere to run.
Consider adjustment No. 1 a rousing success — giving Newby a chance to establish himself.
In the first half alone Newby scored three touchdowns — two on the ground, one on a pass reception – but more importantly the guy had 15 carries already midway through the second quarter — and coaches kept running him all night long.
On defense the Blackshirts were aggressive, hard-hitting, and the return of linebacker Rose-Ivey clearly puts this unit in a different gear. Rose-Ivey showed no ill effects from last season’s injury. You get the idea he could have made a big difference had he not been suspended for game one.
Though the loss of defensive end Jack Gangwish to an arm injury was a blow, in his stead freshman Freedom Akinmoladun provided a great first step off the edge and much-needed speed on the defensive line.
Really was more of an adjustment by necessity, but success No. 2.
The Nebraska defense had fewer breakdowns against South Alabama, not yielding points until 6:04 to play in the third quarter, on a field goal that made it 31-3 Nebraska.
And how about kicker Drew Brown? He was perfect on the night, hitting two field goals including one from 42 yards, and all of his extra points in recovering nicely from two missed field goals against BYU.
Nebraska Head Coach Mike Riley said he was pleased with how his team responded to adversity.
“I thought we had a good week of practice,” he said. “We ran the ball better against this team. The defense did a nice job against the run. Our biggest deal was with not getting off the field on third down and then them hitting deep balls.
“I thought they were really good on Monday and got better as the week went on.”
NU will have to find the next gear— and quick.
A storm awaits in the deep South.