WEEK 1: Fresno State Bulldogs vs. Nebraska Cornhuskers
WHEN: Saturday, September 3 — 5:00 PM PT
WHERE: Memorial Stadium; Lincoln, Nebraska (86,047)
TV: Big Ten Network
RADIO: The broadcast can be found in and around Fresno on the Central Valley’s local ESPN Radio affiliates: 940 (in English) and 1600 (in Spanish) AM. It can also be found on satellite radio, both Sirius and XM, on channel 81.
SERIES RECORD: This will be the third meeting between the Bulldogs and Cornhuskers; Nebraska has won both of the prior games. In their most recent clash, on September 13, 2014, Nebraska came into Bulldog Stadium and blew out Fresno State, 55-19.
After a poor 2015 campaign, the offseason brought significant upheaval to Fresno State. Both primary coordinators, as well as a number of position coaches, were replaced. Another graduate transfer was brought in to compete for the starting quarterback role. Injuries plagued the roster from spring into fall.
Head coach Tim DeRuyter enters his fifth year at the helm with a different kind of stakes: To show that he can reload with the athletes he’s brought in over the last few years, to more consistently compete from week to week. He has his quarterback, redshirt freshman Chason Virgil, and other clear leaders on both sides of the ball: Jeff Camilli, Tyquwan Glass, Aaron Peck.
Saturday is our first chance to see how the revamped product has come together on the national stage, against an opponent with clear motivations of their own.
To get a better understanding of the Nebraska Cornhuskers, I reached out to Corn Nation, SB Nation’s Nebraska blog, and they were kind enough to provide a round table of responses from among their contributors:
There’s a startling amount of returning experience at wide receiver, and while most Fresno State fans will remember Jordan Westerkamp from two years ago, which of Armstrong’s other targets do you think is in line for a significant increase in production and why?
Cobcast Ryan: Demornay Pierson-El, because he’s so fast he pulls off Usain Bolt pictures mid-stride. Every. Game.
Ranchbabe (Jill): I’ll go with the starting tight end, Cethan Carter. We were told that Mike Riley likes to utilize tight ends, but we didn’t see it much until the end of the season in 2015, when the coaching staff went “Oh, wait.” Carter is an athletic blocker/receiver who has been underutilized his entire career.
Pat Janssen: Well, I would've said Brandon Reilly, but drunk driving has turned out to be a problem for both coaches and players in the wide receiver corps. I'm inclined to side with Jill because Carter might be the best pro prospect on the team, but I also think this is the year Alonzo Moore puts all of his gifts together and has a season that's more than just a few bright spots.
Mike: Cethan Carter is a guy that both Nebraska coaching staffs have tried to get the ball to ever since his freshman season, but it wasn’t until the second half of 2015 that he finally started to make the catch on a consistent basis. Ryan is also right: De’Mornay Pierson-El is a game breaker.
Greg: I think it’s just as simple as Armstrong spreading the ball around. Each has the ability to make a big play or several. It’s just a matter of right place, right time.
How significant do you think the suspension of senior safety Nate Gerry will be for this game?
Cobcast Ryan: He’s a monster, but as long as we have Pierson-El we’ll be fine. Pierson-El is really fast. He’s so speedy that if he was president, he’d be Thomas Fasterson.
Jill: Any time you lose an all-conference player, it is significant. The #2’s on the depth chart are sophomores Antonio Reed and Aaron Williams. Williams drew three starts as a freshman and also looks to be the nickel back this year. Reed came on toward the end of the season, mostly in the bowl game. The fact that they ended up “not terrible” by season’s end is a pretty big compliment if you followed the state of the Husker secondary in 2015. Possibly significant as well is that defensive coordinator Mark Banker is coaching the safeties while DB coach Stewart is focusing on the corners. I think they will be OK.
Pat Janssen: Provided Nebraska doesn't fall flat on its face, this could be a blessing in disguise. Building depth is never a bad thing. And since he missed most of the last two games due to targeting calls (one legit, one horribly not legit), it's not an entirely new experience for the Huskers.
Greg: Yeah, it sucks. But it’s a good opportunity to get some younger guys some experience, and depth is a good thing.
Nebraska lagged when it came to adjusted sack rate, finishing just 96th nationally, and no returning starter had more than 4.5 sacks last season. Who would you like to see step up and make a significant impact with the pass rush?
Cobcast Ryan: Here’s the thing. Pierson-El was injured pretty much all last season. His speed is very inspiring. Often times, defensive guys see a player with the flash like qualities of Pierson-El and get more sacks. It’s science, guys. And math.
Jon J: Who would I “like to see step up”? How about the entire starting defensive line? Do I think that will happen? No. Defensive coordinator Mark Banker will have to get creative with his pass rush and find a linebacker or secondary player who will fill that role. Do I have faith that Banker can do that? No. Am I glad you only asked one question about the defense? YES!!!!!!
Jill: I agree with Jon. Coach Banker is going to have to manufacture a pass rush. DE (converted TE) Freedom Akinmoladun showed some promise last year but there were also two NFL-caliber DTs occupying the attention of opposing OL (Vincent Valentine went to the Patriots and Maliek Collins to the Cowboys). LB Marcus Newby looked like a possible pass rush option back in 2014 (Pelini’s last season) but nothing ever really materialized there. MLB Josh Banderas is a sneaky good blitzer when deployed judiciously, but I realistically only expect a handful of those all season.
Pat Janssen: For the Fresno game, it's going to have to be Freedom. The other DE (Ross Dzuris) is a walk-on, hustle type guy. By the end of the year, I suspect redshirt freshman Alex Davis will start to become the big sack guy. Maybe just situationally, but I think he will start showing flashes.
Mike: Considering that there were two NFL third round draft picks, the lack of production from the defensive line was startling last season. Subtract Kevin Williams (who transferred to Michigan State) and Greg McMullen (who quit the game), and Nebraska is woefully lacking in depth on the line. While I like the upgrade in coaching with John Parella taking over, I think this is a long-term rebuilding project that will start off going backwards.
Greg: Never underestimate a walk-on, hustle type guy, Pat Janssen. But Nebraska has been bad at sacks since Suh was drafted. Suh helped Crick. Crick aided Steinkuhler slightly...but in my opinion, Nebraska has underperformed on the D-Line. And now they get to try again with four relative newcomers.
When Nebraska came to Fresno back in 2014, Tommy Armstrong had the ideal kind of results for his skill set: 12-of-21, 260 yards, 12.4 yards per attempt. Three touchdowns. The offense asked him to be kind of a high-risk, high-reward quarterback back then, so what, if anything, has anything changed in his game or the offense’s overall goals?
Cobcast Ryan: Pierson-El, for two reasons. 1) He’s very fast and, as they say, “you can't tackle things that are fast”. Less tackles means more YAC’s to pad Armstrong’s stats. 2) His speed alone will allow more offensive plays, and thusly, with pure math and science alone, we can extrapolate that Armstrong will have better decision making.
Jill: That is the $64,000 question. I’m not trying to avoid the question, but all of Husker Nation has listened to Coach Riley’s offseason platitudes about using Tommy’s legs as a major part of the offense. I guess we will believe it when we see it. It seems counter-intuitive given the oodles of WR talent we have, but Tommy is simply not the guy that can put up Air Raid numbers and be effective.
Pat Janssen: If anything, the offense became more high-risk/high reward last season. The delicate balancing act this year will be making sure he's still a playmaker without surrendering the ball 4-5 times. It's not just him, either. Those five quarterback turnovers at Purdue didn't come from Tommy.
Mike: If Nebraska had run their 2014 offense in 2015, the Huskers probably would have won nine or maybe even ten games last season. And if they were to run it in 2016, they might win ten or eleven. We saw signs of that in the Foster Farms Bowl against UCLA, but that’s not the preference of this coaching staff, who would prefer a pass-first offense that utilizes a drop-back passer with precision skills.
Greg: Tommy Armstrong, much like his predecessor, has always been high risk/high reward. But that’s how you win (or lose) games in the final minutes. Utilizing him like they did against UCLA in the bowl game will make him more effective, will make the football team more successful, and will make Husker fans happy.
Two years ago, De’Mornay Pierson-El had a big game against the Bulldogs as a punt returner. Is he still the Huskers’ most dynamic playmaker and will he have the same role in the season opener?
Cobcast Ryan: This is a great question. The answer however is no. It will be much bigger. D-Mornz (that's what I call him) will score 38 points by himself.
Jon: I hope he scores points. We’re going to have to get them from somewhere.
Jill: Again, all of Husker Nation is holding their breath waiting to see if he regains his form after missing most of 2015. The first injury was a broken foot and then his season ended with a gruesome knee injury. It sounds like there was talk of redshirting him up until just a few days ago when he and the coaches felt like he was getting his burst back.
Pat Janssen: The coaches went slower with his recovery than they did last year. So I sure as hell hope so. JD Spielman (Tick Spielman’s adoptive son and Chris Spielman’s nephew) might be the new Pierson-El, since they'll be trying to incorporate DPE into the offense. Apparently, Spielman is electric.
Greg: Nebraska has WESTERCATCH and DPE. Both electrifying in their own ways. Jordan just catches footballs. In ridiculous ways. In all sorts of scenarios. DPE just needs a sliver of turf and can do some very Johnny Rogers-esque things…….I forgot the question.
I imagine the expectations are high in Mike Riley’s second year, but just how high are they around Lincoln? What kind of result in this season opener, in particular, would satisfy Huskers fans’ long-term ambitions?
Cobcast Ryan: We have one goal every week - TO WIN THE NATIONAL CHAMPIONSHIP and this week Fresno has it and we’re gonna take it, we’re gonna take it by using Demornay “D-Mornz” Pierson-El. He’s very fast.
Jon: Expectations are always high. They’re not as high as Ryan’s expectations for Pierson-El, but they’re still always high. I think reasonable fans would expect improvement to 8-4 or 9-3. I’m going to be conservative and say that the expectation against Fresno State will be to NOT LOSE ON A LAST SECOND HAIL MARY. That would be very, very, very bad.
Jill: Cautiously optimistic is how I would put it. Things obviously went a bit off the rails last year but a bowl win, some good recruiting PR, and a much-needed coaching change at DL helped fans feel like things are headed (generally) in the right direction. I think Husker fans expect to be in the hunt for the division title every year. As far as the season opener, seeing “good” Tommy protect the football, an OC that Runs The Dang Ball on 3rd-and-2, and a defense that doesn’t look confused when the ball is in the air (or on the ground for that matter) would be helpful for the collective blood pressure of Huskers fans.
Pat Janssen: I don't have the same optimism that I used to have as a 1997-era teenager, but this could easily be a team that wins the West. That's become the baseline for a successful season these days. Start there, and then we can key our imaginations run away (and they will).
Mike: I’m not sure expectations are all that high this season at Nebraska. Most fans seem to be gravitating towards an 8 win season, which would be considered a really down year most of the time. It would be a heck of an improvement over seven losses, though...and that’s what fans want for 2016.
Greg: I’m in agreement with Mike on this. Excitement? Yes. Enthusiasm? Yes. But that can be said anywhere. Expectations? Memories can be ghosts to many Husker fans. I think so many want or expect to win it all every year. I made a brazen prediction last week that Nebraska wins the Big Ten and sits just outside of the playoffs. That’s bold.
What to watch: Fresno State
Is the quarterback situation really settled? The Bulldogs have been criticized in the last two years for their seeming inability to stick with one man under center, and while naming Chason Virgil the starter well ahead of the opening kickoff is a refreshing change, it remains to be seen, rightly or wrongly, just how much opportunity he’ll get to work through struggles. For instance, if the Bulldogs are down by 17 points and go three-and-out early in the third quarter, will they be tempted to turn to Zach Kline?
The hope is that a promising (if unproven) running game takes some of the pressure off, as well as the fact that Virgil will have some reliable options when he throws: Look for Chad Olsen to be a factor at tight end, and for Aaron Peck to get some chances when the Bulldogs get into the red zone.
Can the secondary get back to its ballhawking ways? In his two-plus seasons as the Huskers starting QB, Tommy Armstrong has earned a reputation as a high-risk, high-reward passer: He’s improved his completion percentage each year since 2013 — last year’s 55.2%, 11th in the Big Ten, was a career high — and only Michigan State’s Connor Cook, among conference QBs, had more passing plays of 20-plus yards in the last two years.
Fresno State wasn’t able to make Armstrong pay for his mistakes in 2014, but chances are he’s mostly the same player: His 16 interceptions last year were the second-most in the FBS. Thankfully, the defensive backfield has flashed some ability to create turnovers in fall camp, which will be welcome after the ‘Dogs forced just nine interceptions last season.
If Nebraska chooses to play primarily with 11 personnel (one RB, one TE, three WRs), as their depth chart suggests they will, keep an eye on true freshman Juju Hughes, who turned a lot of heads with an INT in four straight practices a few weeks ago, and redshirt freshman Mike Bell, who had a pick-six in the team’s lone open scrimmage.
Can the defensive line disrupt enough to help the linebackers? Running games often wore down Fresno State’s front seven and salted games away in 2015: The Bulldogs allowed just 3.88 yards per carry in the first half, but 5.93 ypc (on roughly 50 more total carries) in second halves. This year, however, looks like it could be a different story.
Nose guard Malik Forrester, a 6-foot-1 and 320-pound junior college transfer, has looked and played like a physical force the Bulldogs lacked last year. Elijah Piper, a 300-pound freshman recruit, has received rave reviews in fall camp, as well. Their presence allowed Nathan Madsen, last year’s nose guard, to move to end, where he has been more productive, as well. The unit is both bigger and deeper than in 2015, and should challenge Nebraska’s offensive line.
In particular, it’ll be interesting to see how much opportunity Forrester gets to test the turnover at left guard, where Nebraska has three possibilities to replace Jerald Foster, who will miss 2016 with a knee injury.