At this point in the 2020 season, some Husker fans may roll their eyes at the idea of progress being made. After all, Nebraska sits at 2-5 and is in last place in the Big Ten West for the first time since joining the conference.
Nebraska’s opponent, Rutgers, had been the Big Ten’s punching bag for the last few years but has shown improvement recently with the return of head coach Greg Schiano.
Coming into this season, Rutgers had won seven conference games with three of those coming in 2017. This year, Rutgers has nearly matched that, sitting at 3-5.. The Scarlet Knights have had their best season since 2017 and senior quarterback and Nebraska transfer Noah Vedral helped lead the turnaround.
“It’ll be a little different playing against him. Hopefully, he isn’t giving anything away,” sophomore wide receiver Wan’Dale Robinson said at Tuesday’s press conference. “It’ll be really good to see him play. I just hope he plays well but hopefully we play well enough to win.”
Vedral’s status for the Nebraska game is up in the air due to injury but despite having a first-year coach, Rutgers has not been the Big Ten punching bag that some have come to know the school for.
For the Huskers, there is visible progress on the defensive side of the ball. Since the Illinois drubbing, the Blackshirts have given up just over 25 points per game while dealing with multiple injuries.
Senior inside linebacker Colin Miller has not played a snap since his spinal injury in the Illinois game and said that he is “probably hanging up the cleats for good” after talking to a neurologist.
Over Miller’s five years with Nebraska, he has been with two head coaches and three defensive coordinators. Despite the coaching turnover, Miller sees that Nebraska is trending in the right direction and said that only three to four plays have decided games for Nebraska and correcting those plays will win games.
“We got the right guys in this stadium and in this room that can win a lot of games,” Miller said. “I don’t think our win and loss ratio that you guys see is what’s going on with the stadium...I don’t think there is one person in here that’s hanging their head or dreading coming into the stadium.”
Miller’s on-field loss is still felt but his presence off the field is felt even more so. Senior safety Marquel Dismuke described Miller as the hype man for the defense in practice after his injury.
“It’s all about the example you put out there for the young ones to live up to for expectations,” Dismuke said. “When we leave, they have an example of what to live up to for the rest of their years and what to teach the young ones.”
That youth is heavily prevalent within the offense, which scores 22.4 points per game, good for 12th in the Big Ten. On Monday, senior tackle Brenden Jaimes opted out of the Rutgers game to prepare for the NFL draft.
This will most likely put four-star freshman tackle Turner Corcoran in at left tackle, meaning that there will be three freshman starters on Nebraska’s offensive line in Friday’s game.
“This is a great opportunity for Turner and he will make the most of it,” offensive coordinator Matt Lubick said. “The biggest thing for a freshman is how fast you can learn it and play with confidence...We were trying to get him in more and more as the season went on and now that’s sped up a bit.”
At the skill positions, youth is also prevalent. Robinson is a sophomore, and other walk-ons and freshmen have also stepped up at wide receiver and running back.
Freshman running backs Marvin Scott and Ronald Thompkins, redshirt freshman running back Rahmir Johnson and redshirt freshman quarterback Luke McCaffrey have taken carries this season. Freshman wide receiver Zavier Betts and senior graduate transfer and walk-on wide receiver Levi Falck have both stepped up to contribute in the passing game.
“From personal experience, I know if we didn’t start with South Alabama last year and we started out with a Big Ten game...I would have been frightened every other game after that,” Robinson said. “Your first Big Ten game and that being your very first game is very tough for a young guy. It helps them a lot to get this year under their belt.”
Nebraska’s football season likely will end on a cold December Friday night in Piscataway, New Jersey, a matchup the Huskers had previously been scheduled to get in week one of the season.
Now, the season Nebraska fought for can either end with a loss over 1,000 miles from home or the Huskers could end their season on the right foot.
“We were surprised with the text on Sunday that we were playing that Friday,” Robinson said. “We knew we had to come back to work [Monday] and the next day and go out on a good note so that we’re not thinking about this for the rest of the offseason.”