The Nebraska football team sits at 4-4 with four games remaining. To reach six wins and gain bowl eligibility, the Huskers will need to win at least two games in the closing stretch featuring road games at Purdue and Maryland and home games against Iowa and Wisconsin.
Tomorrow, we will give three reasons why the Huskers will make a bowl game, but for now, here are three reasons the Huskers will not make a bowl game:
1. The Blackshirts — especially the run defense
At the beginning of the season, the Blackshirts looked like the epitome of team strength, save for the second half meltdown at Colorado. In three non-conference games, the Huskers allowed an average of 4.7 yards per play and forced nine turnovers. The run defense was particularly stout, as none of Nebraska’s first three opponents had more than 90 rushing yards.
In conference play, it’s been an entirely different story. It started in the conference opener against Illinois when the Blackshirts allowed 221 rushing yards (5.8 yards per carry) and four rushing touchdowns. The next week, Ohio State gashed the run defense to the tune of 371 yards and three scores on 7.1 yards per carry. Two weeks later, Minnesota ran roughshod on the Blackshirts, racking up 322 yards and four touchdowns while averaging 6.6 yards per carry.
The Blackshirts have allowed three of their five conference opponents to rush for more than 5.5 yards per carry. The two that didn’t — Northwestern and Indiana — both have rushing attacks that currently rank No. 93 and 97 in rushing offense, respectively, out of 130 FBS teams. In Big Ten play, the Huskers are allowing 235 rushing yards per game.
Through eight games, the Blackshirts rank No. 83 in run defense and No. 72 in total defense. One big reason for the defensive struggles in conference play is that opposing teams with explosive playmakers have been able to take advantage.
Illinois running back Reggie Corbin ran for 134 yards and a touchdown on 6.7 yards per carry. Four Buckeyes averaged at least six yards per carry, highlighted by J.K. Dobbins’ 177 yards on 24 carries (7.1 yards per carry). Minnesota’s Rodney Smith ran 18 times for 139 yards and a touchdown (7.7 yards per carry), while Shannon Brooks ran for 99 yards on just 13 attempts (7.6 yards per carry). Indiana wideout Whop Philyor notched 178 receiving yards on 14 catches.
Purdue might not have the offensive explosiveness to take advantage of potential mismatches against Nebraska’s defense, especially with quarterback Elijah Sindelar out and wideout Rondale Moore questionable with injuries. The other three teams left on the schedule, however, definitely do.
Wisconsin features running back Jonathan Taylor, who has rushed for over 200 yards against the Blackshirts in each of the last two seasons. In eight games this season, Taylor has 1,009 yards and 15 touchdowns while averaging nearly six yards per carry.
Maryland might not have a clear-cut top running back because Anthony McFarland and Javon Leake split carries, but both are averaging at least five yards per carry — Leake is averaging 8.2 — and both have seven rushing scores.
Iowa also splits carries, as three running backs have over 60 touches on the season. All three average at least 4.5 yards per carry, led by Toren Young’s 5.8 yards per carry.
Wisconsin, Maryland and Iowa all possess run games with the ability to make an already-suspect NU run defense look even worse if things don’t improve.
2. Losing the turnover battle
The Huskers rank No. 100 in turnover differential through eight games. They’ve forced 12 turnovers and gave the ball away 16 times for a minus-four differential.
In the season opener, the Blackshirts turned the South Alabama offense over five times. In the other seven games played this season, they’ve combined for seven takeaways. Only three of those seven have come in conference play.
Conversely, the Huskers turned the ball over nine times in conference play, with many of those turnovers coming at inopportune times. Against Illinois, NU fumbled on its own side of the field four times, including twice inside its own 20-yard line and once inside its own 5-yard line. In the Ohio State game, interceptions on three of the Huskers’ first four drives helped the Buckeyes race out to an early 24-0 lead.
Last week in the loss to Indiana, NU had the ball in the red zone in the first half with a chance to go up 21-9. Instead, a fumble was returned inside the Nebraska 10-yard line, setting Indiana up for a go-ahead touchdown one play later. Another fumble early in the fourth quarter stalled out another drive and set the Hoosiers up to extend the lead to 14 on the next drive.
The Huskers have a minus-six turnover differential in conference play and have won the turnover battle just three times this season in wins against South Alabama, Northern Illinois and Northwestern (neither team turned the ball over in the loss at Minnesota). If the Huskers want to return to the postseason after two consecutive 4-8 seasons, they’ve got to start winning the turnover battle.
3. Special teams woes
Wide receiver JD Spielman returned a punt 76 yards for a score in the season opener and Lane McCallum made a 24-yard field goal as time expired to beat Northwestern. Outside of those two plays, Nebraska’s special teams performance this season has been a comedy of errors.
With last season’s starting kicker Barret Pickering out with an injury for the first seven games, the struggles began in the first game against South Alabama. NU missed its only field goal attempt and Spielman offset his punt return touchdown with a muffed punt about three minutes later.
Punter Isaac Armstrong made a 26-yard field goal in the first half against Colorado, but his 48-yard miss in overtime sealed a Colorado win.
NU’s special teams woes reached its peak against Northern Illinois with two blocked field goals and a blocked extra point, all off Armstrong before McCallum replaced him. A week later, McCallum missed a 27-yard field goal at Illinois that would have put NU up by seven with two minutes left.
McCallum hit the game-winner against Northwestern and made a 35-yard field goal in the second quarter, but he also missed a 29-yard field goal in the third quarter.
The Huskers didn’t attempt a field goal against Minnesota and Pickering returned against Indiana, but even with his return, the kicking woes continued. He made a 30-yard field goal to tie the game at 24 in the third quarter, but missed a 32-yard field goal in the first half after an illegal formation penalty wiped out a fourth-down conversion. The miss came on the drive after Indiana took the lead and would have put NU up 17-16.
Maybe Pickering returns to form after missing the first seven games, but special teams has already cost the Huskers multiple times this season and could prevent the Huskers from going bowling if the kicking miscues continue.