LINCOLN — As Nebraska players emerged from the visiting locker room at Illinois late Friday night, there were no hushed voices. There were no downcast eyes or declined interview requests.
Quarterback Tanner Lee spoke of his first interception-free game since the season opener. Running backs and offensive linemen smiled about finishing a win in the trenches. Defenders explained how they managed to keep their opponent out of the end zone.
And while their answers were different, all carried a swagger that had been conspicuously absent among the Huskers through a turbulent slate of nonconference games.
“Anytime you start seeing results on the field, confidence comes with that,” said senior linebacker Chris Weber, who collected a team-best nine tackles and an interception against the Illini. “So we just gotta keep growing in the week and I think we can continue to get better. I know we can.”
A line of players came through Memorial Stadium for Monday’s weekly press conference with similar sentiments five days before Nebraska welcomes in No. 9 Wisconsin for a 7 p.m. kickoff full of ramifications in the race for the Big Ten West Division. The Big Red has found its mojo thanks to wins over Rutgers and Illinois the last two weeks while playing its best football.
And even if the opposition hasn’t been elite, the Huskers will take the momentum as they open as double-digit underdogs against a program that has edged them in tight contests the last two years. Nebraska is 46-5 all-time in home night games and has won 20 straight, including a 30-27 victory over Wisconsin in 2012.
Combine an electric atmosphere with a group playing its best ball, and the result is a Nebraska group far more upbeat — eager even — about the challenge than it might have been in mid-September.
“Now you look at a top-10 team and we’re like, ‘OK, we right there,’ ” NU linebacker Mo Barry said. “We know if we do our job, no matter who’s in front of us, we’re going to succeed.”
The defense has reason to expect success lately. Since halftime of the Oregon game three weeks ago, the Blackshirts have allowed just 23 total points spanning 14 quarters. In total defense, NU has risen from 122nd to 34th nationally (333.8 yards allowed per game).
Against Illinois, Nebraska managed five sacks and forced two field goals when backed into the red zone. Players such as redshirt freshman Ben Stille (outside linebacker) and junior Antonio Reed (safety) have emerged in the wake of injuries. And reinforcements could be on the way, with safety Joshua Kalu (hamstring) and outside linebacker Marcus Newby (hamstring) returning to practice this week along with Chris Jones (knee), who has been out all season.
Adding to the anticipation, nose tackle Mick Stoltenberg said, is the Badgers’ identity as a ground-and-pound squad (46.25 runs per game rank 19th nationally). He’ll take that any day over the spread attacks Nebraska faced its first three weeks.
“It’s kind of that old-school football game,” Stoltenberg said. “There’s going to be a lot of tight ends and fullbacks in the game. It’s going to be who can move who off the ball.”
Nebraska coach Mike Riley said the efficiency on offense is trending in a better direction as the Huskers brace to meet the Badgers’ fourth-ranked defense that’s allowing 247 yards per outing. From Lee’s 17-for-24 performance against Illinois, the coach said he counted four drops and two throwaways. And the offensive line has paved the way for a more reliable running game, including clock-killing final drives in consecutive games.
“I think this team has prepared themselves in the last two weeks in a very good way to compete,” Riley said. “I would say that there’s an excitement about playing football right now for them that is contagious throughout the team. The work has been really consistent with this team. It’s a good group of people that have always worked hard. We’ve been rewarded with better and better play in the last little while. I expect that to continue.
“What we absolutely need to win this next game is to get better, and I think this team will work to do that. I think they’re built that way as people. I think some of the success they recently have had should be a confidence-booster for them.”
Perhaps no unit has seen a rise in spirits more than the offensive line, which met in the aftermath of the 21-17 loss to Northern Illinois last month. Left guard Jerald Foster called it an “eye-opening moment” in which players demanded a higher standard from each other. Since that day, when NU ran 36 times for just 85 yards (2.4 yards per carry), the Huskers have churned out 4.2 and 4.3 averages to open Big Ten action.
The surge in productivity coincides with the insertion of Michael Decker at starting center and true freshman Brenden Jaimes at right tackle. Injuries forced the moves initially. Riley said coaches will let competition determine whether center Cole Conrad (ankle) and right tackle David Knevel (ankle) regain their starting roles.
Suddenly, what once looked like a beleaguered unit welcomes the chance to bang at the line of scrimmage with a Badgers defense that ranks fourth nationally in rushing defense (74.25 yards per game).
“I’m very confident in this week,” NU right guard Tanner Farmer said. “Wisconsin is a very good team. They have a very good D-line. And I feel like if we prepare like we should, and like I know we’re going to, and we’re confident in ourselves and we communicate with each other, I think we’re going to be fine.”
Yet the Huskers realize they have been in a similar spot before. Just last year they were 7-0 and full of momentum heading to Wisconsin before losing in overtime and dropping four of their last six contests. Building on lessons learned recently — like which personnel groupings are most effective and how to finish games by pounding out quality runs — will help as they aim to use that confidence to jump out to a lead in the division race.
“We gotta keep doing what we’re supposed to do,” wideout De’Mornay Pierson-El said. “We can’t get comfortable and happy. We still have more games to go, so we gotta continue to be hungry and go out there every day and just earn it.”
Chris Jones cleared to practice; game readiness still up in the air
LINCOLN — The past few months, while Nebraska’s season turned every which way, Chris Jones lived in the background.
“He’s kind of like a ghost,” defensive lineman Khalil Davis said. “You see him. Then you don’t see him. But you know he’s working.”
Jones, a senior cornerback, had cartilage repaired in his left knee in mid-July. Four to six months was the projected recovery time, which would have sidelined him until at least mid-November.
He returned to practice last week, but only in shorts and without contact. On Monday, Jones practiced full speed, in pads, even spending time afterward on footwork and jumping to catch balls.
“It’s been a long time since he’s played football, so we’ll see where he is,” coach Mike Riley said. “Being cleared and being ready and practiced up to playing in the game are obviously two different things.”
It may not be up to Jones whether he plays against Wisconsin. But if the past few months are any indication, Nebraska’s most experienced corner will be hell-bent on taking the field Saturday night.
From the beginning, back in July, Jones told teammates, friends and family members he’d be playing this year. He wouldn’t be holding out for next year and taking a redshirt. He wanted to play now.
“He’s a different breed,” linebacker Chris Weber said. “After his injury he told me he was going to beat it. That’s just the mindset he’s had.”
While injured, Jones never missed a team meeting. He was at every practice. He coached up the young corners in his place from the sideline during games and drills.
Jones practically moved into the training room for rehab every day, Weber said. And he slowly went from crutches to limping to jogging to running.
“He was running around last week. It’s exciting to see him,” junior nose tackle Mick Stoltenberg said. “He’s really attacking it as maturely as he could’ve, and it’s no surprise he’s physically getting back to it faster than you’d might expect.”
Unable to do leg workouts, Jones worked in the weight room on the rest of his body, Weber said. He didn’t want anything to slow him down once he was cleared.
In Jones’ absence, Nebraska’s secondary has become the biggest question mark for defensive coordinator Bob Diaco. With Joshua Kalu’s move from corner to safety, sophomores Eric Lee and Lamar Jackson took the starting spots.
NU ranks eighth in the Big Ten in pass defense, giving up 228 yards a game. That’s improved dramatically after games against Rutgers and Illinois in back-to-back weeks.
But the challenges are much greater the next two weeks. Nebraska’s opponents, No. 9 Wisconsin and No. 10 Ohio State, rank first and second in the Big Ten in pass efficiency. Nebraska’s currently 11th in pass defense efficiency.
“To have him back on the field would be big for us,” corner Dicaprio Bootle said. “We’re happy that he’s back. He makes us stronger.”
The timeline of Jones’ return is up in the air. Coaches were vague Monday about his chances of playing Saturday.
But for as much as Davis has seen, he’s optimistic.
Knee injuries are hard to come back from, Davis said. He had an MCL strain once upon a time. It takes time to trust yourself again. And often, Davis said, you’re timid to do the things you used to do.
But Davis recently caught the ghost working with strength and conditioning coach Mark Philipp.
“I’ve seen him doing his drills,” Davis said, smiling. “He’s ready to go.”
Bryant out for Saturday
Tre Bryant’s knees are in worse shape than Husker coaches had expected.
Bryant, who took almost all of NU’s carries in the first two games, has missed the last three with knee tendinitis. He’ll miss Saturday’s game against Wisconsin, as well, and has been moved on NU’s depth chart to an injured status.
“Tre Bryant is not going to be ready this week and we don’t know what that means after that,” coach Mike Riley said. “All we can do with Tre right now is hope he gets better, and we don’t think he’ll be ready to play this week.”
Riley declined to go into specifics about Bryant’s condition. He missed chunks of training camp, but still got the starting job, carrying the ball 31 times in the season opener against Arkansas State. He was injured in the second half of the 42-35 loss to Oregon.
NU is otherwise doing better on the injury front. Safety Joshua Kalu, who has missed the last 3½ games with a hamstring injury, will return to practice this week. So will outside linebacker Marcus Newby, who has missed the last two games with a hamstring injury. Outside linebacker Tyrin Ferguson (turf toe) is probable to play against the Badgers, as are running back Mikale Wilbon (sprained ankle), safety Aaron Williams (soft neck tissue), receiver Stanley Morgan (soft neck tissue), right tackles David Knevel (foot) and Matt Farniok (wrist), center Cole Conrad (leg) and receiver De’Mornay Pierson-El (shoulder).
Conrad, Knevel and Farniok still may not get any snaps, however, because Michael Decker and Brenden Jaimes have moved to the top of the depth chart at center and right tackle, respectively. Riley said Knevel has to have a full, healthy week of practice to supplant Jaimes, a true freshman. Jaimes was beaten for a sack in the Illinois game, but it’s his only major mistake in two games of action.
Ozigbo building trust
There might not be a player on Nebraska’s roster with a more dramatic increase in trust from the coaches than Devine Ozigbo. The junior running back did not get a touch in the Huskers’ first two games. Then he became Nebraska’s lead back in the final minutes of its last two wins.
In last week’s 28-6 win to Illinois, Ozigbo ran the ball 11 straight times in the fourth quarter.
The difference, running backs coach Reggie Davis said, was when Ozigbo did get in the game against Northern Illinois, he was productive. From there, the trust built.
Ozigbo seems to have found a solid role in the running back rotation, primarily in the second half. In wins against Rutgers and Illinois, Ozigbo led the team in carries after the break. Davis said coaches lean on Ozigbo in those times because of the trust he’s built up over the season.
Plus, Ozigbo’s a bigger back, and a worn-down defense has to work harder to take him down.
“Mikale (Wilbon) runs hard, but there’s a difference between a 200-pound back and a 230-pound back,” Davis said.
Ozigbo has 44 carries for 215 yards this season.
Riley highlights efficiency
Each week, Riley reviews the previous week’s game; for Illinois, he focused on the third-down efficiency of the offense and NU’s red zone defense, which held the Illini to field goals. Riley said the running and passing games “complemented each other.”
Among offensive players, quarterback Tanner Lee, running backs Wilbon and Ozigbo and receivers Morgan and Pierson-El played well, Riley said. NU nominated Lee for offensive Big Ten player of the week.
On defense, linebacker Chris Weber “had one of his best games,” Riley said. NU nominated the Elkhorn graduate for Big Ten defensive player of the week. The coach praised Luke Gifford, Stille, Carlos Davis and Aaron Williams. Among special teams players, Riley singled out kicker Drew Brown for his kickoffs and snapper Jordan Ober.
Ready for another tight game
The past two matchups between Nebraska and Wisconsin have come down to the final play. In 2015, a field goal by Wisconsin’s Rafael Gaglianone gave the Badgers a 23-21 advantage. In 2016, all Nebraska had to do was score a touchdown in overtime and kick an extra point to win. Tommy Armstrong’s pass to Morgan on fourth down hit the ground, and Drew Brown didn’t have the chance to kick in the winner.
But Brown, who is 0-3 against Wisconsin, said he’s ready for a game that seems to always yield high-pressure moments for the special teams.
“The mindset, not only this week but every week, is we have to be perfect,” Brown said. “You never really know. A kick in the first quarter might end up winning the game for you, or pretty obvious situation when it’s the last play and you make a kick to win the game. It’s not only myself, but the other specialists, too. We have to be absolutely perfect.”
Brown and Gaglianone are good friends. Gaglianone wears No. 27 in honor of former Nebraska punter Sam Foltz, whom Brown was close with. Foltz died in a car accident in Wisconsin in July 2016.
Brown knows Gaglianone’s approach pretty well. And when Brown knows the opposing kickers that well, he actually gives the field goal block team tips on how to get to the kicker.
“Yeah, I’ll tell the guys, ‘Hey, this guy likes to kick low or he has a quick operation time,’ ” Brown said. “So I’ll let those guys know what their tendencies are if they want to talk to me about it. We try and give as much information as we can.”
Huskers thirsty for win
The last time Nebraska played Wisconsin, Jerald Foster was recovering from a knee injury and watched the game on television from his Lincoln home. The offensive lineman laughs recalling how he hosted a “Hurt Player Party” that day.
As intense as that gathering was — Foster said he was screaming at the TV like a fan late in Nebraska’s 23-17 overtime loss — the NU left guard is even more eager to be part of the action Saturday night at Memorial Stadium.
“It’s going to be a whole lot of fun to see if we can’t figure them out,” Foster said. “I really am ready just to play Wisconsin. It just sounds like a whole lot of fun. Bring ’em here, 7 o’clock game, I’m really going to enjoy it.
“… I can’t stop smiling about it just because I know it’s just going to be a hard-nosed game. We’re going to have to grind every single play if we want to win. So I’m excited for a good one.”
Linebacker Mohamed Barry has a more personal reason to want to beat the Badgers. He was committed to the program for about four months before backing off his pledge in October 2014. He still talks with fellow linebacker Chris Orr — who ranks second among UW players with 24 total tackles this fall — after the two spent time in the same recruiting class.
Orr was hurt during last season’s showdown while Barry played on special teams. Now they get to see which defense will better rise to the occasion of high stakes in the Big Ten West.
“I’m excited to play this game because it does mean something to me,” Barry said. “But it’s not about me. It’s about the team. And we have a great opportunity to showcase our defense and our program and beat a ranked team, a top-10 team. That’s the real storyline right there.”
O-line changes may last
Senior David Knevel began the season as Nebraska’s starting right tackle. Ditto for junior Cole Conrad at center.
Ankle injuries have since allowed underclassmen to take their spots. Though both are returning to health, offensive line coach Mike Cavanaugh said Monday evening there’s no guarantee either will resume their previous roles.
“It’s always competition,” Cavanaugh said. “I think a lot of times guys in college or whatever automatically think that because they’re the starter, they’re the starter forever. It doesn’t work that way. Guys gotta keep working and fighting back.”
Sophomore Michael Decker has started the last two games at center. Cavanaugh said the Omaha North continued to show well “at times,” though he didn’t pull and block well on stretch plays the Huskers ran. True freshman Brendan Jaimes “did some good things” at right tackle, but his coach said the next step is to keep improving on technique and fundamentals.
“He’ll get after you,” Cavanaugh said of Jaimes. “But is his leverage good? Just little details.”
Cavanaugh said the line graded out in the low Bs from Friday’s game at Illinois, adding that the performance needs to be better against Wisconsin’s vaunted front seven. Staying on blocks will be key if the NU running game is to function smoothly for a third straight week and able to continue buying time for quarterback Tanner Lee in the passing game.
Nebraska is allowing an average of 1.6 sacks per game (45th nationally) while the Badgers are netting four per outing (tied for fourth nationally).
“We gotta really just stay after it,” Cavanaugh said. “I think the practice that we’ve had versus the 3-4 will hopefully get us ready for that. But (it is) a good group we’re going against, so we gotta be great with our technique and we gotta finish (blocks). Can’t let them off the hook.”
Farmer’s penalty not intentional
Tanner Farmer realizes how bad it looked. He knows how bad he felt.
There was Nebraska at Illinois on Friday night trying to finish out a win with a 28-6 lead and the clock ticking under four minutes in the fourth quarter. As Devine Ozigbo finished a short first-down run, Farmer continued blocking Illinios’ Kenyon Jackson over the bodies on the turf until the two tumbled down with them.
The result was a personal foul that would have forced Nebraska to punt if not for a 20-yard sprint by Ozigbo on third and 20. The right guard came out after being flagged, and the TV broadcast showed him in a heated exchange with line coach Mike Cavanaugh shortly thereafter.
On Monday, the 6-foot-4, 305-pound junior from Highland, Illinois, said the foul was entirely inadvertent.
“I did not intend to push a guy over the pile and I didn’t really hear a whistle,” Farmer said. “I was just trying to play to the end of the play and I think we just got kind of tripped up. It looked bad for the referees and from the sideline, so that’s what happened there.”
Farmer said the flag marked his first penalty in college football. He also only recalled a couple holding calls from his high school days.
“The fact that it was a stupid penalty for me to have, for me to do, at at time like this where we’re trying to run down the clock, it really upset me at that time that I could let something like that happen,” Farmer said.
» Since Nebraska has joined the league, it has a 1-5 record against Wisconsin. The average score of those six games: 41.6-23.3 in the Badgers’ favor. Only two of the games have been played at NU, though, and the average score of those games is 25.5-25 in favor of Nebraska.
» Two current Wisconsin assistants — receivers coach Ted Gilmore and offensive line coach/offensive coordinator Joe Rudolph — were assistants at Nebraska. Rudolph spent 2007 at NU. Gilmore was on the Husker staff from 2005 to 2010.
» Riley has beaten six top-10 teams in his career, five of them at Oregon State. In 2015, Nebraska upset No. 6 Michigan State 39-38.
» Langsdorf said Nebraska has been so-so in both its outside running game — think stretch plays — and its screen game, which is in part dictated by whether the defense has an aggressive pass rush.
» Chris Jones practiced. He did not wear a Blackshirt.
» Receiver Stanley Morgan caught extra passes from a machine after practice.
» Linebackers Mo Barry and Sedrick King wanted extra work after practice on the blocking sled.
» With Nebraska’s Friday night game against Illinois, the Huskers got an extra day off this weekend. Defensive linemen Carlos and Khalil Davis enjoyed it very much. Carlos said he and his brother slept in, finally had time to get their truck fixed and ate “a whole lot” of sushi.
Wisconsin at Nebraska
When: 7 p.m. Saturday
Where: Memorial Stadium
Radio: 103.1 FM