Husker notes: Gifford out for season; No coaching decision until after Iowa; Knevel at guard?

Husker notes: Gifford out for season; No coaching decision until after Iowa; Knevel at guard?
World-Herald News Service

Another Husker starter will miss the rest of the season: outside linebacker Luke Gifford will have surgery on his hip, Riley said Monday. Gifford, who totaled 39 tackles in seven games, had missed the last three games with the injury. He joins running back Tre Bryant and center Michael Decker as starters who will miss the rest of the season with injuries.

Quarterback Tanner Lee sustained a concussion at the end of the first half of Saturday’s loss. Riley said a defensive lineman fell on Lee’s head.

“I don’t rule him in or out right now. He’s in that (concussion) protocol, and you know how that goes,” Riley said. “It’s a day-to-day thing where only the medical people can come back and say if and where he’s cleared to play.”

Last season, quarterback Tommy Armstrong was knocked out cold against Ohio State but played the next week in a 24-17 win over Minnesota.

Cornerback Eric Lee remains in the concussion protocol for a third straight week. Receiver Conor Young (ankle) is out. Linebackers Chris Weber (stinger) and Dedrick Young (back) are probable for the game, as are nose tackle Mick Stoltenberg (knee) and running back Jaylin Bradley. Tight end Connor Ketter and safety Aaron Williams (neck) are questionable.

Riley said the number of injuries sustained by Nebraska this season is “somewhat normal.”

Among the positions, Nebraska’s defensive line — Stoltenberg, Carlos Davis, Freedom Akinmoladun, Khalil Davis and Ben Stille — has remained the most healthy.

No coaching decision until after Iowa

Nebraska Athletic Director Bill Moos told ESPN on Monday he will not make a decision on coach Mike Riley before the Huskers play their Nov. 24 game against Iowa.

“I’ve got a coach. He’s got a staff,” Moos told ESPN. “We’ve got players. All that’s in place. I don’t think there’s anything gained by breaking up that furniture, even though it’s not producing like we want it to.”

Moos was not immediately available for further comment to The World-Herald Monday afternoon, but his interview with ESPN falls in line with what Moos told reporters just minutes after he was introduced as NU’s A.D.

“I’m not a guy who ever changes coaches midseason,” Moos said in mid-October. “I don’t think anything comes out of that. The ones who suffer are the student-athletes. They can lose focus, and remember, focus is so important. In athletics, you’ve got to have that focus. No distractions. Be the best we can be and we’ll talk about it when the dust settles.”

Fans and some in the media suggested Moos make a change — or at least an announcement — after Nebraska’s 54-21 loss to Minnesota. Didn’t happen.

In mid-October, Moos said such a move is just a distraction.

“I’ll be taking notes along the way, but I don’t think anything is really accomplished — and I never have — from dismissing a head coach during the season,” Moos said. “It can be done pretty soon afterward, but you better have a plan in place as you go forward because, in this profession, there are so many jobs open, it’s like everybody’s coming to everybody’s front door.”

O’Brien offers new look at QB

Jerald Foster is comfortable blocking for either Lee or backup Patrick O’Brien at quarterback. But the left guard still had some adjusting to do Saturday when the redshirt freshman played the second half of the Minnesota game.

“Patrick, he surprised me a little bit with his running; I didn’t see that coming,” Foster said. “But he was doing it well and I was happy that he was doing it. So it’s good to see that he’s comfortable enough to take off when he needs to and then throw the balls that he was throwing.”

O’Brien came in for Lee after intermission when Nebraska’s 10-game starter suffered a concussion right before halftime. O’Brien played the most significant minutes of his career, going 12-of-18 passing for 137 yards. He also ran five times for 41 yards but was sacked six times for the same total, leaving his net rushing total at zero.

“I was proud of Patrick, actually,” Riley said. “His first significant time. It’s a horrible time to have to play in a game where you’re just passing almost all the time and they’re teeing off with blitzes and rushes and so we get too much pressure. But I thought he hung in there and made some beautiful throws and appeared to have a lot of poise as he played. So I was impressed with that.

“I think everybody can see he’s got a big-time arm and can make some of those big throws. Actually showed good mobility getting out of the pocket. Got a first down or two and made some plays. So I was proud of him in that way.”

With Lee in the concussion protocol this week, O’Brien could be in line for his first career start Saturday at Penn State. Riley said coaches are operating as though O’Brien will be the QB, with sophomore Andrew Bunch the backup. Bunch is a walk-on from Thompson Stations, Tennessee, who spent his freshman season at Scottsdale Community College in Arizona.

Coaches are looking at possibilities for an emergency third-stringer, Riley said. That player last year was holder Zack Darlington, who took a few snaps in the Music City Bowl. Darlington, however, remains sidelined with an illness.

Riley said he and the staff will embrace O’Brien tucking the ball and running if he sees fit. The coach joked about how he would take timeouts to celebrate in his previous stops if his quarterbacks ever ran for a first down.

The coach added that the playbook will likely be smaller this week for O’Brien.

“If that ends up being a little smaller package, that’s probably smart,” Riley said. “… Less may be more in a game like this for our new quarterback, if indeed he is our quarterback.”

Spielman’s success no surprise

Receivers coach Keith Williams minced no words when praising the performance of JD Spielman, who caught nine passes for 141 yards against Minnesota.

“He’s talented, he’s tough, he’s smart and he can catch. He’s got all the attributes,” Williams said. “And he wants to get better every day. He pays attention. He has tremendous attention to detail and it means something to him. It’s not a surprise, not a surprise.”

Spielman leads Nebraska in catches (49) and yards (734) this season.

Williams said he’s not worried about how Spielman or the rest of the receivers might adjust to a full game of catching passes from O’Brien.

“When you see the ball, you just catch it,” Williams said.

A challenge in Happy Valley

The timing of playing Penn State might not be the best, Riley said. Then again, there is no ideal moment to meet the No. 13 Nittany Lions.

An obvious threat is running back Saquon Barkley, a junior and Heisman Trophy candidate who is ranked second in the Big Ten in yards from scrimmage at 142.3, trailing only Wisconsin back Jonathan Taylor’s 158.

“We’ve just come through a game of (allowing 409) rushing yards and we’re playing a back like that,” Riley said. “We’ve got a big job ahead of us.”

The test continues with quarterback Trace McSorley, who leads the league at 266 passing yards per game, and a deep stable of receivers.

“Playmakers. Fast players. Very confident players,” linebacker Mo Barry said. “Not scared to risk it all because they know nine times out of 10 they will reap the reward of risking it all.”

Foster said he’s looking forward to matching up with the “stars” among PSU’s defensive line and linebackers, including leading tackler and senior Jason Cabinda, a linebacker. If nothing else, Foster said, the game is a measuring stick for how good the Huskers are.

Knevel at guard?

David Knevel started at right tackle in Nebraska’s opener, then injured an ankle and hasn’t been a starter since. That could change this week.

Offensive line coach Mike Cavanaugh said Monday that the senior from Ontario, the team’s tallest player at 6-foot-9, will be in a “wide open” race with redshirt freshman Matt Farniok this week at right guard.

“We struggled a little bit at times last week,” Cavanaugh said, “so we’re going to let those guys go at it this week.”

Farniok has started at the position the last two games and began two others at right tackle this season while missing a few weeks in between after breaking a bone in his wrist.

The other right-side member, freshman tackle Brenden Jaimes of Austin, Texas, is in line to start for an eighth straight contest. Cavanaugh said Jaimes has been smart and tough but needs to continue refining posture — “He’s a little bit of a leaner” — and technique.

Short-yardage struggles

Nebraska’s generally been pretty good in short-yardage situations this year, Danny Langsdorf said Monday.

Against Minnesota? Not so much.

Nebraska was 2 for 6 on fourth down against Minnesota, including a fourth-and-1 flub at the 6-yard line that kept Nebraska out of the end zone.

“The fourth down was a safety that came from a long ways and was downhill fast,” Langsdorf said. “It probably wasn’t as good of an idea. We weren’t expecting the bear front.”

There are a myriad of issues with Nebraska’s short-yardage plays, including a lack of push by the offensive line and an inconsistent run game. One possible remedy would be more use of Boe Wilson as a fullback.

Wilson is a 6-foot-3, 295-pound redshirt freshman offensive lineman from Lee’s Summit, Missouri. Langsdorf had Wilson out there on as a lead blocker who paved the way for Mikale Wilbon’s 1-yard touchdown run in the first quarter.

“We need some lead there to knock a guy out,” Langsdorf said. “They had big tackles. I thought he did great. The first one was outstanding. You watch the replay and he hammers that guy. It was a beautiful block.”

Cavanaugh said coaches have toyed all season with the idea of having Wilson as a lead blocker.

“Physically, he’s got a lot of tools,” Cavanaugh said.

» In hindsight, Riley wishes coaches had used Wilson more often in that role. Particularly the fourth-and-1 from the Minnesota 6 when the Gophers stuffed a run, then took possession and pulled away in the second quarter.

“If we could pull back in time and think about that on fourth-and-1 on that deal, that might have been a good call,” Riley said.

Williams helped were he could

Junior wide receiver Keyan Williams saw his first action as a Husker on Saturday against Minnesota.

Williams battled with Spielman for the starting slot position before the season, but he was sidelined with a hamstring injury in fall camp. Williams warmed up for the first time in full pads against Northwestern, but he didn’t see any time. On Saturday, he finally got in.

“It was frustrating just because I’d try to practice, but then it would happen again,” Williams said. “But the most frustrating part was I just wasn’t able to play with everyone.

“I just think it was God’s plan and I’m just following what He wants me to do. And now I’m back, so it’s OK.”

Williams, the son of wide receivers coach Keith Williams, is a transfer from Fresno State. He sat out the 2016 season.

Though he might not want to go into coaching, Williams did say his father’s example of coaching and keeping up morale helped him during his injury. Some players can fade into the background while injured. But Williams tried to make sure he was always around, always helping when he could.

Sometimes, he said, his dad “doesn’t have enough time to coach a guy for forever, so then I try and go in and chime in and add on to what he says. Sometimes it’s hard to coach for a big period of time that you actually need to, so then I’m able to go in there and help out a bit.”

Quick hits

» Riley shook his head in frustration when asked about how many points and yards his offense left on the field Saturday. The botched fourth-and-1 play on NU’s second drive of the game “haunts me,” he said.

“I think that you look at winning on those plays, of whether it’s a block, or beating a man, or making a tackle, that’s what we have to do better in those situations,” Riley said.

» Nebraska called three timeouts at game’s end — down 33 points — so O’Brien could get more experience in a two-minute drill situation.

“Here we are in the red zone. He hasn’t played much. Who knows if he’s going to play next week? At that point, I was just going to give him some more snaps,” Riley said. “I know that’s not very popular. I know people don’t like that. That’s simply why I did it.”

» Barkley, who may be playing his last home game at Beaver Stadium, belongs in the conversation among the best players in the country, Riley said. Barkley has 1,846 all-purpose yards, including 423 kick return yards. He has only had 44, 63 and 35 yards rushing in his last three games. Riley said he is equally impressed with Penn State quarterback Trace McSorley, who leads the Big Ten with 2,666 passing yards.

» Cavanaugh compared the Penn State defensive front seven to Ohio State’s. “They’ve got big, athletic guys that are physical,” Cavanaugh said. “It’s going to be a hell of a challenge.”

» The offensive line began preparation Monday for a noisy atmosphere in Happy Valley as well as getting more comfortable in front of O’Brien.

Cavanaugh said many of the offensive line woes were of its own doing against Minnesota and that a similar effort won’t cut it at Penn State. “(We have to play) a lot better, obviously,” he said. “And a lot of it had to do with us. We give up pressures or we give up a sack and it’s bad technique. We have to correct it.”

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