Nebraska coach Mike Riley spent 80 seconds detailing injuries to 10 Huskers to open his weekly press conference Monday. Most players begin the short week with at least a chance to play Friday night at Illinois.
Riley said safety Aaron Williams suffered an injury on the first-quarter play in which he was ejected for targeting against Rutgers but will be “OK” to make his fifth straight start this season in Champaign. The coach said the other established starter most likely to see action is junior center Cole Conrad (ankle), who “is coming back. We’ll see where he is today.” Sophomore Michael Decker made his first career start in Conrad’s absence against Rutgers.
Linebacker Marcus Newby and safety Joshua Kalu — both dealing with hamstring injuries — have already been ruled out for Illinois, Riley said. Linebacker Tyrin Ferguson (foot) is “working to get back,” the coach added. The sophomore himself tweeted Sunday “It’s no surprise why I’m back and ready to go this week. Real strong week of treatment.”
Regarding Kalu, Riley said it’s more week to week than a day-to-day situation.
“If he is indeed out, which I think he is unless something’s different in the next couple days, then I’m hopeful for next Monday,” Riley said.
Right tackle David Knevel (ankle) continues to be listed atop the depth chart, followed by co-No. 2s in redshirt freshman Matt Farniok (wrist) and true freshman Brenden Jaimes. Riley said Knevel, who has missed the last three games, “should start working. Don’t know if he’s ready to play yet.”
On Farniok, Riley said the lineman will wear a cast that looks like a large fist and he “is maybe able to do some stuff,” adding with a smile, “Can’t hold. That might be a bonus.” Jaimes started against Rutgers — making him the fifth true freshman O-lineman to begin a game at Nebraska since freshmen regained eligibility in the early 1970s — and would go again if necessary.
Wideouts Stanley Morgan (neck) and Bryan Reimers (hamstring) are also working through ailments. The coach said he is hopeful Morgan is feeling better after sitting out Saturday and said Reimers will be “slow going this week” after hurting his hamstring against Rutgers.
Riley also said he and cornerback Chris Jones have had no new discussions about when or whether he will play this year. The senior — who has a redshirt year available — has been out all season with a knee injury suffered during the summer. Coaches will revisit the topic with Jones when he is medically cleared to resume playing.
A quick glance at Rutgers’ final offensive numbers Saturday showed Riley what he wanted to see.
No runs longer than 13 yards. No passes longer than 19. Three third-down conversions on 12 tries and 12 first downs overall.
“It’s hard to win with those kind of stats,” Riley said Monday. “It was a good game defensively.”
Riley specifically praised linebackers Dedrick Young and Chris Weber as well as Luke Gifford, saying the Lincoln Southeast graduate and junior “had one of his very best football games as a Husker” while sharing the team lead with six tackles and making the clinching interception. Riley noted that Stille, Sedrick King and Alex Davis shared snaps at the other outside linebacker spot “almost evenly” throughout the game.
Kieron Williams also did well at safety filling in on short notice for Aaron Williams, Riley said, while fellow safety Antonio Reed and cornerback Lamar Jackson continue to settle in impressively. Defensive end Carlos Davis was also a “physical force” both in run stopping and pressuring the quarterback.
On offense, Riley said the 197 rushing yards (Ozigbo had 101 and Wilbon added 78) were encouraging behind a line with first-time starters in Decker and Jaimes. He pointed to two interceptions by Tanner Lee and his overall completion percentage (he was 13 of 26 Saturday) as obvious areas of concern.
“We don’t necessarily have to have more attempts,” Riley said. “We just have to be more effective in all parts of the passing game.”
The coach also appreciated the “spark” senior De’Mornay Pierson-El provided the offense when his 63-yard punt return in the second quarter set up Nebraska for a 4-yard touchdown and its first lead. Pierson-El had five returns for 13 total yards before Saturday’s breakout.
Overall, the coach said, the game was a result of a strong week of practice in the wake of a stunning home loss to Northern Illinois and the firing of Athletic Director Shawn Eichorst.
“I really appreciated the resiliency of our team,” Riley said. “I think through the preparation and the mental outlook and toughness on the game, I think we responded to adversity in a way better way.”
Praise for Decker
Offensive line coach Mike Cavanaugh liked the look in the eyes of his guys last week as they prepared to play Rutgers. Additionally, he liked the relief work done by Michael Decker and Brenden Jaimes.
“Decker saw things and talked right away,” Cavanaugh said, noting that Decker saw how Rutgers’ defensive line aligned in similar ways to Arkansas State. “We had a specific way we wanted to handle it and he did. And then on one of those first pressures at the beginning of the game, they stemmed from like a four-down front to kind of a Bear front, so there was a three (technique) and one (technique) on one side, and we adjusted to that.”
A Bear front, modeled after the Chicago Bears’ famed “46” defense, tends to bunch three defensive tackles tightly together opposite the interior of the offensive line.
Riley also said he was “really impressed” with Decker. “I liked how — we all liked — how analytic he was on the sideline with information.”
Ready for battle
Illinois’ defense has twice been a pain for Nebraska in the Riley era. The Huskers had to grind out last year’s 31-16 win over the Illini — finally wearing down Illinois’ defense in the fourth quarter — and struggled all game against Illinois in 2015. NU lost that game 14-13.
“They’ve got good team speed across the board,” Langsdorf said. “They’re not going to give a tremendous amount of (schemes), but they’re going to line up and run hard and hit. And they’re going to come off a bye, so we’ve got to expect some wrinkles we probably haven’t seen.”
Receivers catching on
If you’re in the game, make the play. It’s one of many mottos Keith Williams repeats to his players at practice.
So the Nebraska wideouts coach wasn’t going to lower his standards even as leading receiver Stanley Morgan (neck) missed Saturday’s game against Rutgers. And even as less-utilized seniors like Gabe Rahn and Brett Classen and sophomore Conor Young saw regular action for the first time in their Husker careers. Rahn caught two passes for 27 yards, though the trio was largely on the field for running plays during Nebraska’s 27-17 win.
“I feel like they did well, especially considering the notice they had in terms of what their role was going to be that game – it was actually that day,” Williams said. “So I was proud of Gabe, proud of C.Y., proud of Hummer (Classen). I was pleased with how they performed.”
Williams said Morgan, who hauled in at least 94 receiving yards in each of his first three games, isn’t sure whether the junior returns against Illinois, calling his situation “tricky” and “kind of a day-by-day basis.” Also on the injury front, Williams’ son, Keyan, will be back “real soon” after suffering a hamstring injury in fall camp.
One highlight from Saturday for Keith Williams was watching redshirt freshman JD Spielman snag an 18-yard pass in the first quarter in which quarterback Tanner Lee scrambled left and Spielman adjusted by sprinting that direction and catching the ball on the edge of the end zone. Another was watching De’Mornay Pierson-El electrify the crowd with a 63-yard punt return while also snaring the go-ahead 8-yard touchdown pass in the third quarter.
The coach also said true freshman Tyjon Lindsey continues to acclimate to college football after he was held without a catch for the first time in four games. The 5-foot-9, 160-pounder has eight catches for 44 yards in his debut campaign.“He understands his situation,” Williams said. “He didn’t come in here thinking that he was going to be the Randy Moss of the room or anything like that. He’s just trying to adjust, go through the transition as smoothly as possible, get back into football – you know, he didn’t play much as a senior (because of injury). So all that factors into it. He’s doing well.”