LINCOLN — Body blows look boring. Their effect is often unseen and delayed, and you have to keep landing them. But Nebraska’s body blows — struck all night in a slow-churning rushing attack on offense and stingy effort from the defense — accumulated into a 43-10 win over Fresno State.
That margin of victory — plus the 292-31 edge in rushing yards, the four sacks and two interceptions — should have left coach Mike Riley flashing one of his trademark hip-hip-hooray celebratory grins.
But he wasn’t grinning. He was even displeased. He and the Husker coaches wanted the knockout of the Bulldogs to have come earlier and cleaner than it did. And Riley definitely didn’t want to see six personal foul penalties, ranging from an ejecting for targeting to a celebration after a trick-play two-point conversion on an extra point.
“I have many mixed emotions about this game,” said Riley, who notched his 100th career win at the FBS level. “There was some good football, obviously — when you rush for that many yards, you’ve done some good things, and it seemed like, defensively, we made a lot of good plays.”
But the game got “cloudy,” Riley said, because of a blocked punt that helped Fresno State score its only touchdown, an illegal formation penalty that killed the Huskers’ subsequent drive, and the late second-quarter targeting call on linebacker Luke Gifford, who shoved Fresno State quarterback Chason Virgil after he threw the ball away on a third down.
Those three mistakes meant shrunk a 14-0 Nebraska lead to 14-10 at halftime. Riley had expected it to be bigger.
“You just throw them all in the pot right there, and it’s all frustrating,” Riley said of the night’s errors. “We just have to be better.”
He got no argument from his coordinators.
“We’d gone against that look 50 times in camp, which makes it brutally frustrating,” said special teams coordinator Bruce Read of the punt block scheme used by Fresno State to stuff a ball back in freshman Caleb Lightbourn’s face. The Bulldogs recovered the ball at the NU 32 and scored a touchdown seven plays later.
“We were great at times — we’d have great, sustained drives for touchdowns and then we’d go out there and screw around and look like garbage,” offensive coordinator Danny Langsdorf said.
“What the hell, we gave up 10 points, they had (31) yards rushing, but I wish they didn’t have the 243 yards passing,” defensive coordinator Mark Banker said. “They didn’t deserve to have that.”
Of course, the Huskers (1-0) still iced the game in the fourth quarter with 22 points, including a 57-yard touchdown pass from quarterback Tommy Armstrong to Alonzo Moore that provided a 28-10 cushion. NU’s offensive line wore down the smaller Bulldogs (0-1), who had to blitz and stunt all night to create trouble. Nebraska averaged 5.7 yards per carry. Devine Ozigbo ran for 103 yards and two touchdowns on 17 carries — he was rarely taken down by the first defender — and true freshman Tre Bryant flashed late with 36 yards and a touchdown on a single drive.
In front of 90,013 at Memorial Stadium, the Blackshirts — missing captain and two-year starter Nate Gerry, who was serving a one-game suspension — more than held up their end of the bargain, especially in the third quarter, when they faced 16 plays and gave up just 35 yards. The quarter ended with Kieron Williams grabbing an interception off a tipped pass.
“We all got locked in,” defensive tackle Mick Stoltenberg said. “We realized there was still a lot more work to do and we could get on them.”
Defensive end Ross Dzuris, who finished with three tackles for loss and two sacks, said the “energy” of Nebraska’s defense was good, and ultimately overwhelmed Fresno State.
They weren’t having success when we were making plays all across the field on the run,” Dzuris said. “They had to pass the ball and we were getting after the quarterback.”
Fresno State used two quarterbacks — Virgil and Zach Kline — who each tossed an interception and were rarely in rhythm because of myriad blitzes dialed up by Banker, who couldn’t install most of his pressure packages last season until the ninth game. He had them for the first game this year.
Indeed, Nebraska’s defense looked much more sure of itself than it did for most of 2015. Nebraska gave up just one play longer than 30 yards, and that came on the game’s final drive. When Fresno State tried to run outside the Huskers’ defensive line, safeties Kieron and Aaron Williams were there to fill and make plays. The Bulldogs faced 14 third downs — converting just five.
Riley’s angst seemed more tied to mistakes made on special teams — where the blocked punt and some ugly attempts at returning punts didn’t bear the mark of a well-prepared team — and offense, where Riley had wanted the offense to be more “versatile.” NU ran it 51 times and threw it just 13.
Coaches and players agreed: This mild frustration — which is about as peeved as Riley gets — is reflective of greater expectations in Year 2.
“We can’t go out there and say ‘oh, this is new to me, I’m not sure how to do it,’” Armstrong said. “We have a year under our belt. This is the second year in the offense. It should be clockwork for us — knowing how to line up, calling plays the right way. There’s a couple times where I struggled.”
Banker chalked it up to “a sense of urgency.” Each team is different, Banker said, and the senior leadership on this team means that Nebraska has a room of guys hungry to be great.
So a 33-point win wasn’t enough. Not as clean as Riley would like it. On a night when Nebraska executed one thing perfectly — a tribute to punter Sam Foltz, who died in a July car crash — it didn’t execute anything else quite to the coach’s liking.
“We have a bigger vision,” Riley said. “That stuff has to change or you don’t win as you go forward.”
|Yards per carry||1.2||5.7|
Nebraska is 3-0 all-time against Fresno State.
|Fresno State||Sept. 3|
|Ohio State||Nov. 5|
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