Game Day: Nebraska vs. Rutgers

Piecing it back together

Mike Riley likes to talk about a good “picture” for Nebraska football. The Husker coach can see that team in his mind’s eye. A team that’s better than his current 16-13 record in Lincoln. A team that hasn’t shown up with any consistency this season.

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2-Minute Drill by Sam McKewon

Nebraska rush offense vs. Rutgers rush defense

Through three games, Nebraska’s run game has been hot and cold. Although running backs Tre Bryant and Mikale Wilbon have been effective and stout in those games, blocking from NU’s line and tight ends has been inconsistent, especially on zone-blocking plays. Rutgers’ run defense, meanwhile, has been excellent through three games, giving up 2.9 yards per carry, which ranks 20th nationally. Rutgers defensive tackles Kevin Wilkins and Sebastian Joseph are tough to move. Nebraska will face tough sledding here, and it won’t get easier with true freshman Brendan Jaimes starting at right tackle and sophomore Michael Decker potentially starting at center.

Nebraska pass offense vs. Rutgers pass defense

The Huskers can’t get much worse in the passing game than the last two weeks, when quarterback Tanner Lee threw seven interceptions — two of which were returned for touchdowns by Northern Illinois — and was hit over and over by NIU and Oregon’s front seven. Rutgers’ secondary is the weak point of its defense — it is prone to giving up the big play — and, if Lee can settle down and throw a few passes to his backs, Rutgers’ linebackers are so-so tacklers. Lee needs time from the offensive line. If he gets it, he needs to read the defense, not lock in on receivers. It'll help if Stanley Morgan, who's battling neck pain, can play.

Rutgers rush offense vs. Nebraska rush defense

The Scarlet Knights have two heavy-legged, tough-running backs in Gus Edwards and Robert Martin. Neither is easy to tackle. Toss in 6-foot-3, 240-pound true freshman quarterback Johnathan Lewis, and Rutgers is clearly building toward a read-option scheme built on bulk and power. But Lewis is more of a spot guy than a full-time player, and Nebraska’s defense is likely to make Rutgers pass the ball to win. RU will run the ball — perhaps a lot — so Nebraska’s defense will be tested here.

Rutgers pass offense vs. Nebraska pass defense

Rutgers doesn’t have a lot of weapons at wideout. The leading receiver (Janarion Grant) is more of a return specialist, and the No. 2 receiver is a tight end transfer from Miami. Rutgers quarterback Kyle Bolin — a Louisville transfer — is an accurate short passer, but he’s not a stretch-the-field guy. Look for the Husker corners to challenge Rutgers’ receivers a little bit more than usual and force the Scarlet Knights to win deep.

Special teams

Rutgers has Grant, who has returned eight kicks/punts for touchdowns in his career. He’s pretty special, and Drew Brown/Caleb Lightbourn will have to keep the ball out of his hands. Rutgers gave up a punt return for a touchdown against Washington; NU did the same against Arkansas State. RU’s kickoff coverage unit is one of the nation’s best through three weeks. Nebraska’s punt return game looks like a bit of a mess with De’Mornay Pierson-El, but perhaps he’s close to breaking a big play.

Intangibles

Rutgers hasn’t won a Big Ten game since 2015 and arrives in Lincoln with nothing to lose. RU must know Nebraska is on the ropes and should play without anything to lose. If it does, it just might walk out of Memorial Stadium with a win. Historically, when the Huskers have their backs against the wall, and they’re playing at home, they don’t respond that well. Instead, NU puckers and panics, knowing coach Mike Riley’s future may be at stake, especially since Shawn Eichorst has been fired as athletic director. The Huskers desperately need a good start in this game. If it’s rough, the worrisome Nebraska fans will respond accordingly and the whole stadium will get a shiver.

Key matchup: Nebraska's O-line vs. Rutgers' D-line

The success of the 2017 season always started with the offensive line. It had to improve from mediocrity in 2016. Coaches were confident it would. It hasn’t yet. Rutgers will load up the box and dare Tanner Lee and the Husker receivers to beat them. And those guys should — if the line can protect. It would help, too, if the line can blow open a hole or two in Rutgers’ front seven. Nebraska’s season could go all the way in the tank the next two weeks, but good offensive line play keeps these Huskers alive until early October, when Wisconsin comes to town.

Our take

The state is just about ready to burn after a 21-17 loss to Northern Illinois. Eichorst is out. Riley’s coaching tenure is on the ropes. Football is important in these parts — perhaps too much — and losses to MAC teams just don’t compute. Riley has already had three head-scratching losses in his tenure — Purdue and Illinois in 2015, and NIU this year. He gets no more. Rutgers is really young on offense and is probably the weakest overall team the Huskers will play this season. Can Nebraska get its chin up, find some confidence and play like the better team? We think so. NU staves off disaster for one week. Even if Eichorst couldn’t avoid the ax, Riley will. For a week.

Our prediction: NEBRASKA 28, RUTGERS 16

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