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Know Your Foe, Week 12: Nebraska Cornhuskers

It's Nebraska, another red team from the Midwest

Nebraska v Minnesota

University of Nebraska
Location: Lincoln, Nebraska
Enrollment: 25, 260 (Undergraduates and graduates)
Home Stadium: Memorial Stadium
Head Coach: Mike Riley, third season, 19-17 (.528)
Conference: Big Ten (West Division)

Series History
First Game: November 6, 1920 (Penn State won, 20-0)
Last Game: November 23, 2013 (Nebraska won 23-20)
Overall: Nebraska, leads 9-7
Current Win Streak: Nebraska, 4

Last Season (9-4 overall, 6-3 Big Ten Conference)
Nebraska started their 2016 season in a horrible way with senior punter Sam Foltz ’s death in a car crash (after serving as a staff member for a high school training camp). Former Michigan State punter Mike Sadler was also killed and LSU kicker Colby Delahoussaye was injured.

Moving past that emotional loss, the Cornhuskers started the season by winning their first seven games. By the end of October, Nebraska was ranked No. 7 when they faced the No. 11 Wisconsin Badgers, but lost that game and the next to the No. 6 Ohio State Buckeyes. Although Nebraska moved down to No. 21 in the polls, they recovered and won their next two games against Minnesota and Maryland, creeping back up to No. 17.

Nebraska unfortunately lost to the Iowa Hawkeyes in the last regular season game, but became bowl eligible and was ranked No. 24 at the end of the regular season. Nebraska faced the Tennessee Volunteers in the Music City bowl, but lost 38-24.

Last Week
The unranked 4-6 Cornhuskers aren’t having a great year, and last week lost to the Minnesota Golden Gophers 54-21.

Minnesota’s quarterback Demry Croft ran for three touchdowns and 183 yards and running back Rodney Smith added 134 yards rushing and a 100-yard kickoff return for a touchdown (earning them Big Ten Player of the Week honors).

The Cornhuskers came back after Smith's kick return touchdown with a Mikale Wilbon touchdown run. After Croft finished a similar drive with a touchdown run, Nebraska was challenging again but the Golden Gophers pulled away and the Cornhuskers never recovered.

Nebraska sophomore quarterback Tanner Lee was 13 of 18 passing for 174 yards and a touchdown but was held out the second half with a migraine from a hit. Redshirt freshman Patrick O'Brien replaced him and was 12 of 18 for 137 yards passing.

Minnesota had 514 yards of total offense and held Nebraska to just 69 yards rushing.

Offseason and Recruiting
Nebraska’s 2017 recruiting class is ranked as the nation’s 23rd recruiting class (fifth in the Big Ten) as compared to Penn State’s 2017 class ranked at 15th in the nation and third in the Big Ten.

Bob Diaco, former head coach at the University of Connecticut and a former Iowa Hawkeye linebacker, joined the Huskers staff as the new defensive coordinator in early 2017.

The Cornhuskers had some coaching and player issues in the 2017 offseason. In February, wide receiver coach Keith Williams plead no contest to a DUI after an August 2016 arrest, and was under house arrest in March. In the spring, wide receiver Stanley Morgan Jr. and defensive back Antonio Reed were arrested with possession of marijuana, and Keyshawn Johnson Jr. was cited for possession of marijuana and took a leave of absence.

Nebraska is 77th in total offense (sixth in the Big Ten), 32nd in passing offense and 113th in rushing offense. The offensive unit has been plagued with player arrests (see above) along with injuries, which isn’t helping them much this season. On the bright side, the Cornhuskers do return 10 starters on offense, including most of their offensive line.

Nebraska’s starter at quarterback is Tulane transfer Tanner Lee, who has 198 completions of 346 attempts and 2,539 yards with 18 touchdowns (and 13 interceptions) this season. Lee is likely out for the Penn State matchup due to a migraine suffered after a hit in the game last week, so backup freshman Patrick O’Brien will start, who is 18 for 30 with 192 yards and one interception.

Key targets in the air are JD Spielman, who has 49 receptions for 734 yards and two touchdowns. He’s 17th in the NCAA and third in the Big Ten in all purpose yards, and is also a kickoff returner. Spielman is 12th nationally (second in the conference) in kickoff return touchdowns with three, just behind Saquon Barkley.

Also look for returning receivers De’Mornay Pierson El (38 receptions, 530 yards, four touchdowns) and Stanley Morgan Jr (47 receptions, 727 yards, seven touchdowns). Tight end Tyler Hoppes has also been in the rotation (24 receptions, 297 yards, 3 touchdowns).

In the running back unit, junior Devine Ozigbo leads the team with 119 attempts for 468 yards and two touchdowns. Mikale Wilbon and Tre Bryant also split carries.

Nebraska has struggled on defense, too, with player arrests and injuries all while getting to know a new defensive coordinator and a new scheme. The Husker defense is 82nd in total defense (13th in the Big Ten), 52nd in pass defense, and 105th in both rushing defense and scoring defense. That's a big departure from last year when they were 30th in total defense (sixth in the conference), 49th in pass defense, 43rd in rush defense and 33rd in scoring defense. They’ve also given up an average of 414.3 yards a game year, including 514 against Minnesota last week.

That said, Nebraska has about 14 returners on defense, and a line that includes junior defensive end Freedom Akinmoladun, whose backup is Khalil Davis, the twin brother of starting defensive end Carlos Davis. Mick Stoltenberg is in the defensive tackle spot.

The Nebraska linebacker unit has some experience with senior Chris Weber (leading the team with 74 tackles, 6.5 TFLs, one sack, one interception, and five passes defended) along with junior Dedrick Young II (68 tackles, 3.4 TFLs, one sack). Junior linebacker Luke Gifford (39 tackles, 4.5 TFL, one interception) has been out for the pas few games and is out for the season, so Marcus Newby will continue playing.

The Cornhusker secondary is strong with most of the unit returning. Standout corner Chris Jones missed the beginning of the 2017 season with a knee injury but returned recently. The unit is rounded out by backup corner Eric Lee (recovering from a concussion), starter Lamar Jackson and backup DiCaprio Bootle.

Joshua Kalu was a cornerback last year but has moved into the safety spot. Kalu so far this season has 35 tackles, two 2 interceptions and five passes defended. Other starting safety Aaron Williams (41 tackles, one TFL, two interceptions, one touchdown) is joined by backups Antonio Reed (40 tackles, two TFLs, one interception) and Kieron Williams, who both have previous experience in the spot.

Special Teams
All Nebraska specialists returned in 2017, including kicker Drew Brown, who has made 30 of 30 extra points and 11 of 13 field goals this year. Punter Caleb Lightbourn has had 46 punts for 1,934 yards (average of 42 yards).

Kick returner Spielman (who also handles receiver dutie)s, is ranked first in the conference (eighth in the NCAA) with 26 returns for 646 yards (average 24.8) and one touchdown. Luke McNitt has also handled kick return duties. Demornay Pierson-El, second in the conference for punt returns last year, has 11 returns for 83 yards this season for the Cornhuskers.

Check out more Nebraska Cornhusker football at their SB Nation blog Corn Nation.