Our grading of the Big Ten teams in 2014 continues. Up next to get its report card is Nebraska.
The Huskers posted gaudy numbers against their nonconference opponents and ranked among the top five in the Big Ten in every statistical category of note but passing yards. Tommy Armstrong Jr., improved at quarterback as a sophomore. I-back Ameer Abdullah and receiver Kenny Bell passed numerous milestones. But we’re ignoring the important stuff. Nebraska continues to be judged on its performance in key games. And at Michigan State, the offense disappeared for three quarters. Against Wisconsin and Minnesota, with Abdullah hobbled, it failed to hold up. Coordinator Tim Beck's group had plenty of good days, including a 525-yard output and inspiring effort in the Holiday Bowl loss to USC, but its ill-timed periods of ineffectiveness factor in the grade.
The late-season improvement we've come to expect from a Bo Pelini-coached defense simply did not happen in 2014. Nebraska struggled down the stretch against Wisconsin, Minnesota and Iowa. Melvin Gordon's 408-yard rushing performance grabbed the headlines, but the Huskers avoided a three-game losing streak to end the regular season only because of an overtime comeback to win, 37-34, at Iowa. Defensively, Nebraska missed linebacker Michael Rose-Ivey and defensive back Charles Jackson, hurt in August, and suspended safety LeRoy Alexander. Safety Nate Gerry, linebacker Zaire Anderson and defensive tackle Maliek Collins matured well, but nagging injuries prevented defensive end Randy Gregory from reaching his All-America potential.
Special teams: A
Sparked by freshman De'Mornay Pierson-El, Nebraska performed better as a group in this area than any team in Pelini’s seven seasons. Pierson-El led the nation with 596 punt-return yards with three touchdown returns. He ignited the comeback at Michigan State, which fell short, and at Iowa, where Nebraska won in overtime. Punter Sam Foltz developed into a weapon. Abdullah did well on kickoff returns, and the coverage units were strong. Place-kicker Drew Brown fought through midseason inconsistency to finish well, hitting 14 of 21 kicks as a freshman. Even in their losses, the Huskers generally won the special-teams battle.
Pelini lost his job not because of any coaching decision or mishandled situation, though Gordon's Heisman moment against the Huskers served to validate the belief Nebraska was not improving in its bid to compete well in the big games. It was just the opposite -- the blowout against the Badgers, a second straight loss to Minnesota. Of course, Pelini may have survived in spite of all that if he and athletic director Shawn Eichorst better saw eye to eye on issues that extended beyond the field of play. Credit the coach for fixing the special teams, a concern in past years, and his staff for fostering the development of Armstrong, Gerry, Collins, Pierson-El and other young players. They did a lot right in 2014 but failed ultimately to alter the program's trending direction.
In a vacuum, 2014 looked like a decent season at Nebraska. If new coach Mike Riley equals Pelini's nine wins in 2015, perhaps without a lopsided defeat, the mood will be much different around Lincoln next winter. That’s what change can do. And 2014 largely illustrated the need for a new approach at Nebraska after a seventh consecutive 9-4 or 10-4 finish. These Huskers weren’t good enough to convince observers that the program is ready to compete for a Big Ten title; they weren’t bad enough to prompt a mandate for change among the fan base. They were, in fact, stuck in neutral.