Fourth-quarter pass defense, penalties, turnovers doomed 2015 Cornhuskers

Nebraska's strengths nullified by constant mistakes

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IOWA CITY — Nebraska’s 2015 football campaign resembled a 40-year-old man in great shape, a good complexion but with a near-fatal cholesterol level.

The Cornhuskers (6-7) finished in the Big Ten’s top three in eight major offensive categories. Nebraska’s prolific attack generated 27 touchdown passes (tied for first), 3,470 passing yards (second) and 32.8 points a game (third). The Cornhuskers ran the ball effectively at times (5.62 yards per carry) and scored touchdowns on nearly 71 percent of their red-zone trips. Even in many defensive categories — especially against the run — Nebraska was at worst mid-pack in the Big Ten.

But similar to the 40-year-old man, reasons for the Cornhuskers’ losing record was beneath the surface under first-year coach Mike Riley, where they became easy to spot and proved lethal.

Nebraska gave up 1,299 passing yards in the fourth quarter, the nation’s highest total by 102 yards. In the fourth quarter, the Cornhuskers gave up the most passing first downs (57), passing gains of 15-plus yards (34) and tied for the most completions of 25-plus yards (16).

Those plays directly led to a few inexplicable defeats. At Illinois with a 13-0 fourth-quarter lead, Nebraska gave up 122 pass yards and two touchdowns, including the game-winner with 10 seconds left to lose 14-13.

Wisconsin passed for 132 yards in the fourth quarter which led to the game-winning field goal with four seconds left in a 23-21 Badgers’ victory. BYU completed a 42-yard touchdown on the final play for a 33-28 win. Nebraska lost five games where it tied or held the lead in the fourth quarter. That doesn’t count a 55-45 loss at last-place Purdue.

Penalties also played a role in the late-game collapses. Nebraska ranked 100th nationally with 63.8 penalty yards per game.

“There’s lots of lessons from those kinds of games,” Riley said this spring. “You look back almost play-by-play of what could make a difference. That really kind of defines what football is all about in a lot of ways.”

As potent as Nebraska’s offense was at times, it equally was complicit in the losing woes. In the fourth quarter, the Cornhuskers averaged 4.03 yards per carry — 77th nationally — and was 109th with only 20 rushing first downs in the final period.

Perhaps nobody embodied Nebraska’s season more than quarterback Tommy Armstrong. He totaled 3,430 all-purpose yards and passed for 22 touchdowns. But he was as woeful at times as he was dynamic. He completed just 10 of 31 passes and 11 of 28 in losses to Illinois and Wisconsin, respectively. He combined to complete just two of 13 passes for 21 yards in the fourth quarter of those games.

Armstrong threw three interceptions in an overtime loss at Miami and four in an eight-point home loss to Iowa. He had 16 of Nebraska’s 21 interceptions, which ranked 123rd nationally.

“It was frustrating because you go into each and every season and you want to go undefeated, you want to win every game,” Armstrong said this spring. “Things like that happen, but unfortunately it happened a lot for us.

“We’ve just got to be able to execute. I think we had a lack of execution last year, picking up certain yards that we need for us to win games and put our defense in bad spots.”

Passing yards

For a more detailed breakdown of this game, click here.

If Nebraska can curtail the penalties, adjust its late-game pass defense and limit Armstrong’s mistakes without restricting his playmaking abilities, it should contend in the Big Ten West Division. The Cornhuskers beat league champion Michigan State and outgained West Division champion Iowa by 183 yards. Nebraska returns seven defensive starters and nine players who started on offense. Its cross-divisional opponents include Ohio State, Indiana and Maryland.

But as last year proved, the details matter for Nebraska.

“We can use lots of those parts situationally that we have to handle and take care of,” Riley said. “I think they are huge in building everything like that into helping these kids in practice. So many games are won late and how you respond to that is crucial. It’s a very hard lesson to go through, but hopefully we gained from it and can put right into our preparation for this coming year.”

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