Huskers' fast start teased fans before late-season collapse
Nebraska's 7-0 start and top-10 ranking in late October are a distant memory for a fan base yearning for the Cornhuskers to show staying power on the national stage.
The No. 24 Huskers (9-4) lost four of their last six games, including 38-24 to Tennessee in the Music City Bowl on Friday, and they'll head into the offseason with questions about how to fix a defense prone to breakdowns and what their offense will look like without four-year starting quarterback Tommy Armstrong Jr. and three of their top four receivers.
Nebraska won three more games than a year ago, when it sneaked into the Foster Farms Bowl with five wins and posted a convincing victory over UCLA.
The death of punter Sam Foltz in a summer car accident and the arrest of receivers coach Keith Williams for drunken driving pulled the team together, and the Huskers looked like a Big Ten contender after reeling off seven straight wins and rising to No. 7.
But an overtime loss at Wisconsin, a 62-3 embarrassment at Ohio State and a hamstring injury to Armstrong in a win over Minnesota the next week derailed the season. A limited Armstrong played in the final regular-season game at Iowa, a 40-10 loss.
Ryker Fyfe, who started in Armstrong's place against Maryland, got the call against Tennessee and was harassed all day by the Volunteers, and the rushing game was held to 61 yards.
A program that looked to be on the rise in October under second-year coach Mike Riley doesn't look much different from the one that consistently lost four games a year under Bo Pelini.
By all accounts the Huskers are faring well on the recruiting front, and the onus is now on Riley to produce on the field.
Riley was ready to turn the page after the loss to Tennessee.
''I think the experience of playing in this game for us will be good for our team. And it's kind of the end of one team and the beginning of another, as leadership emerges right after the results of this game are in and we get back to campus,'' he said. ''It should be a great motivator for the guys that were playing in this game that are coming back for next year's team.''
Tulane transfer Tanner Lee and Patrick O'Brien, who redshirted as a freshman, are the front-runners to replace Armstrong. Devine Ozigbo, Tre' Bryant and Mikale Wilbon will compete for the No. 1 running back job with the departure of Terrell Newby. Stanley Morgan Jr. and De'Mornay Pierson-El are the most experienced receivers from a corps that loses sure-handed Jordan Westerkamp, bowl standout Brandon Reilly and Alonzo Moore.
The offensive line loses only center Dylan Utter, but a number of 2016 redshirts will compete for jobs after the line failed to produce a consistent push in the most important games.
The biggest losses on defense are linemen Kevin Maurice and Ross Dzuris, leading tackler Josh Banderas and Michael Rose-Ivey at linebacker and All-Big Ten first-team safety Nate Garry.
''Obviously, coming off last year and the disappointing season we had, our senior class got together in the offseason: `We don't want to go out that way,' " Reilly said. ''We were pushing for that 10th win. Nine wins is kind of where we've been at.''
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