Big Ten previews: Nebraska

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After Nebraska fired head coach Bo Pelini following the 2014 campaign, the general feeling was the Cornhuskers would go for a splashy hiring.

Instead, Athletics Director Shawn Eichorst somewhat shockingly hired Oregon State’s Mike Riley, whose Beavers went 5-7 last year.

As is the norm for Nebraska coaches, Riley will immediately be under pressure to win and win big. During his seven years in Lincoln, a Pelini-led team never had fewer wins than 9.

With that said, the 62-year-old Riley is not new to highw pressure situations or transitioning to a new job. He coached a stint in the NFL and also won two Grey Cups while coaching in the Canadian Football League.

“I haven’t transitioned in a long time. So I forgot what all the newness was about a little bit,” Riley said during Big Ten media days in July. “I think we all want to get off to a good start; there’s no doubt about that.”

Another major change to the Cornhuskers this year might be the offensive side of the ball. Riley used a pro-style offense at Oregon State with traditional drop-back passers such as Sean Mannion. Nebraska, on the other hand, has relied more on running backs and mobile quarterbacks carrying the load over the past several years.

Riley inherited dual-threat quarterback Tommy Armstrong, who does not exactly fit the bill of a pocket passer. He threw for 2,695 yards and completed just 53.3 percent of his passes last season.

However, he did score 28 touchdowns (6 on the ground) and rushed for an additional 705 yards. A senior, Armstrong will have just one year to understand and mesh his talent with Riley’s ideas for the offense.

“It was kind of different in [spring ball] after everything that happened,” Armstrong said. “It’s a different style of offense, different terminology — but it’s making us a better team.”

Riley and Armstrong seem to have a good relationship, and the quarterback noted during the media days that pair had clicked from the first day.

The relationship between the two — and how well Armstrong fits into the offense — will be crucial for a Nebraska offense that lost the incredibly talented running back Ameer Abdullah to the NFL.

Nebraska will also be without wide receiver and explosive punt returner De’Mornay Pierson-El for the next six to eight weeks because of a foot injury.

The injury puts more pressure on junior wide receiver Jordan Westerkamp, who will try for a follow-up to his 44-catch, 5-touchdown sophomore act.

“This has probably been one of the best summers since I’ve been here,” Westerkamp said. “We’ve all bought in.”

Nebraska will also need to improve on the defensive side of the ball; it allowed 26.4 points per game last year. Nebraska’s turnover margin of minus-2 was also towards the middle of the NCAA and not exactly a recipe for success.

While the Cornhuskers will likely not return to the precipice of college football this season, the relative weakness of the Big Ten West should allow them a chance to rack up wins.

“It’s exciting; this season is exciting,” Riley said. “It’s being new and having those expectations about winning, but there’s also intrigue and a newness about it — new stadiums, new teams. It’s exciting.”

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