Luke Gifford’s season is over.
The Nebraska outside linebacker is having surgery this week to repair a hip injury and will not play in the Huskers’ final two games, head coach Mike Riley announced Monday.
“We’ve reached the point with Luke Gifford where it was decided that the best thing for him would be to have surgery this week and begin his process of getting ready and better for his next go-around in the future,” Riley said.
Gifford, a junior from Lincoln Southeast, was in the midst of a breakout season but had missed NU’s past three games. In that time, he’s come out for practice on Tuesdays — when reporters are allowed to attend the first few minutes — dressed out, but been relegated to the exercise bike while others warm up.
Gifford finishes the season with 39 total tackles, five for loss, 1½ sacks and an interception. His TFL and sack totals are still third on the team despite appearing in just seven games.
In his place, senior outside linebacker Marcus Newby has seen an increased role.
Elsewhere on the injury front, wide receiver Connor Young suffered a high ankle sprain and is out against Penn State. Young was on crutches on the sideline during Saturday’s second half. Sophomore cornerback Eric Lee remains in the concussion protocol, leaving his status uncertain.
Senior tight end Connor Ketter (back) is questionable after missing the Minnesota game.
Riley said freshman running back Jaylin Bradley (ankle), “should be more ready to go. I think he was pretty close for (Minnesota). Probably could have played in the game. But he should be ready to go.”
Bradley has now missed two games after a career-best 73 total yards of offense against Purdue on Oct. 28.
Junior safety Aaron Williams (neck) is questionable.
“His deal is what happens on the first contact,” Riley said. “We’ll try to help him with that when we get into full gear later on (this week) and see how he responds. If he responds favorably, that will be good.”
Junior defensive tackle Mick Stoltenberg (knee), senior inside linebacker Chris Weber (stinger) and junior inside linebacker Dedrick Young (lower back) all played against the Gophers and are expected to be available.
Knevel competing at guard: Offensive line coach Mike Cavanaugh said redshirt Matt Farniok and senior David Knevel are in a "wide open" race for the starting right guard job. Farniok's started the past two games there, while Knevel has not appeared on offense since suffering foot and ankle injuries in the season opener.
Lack of defensive big plays glaring: Gifford’s loss only furthers the challenge for a defense that’s last in the Big Ten in sacks (12) and does not have a player in the Big Ten’s top 20 in tackles for loss.
The Huskers are averaging 4.7 tackles for loss per game and are led by Weber and redshirt freshman Ben Stille at eight apiece.
In the three games Gifford’s missed — a win at Purdue and losses to Northwestern and Minnesota — NU has just two combined sacks and eight tackles for loss.
“The bottom line is true about … where we are statistically in those areas that can change games,” Riley said. “So, it is something I think strategically we are looking at some things that we know are missing in the factor of winning games.”
Fourth-and-1 failure sticks with Riley: The head coach readily acknowledged that one play in a five-score loss might seem something like one snowflake in a blizzard, but he couldn’t forget NU’s failed fourth-and-1 in the first quarter Saturday against Minnesota.
“In a game that turned out like that this will sound probably not very important, but fourth-and-1 at the five to tie the game up again, haunts me. You look at winning on those plays — whether it’s a block or beating a man or making a tackle — that’s what we have to do better in those situations.”
The Huskers were on the UM 7-yard line, threatening to tie the game at 14, but Mikale Wilbon was stuffed at the line of scrimmage. Five plays later, the Gophers went up 20-7 on a 73-yard touchdown run. They led by at least 13 the rest of the way.
The Huskers have lost seven possessions in the red zone this year on four interceptions and three turnovers on downs. Add fumbles to the mix, and still no other team in the Big Ten has more than five.
Williams glad for return: Junior wide receiver Keyan Williams finally returned to action Saturday against the Gophers and made his season debut. Yes, he dropped a ball in his lone target and yes, the Huskers lost by 33.
That didn’t fully dampen Williams’ spirit after a 2½ month recovery from a hamstring injury.
“It was a test,” he said. “I talked to a lot of people, talked to my mom more. I just wanted to focus on the right things and not get frustrated because that wouldn’t help. I just tried to work as hard as I could every day to get back on the field with my team.”
—Parker Gabriel and Steven M. Sipple