I need to remind everyone—myself foremost—that it is too early to make definitive, sweeping statements about Nebraska football as a whole. But right now, things are not looking good in Lincoln. There’s a difference between experiencing bumps in the road during a transition year (Nick Saban going 6-6 and losing to UL-Monroe his first year at Alabama) and dragging a proud program through the mud (RichRod going 3-9 and losing at home to Toledo his first year at Michigan). There’s a difference between a slow learning curve and just not getting it. Or, to put it Nebraska terms, there’s a difference between the 3-3 start (and 9-4 finish) in 2008 and the 4-2 start (and 5-6 finish) in 2004. We don’t know how 2015 will turn out, but I sure know which of the two it feels like.
As for the game itself, losing to Illinois is bad. There’s no way to spin it differently. But losing to Illinois isn’t the end of the world. We see upsets all the time in college football. They’re one of the things we love about college football. The problem is, this didn’t feel like an upset. This felt like two evenly-matched, pretty bad football teams bumbling and stumbling around for four quarters, and Nebraska bumbling a little more at the end. For much of the first half, it actually felt like Nebraska was hanging around with Illinois, surviving missed FGs and getting red zone stops to keep the game scoreless, then getting two big Tommy Armstrong scrambles (one a run, one a lucky heave to Cethan Carter) to set up their only points of the half. There was never a moment when Nebraska looked like the better team, and that is what is most distressing of all.
The Good (What I Liked)
And kick, kick: It’s bad news when the highlight of the day is your punter. But on an afternoon when the wind was blowing such that two pretty good quarterbacks looked like 50 Cent throwing out a first pitch, Sam Foltz was booming howitzers and downing punts inside the five. Kind of makes you wonder what happens if Nebraska chooses to punt on the final fourth down of the game.
Move that Line: For the first time this year, the Nebraska defensive line—and particularly Maliek Collins—looked nasty, blowing up the Illini O-line and stuffing numerous running plays. It’s hard to get too excited about dominating Illinois at the line of scrimmage, but it was an area of improvement.
The Bad (What I Didn’t Like)
Everything else: Too generic? Okay . . .
Lost: No, not the ABC cult phenomena from a decade ago, but OC Danny Langsdorf. It is clear that he has no idea what he’s doing. That’s not to imply incompetence, but rather a complete lack of strategy. It wasn’t just against Illinois, but all year. Consider the running back position: Week 1, Newby, Cross, and freshman Mikale Wilbon share time and carries equally. Week 2, Newby gets run into the ground, but accumulates almost 200 yards. Week 3, Newby has the primary role but there wasn’t much rushing. Week 4, Newby gets the lion’s share of the carries until the third quarter, when Cross reemerges out of nowhere . . . and fumbles his way back to the bench. Week 5, Devine Ozigbo is suddenly the bell cow of the offense. If they’re still trying to evaluate talent mid-season, it sort of makes you wonder what was going on all spring and in fall camp. The use of Andy Janovich is also mystifying. I love the walk-on fullback, and he runs like some of his predecessors. But last week, against Southern Miss, he had great success on fullback traps and on a short pass out of the fullback position. So naturally, this week they move him to tailback. I’ve never seen a player excel so much at one position that the coaching staff decided to move him to a different position. As much as I love Jano’s running, it’s not like he’s the second coming of Leonard Fournette or something. He’s a real weapon, but as a fullback, not a feature back.
Pass it On: It’s hard to tell what this Nebraska offense’s identity is going to be, but it seems to revolve around the pass. And while I’m not calling for the Huskers to replicate Army or Navy’s offense, on a day when the wind was howling, when Tommy couldn’t hit the ocean from the beach, when the receivers suddenly developed the dropsies again, and when the Huskers were churning 5.5 yards per rush, pounding the rock seemed like a wise strategy. Especially late in the game, when the Huskers were clinging to a 6-point lead and needed to melt clock. Instead, Langsdorf opted to chuck it around like he was Steve Spurrier back in the Florida Fun ’n Gun days. The results were predictable. And lest anyone argue that the Big Red was just trying to keep Illinois’ defense off balance, I would point out two things. One, no one has ever needed to keep Illinois’ defense off balance; it is their default position. Two, on the final drive when Nebraska did finally commit to the run and the Illini knew it was coming, the Huskers marched the ball down the field and ate up most of the final five minutes of game clock.
Butch!: Nebraska is giving Tennessee a run for its money as the team most likely to pull defeat from the jaws of victory. From failing to capitalize on great third quarter field position (and inexplicable officiating) to heaving deep balls into the wind to suddenly forgetting to cover receivers, the Huskers gave this game away. Of course, all the talk is about the third down with a minute left. With Illinois out of timeouts, Nebraska only needed to run the ball, eat forty seconds, and leave the home club needing a Kordell Stewart-like miracle to win the game. Instead, they throw an incomplete pass and stop the clock. According to Riley and Langsdorf, Armstrong was told not to pass the ball, which makes it something of a boneheaded play on his part. Eat it. Take the sack. Have awareness. But he never should have been put in the position, and that is on Riley: A) the Huskers were lined up in an illegal formation (five players in the backfield) so Riley should have used a timeout. B) Several players were clearly running pass routes, meaning the team was confused about the play, which they admitted afterwards. C) There is no need to run a bootleg, fake pass. Maybe with two minutes left, where a first down is still important, I’d understand the call. But all Nebraska needed to do was bleed the clock and get the heck out of Dodge. There was no need for cuteness. Dive Janovich for half yard, run the clock to twenty seconds, take a delay of game, and punt. This isn’t second-guessing. This is common sense. As was the case with BYU, the game and clock management were terrible, and while the players and the QB deserve some blame, that is ultimately on the head coach.
At the End of the Day
Perhaps it is fitting that Nebraska lost to Illinois, because Nebraska has started to resemble Illinois and fellow Big Ten West thorn-in-the-side Minnesota. You see, as do the Huskers, the Illini and Gophers have proud football traditions, replete with national championships, Heisman and other prominent award winners, and legendary players. And as is more and more the case with each passing year for the Huskers, the Illini and Gopher football prowess is totally irrelevant in the 21st century. No current players—and certainly no current recruits—remember when these teams meant anything. They are has-beens, toiling in obscurity while older (and older) fans wistfully remember the glory days.
When Frank Solich was fired after the 2003 season, AD Steve Pederson made the infamous comment about not letting the program slide into mediocrity. Bill Callahan (pardon my French) came in and embarrassed the fine history of Nebraska football. Bo Pelini brought Nebraska back, but only to mediocrity. Now, there’s nothing to suggest Mike Riley will achieve anything higher. Yes, it is only five games. Yes, I remember my Nick Saban analogy from earlier. Yes, I know it’s possible that in a few years we’ll all be laughing about how we prematurely bailed on Mike Riley. But I’m tired of having my hopes buoyed only to have them dashed again. I was optimistic when the Huskers whipped Colorado in 2005 to “turn the corner.” I was optimistic when Pelini declared the program back after stifling Arizona in the ’09 Holiday Bowl. I was optimistic when Riley took over last December. You’ll understand why my optimism is waning. I hope that Nebraska figures this out and turns things around. I hope that I’m wrong about whether or not Riley can ever achieve greatness. I hope that the early returns aren’t indicative of where the program is heading. We are only five games into year one, so it would be unfair to declare Riley a failure at this time. But you’ve heard the old saying, “the proof’s in the pudding”? Maybe all the ingredients haven’t been added yet or maybe it still has to chill a while. All I know is that right now, the pudding doesn’t taste very good.
If Mike Riley is going to routinely bungle game management in the fourth quarter, he could at least go for it on fourth down all the time, mispronounce rivals’ names (Ar-Kansas), and eat a little grass on the sideline. After all, Les Miles is endeared at LSU. “Have a great day.”
Alex Lewis is a chump. The end. His blowing kisses to the fans and shouting “I’m sorry we suck” is not befitting a captain, and he should have his C stripped from his jersey until he earns it.
Remember when Liv Tyler’s character broke up with her boyfriend at the end of That Thing You Do and said to him, “Shame on me for kissing you with my eyes closed so tight.” Well, that’s how I feel about buying into the hype around the offense again this year. Sure enough, the calendar turned to October and the high-flying Huskers were grounded.
As I said last week, it could be worse, Husker fans. We could be Texas. Ouch.
Wisconsin has owned Nebraska in the Big Ten, winning three of four games—all by blowout—and leading by 17 in the second half of the one game they lost. And while the Badgers are the very definition of pedestrian this year—especially on Saturday against Iowa—they are always humdrum until they play Nebraska, at which point they magically transform into the ’95 Huskers. This may be the worst Badger team of the last five years, but the same could be said of Nebraska. And while the Huskers have been stout against the run, they’ve yet to play a running team. In a boxing match between two double amputees, I say pick the short, stocky guy, as he’s less likely to trip over his own feet. That would be Wisconsin, who for all of their failures, at least knows what it is they’re trying to do. A Nebraska win wouldn’t shock me, but neither would the Badgers rolling by five touchdowns. I’ll predict a close game, but until I see it happen, I can’t pick Nebraska to beat Wisconsin. Badgers, 27-21.