The Beginning of a Beautiful Friendship?
Expectations are high for Nebraska entering the Mike Riley era, but they are also guarded. I wrote my thoughts last year on the Riley hire, and in short they are this: Riley’s a good hire for a team without a coach; I’m not sure Riley’s a good switch for a team with a coach who’s won nine games every year, admittedly with some ugly moments on and off the field. But Riley’s the guy now, and I’m ready to see what the Huskers can do.
We live in an age of over-reaction, and the best fans in college football are no different. But I offer this caution: Brady Hoke went 11-2 and won the Sugar Bowl his first season at Michigan, and Nick Saban’s team limped to a 6-6 regular season mark with a home loss to Louisiana-Monroe in his first year at Alabama. How did those two careers shape up? Point being, unless Nebraska wins an undefeated conference championship or loses to everyone north of the Mason-Dixon Line, the 2015 season may not be much of a barometer of Riley’s future tenure at Nebraska.
That being said, it will be interesting to see what trends develop. By season seven of the Pelini era, we were all aware of the Huskers’ strengths and shortcomings. Will Riley’s team develop a pattern of big deficits and huge comebacks? Will they stun top-ranked teams or routinely lose games they shouldn’t? Will they be disciplined or mistake-prone? The early returns of year one won’t be guarantee of the future, but I am looking forward (hopefully) to seeing what sort of make-up Riley’s teams have, particularly in the following four areas:
1) Play-calling. No fans are ever really happy with the way their team’s coaches call plays, at least not after the first punt of the season. And I try not to act as though I, in my rocking chair, know more about football than Mike Riley and Danny Langsdorf, Tim Beck, or Shawn Watson (okay, in that last case, maybe I do). Obviously, I’m eager to see what style of offense the Huskers will run, but beyond that, plenty of questions remain. Will the Huskers have some consistency? Will they be smart? Will they be too conservative? Will they become predictable? Will they utilize talent well? Will they take what the defense gives them or do what they do no matter what? And will they run a few token option plays for us old-timers.
2) Player development. Let’s face it, Nebraska isn’t going to be landing top-five recruiting classes full of blue-chippers anytime soon. (Unless Riley is a legendary recruiter, which is area 2a.) That’s okay, they didn’t in the early ’90s either, and they won three (almost five) national titles with those players. Chiefly, can Riley develop quarterbacks? Callahan, the offensive guru, didn’t. Pelini didn’t. How will Tommy Armstrong improve from last year and throughout this year? More importantly, will top-rated quarterbacks want to come to Nebraska in the future?
3) The Blackshirts. Bo Pelini was hired as a defensive genius, and two seasons in, it appeared he was just that. Ndamukong Suh had just terrorized Colt McCoy and been named a finalist for the Heisman Trophy, and the Huskers lead the nation in total defense. But the drop-off started in 2010, and hit snowball mode in 2011. Pelini’s later units maintained what I called a Gandalf Defense (“You shall not pass”), but they were often matadors against the run. The meltdowns of recent years, combined with the absurd finish to the 2007 season (did Kansas really put up 76 points on us? Kansas?), made the Blackshirts a punchline more than a feared moniker. We’re not likely to see the return of the mid-’90s bone-throwers, when players like Harris and Jones, Wistrom and Peter tormented opposing quarterbacks. (The Frank Costa and Danny Wuerffel support group meets every other Tuesday at 9:00.) But I’d settle, at least at first, for having a solid unit that doesn’t lose the game. Then, once that foundation is firm, maybe we can return to tormenting quarterbacks like the Blackshirts of old. (Kordell Stewart just started hyperventilating.)
4) Fire. Pelini’s teams, for all their failures, showed a remarkable ability to come from behind. Whenever you counted Pelini’s Huskers out (in a game, in a season) they responded. (Unfortunately, whenever you really started to believe, they usually face-planted too.) Will Riley’s team show that moxie, that scrappy mentality? Will they show up for the big games or will they shy away from the spotlight? We may not get a chance to see them in a truly seminal game this year, but we’ll get several mini-big games—if you will—when the Badgers and Spartans visit Lincoln. Bottom line, will Riley’s teams fight? I’d rather have an imperfect team that scraps to the end than a by-the-book club that is flat and heartless.
Time will tell if Shawn Eichorst made the right decision by firing Bo Pelini and by hiring Mike Riley. While that time will likely be measured in years, it begins in just a fortnight. This season will have its share of anxious moments (can we keep the nine-win streak going, will Wisconsin score more points than we amass passing yards, did we really just call that play in that situation!?!?!?) it also promises the excitement of learning the nuances of a new staff and team, and I think, at least one big win (see next week’s post). One thing’s sure, it will be an adventure.