Sorry, I just gagged typing that heading. Yes, Purdue scored 55 points against Nebraska. They rolled double nickels. And so I warn you, this post is going to be harsh. Unduly so, some of you may think. I’m taking everyone but the equipment staff to task, and they’re exempted only because we wore red pants. But before you criticize me for my severity, remember this: WE GAVE UP 55 POINTS TO PURDUE!!! You know the last time they scored that many points against an FBS team not named the Hoosiers? 2004. Against the Fighting David Lettermans of Ball State. Sadly, giving up gobs of points isn’t all that embarrassing for Nebraska anymore, because it happens quite routinely. But this is by FAR the worst team to accomplish the feat. Purdue’s lone win this year was against the Indiana State Sycamores. I think Axl Heck plays for them. Their sole conference win in the last THREE years was against hapless Illinois. I’m not ripping on Purdue. I actually like the Boilermakers. I found the people of Indiana to be quite welcoming when my family made the trip to West Lafayette two years ago. But they are an awful football team. Their offense would be a pick ’em against the wind and Nebraska made them look dynamic. Their rush defense was ranked 100th in the nation and the Huskers amassed all of 77 yards on the ground. This might be the worst team that has ever beaten Nebraska. Worse even than Illinois! And they didn’t just beat Nebraska. They took them to the woodshed. It was 42-16 at one point. PUR! DUE! We’ve hit rock bottom. Again. A subterranean rock bottom that is beneath the undiscovered ancient excavation below the oubliette at the bottom of the dungeon under the cellar in the below-ground castle. It’s as black as it can be. Or is it? There’s three more games left, including at woeful Rutgers. I don’t think they’ve ever had the pleasure of hanging half a hundred on a Big Ten team. To quote The A-Team’s John “Hannibal” Smith, “It’s always darkest just before it goes totally black.” Uh-huh. Lights out.
The Good (What I Liked)
Absolutely nothing: This game was a pile of hot, stinky poo from start to finish. Seriously, I’ve got no positives. Pollyanna couldn’t find a bright spot in that dreck.
The Bad (What I Didn’t Like)
Where do I start? Is “everything” too concise? Okay, let me try.
Game Plan: I sensed trouble on the Huskers second offensive play. From deep in their own end, Nebraska ran out of the I-formation for four yards on first down. On second down, they lined up in the shotgun and threw deep. With a backup QB with 18 career attempts. Although they converted the ensuing third down and scored on the drive, that play calling indicated what I see as one of the main failures of this staff. Most coaches, playing with an inexperienced backup QB, on the road, against a bad football team, would scale back their offense. They wouldn’t get in the gun and chuck it all over the lot. But that’s not Riley and Langsdorf. For them, second and five is a passing down. I can’t recall a time where they’ve called back-to-back “downhill” running plays. Many would argue that the running game just isn’t working, and that’s why the Huskers have passed so much, or that you have to pass when you’re behind. But they haven’t given a powerful, physical running game a chance to work, and until it was 35-16, Nebraska could have stuck with the ground game. They didn’t, because that isn’t what this staff wants to do. That’s fine if you have Eli Manning. It can work when Tommy Armstrong’s hot. But it’s not the strategy to employ with Ryker Fyfe at QB, and that isn’t a shot at Fyfe. That’s a reality that big time coaches seem to grasp. Given the atrociousness at every level, it may not have mattered what Nebraska’s game plan was, but it doesn’t exactly build confidence.
Effort: I keep hearing about how the Huskers are all in and unified, and how they’re going to keep battling and getting better and blah, blah, blah. Then how come they’ve been flatter than an Indiana interstate the last two weeks? I know that was a sleepy stadium, especially when both Boilermaker fans didn’t clap at the same time. But a good team brings its own fire. Nebraska had none, or very little pride it seemed. I saw tweets during “the comeback,” urging the team to “keep fighting.” Problem is, you can’t keep doing something you never started doing. Nebraska didn’t fall short against Purdue. They got their tails handed to them by the Boilers. Unfathomable.
Xs and Os or Jimmys and Joes: That’s the debate. Is the Huskers’ 3-6 record on the coaches or players? Ultimately, it’s some of each. I’ve heard a lot of people saying Nebraska is bereft of talent, and certainly injuries have played a huge part in that—particularly this week with Tommy out. But I don’t buy that argument, because they’ve had nine-win talent for seven years. I know they lost key players to the NFL, but the cupboard isn’t completely bare. We’ve seen that the Huskers have ample talent in the rare moments when they’ve played well. And if Bo was such a bad recruiter as some people claim, how’d he land Burkhead, Martinez, David, Abdullah, Bell, Gregory, etc.? I think the argument also fails in that guys like Maliek Collins and Nate Gerry were studs last year, and hardly flash this year. What in their talent level accounts for such regression? I also don’t think the opposite is true, that it’s all on the coaches. I don’t think they are completely incompetent, and even if they were, the players should have the pride to play for themselves and their teammates. Coaches can’t catch passes and stay onside. (Neither, for the record, can our extra point block team.) I don’t know if there’s truth to the grumblings that Bo and his staff “poisoned” this team or if there’s a split because of loyalties to Pelini. I don’t know if there’s confusion because of scheme changes. I don’t know if Riley’s struggling to motivate or if the team has given up on the year. All I know is that this is, with the possible exception of 2007, the worst Nebraska team in over 50 years. (Yes, they’ve had close losses, but the miscues at the end of games take away from the fact that the games shouldn’t have been that close. Beating Illinois 13-7 would have been the ugliest win in program history.) And for that to be the case, it takes an awful lot of bad on the part of coaches and players. We can argue till the cows come home who is more to blame, but to be honest, they both shoulder a lot of the load.
At the End of the Day
I’m conflicted. After Saturday’s loss, I have absolutely zero hope that Mike Riley will ever succeed as Nebraska’s coach. (And by succeed, I mean the definition dictated by Shawn Eichorst when he fired Bo Pelini: eclipse the nine/ten-win plateau, routinely compete for (and win) conference championships, and win “the games that matter most.”) I don’t see how any reasonable person can expect that at this point. There’s no evidence, either from this season or from Mike Riley’s tenure at Oregon State. It was a hopeful hire, a reach, in the first place. Now, it’s questionable if Riley can ever get Nebraska back to the Pelini Plateau. Plus, although I really like Mike Riley the man, I don’t like Mike Riley the coach. I don’t like the way he goes about things. I don’t like that his clock management is almost as bad as Minnesota’s against Michigan (seriously, dudes?). I don’t like that his philosophy in the Big Ten is to pass a lot and run east-west. I don’t like the lack of adjustments (zone defense, once a quarter to throw teams off?). I don’t like that he keeps saying the players just need more coaching, because what in the SAM HILL have you been doing for the last nine months, learning their names? We should be seeing progress, not regress. The big win over the Gophers should have been the footing for strong late-season kick, not the brief, final spasm of a program in the throes of death.
The season isn’t over, so I won’t formally call for his job yet (Saturday afternoon tweets shouldn’t be held against anyone). But if Nebraska goes 3-9 (which looks very possible) or 4-8 (almost certain), I think it is fair to at least consider pulling the plug. I know it’s absurd to fire a coach after one year, and I believe in giving a guy time to install his system and recruit his players. But I also believe that a coach who takes over a team that won nine, ten, nine, and nine games the previous four years and who then goes 3-9 or 4-8 is almost certain never to succeed (as defined above). With that in mind, it might be in Nebraska’s best interest to cut their losses instead of seeing the program slog around for three or four more years and having to do it then. (How many more of these losses can we take?) Yes, the Huskers might make significant improvement over the next few years. Or they might do what Riley’s teams have done so often—yo-yo up and down to heights of ecstasy and depths of anguish while averaging mediocrity. A coaching change after one year would be messy, and I have no idea what Nebraska would do in terms of a hire. And as I said, the season needs to play out first. Which leads to my confliction. Try as I might to adjust to the “new normal” of Nebraska being Iowa with better tradition (and less recent success), I still have a ’90s mindset. I still think Nebraska should be winning more than they lose. I still think there is no scenario where the Huskers should give up 55 to Purdue, and that includes a fifth year of eligibility for Drew Brees. And so, while I always want Nebraska to win, there is a very real part of me that wanted Nebraska’s comeback bid to fail against the Boilermakers and that wants them to lose out, that wants to then see Shawn Eichorst or Harvey Perlman or the masses with pitchforks and homemade torches run Riley out of town, and that wants to see anybody else coach this team next year. I realize that could be a recipe for disaster, but we’re already the laughingstock of the conference and possibly the nation, so how much worse can it get? We need a complete and utter reboot, from the expectations of the administration and the fans to an evaluation of the college football landscape and our place in it to the long-term method and strategy. We can’t just keep shooting for the moon and firing blanks. We need a reasoned plan with a realistic chance for success, and I don’t—right now—see Mike Riley as part of that. I don’t know what all this says about me as a fan, which is another reason I’m conflicted. I want to support the team and fight to the end and never give up. But I’m also a realist. You can do CPR and chest compressions until you pass out, but sometimes, the patient dies.
In the end, I doubt Riley gets fired no matter what happens. I expect Nebraska will improve next year. Hope will return, and we’ll hear phrases like “turning the corner,” and “on their way back.” Only thing is, I’ve seen this movie before, and it doesn’t end well. (Todd Reesing just threw another TD for Kansas.) So as much as I want to see Nebraska win, as much as it pains me to see them lose, maybe before we can build something great, we need to bury the rubble of what used to be. Then plant a field of corn over it. Buy new property, establish a new foundation, and built afresh. Is that too harsh of a take? Maybe. Is it the wrong take? Maybe that too. Does it leave me thoroughly conflicted? No doubt. Funny, when it comes to Nebraska football, after today, that’s the only area about which I have no doubt.
I’ve ripped on a couple of Nebraska captains lately, but I have nothing for praise for Jack Gangwish entering the stands after the game to thank Husker fans for making the trip. It gets very delicate looking at individual players and saying who’s “all in” and who isn’t, but if I had to guess, I’d put #95 in the all-in category.
I feel really bad for DPE. The season’s pretty much a wash, so it isn’t a devastating injury for the team. But for a young man, it’s a tough blow. Here’s hoping it’s not as bad as expected and he makes a full, quick recovery.
RichRod went 3-9 his first year at Michigan. Took them seven years to recover, assuming they have recovered under Harbaugh. Just sayin’. Also, we don’t have a Harbaugh currently turning heads in the NFL, ready to come to the rescue.
Ohio State’s J.T. Barrett wins this week’s meatball award. Starting QB for the #1 team in the country, undisputed leader of the same, and he gets intoxicated and gets behind the wheel of a car. ID-I-OT.
I don’t have a prediction for the Michigan State game. It’s impossible to conceive of what Nebraska will do (or not do) next. But, it’s largely irrelevant. This will quite possibly be my last column about Nebraska football as, philosophically, one cannot write about that which does not exist. Well, one can, but it’s called fiction, and I’m already busy on that front (www.nathanbirr.com/books). Besides, the Huskers and Spartans play at the same time as LSU-Alabama. You’re seriously going to watch this Husker comedy of errors instead of that? Not me. Laissez les bons temps rouler!