Nebraska Football: Projecting the Cornhuskers’ Offensive Backfield Depth Chart

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With spring practice coming up quickly, now is a good time to start taking guesses as to what Nebraska’s depth chart will look like this autumn. Of course, these projections are subject to change, with injuries and what we learn from the results of spring practice.

You can take a look at the Double Extra Point’s new roster distribution tool, seeing how Nebraska’s 105-man roster breaks down by position and by class (including both scholarship and walkon players) to get an idea of what the coaches will be working with. So let’s get started with the glory-boys in the backfield.

Quarterback

For the first time since the 2010 season, Nebraska is entering spring practice with a legitimate quarterback battle. The three contenders look to be junior transfer Tanner Lee, redshirt freshman Patrick O’Brien, and true freshman Tristan Gebbia.

Lee almost certainly has a leg up on the competition, having played for two seasons at Tulane before his transfer to Lincoln. A marked difference from quarterbacks in the past, Lee is a true pocket passer presenting no threat as a runner. He only completed 53.6 percent of his passes at Tulane, but the surrounding talent at Nebraska will be a significant upgrade. As a co-MVP of the scout team in 2016, Lee is in pole position to start for Nebraska next season.

O’Brien has a tremendous amount of talent, and how has a year of experience under offensive coordinator Danny Langsdorf’s tutelage. He also has enough athleticism to be at least a little bit of a threat running the ball. Gebbia was a highly-recruited target coming out of California in the 2017 recruiting class (although not quite as highly rated as O’Brien, according to 247 Sports). But at six-foot-three and 180 pounds, Gebbia is going to need to put some weight on before he’s ready to compete in the B1G.

The bottom line is that if Lee isn’t the starter against Arkansas State in September, then it likely means either he’s been hurt or O’Brien has blown the doors off of the coaching staff in terms of his improvement.

Projected depth chart, quarterback

Tanner Lee

Patrick O’Brien

Tristan Gebbia

I-back

With Terrell Newby’s graduation, competition for starting I-back should be just as intense (although maybe not watched as closely) as the quarterback race. Leading the team in carries returning in 2017 is junior Devine Ozigbo and sophomore Tre Bryant, so it’s hard not to think of them as having a leg up in terms of winning the starting job.

Senior Adam Taylor has been buried on the depth chart since an ankle injury in 2014 set him back. Junior Mikale Wilbon is a curious case in terms of how he’s been used. Of the four I-backs who got significant snaps in 2016, Wilbon easily had the highest yards-per-carry average. But he only had 15 carries, well below the next closest I-back, Bryant at 43. There’s a reason Wilbon hasn’t earned the coaches’ trust to see the field more, and he’ll be digging himself out of that hole this offseason. True freshman Jaylin Bradley will get a look this spring, but absent injures don’t be surprised to see him redshirt in 2017.

If you’re going to guess on one of these backs winning the starting position, my money would be on Ozigbo. When he’s been healthy, Ozigbo has the power to move defenders and enough wiggle to create space. He’s also got a violent running style that would allow him to punish defenders if he’s able to get into a rhythm. Given that Nebraska will be breaking in a new quarterback – and almost certainly an entirely new offensive system – a bellcow power back would be just what the doctor ordered.

Projected depth chart, I-back:

Devine Ozigbo

Tre Bryant

Mikale Wilbon -OR-

Adam Taylor

Fullback

It’s certainly odd to look at the roster distribution for Nebraska and see six fullbacks – and only one of them being a scholarship athlete (and that one being a true freshman, to boot). After the heady days of Andy Janovich’s 2015 season, we know that head coach Mike Riley isn’t afraid to use a versatile fullback as an offensive weapon.

And he’s got one in true freshman Ben Miles. Sure, being former LSU head coach Les Miles’ son helps with the recruiting buzz, but don’t think that Miles the younger is just a gimmick on the roster. He’s athletic enough to lead block as a fullback, catch passes out of the backfield, or even line up in the slot (much like how the Atlanta Falcons used fullback Patrick DiMarco last year) to cause defenses all kinds of matchup nightmares.

Senior walkon Luke McNitt did an admirable job last year trying to fill Janovich’s shoes. But with Miles’ arrival, Nebraska now has a chance to put a true weapon on the field at the fullback position.

Projected starting lineup, fullback:

Ben Miles

Luke McNitt

Nebraska Football: Yes, Recruiting Rankings Are Important For the Cornhuskers

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So, we’re a little ways away from 2017’s National Signing Day, and Nebraska ending up with a no. 23 ranked class nationally (according to 247 Sports). Reports tended to think the class ranged from solid to good but not great. But there is a pretty universal agreement amongst those covering the team that Nebraska needs a good recruiting performance to win trophies.

But not everyone agrees with that premise. Keyshawn Johnson (senior, not the incoming freshman) thinks recruiting rankings are for fools (according to Erin Sorensen of Hail Varsity).

There is a not-insignificant portion of the fan base that feels this way about recruiting, too.  So, let’s imagine a conversation with such a fan – we’ll call him the Grumpy Recruiting Skeptic (GRS) – and help see if we can understand the tension.

GRS: I am so glad recruiting season is over.

DXP: I know, it’s pretty exhausting, but it’s nice to see Nebraska making some progress.

GRS: No, I mean I’m just tired of hearing about all this recruiting nonsense. It’s such a waste of time.

DXP: What do you mean?

GRS: This is Nebraska, we don’t need to worry about all that five-star nonsense. Back in the day, we’d win with grit and our walk-on program.

DXP: Well, even those teams in the nineties had some pretty talented players on them.

GRS: Of course. But we didn’t spend our time obsessing about which five-star kid was going to go where, because who knows what those kids will end up being. Highly rated kids flame out all the time, so I don’t know why we obsess about it so much.

DXP: You’re right, individual highly rated players do crash and burn. But in general, the better you do in recruiting, the more likely you are to win.

GRS: That’s what those sites want you to think. But how come teams like Texas and Florida get all the good recruits and don’t win squat?

DXP: Again, you’re looking at individual instances. The averages don’t take Mack Brown into account. Just read this piece from Matt Hinton from SB Nation, it explains why the ranking sites are helpful.

GRS: <clicking website, staring intently, putting phone down in frustration> TL;DR, what’s the point?

DXP: Basically, Hinton categorized schools in terms of their recruiting prowess as seen by the sites, ranking them from one-star schools to five-star schools. Here’s what their overall winning percentages are, from 2010-2013.

Five-star schools .679
Four-star schools .557
Three-star schools .495
Two-star schools .367
One-star schools .394

GRS: So, you’re telling me the good schools win a lot. Do they pay you for this?

DXP: OK, that was hateful. And besides, the numbers speak for themselves, I think. You recruit well, you win pretty often. You don’t recruit as well, you don’t win as often.

GRS: Yeah, but even those “five-star” schools have big time recruits that don’t work out. Even mighty Nick Saban at Alabama has his recruiting busts.

DXP: I think you’re missing the point. You’re right, college football is littered with individual five-star prospects that never amounted to anything …

GRS: See, you agree with me. I knew you’d come around.

DXP: Ahem. BUT, you can’t look at recruiting by cherry-picking individual cases. For it to really make sense, you have to look at it as a whole.

GRS: So you’re saying I shouldn’t be looking at all those amazing individual prospects that Jeremy Crabtree gets so excited about.

DXP: Well, sort of. Let me show you something Stuart Mandel of FOX Sports worked up. He was looking at the 2015 NFL Draft class.

So despite comprising less than 1 percent of all recruits, five-stars accounted for a quarter of 2015 first-rounders. Meanwhile, more than 90 percent of all recruits are designated as being three stars or less, yet their representation in the first round is nearly half that.

Put it this way: About one in four five-star recruits like No. 1 pick Jameis Winston goes on to become a first-rounder, but only about one in 64 three-star recruits like No. 2 Marcus Mariota does.

GRS: Well … that’s about the NFL, all I really care about is what happens in college.

DXP: But it illustrates the main point. You have to think of each recruit as a percentage chance to become a successful football player.

GRS: So think of these kids as numbers instead of as human beings. No wonder you run a blog out of your parents’ basement.

DXP: It’s a nice basement, thank you very much. And you’re avoiding the point. To really understand why recruiting rankings are important, you have to think of each recruit as a percentage chance to be successful. The higher the recruit (as we see from Mandel’s work), the higher percentage chance that he’ll be a successful player.

GSP: That seems pretty obvious.

DXP: I know, but I don’t think most people think of it that way. The individual hits and misses are easy to remember and visualize. But it only makes sense when you think about the group as a whole.

GSP: Meaning …

DXP: Well, let’s take Nebraska’s 2017 class as an example. There’s 20 kids in the class. Let’s say head coach Mike Riley recruited well, and each kid had a forty percent chance of being a success. Compare that to, just as an example, a less successful recruiter whose class would have kids with a thirty percent chance of being successful. You following me?

GRS: You’re not talking about Frank Solich, are you? Don’t get me started on Solich being fired …

DXP: <exasperated sigh> No, I’m not talking about Solich. I’m not really talking about anyone in specific. I’m just trying to make the point.

GRS: OK, then I’m with you.

DXP: Now, which class would you rather have, the forty-percenters, or the thirty-percenters?

GRS: Well … the forty-percenters, I guess.

DXP: Because that gives you the best chance to win, right?

GRS: Yeah, I guess so.

DXP: Even though, statistically, more than half of even the forty-percent class will fail.

GRS: But how do you explain teams like Kansas State, that consistently win with lesser talent.

DXP: Good question. The short answer, I’m pretty sure, is that Bill Snyder is a warlock.

GRS: It would explain a lot.

DXP: But it’s true, teams with lesser talent do win all the time. It’s just really hard to do. Yeah, you can win with (using our example) a thirty-percent roster. But it’s going to happen less often than teams with a forty-percent roster, that’s just math. (And, as the amazing commercial reminds us, if you argue with math, you will lose). Or, you have to make up the difference with better coaching. Snyder can do that. But most coaches can’t. If nothing else it makes your margin of error that much smaller.

GRS: But … you know, they say that if we go back to worrying about recruiting rankings, we’ll go back to the Callahan era …

DXP: Literally no one is saying that.

GRS: Being good at recruiting means Callahan and Steve Pederson and Solich going to Ohio!!!!!!!!11!!1!

DXP: OK, slow down, take a deep breath. Here, put on your 2005 Ohio Bobcats jacket.

GRS: Mmmmm, so green and snuggly. OK, I’m better now.

DXP: So, are you feeling a little better about recruiting rankings?

GRS: Well … maybe a little. But don’t ask me to like the stupid thing with the hats they do.

DXP: Baby steps, my friend, baby steps.

Nebraska Football: What the 2017 Recruiting Class Means for the Cornhuskers (And a Super Six!)

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On Wednesday, Nebraska signed a class of 20 prospects who will join the Cornhusker roster for the 2017 season. The eight defensive and 12 offensive players were rated no. 21 nationally by ESPN, no. 23 by 247 Sports, and no. 20 by Rivals. Bill Connelly of SB Nation does an aggregate recruiting ranking, which puts Nebraska at no. 22 nationally this year, no. 22 over a two-year timespan, and no. 26 over a five-year timespan.

So, a decent class, but not the top-15 heights that some were hoping for. But what does this mean for where Nebraska is now as a program, and where it’s going?

Fishing in the Right Streams

Yeah, holding your breath on National Signing Day to wait for high school kids to put on a hat is a little nerve-wracking. And given that Nebraska only signed 20 players instead of the expected 22 or 23 means that spots were likely being held for Signing Day decision-makers like C.J. Verdell, Joseph Lewis, and Deommodore Lenoir, who went elsewhere.

Oh, yeah. And there was Jamire “Three Commitments” Calvin, too.

And while that’s frustrating and disappointing, it’s something you’d better get used to as a Husker fan if you want to sit at the Big Kids’ Table in college football. For Nebraska to get over its four-loss plateau, it’s going to need the talents of players who wait until National Signing Day to put on a hat.

The fact that Nebraska is in the mix right to the end with so many of these players is a great sign. Landing one more of those guys would likely have put Nebraska safely into the top 20. This year’s class has decommits from Ohio State and Florida, showing once again that head coach Mike Riley can go toe-to-toe with national juggernauts and win recruiting battles.

So, yes, Nebraska’s 2017 can definitely be chalked up as a good-but-not-good-enough performance. But this is also coming off a second season of Nebraska’s on-field performances being somewhat less than inspiring. If the addition of a quarterback friendlier to Riley’s offensive system and the addition of new defensive coordinator Bob Diaco bear fruit on the field in 2017, then 2018’s class may have even more promise to offer.

An Incomplete List

Nebraska signed 20 players to Letters of Intent, bringing its total of scholarship players to 83 (the roster breakdown done by the Omaha World-Herald is here, although at the time of writing it did not have the entire 2017 class listed). In his discussion with the media about the 2017 class, Riley said that he liked the flexibility of having a couple extra scholarships available to use.

OK, sure, having those extra scholarships can be useful if there is a late-available kid or for a JUCO target. But let’s be real. Those spots would have been filled if guys like Lewis or Lenoir would have picked Nebraska.

That leaves Nebraska’s roster a little thin, particularly at wide receiver. And with all the talent departing next year, recruiting defensive backs is going to be a huge priority for 2018.

Winning the West

Nebraska hasn’t won a conference title since 1999. If there’s anything that’s an indictment on how far Nebraska has fallen from mid-nineties glory, that lonely “1999” on the West Stadium sign for conference championships should serve as a reminder in ten-foot-tall lettering.

But to win a conference title, you need to win your division. Perhaps in year seven (!) in the Big Ten, Husker Fan will finally be ready to embrace its divisional rivals as the primary focus for Nebraska’s success.

So how is the rest of the B1G West doing in recruiting (according to Bill Connelly’s five-year recruiting rankings from SB Nation)?

Team 2017 Nat’l Rank Two-year Nat’l Rank Five-year Nat’l Rank
Nebraska 22 22 26
Wisconsin 38 36 34
Iowa 40 41 50
Illinois 46 57 58
Northwestern 53 48 48
Minnesota 56 52 55
Purdue 69 72 71

What do all these numbers mean? Well, the first thing that jumps out is that no one from the West is ready to compete nationally. We’ll talk more later about why recruiting ratings matter, but here’s a fascinating bit of statistical analysis from Stewart Mandel of FOX Sports.

Power 5 teams (of which there are 65) that consistently recruit Top 20 classes have a 60 percent chance of becoming a Top 20 program and a 35 percent chance of regularly inhabiting the Top 10.

By contrast, Power 5 teams that finish outside the Top 20 in recruiting have a lower than 18 percent chance of fielding Top 20 teams and just a 6.7 percent chance of reaching the Top 10.

The only team that’s even close to consistent top 20 recruiting performance from the B1G West is Nebraska, but as you can see from the five-year ranking, even that has been buoyed by recent performance.

This, by the way, is precisely the point where those college football fans who disdain recruiting rankings (such as Keyshawn Johnson, by the way, as told to Erin Sorensen of Hail Varsity) will point out that Wisconsin has been one of the most consistent national powers over the last ten years, and that Iowa is only one season removed from an undefeated regular season and being one play from the College Football Playoff.

Wisconsin is a fair point. The Badgers have been in the final AP Top 25 every year since 2013, topping out at no. 9 this year. And in 2012, Wisconsin won the B1G (although I don’t remember what happened in the conference title game) and played in the Rose Bowl.

But that means Wisconsin is dramatically overperforming its overall talent. It does so by recruiting to a system and narrowly focusing on players that are good fits for that system (which might sound like some other guy Nebraska fans have heard of). It’s a valid strategy, as Wisconsin has clearly proven. But it also means you have to significantly outcoach opposing teams and consistently either unearth diamonds in the rough or develop average players into top-flight college performers.

That’s tough to sustain. Just as Michigan State, which follows a similar model to Wisconsin and endured a 4-8 season one year after a College Football Playoff appearance.

Well, how about Iowa? No one is going to take last year’s 12-0 performance away from the Hawkeyes. But it was also in large part the product of the stars aligning and the schedule softening. Outside of that magical 2012 run (which, unfortunately, ended with a bit of a thud), Iowa hasn’t lost fewer than five games since 2009. That would suggest 2012 was an outlier, and Iowa’s performance is about what a team that recruits in the forties nationally should expect.

Yes, Nebraska’s time in the B1G has not been as productive in the trophy cabinet as Husker Fan would have liked or expected. But, the bottom line is that Nebraska should have a clear talent advantage over the rest of its divisional rivals. Even more encouraging, Nebraska is one of only four teams in the B1G West (along with Iowa, Illinois, and Purdue) that is improving on its five-year average, suggesting positive momentum in recruiting. Now, it just needs to start translating that recruiting advantage to wins on the field and trips to Indianapolis in December.

Super Six (and a Sleeper)

It wouldn’t be a National Signing Day piece without an obligatory review of the signing class. So here is the official Double Extra Point Super Six for Nebraska’s 2017 class:

No. 6: Kurt Rafdal / Austin Allen (TE)

OK, OK, I know I’m cheating by listing both of them. But these are two impressive-looking tight end prospects coming to Lincoln. Rafdal is six-foot-seven and 230 pounds, while Allen in six-foot-eight and 210 pounds. Both are offensive weapons, and with the potential for a quarterback to truly spread the field, they should be able to create mismatches and allow the tight end to (finally) become a vital cog in Nebraska’s offensive engine.

No. 5: Brendan Jaimes (OT)

As with just about any offensive lineman, Jaimes will probably need a redshirt season to get himself physically able to handle life in the B1G. But he has the frame (six-foot-five, 250 pounds) and the skill set to be Nebraska’s left tackle from 2019 going forward.

No. 4: Guy Thomas (DE/OLB)

There’s a reason Nebraska fans were holding their collective breath on Signing Day to see if Thomas was still “N.” There’s nothing more valuable on defense than a natural pass rusher, something Nebraska has been without since Randy Gregory. Thomas probably isn’t a Gregory-level player, but he’s the closest thing in this class to a player that can heat up opposing quarterbacks. He’ll likely slide to an outside linebacker in Diaco’s 3-4 scheme, which should make him more dangerous as a pass rusher.

No. 3: Tyjon Lindsey (WR)

There’s a reason Urban Meyer wanted this kid to play in the Shoe. Lindsey is a game-changing playmaker with speed and moves and hands to score on offense and on special teams. Given his size (five-foot-nine, 161 pounds), he would be expected to at least start out in the slot. But given his talent, don’t be surprised if he ends up being able to play as an outside receiver. With Nebraska transitioning to a more quarterback-accurate offense, a player like Lindsey has the chance to make an immediate impact.

No. 2: Keyshawn Johnson Jr. (WR)

It’s unfortunate that Johnson’s talent is going to be lost in the shuffle a little, given his famous father and the expectations that brings. I expect Johnson to be an impressive contributor on the field, a bit in the Jordan Westerkamp mode in terms of the type of receiver he is.

But Johnson’s impact on Nebraska, both this year and going forward, is the buzz his commitment and continued recruiting has given NU. The “Calibraska” movement doesn’t happen without Johnson’s energetic commitment, and Nebraska’s recruiting momentum likely doesn’t take hold without that Calibraska movement.

So regardless of what his on-field contributions will be – and, again, I think Johnson is going to surprise with how well he plays – in a sense he’s already done his job for Nebraska.

No. 1: Damion Daniels (DT)

Daniels might not be the best player in the 2017 class. But he might be the most important. With Nebraska migrating to a 3-4 defense under Diaco, it is going to need a big run-stuffer to play the nose tackle, one that eventually will have the size to play “two-gap” on both sides of the center.

Daniels is six-foot-three and 315 pounds as a high school senior. He’s got the frame to be that true nose tackle in the future – with an outside shot of the future being 2017 if he has a good spring.

Sleeper: Ben Miles (FB)

Yeah, it was cool to see the Mad Hatter don a Nebraska lid on ESPN. But Les Miles’ boy can play. He’s an effective lead blocker, and a good enough athlete to be deployed as an H-back or even out of the slot as a receiver. He’ll play on special teams, and has a shot to be a four-year contributor.

Remember Andy Janovich’s senior campaign in 2015, and all the what-might-have-beens (such as those raised by a smart and particularly handsome analyst) if he would have been given a more featured role in Nebraska’s offense? Well, with Miles we might get to answer some of those questions.

Nebraska Football: Banker Dismissal Shows Riley Dead Serious About Winning

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Who is this guy, Husker Fans were asking when Mike Riley pulled up with his bicycle and hybrid car from the West Coast to replace Bo Pelini? How can the genial 62-year-old (at the time), the fans wondered, be up to the task of bringing Nebraska back?

And when Nebraska had his team at 3-6 after a loss to Purdue last year, and still maintained his calm and friendly professionalism, fans were ready to pounce. Say it with me, Husker Fan, you know you heard at least someone who said it:

“He’s just too nice of a guy to be a winner.”

Well, he hasn’t proved himself to be a winner yet. Nebraska’s 9-4 season, although a dramatic improvement from last year, was not good enough given the blowout losses to Ohio State, Iowa (!), and Tennessee.

And he’s still a nice guy. At no point did you see Riley losing his mind on the sideline, or being surly and immature to the media, like a certain former head coach was known to do from time to time.

But don’t let Riley’s genial nature fool you. When it comes to putting a winning program together, Riley is a stone cold killer.

This season, it started with the dismissal of special teams coach Bruce Read, who had been with Riley for 16 seasons. But Nebraska’s disastrous performance in special teams this season (two blocked punts and the disappearance of De’Mornay Pierson-El) made Read’s dismissal almost a necessity.

But then Riley dropped the hammer on his longtime friend and defensive coordinator, Mark Banker, declining to renew his contract. Dismissing Banker is so much of a bigger statement than Read, in part because of the relationship between the two men. Since 1996, there’s only been one year where the two haven’t worked together. Banker has been Riley’s defensive coordinator for the last 14 years. In Corvallis, Riley stuck with Banker over vociferous protests from the Oregon State faithful.

At Nebraska? Two seasons in, Riley dismisses Banker after the defense gets better. Nebraska was no. 64 in total defense in 2015, and no. 30 last year (according to cfbstats.com).

So what gives? Well, the defensive performances against Ohio State and Iowa (!) certainly didn’t inspire confidence. And Nebraska’s abject defensive showing against Tennessee may have been the final nail in Banker’s coffin with regards to his career in Lincoln.

What may have been as important, though, is Banker’s lack of production in recruiting. Here is the list of Nebraska’s current 2017 commit list, from 247 Sports. One thing that is distinctively missing from this list is a bunch of players recruited by Banker. Given the pressure put on Riley by athletic director Shawn Eichorst to improve Nebraska’s talent level (according to Steven M. Sipple of the Lincoln Journal-Star), it shouldn’t be a surprise that Riley acted decisively to improve Nebraska’s ability to recruit top-level talent.

But it may not have been just about Eichorst. Banker said that his relationship with Riley in Lincoln was different than it had been at other stops (according to Sipple from the Lincoln Journal-Star)

“But the communication from the top down — it was basically (offensive coordinator) Danny (Langsdorf) and I, and Bruce Read for that matter, were given the information we needed to have when we needed to have it, and that was it.

“Nothing would ever transpire like that because there was never any frank conversations like that.

“I don’t know why it was like that (at Nebraska),” Banker said. “I don’t have any idea.”

That gives some insight about Riley’s mindset, since he’s arrived in Lincoln. Remember, he looked like he was a lifer in Corvallis. But he shocked the world to take what is almost certainly his last coaching job – and his last opportunity to win on the national stage.

Banker has been replaced by Bob Diaco, who was the architect of Notre Dame’s defense from 2010-2013, helping to take the Irish to the 2012 BCS title game. Diaco will be making $825,000/year next season, in comparison to Banker’s $580,000/year salary. So Nebraska is demonstrating a willingness to open its checkbook to compete with the rest of the country for quality assistants.

But the important thing is this. Remember the discussion earlier about whether a four-loss season would be viewed as acceptable for Nebraska? Eichorst showed clearly that it wasn’t. And now Riley has shown it wasn’t, firing his long-time friend – over the phone, no less, because he didn’t want to interrupt recruiting – in an attempt to make things better.

Remember when Bill Callahan was faced with this same question? He held on to long-time friend Kevin Cosgrove, which led to the disastrous 2007 campaign and Callahan’s outser. After Pelini had to fire his brother Carl as defensive coordinator, Bo had a chance to hire an experienced coach to bolster his staff.

Instead, Pelini promoted John Papuchis as defensive coordinator in 2012. By 2014, Pelini and Papuchis were gone, and the Blackshirts were never better than no. 35 nationally in total defense.

Riley has acted decisively where his predecessors were either unable or unwilling to do so. It’s no guarantee of success, of course. But at the very least, Riley has made it crystal clear that Nebraska’s 2016 performance – getting back to the four-loss level, an improvement from 2015 – is not only not good enough, but worthy of a significant staff shakeup.

Nebraska Football: Four Equations To Explain Cornhuskers’ 2016 Season and Beyond

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“Meet the new boss, same as the old boss.”

– Won’t Get Fooled Again, The Who

Nebraska ended the 2016 season with a very familiar 9-4 record after a 38-24 drubbing in the Music City Bowl by Tennessee. After getting teased by an overtime loss in Camp Randall against Wisconsin, Nebraska fell apart and lost ugly against the best remaining teams on its schedule.

So how should Nebraska fans feel about where NU is in year two of Mike Riley’s tenure in Lincoln? Here’s four equations (because, let’s face it, what describes football better than a mathematical formula) that help inform how to think about where Nebraska is now, and where it will be going forward.

9-4 > 6-7

Yeah, the end of the 2016 wasn’t really fun, was it, Husker Fan? After a narrow loss to Wisconsin, many pundits (including this dope) thought Nebraska was ready for prime time against Ohio State.

Whoops. The Buckeyes’ 62-3 humiliation of Nebraska started NU down a slippery slope from which it could never really recover, and ugly losses to Iowa (still think it’s not a rivalry, Husker Fan?) and Tennessee made the fanbase truly question the direction of the program.

That’s probably a good thing in terms of demonstrating a fanbase unwilling to accept poor results. But everyone upset about 9-4 should really remember where NU was a year ago, at 3-6 after losing to Purdue and in danger of a truly ugly campaign.

So there’s plenty to be upset, or at least disappointed, about for Nebraska in 2016. But it shouldn’t be lost on anyone that a return to the four-loss valley is still a significant improvement from last year.

Four losses = four losses

At the start of the 2016 campaign, I was still wrestling with a question raised by @CountIstvan, who criticized the Riley hire by expressing frustration that a four-loss season in year three – basically getting Nebraska back to the Bo Pelini level – would be viewed as acceptable. As a result, he argued, firing Pelini and hiring a guy who needed three years to get to Pelini’s level of production was a waste of time.

I argued then, as I do now, that a combination of an improved culture and better recruiting means Nebraska could be seen as moving forward even if the results in wins and losses didn’t show up yet.

But no one who follows Nebraska can honestly say that the fallout from 2016 doesn’t feel a whole lot like the fallout from 2013, or 2012, or pretty much every Pelini season. Following a Nebraska team that wins the games it probably should, but gets embarrassed on a national stage.

To be fair, the response of the Nebraska faithful has made it pretty clear that where NU is right now isn’t acceptable. Athletic director Shawn Eichorst has said just as much (in an interview with Steven M. Sipple of the Lincoln Journal-Star) in terms of both winning percentage and talent level – that where Nebraska is right now isn’t good enough.

50.3 < 62.5

It’s simplistic and reductive to say that there is one thing that is the reason why Nebraska struggled in 2016. If you were looking for one candidate, you very well could argue an inability to be competitive on the offensive line.

But after watching the 2016 season unfold, I’m convinced a big part of the story can be told in the completion percentage number. Nebraska’s season completion percentage in 2016 was 50.3 percent. In comparison, the completion percentage of B1G West champion Wisconsin was 62.5 percent.

I think it’s a fair comparison. Wisconsin was far from a prolific passing offense. But completing passes at that rate allows an offense to be efficient and stay on the field, giving its team a chance to succeed.

Nebraska’s completion percentage in 2016 was simply not good enough for NU to be competitive. Starting next year, it is a virtual certainty that the percentage number will increase significantly. It doesn’t guarantee success, of course. But at least it should give Nebraska a fighting chance.

33 > 44

(Yes, I know that thirty-three is actually less than forty-four. Just go with me for a minute.)

So if we put Wisconsin as Nebraska’s target for winning the B1G West, then it’s not at all unreasonable to look at where the two schools are at in recruiting. Even after a disastrous Army All-American weekend that saw Nebraska net zero commits, NU still sits at no. 33 nationally (according to 247 Sports). Wisconsin, by comparison, sits at no. 44.

Now, to be clear, no. 33 isn’t good enough. Nebraska has 5-7 slots available, and has to close the deal on some of the highly-touted recruits it is targeting if it wants to get back to national prominence. But the first step in that road to recovery is to win the B1G West, and that means out-recruiting (and ultimately outplaying) your divisional rivals.

Wisconsin is the king of the hill at this point. Iowa is coming off a 12-0 season last year. Northwestern will always over-achieve so long as Pat Fitzgerald is coaching in Evanston. Purdue and Minnesota just hired exciting and innovative coaches. So it’s important that Nebraska is able to put enough talent on the field to win – as Eichorst said when firing Pelini – the “games that matter.”

Nebraska Football: NU Re-View, Tennessee 38, Nebraska 24

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Nebraska won’t get another post-season lift from a bowl win, falling to Tennessee in the Music City Bowl 38-24. Injuries and suspensions challenged Nebraska, with quarterback Tommy Armstrong, wide receiver Jordan Westerkamp, and safety Nate Gerry out for the game. But those absences don’t account for Tennessee quarterback Josh Dobbs having a career game with 291 yards in the air and another 118 on the ground. Nor could it account for defensive end Derek Barnett dominating and disrupting Nebraska’s entire offensive line. So, in looking back at Nebraska’s final game of the 2016 season …

THE GOOD

Oh hai Brandon! If Nebraska had any shot to win this game, particularly after falling behind 14-0 (and having starting I-back Terrell Newby go out with injury in the first half), it was going to be on the sticky gloves of wide receiver Brandon Reilly. Reilly ended the game with four catches for 98 yards and two touchdowns, and (when quarterback Ryker Fyfe had time to throw) provided a downfield threat that could help neutralized Tennessee’s dominance of NU’s offensive line.

Going out in style. OK, here’s two quarterback stat lines. Tell me if you see any similarities.

QB1: 14-27 for 199 yards, 1 touchdown, 11 carries for 46 yards and one touchdown rushing.

QB2: 17-36 for 243 yards passing, 2 touchdowns, 8 carries for 14 yards and one touchdown rushing.

Any ideas? QB2 was Fyfe’s line in the Music City Bowl. QB1? Armstrong’s average stats for the 2016 season. In part, that’s a reflection of how well Fyfe played, particularly with his non-throwing wrist still in a cast. In part, though, it’s also a reflection of how Armstrong did not end with the senior campaign he – and Nebraska fans – were hoping for.

$450,000 saved. Who needs a special teams coach? Freshman punter Caleb Lightborn was called into duty far more than Nebraska would have liked, but performed admirably, averaging 42.7 yards per punt on his seven attempts. Placekicker Drew Brown hit his only field goal attempt to help keep Nebraska within striking distance. And freshman JoJo Domann caused a fumble on a kickoff that got Nebraska the ball back and helped NU get within one score. Nebraska was outplayed fairly decisively in most elements of the game, but won the battle on special teams.

THE BAD

It all starts up front. Sure, Barnett is a future NFL defensive end. But he, and the rest of Tennessee’s defensive front, simply outclassed Nebraska’s offensive line throughout the game. When Fyfe had time to throw, he was relatively effective. But far too often, there were Volunteers in Nebraska’s backfield almost as soon as the ball got back to Fyfe.

The story was the same on the other side of the ball, too. Nebraska was unable to pressure Tennessee with four, and once the Blackshirts started blitzing then Tennessee was able to take advantage of NU’s secondary. Combined with poor tackling (more on that in a moment), Nebraska’s inability to compete on either line was the single biggest determinative of this game’s result.

Defensive fundamentals. It’s not like Nebraska didn’t have its opportunities. But particularly at the linebacker position, Nebraska struggled with poor pursuit angles and poor tackling. Given Tennessee’s talent advantage, Nebraska had little room for error. So when Nebraska would let Tennessee off the hook on third down by missed tackles, the result was predictable.

M.A.S.H. Unit football. Yeah, there’s no excuses in football. But geez, it’s hard to really understand how much to take away from the Music City Bowl given Nebraska’s roster issues. Nebraska started out down its starting quarterback, no. 1 wide receiver, and staring safety. Then, during the game, Nebraska lost its starting I-back (Newby) and its no. 2 safety (Antonio Reed). In a game where Nebraska had a talent deficit coming in, it was a bridge too far asking NU to overcome those losses.

AND THE TRUE END OF AN ERA

Somehow, ending the season with four losses – one of the defining traits of Nebraska under former head coach Bo Pelini – seems fitting. The end of the 2016 season sees the departure of players like Armstrong, Westerkamp, and Gerry, fine players and leaders but definitely carrying the hallmarks of the previous administration. Head coach Mike Riley was always going to be in a strange position taking over for Pelini with Armstrong as his signal-caller and with defensive coordinator Mark Banker trying to re-make the Blackshirts.

Next season, the page will well and truly be turned, and year three of Riley’s regime will really feel like the first real Riley football team. Whether that will be good enough to get Nebraska where it sees itself – competing for conference titles – remains to be seen. Athletic director Shawn Eichorst made it clear, though, that there are still high expectations for Riley in recruiting as well as results (in an interview with Sam McKewon of the Omaha World-Herald).

That’s a good thing. Four-loss seasons weren’t good enough when Pelini was in charge (although his dismissal was not entirely caused by them), and Eichorst has made it clear that they aren’t good enough in the long-term for Riley. With a depleted Nebraska squad falling to an SEC team in a bowl, Husker Fan has truly seen the closing of the Pelini Era of Nebraska football. What comes next will be fascinating to watch in 2017.

Nebraska Football: NU ReView, Wisconsin 23, Nebraska 17

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Nebraska suffered its first loss of the season in heartbreaking fashion, falling in overtime 23-17 to Wisconsin in Madison. After being behind 17-7 going into the fourth quarter, Nebraska scored twice to tie the game, but ultimately was not able to answer Wisconsin’s overtime touchdown. So, for Nebraska fans looking back on the game against Wisconsin …

The Good

Breaking the Wall. Nebraska had no business being successful running the ball at one of the best rushing defenses in the country. Injuries to the offensive line coming into the game made Nebraska’s ability to create space a huge question mark. And when guard Tanner Farmer was carted off the field in the first half, it became difficult to see how Nebraska was going to do much of anything on offense.

But Nebraska still ended the game with 152 yards rushing on 44 attempts. Yeah, it was only 3.5 yards per carry. Terrell Newby led the way with 78 yards on 17 rushes. And while Nebraska’s running attack certainly won’t win any awards, it helped to keep the offense on the field and keep Wisconsin’s defense honest.

Even with a hurting offensive line, Nebraska had 44 rushes to 31 pass attempts, demonstrating a commitment to the run and an offensive game plan. And that plan was oh-so-nearly good enough to get the job done.

Front Four. Nebraska’s defensive front had been a question coming into the season, especially with the departures of Maliek Collins and Vincent Valentine. But against Wisconsin, the front four played one of its best games of the season. Nebraska’s two sacks came from the interior of the line, one from Mick Stoltenberg and one from Carlos Davis.

And Wisconsin, while ultimately doing well against Nebraska on the ground, had to move to the edges to find success. Against an imposing Wisconsin offensive line, Nebraska’s defensive front was more than able to hold its own.

Fourth Quarter Fortitude. Well, here we go again. Nebraska entered the fourth quarter down ten, and in danger of seeing the game slip away. But rather than crumble, Nebraska dug in, scoring early to get the game closer, then getting two Nate Gerry interceptions to allow NU’s offense to tie the score.

Last year, a combination of a new coaching staff and a string of heartbreaking losses tore at the fragility of Nebraska’s psyche. This year, this group of Cornhuskers has definitely achieved a level of confidence to keep swinging late into a contest.

The Bad

Tommy’s Troubles. It is really, really hard to write negative things about Tommy Armstrong. He is such a tough competitor, and such an inspirational character and leader for the team. Going through what he has, with a coaching change and an entire shift in offensive philosophy, is one of the most difficult thing for a quarterback to handle.

The numbers, though, speak for themselves. Armstrong was 12 of 31 for 153 yards, and two interceptions. He had 13 carries for 47 yards. Yes, he made some clutch plays – that’s what Armstrong does, to be certain.

But as compelling as Nebraska’s comeback was – indeed, its play throughout the game – Armstrong’s contribution to that comeback was limited at best. A sharper performance from the quarterback position may very well have been the difference in Nebraska finally putting its Camp Randall ghosts to rest.

Getting Stretched. At the start of the game, Nebraska was having a great deal of success against Wisconsin’s running game. Corey Clement, the Badgers’ starting tailback, was limited to 82 yards on 19 carries. The interior of Nebraska’s defensive line was handling Wisconsin’s attack.

But Wisconsin brought in Dare Ogunbowale, and began to attack Nebraska with stretch concepts, meaning a running play where the offensive line and running back go at an angle to one side with the hope of “stretching” the defense out until a running back can get through a crease in the stretch.

That’s just what Ogunbowale did to great effect, rushing for 120 yards on 11 carries. The big hits that Wisconsin created off of those stretch plays were ultimately the difference that allowed the Badgers to win an incredibly tight contest.

Those No-Calls. On Wisconsin’s first touchdown, defensive end Ross Dzuris was pretty clearly held going after Wisconsin quarterback Alex Hornibrook. Nebraska receiver Stanley Morgan was arguably interfered with on a critical pass attempt. And on third down in overtime, Jordan Westerkamp was body-checked by Wisconsin linebacker Ryan Connelly, with no pass interference called. The Badgers were not flagged once for holding.

Stop it. Just stop it, Husker Fan. Yes, there’s an argument that there were some missed calls in the game. Much like you, my arms were raised in righteous indignation when the flags remain in officials’ pockets.

But you just can’t go there. It’s loser talk, as I remind my kids when they want to bellyache about an umpire’s calls. Nebraska has gotten, and will get, its share of calls, and you won’t remember those for more than five seconds when they go your way. Letting yourself fall into a “we wuz robbed” mentality won’t do anything more than raise your blood pressure even more than being on this roller-coaster of sports fandom already does.

Besides, Nebraska had plenty of opportunities to win this game. There’s plenty of questions to raise about what could have been different to escape Madison with a record unblemished.

Wisconsin won because Wisconsin played a hell of a game. Nebraska lost because Nebraska played a hell of a game, but came up a few plays short. Leave it there – both because it’s right and because it’s far better for your mental health.

And The Moral Victory

OK, I’ll admit it. In the throes of the overtime, I wasn’t terribly interested in hearing the “win or lose, Nebraska has proved itself” narrative. I might have gotten a little shouty about it on Twitter.

But Sherman, set the WayBack Machine for November 15, 2014. With 14:12 to go in the second quarter, Nebraska led Wisconsin 17-3 and had the ball. It looked like – after so long – Nebraska was finally going to play well on a national stage and take a step back towards national recognition.

After that, well, let’s just say that the Huskers.com recap tells the story of Wisconsin’s 59-24 win:

Melvin Gordon ran for an NCAA FBS record 408 yards and four TDs on 25 carries, as Wisconsin rushed for 581 yards and reeled off 56 unanswered points. Gordon set the record despite sitting out the fourth quarter. (Emphasis added)

Nebraska fans had been accustomed to seeing those embarrassing losses on national television. Indeed, one smart and particularly handsome analyst pointed out that epic collapses like that were the defining characteristic of the Bo Pelini era.

You remember that, don’t you Husker Fan? Spending a week or so getting excited for a game, settling in with your diet soda and taco-flavored Doritos to watch a prime-time Nebraska showdown for big stakes? Luxuriating in the national attention brought to you by college football’s pundits discussing the scarlet and cream alongside all the other national powerhouses? Seeing “Nebraska” flash amongst all the other teams in the mix for those coveted four spots in the College Football Playoff commercials?

For years – probably since the 2010 Big XII Championship Game against Oklahoma – Nebraska was buried in those games quickly. Here’s what the halftime scores were for Nebraska against top-15 teams (and Wisconsin):

Wisconsin 2011 UW 27, NU 14 (NU lost 48-17)
Michigan State 2011 NU 10, MSU 3 (NU won 24-3)
South Carolina 2012 USC 16, NU 13 (NU lost 30-13)
Ohio State 2012 OSU 35, NU 24 (NU lost 63-38)
Wisconsin 2012 UW 42, NU 10 (NU lost 70-31)
Georgia 2013 NU 24, UGA 23 (NU lost 45-31)
Michigan State 2013 MSU 20, NU 3 (NU lost 41-28)
Michigan State 2014 MSU 17, NU 0 (NU lost 27-22)
Wisconsin 2014 NU 27, UW 24 (NU lost 59-24)

Under two seasons with Riley, Nebraska has played two teams ranked in the top ten, and four ranked teams in total. Nebraska beat no. 6 Michigan State 39-38 and lost to no. 3 Iowa 28-20 in 2015, and beat no. 22 Oregon 35-32 and lost to no. 11 Wisconsin 23-17 in overtime this year.

Notice something? One point win. Eight point loss. Three point win. Six point loss.

Yes, Nebraska is 2-2 in those games. But that’s the point. Nebraska is in those games. Husker Fan has something to do in the fourth quarter of those big games other than turn of Twitter and see what’s on sale at Restoration Hardware.

That’s reason to hope. Reason to think that Nebraska just might be on the verge of winning more of these games, and of bringing in the quality and quantity of players necessary to win those games on a consistent basis.

Now, let’s be clear. Coming close and losing isn’t good enough, certainly in the long run. Putting up a fight as a plucky underdog and gaining respect in the loss is still a loss, and moral victories won’t get Nebraska where it wants to go, where the program and the fanbase envision it and expect it to be on the national stage.

In the long run, it’s not good enough. But as a salve for the wounds of blowouts past, for the exhausting energy to keep the faith with the scarlet and cream year after year, through all kinds of weather, it’s a start. Not the finish, to be sure, but just maybe this is the tangible evidence that Nebraska is finding a way to come in from the long winter’s night of irrelevance.

Bring on the Buckeyes.

Nebraska Football: NU ReView, Nebraska 27, Indiana 22

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Nebraska survived what might have been the trickiest game on its schedule to date, traveling to Bloomington and beating Indiana 27-22. After roaring out to a 17-0 lead, Nebraska held on for dear life, getting a long fourth-quarter drive to finally put the game out of reach. So for Nebraska fans watching the Indiana game …

The Good

Fast Start. Indiana became a trendy pick to upset Nebraska. Even this dope thought Nebraska would get stung in Bloomington at the start of the season. So if Nebraska was going to avoid an upset on the road, it needed to get out of the gates quickly—something it has not excelled at this season.

Well, Judas Priest, Nebraska delivered on that score. Nebraska scored ten points on its first two offensive possessions, then cornerback Chris Jones intercepted a Richard Lagow pass and took it back for a touchdown to give NU a 17-0 lead with 4:33 left in the first quarter.

That’s how you start a game to avoid an upset. Of course, things didn’t continue to go as well game wore on (more on that later), but Nebraska at the very least now has a blueprint for how to start well on the road.

Defensive Masterclass. Nebraska’s offense was … well, it wasn’t the best we’ve seen. But the Blackshirts more than made up for NU’s offensive woes with a dominant performance. The Hoosiers were held to 4.8 yards per play, far fewer than the 5.98 Indiana has averaged this season. Indiana was held to 5-for-15 on third down, and 0-2 on fourth down, meaning that the Blackshirts were able to get stops at critical times.

Last season, it was fair to wonder if Nebraska’s defense would ever be a strength for the squad. On Saturday, the defense was able to help Nebraska survive and advance in the B1G this season.

Gritty Ending. We had all heard the stories about how dominant Nebraska had been in the fourth quarter this season. You know, 78-6 and all. But this game wasn’t about fourth quarter dominance so much as having the mental strength to make the final plays when needed at the end of the game.

After Tommy Armstrong hit Stanley Morgan for a 72-yard touchdown, Nebraska looked ready to pull away and finish off the Hoosiers. But Indiana responded with a five-play, 85-yard drive in just 1:13 to bring the score back to 24-22. Rather than a fourth quarter domination, Nebraska was faced with a challenge late in the contest and on the road.

And Nebraska responded. Perhaps most importantly, with 8:26 left in the game, NU ripped off a 15-play, 60-yard drive that took 7:41 off the clock. While the drive only resulted in a field goal, it left Indiana with only 45 seconds to respond, and needing a touchdown. That pressure undoubtedly contributed to the game-sealing interception by Aaron Williams.

So not only has Nebraska demonstrated an ability to dominate lesser opponents late in games, it has also shown that it has the ability to grit out a win on the road against a salty conference foe.

The Bad

The Stuff In The Middle. Nebraska’s first quarter against Indiana was awesome. Nebraska’s last drive to salt the game away, combined with the game-sealing interception, was tremendous.

Everything between those two events? Eh ….

Nebraska was 5-of-15 on third down against Indiana. Tommy Armstrong was 10-for-26 passing, with two interceptions to go with his two touchdowns. On the ground, Nebraska was held to 3.4 yards per attempted rush, down from a season average of 4.69 (according to cfbstats.com). And those numbers are for the entire game, not just the lull between the good parts.

Nebraska went nine – nine – possessions without a point against Indiana. It’s tough to weather a dry spell like that – and Nebraska very nearly did not.

Depth Charges. Yeah, yeah, football is a tough game, and injuries aren’t an excuse for anything. That’s true, if somewhat simplistic. But, good heavens, does Nebraska have some depth problems.

With injuries to Nick Gates and David Knevel, Nebraska will be down to two healthy offensive linemen that started the season. Top wide receiver Jordan Westerkamp was out against Indiana, as was top tight end Cethan Carter. Alonzo Moore was hampered with injury, as was Devine Ozigbo.

And that was coming off a bye week.

Nebraska will face Purdue on Saturday, which just fired its head coach. Assuming the MASH unit that is Nebraska’s offense can get by the Boilermakers, it still makes for heavy weather when Nebraska looks at trips in consecutive weeks to Wisconsin and Ohio State.

Dropped Kicks. It’s hard to complain about Nebraska’s special teams when placekicker Drew Brown is 5-6 in field goals and 26-26 in extra points. But Nebraska’s punting game has left something to be desired. It’s not fair, of course, to be overly-critical of true freshman Caleb Lightbourn, who was thrust into the position of starting punter after the death of Sam Foltz.

But it is inarguable that Nebraska’s punting game has been a liability. With two blocks on the season, Nebraska has now had a punt blocked once every three games. Against Indiana, the blocked punt notched two points for the Hoosiers on a safety as the ball squirted through the end zone – and could easily have been six.

More importantly, though, the blocked punt provided a spark for Indiana and seemed to rattle Nebraska more than a little bit. While neither blocked punt has cost Nebraska a game, clearly against the more difficult opposition NU is about to face, it cannot afford to be surrendering that yardage and momentum in the future.

And BOWL ELIGIBLE!!!!!11!!!1!!

Sherman, set the WayBack Machine for October 31, 2015. It’s not quite a year ago, but given what’s happened in between it can feel like an eternity. So let’s look back at where Nebraska was on Hallowe’en one year ago. After a glimmer of hope with a 48-25 defeat of Minnesota in Minneapolis, Nebraska lost to Northwestern in Lincoln. And then came the trip to Purdue, with an injured Armstrong giving way to Ryker Fyfe and Nebraska losing 55-45 to arguably the worst team to beat NU in the last decade.

At that point, Nebraska was 3-6 under new head coach Mike Riley. The fanbase was in a mixture of rage, shock, and horror.

Fast forward to the present, and Nebraska fans are reading about NU’s chance to make the College Football Playoff. They are engaging in their favorite pastime, loathing ESPN’s Kirk Herbstriet for mocking Nebraska being a top-10 team.

Say what you will about ESPN’s sarcastic chuckling, but remember this. Nebraska is ranked in the top ten! Less than a year after being 3-6 and losing to freaking Purdue!

Nebraska has quite a gauntlet to run in the next few weeks (after Saturday’s contest against Purdue), with three of the five games being road contests at Wisconsin, Ohio State, and Iowa. The glittering undefeated season may look as bruised as Armstrong’s ankle in a few weeks.

So if and when that happens, Husker Fan, please don’t forget where we’ve been in the last year. Yes, it would be great to see Nebraska go 12-0 and reprise Iowa’s 2015 season (although hopefully with a better bowl outcome).

But don’t get too greedy. 2016 has been far kinder to Nebraska than anyone had a right to hope for. A bit of a regression to the mean by the end of this season won’t signify failure.

Nebraska Football: NU ReView, Nebraska 31, Illinois 16

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Nebraska fans saw an uninspired Cornhusker team struggle for three quarters against a spirited Illinois squad, before scoring 21 unanswered fourth-quarter points to notch a win that was nowhere near as comfortable as the final score might suggest. My photos of the game are here. So for Nebraska fans looking back on Nebraska’s second conference win of 2016 …

The Good

Stick To The Plan. Nebraska’s plan against Illinois was pretty straightforward. Even though Nebraska trailed for a good part of the game, Nebraska still maintained its run-heavy playcalling. The final tally ended up with Nebraska having 49 rushing attempts to 23 passes, a plan that clearly bore fruit in the fourth quarter against a weary Illini defense.

That helped senior I-back Terrell Newby have a break-out game, finishing with 140 yards on 27 carries and two touchdowns. And it was a far cry from the pass-happy game plan last year against Illinois in Champaign. In head coach Mike Riley’s second year, it’s clear lessons were learned from last year’s campaign.

Bye Bye. At the start of the season, Nebraska’s bye seemed poorly placed. It was early in the season, and Nebraska had two games against lesser competition before its gauntlet of Wisconsin and Ohio State. Getting a breather before Indiana and Purdue, even coming off a 5-7 season, did not seem like an ideal use of a bye week.

But, boy, does Nebraska need the week off now. With an offensive line bearing an uncomfortable resemblance to a MASH unit and injuries to wide receiver Jordan Westerkamp and tight end Cethan Carter still to be determined, Nebraska would be ill-prepared to face another B1G foe – especially one coming off a huge upset of Michigan State. Proving once again how little pre-season predictions mean, the bye week couldn’t have come at a better time for Nebraska.

Rising To The Occasion. Linebacker Michael Rose-Ivey and two of his teammates got quite a bit of attention last week when they knelt during the national anthem before the Northwestern game. Rose-Ivey endured quite a bit of criticism, including from some local politicians (including some that was exceptionally ill-informed, as discussed by this smart and particularly handsome analyst).

Some people around the country have reacted poorly to the athlete’s protests, as evidenced by East Carolina’s fans booing their own band when some knelt during the anthem (according to SB Nation). So in a deep red state (politically, not in a football sense) like Nebraska, it was certainly an open question how NU fans would react when Rose-Ivey’s name was announced in the starting lineups.

Well, Nebraska fans came through. Here’s what Michael Rose, Rose-Ivey’s father, had to say on Twitter about the fans’ cheering of Rose-Ivey’s name.

It’s nice that Nebraska won the game. But this is one time where the ridiculously self-congratulatory moniker foisted on the Sea of Red by former athletic director Steve Pederson, really did ring true. On that cloudy October afternoon, Nebraska fans really were the Greatest Fans In College Football.

The Bad

Next Man Up. By the end of the Illinois game, Nebraska had three players on the offensive line that were backups – at best – at the start of the season. But when an injury to David Knevel pressed walk-on Cole Conrad into duty – playing next to Corey Whitaker, who was making his first start of the season at guard – the depth of Nebraska’s offensive line was called into question.

As discussed above, Nebraska’s bye couldn’t come at a better time. Indiana just beat Michigan State in Bloomington, and Purdue knocked off Nebraska last year. And that’s before Nebraska gets back-to-back trips to Madison and Columbus. If Nebraska is going to continue this run, its offensive line has to produce.

Cashing In. Part of the reason Nebraska struggled against Illinois was because it wasn’t able to take advantage of opportunities it had to score. Four times Nebraska had the ball at the Illinois 42 or closer, and NU got exactly zero points out of those possessions.

It was a similar story against Northwestern last week. Four times, Nebraska had the ball at the Purples’ 41 or closer, and didn’t get a single point from those possessions. Of course, two fumbles at the goal line will help make that particular statistic look worse.

Advanced analytics, like Bill Connelly at SB Nation, use efficiency of offensive performance as one of the key metrics to determine how well a team is playing. Having a number of those empty possessions might help explain why Nebraska is only no. 23 in the most recent S&P+ rating (according to Football Outsiders) while no. 12 in both the AP and coaches’ poll.

Leaving it Late. Yeah, you’ve all heard the number by now. Nebraska has outscored its opponents 78-6 in the fourth quarter. That’s a remarkable achievement, and speaks volume to the resilience and coaching of the team.

But it’s also playing with fire. Perhaps more than any other game this season (other than Oregon), Nebraska’s late-game heroics felt especially needed. Illinois not only took a lead into the fourth quarter, but felt at many points like it could have taken charge and pulled an upset.

Fourth-quarter pull-aways are great, but leave little margin for error. One turnover, one defensive error, or one great play by the opponent could have been enough to render Nebraska’s comeback unsuccessful.

And The How Many

Look, it’s a good thing that Nebraska is 5-0. A very good thing. At this point last year, Nebraska was 2-3. So an undefeated and twelfth-in-the-country Nebraska is awesome for the scarlet and cream faithful, regardless of how it came about.

But as a famous smuggler once said, don’t get cocky. If you feel a little cockiness coming on, just use the bye week to take a glance at how Nebraska’s opponents this year have fared. After losing in Lincoln, Oregon has dropped a game to Colorado (no real shame in that, the Buffs are actually pretty good this year) and Washington State (well …)

Fresno State is 1-4, with its only win over FCS Sacramento State. Yes, Northwestern did beat Iowa last week, but it also lost to FCS Illinois State. Before their game in Lincoln, Illinois got beat at home, 34-10, by Western Michigan. Heck, Wyoming has the best record of all the teams Nebraska has played in 2016 to date.

So Nebraska doesn’t appear to have faced a Murderer’s Row of opponents to earn it’s 5-0 mark. But it’s still 5-0. My golf partners have long since become sick of hearing me, after an ugly shot gets a lucky bounce and ends up on the fairway, that “it ain’t about how, it’s about how many.”

That pithy logic holds true for Nebraska as well. There’s no style points sought after here. Nebraska’s one win away from bowl eligibility in early October, with a trip to Indianapolis entirely in its hands. After last year, Nebraska fans can’t ask for anything more than that.

Nebraska Football: No, You Can’t Kick Players Off The Team For Kneeling During the National Anthem

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On Saturday, prior to Nebraska’s game against Northwestern, defenders Michael Rose-Ivey, DaiShon Neal, and Mohammed Berry knelt during the playing of “The Star Spangled Banner.” The action was a protest, inspired by San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick, to draw attention to the deaths of African-Americans at the hands of police. Rose-Ivey described the rationale for his actions as follows (as quoted by the Omaha World-Herald):

As everyone is aware, this past Saturday, before the game against Northwestern, DaiShon Neal, Mohamed Barry and myself kneeled in solidarity with Colin Kaepernick and many other athletes across the country, both professional and non-professional, who are standing together to use their various platforms to bring awareness about police brutality and the recent deaths of black men and women at the hands of police officers.

To make it clear, I am not anti-police, I am not anti-military, nor am I anti-American. I love my country deeply and I appreciate the freedoms it professes to afford me.

I feel I am obligated to stand up and bring awareness to the social injustices that are not limited to police brutality but also to the policies and laws that discriminate against and hinder the growth and opportunities of people of color, low-income people, women and other marginalized communities.

As a rule, I try to avoid politics and controversy here. While I have my opinions on the Kaepernick-style protests, I decided not to use this forum to share them with the world. If you want a really thoughtful piece on the protests themselves, check out Brandon Cavanaugh’s piece from Today’s U.

I even held fire when Rose-Ivey and the other players – and the predictability of this response was so disheartening – received racist death threats as a result of their actions. Such revoltingly ignorant and evil actions would seem not to need a response – “hey, how about not being a racist bully” doesn’t seem like a particularly hot take – but maybe in 2016 it’s becoming necessary.

Then I read about what University of Nebraska Regent Hal Daub had to say about the protest by the Nebraska players (according to Chris Dunker of the Lincoln Journal-Star):

It’s a free country. They don’t have to play football for the university either.

They know better, and they had better be kicked off the team.

They won’t take the risk to exhibit their free speech in a way that places their circumstance in jeopardy, so let them get out of uniform and do their protesting on somebody else’s nickel,

Those publicity seeking athletes ought to rethink the forum in which they chose to issue their personal views at the expense of everyone else.

(emphasis added)

In addition to following Nebraska football (although my wife would say there’s precious little time for much else, especially in the fall), I have some experience in the law. And when a Nebraska Regent – the elected officials responsible for the entire University of Nebraska system – says in public that football players at a Nebraska university should be kicked off a team, that’s a big deal.

Why? Because that’s clearly unconstitutional.

To understand why, we have to understand what is being asked of the players. Observing “standard” decorum for the National Anthem is asking players – commanding players, in Daub’s view – to make a political statement. There’s no getting around that position. If it wasn’t a political statement – if what you say and how you act during the national anthem doesn’t carry meaning – then the national controversy generated by Kaepernick would not exist.

Nebraska is a state university, which means when it takes an action, it ultimately carries the force of the state of Nebraska behind it. That includes what the university can require football players to do during the National Anthem. And the First Amendment (made applicable to the states by the Fourteenth Amendment) has very clearly been understood to mean that the state cannot mandate a citizen to make a political statement he or she does not want to make.

The most famous United States Supreme Court case about this is probably Wooley v. Maynard, where the Court said the state of New Hampshire could not require citizens to put a license plate on their cars with the state motto of “Live Free Or Die” if that message conflicted with their own personal views. But there are a host of other cases making it clear that the government cannot compel speech from its citizens.

That’s why Daub has it exactly backwards. Rose-Ivey and the others weren’t expressing “personal views at the expense of everyone else” (never mind the argument about how anyone else’s expression of patriotism was affected by someone quietly kneeling). They were declining to participate in a political statement by observing standard decorum for the National Anthem. They were doing so quietly, and in a way that was specifically designed after consultation with veterans to be respectful of the military while still reflecting the message  of the protest (according to Will Brinson of CBS Sports)

And Daub wants to use the power of the state to punish those players for failing to make the political statement he felt the players should make, seeking out the media to criticize the “publicity seeking athletes.”

Now, it’s different if a professional sports league, such as the NFL or NBA, wants to put a rule in place with regards to the National Anthem. The First Amendment protects you from the government, but it doesn’t protect you from your employer (unless you work for the government, of course).

Since the story came out, Daub has now denied saying he said he thought the players should be removed from the team, prompting this headline from Deadspin (and meaning that Daub’s statement has gained national attention and that he probably isn’t going to put this particular cat back in the bag):

Nebraska Regent Calls For Kneeling Players To Be Kicked Off Team Then Tries To Deny It (Filed to: LIARS)

While it doesn’t sound like Daub is going to get a mulligan for this one, it is good that he recognizes his position was untenable. As a lawyer and long-time Congressman, Daub should well know the freedoms guaranteed to all citizens, and that the power of the state cannot be used to compel anyone – even a Nebraska football player – to make a political statement he or she does not want to make.

There’s plenty of room for conversation about the moral justification for the kneeling protest, and people of good faith on both sides can honorably take opposing positions. Pete Ricketts, Nebraska’s Governor, called the protests “disgraceful” but upheld their right to protest (according to Sam McKewon and Emily Nohr of the Omaha World-Herald).

Look, if seeing Nebraska football players kneeling during the National Anthem upsets or offends you, I’m sure it feels good to say that they should be kicked off the team. But the Constitution – the document that ultimately the National Anthem is celebrating – clearly says the state is forbidden to do such a thing.