Nebraska Football: NU ReView, Nebraska 28, Illinois 6

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On what is hopefully not the last Friday game Nebraska plays for a while, NU rolled into Champaign and won a comfortable 28-6 win over Illinois. Even though the Illini held the ball for almost the entire first quarter, Nebraska was efficient on offense and built a comfortable lead that it never relinquished.

The Good

O-Line Optimism. Yes, quarterback Tanner Lee deserves significant praise for an efficient and turnover-free performance. But a significant portion of Lee’s success against Illinois came because the offensive line really performed well (particularly in the first half) protecting their signal-caller and giving him the time to go through his progressions.

Sure, Illinois isn’t very good, and Nebraska’s performance has to be taken in context. But Northern Illinois isn’t very good either, and – well, we all remember what happened there. So getting that good performance has to be nothing but encouraging.

Stanley Morgan. Welcome back, Stan. Wide receiver Stanley Morgan was a game-time decision with a neck injury, but dressed and played. He led Nebraska in receptions (8) and yards (96), including a stiff-arm touchdown and a remarkably physical first down catch to help keep a drive alive and help put the game out of reach early.

The Blackshirts are Back? Yes, this is the soft part of the schedule. But if you take the second half of the Oregon game and extrapolate it to a full game, Nebraska is now averaging allowing 190.8 yards and 5.7 points per game.

I know, I know, Husker Fan, you can’t get visions of Arkansas State bubble screens or Oregon’s 42-point first half out of your mind. I get it. And with Wisconsin and Ohio State coming to town, those averages are sure to go up pretty soon.

But defensive coordinator Bob Diaco’s Blackshirts have put enough good performances down to have some degree of confidence in the defense as the meat of the schedule arrives in Lincoln.

The Bad

Corner Questions. If there was one glaring weakness of Nebraska’s performance against Illinois, it was at cornerback. Eric Lee drew pass interference calls on the first two deep balls he was asked to defend. Lamar Jackson struggled both in coverage and in tackling throughout the night. Against a poor and young offense like Illinois, Nebraska was able to overcome the poor play from the cornerback position.

That won’t be the case as the sharp end of the schedule, namely Wisconsin and Ohio State, comes up.

Stanley Morgan. Yes, Morgan was great against Illinois. But when he wasn’t great, he was kinda terrible. He had at least four drops and a fumble to compliment his offensive production – meaning his game could have been significantly better than it was. Almost assuredly, Morgan wasn’t fully healthy and played hurt. The extra day to prepare for Wisconsin next week might end up being very important for Nebraska.

Not All Sunshine and Roses. Lee’s performance against Illinois looked a lot like the guy Nebraska fans thought they were getting at the start of the 2017 campaign. But when your name starts trending on Twitter after you’ve thrown your third pick-six interception in two games, you know things aren’t going the way you want.

And while Lee’s game against the Illini was cause for hope, there was at least one throw that had to give Nebraska fans flashbacks. In the third quarter, Lee was rolling to his left and pressured. Off his back foot, he put up a wounded duck in the vicinity of tight end Tyler Hoppes, which looked to be an easy interception. Hoppes made a brilliant defensive play to keep the ball in Nebraska’s hands and Lee from going double digits in interceptions.

And The Resumption of Normal Service

Wrap your head around this. Nebraska’s game against Illinois – the fifth of the campaign – was the first game this year where Nebraska didn’t trail at some point in the first quarter. Before this game, Nebraska’s biggest lead at any point in a game this year had been a 10-point advantage in the first half against Arkansas State.

So it was more than a little comforting to see Nebraska up 21-3 over Illinois as the first half expired. Moreover, given how well Nebraska’s defense was playing, at no point was there ever a real concern that Illinois was going to mount a serious comeback. At the start of the season, this dope thought that the combination of a Friday game and Illinois having an extra week to prepare made this game a recipe for a shocker.

Instead, Nebraska flashed back to a more pleasant time for its fans, dominating a less talented team and never really being in danger of losing. Given how the schedule tightens up, this will likely be the last opportunity for Nebraska fans to see such a comfortable win. But it’s certainly good to see Nebraska still remembers how to cruise to a win.

GBR, baby.

Image courtesy of wellbelove.files.wordpress.com.

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Nebraska Football: NU ReView, Nebraska 27, Rutgers 17

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Well, it’s been an eventful week, hasn’t it Husker Fan? A week ago Saturday morning, the fan base was reveling in optimism from a furious comeback against Oregon and wondering if we were seeing the green shoots of optimism.

A week later, Nebraska has lost to Northern Illinois, the program’s worst loss since at least 2004. It’s seen athletic director Shawn Eichorst fired, and the status of head coach Mike Riley – and the 2018 recruiting class he’s been assembling – thrown up in the air.

Oh yeah, and Nebraska had to start conference play against Rutgers. But even with challenges on and off the field, Nebraska ground out a functional 27-17 victory over the visitors from Piscataway, moving to 2-2 overall and 1-0 in conference play.

And, yes, that means Nebraska is in first place in the B1G West. Take a picture, Husker Fan, Lee Corso style.

The Good

Playing the Hand You’re Dealt. In the first two years, Riley had to modify his offense to fit the strengths and weaknesses of his quarterback. Well, with 14:07 left in the third quarter, after current Nebraska quarterback Tanner Lee threw another pick-six interception, Rutgers held a 17-14 lead in Lincoln.

Never mind surviving the season, it wasn’t clear Riley’s job would be safe through the weekend if Nebraska lost to Rutgers. So Riley and offensive coordinator Danny Langsdorf leaned on the run instead, and Nebraska was able to use its depth at I-back to wear out Rutgers and escape with a win.

This Diaco Guy. After the first six quarters, new defensive coordinator Bob Diaco’s handiwork was – well let’s just say called into question. But since then, the Blackshirts have answered the bell. If you extrapolate Oregon’s second-half performance to four quarters, Diaco’s defense has average allowing 188 total yards and 5.6 points per game.

(Of course, that’s not charging Lee’s three pick-six interceptions against Diaco. Elephant, meet living room.)

That’s … pretty good. And with injuries to its two best defensive backs in Chris Jones and Josh Kalu, and losing Aaron Williams to a targeting penalty in the first series of the game against Rutgers. There’s a lot to worry about for Nebraska going forward, but that also might make it easy to miss the leaps and bounds the Blackshirts have made.

A Steady Hand. It’s a bit of an understatement to say that Riley had a bad week. And losing in the third quarter meant that Nebraska was truly staring into the football abyss.

Nevertheless, Nebraska persisted. And that has a lot to do with Riley’s calm, relentlessly positive attitude. If you want to bury Riley for his flaws and limitations, that’s fair. But here’s what Lee had to say about Riley’s coaching of him (according to huskers.com).

Coach Riley has been great with all this, especially this week getting ready to play. After that play he just told me to stay with it and stay settled in and play the game and do what those guys are teaching me. So that was good to hear.

Look, Riley’s dug himself this hole. But at least for one week, Riley has also been able to keep the ship afloat.

The Bad

Hiding Tanner. After Lee’s pick-six, the Red Beast in the Memorial Stadium stands felt like it might be turning on the team. A smattering of boos, greeted Lee as he trotted back onto the field from the home crowd.

After the interception, Nebraska ran the ball 31 times and threw it only 12. To his credit, Lee was 8-for-12 on those throws with a pretty touchdown to De’Mornay Pierson-El. And many of those runs were after Nebraska took a two-score lead, showing Langsdorf has learned his lessons from 2015 Illinois.

But it’s also telling that Nebraska didn’t ask Lee to win a desperately-needed game. Lee was a complimentary piece of Nebraska’s second-half performance to win the game.

That’s exactly what Nebraska should have done against an outmanned Rutgers squad. It almost certainly won’t be good enough as Nebraska gets into the meat of its B1G schedule.

Running Before you can Walk. If you’re a Nebraska fan, it had to be a bit bittersweet to watch the Penn State-Iowa game Saturday evening. After ABC reminded you over and over about Iowa’s success against top-ranked teams in Kinnick, the Hawkeyes put up one of the most Hawkeye performance in history. The Nittany Lions dominated Iowa on the stat sheet throughout the game, but an Akrum Wadley touchdown with one minute left in the game have Iowa the chance for a massive upset. It was only through a wizard-like touchdown throw from Trace McSorley to Juwan Johnson as time expired (coupled with a simply superhuman performance from running back Saquon Barkley) that let Penn State escape Iowa City with playoff dreams intact.

I know, Husker Fan, that’s what you want to see the scarlet and cream doing on national television. That’s what you expect. That’s the target.

But that’s not Nebraska right now. Nebraska right now is a gritty come-from-behind win over Rutgers at home. It’s progress from the week before, to be sure. It’s at least a little water on that seed of hope planted in your Big Red heart.

But just keep the words of Robert Frost in mind as you reflect on Nebraska’s place in the college football world.

The woods are lovely, dark and deep. But I have promises to keep. And miles to go before I sleep. And miles to go before I sleep.

And the Al Davis Rule

Just win, baby.

Yeah, it wasn’t pretty. But this game was an existential threat to Riley’s time in Lincoln. Lose this game, and there’s no coming back. Riley is a dead coach walking, as remainder of the 2017 becomes a dead rubber. At that point, it’s hard to see how Nebraska maintains any of its top-flight recruits currently committed for 2018 and 2019.

So an ugly win is a win. It keeps the patient alive for another week. It’ll be the same on a weirdo Friday night contest in Champaign against a reeling and similarly-outmanned Illinois squad.

You’re not going to see beautiful football from the scarlet and cream next week. There will be parts of the game you’ll be watching through your fingers as you try to hide your eyes.

It doesn’t matter. Survive and advance. Get the Badgers to Memorial Stadium and see what happens. It’s a funny game, with a funny shaped ball, and confidence is a mercurial thing with a group of college kids.

Just win. GBR, baby.

(image courtesy doin-work.com)

Nebraska Football: Three Takeaways from the Firing of Shawn Eichorst

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After Nebraska’s 21-17 loss to Northern Illinois last Saturday, a smart and particularly handsome analyst said that the loss was what the beginning of the end might look like. Well, it looks a lot more like the end after Nebraska’s chancellor Ronnie Green announced that the university had immediately terminated Eichorst’s employment on Thursday.

There’s plenty to digest, but here’s three quick reactions to Eichorst’s ouster.

Riley is coaching for his job

It kinda felt like it even before Thursday’s news broke, but now there’s no question that head coach Mike Riley is fighting to stay in the big chair in Lincoln. An interim athletic director – meaning one who didn’t hire Riley – will be named in the next few days, and it’s almost certain he and Riley will meet and discuss what Riley’s target must be to keep his job.

Is it 7-5, meaning Nebraska wins out except against Wisconsin, Ohio State, and Penn State? Is it 6-6, enough to go to a bowl game? Is it higher? Does it depend on how the record happens as much as what the record is?

That will be up to the interim athletic director, with guidance from the higher powers at the school. But make no mistake, firing Eichorst now was done because Green and university president Hank Bounds saw that there was at least a good chance Riley would have to be fired at the end of 2017.

And if that firing was going to happen, then it makes far more sense to fire Eichorst now. That way, Nebraska isn’t left at the end of 2017 having to hire a new AD, then wait for that AD to come online before initiating a coaching search.

But he’s got a shot to keep it

Green was as emphatic as you could expect with regards to Riley’s status (according to Land of 10).

“Mike Riley is our football coach. We expect him to compete. This is not about Mike Riley,” Green said.

Assuming Riley wants to keep his job, those words – and the swiftness which Nebraska’s higher-ups moved on Eichorst – should sharpen his vision quickly. Riley has nine games left, and will (according to SB Nation’s five-year recruiting averages) have better talent than seven of the nine teams Nebraska will face.

Admittedly, it’s hard to see Nebraska winning one of those games, much less seven, after Saturday’s performance against Northern Illinois. But don’t forget, in 2015 it was hard to imagine Nebraska winning another game after a horrific 55-45 loss to Purdue. Nebraska turned around the next week and knocked off no. 6 Michigan State.

Nebraska doesn’t have to beat the no. 6 team in the country this weekend. It just needs to beat Rutgers, at home, to stop the rot and give itself a chance to salvage the 2017 season – and Riley’s career in Lincoln.

Pelini’s shadow looms over Eichorst

Take a look at what former quarterback Tommy Armstrong had to say on Twitter about Eichorst as news of his firing broke.

And one from former cornerback Josh Mitchell.

That’s quite a bit of venom from two of the strongest leaders from former head coach Bo Pelini’s era. Those guys were there, lived through the whole thing, and we can learn a lot about the team’s mindset listening to them now.

But let’s not forget that their coach, the adult these college kids followed and respected, told them this about Eichorst just after his dismissal (according to the Omaha World-Herald).

“I didn’t really have any relationship with the A.D.,” Pelini said. “The guy, you guys saw him (Sunday), the guy is a total p—-. I mean, he is. He’s a total c—.”

Again, I’m not in any way discounting what Armstrong, Mitchell, or any of the other former Huskers have said about Eichorst and how he handled himself. Heck, check out what Mitchell had to say about Riley.

But I am suggesting that their perceptions of Eichorst may have been colored by the way Pelini chose to handle himself after his dismissal.

And it’s hard not to raise the question about how much lingering bitterness from the team about Pelini’s firing – amplified by Pelini’s own childish and selfish rant – affected the remaining players being able to fully embrace Riley and his new staff.

Look, Nebraska isn’t sitting at 1-2 with a loss to a MAC school because of Bo Pelini. Shawn Eichorst isn’t out of a job because of Bo Pelini. Eichorst’s own ham-fisted handling of the Black Friday scheduling debacle, as noted by a smart and particularly handsome analyst, may very well have been the nail in the coffin of his career in Lincoln.

But the seeds of Eichorst’s dismissal were planted in the way he handled Pelini’s dismissal, and watered by Riley’s underwhelming record over the course of 28 games.

GBR, baby.

 

Nebraska Football: NU ReView, Northern Illinois 21, Nebraska 17

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Nebraska lost to Northern Illinois 21-17 at home, losing to a group-of-five school for the first time since a 2004 loss to Southern Mississippi. The Blackshirts played well after struggling in the first two games, but two first-half pick-six interceptions were the tale of the game. So, in looking back at the contest …

The Good

Blackshirts are Back: Hey, remember when worrying about Nebraska’s defense was a thing? The Blackshirts held Northern Illinois to 213 total yards and one offensive touchdown. Really, except for one long pass right after Nebraska took the lead – which was the prime opportunity for a letdown in the game – Nebraska’s defense answered the bell.

Fourth Down is the New Third Down: This year, Nebraska is 4-for-6 on fourth down conversions. That’s an amazing statistic, not only because of the number of attempts (averaging two per game), but in how often Nebraska has been successful. A combination of bravery and execution in the ultimate do-or-die situation.

The Conference Goals Are Still in Place: Yes, that was ugly, but Nebraska’s goal of winning the B1G West and playing in the conference championship game are …

Don’t. Just, don’t. While the “goals in place” thing might be true, it’s also ignoring the gigantic tire fire burning in the living room. (Don’t ask how the tires got in the living room. It’s a metaphor, go with it.)

The Bad

Tanner from Tulane: I hate to say I told you so, but … a smart and particularly handsome analyst said this about junior transfer quarterback Tanner Lee:

So I understand the desire for some stability. But it’s a recurring theme that amidst all of the uncertainly, the one thing most observers are not worried about for Nebraska is the level of quarterback play under transfer Tanner Lee. Check it out here, and here, and here.

That’s … kinda nuts. I know he was the offensive MVP of the scout team last year, I know he’s looked great in fall practice, and I know that he’s ruggedly handsome.

But he hasn’t played any real football in almost two years. And when he did, at Tulane, he had a career completion percentage of only 53.6 percent and a 1.095 touchdown-to-interception ratio, throwing 23 touchdowns and 21 interceptions.

Let’s take a look at the numbers.

  Completion % TD INT TD/INT Ratio
Arkansas State 59.3 2 0
Oregon 46.3 3 4
Northern Illinois 53.2 0 3
2017 Total 52.5 5 7 0.714
Tulane Total 53.6 23 21 1.095

Lee’s performance at Nebraska looks a heck of a lot like … Lee’s performance at Tulane. And that level of performance is simply not good enough for Nebraska’s offense to be successful.

Sure, Lee’s offensive line didn’t give him much help. And sure, Lee had some critical drops – if Jack Stoll hauls in his fourth-quarter target, Nebraska likely wins this game anyway.

But that’s all part of the package for a quarterback. Lee had three interceptions against Northern Illinois, and was fortunate not to have at least three more given some of the decisions he made.

The season isn’t over, and it would be a colossal shock (absent injury) if Lee isn’t under center against Rutgers next week. Lee won the starting job because he’s the best quarterback on Nebraska’s roster in 2017.

Unless his performance improves significantly, in a hurry, that’s not going to be good enough for Nebraska to salvage even a winning season this year.

Third Down is Still Third Down: Yeah, it’s fun to see Nebraska put it all on the line and convert on fourth down. But coming into this game Nebraska was no. 103 nationally in third down conversions at 32.14 percent. Against Northern Illinois, Nebraska was 3-for-13, or 23 percent, so that national ranking is likely to go down.

That’s not good enough, not even close to good enough. A combination of poor offensive line play and shaky quarterback performance is a huge contribution to Nebraska’s poor showing on third downs this year. It’s likely more symptom than cause, but this is a number to watch if Nebraska is going to get the wheels back on the train this season.

A Confidence Game: Boy, the first drive of the game against Northern Illinois didn’t look like the game would end as it did. Nebraska was in an offensive rhythm, biting off big chunks on the ground and through the air. It looked like Nebraska’s decision to take the ball at the start of the game was going to pay dividends, allowing NU to get an early lead and put some confidence back in the squad.

Then Shawun Lurry made a break on Lee’s bubble screen and went 87 yards for a score. Nebraska looked shell-shocked on offense, never really getting back into rhythm until the third quarter. It wasn’t entirely different from how Nebraska’s defense looked against Oregon last week, after Lee’s interception allowed the Ducks to take an early 14-point lead.

Don’t forget these are still college kids, learning a new system on both offense and defense. In both of Nebraska’s last two games, NU has had to dig itself out of double-digit holes. Nebraska has only held a lead for one minute and 22 seconds in the last two games. That’s going to weigh on the psyche of a team, and might be the biggest hurdle Nebraska faces going forward.

And the Calling of the Question

After Nebraska’s 6-7 campaign in 2015, Riley likely lost a year of patience from the Nebraska fans. Coming into 2017, this dope thought that Riley might be a year away from the hot seat.

A loss to Northern Illinois changes that. Northern Illinois is no. 119 nationally in terms of five-year recruiting rankings, one of the best ways to measure talent. The Huskies are easily the least talented team Nebraska will face in 2017 – the next least talented team is Illinois at no. 72.

With the talent disparity, at home, Nebraska has no business losing to Northern Illinois. Ever. This is the type of stain that doesn’t come off of a coaching resume. This is the type of loss that goes in the first paragraph of a coaching tenure’s obituary.

This is the type of loss that puts a coach on the hot seat. Don’t believe me? Ask Nebraska’s athletic director, Shawn Eichorst.

What Eichorst said after the Northern Illinois loss wasn’t really all that important. It was the fact that Eichorst came out and said something at all. Eichorst is famously averse to media appearances, and would only have come out so soon after the game – giving Riley the “dreaded vote of confidence” – if he thought it was necessary.

Eichorst was right. As it stands now, Nebraska will need to upset Wisconsin, Ohio State, or Penn State to have a shot at an 8-4 season. And that’s assuming Nebraska wins all of other remaining games on its schedule, including on the road against a suddenly-scary Purdue, at home against perennial nemesis Northwestern, on the road against Minnesota, and at home against an Iowa squad with a two-game winning streak.

Nebraska is 1-2. Nebraska is one play away from being 0-3. And the long knives are already at least being reached for, by no less than Omaha World-Herald columnist Tom Shatel. Scott Frost is still turning heads with his work as Central Florida’s head coach. So is Trev Alberts as UNO’s athletic director, by the way.

That doesn’t mean the season is over, of course. There’s nine games left. In 2015, a reeling 3-6 Nebraska squad raised up and beat no. 6 Michigan State in Lincoln. If Nebraska can find itself and get some confidence in the next two weeks, it’s not impossible to imagine Nebraska pulling off an upset when the Badgers come to Lincoln. Heck, Nebraska has outscored its opponents 31-0 in the third quarter this year. Put that performance together for another three quarters, and anything can happen.

The evidence suggest that result is unlikely. At this point, 7-5 feels like the best-case scenario, with losses to Wisconsin, Ohio State, and Penn State. A 6-6 finish – or worse – probably seems more likely.

There’s time to fix things, no doubt about it. But three games in to Riley’s third season, this is what the beginning of the end looks like.

GBR, baby.

Nebraska Football: Eichorst and Riley Foolish to Dismiss Black Friday and Iowa Rivalry

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This week, the Big Ten Conference released conference football schedules for 2020 and 2021, and conspicuously absent was the day-after-Thanksgiving matchup between Nebraska and Iowa. Instead, it looks like Nebraska will be in a four-team rotation with Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Iowa to finish out the regular season.

So now, not only will Nebraska not have Iowa as a regular end-of-season rival, but will also be giving up its perch on the day after Thanksgiving, instead blending in with the rest of college football on that final Saturday of the regular season. Things can change between now and 2020, of course. But just looking at the schedule as it sits now, Nebraska-Minnesota will likely be third on the B1G pecking order for that day, behind Michigan-Ohio State (duh) and Iowa-Wisconsin.

There’s really two things that are happening here. The first is losing Iowa as a regular year-end rival, and the second is losing Nebraska’s place on Black Friday. The latter is receiving some significant blowback, including here and here. The arguments against giving up Black Friday are pretty clear.

From a traditionalist standpoint, Nebraska played on Black Friday since 1990. Plus, the Black Friday games are the last links Nebraska has to its Big Eight matchups against Oklahoma, and it would feel very strange for the day after Thanksgiving to arrive and not have Nebraska playing a game.

And for those of you that aren’t moved by clinging to tradition, here’s a very realpolitik reason why it’s good for Nebraska to retain its Black Friday game – it’s good for exposure.

If there’s one overarching lament of Nebraska fans since the halcyon days of the nineties, it is how Nebraska’s national relevance has crumbled. That crumbling, of course, has been well deserved given Nebraska’s performance on the field. But the fact remains that Nebraska now is nowhere near the presence on the national college football stage that it once was.

(That doesn’t mean it couldn’t be again, of course, but that’s a conversation for another day.)

So if you are a program struggling for national relevance, then why on earth would you walk away from a national television spotlight on a holiday weekend – where college football fans already know and expect you to be on their tee-vees as they eat their leftover turkey sandwiches – to be a third-tier game in your own conference?

Well, Nebraska athletic director Shawn Eichorst said the following in response to the new schedule (according to Erin Sorensen from Land of 10):

Since moving to a nine-game conference schedule, it makes sense from a student-athlete health, safety and welfare perspective to play on Saturday at the end of the regular season.

This, of course, from the guy who agreed for Nebraska to play Purdue on a Friday night this season, but never mind about all of that. Head coach Mike Riley also wasn’t shedding any tears about losing the Black Friday game (according to Sean Keeler from Land of 10):

I do not like to get out of the routine of what we do week to week to get ready for a game … So changing that is no fun for me, because you always have a mystery of where your team is physically in what you need to do, and what you need to do in the actual preparation part of it.

Look, it’s bad enough that Nebraska pressured FOX to can this incredibly-cool promotional commercial.

But now Nebraska’s decision-makers are tone-deaf enough to make the “player safety” argument and the “we need our routine argument.” I’m not going to dignify the player safety nonsense with a response (apparently the players will be safer against Purdue than Minnesota), but it’s a colorable argument from a football coach who is judged on wins and losses to do everything in his power to maintain routine.

I can live with that argument, but I think it’s horribly short-sighted in terms of the program’s overall development. And, apparently, so does Eichorst – or at least he’s gotten enough heat from the decision to risk an ankle injury backing away from his position.

So, “no final decisions” have been made on when the games will be played, eh, Mr. Eichorst? Then why, just forty-eight hours ago, did you tell us that “it makes sense from a student-athlete health, safety and welfare perspective to play on Saturday at the end of the regular season?”

Well, if nothing else, it’s reassuring that public pressure can influence decisions like this. So let’s move on to the second half of this issue, namely going from Iowa to the four-team rotation.

I think I’ve made my position fairly well known that I think Iowa-Nebraska could be a real rivalry. Is it yet? Of course not. Nebraska’s only six years into its B1G life.

But the green shoots are there already. Iowa fans started out really, really disliking Nebraska. And with Iowa’s recent success against Nebraska, combined with the proximity of the fanbases, there’s no reason to think that the Heroes Game could become A Thing for both teams and fanbases (even with the hopelessly anodyne corporate name and trophy). Much like pearls inside of an oyster, rivalries are born in the repetition of irritation. The proximity and passion of these two fanbases contain the perfect dynamic for such a rivalry to be born.

Yes, yes, I know, Nebraska and Iowa don’t have the history at this point to be rivals. No less a source authority than Tom Osborne has told us so (according to the Omaha World-Herald). But how in the world would you expect that history to be developed if you’re going to rip the marquee nature of the game out of the ground just as the roots are starting to take hold?

And please, don’t tell me that Iowa already has rivals. Of course it does. The Hawkeyes have been playing (and hating) Wisconsin and Minnesota for decades – never mind the rivalry-that-shall-not-be-named against Iowa State.

But guess what, Husker Fan? You remember Oklahoma, the rival-to-end-all-rivals for Nebraska, the ex that you couldn’t ever get over even as you invited over Colorado, Kansas State, and Iowa for Black Friday? The standard to which you’ve found all other potential rivals to be lacking?

Well, Oklahoma kind of has another rival. And for whatever Sooner Fan thinks of you and their games against the scarlet and cream, I can guarantee you the Oklahoma fanbase would throw Nebraska out of the boat in a heartbeat to protect the Red River Shootout Showdown against the Longhorns.

Oklahoma ain’t coming back, Husker Fan (at least as an annual rival). So if you can develop such a love for the Nebraska-Oklahoma rivalry even with Nebraska being the side piece for Oklahoma, then there’s a place in your heart to make the Hawkeyes a real rival.

Why don’t you want to, Husker Fan? I have a theory. Iowa, like Colorado and Kansas State before them, doesn’t carry the gravitas of Oklahoma. By deigning to allow a team at Iowa’s level on the national pecking order to be a rival, the thought process goes, Nebraska lowers itself to a level at which it does not belong. It was the same argument that led Husker Fan to look down its collective nose at Colorado and Kansas State as rivals.

Look, I’m all for high standards. In many ways, Nebraska fans’ refusal to accept NU’s current predicament is the most powerful engine driving a chance at a return to greatness.

But these high standards (which every other B1G West fan would define as “stubborn and undeserved arrogance”) are also a large factor holding Nebraska back. The fact is, Nebraska as a football program right now is right in the mixer with Wisconsin, Iowa, Minnesota, and Northwestern, its divisional rivals. (And don’t look now, but Purdue under Jeff Brohm might be coming …)

The whole point of Nebraska leaving the Big XII was to find stability, which it now has. Now, with that stability, Nebraska should embrace where it is and learn to love the grind of the B1G West against its midwestern brethren. And there would be no better embrace of that then to lean into what would be Nebraska’s most natural B1G West rival.

GBR, baby.

Nebraska Football: NU ReView, Oregon 42, Nebraska 35

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A tight, seven-point loss to Oregon on the road, that’s the type of game everyone expected, right?

Not so much. Nebraska was humiliated in the first half, falling behind 42-14 and looking to all the world like it was on its way to another nationally-televised embarrassment. But Nebraska found something in the locker room, shutting the Ducks out in the second half and nearly pulling off a miraculous comeback.

The Good

Halftime Adjustments. Let’s just take a look at Nebraska’s defensive performances, broken down by halves.

  First Half Second Half
Total Yards 698 365
Passing Yards Allowed 558 222
Yards/Play Allowed 7.51 5.00
Points Allowed 68 10

Those numbers kinda speak for themselves. Defensive coordinator Bob Diaco might very well be making the greatest halftime adjustments in the history of organized football. It’s a problem, though, that he has to be (more on that later).

ONIONS! On the first drive of the second half, Nebraska faced a fourth-and-ten at the Oregon 40. Head coach Mike Riley went for it and Nebraska converted, leading to a touchdown and breathing a little life into the scarlet and cream.

On Nebraska’s next possession, Nebraska faced a fourth-and-five at the Oregon 39. Once again, Riley went for it and Nebraska converted. While that drive didn’t lead to points, it set a tone that allowed Nebraska to stay in the game and almost complete a miracle comeback.

Fine Margins. This one’s in the Good section more for Husker Fan looking for reasons to feel better about Nebraska’s loss. Quarterback Tanner Lee’s first interception was a fortunate bounce off a defender’s hand. Oregon’s third touchdown only happened when the ball went off one receivers hand and fluttered into the hands of another. At the end of the first half, another fourth down conversion – which could have kept Nebraska’s drive alive and avoid some of the points Oregon put up at the end of the half – was thwarted thanks to a false start by De’Mornay Pierson-El.

Yes, Oregon badly outplayed Nebraska in the first half, and earned every bit of its 42-14 lead. But, as we saw with how close Nebraska came to a comeback, those fine margins can make the difference between winning and losing.

The Bad

Needing Halftime Adjustments. Judas Priest, Nebraska’s first two first halves of the 2017 campaign have been ugly to watch. They’ve resulted in a down-to-the-wire win over a Sun Belt team and digging a hole too deep to dig out of against Oregon.

I can’t pretend to explain this Jeckyll-and-Hyde performance from the Blackshirts – and I’m not entirely convinced Diaco can as well. I suppose the silver lining is that the second half performances show Nebraska’s defensive potential. But I’m not sure how many first-half embarrassments Husker Fan can tolerate.

The Kid from Tulane. Talk of Tanner Lee’s departure to the NFL after his junior campaign have, shall we say, cooled after the Oregon game. Lee was 19-for-41 through the air for 252 yards, three touchdowns, but four interceptions. Now, two of those interceptions weren’t Lee’s fault, one being a pinball deflection and one from a blind-side hit that resulted in the ball fluttering into a defender’s hand.

But even with that bad luck, Lee struggled against the Ducks. He missed a number of makeable throws, particularly in the first half when Nebraska really needed its offense to keep up. There’s plenty of things to learn for Lee going forward, but this game won’t be one that goes in his scrapbook.

Big Red Cross. What might be the biggest concern coming out of Eugene are injuries to I-back Tre Bryant and safety Joshua Kalu. Bryant has been a revelation in the first two games of the season. I could give you some stats, but this tweet says it all.

Bryant has been struggling with his knee throughout camp, and an injury to that knee causing him to miss the rest of the game is a huge worry for Nebraska. Although Mikale Wilbon got the touchdown that brought Nebraska to within seven, there’s little doubt that NU’s offense wasn’t the same without Bryant.

But what could be a more impactful injury might well be to Joshua Kalu. A hamstring injury in the second quarter took Kalu out for the rest of the game. With Nebraska’s secondary already thin after injuries to Chris Jones and JoJo Doman, the Blackshirts can ill afford to lose Kalu for any length of time.

And the Goals Still Intact

Admit it, Husker Fan. You feel fairly OK after that game. At halftime, you had visions of Texas Tech running through your mind and were worried that this season was about to slip away.

That’s fair. The fact that there’s relief about Nebraska being respectable on a national stage is a barometer of the state of Nebraska’s program. Whether that’s acceptable in the long run is a fair question.

But it’s where Nebraska is now. And (cue the cliché) it still leaves the primary goals for the season open.

Nebraska’s next three games are against Northern Illinois, Rutgers, and Illinois. Presuming Nebraska holds serve, NU will be 4-1 on October 07 to welcome Wisconsin.

And that’s where the rubber will really hit the road. Diaco’s defensive charges will have five games under their belt to (hopefully) learn how to play in the first half, and the opportunity will be there for Nebraska to get a win over Wisconsin and set itself up for conference play.

Yes, that loss was disappointing – and extraordinarily weird. But there were enough green shoots there to keep hope alive when the Badgers come calling.

GBR, baby.

(image courtesy of letterboxd.com)

Nebraska Football: NU ReView, Nebraska 43, Arkansas State 36

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“In fact, the very best advice it has to offer in these situation is to be found on the cover, where it says in those now notoriously large and famously friendly letters, ‘DON’T PANIC.’”

– Douglas Adams, The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy radio script (image from RogersMovieNation.com)

Nebraska survived its first game of the Mike Riley-Bob Diaco era with a 43-36 win over Arkansas State, salted away only when Red Wolves’ quarterback Justice Hansen’s pass was tipped away in the end zone as time expired. A win is a win, but the muted buzzing from the crowd exiting Memorial Stadium after the three hour and 52 minute (!) contest sounded much more like it would after a loss than a win. So in looking back at Nebraska’s 2017 lid-lifter …

The Good …

The kid delivered. Not that long ago, this dope was worried about Tanner Lee based on his statistics from Tulane and the fact that he hadn’t played college football in over a year. Well at least for one week, against Sun Belt opposition, Lee sure put those worries to rest. He was 19-for-32 for 238 yards, two touchdowns, and no interceptions.

The numbers are impressive enough, but the throws he made – and didn’t make, when appropriate – were what should get Nebraska fans excited. His first touchdown to Stanley Morgan should be framed and hung in a museum. And he showed enough mobility in the pocket to help out an offensive line that struggled in pass blocking at times.

Diaco’s adjustments. At halftime, Arkansas State had 245 yards of total offense and 26 points on the board. Outside of the last two drives (which were a combination of fatigue and shock after a successful onside kick), the Red Wolves had 74 yards and three points in the second half.

Yes, I know those last two drives count too, and that’s not to let the defense off the hook for a disturbing performance. But while there’s plenty to criticize and worry about, the Blackshirts are going to take an amazing amount of heat this week. Given the way the defense responded in the second half, though, there’s plenty of room for optimism as well.

Lightbourne’s bounceback. Keep in mind, this was supposed to be punter Caleb Lightbourne’s first game kicking a ball in anger. He was supposed to redshirt, watching and learning as senior Sam Foltz showed him how it was done.

We know how that story ended, and we know about Lightbourne’s struggles last year. But against Arkansas State, Lightbourne delivered with an average of 42.4 yards per kick and three placed inside the 20. Given the way Nebraska’s defense looked to be on skates for much of the first half, that kind of field position advantage was invaluable, and a not-insubstantial part in how the Blackshirts were able to find their feet later in the game.

The Bad …

The first half. Sure, it was great that Diaco was able to make those adjustments. But, Judas Priest, that first half wasn’t pretty. Arkansas State took a pretty basic concept – overload one side with more receivers than defenders, then throw to one of them on a screen – and just kept going and going as Nebraska demonstrated an inability to stop it.

The fact that Nebraska was able to successfully adjust to the Red Wolves’ attack is reassuring. The fact that it took an entire half to do so – against Sun Belt-level athletes – is less reassuring.

Clock malpractice. Sherman, set the WayBack Machine for October 05, 2015. Specifically, set it for 55 seconds left in the game between Nebraska and Illinois. Nebraska has a third down and seven on the Illinois 27, and a 13-7 lead over the Illini. A first down wins the game, to be sure. But anything that keeps the clock running will bleed so much time away to make a comeback almost impossible.

Of course, Tommy Armstrong throws an incomplete pass, Nebraska fails a fourth down conversion, and Illinois carves through NU’s secondary to score a game-winning touchdown with ten seconds left on the clock.

Now, let’s look at this year’s Arkansas State game. Nebraska starts a drive from its own 22 with 5:46 left in the contest. Two Tre Bryant runs get Nebraska to third and four. With a 43-29 lead, a first down likely puts the game out of reach for Arkansas State. But keeping the clock moving is just as important, particularly given how the Red Wolves had been able to march at will on the Blackshirts.

Instead, Lee throws an incomplete pass, giving Arkansas State enough time to score, get an onside kick, and bloody nearly score again to send the game into overtime – or allow the Red Wolves to win it with a two-point conversion.

Sure, it took a bunch of really unlikely things to happen for Arkansas State to be in a position to tie or win the game. But more adept clock management – an area Riley has consistently struggled with – would have never allowed the Red Wolves to be in that position in the first place.

My blood pressure. OK, guys, this is game one, and against a Sun Belt opponent. There’s Oregon, Wisconsin, Northwestern, Iowa, not to mention the big hitters like Ohio State and Penn State. I’m not a young man any more. Seriously, guys, I can’t do this for another eleven games. I’m not saying get beat, to be sure. But, seriously, just put those guys away when you get a chance, please?

And The Inevitable Overreaction.

Let me make myself clear, first of all. Things aren’t fine, as the dog sipping coffee in the burning café says. Getting taken to the wire by a Sun Belt team suggests there’s a problem. And given that the Red Wolves straight-up dropped a touchdown earlier in the game and had a deflected interception on the Nebraska 1 stop another drive, there’s a pretty good argument to be made that Arkansas State should have won the game – or, at the very least, that Nebraska was plenty lucky to have won.

But Nebraska did win. And after that fortunate win there’s going to be plenty of OMG NEBRASKA SUUUUUUUUUUUUCKZZZZ!!!!!11!!! hot-takery in response to the Arkansas State squeaker. Stories of an impending 4-8 implosion are being written on message boards as we speak, and much of the guarded optimism surrounding 2017 has likely dissipated.

And, sure, this game could end up being the canary in a coal mine if Nebraska collapses going forward. But there’s enough green shoots of hope from this game to make such a collapse unlikely. Lee looked straight-up amazing, making throws Nebraska fans haven’t seen in … well, a really long time. Bryant was given the entire game, and responded with 192 yards on 31 carries behind some solid run blocking. Until it tired – which, having to face 89 (!) plays, isn’t a shock – Nebraska’s second-half defensive performance bordered on impressive.

So, yeah, there’s plenty to worry about from Nebraska’s win over Arkansas State. But please, Husker Fan, hold off on mashing that panic button just yet.

Nebraska Football: Prediction for the Cornhuskers’ 2017 Season

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There’s nothing quite like leaving things late, but a season prediction on the morning of Nebraska’s first game still counts as getting your shot called. First, a caveat. With a new quarterback, a functionally new offense, an entirely new defensive scheme, and a new special teams coach, there’s only one honest answer about what to expect for this season.

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Unfortunately, that’s not enough content for a site like this. So let’s go through the exercise and look through Nebraska’s 2017 schedule game by game. In an effort to make this more than just guesswork, for a season prediction I break the games down into four categories:

Better Win: Given the disparity in talent, Nebraska should be expected to win all of the games in this category.

Should Win: Nebraska should be a favorite in this game, but the opponent is strong enough to win even without a total NU meltdown. Nebraska should win a majority of these games.

Might Win: Nebraska should be an underdog in this game, but close enough in talent to win without needing a miraculous performance. Nebraska should win a minority of these games.

Won’t Win: Nebraska is outclassed from a talent standpoint and would need the stars to align for a victory. Nebraska should not expect to win any of these games.

By breaking the games down into these categories, the idea is to take the guesswork out of predicting a final record. Of course, I’ll also give a Fearless Forecast guess of the result, meaning I get two bites at the apple in terms of a final record prognostication.

Arkansas State (Sep. 2)

The Red Wolves come into Lincoln with some talent, including a likely NFL draft pick on the defensive line in Ja’Von Rolland-Jones. Nebraska’s depth should ultimately win out, but with all of the new schemes NU is breaking in don’t be surprised to see this contest tight in the fourth quarter.

Better Win

Fearless Forecast: Nebraska 31, Arkansas State 17

at Oregon (Sep. 9)

The Ducks have a new coach in Willie Taggart, so Oregon will be in a full-on year-one scenario when Nebraska comes to Eugene. But Oregon should have at least equal, if not greater talent than Nebraska on the field. And while Nebraska did knock the Ducks off in Lincoln last year, the metrics (as well as Oregon’s bizarre aversion to extra points) suggest NU was pretty fortunate to get that win. A Nebraska win would be quite a springboard for 2017, but it looks an uphill climb.

Might Win

Fearless Forecast: Oregon 27, Nebraska 20

Northern Illinois (Sep. 16)

Another Group of Five school that has some degree of talent, but not to the level of Nebraska. With two games in the books, Nebraska’s transition should be a little more solid and ready to handle what the Huskies have to offer.

Better Win

Fearless Forecast: Nebraska 45, Northern Illinois 10

Rutgers (Sep. 23)

Although the Scarlet Knights gave Washington a scare for a half, eventually the Huskies were able to pull away in Piscataway. Second year head coach Chris Ash is laying the foundation for Rutgers to climb out of the B1G cellar, but there’s still a ways to go.

Better Win

Fearless Forecast: Nebraska 38, Rutgers 13

at Illinois (Sep. 29)

This has trap game written all over it. Nebraska goes to Champaign on a Friday night, to what is likely a half-empty stadium, playing a struggling Illini squad ahead of a brutal two-game stretch. Riley’s last trip to Illinois ended poorly, and last year Nebraska seemed to put an end to its head-scratching losses. But if there were ever a time for a shocker, this is it.

Better Win

Fearless Forecast: Nebraska 24, Illinois 9

Wisconsin (Oct. 7)

Here’s where the rubber hits the road for Nebraska. While Wisconsin has had Nebraska’s number since NU joined the B1G, keep in mind that the last two games between these squads have been coin-flips. With the game in Lincoln, and the transition well underway, look for Nebraska to finally get over a Wisconsin-sized hump.

Might Win

Fearless Forecast: Nebraska 24, Wisconsin 21

Ohio State (Oct. 14)

If Wisconsin is a measuring stick for where Nebraska stands in the B1G West, the Buckeyes will give Nebraska a good look at where it stacks up against the elite. Ohio State, along with Alabama, might be the most talented team in the country. A combination of the game being in Lincoln and a functioning offense should make things closer than last year (an admittedly low bar), but Nebraska is still quite a ways from competing head to head with Ohio State.

Won’t Win

Fearless Forecast: Ohio State 41, Nebraska 21

at Purdue (Oct. 28)

Nebraska returns to the house of horrors that inflicted the program’s worst loss since Iowa State in 2009. But a week’s rest after Wisconsin and Ohio State should help Nebraska focus and get its season back on track.

Better Win

Fearless Forecast: Nebraska 51, Purdue 13

Northwestern (Nov. 4)

The Purples have a history of hanging tough in Memorial Stadium, pulling off an upset two years ago and losing only on a Hail Mary two years before that. Nebraska should be on more stable footing this time around, though, and allow the talent differential between the to squads to show through.

Should Win

Fearless Forecast: Nebraska 37, Northwestern 17

at Minnesota (Nov. 11)

P.J. Fleck was quite a hire for Minnesota, but will be a huge culture shift from the program Jerry Kill built in his years up north. The Gophers look to be dangerous in the next few seasons, but it’s a big ask for them to be ready in year one to compete.

Should Win

Fearless Forecast: Nebraska 21, Minnesota 13

at Penn State (Nov. 18)

Ooh, I so want to be bold on this game. Penn State looked like world-beaters at the end of last season, with a legitimate argument to get into the College Football Playoff. But at the start of last year, the Nittany Lions were decidedly average, and much of their late-season success was down to YOLO balls from quarterback Trace McSorley. Still, the Lions have elite talent (including Saquon Barkley, the best tailback in the B1G), and the game is in Happy Valley. At best, Nebraska would have to be well ahead of schedule to pull off this upset.

Won’t Win

Fearless Forecast: Penn State 45, Nebraska 31

Iowa (Nov. 24)

It was last year’s 40-10 (!) loss to Iowa that likely ended Mark Banker’s tenure as Nebraska’s defensive coordinator, so this year’s Heroes Game will be a good marker to see how far the Blackshirts have come. If Nebraska is able to present more of an offensive threat than a hobbled Tommy Armstrong did last year, look for Nebraska to get back on track in this rivalry.

Should Win

Fearless Forecast: Nebraska 27, Iowa 17

Season Summary

Under the category system, Nebraska has five Better Win games (meaning five wins), three Should Win games (meaning two wins), two Might Win games (meaning one win) and two Won’t Win games (meaning no wins). That comes out to a 9-3 campaign for Nebraska.

Looking at the Fearless Forecasts, Nebraska also comes out with a 9-3 season, losing to Oregon, Ohio State, and Penn State. A 7-2 B1G record might be enough for Nebraska to earn a trip to Indianapolis, unless Wisconsin can win out the rest of its conference slate.

Nebraska Football: What the Cornhuskers Must Do for a Successful Season

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Nebraska’s 2017 campaign is about to start in earnest, but we still have time to take a step back and consider what has to happen for the season to be a success. Obviously, wins and losses will define how Nebraska fans look back on the season. But it’s more helpful to think about specifically what needs to happen on the field for that success to arrive.

Head coach Mike Riley is entering year three of his tenure in Lincoln. After a disastrous – but unlucky – 6-7 season in 2015, he followed up with an improved – but lucky – 9-4 campaign last year.

Former head coach Bo Pelini was dismissed from his position after seven years, in part, for not being able to get over the four-loss hump. And while there’s little thought that Riley is on the hot seat now, it’s not at all inconceivable to think he is a year away from the hot seat if Riley’s Cornhuskers don’t show signs of progress in 2017.

So, what will those signs of progress be? Here’s three things to look for.

Tanner Lee lives up to his billing

I get it, there’s a lot about Nebraska we don’t know coming into this season. The entire defense is being revamped (more on that in a bit), and we haven’t even seen how it looks. The offensive line is entirely shuffled. Almost all of Nebraska’s offensive production from last year is gone. Chris Jones, Nebraska’s best defensive player (and arguably its best player overall) is lost to injury.

So I understand the desire for some stability. But it’s a recurring theme that amidst all of the uncertainly, the one thing most observers are not worried about for Nebraska is the level of quarterback play under transfer Tanner Lee. Check it out here, and here, and here.

That’s … kinda nuts. I know he was the offensive MVP of the scout team last year, I know he’s looked great in fall practice, and I know that he’s ruggedly handsome.

But he hasn’t played any real football in almost two years. And when he did, at Tulane, he had a career completion percentage of only 53.6 percent and a 1.095 touchdown-to-interception ratio, throwing 23 touchdowns and 21 interceptions.

Yes, it was with a Tulane team bereft of talent, and Lee played through an injury. Still, the only evidence we have of Lee taking snaps in anger shows him playing at a level nowhere near good enough for Nebraska to be successful on offense in 2017.

Hopefully for Nebraska fans, Lee is everything that he’s being billed as coming into this season. As a smart and particularly handsome analyst observed, an entire season can spiral downward if the quarterback play for a team isn’t good enough.

But to take Lee’s success as a given this year is crazy. The table is set for him, to be sure, but Nebraska fans should need to see him actually deliver before checking that particular box off.

The defensive transition is smooth

New defensive coordinator Bob Diaco is a fascinating character, full of high energy and sometimes-mystifying quotes. But he’s also bringing with him a 3-4 defensive structure he’s kept tightly under wraps, not even letting fans see a glimpse of it at this year’s Spring Game.

It was a gutsy call for Riley to fire former defensive coordinator Mark Banker after last season. But given Nebraska’s late-season collapse, particularly against Iowa, it was an understandable move made by a head coach who knows time is precious.

But that doesn’t make the task of transitioning from a 4-3 to a 3-4 (and from a one-gap to a two-gap system) any easier. Combine the challenge of learning an entirely new way of playing defense with the need to figure out how players recruited for the previous regime fit into the new system, and you have a recipe for defensive breakdowns.

No defense is perfect. But with a schedule that is more daunting this year than last, Nebraska can ill afford a rough transition on defense if it wants to succeed in 2017.

Beat Iowa

I know, I know, Iowa isn’t a rival to Nebraska. I’ve heard that over and over and over again. For a (ahem) seasoned observer of Nebraska football, those protestations sound hauntingly familiar to things Husker Fan has said about Nebraska’s neighbors to the west and the south.

There’s a longer think-piece about this coming (lucky you), but let’s take a look at where we find ourselves now. Iowa owns a two-game winning streak over Nebraska. Riley has never beaten Iowa. And last year’s 40-10 (!) curb-stomping in Iowa City is a large reason why Diaco and not Banker is directing the Blackshirts this year.

But think of it in a broader context. As maddening as the end of 2016 was, one demon Nebraska did excise was losing to teams with inferior talent. Wisconsin, Ohio State, and Tennessee all were at least equals in terms of the players on the field to Nebraska.

Iowa, not so much. According to SB Nation’s five-year recruiting rankings – which is as good a tool as any to measure raw talent on the field – Nebraska is no. 22 nationally. Iowa is no. 40, the team with the lowest recruiting ranking of any squad NU lost to last year.

(In fairness, Wisconsin is no. 38, but the Badgers have a stronger history of over-performing their recruiting rankings than the Hawkeyes do).

Think about it this way. Let’s assume no more ridiculous losses to Purdue and that Nebraska can take care of business against teams like Northwestern and Minnesota. Nebraska ends the season at 8-4, but with two different scenarios.

The first scenario is with losses to Oregon, Wisconsin, Ohio State, and Penn State. Disappointing, to be sure, but in many ways it may be Nebraska’s most likely scenario for 2017.

The second scenario is with losses to Oregon, Ohio State, Penn State, but finally beating Wisconsin – and then losing to Iowa on Black Friday.

Of the two, which scenario would feel worse for you, Husker Fan? Which scenario might slide Riley closer to that hot seat in 2018?

You know the answer. So does Riley, which is why he fired his long-time friend after Nebraska’s day-after-Thanksgiving embarrassment last year.

Nebraska Football: A Theory on the Cornhuskers’ Collapse Last Season

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Sherman, set the WayBack Machine for October 29, 2016. Nebraska just missed exorcising its demons in Camp Randall with a thrilling 23-17 overtime loss to Wisconsin, but showed to the world that it could stand toe-to-toe and compete on a national stage. That near-miss loss meant that Nebraska was still 7-1 on the season, including an impressive (although, if you believe in win percentage as a metric, unlikely) victory over Oregon. It was encouraging enough for this dope to even end his ReView of the Wisconsin game with defiance, saying “bring on the Buckeyes.”

Yeah, that didn’t exactly work out for Nebraska. After Ohio State’s 62-3 evisceration of NU, the season took on water in a hurry. Nebraska pulled out a gritty 24-17 win over Minnesota, and a comfortable 28-7 victory over an outmanned Maryland, but those wins proved to be paper over the cracks.

On the day after Thanksgiving, Nebraska was dominated 40-10 by Iowa (!), surrendering 264 rushing yards (!!) and 404 total yards (!!!) to the Hawkeyes. Nebraska drew Tennessee in the Music City Bowl, and lost 38-24 to the Volunteers in a game that was nowhere near as close as the score might have indicated.

So Nebraska’s 2016 campaign ended at 9-4, a decided improvement over the 6-7 mark from a season prior. But in Nebraska’s three losses in its final five games last year, it was outscored 140-37, and outgained by total yards in those contests by more than a two-to-one margin, 1519 to 739.

What happened? How did a season that saw Nebraska at 7-0 and ranked no. 7 nationally end with such a resounding thud?

Obviously, a big part of it was that Nebraska’s quality of opposition improved dramatically towards the end of the season. Oregon looked like a great matchup on paper in 2016, but ended the season at 4-8 and a fired head coach. Ohio State, Tennessee, and (gritting teeth) Iowa were dramatically tougher opponents than Nebraska’s early-season victims, so it should not have been surprising that Nebraska had more difficulty at the end of 2016.

Additionally, Nebraska’s 7-0 mark coming into Wisconsin was clearly, in retrospect, inflated. Given the game flow, Nebraska was pretty fortunate to beat what turned out to be a very flawed (if talented) Oregon squad in Lincoln. Other than the Ducks, Nebraska’s best win in that 7-0 stretch was … Northwestern? Wyoming?

Those factors can explain some of what happened at the end of 2016. But it wasn’t just that Nebraska struggled at the end of last year. Let’s be honest. Nebraska collapsed at the end of 2016. Nebraska capitulated to the strongest teams at the end of its schedule. (And yes, that’s officially throwing shade at Minnesota.)

So what else explains the magnitude of Nebraska’s late-season collapse. There’s a whole bunch of factors, of course. And I will state from the outset that this is just rank speculation from a total outsider, observing from a distance. But I would venture an educated guess that there were two significant factors that contributed to last year’s swoon.

The first is the effect of injuries to quarterback Tommy Armstrong. Of course, his terrifying injury against Ohio State threw Ryker Fyfe into duty in Columbus. But Armstrong had been walking wounded for quite some time before his Ohio State scare, and a combination of injuries against Minnesota a week later knocked him out of the following game against Maryland.

Armstrong tried to soldier through his injuries against Iowa, and it showed. He ran six times for 13 yards and was 13-35 throwing for 125 against the Hawkeye defense. Armstrong was a shell of his former self on Black Friday, and everyone – including Iowa’s defense – could clearly see it.

Gamer that he is, Armstrong fought hard to get back on the field for the Music City Bowl, but his injuries simply wouldn’t allow it. Fyfe started against the Volunteers and was … well, he had eight rushes for minus-27 yards, and was 17-36 for 243 yards passing with two touchdowns.

It’s fair to say, then, that Armstrong’s injury was a significant factor in Nebraska’s late-season struggle. But it’s more than that. Fyfe was Nebraska’s best option as Armstrong’s backup. God bless the kid from Grand Island, he’s a good athlete, worked very hard, and did the best he possibly could in the situation in which he found himself.

But it was clear to any observer from the outset that Fyfe was never good enough for Nebraska to be competitive against a sturdy opponent. And, more importantly, it had to have been clear to the Nebraska squad that going into games against Iowa and (especially) Tennessee, having a quarterback as limited as Fyfe gave NU almost no chance to be competitive.

Outside of perhaps a goaltender in hockey, there is no position in sports more important than the quarterback in football. If there was one fatal flaw in former head coach Bo Pelini’s time in Lincoln (well, apart from the obvious), it was Pelini’s inability to get his signal-caller right.

Between Armstrong and Taylor Martinez, Pelini’s quarterbacks were dynamic and dual-threat, but ultimately limited due to their inability to pass effectively and avoid turnovers put a ceiling on how effective Nebraska’s offense could be. But maybe even more damning of an indictment might be how poor the depth at quarterback has been in Lincoln.

And that lack of depth ultimately undid Nebraska last season. A loss to Ohio State in Columbus was, in retrospect, not a surprising result. And asking Fyfe to come in for an injured Armstrong, with Nebraska already down 21 points, would have made anything other than a blowout surprising.

So really we’re down to two big losses – Iowa (!) and Tennessee – that defined Nebraska’s 2016 season. Why did Nebraska capitulate so badly in those games?

Let’s take as a given that both teams are very good, and worthy winners. But it’s hard not to see Nebraska’s collapse, in part, as a subconscious response by a team knowing that their quarterback gave them no chance to be successful on that day.

Against Iowa, Armstrong gamely tried to play, but it was clear from the start that his injury was going to rob him of his effective rushing of the ball. And without that threat of a run, Armstrong simply was not good enough as a quarterback to be effective.

Against Tennessee, Nebraska was asking Fyfe to go up against an SEC defense (including a future NFL first-round draft pick in defensive end Derek Barnett). Fyfe, as he always did, but up his best effort. But his best effort ended up being a sub-50 percent completion rate. Remarkably, Nebraska remained within a couple of scores throughout the game, but the outcome was never in doubt.

And it’s hard not to think that part of the reason Nebraska couldn’t hold up against Tennessee was because, at some level, the team knew that they couldn’t be successful with Fyfe under center.

Now, my caveats again. I wasn’t in that locker room, and I don’t know anyone that was. But I’ve been an observer of the game for a long time, and I know what my expectations were going into the Music City Bowl. I know what my expectations were against Iowa once it was clear that Armstrong couldn’t run. And if I knew that, it’s hard to imagine that the team didn’t at some level think that too.

And keep in mind, this was a team that had expended a lot of emotional energy that year. The sudden death of punter Sam Foltz just before the season started shocked and saddened the team, and the fan base overall. Throughout the year, the team remembered Foltz before each game, and accepted the support of opposing teams who wanted to sympathize in Foltz’s death as well.

Which, of course, was exactly the right thing to do. It was inspiring to see those young men rally around each other in their grief and memory of a remarkable student athlete taken too soon. I defy you not to tear up when you watch the “missing man” delay of game penalty tribute Nebraska took against Fresno State to honor Foltz’ loss.

But that kind of emotional energy, week after week during a hard campaign, had to take a toll on a group of young men. Add it that toll the disappointment of an overtime loss against Wisconsin, and then the unspoken futility of sub-optimal quarterback play, and you have a recipe for a collapse.

Is that what happened? I don’t know. Is it a plausible explanation, at least as a contributing factor, to how Nebraska could surrender 40 points to Iowa and 521 total yards to Tennessee at the end of a particularly grueling 2016 campaign?

I think it could have been. And if that’s the case, it provides a reason to be hopeful for a 2017 season that is otherwise chock full of questions.