A collection of Cornhusker writing and information from around the Web.
Sometimes, being married to a Hawkeye fan is really helpful (although, other times, not so much). Mrs. DXP – in addition to heroically putting up with all this nonsense – has provided some invaluable perspective as the soap opera we call Nebraska football has churned on. She was ahead of the curve in detesting Bo Pelini, and she adored Mike Riley to the point of considering wearing a scarlet-and-cream shirt.
And she’s already sick of hearing about Scott Frost. What pushed her over the edge, I’m pretty sure, was the fact that Frost’s long-awaited announcement as Nebraska’s new head football coach was heralded by the arrival of a Super Frost Moon in the sky on Saturday.
(As a side note, I should mention that I would watch the heck out of any anime titled “Super Frost Moon” right about now).
How, an exasperated Mrs. DXP asks me, can you guys get so excited about a 42-year-old guy who has only coached at a school for two years? What in the world is the big deal?
That’s fair, I said, and not only because I would prefer not to sleep on the roof for the next couple of weeks. Frost’s hiring has excited the Nebraska fan base in a way that no one else has. There was an element of this excitement when Pelini was hired – you can make the walk of shame now if you have a “My Bo-Friend’s Back” t-shirt stuck in your closet somewhere.
But this is different, for two distinct but related reasons.
Nebraska’s last conference championship was in 1999. But, really, Nebraska’s exile into the desert of college football irrelevance began with Miami’s 38-14 humiliation of NU in the national championship game. Since then, Nebraska fans have been longing for a return to that national limelight.
Bill Callahan sold hope to the fanbase with a revamped offense, an NFL pedigree, and top-20 recruiting classes. That lasted four years and died with a defensive collapse and a poisoned atmosphere from a fractured fanbase. Pelini sold hope in a no-nonsense toughness, and defensive dominance. That lasted seven years and died in ugly losses to Wisconsin and Ohio State and ugly demonstrations of anger and immaturity on and off the field. Riley sold hope with a pro-style offense and a calm demeanor. That lasted three years and died in .500 mediocrity.
Why did Riley get only three years, not even a full recruiting class? In part, it was a lack of unity within the program – more on that in a moment. But more importantly was the volume of losses, and the nature of the losses in year three, that extinguished hope in the fanbase that Nebraska could ever be successful.
In Rogue One, Jyn Erso said that “rebellions are built on hope.” So are sports fans. It’s the bedrock upon which everything in sports fandom resides. Why do we sit out in ridiculous weather to watch a game? Why do we spend thousands of dollars on tickets and merchandise and travel? Why do we tolerate the hypocrisies, little and big, that stain the sports we love?
We do it because we live in hope, that the team in which we have invested our emotional capital will give us back glory. We will put up with just about anything – disturbingly so, in some cases – in the hope that we can bask in that reflected glory of our team’s victory. And if that hope dies, then the underlying ridiculousness of fandom becomes much harder to bear.
By the time Minnesota – Minnesota, fer cryin’ out loud – hung a fifty-burger on the Blackshirts, any remaining hope that Riley could be successful in Lincoln died. And once that hope dies in a fanbase, those in charge of a program face an existential challenge, and have to act decisively.
The hiring of Frost brings hope back to Lincoln. In part, the hope is simply because he’s not Riley, the guy who failed. In part, the hope is based on the success he had at Oregon and Central Florida. In large part, the hope is based on the unity he can bring to both the fanbase and the program – again, more on that in a bit.
But Frost brings hope. And for a despairing fanbase watching the worst performance since 1961 by a Nebraska football team, that hope was something desperately needed and greedily devoured.
As a smart and particularly handsome analyst observed, the firing of Frank Solich in 2003 created a schism in the Nebraska fan base, one from which it has never truly recovered. Since that firing, the fanbase has been split into warring camps, being either “current-coach-guys” or “not-current-coach-guys.”
Year by year, as Nebraska’s national relevance faded further and further into the mists of memory, that schism deepened. Each season of failure and frustration split that crack further apart, like a hammer blow on a wedge splitting a log. As Nebraska’s coaches and culture whipsawed from one pole to the other, each “camp” of fans took solace in the position that it was the other camp’s position that was responsible for Nebraska’s wanderings in the desert of irrelevance.
Which became, in many ways, a self-fulfilling prophecy by the time Riley arrived. As a man who overachieved at Oregon State, but never had won a conference title or achieved a gaudy record, Riley’s hire took Nebraska fans by surprise. And as an outsider, replacing a coach who still had a “camp” both inside and outside of the program even after his dismissal, Riley immediately faced a portion of his program and his fanbase that was at best skeptical of his ability to succeed – and at worst rooting for his failure.
This does nothing to absolve Riley of his failure, of course. Riley knew exactly what he was getting himself into, had every opportunity to succeed, and was singularly unable to deliver. His dismissal after three seasons, given his body of work, was not only justified but necessary.
Schisms are soul-crushing. Conflict is exhausting. Outside of sports, we live in a hyper-partisan world where your choice of religion or political party or pop singer identifies you and creates a group of mortal enemies who do not agree with your choice.
Since 2003, Nebraska football has fallen victim to the same disease of tribalism that has infected the rest of our land. But Frost’s arrival provides, for the first time since 2003, a healing of that schism and a moment of respite from our hyper-partisan lives. For now, the scarlet and cream family has come together around the returning son from Wood River, and Nebraska fans can bask in the glow of fellowship with their fellow fans.
Who knows how long this unity will last. Frost will never be more popular than he is right now – unless he wins Nebraska a national title, of course. Nebraska fans aren’t stupid, and they know that Frost’s hiring doesn’t guarantee trophies in the cabinet next year – or any year.
But they know that the hiring of Frost has brought them hope and unity. And, for now, that’s more than enough.
Image from KETV photographer Dan Grzekowiak.
Editor’s note: The post has been updated to reflect Nebraska’s most recent conference championship as 1999, not 1997.
Holding you I held everything
For a moment wasn’t I a king
But if I’d only known how the king would fall
Hey who’s to say you know
I might have changed it all
And know I’m glad I didn’t know
The way it all would end
The way it all would go
Our lives are better left to chance
I could have missed the pain
But I’d have to miss the dance
– “The Dance,” Garth Brooks
Dear Coach Riley:
I know this wasn’t the letter that you wanted to read, and it sure wasn’t the letter I wanted to write. But before you leave Lincoln, I want to tell you just how much I appreciate the three years you’ve been here.
Yeah, what happened on the field wasn’t what anyone wanted to see, and not at all what you thought your team would be producing. And as honorable and decent of a man and a leader you’ve been, you’ve been doing this long enough to know that it’s a ruthless business. That in big-time college athletics, all the grace and honor in the world, all the graduation rates and great citizens you have on your team doesn’t outweigh the wins and losses on the field.
We both know that the cold lights of the scoreboard have no sympathy and provide no place to hide.
But that’s not why I’m writing you. What you’ve done here in three short years is something truly honorable and truly remarkable, and I want to make sure you know just how much it was appreciated.
As a fan base, we’ve kind of been a mess for a while now. You know all about the run we had in the late nineties, winning three national championships in four years under head coach Tom Osborne. You know that when Osborne retired, he handed the reins over to long-time assistant Frank Solich. And that’s where the trauma of our fanbase began.
Solich was a good man, and held with him a straight line to the history that we as fans hold so dear. He took us to a national championship game (although that one didn’t work out so well).
But after that, his team went 7-7 in 2002. Sadly, we’ve gotten a little used to records like that since 2002, but at that point we hadn’t seen anything like that in a generation – and we kinda lost our minds. Solich’s recruiting fell apart, and in November of 2003 then-athletic director Steve Pederson fired Solich. In explaining Solich’s dismissal, Pederson said that he would not let the Nebraska program “gravitate into mediocrity.”
That was really the ultimate fracture of our fanbase. None of us had ever seen a coach fired growing up. We thought that was for “other programs” who didn’t have the advantages of Nebraska.
(As I know you’ve seen, we tend to think awfully highly of ourselves as a fanbase. There’s probably some good in that, but it also causes a lot of problems – and you in many ways fell victim to us and our perceptions of where the program “deserves” to be.)
About half of us thought the firing was necessary, and that Solich – good man and connection to the past – was not up for the job. The other half, though, viewed Solich’s dismissal – especially coming off a nine-win season, a topic we will see come up again – as a betrayal of Nebraska’s history.
That schism just simmered throughout the tenure of Bill Callahan, Solich’s replacement, a technocrat from the NFL who struggled to connect with the fans. Callahan’s lack of winning, combined with him changing Nebraska’s offense from the iconic option to a West Coast attack, furthered the schism caused by Solich’s firing. Fans in the “keep Solich” camp even took to wearing Ohio Bobcat gear – the school that hired Solich – to Memorial Stadium for home games as a means of protest.
Pederson became, put mildly, unpopular both inside and outside of the athletic department. In the middle of the 2007 season, Pederson was fired and Osborne took over as interim athletic director. As a result, the rest of the 2007 was a drama-filled endeavor wondering if Callahan would be fired.
I know, I know, sounds a lot like what you went through this year.
Callahan’s departure was filled with pique and disdain, and he became the target of the fanbase’s venom for a decade of frustration. Osborne replaced him with Bo Pelini, the guy who was Solich’s defensive coordinator in 2003.
I know you heard a lot about Pelini while you were in Lincoln. In some ways, his ghost haunted the offices at 10th and Vine. I know you heard all about how he never won fewer than nine games. I know you heard how his teams were routinely embarrassed when in the spotlight (ooh, look, Melvin Gordon just scored again).
And I know you heard about, well, what were generously described as his “antics” on the sideline. Combine that with him getting caught with a profane rant about Nebraska fans – and seven years of not winning the conference – and it added up to Pelini’s dismissal by then-athletic director Shawn Eichorst.
But it was what happened after Pelini’s dismissal that was the worst (at least, while he was at Nebraska). He said a whole bunch of stuff, but this is the quote that pretty much sums up what he left you to work with — with apologies for the language, that I suspect you would not approve of (as reprinted from the Omaha World-Herald).
It wasn’t a surprise to me. It really wasn’t. I didn’t really have any relationship with the AD. The guy — you guys saw him (Sunday) — the guy’s a total pussy. I mean, he is. He’s a total cunt.
And since I’ve been here — he’s been here for about two years — I’ve probably had a conversation with the guy a couple times. You saw him. He’s never been in the locker room.
At the end of the day, he was never going to support us. And he didn’t support us. You saw it. He was never going to come out in the paper and support (us).
So that was the cauldron you were walking into, with the kids in your locker room hearing that before you took over. You were an outsider, and you know how we feel about outsiders. You didn’t have a bunch of championship trophies on your mantle, although your record at a place as difficult as Oregon State has always been impressive.
You bore all of that with grace and dignity, never complaining once about the challenges you were handed when you arrived. You kept a level head and a calm demeanor even as you had so many close, gut-wrenching losses in your final season. You showed your team – and your fanbase – how to face adversity and struggle with class, dignity, and professionalism.
And then, Sam died.
I don’t know how you take a group of young men and help them through such a traumatic experience. But you did. You found a way to give those young men space to grieve, and find focus and purpose in the game they love as a way to honor the memory of their fallen friend. That quiet, loving, compassionate leadership you showed in the 2016 season is a model that all of us can aspire to if we are ever faced with such a horrendous challenge.
We call came out of that season, and into this one, with such optimism. You had your quarterback. You had fired your long-time friend Mark Banker as a defensive coordinator to show how serious you were to win and win big at Nebraska. You took risks, putting your career in Lincoln on the line to deliver wins on the field.
It didn’t work. And now you’re left to ponder what’s next for you after what you called your last great adventure. You have to, I imagine, be left regretting what could have been, as well as a feeling of disappointment that you couldn’t give us as a fanbase the success we wanted.
We’re disappointed too, of course. And speaking just for me, I feel a profound sense of sadness that your time with us has ended as it did.
But even as you left, you taught us. As opposed to Pelini, we saw a man stand up (in Nebraska colors, no less) and acknowledge his failing. We saw a man be thankful for the opportunity he was given, rather than feel the need to burn the house down to satisfy a petty need for revenge and self-aggrandizement.
This isn’t a eulogy for you, of course. You’re a young man, with a tremendous amount left to contribute to the game of football and to the broader world. Whether it’s being a grandfather or being a football coach, I have no doubt you will not only be successful at it, but that you will make all the people around you better for having the privilege of being with you.
Thank you, coach. As a fan who has just watched you from afar, I’ve never met you. But I have no doubt I’m a better person for having watched you closely these last three years. And I hope that the next time I am faced with disappointment in my life, I can respond to it they way you taught me as you left your final press conference here (as reported by Sam McKewon of the Omaha World-Herald).
It’s like that old song, I could’ve missed the pain but I would’ve missed the dance.
Photo courtesy of the Concord Monitor.
Nebraska will play Iowa on the day after Thanksgiving, putting a merciful end to the 2017 season. The contest will feel much more like a wake than a game, given how things have unfolded. A best-case scenario will see Nebraska end the season at 5-7, making that two years in three that head coach Mike Riley has led NU to such a regular season record.
There has been considerable ink spilled about whether Riley will be fired at then end of the season (deep announcer voice – Riley will be fired) and who will replace him. Adding one more voice to that speculation on the decisions of athletic director Bill Moos wouldn’t really add much to the conversation.
So let’s take a look instead on what’s happening on the field on Friday, and in the hearts of Nebraska fans. Nebraska is facing Iowa on Black Friday. What does that mean?
Well, Moos wants it to mean that Nebraska is facing off against its conference rival. Here’s what he said on the Sports Nightly radio program (according to the Omaha World-Herald):
“I’m going to really push, to establish Iowa as being our rival,” Moos said on air. “We came into the Big Ten and we need a rivalry game, and I’ve already been to the Big Ten and talked to them about that so hopefully we can keep that Black Friday game and have that be Iowa each year.”
Moos sounds like he’s reading the writing of a smart and particularly handsome analyst and jumping in quickly to salvage Nebraska’s Black Friday game against Iowa each year.
(Deep announcer voice – Moos has neither read, nor heard of, the Double Extra Point).
That’s an encouraging sign, to see that Moos recognizes the value both of the Black Friday game and a rivalry against Iowa. Hopefully he’ll be able to convince the bigwigs in the conference (B1Gwigs?) to undo the schedule change that sees Nebraska depart Black Friday after 2020.
But, Husker Fan, it’s time for you to embrace Iowa as your rival. There’s a whole bunch of good reasons why now is the time.
First of all, it’s an acknowledgment of where the two teams are. Since joining the B1G, Nebraska is 3-3 against Iowa, with the Hawkeyes owning a two-game winning streak. Iowa and Nebraska have each been to one B1G conference title game, and Iowa has one more Rose Bowl appearance in that time than Nebraska.
Yes, Husker Fan, I know you don’t want to accept Iowa as your rival because you think you’re saying you judge Nebraska against the standard of Iowa rather than teams like Ohio State and Alabama.
At some level, I get that. A program like Nebraska, with its resources and history, should be aiming for national relevance in a way that a program like Iowa has not shown itself to be.
And yes, I know you felt like Colorado and Kansas State were forced upon you as rivals after the Big 12 took away Nebraska’s yearly meeting with Oklahoma, and you’re still pining for those “Bury Switzer” bumper stickers your father put on his station wagon.
Well, that ain’t happening. Nebraska isn’t – and shouldn’t – even considering departing the B1G. It is now a member of one of the two most powerful conferences in college sports. Through the Big Ten Network, Nebraska has access to one of the most innovative and far-reaching marketing outlets to showcase itself. Membership in the B1G enhances the credibility and prestige of the university as a whole.
Oh, yeah, and there’s also 51 million other reasons why the B1G is a great home for the Big Red.
So you can hold your breath until your face turns Sooner Crimson all you want. The future of Nebraska football is annual tilts against Wisconsin, Northwestern, Minnesota, Illinois – and, yes, Iowa – from now on. You can either keep pining for your lost love, or you can lean in and embrace Nebraska’s new home.
In some ways, Nebraska fans’ reluctance to do has been part of the problem. Nebraska’s performances against its divisional opponents has been pretty average. Yes, part of that has been a talent and coaching issue. But part of it, I’m convinced, is the team not really investing in its divisional home and really buying into the need to win consistently against the B1G West. And if the fans buy in, that just puts all the more pressure on the team to do the same.
And it’s not like the other side isn’t willing to engage. Sure, Iowa might seem a little cool on Nebraska as a rival, especially given Iowa’s trophy games against Wisconsin, Minnesota and Iowa State. And given that Nebraska is struggling and kind of asking to be let into the rivalry tent, Iowa is sure to give Nebraska a taste of its own medicine and play coy.
Don’t let that fool you. There’s a built-in hatred within the Iowa fanbase for Nebraska. Some of that is being a divisional rival, but some of it pre-dates Nebraska’s arrival in the B1G. Here’s how RossWB from Black Heart, Gold Pants described his (not safe for work) feelings for Nebraska in 2011:
No, my first hate* was Nebraska. Growing up in northwest Iowa, it was an easy hate to develop. In those days, there were really only two choices: you could be an Iowa fan or you could be a Nebraska fan. (Outside of my parents, I knew a few masochistic Iowa State fans, but they were a definite minority.) It would have been a very easy time to be a Nebraska fan — they were just beginning their run of three titles in four years — but it was also easy to not become a Nebraska fan. Their fans were (too often) arrogant, preening assholes** and their program was, in many ways, loathsome***. They combined many of the worst aspects of rednecks and blue blood royalty, taking two often-terrible things and creating something even worse.
That’s a pretty good summary of Iowa fans’ perception of Nebraska. It’s not entirely unearned, given how Nebraska fans cling to the 90s like a lifeboat in the ocean. That hubris was brought into full focus in 2014 when then-athletic director Shawn Eichorst cited as a reason for firing then-head coach Bo Pelini a comparison between the Nebraska and Iowa programs – basically subtweeting that Nebraska is too good of a program to be rubbing shoulders with a program like Iowa.
It is also, without question, born in part of resentment and jealousy watching a neighboring agricultural state have a wildly successful football program with a nationally-known brand.
(Deep announcer voice – this is an example of the kind of shade that rivalries are built on)
So, yeah, the pump is primed for Iowa fans to embrace this rivalry. Just look at this. And this. And this. Heck, you know it’s probably a rivalry already if Iowa fans are rolling out smack-talk like this after last year’s 40-10 (!) Iowa win:
If it’s 9:20 in Iowa City, what time is it in Lincoln? 40 to 10.
It’s time for Nebraska fans to embrace it right back. And on Friday, you’ll have a perfect opportunity to test out whether you can embrace that Iowa rivalry.
Nebraska is 4-7, and isn’t going to a bowl game. Iowa is 6-5, and a win will likely affect only whether Iowa will be going to Detroit or New York for its December bowl game. Substantively, there’s nothing on the line.
But there’s that trophy, that ridiculously-sanitized Heroes Game trophy the B1G picked up from a grocery store. Take a look at the picture on this post, Husker Fan. That’s Iowa, in 2013, running across the Memorial Stadium turf, grabbing that trophy off the Nebraska sideline, and parading it in front of the assembled black and gold faithful pouring “let’s go Hawks” cries into your ears as you trudged home.
How does that make you feel, Husker Fan? If you’ve made it this far, I’ve got a pretty good idea of how it makes you feel, even if you don’t want to admit it out loud.
It pisses you off. It makes your Husker blood boil seeing those guys carry a trophy off of your stadium. It makes you want to right that wrong, to shut up your Hawkeye-fan neighbor or co-worker or family member over the holidays and the long off-season.
In other words, it pumps you up and gives you real, visceral stakes on the Nebraska-Iowa game. A win on Friday won’t send Nebraska to a bowl or put Nebraska in the top-25. But it will feel damn good to have in your back pocket as you see your Hawkeye friends and family.
So, Friday’s game is important to win, regardless of either team’s record. Sounds like a rivalry, doesn’t it, Husker Fan?
Most of you are expecting a Re-View of Nebraska’s 54-21 loss to Minnesota. But I just don’t see a point in breaking down this game. Full credit to Minnesota, a team under first-year coach P.J. Fleck who is on the rise and will be good in coming years.
But there’s no way to understand this loss without knowing that head coach Mike Riley is almost assuredly is going to lose his job after this season. This loss had much more to do with Nebraska’s mental state – or lack thereof – than anything in terms of strategic breakdowns.
So what do you do now, Husker Fan? There’s still two games left, but for all practical purposes there’s nothing left to play for. It’s really weird for Nebraska fans to be in early November with games left on the schedule and having nothing to do but wait for the offseason.
We’re here to help, Husker Fan. I know you’re struggling for how to respond – anyone of us who wear scarlet and cream are struggling. So here are some rules to help you out.
You Can’t Stop Caring
I know, I know, this stinks. Your Husker heart is aching about this whole surreal situation. You just saw Minnesota – yes, the no. 119 team in national scoring – put up a fifty-burger on the Blackshirts. And there’s two games left. The first is at Penn State – yipes – and a loss to the Nittany Lions will guarantee Nebraska’s second losing season in three years. The second is home to Iowa – a team that hung 50 on Ohio State – in front of a Memorial Stadium crowd that will be more than ready to bid farewell to 2017.
This hurts. This is no fun. And the rational response to this feeling is to give up and pull away.
Don’t. You don’t get to do that as a fan. I’m not saying you have to soak up every play of the next two games. I’m not even saying that skipping the Iowa game if you have tickets is a problem. Disengaging some, especially from the exhibition-style games that 2017 has left for Nebraska fans, is defensible.
But that’s different than not caring. You’re reading this because you care about Nebraska football, and you’re looking for answers.
I’m not sure I can give you much in terms of answers, although I am going to suggest some ways to get through this year. But I can tell you that giving up on Nebraska football based on this season – or, heck, based on the last decade and a half – would be a huge mistake.
Sure, it’s been since 1999 since Nebraska gave you a conference title. Sure, you’ve watched a lot of embarrassing losses and ugly performances. But be honest – you’ve had a whole bunch of great experiences too.
Not just wins, although those have been fun too. But Nebraska football is woven into the fabric of your life. It’s something to get excited about during the dog days of summer. It’s something to organize your autumn Saturdays around. It’s an easy gift for your family to buy you at Christmastime.
Being a fan – being truly, fully emotionally invested in a team – is an amazing gift. Your fandom lets you intensely experience a range of emotions – admittedly, some bad as well as good – in a way that people who aren’t sports fans can’t understand. To give that up, even while in the throes of Nebraska’s current struggles, would be a very high price to pay.
You Can Be Frustrated, Angry, and Sarcastic
Look, just because you’re not disengaging doesn’t mean you have to say that this is all great. You’re upset about all of this, and you should be. And now, even more than in 2007, you’ve got social media platforms that are built for sarcasm and snark.
Let it rip (within certain limits). Dark comedy is a great outlet for your frustration. Sarcasm can make you feel better. Even a long, ALL CAP FILLED rant is a great vent of your feelings.
All of those things mean you still care, and are looking for an outlet for all your anger and frustration. So as long as you’re not being hurtful (and we’ll discuss what that looks like in a bit), let your snark flag fly.
You Can’t Take It Out On The Players
Social media is great to let your frustration out. But the players live on social media, too. Many of them put themselves out there on media like Twitter and Instagram, and are available to be reached by fans.
Some of you have decided that the college kids who play for Nebraska are good targets for your ire on social media. No one is getting named and shamed on this forum, but there’s only one response I can give to you.
Seriously there is no set of circumstances where calling out the players is a good idea. And I know that some of you will respond by telling me that the players gave an unacceptable effort against Minnesota.
I’m willing to listen to that, and certainly willing to listen to former Nebraska players discuss it. But there’s a difference between an athlete who has bled and sweated for the scarlet and cream and @JoeCouchGuy_7 popping off.
Ladies and gentlemen, football is hard. It’s a really hard game, and it’s really hard work to get ready to play, week after week. Every player on that team, I’m confident to say, has put in more work to be a football player than most people reading this blog have put in for anything in their life.
You know what else is hard? Losing. Continuing to lose plays with your confidence, and losing track of all your season goals makes it hard to give that extra little bit that is the difference between winning and losing.
Nebraska’s players are better than Minnesota’s. All else being equal, that means Nebraska should beat Minnesota. But that doesn’t mean there is a chasm of difference between the two teams. And desire, passion, “want to,” all those things that you hear football fans speak in clichés about, make a difference.
I can’t argue the fact that Nebraska’s effort against Minnesota was unacceptable. But I will argue that it’s awfully hard, awfully hard indeed, for college kids to give the kind of extreme effort necessary to win a football game – yes, even against Minnesota – when many of them have to be convinced that the entire coaching staff is going to be fired shortly after Black Friday.
Yes, that means a team that didn’t give acceptable effort is still doing its best. More importantly, it means that the kids on that roster still need – and deserve – the support of the fans.
You know that whole bit about “in all kinds of weather?” Now’s the time to put that to the test, Husker Fan, and stick together in support of the players as we close out 2017.
You Can’t Strike Your Colors
No hiding, Husker Fan. Now is the time where it’s important to fly your flag and broadcast your fandom. I know, Thanksgiving is coming, and your Hawkeye relatives will be licking their chops waiting for you.
What are you going to do? Put your scarlet and cream away and hope they don’t notice? Good luck with that. Now is the time to earn your stripes.
In 2004, I suffered from a bout of what you might call irrational exuberance. Before the season started, I bought tickets to the Big XII title game in Kansas City. I thought for sure the worm would turn, and this would be Nebraska’s year to scale the mountain.
Well, that didn’t exactly work. But I went anyway, and watched Oklahoma dismantle Colorado, 42-3.
But that’s not the point of the story. I wore my Nebraska coat (because it’s Arrowhead, and Arrowhead is bone-chilling cold in mid-July). And I got more comments – more respect – from the fans that were at the game than any other time I can recall
(Well, from the Oklahoma fans, anyway. Colorado fans are the subject of another essay.)
Here’s your chance, Husker Fan. You’re not 10 years old. You don’t get to change your allegiances when a new shiny object comes around or when you hit a little choppy water.
Lean into the struggle and fly your scarlet and cream proudly. Trust me, it will be worth it when things turn for Nebraska.
You Can’t Forget You’ve Seen This Before.
This is kind of a two-edged sword. It’s a problem for Nebraska as a program that we have been here before, in 2007 after Steve Pederson was fired. We’ve seen a team come unglued under the tutelage of a dead coach walking. We’ve seen ugly losses – although, in fairness, in 2007 the losses weren’t to teams as poor as 2017 Minnesota.
But we survived, didn’t we? We found hope in 2008, even when we thought we’d never feel that again after Kansas put up 76. We dreamed of titles when Nebraska played Oklahoma and Texas in the Big XII title game (although not at the same time, that would have been tough). We thought Nebraska had cracked the B1G nut when a four-loss Wisconsin showed up in Indianapolis – at least until the game started.
Hope will come again, probably sooner than you think. Riley has to go, but he’s not Bill Callahan or Bo Pelini. He’ll still coach and recruit, and leave the team in the best shape possible for the next guy in charge. He won’t shut things down in a fit of pique or poison the well to salve his bruised ego.
And now Nebraska has an experienced football mind in Bill Moos to fire Riley and hire his replacement. That’s no guarantee, of course, the Moos will pick the right guy. Or that the right guy will want to come to Lincoln. Or that the “right guy” will actually be the right guy and get Nebraska back to national relevance.
But there’s reason for hope. Not only because there’s reason to believe in the new decision-maker, but because the drought has been so long for Nebraska that it can ill afford another wrong guy wearing the headset in Lincoln.
Give in to that hope, Husker Fan, at least a little bit. Life is too short, and too hard, to indulge yourself in the cowardice of cynicism. At the end of the day, it is still college football – the most important irrelevant thing around these parts. Whether or not Nebraska is good at football isn’t going to put food on your table or a roof over your head.
But being a Nebraska fan can make you happy. To allow that, though, you have to find a little space in your heart for hope. It’s a tough ask now, I get it. But it was a tough ask before, too. And hope came back, just as sure as day follows the night.
Don’t be afraid of it, Husker Fan. Search out the hope. And embrace it when it comes.
Now, more than ever, GBR, baby.
Northwestern and Nebraska in Memorial Stadium is always going to be an exciting affair. The Purples have made it two wins in a row in Lincoln, coming back from a 24-17 deficit to win 31-24 in overtime. Northwestern has now won three straight overtime games, and Nebraska has now lost three straight home games.
Head coach Mike Riley’s squad drops to 4-5 overall and 3-3 in B1G play. The loss darkens the clouds swirling over Riley’s tenure in Lincoln with challenging games remaining.
JDang Impressive. Whatever other offensive woes Nebraska has suffered this year, there’s no question that redshirt freshman wide receiver JD Spielman has been a revelation. Not only was he Nebraska’s leading receiver with 48 yards on three catches, but he also had two carried for 45 yards, including a 40-yard run that was (brace yourself) Nebraska’s longest carry of the season.
It’s been a rough year, in many ways a lost year for Nebraska. But they’ve definitely found a weapon for the future in Spielman.
The Third Quarter. Once Marcus Newby picked off an overthrown Clayton Thorson pass and returned it for a touchdown, it felt like momentum had shifted for Nebraska. Then, Nebraska went on an 18-play (!), seventy-nine yard drive eating up nine minutes and twenty-four seconds (!!). That’s the kind of drive that can steal the will to win from another team.
But then, Nebraska only got three points from the drive. Insert your own metaphor here.
Nothing. There is no third thing.
The Other Tanner. The lack of a running game for Nebraska was covered up by an heroic performance from quarterback Tanner Lee against Purdue. And with his performances in the last few games, it looked like he had settled in and figured out how to do better protecting the ball.
Lee had three interceptions against Northwestern, and had an easy pick-six dropped as well. The third interception was due in large part to the pressure he faced, but the others were a familiar story – poor reads and poor decisions into coverage.
Lee was 21-for-38, a 55 percent completion percentage. Especially without a running game (more on that in a bit), that’s simply not good enough for Nebraska to win.
Running In Place. Give Riley and offensive coordinator Danny Langsdorf credit, they kept at the running game as long as possible. But Nebraska ended the game with 31 carries for 112 yards, an average of 3.6 yards per carry. And that’s including Spielman’s 40-yard jet sweep.
Devine Ozigbo got all but one of the running back carries, toting the ball 23 times for 80 yards. Yes, that’s 3.1 yards per carry. There’s plenty of room to criticize Lee for his interceptions and completion percentage. But it’s also not entirely fair to pin all the blame on Lee when he has been asked to pull the entire offense himself.
Against Purdue, he could pull of those heroics. Against Northwestern, he wasn’t. In both cases, a competent running game would have made a significant difference.
The Better Team Won. Sure, getting a game to overtime means that either team has a puncher’s chance to win the game. But Northwestern outgained Nebraska by over 100 yards, 475 to 337. The Purples had five more first downs than Nebraska, was far more balanced on offense, won the turnover battle, and had fewer penalty yards than Nebraska.
It’s a bitter enough pill to swallow that Nebraska has now lost three straight home games. It’s bad enough to lose to Northwestern. But to know that, at Memorial Stadium, Northwestern was the better team and should have beaten Nebraska, should tell you everything you need to know.
And the Blessing of Clarity
New athletic director Bill Moos said it is his policy not to make any coaching decisions during the season. There’s no reason to think he will do anything different with regards to Riley.
But there can be little doubt now that the Riley era will be over at the conclusion of the 2017 campaign. Nebraska’s remaining games are at Minnesota, at Penn State, and home to Iowa – the same Iowa team that just hung 55 on Ohio State. If Nebraska wins out, it will end the season at 7-5. Nebraska needs two wins to become bowl eligible, which will require a win over either Penn State or Iowa.
So if the writing is on the wall for Riley now – assuming that outcome was ever in doubt – then Moos now will be able to make plans for 2018. If hometown hero Scott Frost is Moos’ target, he’ll likely have competition Florida, Tennessee, and any other big name schools that will be making a coaching change.
More importantly, Nebraska’s loss to Northwestern should make it clear to the Nebraska fan base that a change will be made after this season. This feels more than a little bit like 2007, when it became pretty clear after the dismissal of athletic director Steve Pederson that head coach Bill Callahan wouldn’t be back. Like that 2007 season, Nebraska fans are in for a surreal three games watching a coaching staff finish out a string.
Riley is a consummate professional, so there should be no question about getting effort from him and his coaching staff. But now Nebraska fans, in a sense, can be released from the tension of this season’s games. Win or lose isn’t likely to make a difference in the outcome of the season, so fans can be somewhat detached from the results and wait for the season to conclude.
It’s a strange, sad place to be for an honorable man like Riley. It’s a truly unfortunate place for the players to be, coming in with such high expectations and being asked to put forward the effort and sacrifice that football demands each week. And it’s a bizarre, surreal place for a fanbase as passionate as Nebraska to be as the final quarter of the 2017 season is upon us.
In the fourth quarter against Purdue, Nebraska was down 24-12 after being unable to score a touchdown the entire game. Not only did it look like Nebraska was going down to a second straight loss on the road against Purdue (!) but it seemed like a fait accompli that new athletic director Bill Moos would be dismissing head coach Mike Riley and looking for a new leader.
But then Nebraska found its offensive mojo, scoring a second touchdown with fourteen seconds remaining to pull out a dramatic 25-24 victory.
Have a game, Tanner. Yeah, there was a lot about that game that was pretty ugly for Nebraska. But quarterback Tanner Lee sure wasn’t one of them. Lee was 32-50 (!) for 431 yards (!!) and two touchdowns. He was calm in the pocket, braving at times a heavy rush to keep Nebraska’s offense moving.
I know Run The Ball Guy hated this game. But without Lee’s heroics, Nebraska is 3-5.
Pick-zero. So, imagine a sign outside of Memorial Stadium. On the sign, it reads as follows:
It has been –11– quarters since Nebraska threw a pick-six interception. Safety first!
There was not a lot to like about Nebraska’s offense for most of the game against Purdue. But one thing to like was the fact that it didn’t give away any turnovers helped keep hope alive for Nebraska’s comeback – and perhaps for Riley’s career in Lincoln.
Never say die. It’s been … a rough couple of weeks in Lincoln. A fired athletic director, two embarrassing losses at home, and a native son hanging in the background like a shadow cast over the entire football program. The fan base – certainly the most vocal parts of it, anyway – have already made their plans for a new coach to be in place for next season.
That’s an easy scenario for negativity to set in throughout the team. And with Nebraska down 12 points in the fourth quarter – after having scored only 12 points the entire game – it would have been easy to see NU rolling over and giving up the ghost.
But instead, Nebraska dug in, and finally scored a touchdown. And the defense which had been so tormented against Ohio State got not one, but two sets of stops to set up Nebraska’s offense for its heroic last-second win.
It says a lot about how the team has bought in, both to the coaching staff and to each other, that they were able to dig deep and find a way to win.
Big red cross. Look, Nebraska made heavy weather of game it shouldn’t have. There’s plenty of reasons for that, but it can be fairly summed up by saying that Nebraska being a five-point underdog to Purdue was well deserved in 2017.
But Nebraska got pretty well banged up during the game, too. Center Michael Decker is likely lost for the season. Safetys Antonio Reed and Aaron Williams are questionable, as is Eric Lee and Jaylin Bradley. There’s plenty of reasons to explain Nebraska’s struggles against Purdue that had nothing to do with injuries. But the injuries didn’t help, either.
Red zone woes. Nebraska outgained Purdue by over 100 total yards, had ten minutes more of possession, and five more first downs than Purdue. On paper, Nebraska looked like it controlled the game. On the scoreboard, of course, Nebraska needed Lee’s last-second heroics to save it from a second straight loss in West Lafayette.
One of the main reasons why Purdue was winning the game even though it was losing the statistics was because of Nebraska’s ineptitude in the red zone. Nebraska had five red zone trips, and only got twelve points. Thank heavens for Drew Brown’s accuracy, because Nebraska needed all twelve of those points to win the game.
But imagine what the game would have looked like if Nebraska would have cashed in a couple of those red zone opportunities into touchdown.
8. Eight. Freaking. Yards.
That was Nebraska’s rushing total at the half against Purdue. Nebraska ended the game with forty yards rushing, in comparison to 431 of passing, so it’s not like the run-pass balance got any better.
And The Sense of Perspective
As Nebraska fans were bathing in the glory of a comeback win like travelers in a desert oasis, Twitter was helpfully providing some perspective.
That, by the way, is a totally fair assessment of the state of Nebraska’s program. What Iowa State is doing is remarkable, and should be the goal to which Nebraska aspires.
(And, no, I never thought I’d write that sentence either.)
And in the long run, that’s the right perspective. Nebraska, as a football program, should not be looking up to Iowa State. The fact that Nebraska is behind Iowa State now is prima facie evidence that something is wrong in Lincoln.
But, admit it, Husker Fan. That didn’t matter to you when Nebraska started its fourth quarter comeback. When Tyler Hoppes took the ball into the end zone to bring the margin to one score, it wasn’t that important what the Cyclones were doing. When Nebraska got a third down stop for a chance to engineer a game-winning drive, you weren’t focused on what Moos was thinking about in the pressbox. And when Stanley Morgan caught Lee’s pass to give Nebraska the lead, all of the hurt of this season – and, really since 1997 – went away.
Not forever, of course. But just for that moment, all that negativity and hard feeling disappeared. You were too busy jumping around and cheering like a crazy person, feeling that sense of unbridled euphoria that only comes from the emotional gambling that is being a sports fan.
And that’s why you do it, Husker Fan. That’s why you come back, week after week, month after month, season after season. That’s why you expose yourself to all the pain and frustration that comes with following your team – hoping for that one moment of unfiltered, crazy, unreplacable joy.
By all means, Husker Fan, stay plugged in on what should happen in the big picture of Nebraska football. Whether Riley should stay or go is a question everyone has an opinion on.
But don’t let all that big picture drama rob you of why you’re a fan in the first place – to have that sense of anticipation on game day, that sense of excitement and nervousness during the game, and the joy (or despair) of the result.
Where do we go from here now that all other children are growing-up?
And how do we spend our lives if there’s no-one to give us a hand?
– Games People Play, The Alan Parsons Project
It’s been quite a year, hasn’t it? Nebraska came into 2017 as a huge unknown, and has to this point been a borderline-disaster. Ugly defensive performances early against Arkansas State and Oregon, pick-six interception after pick-six interception, Nebraska’s worst loss in over a decade, and capitulation against the measuring sticks of the conference have hit Nebraska fans like a train wreck.
Nebraska’s seen the firing of athletic director Shawn Eichorst and the hiring of replacement Bill Moos from Washington State. And, most importantly, it’s seen head coach Mike Riley’s job seriously called into question seven games into the third year of his tenure.
So what do we make of all this?
Ohio State was never going to define Riley’s tenure
Yeah, last week wasn’t pretty. Sure, Nebraska’s 56-14 loss to Ohio State in Memorial Stadium was better than last year’s 62-3 debacle. But if anything, the 56-14 score was flattering … to Nebraska. As a smart and particularly handsome analyst put it on Twitter:
So if you’re judging Nebraska against Ohio State, then clearly last week wasn’t good enough. But, realistically, Nebraska was never expected to compete against the Buckeyes. If Moos has not made his mind up about Riley yet (a position which is clearly not universally shared), then Ohio State wasn’t going to be the measuring stick against which Riley’s performance would be judged.
Nebraska’s next five games are at Purdue, home to Northwestern, at Minnesota, at Penn State, and home to Iowa. According to SB Nation’s five-year recruiting averages, Nebraska has better talent than every school on that list not named Penn State. So if you are judging Riley’s future based on the remainder of 2017, then winning four of the next five would seem to be the fairest test.
If Riley is still coaching for his job, Nebraska’s performance against Ohio State shouldn’t be what decides his fate. Instead, it should be how Nebraska performs against the winnable games left on its 2017 schedule.
Nebraska is worse now than when Riley arrived
Boy, that’s a rough subhead to write. But it’s hard to argue. Nebraska likely wasn’t as bad as its 6-7 mark in 2015, after being the victim of a number of ridiculous bad-luck losses. But it also likely wasn’t as good as last year’s 9-4 mark, benefitting from a number of fortunate victories.
This year? Nebraska’s earned every bit of its 3-4 mark. It was a last-minute drive by Arkansas State away from sitting at 2-5 with losses to a Sun Belt and a MAC school.
Riley’s defenders would point out, fairly, that Nebraska is installing an entirely new defense and functionally a new offense given the change at quarterback. Nebraska’s struggles this season were in some way inevitable as a result.
That’s a big ask, wanting functionally a “reset” year-zero year at a program like Nebraska. This is Riley’s third year in Lincoln, and it’s fair for him to expect a little more time to get his players and install his system.
But in his tenure, Nebraska has three indefensible losses (2015 Illinois, 2015 Purdue, and 2017 Northern Illinois). And Nebraska now has the kind of blowout losses (2016 Ohio State, 2016 Tennessee, 2017 Wisconsin, 2017 Ohio State) that helped show Bo Pelini the door even with winning nine games consistently.
The stage is set for a coaching change
Moos’ arrival in October wasn’t good news for Riley. I don’t believe it’s a guarantee that Riley will be fired, which puts me at odds with many of the reporters covering Nebraska on a local and national level.
But if Riley is going to be fired, having a new athletic director in place makes that process work a lot better. If Moos decides that Riley has to go – whether that was on the plane ride to Lincoln, or at some point during the remainder of the season – then a sitting AD can start right away on the job search process. And if this year’s off-season coaching carousel might be competitive, having someone get a jump start on the process could be critical.
But there’s history that might suggest Riley could stay
The consensus seems to be that Riley is a dead coach walking. I know it feels that way after Wisconsin and Ohio State. And if Nebraska drops a game to Purdue or Minnesota, then it’s going to be a hard conclusion to avoid.
But remember how you felt after Northern Illinois. It seemed like there was no way Riley could continue. But two wins (over two pretty atrocious football teams) got Nebraska fans excited enough to generate an electric atmosphere in Lincoln when the Badgers came to town.
What do you think a three-game winning streak would do for the mood of the fanbase? How much better would things look after three straight wins?
Don’t forget, too, that Moos gave Mike Leach a fourth year at Washington State after winning three, six, and three games in his first three years. The scenarios are different, of course, but Moos at least has some history of taking his time when appropriate.
So what’s next?
I have no idea. I really like Riley as a person. I can see what he’s trying to do on offense. And I really like the direction Nebraska recruiting is heading.
But I don’t like the direction Nebraska’s product on the field has been heading. I don’t like some of the personnel decisions and game-management that have led Nebraska to its current overall record. And I really don’t like the sense of resignation seeping into the fan base. For the Ohio State game, secondary market tickets were available for less than $20. That’s an unsustainable level of faith in the program by its fans. It’s hard to imagine going into an offseason with this level of defeatism permeating the fanbase. That, by itself, would be a convincing argument for a coaching change.
Then there’s the native son, Scott Frost, waiting in the wings. Frost seems to be the next big thing in coaching, and it’s hard to imagine him saying no if Nebraska came calling. Frost would likely be able to unify a fan base that’s been fractured since the firing of Frank Solich in 2003 (although, don’t forget, Frost was booed by Nebraska fans after spurning NU to attend Stanford as a freshman).
And while you don’t want to make a decision from fear, can you imagine what Nebraska fans would be like if Moos stuck with Riley and Frost went to Tennessee? There would be an element of the fan base that would never stop comparing the two – and woe to Moos and Nebraska if Frost took off with the Volunteers.
Ultimately, I think it’s very unlikely that Riley is back for 2018, primarily because I don’t see this group of Cornhuskers being able to win all four games likely needed to save his job. So I am resigned to a coaching change, taking a hit on the recruiting class (which is far less important in the long run than it will seem at the time), and an off-season of uncertainty for Nebraska.
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.
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.
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.
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