Nebraska Football: Mike Riley’s Magic Number for Winning

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“Sixty percent completion rate, it’s a magic number. Yes it is, it’s a magic number.”

– to the tune of “Three Is A Magic Number,” Schoolhouse Rock

With Nebraska off to its worst start in football since the pre-Bob Devaney era, Nebraska fans are freaked out. In trying to grapple with a reality that involves Nebraska needing to win out to avoid a 6-6 season (and the need to change the patch on its uniform to “Nebraska Football – A Non-Losing Tradition”), people have looked all over for answers. It’s the coach. It’s the defense. It’s the injuries.

Of course, sober and rational fans know that there are any number of nuances and competing factors contributing to five losses by a total of 13 points. But this is A Blog on The Internets, so a “silver bullet” answer is needed to fix Nebraska’s woes.

And as luck may have it, a look at the numbers might suggest something along those lines. A smart and particularly handsome analyst has already observed the striking correlation between Nebraska completing 60 percent or more of its pass attempts and winning. Here’s that table, updated for the Northwestern game.

Opponent Completions Attempts Completion %
BYU 24 41 58.5
South Alabama 26 38 68.4
Miami 21 45 46.7
Southern Miss 23 35 65.7
Illinois 10 31 32.3
Wisconsin 11 28 39.3
Minnesota 18 26 69.2
Northwestern 24 48 50.0

Games won are in bold.

The theory holds up perfectly for Nebraska this year. Nebraska is 3-0 in games where Armstrong’s completion percentage is 60 percent or over, and 0-5 when it is under 60 percent.

But how does that hold up in Riley’s history? Well, thanks to the fine folks at cfbstats.com, we can crack open the record books and take a look back at least to 2008.

Year Record with rate >= 60% Record with rate <60%
2015 3-0 0-5
2014 6-4 1-2
2013 3-3 2-4
2012 7-1 2-3
2011 3-7 0-2
2010 4-1 1-6
2009 8-4 0-1
2008 5-3 4-1
Overall 66-23 (.742 win pct.) 10-24 (.294 win pct.)

In other words, since 2008 Riley’s teams have won nearly three in four games where his team’s completion percentage is 60 percent or greater, and lost more than three in every four games where that completion percentage is less than 60 percent.

It does make some sense, though, when you look at how Riley’s teams have run the ball since 2008 (again, from cfbstats.com).

Year Yards/Carry
2015 4.94
2014 3.77
2013 3.46
2012 3.66
2011 3.27
2010 3.76
2009 4.13
2008 4.22

While this year’s yards-per-carry is more than acceptable (and might suggest an offensive game plan, particularly if quarterback Tommy Armstrong is unable to play against Purdue this Saturday, as reported by Michael Bruntz of Huskers Illustrated), history suggests that Riley-coached teams have never run the ball effectively. Therefore, it stands to reason that Riley relies on a quarterback completing a high percentage of his throws to move the ball effectively.

Watching Nebraska this year on offense tends to lend credence to the theory. Even with a nearly five-yards-per-carry average, Nebraska’s offense has very much relied on the pass to establish the run rather than vice versa. When Armstrong is in a rhythm and completing passes, everything else clicks. But when he isn’t (or, in fairness, his passes are being dropped), Nebraska’s offense bogs down.

Which makes for the potential of a fascinating experiment on Saturday. Should backup quarterback Ryker Fyfe play due to Armstrong’s injury, look to see if he’s able to hit that magical sixty-percent completion rate against Purdue. If he can hit that number, it will be interesting to see what Nebraska’s offense looks like.

Yes, it’s Purdue, and a good performance by Fyfe wouldn’t (and shouldn’t) displace Armstrong as the starter next week against Michigan State. But the completion percentage number is a good one to keep your eye on throughout the rest of this season – and to keep in the back of your mind as Nebraska looks towards 2016.

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How Nebraska Fans Should Handle Huskers’ Struggles In Mike Riley’s First Year

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Cognitive Dissonance (cog*ni*tive  dis*son*ance, noun): the state of having inconsistent thoughts, beliefs, or attitudes, especially as relating to behavioral decisions and attitude change.

Year one of Mike Riley’s reign as Nebraska head football coach has been any number of adjectives. Disappointing. Shocking. Agonizing. Maddening. Surreal.

As Nebraska sits at 3-5, needing a win over a now-top-15 rated team in Michigan State or Iowa to earn a .500 record, fans are torn. Sure, everyone knows that firing a coach eight games into a season is madness. But everyone knows that 3-5 for Nebraska is never, ever, ever acceptable.

Those who cover the team are just as torn. Samuel McKewon of the Omaha World-Herald points out that Riley’s results aren’t all that different than former head coach Bo Pelini’s, but without the individual heroics of a Lavonte David, Taylor Martinez, or Ameer Abdullah to bail it out. Tom Shatel of the Omaha World-Herald, on the other hand, blistered Riley with a j’accuse of everything that’s gone wrong this season. Shatel didn’t call for Riley’s job, but he didn’t exactly offer a ringing endorsement either.

Husker Fan, you’re caught between the devil and the deep blue sea. Let’s start with a fundamental premise. Nebraska is 3-5. In football. That’s not good enough – ever. Now, here’s where the cognitive dissonance sets in.

Yes, but …

Riley is in his first year at Nebraska, with players on offense and defense that aren’t suited to what he wants to do. Struggles were going to be inevitable.

Yes, but …

Riley was brought in as an experienced coach, a safe pair of hands that could figure out how to use the talent on hand to navigate Nebraska through those difficult waters of transition. He knew there would be a transition, and had an entire offseason to prepare his players for it.

Yes, but …

Nebraska under Riley has been so close to winning. A smart and particularly handsome analyst pointed out how close Nebraska was to 6-0 at one point in the season, for heaven’s sake. A couple of bounces the other way, and we’re not having this existential conversation.

Yes, but …

Nebraska is still 3-5. As Hall of Fame coach Bill Parcells said about NFL teams, “you are what your record says you are.” And while there are plenty of reasons for the record, coaching decisions are a part of those close losses.

Yes, but …

Nebraska has been decimated with injuries and suspensions this year. The defensive back seven, especially the linebackers, haven’t had a chance when true freshmen and walk-ons are being asked to shoulder the load in a new defensive system.

Yes, but …

Injuries can explain some defensive struggles. Injuries can’t explain Nebraska going from no. 33 in pass defense in 2014 to no. 126 in 2015, and from no. 53 in total defense nationally last year to no. 93 this year (according to cfbstats.com). Sure, it’s a new system under defensive coordinator Mark Banker. But it’s pretty clear the players on the roster aren’t executing that system very well – and that’s on Banker and the staff.

Yes, but …

Riley overachieved at Oregon State, one of the toughest places to succeed in all of major college football. His track record there suggests he’s going to be able to get Nebraska out of this mess.

Yes, but …

Oregon State was 5-7 last year under Riley, losing seven of its last nine games. In his last two years, Riley was 6-13 in conference. For his career at Oregon State, Riley was 93-80, just barely over .500 over fourteen seasons.

Exhausted yet? Everything about Nebraska’s 2015 is a producer of cognitive dissonance. Nebraska fans know that 3-5 isn’t acceptable. Nebraska fans also know there’s all kinds of explanations/reasons/excuses why Nebraska is 3-5 right now.

So how do you reconcile those two irreconcilable truths in your brain, Husker fan?

Well, here’s a cold, hard fact to absorb. Riley will not be fired this year, period. Set aside the arguments about how a first-year coach should never be fired, absent some kind of horrific criminal or behavioral issue. Let’s pretend this is English soccer, where coaches get fired at the drop of a hat.

Right now, Nebraska is paying Pelini about $1.5 million/year until February of 2019, according to Rich Kaipust of the Omaha World-Herald. Riley’s contract is $2.7 million/year with escalators and incentives through February of 2020. That means if Riley was dismissed after this season (or after the third quarter this Saturday, if Twitter is to be believed should the Purdue game go poorly), Nebraska will be paying coaches $4.2 million per year not to coach.

Add in the $3 million for a new coach (which would likely be low, given what Nebraska would have to offer after giving a coach just one year in charge), and Nebraska would be shelling out $7.2 million per year in coaches’ salaries.

For comparison’s sake, Alabama head coach Nick Saban makes just over $7 million/year, according to USA Today.

So face facts, Husker Fan. Riley’s not going anywhere this year, and likely next year, for dollars-and-cents reasons if nothing else.

What does that mean? Well, if you’ve convinced yourself after eight games that Riley can’t do any better, you’re in for a long stretch over the next few years. You can wrap yourself in the comfortable self-righteousness of an “I told you so” blanket to keep you warm, if it makes you feel better.

But you don’t know. Neither do I. There’s simply an insufficient data set to make a definitive judgment on Riley’s tenure in Lincoln at this stage. As we have seen, there’s sufficient evidence to support a positive or a negative outlook.

The fact is, though, that the Nebraska fan base will have to live with that uncertainty for a while. Athletic director Shawn Eichorst fired Pelini because there was certainty in his mind about the status of the Nebraska program. He was certain – with good evidence to support his conclusion – that Nebraska was never going to become a conference title contender under Pelini.

Firing Pelini was a risk. Hiring Riley was a risk. Eichorst could very well have stayed in the safe harbor of Pelini’s four-loss seasons, big-game capitulations, and public embarrassments.

But ships aren’t built to stay in a harbor. They’re made to venture out into the open sea, in search of glory.

Nebraska Football: The Five Most Indispensable Cornhuskers

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Nebraska football fans have endured a strange season, with a win over Minnesota last week lifting the team to 3-4 on the 2015 campaign. But now that we are into the second half of the season, we’ve seen the players that are most important to Nebraska’s success. These five are the players Nebraska can least live without for the rest of 2015.

All stats from cfbstats.com unless otherwise indicated.

No. 5: Alonzo Moore

When wide receiver De’Mornay Pierson-El was lost for the start of the season, many Nebraska fans worried who would fill his role. But after struggling with injuries and performance on the field, junior receiver Alonzo Moore stepped in right away and provided a spark to Nebraska’s offense. He’s been effective in what many envisioned Pierson-El’s role in the jet sweep – Moore is Nebraska’s sixth-leading rusher, and second in yards per carry only to Andy Janovich.

And as a receiver, Moore is third on the team in total yardage. He is second in yards per reception to – you guessed it – big-play fullback Janovich. Moore provides a stretch-the-field speed threat that can help open running lanes, and his consistency this year has been an unheralded cog in the transition to new head coach Mike Riley’s offense.

No. 4: Josh Kalu

Yes, I am fully aware that cornerback Josh Kalu is a member of a secondary that boasts the worst pass defense in the FBS. But remember that the transition to new defensive coordinator Mark Banker’s scheme asks the most of the secondary. Sure, it’s been harder (OK, fine, a lot harder) than most anticipated, but that doesn’t mean progress isn’t being made.

And it’s been Kalu that has made the most progress to date in that secondary. As the season has gone on, you can see Kalu doing better in single coverage technique, and getting more confident in making plays on the ball. Ultimately, Nebraska’s pass defense is only going to improve with superior play in the secondary. And Kalu, right now, provides Nebraska’s best shot at getting that level of performance.

No. 3: Jordan Westerkamp

It’s easy to dismiss a guy like Westerkamp as a possession receiver, a steady-Eddie type who won’t ever make the splash plays but is super dependable. Of course, we know that Westerkamp can make plays that are behind-the-back sensational and game-winning critical.

But even with the spectacular in his locker, it is Westerkamp’s consistency which makes him so valuable. He leads the team in reception yardage, and is second only to Moore in touchdown receptions. Westerkamp is a reliable third-down target, crucial for Nebraska’s offense to stay on the field and keep pressure off a beleaguered defense.

No. 2: Maliek Collins

Don’t let the statistics fool you. Right now, defensive tackle Maliek Collins is seventh on the team in tackles, second in tackles for loss, and fourth in sacks. But his presence in the middle is affecting everything else on the front end of Nebraska’s defense.  Collins has been a lynchpin of Nebraska’s rushing defense, currently no. 7 nationally. And as the season is wearing on, you can start to see him becoming more and more of a disruptive force. Particularly against Minnesota last week, you saw Collins able to break through and apply pressure to the quarterback through the middle. And when he has been split outside, Collins has been able to wreak havoc as a pass rusher.

With the return of defensive end Freedom Akinmoladun, Collins may get some additional space to work against opposing offenses. Regardless, his play has been instrumental in Nebraska’s defense, and his loss would be catastrophic going forward.

No. 1: Tommy Armstrong

This one wasn’t really close. A smart and particularly handsome analyst pointed out how critical Armstrong’s performance has been for Nebraska this year.

Opponent Completions Attempts Completion %
BYU 24 41 58.5
South Alabama 26 38 68.4
Miami 21 45 46.7
Southern Miss 23 35 65.7
Illinois 10 31 32.3
Wisconsin 11 28 39.3
Minnesota 18 26 69.2

Games won are in bold.

The analysis is pretty straightforward. When Armstrong is completing more than 60 percent of his passes, Nebraska wins. When he doesn’t, Nebraska loses.

Of course, it’s not just Armstrong’s passing that makes him important to Nebraska. Armstrong’s rushing ability has been crucial, and the inclusion of that element (both planned and unplanned) has been the biggest area of growth in Riley’s new offense.

Losing any other player for Nebraska would be costly, but would leave NU with options. If something happens to Armstrong, though, it’s hard to see how Nebraska would recover.

Nebraska Football: ReView of the Cornhuskers’ 48-25 Win Over Minnesota

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Nebraska got its first conference win of 2015 with an emphatic 48-25 win over Minnesota in Minneapolis. Breaking a two-game losing streak to the Gophers, Nebraska nearly hung a fifty-burger on a team whose defense had not allowed more than 27 all season. The win gets Nebraska to 3-4 overall and 1-2 in B1G play. So, for Nebraska fans …

The Good

Getting The Bounces. Sure, you make your own luck. But this time, the ball started bouncing Nebraska’s way. The best example was at the end of the first quarter, with Nebraska up 14-7. Nebraska faced a third-and-four, and fullback Andy Janovich fumbled the ball. Given the way Nebraska’s fortunes had been going, this would have been an opportunity for Minnesota to get the turnover, score on the short field, and put more pressure on the snakebit Cornhuskers.

But this time, the ball bounced right back into Janovich’s arms, allowing Nebraska to not only retain possession but fall forward for the first down. Finally, it seemed, the worm had turned in Nebraska’s favor.

Tommy’s Back. There’s plenty of stats to chew on in understanding the difference between a heartbreaking loss (or three) and a comfortable win. But take a look at Nebraska quarterback Tommy Armstrong’s numbers:

Opponent Completions Attempts Completion %
BYU 24 41 58.5
South Alabama 26 38 68.4
Miami 21 45 46.7
Southern Miss 23 35 65.7
Illinois 10 31 32.3
Wisconsin 11 28 39.3
Minnesota 18 26 69.2

Games won are in bold.

There’s a couple of interesting things to observe here. First, Armstrong’s passing attempts have been consistently decreasing, likely an adaptation of head coach Mike Riley and offense coordinator Danny Langsdorf to Armstrong’s skill set.

Second, and more interestingly, is how completion percentage correlates to success. When Armstrong is completing more than 60 percent of his passes, Nebraska wins. Less than 60 percent for Armstrong, and Nebraska loses. Correlation isn’t causation, but at this point it’s fair to say that Nebraska’s is keyed on Armstrong being accurate with the football.

The Courage Of Your Convictions. Here we go again. Against Illinois with a critical third down to ice the game, Nebraska put Armstrong on a roll-out. He threw an incompletion, and gave Illinois enough time to win the game.

Against Wisconsin (as observed by a smart and particularly handsome analyst), the ghost of that play haunted Nebraska. With another critical third-down conversion, Nebraska ran three times straight into the teeth of an eleven-man Wisconsin front, giving the Badgers possession and time to win the game.

So once again, Nebraska was facing a crucial third down, this time needing six yards from its own 42 with 5:42 left in the game. Minnesota had cut Nebraska’s lead to 38-25, and the ghosts of collapses past were haunting the Nebraska fanbase. The reaction of fans on social media could be fairly summarized as follows:

Dear Coach Riley:

Run. The. Ball.

Sincerely, Twitter.

Instead, Armstrong dropped back and completed a 27-yard pass to Jordan Westerkamp, getting a first down and keeping the drive alive. Nebraska would eventually kick a field goal, stretching its lead to 41-25, and leaving Minnesota only 3:03 left for a two score comeback.

While fans’ reaction to the pass call was mainly NONONONONOYESSSSSSSSSSS, Riley should be commended for having the guts to make the pass call. Against Wisconsin, the decision to run up the middle was coaching not to lose. Against Minnesota, even with all the heat he would have caught had it not worked out, Riley trusted his offense and his quarterback – and was rewarded for his courage.

The Bad

No Hiding. We’ve talked before about how Nebraska’s struggles in the secondary came in no small part from a lack of a pass rush. Well, that wasn’t the case against Minnesota. Both with a four-man rush and with a blitz, Nebraska heated up and harassed Minnesota quarterback Mitch Leidner for most of the game.

Leidner – who came into the game completing 57.8 percent of his passes – went 26-40 for 301 yards passing. Minnesota’s previous best game passing this season was 264 yards – against Ohio.

Numbers can, indeed, lie. But there’s no escaping the conclusions from both the statistics and from watching the games. Nebraska’s secondary is a huge liability, one that was overcome against Minnesota. But absent a massive improvement going forward – which is not reasonable to assume being seven games into the season – then Nebraska will struggle throughout the 2015 season.

A Work In Progress. The return of De’Mornay Pierson-El is without question a huge boost for Nebraska’s offense. His first punt return, a 42-yarder, reminded Nebraska fans of just how dangerous he can be. His tip-drill touchdown reception to help win the game for Nebraska is a glimpse of what the offense will look like with him as a participant.

But he’s not the complete package yet. Twice, he let fieldable punts hit the ground, allowing Minnesota to stick Nebraska with horrific field position. Whether it’s a combination of rust and skittishness from his muffed punt against Illinois last week, Pierson-El has to make better decisions in terms of fielding punts deep in his own territory.

Helping The Enemy. Let’s start with the obvious – beating Minnesota was a very good thing for Nebraska. But it may have the inadvertent effect of putting the B1G West out of reach.

Iowa is 3-0 in conference play, in comparison to Nebraska’s 1-2. The Hawkeyes’ remaining schedule is Maryland, at Indiana, Minnesota, Purdue, and at Nebraska. Given what Iowa has left, it is entirely possible – even likely at this point – that Iowa will be undefeated coming into Black Friday against Nebraska.

With a two-game lead and a soft schedule, Nebraska’s defeat of Minnesota may have gone a long way in guaranteeing Iowa a trip to Indianapolis.

And The REAL B1G Trophy

You all know what a big deal it was for Nebraska to get off the schneid and save its 2015 season. So let’s take this time to focus on what’s really cool about this game.

When Nebraska came into the B1G in 2011, its game with Iowa was anointed the “Heroes Game” with an associated focus-group-approved Heroes Trophy. Last year, for reasons known to absolutely no one, the Nebraska-Wisconsin game was saddled with the ridiculous sailboat-like Freedom Trophy. Neither of these trophies have any of the personality or charm of trophies like Floyd of Rosedale or the Old Oaken Bucket.

No more. Nebraska and Minnesota are now playing for the Bits of Broken Chair Trophy. The idea was born on Twitter between Minnesota’s mascot, Goldie, and Nebraska’s favorite parody coach account, @FauxPelini.

But, you say, that can’t be a real thing, can it? Well …

Welcome to the B1G, Nebraska. Finally.

Agony Analyzed: How Close Is Nebraska Football to Being 6-0?

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Nebraska football fans have endured the most challenging – and surreal – first half of a season in 2015. Under new head coach Mike Riley, Nebraska through six games is 2-4 and 0-2 in conference. But how close is that 2-4 to 6-0 – and what difference does that make to how fans perceive the status of the program under Riley?

First, let’s take a closer look at Nebraska’s losses. Part of what we are going to use is the Agony Clock, a little like the Doomsday Clock from Cold War days, to get an overall impression of just how close Nebraska is to an unblemished regular season record. But we’re also going to look at some of the decisions from Riley and his staff that may have led to the close losses.

BYU

With one second remaining in the game, Nebraska led 28-27. BYU had the ball on Nebraska’s 42, and hit a Hail Mary pass to win the game.

Agony Clock – 0:01

Coaching Mistakes: There’s a good argument to be made that the decision to rush three on the Hail Mary play was overly conservative. But don’t forget that defensive end Jack Gangwish got hurt on the play, meaning Nebraska really only had two pass rushers, and a harder time keeping quarterback Tanner Magnum in the pocket. And even with that, it was a technique breakdown not having anyone in front of the ball in the secondary.

If you want to point at one questionable call within the staff’s control that put Nebraska in a bad position, then you could look at the third-and-two call when Nebraska had the ball on the BYU 22, trying to close out the game. A jet sweep to Jamal Turner was called, losing two yards, and forcing Drew Brown (who had already missed from 40 yards) into a 41-yard attempt.

Miami

With 11:14 left to go in the game, Nebraska was down 33-10. But Nebraska went on a remarkable comeback, getting a two-point conversion after a touchdown with 33 seconds remaining in the game to tie the score.

But in overtime, quarterback Tommy Armstrong threw an interception on Nebraska’s first possession, allowing Miami to set up a game-winning field goal. The overtime issue makes the Agony Clock a little harder to judge, but we’re going to leave it set where it was after BYU.

Agony Clock – 0:01

Coaching Mistakes: Very little about the fourth quarter or overtime was a coaching issue. Armstrong was brilliant in leading Nebraska’s comeback, and putting the ball in his hands for the overtime was the only decision that made sense. Ultimately, the game was lost in the first quarter, and it’s hard not to look at the decision to start Daniel Davie at corner as one of the key factors in the loss. After being torched for 17 points in the first quarter (and being fortunate it was only 17), Davie was substituted and Nebraska only surrendered one touchdown the rest of the game.

Illinois

With 51 seconds remaining, Nebraska led Illinois 13-7 with the Illini having the ball at its own 27 yard line. Illinois quarterback Wes Lunt hit Malik Turner for a 50-yard strike, giving the Illini a first down at the Nebraska 7 yard line. Penalties ended up giving Illinois six (!) shots at the end zone, which the Illini finally converted with a one-yard pass from Lunt to Geronimo Allison to take the lead with ten seconds remaining.

Agony Clock – 0:11

Coaching Mistakes: The decision on third-and-seven to roll Armstrong out will live in infamy for Nebraska fans.  Both coach and player (according to Brent Yarina of the Big Ten Network) agree that the play should have been a run only, but Armstrong attempted a pass which fell incomplete, stopping the clock and preserving Illinois’ chance at a comeback.

Riley took responsibility for the call, which is exactly what he should have done. But the decision – put the ball in the hands of your best playmaker, on the edge where he is most effective – ultimately was the right one. The execution of the decision, and the preparation of the player to be in that circumstance, failed Nebraska. But as we would see a week later, the results of that failure of execution and preparation haunted Nebraska a second time.

Wisconsin

Nebraska led Wisconsin 21-20, and Badgers’ kicker Rafael Gaglione missed a 39-yard field goal with 1:26 remaining. But Nebraska was unable to get a first down and Wisconsin had all three time outs remaining, so the Badgers got the ball back on their own 30 with 1:03 left in the game. Wisconsin drove the ball to the Nebraska 28, and Gaglione redeemed himself by making a 48-yard field goal with 0:04 left to play.

Agony Clock – 0:15

Coaching Mistakes: If there was one game where coaching decisions directly cost Nebraska in the clutch, it was Wisconsin. Nebraska had the ball with 1:26 left to go, and needed one first down to ice the contest. Nebraska chose to bring in Imani Cross, the biggest – and least elusive – of its running backs. Three running plays were called, directly into the middle of an 11-man (!) front from Wisconsin. The play calls almost guaranteed a three-and-out, putting Nebraska’s secondary into a horrific déjà vu scenario.

And this is where the Illinois game comes back. Again, the decision to put Armstrong on the edge to get that necessary first down was the right decision. The failure against Illinois was one of execution and communication, not in play-call. So why did Nebraska instead choose to run three plays into the teeth of the Wisconsin defense, with no chance of success? We’ll never know for sure, but it’s hard not to conclude Riley felt so stung by the third-and-seven at Illinois that he wouldn’t make the same mistake twice.

Which, ironically, led to the overall coaching mistake that cost Nebraska a chance to win.

So What?

Much of the narrative around Riley’s detractors centers around his decision-making costing Nebraska games this year. And there’s plenty of broader-narrative coaching decisions to question about Riley. Game plan questions, like why Nebraska had a game plan to throw the ball 31 times in a tight game against Illinois when it was getting 5.5 yards per carry. Penalty questions, specifically why Nebraska is no. 120 nationally in penalties committed, according to cfbstats.com. And most frustrating, why Nebraska is a national worst no. 128 in pass defense allowing 348.5 yards per game – although the lack of a pass rush, while still a coach’s responsibility, goes a long way to explain those gory numbers.

So this isn’t a get-out-of-jail-free card for Riley and his staff. There’s plenty of mistakes he’s made.

But the narrative of Nebraska being 2-4 because of immediate late-game decisions by Riley isn’t fair. It’s a reaction by fans hurting and angry – and justifiably so – seeing their team lose four of its first six games in comically-painful ways.

Nebraska Football: ReView of the Cornhuskers’ 23-21 Loss to Wisconsin

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It’s not the despair, Laura. I can take the despair. It’s the hope I can’t stand.

– John Cleese as Brian Stimpson, Clockwise

Once again, Nebraska loses a heartbreaker, beaten by Wisconsin 23-21 on a 45-yard field goal by Rafael Gaglione with 0:04 seconds remaining in the game. To its credit, Nebraska fought hard, answering the bell time and time again. But as NFL great Bill Parcells said, you are what your record says you are, and right now that’s 2-4 overall and 0-2 in B1G play. So for Nebraska against Wisconsin …

The Good

Retro Nebraska. With 6:17 left in the game, Nebraska faced a third-and-one at its own 45, down 20-14. The crown in Memorial Stadium was flat, feeling like they had seen this movie before.

(Spoiler alert: They had, in fact, seen the movie before, and knew how it ended)

Nebraska then motioned into an I formation, and quarterback Tommy Armstrong gave the ball to fullback Andy Janovich. He broke tackles and steamed his way to the end zone, breathing life and hope into the Sea of Red.

And as we’ve learned this season, it’s the hope that gets you.

Receiver’s Grabs. Two catches for Nebraska were worth noting. At the end of the first half, Armstrong took a shot deep for Alonzo Moore. Moore was one-on-one with the Wisconsin cornerback, and had to make the touchdown grab around the defender. He made the play, even with an interference call, and put Nebraska in front as the half expired.

But to set up that touchdown, Nebraska needed to convert a third-and-four from the Nebraska 44. Armstrong floated a pass to Stanley Morgan, who made a one-handed grab to convert the first down and put Nebraska in position to score before the end of the half.

Defensive Standouts. Yes, there were Blackshirts that played well against Wisconsin. Chris Weber, a walk-on linebacker pressed into service due to injury, had seven tackles and a quarterback hurry. More importantly, though, Weber’s presence helped stifle Wisconsin’s rushing attack.

Cornerback Joshua Kalu had nine tackles and four pass breakups, and spent most of the game in single coverage against Wisconsin’s Alex Erickson. And linebacker Marcus Newby had four tackles, one tackle for loss, and four pass breakups playing a role somewhere between a linebacker and a free safety.

Dodging a Bullet. Yeah, I know it’s a fourth good. But Nebraska and Wisconsin play for the ridiculous, anodyne and focus-group-created Freedom Trophy. So by winning the game, that means Bucky has to take this monstrosity home with him.

The Bad

Getting Beat Twice. Against Illinois last week, Nebraska had a chance to salt the game away, but Armstrong threw an incomplete pass, stopping the clock and giving the Illini an opportunity for a game-winning drive. Head coach Mike Riley took tremendous heat for that play call in the week to follow.

Fast forward one week, when Nebraska had a 21-20 lead with 1:24 remaining. Wisconsin had three time outs, and Nebraska ran three straight plays with Imani Cross into the teeth of, basically, the entire Wisconsin defense. The Badgers ended up getting the ball back at their own 30 with 1:03 left needing only a field goal to win.

So, here’s the thing. One of those three plays – probably second down – was crying out for a play-action pass to draw in the Wisconsin defenders bunched in the middle, letting Armstrong booting out with a run-pass option, likely either open or with single coverage.

One first down for Nebraska wins the game. There was almost no chance to get that first down running straight into the teeth of Wisconsin’s defense with a bruiser like Cross. And given Nebraska’s history this season (and how long the defense had been on the field), it was both unfair and unreasonable to ask the defense to make a stop.

But given what happened on third-and-seven against Illinois, it’s hard not to think Riley didn’t play it safe wanting to avoid a repeat of what happened in Champaign. Unfortunately for Nebraska, playing it safe was exactly the wrong decision in this scenario.

Yellow Rain. A smart and particularly handsome analyst pointed out this would be a regular feature of this column, and it was a huge issue against Wisconsin. Nebraska had nine penalties for 89 yards, right on track with its performance this season. Yes some of the penalties were … soft, and 15 of those yards were on an unsportsmanlike conduct call against Mike Riley.

But, still, penalty yardage makes a difference. And when you consider the razor-thin margin between 6-0 and 2-4 for Nebraska this year, those penalty yards could be the difference.

Lack of Pass Rush. Yeah, Joel Stave had 322 yards of passing against Nebraska, and there’s plenty of questions to ask about the secondary. But part of the reason for Stave’s success was an almost total absence of a pass rush. The absence of defensive end Freedom Akinmoladun was keenly felt, as Ross Dzuris and Jack Gangwish simply lack the ability to apply pressure from the edge.

And the Tragic Inevitability

In calling a game for Monday Night Football, Tony Kornheiser referred to a comeback by the New England Patriots as “tragic inevitability” as the Ravens surrendered a lead to Tom Brady.

At this point, that’s what it feels like for Nebraska. Be honest, Husker Fan, once Wisconsin took the ball with a minute left, you thought something like this:

There’s plenty to like about how Nebraska kept playing hard and fighting back. But these are college kids who have put their blood, sweat, and tears for months into this team … and have gotten a 2-4 start out of it. At some point, there very well could be an F-it moment for players on this team. Unless something good happens soon – and a trip to Minneapolis to face a feisty Gophers squad is not ideal to find that – that F-it moment could be on the horizon.

Wisconsin @ Nebraska photo gallery

Nebraska Football: Riley’s Cornhuskers Face Moment of Truth After Illinois Loss

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THESE are the times that try men’s souls. The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of their country; but he that stands by it now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman

– Thomas Paine, The Crisis

Stop me if you’ve heard this one. On Saturday, Nebraska gave up a lead on a final drive and lost to Illinois, 14-13. The loss drops Nebraska to 2-3 on the season, and 0-1 in conference play. There’s plenty to break down, especially that third down play. But at this point, there’s a bigger issue to address.

Nebraska is now 2-3, and here’s what the schedule looks like for the next three games:

Wisconsin

At Minnesota

Northwestern

A 2-3 record is bad, no doubt. But if Nebraska can’t right the ship next week against Wisconsin, its staring at 2-4. And it’s not like Nebraska’s last couple of games against Wisconsin went well.

Then Nebraska has to travel to Minneapolis to face the Gophers. Dropping that game could put Nebraska at 2-5. And Minnesota has a two-game winning streak over Nebraska.

So if Nebraska’s going to stop the rot, it has to happen this week. We can talk all we want about schemes or personnel issues, But ultimately, that’s not the biggest issue for Nebraska.

At this point, it’s mentality. Nebraska has lost three heartbreakers, games it has played well enough to win. Nebraska is just a few plays away from being 5-0.

But it isn’t. And it’s also a Freedom Akinmoladun sack against Southern Mississippi from a Hail Mary that could have dropped Nebraska to 1-4, too.

Tommy Armstrong has been an offensive juggernaut, Coming into the Illinois game, he was no 10 nationally in total offense after the first four games (according to cfbstats.com). But he’s also the guy who made the critical error to cost Nebraska games against Miami and Illinois.

(And yes, there’s no doubt that the third-down throw was an Armstrong improv. Nebraska head coach Mike Riley said as much in the post-game press conference. And Armstrong wears Brett Favre’s no. 4 for a reason).

So what happens now? How much more heartbreak can a group of college kids endure? At what point does the team lose faith in the new guy and go into the tank?

That’s what we’re going to find out next week when the Badgers arrive in Lincoln. And Memorial Stadium might well be the worst place in the world for Nebraska. Already reeling from heartbreak after heartbreak (after heartbreak) – and, more importantly, not getting the rewards for the hard work they’ve been putting in all off-season – it’s not at all hard to imagine the Nebraska crowd venting its frustration and anger if NU struggles against the Badgers.

So now the Wisconsin game takes on an air of desperation for Nebraska’s season – and perhaps for Riley’s career in Lincoln.

A Mini-ReView

The Good – Front Four Pressure: For most of the game, Nebraska was able to get pressure on Illinois quarterback Wes Lunt with its front four. Moving defensive end Maliek Collins outside at times to help the pass rush was encouraging.

The Bad – The Last Drive: OK, I know, duh. But we learned that Nebraska’s secondary struggles weren’t about scheme nearly as much as personnel. Lunt hit Malik Turner for a 50-yard pass to advance the ball to Nebraska’s seven. That play was against a cover two, meaning that Nebraska’s defensive coordinator Mark Banker left two safeties back to defend against the pass. And it was against Nate Gerry, Nebraska’s most experienced defender.

And The Cock-Eyed Optimist: Yeah, it looks bad. But Nebraska’s next three opponents look to set up very well for NU. Wisconsin just lost at home to Nebraska, 10-6, and has struggled to move the ball. Minnesota has been taking on water all season after giving TCU a game in week one. And Northwestern, while impressive this far, still struggles to move the ball consistently.

A smart and particularly handsome analyst said that Nebraska’s defense is particularly well suited to face off against teams like these. If Riley can keep the team believing it can win – and keep the fans from storming the field with torches and pitchforks – then the next three games are poised for a Nebraska recovery.

Nebraska Football: Fullback Attack Fits In With Riley’s Offensive Philosophy

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Nebraska football fans had an uncomfortable afternoon watching NU nearly blow a 29-7 lead in the fourth quarter, needing a Freedom Akinmoladun sack of Golden Eagles’ quarterback Nick Mullens to avoid a distressing BYU flashback.

But the brightest spot in the game for many Nebraska faithful was the emergence of fullback Andy Janovich, who carried the ball five times for 68 yards (with another nine-yarder called back on a penalty) and had one reception for 53 yards. A fair summary of social media’s response to a resurgent Nebraska fullback was as follows:

OMG OMG FULLBACK RUN OMG NEBRASKA OSBORNE GAAAAAHHHHH!!!!!!11!!!

Mitch Sherman of ESPN provided a nice reflection of why the fullback holds such a dear place in the hearts of Nebraska fans. Or you could just as Husker fan about Cory Schlesinger romping through the Hurricanes’ secondary in January of 1995.

But Janovich’s performance against Southern Mississippi was more than just a nice feel-good nostalgia piece. How he was used, particularly on the ground, fits in perfectly with head coach Mike Riley’s offensive concepts. Take a look at this highlight mashup of Janovich’s day against the Golden Eagles.

OMG OMG FULLBACK RUN OMG …

Sorry, got a little carried away there. But watch what happens in the backfield when Janovich gets the ball. Armstrong and the tailback are both going in one direction to the outside, and then Janovich gets the ball and slams inside. The offensive line either clears out the middle, or a lineman on the side where the tailback is running pulls away from where the tailback is (on this play) decoying the defense.

This type of play illustrates a stable concept in Riley’s offense, that of putting lateral stress on a defense. Basically, what a play like this does is give the defense a choice – defend the attack coming laterally, or defend the attack up the middle. The purpose is twofold.

First, the hope is that the defense will be caught chasing after the decoy tailback, getting them out of position for the run up the middle. You can see that on the last play in the video (starting at 0:47) where the linebacker on the top of the screen takes a step towards where the tailback is running, then has to correct himself in trying to tackle Janovich coming to the left. Without that mis-step, that linebacker is in better position to square up against Janovich and make a tackle.

Second, the hope with concepts like this is to create uncertainty in a defense, allowing the offense to get a step and create lanes to run. In that way, the fullback running plays we saw were conceptually identical to the jet sweeps that Riley loves to run.

Take a look at this example from Wisconsin’s game against Northwestern in 2013. (Hey, Husker fan, at least I didn’t pick one from the B1G Championship game …)

Watch the defensive end at the top of the screen. His first step is inside, towards the running back. He then has to correct himself once he realizes that it’s Melvin Gordon with the ball on the jet sweep. Of course, by the time he’s done that, Gordon is already turning the corner and the defensive end has lost the edge, asking the linebackers to catch Gordon with a full head of steam.

Good luck with that.

Alonzo Moore and Brandon Reilly have already shown flashes running the jet sweep, and with news (according to KETV Omaha) that De’Mornay Pierson-El might return next week, Nebraska has some exciting weapons to deploy. Nebraska’s coaching staff have also said that Janovich is likely to see the ball more given his performance, according to Sam McKewon of the Omaha World-Herald.

So sure, Husker fan, enjoy that trip down nostalgia lane in seeing a fullback rumbling through the middle of an opposing defense. But maybe enjoy it a little bit more knowing (as Hannibal Smith might say) that it’s all part of the plan coming together for Nebraska’s offense.