Nebraska lost to Northern Illinois 21-17 at home, losing to a group-of-five school for the first time since a 2004 loss to Southern Mississippi. The Blackshirts played well after struggling in the first two games, but two first-half pick-six interceptions were the tale of the game. So, in looking back at the contest …
Blackshirts are Back: Hey, remember when worrying about Nebraska’s defense was a thing? The Blackshirts held Northern Illinois to 213 total yards and one offensive touchdown. Really, except for one long pass right after Nebraska took the lead – which was the prime opportunity for a letdown in the game – Nebraska’s defense answered the bell.
Fourth Down is the New Third Down: This year, Nebraska is 4-for-6 on fourth down conversions. That’s an amazing statistic, not only because of the number of attempts (averaging two per game), but in how often Nebraska has been successful. A combination of bravery and execution in the ultimate do-or-die situation.
The Conference Goals Are Still in Place: Yes, that was ugly, but Nebraska’s goal of winning the B1G West and playing in the conference championship game are …
Don’t. Just, don’t. While the “goals in place” thing might be true, it’s also ignoring the gigantic tire fire burning in the living room. (Don’t ask how the tires got in the living room. It’s a metaphor, go with it.)
Tanner from Tulane: I hate to say I told you so, but … a smart and particularly handsome analyst said this about junior transfer quarterback Tanner Lee:
So I understand the desire for some stability. But it’s a recurring theme that amidst all of the uncertainly, the one thing most observers are not worried about for Nebraska is the level of quarterback play under transfer Tanner Lee. Check it out here, and here, and here.
But he hasn’t played any real football in almost two years. And when he did, at Tulane, he had a career completion percentage of only 53.6 percent and a 1.095 touchdown-to-interception ratio, throwing 23 touchdowns and 21 interceptions.
Let’s take a look at the numbers.
|Completion %||TD||INT||TD/INT Ratio|
Lee’s performance at Nebraska looks a heck of a lot like … Lee’s performance at Tulane. And that level of performance is simply not good enough for Nebraska’s offense to be successful.
Sure, Lee’s offensive line didn’t give him much help. And sure, Lee had some critical drops – if Jack Stoll hauls in his fourth-quarter target, Nebraska likely wins this game anyway.
But that’s all part of the package for a quarterback. Lee had three interceptions against Northern Illinois, and was fortunate not to have at least three more given some of the decisions he made.
The season isn’t over, and it would be a colossal shock (absent injury) if Lee isn’t under center against Rutgers next week. Lee won the starting job because he’s the best quarterback on Nebraska’s roster in 2017.
Unless his performance improves significantly, in a hurry, that’s not going to be good enough for Nebraska to salvage even a winning season this year.
Third Down is Still Third Down: Yeah, it’s fun to see Nebraska put it all on the line and convert on fourth down. But coming into this game Nebraska was no. 103 nationally in third down conversions at 32.14 percent. Against Northern Illinois, Nebraska was 3-for-13, or 23 percent, so that national ranking is likely to go down.
That’s not good enough, not even close to good enough. A combination of poor offensive line play and shaky quarterback performance is a huge contribution to Nebraska’s poor showing on third downs this year. It’s likely more symptom than cause, but this is a number to watch if Nebraska is going to get the wheels back on the train this season.
A Confidence Game: Boy, the first drive of the game against Northern Illinois didn’t look like the game would end as it did. Nebraska was in an offensive rhythm, biting off big chunks on the ground and through the air. It looked like Nebraska’s decision to take the ball at the start of the game was going to pay dividends, allowing NU to get an early lead and put some confidence back in the squad.
Then Shawun Lurry made a break on Lee’s bubble screen and went 87 yards for a score. Nebraska looked shell-shocked on offense, never really getting back into rhythm until the third quarter. It wasn’t entirely different from how Nebraska’s defense looked against Oregon last week, after Lee’s interception allowed the Ducks to take an early 14-point lead.
Don’t forget these are still college kids, learning a new system on both offense and defense. In both of Nebraska’s last two games, NU has had to dig itself out of double-digit holes. Nebraska has only held a lead for one minute and 22 seconds in the last two games. That’s going to weigh on the psyche of a team, and might be the biggest hurdle Nebraska faces going forward.
And the Calling of the Question
After Nebraska’s 6-7 campaign in 2015, Riley likely lost a year of patience from the Nebraska fans. Coming into 2017, this dope thought that Riley might be a year away from the hot seat.
A loss to Northern Illinois changes that. Northern Illinois is no. 119 nationally in terms of five-year recruiting rankings, one of the best ways to measure talent. The Huskies are easily the least talented team Nebraska will face in 2017 – the next least talented team is Illinois at no. 72.
With the talent disparity, at home, Nebraska has no business losing to Northern Illinois. Ever. This is the type of stain that doesn’t come off of a coaching resume. This is the type of loss that goes in the first paragraph of a coaching tenure’s obituary.
This is the type of loss that puts a coach on the hot seat. Don’t believe me? Ask Nebraska’s athletic director, Shawn Eichorst.
What Eichorst said after the Northern Illinois loss wasn’t really all that important. It was the fact that Eichorst came out and said something at all. Eichorst is famously averse to media appearances, and would only have come out so soon after the game – giving Riley the “dreaded vote of confidence” – if he thought it was necessary.
Eichorst was right. As it stands now, Nebraska will need to upset Wisconsin, Ohio State, or Penn State to have a shot at an 8-4 season. And that’s assuming Nebraska wins all of other remaining games on its schedule, including on the road against a suddenly-scary Purdue, at home against perennial nemesis Northwestern, on the road against Minnesota, and at home against an Iowa squad with a two-game winning streak.
Nebraska is 1-2. Nebraska is one play away from being 0-3. And the long knives are already at least being reached for, by no less than Omaha World-Herald columnist Tom Shatel. Scott Frost is still turning heads with his work as Central Florida’s head coach. So is Trev Alberts as UNO’s athletic director, by the way.
That doesn’t mean the season is over, of course. There’s nine games left. In 2015, a reeling 3-6 Nebraska squad raised up and beat no. 6 Michigan State in Lincoln. If Nebraska can find itself and get some confidence in the next two weeks, it’s not impossible to imagine Nebraska pulling off an upset when the Badgers come to Lincoln. Heck, Nebraska has outscored its opponents 31-0 in the third quarter this year. Put that performance together for another three quarters, and anything can happen.
The evidence suggest that result is unlikely. At this point, 7-5 feels like the best-case scenario, with losses to Wisconsin, Ohio State, and Penn State. A 6-6 finish – or worse – probably seems more likely.
There’s time to fix things, no doubt about it. But three games in to Riley’s third season, this is what the beginning of the end looks like.