Well, it’s been an eventful week, hasn’t it Husker Fan? A week ago Saturday morning, the fan base was reveling in optimism from a furious comeback against Oregon and wondering if we were seeing the green shoots of optimism.
A week later, Nebraska has lost to Northern Illinois, the program’s worst loss since at least 2004. It’s seen athletic director Shawn Eichorst fired, and the status of head coach Mike Riley – and the 2018 recruiting class he’s been assembling – thrown up in the air.
Oh yeah, and Nebraska had to start conference play against Rutgers. But even with challenges on and off the field, Nebraska ground out a functional 27-17 victory over the visitors from Piscataway, moving to 2-2 overall and 1-0 in conference play.
And, yes, that means Nebraska is in first place in the B1G West. Take a picture, Husker Fan, Lee Corso style.
Playing the Hand You’re Dealt. In the first two years, Riley had to modify his offense to fit the strengths and weaknesses of his quarterback. Well, with 14:07 left in the third quarter, after current Nebraska quarterback Tanner Lee threw another pick-six interception, Rutgers held a 17-14 lead in Lincoln.
Never mind surviving the season, it wasn’t clear Riley’s job would be safe through the weekend if Nebraska lost to Rutgers. So Riley and offensive coordinator Danny Langsdorf leaned on the run instead, and Nebraska was able to use its depth at I-back to wear out Rutgers and escape with a win.
This Diaco Guy. After the first six quarters, new defensive coordinator Bob Diaco’s handiwork was – well let’s just say called into question. But since then, the Blackshirts have answered the bell. If you extrapolate Oregon’s second-half performance to four quarters, Diaco’s defense has average allowing 188 total yards and 5.6 points per game.
(Of course, that’s not charging Lee’s three pick-six interceptions against Diaco. Elephant, meet living room.)
That’s … pretty good. And with injuries to its two best defensive backs in Chris Jones and Josh Kalu, and losing Aaron Williams to a targeting penalty in the first series of the game against Rutgers. There’s a lot to worry about for Nebraska going forward, but that also might make it easy to miss the leaps and bounds the Blackshirts have made.
A Steady Hand. It’s a bit of an understatement to say that Riley had a bad week. And losing in the third quarter meant that Nebraska was truly staring into the football abyss.
Nevertheless, Nebraska persisted. And that has a lot to do with Riley’s calm, relentlessly positive attitude. If you want to bury Riley for his flaws and limitations, that’s fair. But here’s what Lee had to say about Riley’s coaching of him (according to huskers.com).
Coach Riley has been great with all this, especially this week getting ready to play. After that play he just told me to stay with it and stay settled in and play the game and do what those guys are teaching me. So that was good to hear.
Look, Riley’s dug himself this hole. But at least for one week, Riley has also been able to keep the ship afloat.
Hiding Tanner. After Lee’s pick-six, the Red Beast in the Memorial Stadium stands felt like it might be turning on the team. A smattering of boos, greeted Lee as he trotted back onto the field from the home crowd.
After the interception, Nebraska ran the ball 31 times and threw it only 12. To his credit, Lee was 8-for-12 on those throws with a pretty touchdown to De’Mornay Pierson-El. And many of those runs were after Nebraska took a two-score lead, showing Langsdorf has learned his lessons from 2015 Illinois.
But it’s also telling that Nebraska didn’t ask Lee to win a desperately-needed game. Lee was a complimentary piece of Nebraska’s second-half performance to win the game.
That’s exactly what Nebraska should have done against an outmanned Rutgers squad. It almost certainly won’t be good enough as Nebraska gets into the meat of its B1G schedule.
Running Before you can Walk. If you’re a Nebraska fan, it had to be a bit bittersweet to watch the Penn State-Iowa game Saturday evening. After ABC reminded you over and over about Iowa’s success against top-ranked teams in Kinnick, the Hawkeyes put up one of the most Hawkeye performance in history. The Nittany Lions dominated Iowa on the stat sheet throughout the game, but an Akrum Wadley touchdown with one minute left in the game have Iowa the chance for a massive upset. It was only through a wizard-like touchdown throw from Trace McSorley to Juwan Johnson as time expired (coupled with a simply superhuman performance from running back Saquon Barkley) that let Penn State escape Iowa City with playoff dreams intact.
I know, Husker Fan, that’s what you want to see the scarlet and cream doing on national television. That’s what you expect. That’s the target.
But that’s not Nebraska right now. Nebraska right now is a gritty come-from-behind win over Rutgers at home. It’s progress from the week before, to be sure. It’s at least a little water on that seed of hope planted in your Big Red heart.
But just keep the words of Robert Frost in mind as you reflect on Nebraska’s place in the college football world.
The woods are lovely, dark and deep. But I have promises to keep. And miles to go before I sleep. And miles to go before I sleep.
And the Al Davis Rule
Just win, baby.
Yeah, it wasn’t pretty. But this game was an existential threat to Riley’s time in Lincoln. Lose this game, and there’s no coming back. Riley is a dead coach walking, as remainder of the 2017 becomes a dead rubber. At that point, it’s hard to see how Nebraska maintains any of its top-flight recruits currently committed for 2018 and 2019.
So an ugly win is a win. It keeps the patient alive for another week. It’ll be the same on a weirdo Friday night contest in Champaign against a reeling and similarly-outmanned Illinois squad.
You’re not going to see beautiful football from the scarlet and cream next week. There will be parts of the game you’ll be watching through your fingers as you try to hide your eyes.
It doesn’t matter. Survive and advance. Get the Badgers to Memorial Stadium and see what happens. It’s a funny game, with a funny shaped ball, and confidence is a mercurial thing with a group of college kids.
Just win. GBR, baby.
(image courtesy doin-work.com)