Nebraska Football: NU Re-View, Nebraska 25, Purdue 24

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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.

The Good

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.

The Bad

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.

GBR, baby.

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Nebraska Football: Making Sense of Riley’s Status as Husker Head Coach

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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.