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.