Why Nebraska Fans Should Not Give Up on Dreams of Glory

DSC08159

I know it’s been a few weeks since I’ve posted anything. And yes, I am aware that there is a football season ongoing for Nebraska.

Some of it has been personal challenges, which you aren’t interested in reading about. But, honestly, most of it has been Minnesota. Watching Nebraska’s loss to Minnesota really shook what I thought about this program.

The Ohio State loss wasn’t fun to watch, but given where the Buckeyes are it was at least understandable. Heck, I even wrote about how to respond as a Nebraska fan.

Nebraska bounced back from the Ohio State loss with a gritty (some might say ugly) win over Northwestern at home, and it looked like maybe things had changed.

And then Nebraska went to Minneapolis, and got steamrollered by the Golden Gophers. Nebraska lost 34-7, in a game that wasn’t nearly as close as that score indicated. While head coach Scott Frost would later say that much of Minnesota’s ability to move the ball came from poor run fits rather than being beaten physically, it was inarguable that Minnesota was the better team.

In 2017, an ugly loss to Minnesota in Minneapolis was the final nail in the coffin of Mike Riley’s tenure as Nebraska’s head coach. With Riley’s firing after the 2017 season and Frost’s arrival, combined with the optimism that surrounded the beginning of this season, the one sure thing seemed to be that the 2017 debacle in Minneapolis couldn’t be repeated.

Well, the debacle was repeated in 2019, and the faith of many Nebraska fans (including myself) was shaken to the core. It wasn’t until Dirk Chatelain of the Omaha World-Herald wrote this column that I really felt I had some perspective on where Nebraska is as a program.

Chatelain’s basic point is that Nebraska has been down for so long, stuck in this mire for so long, that the expectation of Nebraska as a national powerhouse is no longer reasonable. Here’s kind of the point of the column boiled down.

Nebraska football is the 60-year-old golfer who insists on playing the tees he played at 30. He can’t believe it when his drive doesn’t carry the bunker. Nebraska football is the guy at open gym calling for alley-oops on the fast break. And when the lob comes? It sails over his fingertips out of bounds.

How foolish would it be if Illinois or Purdue stood up in August and proclaimed their Big Ten championship plans? Yet we hear it from Nebraska every year and barely think twice. We encourage it. We see “College GameDay” roll into town and get intoxicated by ’90s flashbacks and then the game starts and, whoa, what happened here?

For years, I’ve told myself it was only a matter of time before Nebraska stumbled onto prosperity again. Even Kansas and Baylor and Northwestern and Minnesota have breakout seasons. Now I’m not so sure.

I share that uncertainty. I’ve written about how there are no guarantees of success, even if Frost is “the guy” for Nebraska. I’ve thought about how familiar Frost’s responses are when Nebraska loses. And, most uncomfortably, when I hear people say with certainty that Frost is “the guy” I’ve had to push away the thought asking myself “do you think that just because it’s what you want to believe?”

I have a tremendous amount of respect for Chatelain. It takes guts to write a column like this, just like it took guts to face down an irate Bo Pelini in his prime. Chatelain is the prime target of the ultras in Nebraska’s fanbase who can’t abide by anyone not serving up the Kool-Aid of inevitable success right around the corner.

Having said that, I’m not sure I’m willing to reach the same conclusion that Chatelain appears to draw at the end of the piece.

Nebraska football, for better or worse, is a rotten institution. Hollow at the core. The status quo isn’t nine wins and a Top 25 ranking. We’re living the new status quo. And the sooner we all recognize that Nebraska isn’t supposed to beat Indiana, the sooner it might.

First of all, I’m not sure what circumstance would constitute Nebraska football being a rotten institution as “for better.” And while he’s right that the status quo is no longer the nine-win plateau of the Pelini era, the conclusion he seems to draw is that Nebraska won’t pull out of the quagmire in which it is stuck until the expectations of success go away. If Nebraska fans would just be cool with mediocre football, then they could enjoy a once-in-a-blue-moon success story more. And, more importantly, if those expectations go away, then the pressures go away and (insert magic wand waiving here) the wins will return.

Not only is that nonsense, it’s dangerous thinking for the ongoing project of Nebraska football.

For the most part, the teams that are perennial powerhouses have some built-in advantages. Teams like Alabama, Ohio State, Oklahoma, LSU, and Clemson are all nestled in recruiting hotbeds, making the acquisition of five-star talent much simpler. Oregon is a little bit of an outlier, but the Nike money flowing into Eugene helps compensate for that difficulty.

Nebraska … is not in a recruiting hotbed. There are only a couple of things that differentiate Nebraska from Baylor, Northwestern, Minnesota, and the other programs that Chatelain cites as having “breakout seasons.”

First, Nebraska’s tradition of success will always give it more benefit of the doubt if there’s even a possibility that the team could be competitive. Having College GameDay show up on campus for a team that went 4-8 the last two seasons and hadn’t beaten anyone better than Northern Illinois is evidence to that proposition.

The second is related to the first. While Nebraska fans are quick to strain their shoulders patting themselves on the back, it’s also inarguable that the dedication Nebraska fans to their team regardless of circumstance (some might even say in all kinds of weather) is unique in college football.

A smart and particularly handsome analyst pointed this out after Nebraska’s gut-punch loss to Colorado in Boulder.

Even more than other programs, Husker Fan, you are the beating heart of why Nebraska is considered a blue-blood of college football. From a distance, there’s no reason the Nebraska program should be considered alongside the royalty of college football.

Except for you. You’re the ones who painted Folsom Field red, and in doing so you were the spiritual heirs of all those red-clad faithful that boarded the trains and descended on the Rose Bowl in 1941. You’re the ones who have sold out Memorial Stadium since 1962. You’re the ones, ultimately, who provide the platform from which Nebraska has the potential to launch itself back into the college football stratosphere.

You know the tune. You’ve sung the words – probably about a half-count off the beat, because that’s how we Nebraskans roll.

We’ll all stick together, in all kinds of weather, for dear old Nebraska U

The problem with Chatelain’s conclusion – it’s the expectations that are sabotaging Nebraska – is the corollary of the above thesis. It’s because Nebraska fans care so damn much, and won’t accept anything less than excellence, that Nebraska can differentiate itself from the Baylors and Northwesterns and Minnesotas and other programs that can’t trip over five-star defensive ends on the way to Zaxby’s for lunch.

If that goes away, then the beating heart of what makes it true that There Is No Place Like Nebraska goes away, and Nebraska really does become another Iowa or Indiana or Minnesota.

Sure, that’s arrogant to say, especially for a program that’s been looking up at Iowa for a while and just got beat by both Indiana and Minnesota. But it’s still true. Nebraska’s ceiling – whether it gets there or not – is higher than those programs, and it’s higher in large part because of the rabid fan base that propels it there.

And while we’re at questioning Chatelain’s conclusion, there’s one predicate to his argument that deserve some scrutiny as well. Chatelain said that there is no other program that has gone through a drought like Nebraska. Let’s consider that, taking a look at the records of six programs:

  # of years W L T Pct.
Program 1 17 133 87 0 .605
Program 2 12 92 67 0 .579
Program 3 22 157 98 7 .607
Program 4 12 77 58 3 .564
Program 5 22 144 99 1 .591
Program 6 17 141 77 0 .647

Programs 1-5 look fairly similar, don’t they? Each one had over a decade of mediocrity on the football field. Care to know who these programs are?

Program 1 Nebraska (2002-2018)
Program 2 Alabama (1995-2007)
Program 3 USC (1980-2001)
Program 4 Oklahoma (1988-1999)
Program 5 Clemson (1991-2010)

What’s the point of this? College football programs, particularly ones rich in tradition, can survive long droughts of success. Nebraska football as a program is far more resilient than we are giving it credit for. Yes, this long run has been painful and difficult. But we shouldn’t fall victim to recency bias (even if the “recency” in this case spans several presidential administrations).

All the pieces are still in place for Nebraska to return to national prominence in college football. Once Frost – or the next guy, if Frost doesn’t succeed – starts seeing success on the field, the underlying pieces are in place to vault Nebraska back to that national spotlight its fans so desperately crave.

But wait, you say. Who is this Program 6 you included in your list? Well, that would be Iowa, from 2002 to 2018, the same sample size as Nebraska. Why include the Hawkeyes in this analysis?

Mainly for a sense of perspective. The period from 2002-2018 is generally looked at from an Iowa perspective as one of the golden eras in Hawkeye football, while the same period has been viewed as a desert for Nebraska. And yet the difference between the two is a total of eight wins – which works out to a difference of 0.471 wins per season over that time period.

You could make an argument that the Iowa perspective is healthier. But it is also an acknowledgment that their current run is a ceiling of success, and that the fans should be grateful for the wins they have, understanding their place in the college football universe. Nebraska fans are not willing to concede that point – and are willing to endure the heartaches of that frustration in exchange for the potential of greater glory.

Which side of that bargain would you take, Husker Fan? I’m pretty sure I know the answer.

GBR, baby.

Nebraska Football: The Double-Edged Sword of Expectations

DSC07807

It has not been easy to be a Nebraska fan in the last couple of decades. After three national titles in four years at the end of the 1990s, Nebraska’s football fortunes have fallen to the point where NU had three losing season in the last four years.

That’s been really hard on a fanbase, particularly when you add that failure on the field to the arrogance of Steve Pedersen, the immaturity of Bo Pelini, and the incompetence of Mike Riley. The football played, as well as the recruiting levels and (particularly) the development of talent has steered the program into a steady decline.

The arrival of native son Scott Frost as head coach pumped life and hope into the fanbase, but it didn’t result in immediate change on the field. Nebraska started last season at 0-6, and ended the season at 4-8.

These ongoing struggles would cast down into the hearts of any fanbase. Is the new landscape of college football really such that Nebraska’s time in the sunlight of national relevance is over? Is it time for Nebraska fans to finally give up the ghost of glories past and accept its new, lesser standing in the pantheon of college football?

Frost doesn’t think so, as he said in an interview with BTN (and quoted by Saturday Tradition):

“You know, I hear people worried about expectations for us,” said Frost. “I’m not too worried about it. I actually think it’s good for our football team. I think expectations have been way too low in Lincoln for way too long. Having expectations was just kind of life around here. I think it helps our guys. We need to be confident. We need to expect a lot out of ourselves.”

Why are expectations for a team like Nebraska so important? How can expectations of a fanbase – which, let’s be clear, has been the source of suffering throughout this new millennium – help a football program be successful?

Take a look to Nebraska’s neighbors to the east to find the answer.

https://twitter.com/TalkHuskers/status/1163821777954443264

Now, let’s be clear. Since the turn of the century, Iowa has been a better football program than Nebraska. Iowa has won more games, won more conference championships, and both gone to and won more bowl games than Nebraska. The Hawkeyes hold a four-game winning streak over their scarlet-and-cream neighbors to the west.

But there’s little question that Iowa and Nebraska simply have different perspectives of their place in the college football world. Iowa fans are comfortable with their place winning eight to nine games in a season, and enjoying the occasional run for glory when the stars align properly.

And sure, after what Nebraska fans have been through, most would move heaven and earth to get back to that level of success. But let’s be honest, that’s not the expectation level Nebraska fans have for their program in the long run. It’s not the expectation level that Frost has.

If you step back, Nebraska really has no business being amongst the giants of college football in the 21st century. Nebraska is a small, rural area with no natural recruiting bed upon which to rest. Without that, how could Nebraska hope to compete on that national stage?

The two things that at least give Nebraska a plausible chance at a higher ceiling are its history and its fanbase. Nebraska’s place as a historical blue-blood of college football acts as a magnifier for its success on the field – if a blue-blood like Nebraska (or Alabama or Notre Dame) begins winning, that program’s history will increase its visibility.

The other element that provides a higher ceiling for Nebraska is its fans. The expectation of a championship-level program is what drove a powerful local son like Pedersen out of the athletic director’s position. The expectation of success is what made the dismissal of a man like Pelini – who, let’s not forget, never won less than nine games – possible.

Nebraska fans have not waivered in that expectation, to have a championship-level football program. Those expectations are energy, the same energy that drove swarms of red-clad fans to take trains west in 1940 to see their mighty men play in the Rose Bowl, and have led Nebraska fans to sell out the last 368 consecutive home games.

That energy has been the source of great pain recently, of course, as the football team has fallen woefully short of expectations. But the energy of those expectations are what drove painful change within the athletic department – change that could have been avoided had those expectations not been present.

Of course, the challenge is to balance long-term expectations of a program with short-term expectations of a season’s outcome. It is possible to hold those lofty expectations for the program as a whole and still hold measured expectations for the coming season.

(This may or may not be foreshadowing next week’s season prediction column.)

But in the main, Frost is right. Expectations for any program – but particularly for a program like Nebraska – are a critical difference between a program that has a championship-level ceiling, and one that does not.

GBR, baby.

Nebraska Football: The Most Important Quote from Adrian Martinez at B1G Media Days

DSC07627

Last week, the college football season unofficially started with B1G Media Days in Chicago. Sophomore quarterback Adrian Martinez was one of Nebraska’s three player representatives, and got a lot of attention from the local and national media.

Martinez is mature, almost preternaturally so, in his interactions with the media, and it was remarkable to see him hold court. But one thing he said stuck with me as having the potential to be the most significant insight about Nebraska in 2019, in response to a question about NU’s rematch with Colorado (as reported by Erin Sorensen of Hail Varsity).

“First things first, we definitely have to focus on South Alabama. They’re going to be a tough team and that’s going to be a big one for us.”

Now, on the one hand, the “one game at a time” mantra is a classic example of Crash Davis’ advice to learn your clichés as an athlete. But just because it’s a cliché doesn’t mean it’s not accurate. Over the last decade, one of Nebraska’s biggest challenges has been avoiding the head-scratching poor performances against sub-par opposition. Take a look (if you dare) at the times Nebraska has stubbed its collective toe in unexpected ways:

Date Opponent Score
Sept. 15, 2018 Troy L 19-24
Sept. 17, 2017 Northern Illinois L 17-21
Oct. 03, 2015 at Illinois L 13-14
Sept. 06, 2014 McNeese State W 31-24
Nov. 22, 2014 Minnesota L 24-28
Oct. 26, 2013 at Minnesota L 23-34
Nov. 05, 2011 at Northwestern L 25-28
Oct. 24, 2009 Iowa State L 7-9
Sept. 22, 2007 Ball State W 41-40

I included Ball State to show that the history of underperforming goes all the way back to the Callahan era, with Nebraska needing a miracle defensive play to avoid an upset to Ball State at home. And for the Pelini era, the McNeese State win is also included because Nebraska absolutely should have lost at home to an FCS team absent a miraculous game-saving touchdown from Ameer Abdullah.

For over a decade now, Nebraska has baked underperformances and losses to inferior teams into its football culture. Head coach Scott Frost couldn’t magically change that with his arrival, as last year’s loss to Troy (!) proves.

This year, expectations for Nebraska are sky-high, especially coming off back-to-back 4-8 seasons. While the schedule does set up favorably, to meet those expectations Nebraska will have to break losing streaks against teams like Ohio State (four straight), Wisconsin (six straight), Iowa (four straight), and Northwestern (two straight) to reach those lofty goals.

Just as important, though, to Nebraska finally turning that proverbial corner is to avoid embarrassing itself. Beating a team like Ohio State or Wisconsin loses a lot of juice if Nebraska doesn’t take care of business against a team like South Alabama or Northern Illinois – and NU’s history over the last decade or so suggests NU is vulnerable to such a sub-par performance.

So it’s a very good sign that Martinez is talking about South Alabama instead of taking the bait and looking ahead to Nebraska’s rematch in Boulder. Rebuilding a winning culture (or, dare I say, a winning tradition) includes taking care of business against the minnows as much as it means winning the marquee games.

GBR, baby.

Nebraska Football: Lack of Development Fuels Nebraska’s NFL Draft Streak Being Snapped

download

This year, Nebraska broke a 56-year streak of having at least one player selected in the NFL draft. After suffering through two consecutive 4-8 seasons, and having the memory of seeing streak after streak fall in the early 2000s, Nebraska fans had an uncomfortable sense of déjà vu at the end of the last round of this year’s draft, seeing players from such football powerhouses such as Valdosta State, Idaho, and Morgan State get selected over any Cornhuskers.

What made it worse for Nebraska is that two Omaha kids who didn’t end up as Huskers – North Dakota State’s Easton Stick went in the fifth round to the San Diego Los Angeles Chargers and Iowa’s Noah Fant went with the twentieth pick in the first round to the Denver Broncos.

After Iowa had four draft picks this year – including two tight ends in the first round – if there was evern any question about whether Iowa-Nebraska is a rivalry, you can put that to bed.

(Also, for no really good reason other than to pour fuel on the fire, here’s a great article by Brandon Vogel of Hail Varsity explaining how Iowa could have two first-round tight ends and still end a season no. 92 nationally in yards per play and no. 79 in pass yards per play).

Still, the fact remains that recently Iowa has done a much better job of getting Hawkeyes into the NFL than Nebraska, even though Nebraska is recruiting better talent. Take a look at the comparison of the last six years’ worth of recruiting rankings (from 247 Sports) and NFL draft picks (the rounds of each pick are in parenthesees.

Year NU Recruiting NU Draft Picks UI Recruiting UI Draft Picks
2019 18 0 40 4 (1, 1, 4, 4)
2018 23 1 (6) 39 3 (2, 2, 4)
2017 23 1 (5) 41 4 (3, 4, 5, 5)
2016 26 4 (3, 3, 4, 6) 47 1 (7)
2015 30 3 (2, 2, 5) 59 3 (1, 3, 4)
2014 35 3 (2, 3, 6) 58 4 (3, 3, 4, 4)

Please, don’t start with the whole thing about how recruiting rankings don’t matter. You’re wrong. So if Nebraska has been an average of 21.5 recruiting ranking spots better than Iowa over the last six years, why are so many more Hawkeyes hearing their names being called by Roger Goodell (or an orangutan) at the NFL Draft?

Three words. Development, development, development.

Iowa has a formula of drafting kids that fit their scheme and their culture, developing and improving them, and sending them to the NFL. It’s been amazingly effective in helping Iowa overachieve what their recruiting rankings say it should achieve. Wisconsin follows the same model.

Nebraska has struggled mightily in development. Bo Pelini had his share of NFL success, but that tailed off towards the end of his tenure. And even for a dope who wrote a near-tear-stained goodbye to Mike Riley, it’s hard not to see Nebraska’s recent NFL drought (no first-rounder since 2011, no second-day draftee since 2015, only two total in three years) as an indictment on Riley’s tenure in Lincoln.

Nebraska’s NFL pipeline was already slowed to a trickle almost immediately after Riley arrived. And when Scott Frost and his coaching staff took over, they had difficulty hiding their shock and contempt at the state of Nebraska’s physical and mental conditioning.

So, Husker Fan, you can look at this two ways. First, it should be a cold splash of reality as to the state of the program. As fans, we convince ourselves that glory is always just around the corner, just about to fall into our grasp.

Having Nebraska’s NFL streak snapped should be a stark reminder that while NU may have the recruited talent to compete and in at least in the B1G West, the shocking lack of talent development means Nebraska still has a big hole out of which to climb.

The silver lining? Nebraska’s current coaching staff understand the importance of development, and has a track record of taking far less heralded talent and sending them to the NFL. That’s the hook you hang your hope on for 2019 and beyond.

GBR, baby.

Nebraska Football: Why Cornhusker Fans Are So Excited About The Hiring of Scott Frost

frost

Sometimes, being married to a Hawkeye fan is really helpful (although, other times, not so much). Mrs. DXP – in addition to heroically putting up with all this nonsense – has provided some invaluable perspective as the soap opera we call Nebraska football has churned on. She was ahead of the curve in detesting Bo Pelini, and she adored Mike Riley to the point of considering wearing a scarlet-and-cream shirt.

And she’s already sick of hearing about Scott Frost. What pushed her over the edge, I’m pretty sure, was the fact that Frost’s long-awaited announcement as Nebraska’s new head football coach was heralded by the arrival of a Super Frost Moon in the sky on Saturday.

(As a side note, I should mention that I would watch the heck out of any anime titled “Super Frost Moon” right about now).

How, an exasperated Mrs. DXP asks me, can you guys get so excited about a 42-year-old guy who has only coached at a school for two years? What in the world is the big deal?

That’s fair, I said, and not only because I would prefer not to sleep on the roof for the next couple of weeks. Frost’s hiring has excited the Nebraska fan base in a way that no one else has. There was an element of this excitement when Pelini was hired – you can make the walk of shame now if you have a “My Bo-Friend’s Back” t-shirt stuck in your closet somewhere.

But this is different, for two distinct but related reasons.

Hope

Nebraska’s last conference championship was in 1999. But, really, Nebraska’s exile into the desert of college football irrelevance began with Miami’s 38-14 humiliation of NU in the national championship game. Since then, Nebraska fans have been longing for a return to that national limelight.

Bill Callahan sold hope to the fanbase with a revamped offense, an NFL pedigree, and top-20 recruiting classes. That lasted four years and died with a defensive collapse and a poisoned atmosphere from a fractured fanbase. Pelini sold hope in a no-nonsense toughness, and defensive dominance. That lasted seven years and died in ugly losses to Wisconsin and Ohio State and ugly demonstrations of anger and immaturity on and off the field. Riley sold hope with a pro-style offense and a calm demeanor. That lasted three years and died in .500 mediocrity.

Why did Riley get only three years, not even a full recruiting class? In part, it was a lack of unity within the program – more on that in a moment. But more importantly was the volume of losses, and the nature of the losses in year three, that extinguished hope in the fanbase that Nebraska could ever be successful.

In Rogue One, Jyn Erso said that “rebellions are built on hope.” So are sports fans. It’s the bedrock upon which everything in sports fandom resides. Why do we sit out in ridiculous weather to watch a game? Why do we spend thousands of dollars on tickets and merchandise and travel? Why do we tolerate the hypocrisies, little and big, that stain the sports we love?

We do it because we live in hope, that the team in which we have invested our emotional capital will give us back glory. We will put up with just about anything – disturbingly so, in some cases – in the hope that we can bask in that reflected glory of our team’s victory. And if that hope dies, then the underlying ridiculousness of fandom becomes much harder to bear.

By the time Minnesota – Minnesota, fer cryin’ out loud – hung a fifty-burger on the Blackshirts, any remaining hope that Riley could be successful in Lincoln died. And once that hope dies in a fanbase, those in charge of a program face an existential challenge, and have to act decisively.

The hiring of Frost brings hope back to Lincoln. In part, the hope is simply because he’s not Riley, the guy who failed. In part, the hope is based on the success he had at Oregon and Central Florida. In large part, the hope is based on the unity he can bring to both the fanbase and the program – again, more on that in a bit.

But Frost brings hope. And for a despairing fanbase watching the worst performance since 1961 by a Nebraska football team, that hope was something desperately needed and greedily devoured.

Unity

As a smart and particularly handsome analyst observed, the firing of Frank Solich in 2003 created a schism in the Nebraska fan base, one from which it has never truly recovered. Since that firing, the fanbase has been split into warring camps, being either “current-coach-guys” or “not-current-coach-guys.”

Year by year, as Nebraska’s national relevance faded further and further into the mists of memory, that schism deepened. Each season of failure and frustration split that crack further apart, like a hammer blow on a wedge splitting a log. As Nebraska’s coaches and culture whipsawed from one pole to the other, each “camp” of fans took solace in the position that it was the other camp’s position that was responsible for Nebraska’s wanderings in the desert of irrelevance.

Which became, in many ways, a self-fulfilling prophecy by the time Riley arrived. As a man who overachieved at Oregon State, but never had won a conference title or achieved a gaudy record, Riley’s hire took Nebraska fans by surprise. And as an outsider, replacing a coach who still had a “camp” both inside and outside of the program even after his dismissal, Riley immediately faced a portion of his program and his fanbase that was at best skeptical of his ability to succeed – and at worst rooting for his failure.

This does nothing to absolve Riley of his failure, of course. Riley knew exactly what he was getting himself into, had every opportunity to succeed, and was singularly unable to deliver. His dismissal after three seasons, given his body of work, was not only justified but necessary.

Schisms are soul-crushing. Conflict is exhausting. Outside of sports, we live in a hyper-partisan world where your choice of religion or political party or pop singer identifies you and creates a group of mortal enemies who do not agree with your choice.

Since 2003, Nebraska football has fallen victim to the same disease of tribalism that has infected the rest of our land. But Frost’s arrival provides, for the first time since 2003, a healing of that schism and a moment of respite from our hyper-partisan lives. For now, the scarlet and cream family has come together around the returning son from Wood River, and Nebraska fans can bask in the glow of fellowship with their fellow fans.

Who knows how long this unity will last. Frost will never be more popular than he is right now – unless he wins Nebraska a national title, of course. Nebraska fans aren’t stupid, and they know that Frost’s hiring doesn’t guarantee trophies in the cabinet next year – or any year.

But they know that the hiring of Frost has brought them hope and unity. And, for now, that’s more than enough.

GBR, baby.

Image from KETV photographer Dan Grzekowiak.

Editor’s note: The post has been updated to reflect Nebraska’s most recent conference championship as 1999, not 1997.

Nebraska Football: A Thank-You Letter to Mike Riley

Mike Riley

Holding you I held everything

For a moment wasn’t I a king

But if I’d only known how the king would fall

Hey who’s to say you know

I might have changed it all

And know I’m glad I didn’t know

The way it all would end

The way it all would go

Our lives are better left to chance

I could have missed the pain

But I’d have to miss the dance

– “The Dance,” Garth Brooks

Dear Coach Riley:

I know this wasn’t the letter that you wanted to read, and it sure wasn’t the letter I wanted to write. But before you leave Lincoln, I want to tell you just how much I appreciate the three years you’ve been here.

Yeah, what happened on the field wasn’t what anyone wanted to see, and not at all what you thought your team would be producing. And as honorable and decent of a man and a leader you’ve been, you’ve been doing this long enough to know that it’s a ruthless business. That in big-time college athletics, all the grace and honor in the world, all the graduation rates and great citizens you have on your team doesn’t outweigh the wins and losses on the field.

We both know that the cold lights of the scoreboard have no sympathy and provide no place to hide.

But that’s not why I’m writing you. What you’ve done here in three short years is something truly honorable and truly remarkable, and I want to make sure you know just how much it was appreciated.

As a fan base, we’ve kind of been a mess for a while now. You know all about the run we had in the late nineties, winning three national championships in four years under head coach Tom Osborne. You know that when Osborne retired, he handed the reins over to long-time assistant Frank Solich. And that’s where the trauma of our fanbase began.

Solich was a good man, and held with him a straight line to the history that we as fans hold so dear. He took us to a national championship game (although that one didn’t work out so well).

But after that, his team went 7-7 in 2002. Sadly, we’ve gotten a little used to records like that since 2002, but at that point we hadn’t seen anything like that in a generation – and we kinda lost our minds. Solich’s recruiting fell apart, and in November of 2003 then-athletic director Steve Pederson fired Solich. In explaining Solich’s dismissal, Pederson said that he would not let the Nebraska program “gravitate into mediocrity.”

That was really the ultimate fracture of our fanbase. None of us had ever seen a coach fired growing up. We thought that was for “other programs” who didn’t have the advantages of Nebraska.

(As I know you’ve seen, we tend to think awfully highly of ourselves as a fanbase. There’s probably some good in that, but it also causes a lot of problems – and you in many ways fell victim to us and our perceptions of where the program “deserves” to be.)

About half of us thought the firing was necessary, and that Solich – good man and connection to the past – was not up for the job. The other half, though, viewed Solich’s dismissal – especially coming off a nine-win season, a topic we will see come up again – as a betrayal of Nebraska’s history.

That schism just simmered throughout the tenure of Bill Callahan, Solich’s replacement, a technocrat from the NFL who struggled to connect with the fans. Callahan’s lack of winning, combined with him changing Nebraska’s offense from the iconic option to a West Coast attack, furthered the schism caused by Solich’s firing. Fans in the “keep Solich” camp even took to wearing Ohio Bobcat gear – the school that hired Solich – to Memorial Stadium for home games as a means of protest.

Pederson became, put mildly, unpopular both inside and outside of the athletic department. In the middle of the 2007 season, Pederson was fired and Osborne took over as interim athletic director. As a result, the rest of the 2007 was a drama-filled endeavor wondering if Callahan would be fired.

I know, I know, sounds a lot like what you went through this year.

Callahan’s departure was filled with pique and disdain, and he became the target of the fanbase’s venom for a decade of frustration. Osborne replaced him with Bo Pelini, the guy who was Solich’s defensive coordinator in 2003.

I know you heard a lot about Pelini while you were in Lincoln. In some ways, his ghost haunted the offices at 10th and Vine. I know you heard all about how he never won fewer than nine games. I know you heard how his teams were routinely embarrassed when in the spotlight (ooh, look, Melvin Gordon just scored again).

And I know you heard about, well, what were generously described as his “antics” on the sideline. Combine that with him getting caught with a profane rant about Nebraska fans – and seven years of not winning the conference – and it added up to Pelini’s dismissal by then-athletic director Shawn Eichorst.

But it was what happened after Pelini’s dismissal that was the worst (at least, while he was at Nebraska). He said a whole bunch of stuff, but this is the quote that pretty much sums up what he left you to work with — with apologies for the language, that I suspect you would not approve of (as reprinted from the Omaha World-Herald).

It wasn’t a surprise to me. It really wasn’t. I didn’t really have any relationship with the AD. The guy — you guys saw him (Sunday) — the guy’s a total pussy. I mean, he is. He’s a total cunt.

And since I’ve been here — he’s been here for about two years — I’ve probably had a conversation with the guy a couple times. You saw him. He’s never been in the locker room.

At the end of the day, he was never going to support us. And he didn’t support us. You saw it. He was never going to come out in the paper and support (us).

So that was the cauldron you were walking into, with the kids in your locker room hearing that before you took over. You were an outsider, and you know how we feel about outsiders. You didn’t have a bunch of championship trophies on your mantle, although your record at a place as difficult as Oregon State has always been impressive.

You bore all of that with grace and dignity, never complaining once about the challenges you were handed when you arrived. You kept a level head and a calm demeanor even as you had so many close, gut-wrenching losses in your final season. You showed your team – and your fanbase – how to face adversity and struggle with class, dignity, and professionalism.

And then, Sam died.

I don’t know how you take a group of young men and help them through such a traumatic experience. But you did. You found a way to give those young men space to grieve, and find focus and purpose in the game they love as a way to honor the memory of their fallen friend. That quiet, loving, compassionate leadership you showed in the 2016 season is a model that all of us can aspire to if we are ever faced with such a horrendous challenge.

We call came out of that season, and into this one, with such optimism. You had your quarterback. You had fired your long-time friend Mark Banker as a defensive coordinator to show how serious you were to win and win big at Nebraska. You took risks, putting your career in Lincoln on the line to deliver wins on the field.

It didn’t work. And now you’re left to ponder what’s next for you after what you called your last great adventure. You have to, I imagine, be left regretting what could have been, as well as a feeling of disappointment that you couldn’t give us as a fanbase the success we wanted.

We’re disappointed too, of course. And speaking just for me, I feel a profound sense of sadness that your time with us has ended as it did.

But even as you left, you taught us. As opposed to Pelini, we saw a man stand up (in Nebraska colors, no less) and acknowledge his failing. We saw a man be thankful for the opportunity he was given, rather than feel the need to burn the house down to satisfy a petty need for revenge and self-aggrandizement.

This isn’t a eulogy for you, of course. You’re a young man, with a tremendous amount left to contribute to the game of football and to the broader world. Whether it’s being a grandfather or being a football coach, I have no doubt you will not only be successful at it, but that you will make all the people around you better for having the privilege of being with you.

Thank you, coach. As a fan who has just watched you from afar, I’ve never met you. But I have no doubt I’m a better person for having watched you closely these last three years. And I hope that the next time I am faced with disappointment in my life, I can respond to it they way you taught me as you left your final press conference here (as reported by Sam McKewon of the Omaha World-Herald).

It’s like that old song, I could’ve missed the pain but I would’ve missed the dance.

GBR, baby.

Photo courtesy of the Concord Monitor.

Nebraska Football: Iowa Can Be, and Should Be, Nebraska’s Rival

DSC05724

Nebraska will play Iowa on the day after Thanksgiving, putting a merciful end to the 2017 season. The contest will feel much more like a wake than a game, given how things have unfolded. A best-case scenario will see Nebraska end the season at 5-7, making that two years in three that head coach Mike Riley has led NU to such a regular season record.

There has been considerable ink spilled about whether Riley will be fired at then end of the season (deep announcer voice – Riley will be fired) and who will replace him. Adding one more voice to that speculation on the decisions of athletic director Bill Moos wouldn’t really add much to the conversation.

So let’s take a look instead on what’s happening on the field on Friday, and in the hearts of Nebraska fans. Nebraska is facing Iowa on Black Friday. What does that mean?

Well, Moos wants it to mean that Nebraska is facing off against its conference rival. Here’s what he said on the Sports Nightly radio program (according to the Omaha World-Herald):

“I’m going to really push, to establish Iowa as being our rival,” Moos said on air. “We came into the Big Ten and we need a rivalry game, and I’ve already been to the Big Ten and talked to them about that so hopefully we can keep that Black Friday game and have that be Iowa each year.”

Moos sounds like he’s reading the writing of a smart and particularly handsome analyst and jumping in quickly to salvage Nebraska’s Black Friday game against Iowa each year.

(Deep announcer voice – Moos has neither read, nor heard of, the Double Extra Point).

That’s an encouraging sign, to see that Moos recognizes the value both of the Black Friday game and a rivalry against Iowa. Hopefully he’ll be able to convince the bigwigs in the conference (B1Gwigs?) to undo the schedule change that sees Nebraska depart Black Friday after 2020.

But, Husker Fan, it’s time for you to embrace Iowa as your rival. There’s a whole bunch of good reasons why now is the time.

First of all, it’s an acknowledgment of where the two teams are. Since joining the B1G, Nebraska is 3-3 against Iowa, with the Hawkeyes owning a two-game winning streak. Iowa and Nebraska have each been to one B1G conference title game, and Iowa has one more Rose Bowl appearance in that time than Nebraska.

Yes, Husker Fan, I know you don’t want to accept Iowa as your rival because you think you’re saying you judge Nebraska against the standard of Iowa rather than teams like Ohio State and Alabama.

At some level, I get that. A program like Nebraska, with its resources and history, should be aiming for national relevance in a way that a program like Iowa has not shown itself to be.

And yes, I know you felt like Colorado and Kansas State were forced upon you as rivals after the Big 12 took away Nebraska’s yearly meeting with Oklahoma, and you’re still pining for those “Bury Switzer” bumper stickers your father put on his station wagon.

Well, that ain’t happening. Nebraska isn’t – and shouldn’t – even considering departing the B1G. It is now a member of one of the two most powerful conferences in college sports. Through the Big Ten Network, Nebraska has access to one of the most innovative and far-reaching marketing outlets to showcase itself. Membership in the B1G enhances the credibility and prestige of the university as a whole.

Oh, yeah, and there’s also 51 million other reasons why the B1G is a great home for the Big Red.

So you can hold your breath until your face turns Sooner Crimson all you want. The future of Nebraska football is annual tilts against Wisconsin, Northwestern, Minnesota, Illinois – and, yes, Iowa – from now on. You can either keep pining for your lost love, or you can lean in and embrace Nebraska’s new home.

In some ways, Nebraska fans’ reluctance to do has been part of the problem. Nebraska’s performances against its divisional opponents has been pretty average. Yes, part of that has been a talent and coaching issue. But part of it, I’m convinced, is the team not really investing in its divisional home and really buying into the need to win consistently against the B1G West. And if the fans buy in, that just puts all the more pressure on the team to do the same.

And it’s not like the other side isn’t willing to engage. Sure, Iowa might seem a little cool on Nebraska as a rival, especially given Iowa’s trophy games against Wisconsin, Minnesota and Iowa State. And given that Nebraska is struggling and kind of asking to be let into the rivalry tent, Iowa is sure to give Nebraska a taste of its own medicine and play coy.

Don’t let that fool you. There’s a built-in hatred within the Iowa fanbase for Nebraska. Some of that is being a divisional rival, but some of it pre-dates Nebraska’s arrival in the B1G. Here’s how RossWB from Black Heart, Gold Pants described his (not safe for work) feelings for Nebraska in 2011:

No, my first hate* was Nebraska. Growing up in northwest Iowa, it was an easy hate to develop. In those days, there were really only two choices: you could be an Iowa fan or you could be a Nebraska fan. (Outside of my parents, I knew a few masochistic Iowa State fans, but they were a definite minority.) It would have been a very easy time to be a Nebraska fan — they were just beginning their run of three titles in four years — but it was also easy to not become a Nebraska fan. Their fans were (too often) arrogant, preening assholes** and their program was, in many ways, loathsome***. They combined many of the worst aspects of rednecks and blue blood royalty, taking two often-terrible things and creating something even worse.

That’s a pretty good summary of Iowa fans’ perception of Nebraska. It’s not entirely unearned, given how Nebraska fans cling to the 90s like a lifeboat in the ocean. That hubris was brought into full focus in 2014 when then-athletic director Shawn Eichorst cited as a reason for firing then-head coach Bo Pelini a comparison between the Nebraska and Iowa programs – basically subtweeting that Nebraska is too good of a program to be rubbing shoulders with a program like Iowa.

It is also, without question, born in part of resentment and jealousy watching a neighboring agricultural state have a wildly successful football program with a nationally-known brand.

(Deep announcer voice – this is an example of the kind of shade that rivalries are built on)

So, yeah, the pump is primed for Iowa fans to embrace this rivalry. Just look at this. And this. And this. Heck, you know it’s probably a rivalry already if Iowa fans are rolling out smack-talk like this after last year’s 40-10 (!) Iowa win:

If it’s 9:20 in Iowa City, what time is it in Lincoln? 40 to 10.

It’s time for Nebraska fans to embrace it right back. And on Friday, you’ll have a perfect opportunity to test out whether you can embrace that Iowa rivalry.

Nebraska is 4-7, and isn’t going to a bowl game. Iowa is 6-5, and a win will likely affect only whether Iowa will be going to Detroit or New York for its December bowl game. Substantively, there’s nothing on the line.

But there’s that trophy, that ridiculously-sanitized Heroes Game trophy the B1G picked up from a grocery store. Take a look at the picture on this post, Husker Fan. That’s Iowa, in 2013, running across the Memorial Stadium turf, grabbing that trophy off the Nebraska sideline, and parading it in front of the assembled black and gold faithful pouring “let’s go Hawks” cries into your ears as you trudged home.

How does that make you feel, Husker Fan? If you’ve made it this far, I’ve got a pretty good idea of how it makes you feel, even if you don’t want to admit it out loud.

It pisses you off. It makes your Husker blood boil seeing those guys carry a trophy off of your stadium. It makes you want to right that wrong, to shut up your Hawkeye-fan neighbor or co-worker or family member over the holidays and the long off-season.

In other words, it pumps you up and gives you real, visceral stakes on the Nebraska-Iowa game. A win on Friday won’t send Nebraska to a bowl or put Nebraska in the top-25. But it will feel damn good to have in your back pocket as you see your Hawkeye friends and family.

So, Friday’s game is important to win, regardless of either team’s record. Sounds like a rivalry, doesn’t it, Husker Fan?

Nebraska Football: Five Rules For Husker Fans For The Rest of 2017

DSC06372

Most of you are expecting a Re-View of Nebraska’s 54-21 loss to Minnesota. But I just don’t see a point in breaking down this game. Full credit to Minnesota, a team under first-year coach P.J. Fleck who is on the rise and will be good in coming years.

But there’s no way to understand this loss without knowing that head coach Mike Riley is almost assuredly is going to lose his job after this season. This loss had much more to do with Nebraska’s mental state – or lack thereof – than anything in terms of strategic breakdowns.

So what do you do now, Husker Fan? There’s still two games left, but for all practical purposes there’s nothing left to play for. It’s really weird for Nebraska fans to be in early November with games left on the schedule and having nothing to do but wait for the offseason.

We’re here to help, Husker Fan. I know you’re struggling for how to respond – anyone of us who wear scarlet and cream are struggling. So here are some rules to help you out.

You Can’t Stop Caring

I know, I know, this stinks. Your Husker heart is aching about this whole surreal situation. You just saw Minnesota – yes, the no. 119 team in national scoring – put up a fifty-burger on the Blackshirts. And there’s two games left. The first is at Penn State – yipes – and a loss to the Nittany Lions will guarantee Nebraska’s second losing season in three years. The second is home to Iowa – a team that hung 50 on Ohio State – in front of a Memorial Stadium crowd that will be more than ready to bid farewell to 2017.

This hurts. This is no fun. And the rational response to this feeling is to give up and pull away.

Don’t. You don’t get to do that as a fan. I’m not saying you have to soak up every play of the next two games. I’m not even saying that skipping the Iowa game if you have tickets is a problem. Disengaging some, especially from the exhibition-style games that 2017 has left for Nebraska fans, is defensible.

But that’s different than not caring. You’re reading this because you care about Nebraska football, and you’re looking for answers.

I’m not sure I can give you much in terms of answers, although I am going to suggest some ways to get through this year. But I can tell you that giving up on Nebraska football based on this season – or, heck, based on the last decade and a half – would be a huge mistake.

Sure, it’s been since 1999 since Nebraska gave you a conference title. Sure, you’ve watched a lot of embarrassing losses and ugly performances. But be honest – you’ve had a whole bunch of great experiences too.

Not just wins, although those have been fun too. But Nebraska football is woven into the fabric of your life. It’s something to get excited about during the dog days of summer. It’s something to organize your autumn Saturdays around. It’s an easy gift for your family to buy you at Christmastime.

Being a fan – being truly, fully emotionally invested in a team – is an amazing gift. Your fandom lets you intensely experience a range of emotions – admittedly, some bad as well as good – in a way that people who aren’t sports fans can’t understand. To give that up, even while in the throes of Nebraska’s current struggles, would be a very high price to pay.

You Can Be Frustrated, Angry, and Sarcastic

Look, just because you’re not disengaging doesn’t mean you have to say that this is all great. You’re upset about all of this, and you should be. And now, even more than in 2007, you’ve got social media platforms that are built for sarcasm and snark.

Let it rip (within certain limits). Dark comedy is a great outlet for your frustration. Sarcasm can make you feel better. Even a long, ALL CAP FILLED rant is a great vent of your feelings.

All of those things mean you still care, and are looking for an outlet for all your anger and frustration. So as long as you’re not being hurtful (and we’ll discuss what that looks like in a bit), let your snark flag fly.

You Can’t Take It Out On The Players

Social media is great to let your frustration out. But the players live on social media, too. Many of them put themselves out there on media like Twitter and Instagram, and are available to be reached by fans.

Some of you have decided that the college kids who play for Nebraska are good targets for your ire on social media. No one is getting named and shamed on this forum, but there’s only one response I can give to you.

Stop it.

Seriously there is no set of circumstances where calling out the players is a good idea. And I know that some of you will respond by telling me that the players gave an unacceptable effort against Minnesota.

I’m willing to listen to that, and certainly willing to listen to former Nebraska players discuss it. But there’s a difference between an athlete who has bled and sweated for the scarlet and cream and @JoeCouchGuy_7 popping off.

Ladies and gentlemen, football is hard. It’s a really hard game, and it’s really hard work to get ready to play, week after week. Every player on that team, I’m confident to say, has put in more work to be a football player than most people reading this blog have put in for anything in their life.

You know what else is hard? Losing. Continuing to lose plays with your confidence, and losing track of all your season goals makes it hard to give that extra little bit that is the difference between winning and losing.

Nebraska’s players are better than Minnesota’s. All else being equal, that means Nebraska should beat Minnesota. But that doesn’t mean there is a chasm of difference between the two teams. And desire, passion, “want to,” all those things that you hear football fans speak in clichés about, make a difference.

I can’t argue the fact that Nebraska’s effort against Minnesota was unacceptable. But I will argue that it’s awfully hard, awfully hard indeed, for college kids to give the kind of extreme effort necessary to win a football game – yes, even against Minnesota – when many of them have to be convinced that the entire coaching staff is going to be fired shortly after Black Friday.

Yes, that means a team that didn’t give acceptable effort is still doing its best. More importantly, it means that the kids on that roster still need – and deserve – the support of the fans.

You know that whole bit about “in all kinds of weather?” Now’s the time to put that to the test, Husker Fan, and stick together in support of the players as we close out 2017.

You Can’t Strike Your Colors

No hiding, Husker Fan. Now is the time where it’s important to fly your flag and broadcast your fandom. I know, Thanksgiving is coming, and your Hawkeye relatives will be licking their chops waiting for you.

What are you going to do? Put your scarlet and cream away and hope they don’t notice? Good luck with that. Now is the time to earn your stripes.

In 2004, I suffered from a bout of what you might call irrational exuberance. Before the season started, I bought tickets to the Big XII title game in Kansas City. I thought for sure the worm would turn, and this would be Nebraska’s year to scale the mountain.

Well, that didn’t exactly work. But I went anyway, and watched Oklahoma dismantle Colorado, 42-3.

But that’s not the point of the story. I wore my Nebraska coat (because it’s Arrowhead, and Arrowhead is bone-chilling cold in mid-July). And I got more comments – more respect – from the fans that were at the game than any other time I can recall

(Well, from the Oklahoma fans, anyway. Colorado fans are the subject of another essay.)

Here’s your chance, Husker Fan. You’re not 10 years old. You don’t get to change your allegiances when a new shiny object comes around or when you hit a little choppy water.

Lean into the struggle and fly your scarlet and cream proudly. Trust me, it will be worth it when things turn for Nebraska.

You Can’t Forget You’ve Seen This Before.

This is kind of a two-edged sword. It’s a problem for Nebraska as a program that we have been here before, in 2007 after Steve Pederson was fired. We’ve seen a team come unglued under the tutelage of a dead coach walking. We’ve seen ugly losses – although, in fairness, in 2007 the losses weren’t to teams as poor as 2017 Minnesota.

But we survived, didn’t we? We found hope in 2008, even when we thought we’d never feel that again after Kansas put up 76. We dreamed of titles when Nebraska played Oklahoma and Texas in the Big XII title game (although not at the same time, that would have been tough). We thought Nebraska had cracked the B1G nut when a four-loss Wisconsin showed up in Indianapolis – at least until the game started.

Hope will come again, probably sooner than you think. Riley has to go, but he’s not Bill Callahan or Bo Pelini. He’ll still coach and recruit, and leave the team in the best shape possible for the next guy in charge. He won’t shut things down in a fit of pique or poison the well to salve his bruised ego.

And now Nebraska has an experienced football mind in Bill Moos to fire Riley and hire his replacement. That’s no guarantee, of course, the Moos will pick the right guy. Or that the right guy will want to come to Lincoln. Or that the “right guy” will actually be the right guy and get Nebraska back to national relevance.

But there’s reason for hope. Not only because there’s reason to believe in the new decision-maker, but because the drought has been so long for Nebraska that it can ill afford another wrong guy wearing the headset in Lincoln.

Give in to that hope, Husker Fan, at least a little bit. Life is too short, and too hard, to indulge yourself in the cowardice of cynicism. At the end of the day, it is still college football – the most important irrelevant thing around these parts. Whether or not Nebraska is good at football isn’t going to put food on your table or a roof over your head.

But being a Nebraska fan can make you happy. To allow that, though, you have to find a little space in your heart for hope. It’s a tough ask now, I get it. But it was a tough ask before, too. And hope came back, just as sure as day follows the night.

Don’t be afraid of it, Husker Fan. Search out the hope. And embrace it when it comes.

Now, more than ever, GBR, baby.

Nebraska Football: Three Takeaways from the Firing of Shawn Eichorst

4620042-here+we+go

After Nebraska’s 21-17 loss to Northern Illinois last Saturday, a smart and particularly handsome analyst said that the loss was what the beginning of the end might look like. Well, it looks a lot more like the end after Nebraska’s chancellor Ronnie Green announced that the university had immediately terminated Eichorst’s employment on Thursday.

There’s plenty to digest, but here’s three quick reactions to Eichorst’s ouster.

Riley is coaching for his job

It kinda felt like it even before Thursday’s news broke, but now there’s no question that head coach Mike Riley is fighting to stay in the big chair in Lincoln. An interim athletic director – meaning one who didn’t hire Riley – will be named in the next few days, and it’s almost certain he and Riley will meet and discuss what Riley’s target must be to keep his job.

Is it 7-5, meaning Nebraska wins out except against Wisconsin, Ohio State, and Penn State? Is it 6-6, enough to go to a bowl game? Is it higher? Does it depend on how the record happens as much as what the record is?

That will be up to the interim athletic director, with guidance from the higher powers at the school. But make no mistake, firing Eichorst now was done because Green and university president Hank Bounds saw that there was at least a good chance Riley would have to be fired at the end of 2017.

And if that firing was going to happen, then it makes far more sense to fire Eichorst now. That way, Nebraska isn’t left at the end of 2017 having to hire a new AD, then wait for that AD to come online before initiating a coaching search.

But he’s got a shot to keep it

Green was as emphatic as you could expect with regards to Riley’s status (according to Land of 10).

“Mike Riley is our football coach. We expect him to compete. This is not about Mike Riley,” Green said.

Assuming Riley wants to keep his job, those words – and the swiftness which Nebraska’s higher-ups moved on Eichorst – should sharpen his vision quickly. Riley has nine games left, and will (according to SB Nation’s five-year recruiting averages) have better talent than seven of the nine teams Nebraska will face.

Admittedly, it’s hard to see Nebraska winning one of those games, much less seven, after Saturday’s performance against Northern Illinois. But don’t forget, in 2015 it was hard to imagine Nebraska winning another game after a horrific 55-45 loss to Purdue. Nebraska turned around the next week and knocked off no. 6 Michigan State.

Nebraska doesn’t have to beat the no. 6 team in the country this weekend. It just needs to beat Rutgers, at home, to stop the rot and give itself a chance to salvage the 2017 season – and Riley’s career in Lincoln.

Pelini’s shadow looms over Eichorst

Take a look at what former quarterback Tommy Armstrong had to say on Twitter about Eichorst as news of his firing broke.

And one from former cornerback Josh Mitchell.

That’s quite a bit of venom from two of the strongest leaders from former head coach Bo Pelini’s era. Those guys were there, lived through the whole thing, and we can learn a lot about the team’s mindset listening to them now.

But let’s not forget that their coach, the adult these college kids followed and respected, told them this about Eichorst just after his dismissal (according to the Omaha World-Herald).

“I didn’t really have any relationship with the A.D.,” Pelini said. “The guy, you guys saw him (Sunday), the guy is a total p—-. I mean, he is. He’s a total c—.”

Again, I’m not in any way discounting what Armstrong, Mitchell, or any of the other former Huskers have said about Eichorst and how he handled himself. Heck, check out what Mitchell had to say about Riley.

But I am suggesting that their perceptions of Eichorst may have been colored by the way Pelini chose to handle himself after his dismissal.

And it’s hard not to raise the question about how much lingering bitterness from the team about Pelini’s firing – amplified by Pelini’s own childish and selfish rant – affected the remaining players being able to fully embrace Riley and his new staff.

Look, Nebraska isn’t sitting at 1-2 with a loss to a MAC school because of Bo Pelini. Shawn Eichorst isn’t out of a job because of Bo Pelini. Eichorst’s own ham-fisted handling of the Black Friday scheduling debacle, as noted by a smart and particularly handsome analyst, may very well have been the nail in the coffin of his career in Lincoln.

But the seeds of Eichorst’s dismissal were planted in the way he handled Pelini’s dismissal, and watered by Riley’s underwhelming record over the course of 28 games.

GBR, baby.

 

Nebraska Football: A Theory on the Cornhuskers’ Collapse Last Season

fyfe

Sherman, set the WayBack Machine for October 29, 2016. Nebraska just missed exorcising its demons in Camp Randall with a thrilling 23-17 overtime loss to Wisconsin, but showed to the world that it could stand toe-to-toe and compete on a national stage. That near-miss loss meant that Nebraska was still 7-1 on the season, including an impressive (although, if you believe in win percentage as a metric, unlikely) victory over Oregon. It was encouraging enough for this dope to even end his ReView of the Wisconsin game with defiance, saying “bring on the Buckeyes.”

Yeah, that didn’t exactly work out for Nebraska. After Ohio State’s 62-3 evisceration of NU, the season took on water in a hurry. Nebraska pulled out a gritty 24-17 win over Minnesota, and a comfortable 28-7 victory over an outmanned Maryland, but those wins proved to be paper over the cracks.

On the day after Thanksgiving, Nebraska was dominated 40-10 by Iowa (!), surrendering 264 rushing yards (!!) and 404 total yards (!!!) to the Hawkeyes. Nebraska drew Tennessee in the Music City Bowl, and lost 38-24 to the Volunteers in a game that was nowhere near as close as the score might have indicated.

So Nebraska’s 2016 campaign ended at 9-4, a decided improvement over the 6-7 mark from a season prior. But in Nebraska’s three losses in its final five games last year, it was outscored 140-37, and outgained by total yards in those contests by more than a two-to-one margin, 1519 to 739.

What happened? How did a season that saw Nebraska at 7-0 and ranked no. 7 nationally end with such a resounding thud?

Obviously, a big part of it was that Nebraska’s quality of opposition improved dramatically towards the end of the season. Oregon looked like a great matchup on paper in 2016, but ended the season at 4-8 and a fired head coach. Ohio State, Tennessee, and (gritting teeth) Iowa were dramatically tougher opponents than Nebraska’s early-season victims, so it should not have been surprising that Nebraska had more difficulty at the end of 2016.

Additionally, Nebraska’s 7-0 mark coming into Wisconsin was clearly, in retrospect, inflated. Given the game flow, Nebraska was pretty fortunate to beat what turned out to be a very flawed (if talented) Oregon squad in Lincoln. Other than the Ducks, Nebraska’s best win in that 7-0 stretch was … Northwestern? Wyoming?

Those factors can explain some of what happened at the end of 2016. But it wasn’t just that Nebraska struggled at the end of last year. Let’s be honest. Nebraska collapsed at the end of 2016. Nebraska capitulated to the strongest teams at the end of its schedule. (And yes, that’s officially throwing shade at Minnesota.)

So what else explains the magnitude of Nebraska’s late-season collapse. There’s a whole bunch of factors, of course. And I will state from the outset that this is just rank speculation from a total outsider, observing from a distance. But I would venture an educated guess that there were two significant factors that contributed to last year’s swoon.

The first is the effect of injuries to quarterback Tommy Armstrong. Of course, his terrifying injury against Ohio State threw Ryker Fyfe into duty in Columbus. But Armstrong had been walking wounded for quite some time before his Ohio State scare, and a combination of injuries against Minnesota a week later knocked him out of the following game against Maryland.

Armstrong tried to soldier through his injuries against Iowa, and it showed. He ran six times for 13 yards and was 13-35 throwing for 125 against the Hawkeye defense. Armstrong was a shell of his former self on Black Friday, and everyone – including Iowa’s defense – could clearly see it.

Gamer that he is, Armstrong fought hard to get back on the field for the Music City Bowl, but his injuries simply wouldn’t allow it. Fyfe started against the Volunteers and was … well, he had eight rushes for minus-27 yards, and was 17-36 for 243 yards passing with two touchdowns.

It’s fair to say, then, that Armstrong’s injury was a significant factor in Nebraska’s late-season struggle. But it’s more than that. Fyfe was Nebraska’s best option as Armstrong’s backup. God bless the kid from Grand Island, he’s a good athlete, worked very hard, and did the best he possibly could in the situation in which he found himself.

But it was clear to any observer from the outset that Fyfe was never good enough for Nebraska to be competitive against a sturdy opponent. And, more importantly, it had to have been clear to the Nebraska squad that going into games against Iowa and (especially) Tennessee, having a quarterback as limited as Fyfe gave NU almost no chance to be competitive.

Outside of perhaps a goaltender in hockey, there is no position in sports more important than the quarterback in football. If there was one fatal flaw in former head coach Bo Pelini’s time in Lincoln (well, apart from the obvious), it was Pelini’s inability to get his signal-caller right.

Between Armstrong and Taylor Martinez, Pelini’s quarterbacks were dynamic and dual-threat, but ultimately limited due to their inability to pass effectively and avoid turnovers put a ceiling on how effective Nebraska’s offense could be. But maybe even more damning of an indictment might be how poor the depth at quarterback has been in Lincoln.

And that lack of depth ultimately undid Nebraska last season. A loss to Ohio State in Columbus was, in retrospect, not a surprising result. And asking Fyfe to come in for an injured Armstrong, with Nebraska already down 21 points, would have made anything other than a blowout surprising.

So really we’re down to two big losses – Iowa (!) and Tennessee – that defined Nebraska’s 2016 season. Why did Nebraska capitulate so badly in those games?

Let’s take as a given that both teams are very good, and worthy winners. But it’s hard not to see Nebraska’s collapse, in part, as a subconscious response by a team knowing that their quarterback gave them no chance to be successful on that day.

Against Iowa, Armstrong gamely tried to play, but it was clear from the start that his injury was going to rob him of his effective rushing of the ball. And without that threat of a run, Armstrong simply was not good enough as a quarterback to be effective.

Against Tennessee, Nebraska was asking Fyfe to go up against an SEC defense (including a future NFL first-round draft pick in defensive end Derek Barnett). Fyfe, as he always did, but up his best effort. But his best effort ended up being a sub-50 percent completion rate. Remarkably, Nebraska remained within a couple of scores throughout the game, but the outcome was never in doubt.

And it’s hard not to think that part of the reason Nebraska couldn’t hold up against Tennessee was because, at some level, the team knew that they couldn’t be successful with Fyfe under center.

Now, my caveats again. I wasn’t in that locker room, and I don’t know anyone that was. But I’ve been an observer of the game for a long time, and I know what my expectations were going into the Music City Bowl. I know what my expectations were against Iowa once it was clear that Armstrong couldn’t run. And if I knew that, it’s hard to imagine that the team didn’t at some level think that too.

And keep in mind, this was a team that had expended a lot of emotional energy that year. The sudden death of punter Sam Foltz just before the season started shocked and saddened the team, and the fan base overall. Throughout the year, the team remembered Foltz before each game, and accepted the support of opposing teams who wanted to sympathize in Foltz’s death as well.

Which, of course, was exactly the right thing to do. It was inspiring to see those young men rally around each other in their grief and memory of a remarkable student athlete taken too soon. I defy you not to tear up when you watch the “missing man” delay of game penalty tribute Nebraska took against Fresno State to honor Foltz’ loss.

But that kind of emotional energy, week after week during a hard campaign, had to take a toll on a group of young men. Add it that toll the disappointment of an overtime loss against Wisconsin, and then the unspoken futility of sub-optimal quarterback play, and you have a recipe for a collapse.

Is that what happened? I don’t know. Is it a plausible explanation, at least as a contributing factor, to how Nebraska could surrender 40 points to Iowa and 521 total yards to Tennessee at the end of a particularly grueling 2016 campaign?

I think it could have been. And if that’s the case, it provides a reason to be hopeful for a 2017 season that is otherwise chock full of questions.