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

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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.

Nebraska Football: Banker Dismissal Shows Riley Dead Serious About Winning

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Who is this guy, Husker Fans were asking when Mike Riley pulled up with his bicycle and hybrid car from the West Coast to replace Bo Pelini? How can the genial 62-year-old (at the time), the fans wondered, be up to the task of bringing Nebraska back?

And when Nebraska had his team at 3-6 after a loss to Purdue last year, and still maintained his calm and friendly professionalism, fans were ready to pounce. Say it with me, Husker Fan, you know you heard at least someone who said it:

“He’s just too nice of a guy to be a winner.”

Well, he hasn’t proved himself to be a winner yet. Nebraska’s 9-4 season, although a dramatic improvement from last year, was not good enough given the blowout losses to Ohio State, Iowa (!), and Tennessee.

And he’s still a nice guy. At no point did you see Riley losing his mind on the sideline, or being surly and immature to the media, like a certain former head coach was known to do from time to time.

But don’t let Riley’s genial nature fool you. When it comes to putting a winning program together, Riley is a stone cold killer.

This season, it started with the dismissal of special teams coach Bruce Read, who had been with Riley for 16 seasons. But Nebraska’s disastrous performance in special teams this season (two blocked punts and the disappearance of De’Mornay Pierson-El) made Read’s dismissal almost a necessity.

But then Riley dropped the hammer on his longtime friend and defensive coordinator, Mark Banker, declining to renew his contract. Dismissing Banker is so much of a bigger statement than Read, in part because of the relationship between the two men. Since 1996, there’s only been one year where the two haven’t worked together. Banker has been Riley’s defensive coordinator for the last 14 years. In Corvallis, Riley stuck with Banker over vociferous protests from the Oregon State faithful.

At Nebraska? Two seasons in, Riley dismisses Banker after the defense gets better. Nebraska was no. 64 in total defense in 2015, and no. 30 last year (according to cfbstats.com).

So what gives? Well, the defensive performances against Ohio State and Iowa (!) certainly didn’t inspire confidence. And Nebraska’s abject defensive showing against Tennessee may have been the final nail in Banker’s coffin with regards to his career in Lincoln.

What may have been as important, though, is Banker’s lack of production in recruiting. Here is the list of Nebraska’s current 2017 commit list, from 247 Sports. One thing that is distinctively missing from this list is a bunch of players recruited by Banker. Given the pressure put on Riley by athletic director Shawn Eichorst to improve Nebraska’s talent level (according to Steven M. Sipple of the Lincoln Journal-Star), it shouldn’t be a surprise that Riley acted decisively to improve Nebraska’s ability to recruit top-level talent.

But it may not have been just about Eichorst. Banker said that his relationship with Riley in Lincoln was different than it had been at other stops (according to Sipple from the Lincoln Journal-Star)

“But the communication from the top down — it was basically (offensive coordinator) Danny (Langsdorf) and I, and Bruce Read for that matter, were given the information we needed to have when we needed to have it, and that was it.

“Nothing would ever transpire like that because there was never any frank conversations like that.

“I don’t know why it was like that (at Nebraska),” Banker said. “I don’t have any idea.”

That gives some insight about Riley’s mindset, since he’s arrived in Lincoln. Remember, he looked like he was a lifer in Corvallis. But he shocked the world to take what is almost certainly his last coaching job – and his last opportunity to win on the national stage.

Banker has been replaced by Bob Diaco, who was the architect of Notre Dame’s defense from 2010-2013, helping to take the Irish to the 2012 BCS title game. Diaco will be making $825,000/year next season, in comparison to Banker’s $580,000/year salary. So Nebraska is demonstrating a willingness to open its checkbook to compete with the rest of the country for quality assistants.

But the important thing is this. Remember the discussion earlier about whether a four-loss season would be viewed as acceptable for Nebraska? Eichorst showed clearly that it wasn’t. And now Riley has shown it wasn’t, firing his long-time friend – over the phone, no less, because he didn’t want to interrupt recruiting – in an attempt to make things better.

Remember when Bill Callahan was faced with this same question? He held on to long-time friend Kevin Cosgrove, which led to the disastrous 2007 campaign and Callahan’s outser. After Pelini had to fire his brother Carl as defensive coordinator, Bo had a chance to hire an experienced coach to bolster his staff.

Instead, Pelini promoted John Papuchis as defensive coordinator in 2012. By 2014, Pelini and Papuchis were gone, and the Blackshirts were never better than no. 35 nationally in total defense.

Riley has acted decisively where his predecessors were either unable or unwilling to do so. It’s no guarantee of success, of course. But at the very least, Riley has made it crystal clear that Nebraska’s 2016 performance – getting back to the four-loss level, an improvement from 2015 – is not only not good enough, but worthy of a significant staff shakeup.

Nebraska Football: Four Equations To Explain Cornhuskers’ 2016 Season and Beyond

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“Meet the new boss, same as the old boss.”

– Won’t Get Fooled Again, The Who

Nebraska ended the 2016 season with a very familiar 9-4 record after a 38-24 drubbing in the Music City Bowl by Tennessee. After getting teased by an overtime loss in Camp Randall against Wisconsin, Nebraska fell apart and lost ugly against the best remaining teams on its schedule.

So how should Nebraska fans feel about where NU is in year two of Mike Riley’s tenure in Lincoln? Here’s four equations (because, let’s face it, what describes football better than a mathematical formula) that help inform how to think about where Nebraska is now, and where it will be going forward.

9-4 > 6-7

Yeah, the end of the 2016 wasn’t really fun, was it, Husker Fan? After a narrow loss to Wisconsin, many pundits (including this dope) thought Nebraska was ready for prime time against Ohio State.

Whoops. The Buckeyes’ 62-3 humiliation of Nebraska started NU down a slippery slope from which it could never really recover, and ugly losses to Iowa (still think it’s not a rivalry, Husker Fan?) and Tennessee made the fanbase truly question the direction of the program.

That’s probably a good thing in terms of demonstrating a fanbase unwilling to accept poor results. But everyone upset about 9-4 should really remember where NU was a year ago, at 3-6 after losing to Purdue and in danger of a truly ugly campaign.

So there’s plenty to be upset, or at least disappointed, about for Nebraska in 2016. But it shouldn’t be lost on anyone that a return to the four-loss valley is still a significant improvement from last year.

Four losses = four losses

At the start of the 2016 campaign, I was still wrestling with a question raised by @CountIstvan, who criticized the Riley hire by expressing frustration that a four-loss season in year three – basically getting Nebraska back to the Bo Pelini level – would be viewed as acceptable. As a result, he argued, firing Pelini and hiring a guy who needed three years to get to Pelini’s level of production was a waste of time.

I argued then, as I do now, that a combination of an improved culture and better recruiting means Nebraska could be seen as moving forward even if the results in wins and losses didn’t show up yet.

But no one who follows Nebraska can honestly say that the fallout from 2016 doesn’t feel a whole lot like the fallout from 2013, or 2012, or pretty much every Pelini season. Following a Nebraska team that wins the games it probably should, but gets embarrassed on a national stage.

To be fair, the response of the Nebraska faithful has made it pretty clear that where NU is right now isn’t acceptable. Athletic director Shawn Eichorst has said just as much (in an interview with Steven M. Sipple of the Lincoln Journal-Star) in terms of both winning percentage and talent level – that where Nebraska is right now isn’t good enough.

50.3 < 62.5

It’s simplistic and reductive to say that there is one thing that is the reason why Nebraska struggled in 2016. If you were looking for one candidate, you very well could argue an inability to be competitive on the offensive line.

But after watching the 2016 season unfold, I’m convinced a big part of the story can be told in the completion percentage number. Nebraska’s season completion percentage in 2016 was 50.3 percent. In comparison, the completion percentage of B1G West champion Wisconsin was 62.5 percent.

I think it’s a fair comparison. Wisconsin was far from a prolific passing offense. But completing passes at that rate allows an offense to be efficient and stay on the field, giving its team a chance to succeed.

Nebraska’s completion percentage in 2016 was simply not good enough for NU to be competitive. Starting next year, it is a virtual certainty that the percentage number will increase significantly. It doesn’t guarantee success, of course. But at least it should give Nebraska a fighting chance.

33 > 44

(Yes, I know that thirty-three is actually less than forty-four. Just go with me for a minute.)

So if we put Wisconsin as Nebraska’s target for winning the B1G West, then it’s not at all unreasonable to look at where the two schools are at in recruiting. Even after a disastrous Army All-American weekend that saw Nebraska net zero commits, NU still sits at no. 33 nationally (according to 247 Sports). Wisconsin, by comparison, sits at no. 44.

Now, to be clear, no. 33 isn’t good enough. Nebraska has 5-7 slots available, and has to close the deal on some of the highly-touted recruits it is targeting if it wants to get back to national prominence. But the first step in that road to recovery is to win the B1G West, and that means out-recruiting (and ultimately outplaying) your divisional rivals.

Wisconsin is the king of the hill at this point. Iowa is coming off a 12-0 season last year. Northwestern will always over-achieve so long as Pat Fitzgerald is coaching in Evanston. Purdue and Minnesota just hired exciting and innovative coaches. So it’s important that Nebraska is able to put enough talent on the field to win – as Eichorst said when firing Pelini – the “games that matter.”

Nebraska Football: What is Success for Mike Riley’s Cornhuskers in 2016?

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Nebraska fans are part of a unique breed that understands how beautiful the phrase “it’s Fresno State week” is after a long off-season. This is the time of year where you’ll get game-by-game predictions for the upcoming 2016 campaign.

For the record, mine is 9-3, with losses to Oregon, at Indiana, and at Ohio State.

But that’s not really what I think is interesting as this new season dawns. I’ve been far less prolific in posting this year, which will happen when you adopt two boys. So, yeah, dumb reality is getting in the way of Nebraska football blogging.

But not thinking about the scarlet and cream, believe me. Ever since last season, I’ve been grappling with a question raised on Twitter by @CountIstvan. Basically, his argument in criticizing the Riley hire was that Nebraska fans shouldn’t have to wait two or three years for the program to get back to Pelini’s nine-win level. In the midst of Nebraska’s 5-7 regular season, he lamented that Riley’s defenders would take the struggles of 2015, use a seven- or eight-win season in 2016 as proof of improvement, and see Nebraska get back to nine wins in 2017. What’s the point, he argued, in hiring a guy that will take you three years to get back to the level of the guy you fired?

It’s a powerful argument, one that’s stuck with me throughout the offseason. It certainly seemed like it was where Nebraska was heading post-Purdue, although NU’s  win over UCLA in the Foster Farms Bowl has certainly put some wind in the sails of Nebraska fans’ hopes.

I’m a Riley supporter, have been even before he was hired at Nebraska. So I want to buy into his tenure, want to believe that he’s the guy that can get Nebraska back to national relevance. But how do I respond to this question about Riley’s tenure that’s nagged me since I read it all those months ago?

Well, for starters, it does assume that Nebraska won’t get to nine wins until 2017. After Nebraska lost to Purdue last year (which, if I would have been writing more this summer, would have been the focal point of a “worst Nebraska losses in a decade” column), it was more than reasonable to question whether Nebraska would win nine games – heck, would go to a bowl game – any time in the near future.

But wins over Michigan State and UCLA, coupled with a loss to Iowa that was gift-wrapped and handed to the Hawkeyes with a shiny bow by Nebraska, changed the perception. If you look at five-year recruiting rankings (as listed by SB Nation), Nebraska (no. 27) should only have inferior talent to two teams on its 2016 schedule, Oregon (no. 22) and Ohio State (no. 2).

That means, in terms of talent on the field, Nebraska should be looking at a 10-2 season. Now, obviously, there’s more to it than who has the best players. But that’s a big part of the equation (as Dave Bartoo from CFBMatrix will consistently prove).

We all know that 2015 was defined by Nebraska finding new, ridiculous, and excruciating ways to lose football games in the fourth quarter. We also know that those kinds of bounces and bad plays aren’t sustainable, and that Nebraska’s 5-7 record significantly undersold how good NU was last year. While the quote probably isn’t wise to make given its history, I do think it is fair to say that for Nebraska football the fundamentals are sound.

As a result, I think a nine-win season for Nebraska in 2016 should be the baseline expectation. But as we saw last year, stuff happens. Nebraska might only win eight games this year. Maybe even seven. Anything less than seven will likely have the villagers coming to Memorial Stadium with their pitchforks and torches.

But let’s say it’s 7-5 or 8-4 this year. Heck, even if I call it right and Nebraska goes 9-3, that’s just back to where the program was before Riley arrived. Can we say that Riley is a failure, that firing Bo Pelini was a mistake?

With all the caveats that it depends on how the team looks in getting to its final record, I would still say no. There’s a huge difference between a nine-win season in year seven of Pelini’s tenure and a nine-win season in Riley’s second. And it can be summed up in one word.

Hope.

Maybe some of it is just because Riley is the new guy. But let’s be honest. Yes, Pelini never won fewer than nine games. But he never lost fewer than four, either. And the culture he created in Lincoln was becoming so poisonous that it was hard to see how Nebraska could ever move forward.

I don’t want to re-litigate the Pelini era, but the one vignette from his tenure that will always stick with me is the meeting he had with his players after he was fired. You can read the transcript from the Omaha World-Herald here, but you all know what he said. How he vented his spleen and settled his scores, regardless of how it affected the kids that were staying and living in that program going forward. You know, the kids that he was supposed to be leading, mentoring, teaching.

Riley may be many things, but he’s not that. Sure, he overachieved at Oregon State, which I don’t think he’ll ever get sufficient credit for. But there’s no guarantee he will be able to take a stagnating national giant like Nebraska and return it to national relevance.

But he’s a professional. He’s done this before, both in college and the NFL. He can learn from his mistakes. He can bring people in who know more than he does about something. He can cut loose an under-performing coach, and show loyalty and protection to a high-performing coach who makes a big, big mistake. He can create a culture and an atmosphere that doesn’t pit his players against the fans, the administration, and the rest of the world in an unsustainable cycle of self-righteous offense.

And yeah, at least from the early returns, he can recruit. I know, I know, that was the defense of Bill Callahan. But it is nice to see some five-stars coming to Lincoln, instead of having the guy in charge just complain about how hard it is to get them here.

Contrary to popular belief, Nebraska fans on the whole aren’t unreasonable. They don’t expect a return to the nineties and winning consecutive national championships.

But Nebraska fans do expect that their team should be in the mix for a conference title pretty much every year, with a reasonable shot to win one most seasons. That “1999” on the West Stadium façade on the “Conference Championship” line is looking awfully lonely.

Riley’s career path and his current recruiting should demonstrate Nebraska is on an upward trajectory. There’s a path Nebraska fans should be able to see, fairly clearly, that ends up with a scarlet and cream swarm in Pasadena on New Year’s Day.

So that’s why a nine-win Mike Riley Nebraska is different than a nine-win Bo Pelini Nebraska. Under Pelini, most Nebraska fans concluded that nine wins was Nebraska’s ceiling. And, as Shawn Eichorst made clear when he announced Pelini’s dismissal, that’s not good enough at Nebraska.

That’s a tall order for Riley – or any coach – to fulfill. But there’s enough evidence, 5-7 notwithstanding, to legitimately hope Nebraska can get to that promised land soon.

Nebraska Football: Three Players Who Need To Improve in 2016

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Coming off a 6-7 campaign, it’s fair to say that there might be more than three players who need to improve for Nebraska’s 2016 season to impress. But for Nebraska to right the ship (and, according to one smart and particularly handsome analyst, be favored to win the B1G West title next season), there are three critical players on the roster who need to significantly outperform their 2015 season.

Not Featured: Tommy Armstrong Jr.

I know, I know, this doesn’t make sense. How can Armstrong not be a player that needs improvement when this dope already said that his completion percentage and touchdown-to-interception ratio weren’t good enough for Nebraska to win a division title?

Because, to be honest, at this point it’s unreasonable to expect those numbers to change. Armstrong is going to be a senior in 2016. For those two most important statistics, here’s what his career numbers look like.

Year Attempts Comp. % TD-to-INT
2015 402 55.2 1.375
2014 345 53.3 1.833
2013 131 51.9 1.125

As you can see, Armstrong’s completion percentage has – barely – been improving in his three years under center. His ratio, which was atrocious in his freshman season, actually got worse last year after some promising signs of improvement in 2014.

Sure, a new coaching staff and a new offensive philosophy can explain a lot of Armstrong’s struggles last season. And sure, it’s possible that a second year under offensive coordinator Danny Langsdorf might help Armstrong make a leap in both categories.

But at this point, it’s really hard to assume or even expect that. Armstrong is a senior, who has played 33 games for Nebraska. Much like Taylor Martinez before him, at this point in his career Armstrong is likely who he is going to be – in his case, a great leader, a tough competitor, a dangerous playmaker, and an inaccurate and turnover-prone quarterback.

If Armstrong develops into something more in his senior campaign, then it’s a bonus for Nebraska. But for now, we have to expect Armstrong to deliver about what he has delivered throughout his career.

Nate Gerry

Gerry has had an … interesting career at Nebraska. As a freshman, then-head coach Bo Pelini moved Gerry to linebacker in an attempt to find his best position. Gerry returned to his position at safety as a sophomore, and looked like he was going to be a world-beater.

But then Pelini was dismissed, and in came head coach Mike Riley with defensive coordinator Mark Banker.  Pelini’s defensive schemes put a prime on defending the pass, at the expense of the running game. Banker’s quarters-style defensive strategy is the opposite, focused on stopping the pass at the expense of the deep middle passing game.

That’s a huge change for a safety, and Gerry’s transition was – not ideal. We know what Nebraska’s pass defense, particularly in the fourth quarter looked like last year.

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You want numbers? Take a look at these comparisons.

  2014 2015
Pass yards allowed/game (nat’l rating) 205.8 (33) 290.5 (122)
Scoring defense (nat’l rating) 26.4 (60) 27.8 (75)
Total defense (nat’l rating) 383.7 (53) 400.4 (64)

What do these numbers tell us? Well, that Nebraska wasn’t all that much different in terms of both total defense and scoring defense between 2014 and 2015 – with a pass defense that went from no. 32 nationally to no. 122.

That means if Nebraska pass defense improves even to average, then Nebraska’s overall defense should be much better in 2016. It will have to be, if this smart and particularly handsome analyst is right and Nebraska looks to be in contention for the B1G West this year. Gerry, as a senior, will be one of the team leaders, and it’s up to him in his second season under Banker to find his sophomore form.

Freedom Akinmoladun

Buddy Ryan, the architect of the 1985 Chicago Bears defense (and puncher of fellow coaches) recently died. And while his personality might be the perfect polar opposite of Riley’s, he could not have been more right about how a pass rush helps a secondary. Here’s what Ryan had to say about how a pass rush helped a secondary.

“A quarterback has never completed a pass when he was flat on his back.” (courtesy of the Houston Chronicle).

Nebraska was no. 78 nationally in sacks. Yes, the pass defense last year was atrocious, and it’s easy to point fingers at the secondary. But the lack of pass rush was a huge contributing factor to Nebraska’s woes defending the long ball.

Unfortunately, there doesn’t appear to be much of a cavalry riding in to the rescue. While Riley’s 2016 recruiting class was impressive, given that Riley was coming off a 6-7 campaign, one glaring deficiency was a true pass rush specialist.

It falls, then, to the players on the roster to heat up the opposing quarterback. And of all the pass rushers on the roster, Akinmoladun looks to be the one most likely to shine. Last year was his first at defensive end after moving from tight end, and Akinmoladun possesses the raw athletic ability to get past an opposing tackle and get home.

For Nebraska to be successful next season, Akinmoladun will need to make that leap.

Nick Gates

OK, here’s a comprehensive list of the starters on Nebraska’s offensive line who will be playing in the same positions they manned in 2015.

If that doesn’t frighten you as a Nebraska fan coming into the new season, then you aren’t paying attention.  Nebraska’s offensive line will be undergoing a huge transition, with three new starters being broken in and two players likely shifting positions from 2015.

Of the players shifting positions, Gates will be the one with the most on his shoulders.  Last year, Gates played at right tackle, but looks (based on projections from Ourlads) to be playing left tackle in 2016. That position (especially with a right-handed quarterback) is the most important on the offensive line, and it looks to be filled next year by a redshirt sophomore who has not started a game at left tackle in his college career.

For Nebraska to reach its goals in 2016, Gates will have to excel in his new home on the offensive line quickly.

All stats from cfbstats.com.

Nebraska Football: How Far Are The Cornhuskers From Clemson?

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On January 01, 2009, a fourth-quarter goal line stand helped Nebraska beat Clemson 26-21 to give Bo Pelini a win in his first (non-interim) bowl game. Pelini’s Cornhuskers gave Dabo Swinney a loss in his first bowl game in charge of the Tigers, and at the time it seemed a good foundation upon which to base future success.

Well, we know how that worked out. By 2015, Swinney’s Tigers were a special teams unit away from beating Nick Saban and the mighty Alabama Crimson Tide for a national title. Pelini’s 2015 saw him finishing a 5-6 season in charge at FCS Youngstown State, with his former club needing a win in the Foster Farms Bowl to finish the year at 6-7.

So what’s the difference? Both Pelini and Swinney started at the same time. How did Clemson scale the mountain to reach college football’s elite, while Nebraska languished in the “others receiving votes” valley?

Recruiting

The most glaring difference between Nebraska and Clemson between 2008 and now is how the two teams have recruited. As Dave Bartoo from CFB Matrix has observed, talent level is a critical factor in a winning college football program. Fans don’t like to admit it, but teams that win on National Signing Day are the teams most likely to win over the New Year’s weekend.

So take a look at how Nebraska and Clemson have recruited since that fateful Gator Bowl matchup in 2009. All recruiting rankings are 247 Sports national composite team rankings. I’ve also included the team’s record for that year under each coach, to get an idea of how each team performed.

Year Clemson Recruiting Clemson Record Nebraska Recruiting Nebraska Record
2009 31 9-5 42 9-4
2010 28 6-7 27 10-4
2011 10 10-4 16 10-4
2012 15 11-2 30 9-4
2013 15 11-2 22 10-4
2014 17 10-3 36 9-3
2015 8 14-1 30 6-7
2016 (to date) 11 ??? 34 ???

As you can see, at the start of the Pelini/Swinney era, there wasn’t a huge difference in the recruiting profile between the two schools. Their records bore that out, with Pelini looking like he had the brighter future.

But beginning in 2011, Clemson kicked its recruiting into gear, going from outside the top 25 to well within the top 15. As of 2011, Clemson’s average recruiting ranking nationally was 12.6, while Nebraska averaged 28 in the same time period.

It’s no coincidence that Clemson’s ability to break out of the four-loss quagmire that Nebraska languished in under Pelini coincided with its establishing a top-15 recruiting presence on a regular basis.

A Difference-Making Quarterback

If you watched the national championship game on Monday, you know that Clemson’s ability to compete with Alabama hinged on the brilliance of sophomore quarterback Deshaun Watson. His 478 total yards (!) broke Vince Young’s record, and that was done against Alabama’s NFL-caliber defense.

Alabama was able to overcome Watson looking like the second coming of Russell Wilson only through big plays in the passing game and otherworldly special teams production. As Deadspin observed, Watson deserved better for the performance he gave.

We’ve seen that improved recruiting was able to move Clemson from an also-ran to a player on the national stage. But it was superlative quarterback play that vaulted Clemson to a true national title contender.

How has Nebraska’s starting quarterback play been since 2008? Well …

Name Comp. Att. Comp. % TD INT TD/INT ratio
Taylor Martinez (2008-2012) 575 962 59.8 56 29 1.93
Tommy Armstrong (2013-2015) 474 878 54.0 53 36 1.47
Overall QB output (2008-2015) 1049 1857 56.5 109 65 1.68

As a smart and particularly handsome analyst observed, those numbers aren’t good enough to win the B1G West. They’re sure as heck not good enough for Nebraska to put itself on the national stage in college football. And, disturbingly, Armstrong’s performance on the two most important quarterback metrics (completion percentage and TD/INT ratio) are significantly worse than Martinez’s.

Yes, those numbers don’t take into account rushing yards, or the intangibles that a kid like Armstrong brings to the huddle. But the fact remains that Clemson found itself a difference-making quarterback and was two special teams plays away from lifting a national championship trophy. Nebraska has struggled with inconsistent quarterback performances and is stuck in the “also receiving votes” category.

Clemsoning

It wasn’t all that long ago that Clemson wasn’t really taken all that seriously as a national title contender. Sure, the Tigers had an impressive resume since 2011. But Clemson also had a habit of getting everyone’s hopes up, only to fall flat against lesser opposition.

Thanks to The Solid Verbal (a brilliant college football podcast that you should be listening to on a regular basis if you’ve read this far), this phenomenon of disappointment became known as “Clemsoning.” And, social media being what it is, #clemsoning became a big deal over the years. A big enough deal, in fact, that Swinney went on a three-minute rant about how unfair it was to single his team out for toe-stubbing (according to USA Today).

Nebraska fans should shudder how similar this sounds. Indeed, when SB Nation’s Football Study Hall looked into which teams “Clemsoned” the most, Nebraska was no. 5 on the list when blowouts were factored in.

What does that mean? That it can get better. After Monday’s performance, Clemsoning as a thing is done. Nebraska’s 2015 season was full of Clemsoning (Illinois and Purdue being the two clearest examples). So if NU wants to duplicate Clemson’s rise in the college football world, avoiding the creation of #nebraskaing (thank heaven that doesn’t roll off the tongue) would be a good place to start.

How Fragile Is The Nebraska Football Program?

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So, how are you holding up, Husker fan? Just when you thought the season couldn’t get more surreal, the Blackshirts get a fifty-burger dropped on them by a 1-6 Purdue team, losing 55-45. The loss drops Nebraska to 3-6 on the season, with games against undefeated Michigan State and Iowa and a road trip to Rutgers still to come.

To call this season a disaster does a disservice to disasters everywhere, and it’s put the fanbase in a frenzy. Many are convinced that the hiring of head coach Mike Riley was a disastrous mistake, and a signal that the Nebraska program was fading into the sunset of past glories.

After all, Nebraska hasn’t won a conference championship since 1999.  It hasn’t been relevant on the national stage since a blowout loss to Miami in the 2000 national championship game.  And in a low-population state in the middle of the country, the fear amongst the fanbase is that Nebraska’s inherent recruiting challenges combined with the current struggles means NU is destined to recede into the college football history books.

Sure, national relevance and the College Football Playoff (heck, even the top 25 at this point) look a million miles away from where Nebraska is right now. But is this the new normal for Nebraska? There’s plenty of reasons to suspect that it is not.

Before we get deeper into the discussion, I’ll go through all the reasons why this year could be considered an anomaly. Five of Nebraska’s losses were by a total of 13 points, and came with NU leading in the fourth quarter. Three were on the opposing team’s final offensive possession. And the loss to Purdue was without Nebraska’s starting quarterback (Tommy Armstrong), starting tailback (Terrell Newby), and most dynamic offensive weapon (De’Mornay Pierson-El).

More importantly, the Purdue loss demonstrated what a smart and particularly handsome analyst worried about earlier this season. Football is hard work. It’s a hard game to play, and it’s a hard game to prepare for. It’s a lot to ask a group of 18-22 year olds to absorb heartbreaking loss after heartbreaking loss and give maximum effort on the field. It’s a lot to ask those 18-22 year olds to continue believing in themselves and the process enough to perform confidently play after play.

I know, Husker fan, that you don’t want to hear any of that. You’re mad, and you’re hurt, and you’re scared, and you don’t want to hear any excuses. That’s fair. Riley may be a great guy and well respected in the coaching fraternity, but his job is to deliver wins on Saturday. He’s off to the worst start Nebraska football has seen since before Bob Devaney, and he’s responsible for that.

But is 2015 the harbinger of things to come? Is Nebraska football relegated to a program fighting for a win in November to earn a trip to Detroit in late December facing a third-tier ACC team?

Well, other programs have had their fallow periods. In 2007, Alabama was 4-9. In 2006, Michigan State was 4-8. In 2012, Iowa was 4-8. This year, Texas is 3-5.

Wait, let me say that again. This year, Texas is 3-5. That makes you feel a little better, doesn’t it, Husker fan?

The point is that teams have shockingly bad seasons, and rebound. A losing season does not destroy the foundations of a program. If the foundation is strong, then a bad season can be a baseline for a football revival.

So how do you tell if a program has a strong foundation? Well, at the risk of reprising an unfortunate John McCain quote, you first look to see if the fundamentals are strong.

Dave Bartoo of CFB Matrix believes that a program’s talent and coaching can explain almost all of a team’s performance on the field. So let’s take a look at what his numbers say about Nebraska’s program.

As of 2014, Nebraska’s overall talent ranking was no. 24 nationally, right between Oklahoma State and Virginia Tech. While that talent ranking certainly could be better, it puts Nebraska no. 3 in the B1G overall and no. 1 in the B1G West. That means, from a talent standpoint, Nebraska has enough raw material on the field to be competing for conference titles each year.

With regards to coaching, as of 2014 Mike Riley had a coaching effect of 1.50, meaning that a Riley-coached team could be expected to win 1.5 more games per year than an “average” coach based on relative talent. That coach effect rating was no. 11 nationally.

Yes, Riley’s coaching effect will likely go down after the results of this season. But that’s the danger of small sample sizes. The benefit of work like Bartoo’s is that you can take a longer view informed by more data to help make judgments. Riley’s inability to coach is taken as a given by many Nebraska fans – understandably so, if you just look at the results of this season. But taking more data and a larger sample size into account, the numbers suggest the opposite conclusion.

So, Nebraska has the talent to compete, and a coach with a track record over a number of years that would indicate an ability to over-perform based on his talent level. But there is one more element of the Nebraska program that suggests a disastrous season like 2015 will not be enough to swamp the boat.

Shawn Eichorst, Nebraska’s athletic director, is not the most popular man amongst the fans these days. Part of that is a function of his position – bosses in suits focused as much on spreadsheets as opposed to playbooks are easy villains when the football team struggles. Any athletic director who wasn’t previously a national championship winning head football coach is going to be the target of fan ire when things go poorly in football.

But Eichorst did something very important when he fired Bo Pelini – he set the standard high for Nebraska football. Here’s what he said at the press conference announcing Pelini’s dismissal (according to the Omaha World-Herald):

[T]here are standards and expectations at Nebraska that are high both on and off the field. And although we did win a bunch of games, we didn’t win the games that mattered the most …  We have high standards and expectations, and that’s to play championship football … Nebraska has everything it needs to be successful at the highest level. We can go back and analyze the 80’s and 90’s and all that other sort of stuff but that is not going to help us out today. I think we are positioned to play championship-caliber football here at the University of Nebraska.

Of course, given a 3-6 start to the Riley era, it’s hard not to see those words as a reprise of former athletic director Steve Pederson’s infamous “gravitating towards mediocrity” line when he fired Frank Solich. But Eichorst very clearly set the expectations for Nebraska – championship-caliber football.

And those high standards demanded from a fanbase are, ultimately, what will keep a program strong. Both Eichorst and Riley will be held to those standards, even if the time frame as to achieving them will be the subject of debate.

But, ultimately, programs don’t fade into the history books because of failures on the field. They fade into history because those on-the-field failures break the will of the fanbase to demand better.

So for all of you calling for Riley’s firing at the end of this season or tomorrow afternoon – as unreasonable and irrational as that might be – keep it up. Well, maybe with a touch of reality sprinkled in. But as long as the man in charge of the program is setting the expectation at “championship-caliber football” – and the fanbase is holding the program accountable to that expectation – then the program will survive a lean year like this.

How Nebraska Fans Should Handle Huskers’ Struggles In Mike Riley’s First Year

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Cognitive Dissonance (cog*ni*tive  dis*son*ance, noun): the state of having inconsistent thoughts, beliefs, or attitudes, especially as relating to behavioral decisions and attitude change.

Year one of Mike Riley’s reign as Nebraska head football coach has been any number of adjectives. Disappointing. Shocking. Agonizing. Maddening. Surreal.

As Nebraska sits at 3-5, needing a win over a now-top-15 rated team in Michigan State or Iowa to earn a .500 record, fans are torn. Sure, everyone knows that firing a coach eight games into a season is madness. But everyone knows that 3-5 for Nebraska is never, ever, ever acceptable.

Those who cover the team are just as torn. Samuel McKewon of the Omaha World-Herald points out that Riley’s results aren’t all that different than former head coach Bo Pelini’s, but without the individual heroics of a Lavonte David, Taylor Martinez, or Ameer Abdullah to bail it out. Tom Shatel of the Omaha World-Herald, on the other hand, blistered Riley with a j’accuse of everything that’s gone wrong this season. Shatel didn’t call for Riley’s job, but he didn’t exactly offer a ringing endorsement either.

Husker Fan, you’re caught between the devil and the deep blue sea. Let’s start with a fundamental premise. Nebraska is 3-5. In football. That’s not good enough – ever. Now, here’s where the cognitive dissonance sets in.

Yes, but …

Riley is in his first year at Nebraska, with players on offense and defense that aren’t suited to what he wants to do. Struggles were going to be inevitable.

Yes, but …

Riley was brought in as an experienced coach, a safe pair of hands that could figure out how to use the talent on hand to navigate Nebraska through those difficult waters of transition. He knew there would be a transition, and had an entire offseason to prepare his players for it.

Yes, but …

Nebraska under Riley has been so close to winning. A smart and particularly handsome analyst pointed out how close Nebraska was to 6-0 at one point in the season, for heaven’s sake. A couple of bounces the other way, and we’re not having this existential conversation.

Yes, but …

Nebraska is still 3-5. As Hall of Fame coach Bill Parcells said about NFL teams, “you are what your record says you are.” And while there are plenty of reasons for the record, coaching decisions are a part of those close losses.

Yes, but …

Nebraska has been decimated with injuries and suspensions this year. The defensive back seven, especially the linebackers, haven’t had a chance when true freshmen and walk-ons are being asked to shoulder the load in a new defensive system.

Yes, but …

Injuries can explain some defensive struggles. Injuries can’t explain Nebraska going from no. 33 in pass defense in 2014 to no. 126 in 2015, and from no. 53 in total defense nationally last year to no. 93 this year (according to cfbstats.com). Sure, it’s a new system under defensive coordinator Mark Banker. But it’s pretty clear the players on the roster aren’t executing that system very well – and that’s on Banker and the staff.

Yes, but …

Riley overachieved at Oregon State, one of the toughest places to succeed in all of major college football. His track record there suggests he’s going to be able to get Nebraska out of this mess.

Yes, but …

Oregon State was 5-7 last year under Riley, losing seven of its last nine games. In his last two years, Riley was 6-13 in conference. For his career at Oregon State, Riley was 93-80, just barely over .500 over fourteen seasons.

Exhausted yet? Everything about Nebraska’s 2015 is a producer of cognitive dissonance. Nebraska fans know that 3-5 isn’t acceptable. Nebraska fans also know there’s all kinds of explanations/reasons/excuses why Nebraska is 3-5 right now.

So how do you reconcile those two irreconcilable truths in your brain, Husker fan?

Well, here’s a cold, hard fact to absorb. Riley will not be fired this year, period. Set aside the arguments about how a first-year coach should never be fired, absent some kind of horrific criminal or behavioral issue. Let’s pretend this is English soccer, where coaches get fired at the drop of a hat.

Right now, Nebraska is paying Pelini about $1.5 million/year until February of 2019, according to Rich Kaipust of the Omaha World-Herald. Riley’s contract is $2.7 million/year with escalators and incentives through February of 2020. That means if Riley was dismissed after this season (or after the third quarter this Saturday, if Twitter is to be believed should the Purdue game go poorly), Nebraska will be paying coaches $4.2 million per year not to coach.

Add in the $3 million for a new coach (which would likely be low, given what Nebraska would have to offer after giving a coach just one year in charge), and Nebraska would be shelling out $7.2 million per year in coaches’ salaries.

For comparison’s sake, Alabama head coach Nick Saban makes just over $7 million/year, according to USA Today.

So face facts, Husker Fan. Riley’s not going anywhere this year, and likely next year, for dollars-and-cents reasons if nothing else.

What does that mean? Well, if you’ve convinced yourself after eight games that Riley can’t do any better, you’re in for a long stretch over the next few years. You can wrap yourself in the comfortable self-righteousness of an “I told you so” blanket to keep you warm, if it makes you feel better.

But you don’t know. Neither do I. There’s simply an insufficient data set to make a definitive judgment on Riley’s tenure in Lincoln at this stage. As we have seen, there’s sufficient evidence to support a positive or a negative outlook.

The fact is, though, that the Nebraska fan base will have to live with that uncertainty for a while. Athletic director Shawn Eichorst fired Pelini because there was certainty in his mind about the status of the Nebraska program. He was certain – with good evidence to support his conclusion – that Nebraska was never going to become a conference title contender under Pelini.

Firing Pelini was a risk. Hiring Riley was a risk. Eichorst could very well have stayed in the safe harbor of Pelini’s four-loss seasons, big-game capitulations, and public embarrassments.

But ships aren’t built to stay in a harbor. They’re made to venture out into the open sea, in search of glory.

Nebraska Football: Pierson-El’s Injury Won’t Doom Cornhuskers’ 2015 Season

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“Don’t Panic”

– Douglas Adams, The Hitch-Hikers Guide to the Galaxy

On Wednesday, Nebraska fans heard the news that standout wide receiver De’Mornay Pierson-El is out six to eight weeks with a foot injury (according to the Omaha World-Herald). Teeth were immediately gnashed throughout the Nebraska fanbase, with the World-Herald’s Dirk Chatelain forecasting that NU could be 3-4 by the time Pierson-El is fully recovered and out of the hunt for a division title. Indeed, Chatelain seems to view Pierson-El’s injury in some pretty apocalyptic terms.

Is it too early for doomsday talk? Probably. Does DPE’s injury impact Riley’s chances of a building a conference champion long-term? Probably not.

But barring an astounding coaching job, 2015 looks like an ambush, followed by a slog to the finish line. It’s not about winning a championship, it’s about competing with passion and dignity. It’s about avoiding dissension and humiliation. It’s about building momentum for 2016.

Hold on tight, Husker fans. The past few seasons were rough. But it’s likely to get worse before it gets better.

Look, Chatelain is one of the smartest and best reporters covering Nebraska football. He was the guy who had the guts to do his job and challenge Bo Pelini when circumstances required, regardless of the blowback from the fans (and the coach) he received.

And Pierson-El’s injury is bad, there’s no doubt. Pierson-El was easily Nebraska’s most dangerous and dynamic weapon on offense. With the departure of Ameer Abdullah, Nebraska was looking for a game-changing threat offensively, and Pierson-El was the most likely candidate to fill that role.

But let’s slow the train down about Pierson-El’s injury single-handedly crushing Nebraska’s ability to compete in 2015.

First of all, let’s look at the schedule. If we assume the worst-case scenario of eight weeks out, that puts him on track to return by October 10, when Nebraska hosts Wisconsin. Before then, Nebraska has a relatively arduous non-conference schedule, hosting BYU and traveling to Miami.

BYU is a terrifying opening opponent because of quarterback Taysom Hill, whom both Bruce Feldman of Fox Sports and Mike Huguenin of NFL.com call a sleeper Heisman pick for 2015. Stopping Hill will be a huge task for Nebraska’s new-look defense.

But Pierson-El wasn’t going to be tackling Hill – good thing, too, given the size difference. He was going to help Nebraska attack a BYU defense that ranked no. 58 nationally in total defense last year (according to CFBStats.com). Nebraska may struggle with the Cougars on opening day, but that’s a defensive struggle, one the loss of Pierson-El won’t directly affect.

The game against Miami is a little trickier for Nebraska, of course. The Hurricanes ranked no. 14 nationally in total defense last year (again according to CFBStats.com), and it would be really nice for Nebraska to have Pierson-El on the field to help move the ball in South Beach.

But a loss against Miami isn’t catastrophic for Nebraska. It does nothing to harm NU’s chances to win a conference title, of course. And if Nebraska can take care of business otherwise, coming out of the non-conference season at 3-1 – particularly with Pierson-El’s injury to handle – should have no detriment on NU’s confidence.

Then, we get into the conference season. Nebraska gets a trip to Illinois to start the conference campaign, and given the Illini’s struggles (not to mention their embattled head coach), a win in Champaign for NU should still be expected.

After Illinois, Nebraska gets Wisconsin in Lincoln. If the eight-week timetable holds, Pierson-El should be back for this game. It’s fair to expect, though, that he’ll be limited and not the dynamic weapon from last season. The Badgers are always solid and should pose a stern test for Nebraska’s divisional title chances.

But the game is in Lincoln. The Badgers are also undergoing a coaching change with Paul Chryst taking over in Madison. Melvin Gordon now wears a lightning bolt instead of a motion-W on his helmet. Joel Stave will still likely be Wisconsin’s starting quarterback. And if this is Pierson-El’s first game back, Wisconsin will still have to account for him regardless of how limited his injury might make him.

In other words, there’s reason to believe that Nebraska can hang with this year’s Wisconsin squad even without a fully-healthy Pierson-El.

Next for Nebraska comes a trip to Minneapolis. At this point, Pierson-El should be recovering, and hopefully at least close to full speed. The Gophers, of course, have a two-game winning streak over Nebraska, so it’s not unreasonable to think this game without a fully-functional Pierson-El could be problematic.

But as a smart and particularly handsome analyst has observed, much of Minnesota’s recent success against Nebraska is a result of a peculiarly-good matchup of the Gophers’ power-rushing attack against Pelini’s defensive structure. Nebraska’s new defense should neutralize that matchup advantage, allowing the relative talent of the two sides (Nebraska no. 24, Minnesota no. 64 in 2014 according to CFBMatrix) to shine through.

After Minnesota, Nebraska has a home game against Northwestern and a road game against Purdue. Even with the Purples’ history against Nebraska, both of these games would have to look favorable for Nebraska even without Pierson-El.

Nebraska’s next game would then be against Michigan State. That game is in Lincoln, on November 07, nearly three months after Pierson-El’s injury. Barring setbacks, there’s no reason to think Pierson-El won’t be fully fit to take the field against Sparty.

Nebraska’s task to win the B1G West in Mike Riley’s first year was going to be arduous even before Pierson-El’s injury. Losing its best playmaker makes Nebraska’s job harder this year, no doubt.

But there’s no reason to lower Nebraska’s 2015 goals to “avoiding dissention and humiliation” just yet.

Nebraska Football: New Defense Should Help Huskers Against Big Ten Rivals

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Nebraska football fans are well aware – painfully aware – of NU’s struggles against its division rivals since entering the B1G. When you look at the statistics from that era, though, the reason for those struggles becomes apparent.

Specifically, we’re going to be looking at Nebraska’s rushing defense against the three teams now in the B1G West that are built to be power rushing attacks. Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Iowa are all built to primarily run the ball right at you, as opposed to the spread-based concepts from the Big XII where teams on offense tried to create space by spreading receivers all over the field.

Here’s how Bo Pelini’s Blackshirts did against the run when facing these road-graders:

Year Opponent Rushing Yards Allowed
2012 Wisconsin (regular season) 56
2012 Minnesota 87
2012 Iowa 108
2012 Wisconsin (B1G championship) 539
2013 Minnesota 271
2013 Iowa 155
2014 Wisconsin 581
2014 Minnesota 281
2014 Iowa 142

So, what do these numbers tell us about Nebraska’s defense at the end of Pelini’s reign?

It hadn’t been bad for that long

September of 2012 wasn’t that long ago, when the Blackshirts bottled up Montee Ball and held the Badgers to 56 total rushing yards en route to a victory in Memorial Stadium. It was after that game where Pelini infamously told the assembled post-game media (according to Huskers.com) that “[c]ontrary to what you guys think, I haven’t forgotten how to coach defense and how to stop the run.”

As we know, karma catches up with Pelini about two months later, in exactly the way that the Blackshirts couldn’t catch Melvin Gordon.

But it wasn’t until that fateful matchup in Indianapolis where Nebraska’s weakness against the run was exposed. Minnesota utilized that to great effect, rushing for nearly 300 yards in each of its two upset victories over Nebraska. And Wisconsin didn’t forget how to turn the corner on the Blackshirts either, embarrassing Nebraska in Madison.

Iowa wasn’t really on the same level

Yes, Iowa plays smash-mouth football too. Fer cryin’ out loud, the Hawkeyes trotted out a glorified fullback in Mark Weisman as their feature tailback for two years in a row. And yes, Iowa has played Nebraska close three straight years, winning once and arguably deserving a second win last season.

But the numbers don’t support the premise that Iowa has run over Nebraska the way Wisconsin and Minnesota have since December of 2012. While Nebraska’s struggles to retain the Heroes Game trophy are real, they aren’t the same as against Wisconsin and Minnesota.

So why should things be different?

Scheme is everything. New defensive coordinator Mark Banker runs a quarters-based defense, where three linebackers stay on the field almost all the time, and the safeties are tasked with run-stopping duties. While there will be a lot of cover-two concepts, expect to see at least one safety in the box against run-heavy teams.

Grant Muessel of Hail Varsity did a much more detailed breakdown of Banker’s defensive scheme here, which you should read if you want more information.

In comparison, Pelini’s defensive schemes relied on keeping two safeties high (meaning deep and away from the line of scrimmage) to avoid being beaten by the deep pass. While effective in that regard, it also forced the defensive into a one-on-one situation against offensive blockers. If one defender was out of position or lost a battle, there was a Melvin Gordon-sized hole for an opposing ball carrier to barrel through.

Additionally, Pelini loved his hybrid guys, players who were a little too big to play safety and a little too small to play linebacker. He had great success with guys like DeJon Gomes, and tried to force Nate Gerry into that role as a freshman. Banker relies less on hybrids and more on true linebackers, falling back on the quarters scheme to provide support for the run and the pass.

So how did it work out? Well, Banker was defensive coordinator with Mike Riley at Oregon State from 2003-2014. There’s not a ton of smash-mouth teams in the Pac-12, but Stanford certainly qualifies. Let’s take a look at how Oregon State’s defense stood up against Stanford in comparison to its yards-per-game rushing average.

Year Rushing Yards Allowed Stanford’s Yearly Avg. Differential
2012 163 175 -12
2013 185 208 -23
2014 151 172 -21

In each of the last three contests, Oregon State held Stanford – the closest thing the Pac-12 has to a smash-mouth program – to under its yearly rushing average. And remember, this is an Oregon State squad that has significantly less talent than Stanford.

So given those results, it’s not unfair to expect that Nebraska should fare far better against its smash-mouth divisional brethren. This should make for far more competitive contests against Wisconsin, and should spell the end of Minnesota’s hex over Nebraska.

As for Iowa, well, Nebraska’s struggles against the Hawkeyes may have as much to do with a tryptophan hangover as anything else.

All stats were either from cfbstats.com or the team’s official websites.