Nebraska Football: Ranking the 5 Best Redshirt Freshmen for the Cornhuskers

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photo and story by Patrick Runge

Nebraska football fans have long memories, long enough to remember the recruiting hype for the freshmen who redshirted last year and have extended their careers in Lincoln as a result. Of course, there is no real data available to make any kind of informed analysis of where the redshirt freshmen stand.

Having said that, we do have recruiting rankings available, to give at least some idea of a player’s potential. We can also look at the opportunities available to the players, either from roster attrition, a new coaching staff, or both, and make some informed projections about how these players may fit in next season.

All ratings from 247 Sports.

No. 5: Mick Stoltenberg (DT)

Stoltenberg was a three-star recruit (.8296 composite) coming out of high school, and plays a position that should see a lot of competition prior to the 2015 season. With Randy Gregory declaring for the NFL draft, Greg McMullen looks to be the only sure-fire starter returning for Nebraska.

Stoltenberg will be competing with Jack Gangwish, Joe Keels, and A.J. Natter, all who saw playing time last season.

No. 4: Freedom Akinmoladun (TE)

Let’s agree at the start that guessing what new head coach Mike Riley’s offense will look like in 2015 is a fool’s errand. Having said that, given Riley’s history and the fact that his new offensive coordinator is a quarterback coach, it’s a fair conclusion that Nebraska will lean more on the passing game than it did under Bo Pelini.

And if we take past as prologue, we see that the tight end in Oregon State’s offense in the last three years has been either third or fourth in receptions. Compare that to Nebraska’s offense over the same time period, where the tight end has only been fourth one year (Kyler Reed in 2012) and sixth every other year.

In 2015, Nebraska will have a dangerous receiving threat at tight end returning in Cethan Carter. But Akinmoladun looks to be cut from the same mold as Carter, and should have a chance to shine.

No. 3: A.J. Bush (QB)

Bush might be the biggest wild card of all Nebraska’s redshirt freshman. As discussed earlier, we don’t know what Nebraska’s offense is going to look like next year, so it’s hard to guess what skill set the next NU quarterback will need. Tommy Armstrong has off-the-chart intangibles and nearly two years of starting experience under his belt. Johnny Stanton was recruited by Riley at Oregon State, so there’s no question Riley likes what Stanton has to offer.

And yet Bush’s name keeps coming up, even over Nebraska’s other redshirt freshman quarterback Zack Darlington. During preparation for this year’s Holiday Bowl, interim head coach Barney Cotton called Bush “an intriguing guy” (according to Steven M. Sipple of the Lincoln Journal-Star).

With a new coaching staff coming in, all the quarterbacks will be starting with a clean slate. That may give this “intriguing guy” a chance to make an impression and work his way up the depth chart next season.

No. 2: Mikale Wilbon (RB)

The graduation of Ameer Abdullah leaves a huge hole at Nebraska’s I-back position. Returners Imani Cross and Terrell Newby certainly have the advantage of game experience. But that experience has also shown some of the weaknesses in both of their games.

Adam Taylor, if he is able to bounce back from an injury that cost him the 2014 season, looks to provide a middle-ground in skill sets between a bruiser like Cross and a scatback like Newby. A three-star prospect (.8822 composite), Wilbon will have the chance to impress the new coaching staff and make an immediate impact in 2015.

No. 1: Tanner Farmer (OL)

In some ways, picking the redshirt offensive lineman for this list was a challenge, as Nick Gates and Jerald Foster will be in the mix as well. But Farmer’s recruiting pedigree (four-star, .9021 composite) along with his size (six-foot-four, 310 pounds) give him the slight nod in this contest.

Farmer’s familiarity at guard should help, as Nebraska is returning both starting tackles for 2014. But the depth of talent and competition for playing time should be a good problem for new Nebraska offensive line coach Mike Cavanaugh.

Nebraska Football: 5 New Years’ Resolutions for the Cornhuskers

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photo and story by Patrick Runge

Nebraska football fans have been looking forward to the new year even more than usual with the firing of Bo Pelini and the hiring of Mike Riley. So as a new year dawns, it’s a good time to look forward and see what kind of resolutions for 2015 would help move things forward and make things better for the Cornhuskers.

Here are five to consider—and hopefully keep in place longer than the two weeks my “do sit-ups every night” resolution is likely to survive.

Keep the Class Together

The first thing Riley has to do is help protect and preserve Nebraska’s 2015 recruiting class. The dismissal of Pelini has already cost Nebraska standout running back prospect Kendall Bussey, although there was always some question as to whether Nebraska could have kept him even if Pelini stayed.

But there are other critical parts of the 2015 recruiting class assembled by Pelini that Riley needs to keep committed to the Big Red. Defensive backs Eric Lee and Avery Anderson, along with the Davis brothers Khalil and Carlos (both defensive tackles) are critical parts of the recruiting class, and Riley’s first priority must be to get their signatures in February.

Find a Quarterback

Riley is known for operating a pro-style offense at Oregon State. His most recent quarterback, Sean Mannion, just broke the Pac-12 record for passing yards in a career. While it is not clear what Nebraska’s offense will look like next season (more on that later), it’s a safe bet that Nebraska will be throwing the ball more under Riley.  Combine Riley’s talent in developing quarterbacks with the recent hiring of Danny Langsdorf—who was quarterbacks coach for the New York Giants last year—as offensive coordinator suggest the passing game will be a big focus for Nebraska in 2015.

Tommy Armstrong will be the incumbent coming into next year, but he will also be bringing in a 53 percent completion rating. Behind him will be Johnny Stanton, who Riley tried very hard to get to Corvallis, along with unknown quantities in Ryker Fife, Zack Darlington, and A.J. Bush. Riley and his staff will have this offseason to see what they have to work with as Nebraska’s signal-caller for 2015.

Play the Hand You’re Dealt

Yes, Riley is known as running a pro-style offense. But there is no question that Nebraska does not have a pro-style collection of talent. Nebraska fans are scarred with the memory of a new coach trying to shoehorn a quarterback into a system that does not fit his skill set (see Dailey, Joe).

So while Riley will be tasked with installing his system in Lincoln, he will also need to make sure he takes into account the talent on his roster when developing his game plan.

Avoid Lazy Comparisons

This one’s not for Riley, it’s for Nebraska fans. While the goodbye speech helped turned public opinion against Pelini, the fact remains that Riley is taking over for a coach that never won fewer than nine games. Nebraska opens next year against BYU, South Alabama (who played in a bowl game) and at Miami. While unlikely, it’s not inconceivable that Nebraska could start 2015 at 1-2.

If that happens, Nebraska fans need to take some advice from Aaron Rodgers. R-E-L-A-X.

Transitions take time, and there are bumps in the road. While I don’t think it’s likely, it’s not at all inconceivable that Nebraska’s record could end up worse in 2015 than it did in 2014. So if that does happen, Nebraska fan, take a step back.

Much like the record in and of itself didn’t tell the whole story about the Pelini era, the record in and of itself won’t tell the whole story about Riley’s first season. Certainly Riley isn’t above criticism, but judge Nebraska’s performance in year one of the Riley era on performances, not just results.

Let It Go

I know, I’m sick of hearing this song too. But it’s good advice, particularly for Nebraska’s returning players.

Pelini did a lot of good things about creating a family atmosphere around his team. But one of his primary motivating tactics was creating an “us-against-the-world” mentality, and his goodbye address made it very clear that Pelini thought Nebraska’s administration (as opposed to Pelini) was responsible for NU’s struggles and his own dismissal.

Of course, he’s entitled to that opinion. But by explicitly telling that to his players—right after his firing, when they were angry and emotionally vulnerable—Pelini set all kinds of psychological land mines in place that could go off when Nebraska faces adversity next season.

Ultimately, it will be up to the players next year—and specifically to the senior leaders that arise on the team—to flush that kind of victimization and make sure the team remains accountable to itself and avoid the easy-out scapegoating that looked to consume it at times under Pelini.

Nebraska Football: 5 Takeaways From The Holiday Bowl

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photo and story by Patrick Runge

Nebraska football fans saw the Bo Pelini tenure in microcosm while watching NU’s 45-42 loss to USC in the Holiday Bowl. Ugly offensive performances. Head-scratching playcalling decisions. A defense gouged by a power rushing attack. A furious comeback fueled by heart that came achingly close to success.

And, of course, a fourth loss to a season.

Yes, the next time Nebraska takes the field there will be a new coaching staff in place. But there are still things that can be learned from Nebraska’s performance going forward.

Tommy Armstrong’s Job Isn’t Secure

Armstrong’s stats for the Holiday Bowl were impressive. He was 32-51 (!) for 382 yards, three touchdowns, and one interception, with 41 yards rushing and another touchdown to boot. But those statistics might be a little misleading.

In the first half, USC defenders dropped no less than four sure-fire interceptions. If those picks are made—heck, if even half of those picks are made—the Trojans would have had the opportunity to bury Nebraska in the first half and put a very different shine on the game.

In late-game situations needing a comeback (Michigan State, Iowa, USC), Armstrong has been at his best. But he’s also been hopelessly, dangerously erratic and inaccurate early in games.  Armstrong has earned his season-long 53.3 completion percentage, which is not going to be good enough to win conference titles.

This isn’t to say that Armstrong won’t be the starter. His intangibles are off the charts, and Armstrong does have the experience of a year-and-a-half of starting games. But given the flaws in Armstrong’s game—coupled with the fact that his backup in Johnny Stanton was heavily recruited by incoming head coach Mike Riley when he was at Oregon State—suggest that Armstrong’s game will have to improve if he wants to keep the starting job in 2015.

Nebraska Has The Talent To Hang With USC

Sure, Nebraska was facing a USC squad still feeling the effect of a scholarship limit, and was able to wear the Trojans down in the fourth quarter as a result. But athlete-for-athlete, Nebraska was able to stay with USC throughout the game. The game was not a mismatch, which was reflected in the exciting, down-to-the-wire finale.

Incoming coach Mike Riley has some holes to fill, to be sure. But the cupboard in Lincoln is far from bare.

The Offensive Line Needs Work

It was certainly jarring to see Nebraska throw the ball 51 (!) times against USC in the Holiday Bowl. But given how beat up Nebraska’s offensive line was, the run/pass ratio starts to make a little more sense. Nebraska was down to its third-string center (which, unfortunately, was likely part of yet another ball-to-the-facemask incident at the worst possible time), and the struggles on the offensive line were a big part of why Nebraska’s rushing attack struggled to gain traction.

With an influx of young talent (headlined by guard Tanner Farmer), Nebraska’s offensive line could look radically different in 2015. And with Ameer Abdullah’s graduation, it will have to perform radically better for Nebraska’s offense to have a chance.

De’Mornay Pierson-El Will Be Next Year’s Offensive Star

True freshman receiver De’Mornay Pierson-El made a name for himself on special teams this year, but struggled to make an impact on offense. Pierson-El never had more than four catches in a game prior to the Holiday Bowl, and his fumble against Minnesota did display the dangers of inserting a true freshman into the starting lineup.

Against USC, though, Pierson-El had eight receptions for 102 yards and a touchdown. It was Pierson-El, not Ameer Abdullah, whose number was called on a critical fourth down conversion attempt late in the game. It’s hard to know what Nebraska’s offense will look like next year, with a new coaching staff, uncertainty at quarterback, and the return of Jamal Turner.

But it seems likely that Pierson-El will be one of the primary offensive weapons for Nebraska next season.

The Stormtroopers Are Here To Stay

Surrender whites, they’ve been called. The all-white look has been castigated by traditionalists and believers in superstition as a fashion travesty for Nebraska.

Well, get used to it. Nebraska has gone stormtrooper (white shirt, white pants) three times this season. Even with a new coaching staff, look for this development from the 2014 season to stick around.

Nebraska Football: Burning Questions for the Holiday Bowl

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photo and story by Patrick Runge

Nebraska football fans may have forgotten a bit about the upcoming Holiday Bowl amidst all of the drama, but there are a number of questions to be answered that will tell how NU will perform this post-season. After the firing of Bo Pelini, more questions that normal surround Nebraska as it prepares for the bowl. Here are three of the biggest ones that will help define Nebraska’s performance in San Diego.

What Will Nebraska’s Motivation Be?

Bowl games are always tricky to forecast because of the motivation question. How hard will a group of college kids, nearly a month removed from the regular season and with the holidays in between, really want to work? Will one team be more willing to pay the price in preparation, and therefore have more chance to be successful?

That’s for any bowl game. Add on top of that a popular head coach being fired. Add on top of that the fired coach being 9-3. And add on top of that a farewell speech from the fired 9-3 coach that further stoked the “us-versus-them” mentality that was one of the defining traits of said fired 9-3 coach’s career.

You could imagine almost anything in terms of how Nebraska will show up for the Holiday Bowl. Nebraska could be razor-sharp and wanting to put on the game of its life in honor and support of Bo Pelini and his staff. Nebraska could be completely flat and listless, feeling like their seasons were stolen with Pelini’s firing. Nebraska could come out like wild horses, riding an emotional high, but falling apart at the first sign of trouble.

Each of those scenarios are plausible. Indeed, over the course of Pelini’s career, we’ve seen each of those Nebraska teams take the field. So finding out what Nebraska team comes out of the locker room will be one of the biggest questions to answer in finding out how the Holiday Bowl will play out.

What Will The Game Plan Be?

While Pelini is getting comfortable in Youngstown, the rest of his staff will be preparing Nebraska for the Holiday Bowl. That means that defensive coordinator John Papuchis will be in full charge of the Blackshirts, and offensive coordinator Tim Beck will be able to call the game he wants.

Throw in a month to prepare—and coaches who will be looking to make a good impression for future employers—and Nebraska could look fairly drastically different than it has at any point this year. How effective that will be, of course, will be anyone’s guess.

How Healthy Will Nebraska Be?

Without the coaching change, this one might have been the biggest question to answer coming into the Holiday Bowl. Ameer Abdullah’s status will be the biggest question, of course, as it was his injury during the Purdue game that really changed the course of Nebraska’s season. But Kenny Bell has struggled with injuries all season, as have a number of other Nebraska stars.

With a month to heal, Nebraska will be as healthy as it has been since the start of the season. That will make a significant difference, particularly given the talent level of an opposing team like USC.

Nebraska Football: Pelini’s Last Act One of Selfishness and Childishness

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photo and story by Patrick Runge

Nebraska football fans thought the dismissal of Bo Pelini and the hiring of Mike Riley was the end of a tumultuous relationship between Pelini and the outside world. They thought wrong.

Nebraska football fans heard news of another surreptitious recording of Bo Pelini uttering profanities, this time during his half-hour meeting with the team on Dec. 2 after his firing. A transcript of the recording, obtained by the Omaha World-Herald, said that for “the majority” of that meeting, Pelini complained about Nebraska athletic director Shawn Eichorst.

Or, more accurately, he stood in front of a group of college kids and called Eichorst names.

“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—.”

One of Pelini’s prime complaints about Eichorst was his lack of public support for Pelini.

“I don’t even really know what those guys do. And I said ‘Hey, you know what, if (Eichorst) ain’t gonna do his job, if he doesn’t have the balls to go out there and support me, to support these kids, support this program, then do me a favor and get rid of me.’”

(This was, of course, the same Eichorst that didn’t fire Pelini after his infamous Coach Chickenbleep press conference after the 2013 Iowa loss.)

Of course, this wasn’t the first time Pelini has been stung by a leaked audio. Last year, Deadspin released an audio tape of Pelini angrily berating Nebraska’s “f—ing fair-weather fanbase” after a comeback win over Ohio State.

Perhaps a bit of advice may be in order. If people are referencing a recording of your embarrassing and profanity-laced tirade, and you have to ask which one they are referring to, you’re probably doing something wrong.

In all honesty, there was probably some merit to Pelini’s complaint about a lack of public support from the top brass at the university (although former Nebraska player Scott Shanle did point out how little that should probably matter to the players on Twitter.) And with two separate releases of damaging and embarrassing audio tapes, the conspiracy theorists will have free reign to craft scenarios about Nebraska brass setting bugs to catch Pelini.

At the end of the day, though, that’s not the point.

Pelini is a 47-year-old man. He’s been one of the most influential leaders in the lives of the players on his team, players who just were shell-shocked to learn that their coach had been fired. They’re looking to Pelini for leadership, for guidance on how to handle a traumatic event in their lives.

How does Pelini respond?

He spends “the majority” of the last meeting he will have with his players venting his spleen, airing his grievances, painting himself as the noble hero in the story dragged down by the “f—ing lawyer” and the people Pelini would “rather f—— work at McDonald’s than work with some of those guys.”

No introspection on what Pelini might have done differently. No advice to his players on how to handle the situation other than a perfunctory do-what-you-want suggestion and an admonition to call him.

Nope. Pelini’s team was a captive audience for the final act in this seven-year drama. As a result, perhaps we shouldn’t be so self-righteously stunned that one of those players recorded and leaked the audio of that final act.

Steven M. Sipple of the Lincoln Journal-Star called Pelini’s rant to his players “selfish,” which is the perfect adjective. Sipple went on to defend Pelini in a way, reflecting that the job consumed Pelini, making it impossible for him to continue.

The job consumed Pelini? Or Pelini allowed the job to consume him?

“I have been at LSU, I have been at Oklahoma, I have been to these other places. … The scrutiny, the negativity, it ain’t like that everywhere,” Pelini said to his team.

With all due respect, that’s nonsense. LSU coach Les Miles is under unremittent pressure in Baton Rouge—and he’s won a conference title and a national title. Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops feels the heat in Norman—again, with one more national title ring on his finger than Pelini has.

But, again, that’s beside the point. It doesn’t matter whether Pelini was justified in his complaints about Eichorst and the Nebraska brass. What matters is Pelini—after having more than enough time to marshal his emotions and compose his thoughts—chose to teach his players that the way to handle adversity is by dropping c-bombs about another adult in an ostensibly closed-door setting.

It was the same lesson he taught his players when he swung his hat at the referee during the Iowa loss in 2013. It was the same lesson he taught his players when he called out the “f—ing fair-weather fans” whose devotion paid for his salary and the palatial facilities in which the football team operated. When the going gets tough, just lash out blindly.

Bo Pelini had many good qualities and characteristics. He did a lot of good things for a lot of people, there is little doubt about that.

But when push came to shove, Pelini was incapable of responding to pressure and adversity like an adult.

Nebraska Football: Ranking the 10 Best Cornhuskers from the 2014 Season

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photo and story by Patrick Runge

Nebraska football fans can finally take a breath and look back at the 2014 season, taking stock of who the Cornhuskers’ best players were last year. A coaching change, followed with an out-of-left-field hire, can make fans ready to turn the page pretty quickly to 2015 and the Mike Riley era in Lincoln.

But it’s far too soon for that. As Nebraska prepares for its bowl game against USC, let’s take a look back at who the ten best players were for NU in 2014.

No. 10: Tommy Armstrong Jr.

Of all the players on the roster, Armstrong is probably the hardest to rate. His numbers still aren’t fantastic—a 51.7 percent completion rate and a 19/11 touchdown-to-interception ratio are not going to win any conference titles.

But Armstrong also showed his leadership throughout the season, coming back from injury against Michigan State and holding the team together offensively after the injury to Ameer Abdullah. His toughness and intangibles have to be credited, even if his statistical deliverables have fallen short this year.

No. 9: Jordan Westerkamp

Westerkamp had a number of games where he was simply a non-factor, although much of that was due to the overall struggles of Nebraska’s offense. But Westerkamp was Nebraska’s most reliable receiver throughout the season, leading the team in receptions and second in yards per game.

Oh, and he also had a catch that was pretty good.

No. 8: Vincent Valentine

Nebraska’s strength in 2014 was certainly its defensive line, and a big part of that was the performance of Valentine. His size (six-foot-three, 320 pounds) makes him a force in the middle, and his development in terms of handing offensive linemen (and therefore freeing up linebackers to make plays) and in making tackles (39 overall) made him a big cog in Nebraska’s defensive performance.

No. 7: Kenny Bell

When Bell is healthy, he was Nebraska’s most dangerous down-field threat. His absence was certainly felt in East Lansing, as Nebraska’s offense evaporated after Bell’s injury removed any deep play threat. Conversely, Bell put Nebraska on his back in Iowa City, making play after play before catching the game winner in overtime.

It will be quite a start for Nebraska fans not to see no. 80 lining up on the outside next season (or see the ‘fro on the sidelines).

No. 6: Nathan Gerry

Going into the 2014 season, many assumed that Nebraska would have a solid performer at safety in Corey Cooper, with Gerry and LeRoy Alexander fighting for the alternate safety spot. Well, it turns out that Nebraska did have a solid performer at safety—Gerry.

After leading the team in interceptions and being second in tackles, an argument could be made that Gerry was Nebraska’s defensive MVP. At the very least, he is one of the shining lights for the Blackshirts coming into 2015.

No. 5: Maliek Collins

While Vincent Valentine made steps in the middle of Nebraska’s defensive line stopping things up, Collins got things going in opposing backfields. Finishing the season second in sacks, Collins became a disruptive force up the middle in the second half of the season. With teams focused on slowing down Nebraska’s defensive ends (particularly Randy Gregory), Collins’ ability to get penetration up the middle made a huge difference in NU’s defensive performances.

No. 4: Zaire Anderson

In general, Nebraska’s linebackers were a disappointment. While NU has a wealth of young talent at linebacker, that talent never really developed or matured to a point where it could effectively contribute.

The one exception to that rule was Anderson, who led the team in tackles with 95 total. Throughout the season, Anderson made crucial stops and provided a measure of consistency in the middle of Nebraska’s defense that was sorely needed.

No. 3: Randy Gregory

It might be a measure of Gregory’s greatness that it seemed like his season wasn’t the tour de force we had anticipated, even though he led the team in sacks, was third in tackles for loss, and sixth in tackles overall.

Gregory’s speed and length was a disruptive force for Nebraska’s defense throughout the 2014 season. Assuming Gregory does not return for his senior season, the Blackshirts will have some big shoes to fill next year.

No. 2: De’Mornay Pierson-El

How many games can a punt returner affect? Against Michigan State, Pierson-El’s return gave Nebraska a fighting chance after being dominated most of the game. Against Northwestern, the fear of Pierson-El gave Nebraska such good field position that NU was able to wear the Wildcats down. And against Iowa, a game that looked to be slipping away was turned by two long punt returns keying Nebraska’s comeback.

Pierson-El worked his way into the starting lineup as a wide receiver, although he was curiously absent from the offensive game plans after Ameer Abdullah’s injury. Regardless, though, Nebraska’s clear breakout star of 2014 should provide fans with a lot to look forward to next season.

No. 1: Ameer Abdullah

Nebraska’s season turned on a botched snap early in the game against Purdue. In diving for the loose ball, Abdullah was hurt and was never the same. Nebraska’s offense never recovered, and its offensive ineptitude helped fuel Wisconsin’s mauling of the Blackshirts, as well as Minnesota’s bare-knuckle victory in Lincoln.

Contrast that with Nebraska’s 41-31 win against Miami, where Abdullah ran like a man possessed, notching 229 yards and two touchdowns in NU’s most impressive and complete performance of the season.

Even more than Rex Burkhead’s injury in 2012, Abdullah’s loss at the end of 2014 presents a painful “what if” moment for Nebraska fans wondering how the season would have transpired with a healthy Abdullah in the backfield.

Nebraska Football: Many Husker Fans’ Complaints About Mike Riley Hire Misguided

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photo and story by Patrick Runge

Nebraska football fans were floored by the announcement that athletic director Shawn Eichorst had hired Oregon State’s Mike Riley to be NU’s new head coach. Riley, who had coached the Beavers for twelve of the last fourteen years (with an unsuccessful stint as head coach of the San Diego Chargers in the interim) was a surprise to everyone, and that surprise did not sit well with some Nebraska fans (as recounted by Hail Varsity).

Of course, fans are emotional, and some of those fans reacted without putting a lot of thought into their criticism. Here’s why some of the most common complaints were off base.

We shoulda hired Scott Frost!

Of all the negative reactions to Riley’s hiring, this was probably the most common. And sure, the story is compelling.

A championship-winning Nebraska quarterback, coming home to take the program back to its glory days. He’s one of us! He gets what it means at Nebraska!

Stop. I mean really, just stop. Frost, in his second year as offensive coordinator at Oregon, is a promising young coach with what looks to be a bright future ahead of him.

Does that sound at all familiar? Nebraska hires a young coach, a talented coordinator with no head coaching experience, to take over one of the most storied programs in college football.

Haven’t we seen this movie, and know how it ends?

That’s not to say Frost isn’t a good coach, and won’t perhaps someday be a great head coach. But Nebraska just went through seven years of giving an untested rookie on-the-job training on the sidelines in Lincoln.

Plus, how many other programs were looking to hire Frost as a head coach this season? If your answer was “none,” then you win the prize.

It’s understandable for Nebraska fans worried about an uncertain future to reach out for something familiar. But with all the risk involved with making a coaching change, allowing sentiment to drive the decision would be a dreadful mistake.

His record is worse than Pelini’s!

In Pelini’s seven years at Nebraska, his teams went 66-27. Under Riley during the same time period, his teams went 46-42. Overall, Riley is 96-80 as a collegiate head coach.

See! Pelini’s way better than Riley! Pelini’s never won fewer than nine games, something Riley’s only done once since 2009. Why did we fire Pelini to get this guy?

Yes, Pelini has never won fewer than nine games (or lost fewer than four games) in his career. At Nebraska. And Riley has done what he’s done at Oregon State.

Put simply, Oregon State isn’t Nebraska. Before Riley arrived in Corvallis, the Beavers had won nine games in a season twice—once in 1939, and again in 1962. Oregon State hadn’t had a winning record since 1970, and had only won a total of 14 games in the seven years before Riley took the job.

Oregon State is a tiny college town in northern Oregon, dwarfed in stature and resources by the school in Eugene that is funded to the hilt by Phil Knight, CEO of Nike. And yet Riley has consistently won there, at a level far exceeding what the school’s size, prestige, and resource level would dictate.

Want an analogy that is a little more familiar, Husker fan? Oregon State is a lot like Iowa State—if Iowa had a blank check with a swoosh on it to build facilities. If a coach was able to do in Ames what Riley did in Corvallis, wouldn’t you be intrigued by the prospect of what he could do in Lincoln?

It’s time to get over the “nine-win” thing, Husker fans.

He’s never won anything!

OK, fine, you say. Winning nine games isn’t a big deal if it doesn’t come with a championship at the end. And as a smart and particularly handsome analyst observed, Eichorst made a bold statement that playing for championships is the standard for NU, nothing less.

I thought Eichorst said championships were the standard! How can we hire a coach that hasn’t won anything more than Pelini has?

Riley has never won a conference title at Oregon State. He’s been close, and Dennis Erickson took Riley’s players (including Chad later-to-be-Ochocinco Johnson and T.J. Houshmandzadeh, you may have heard of them) to an 11-1 season and a Fiesta Bowl win in 2000.

So yes, Riley hasn’t won a championship at Oregon State. We’ve discussed already how winning titles at Oregon State is a much harder task than winning them at Nebraska.

But Eichorst also talked about the importance of Nebraska competing in the “games that matter,” something Nebraska was notoriously bad at under Pelini. How do Pelini and Riley compare in that category?

Well, let’s take a look at games against top-15 opponents, which is a fair estimation of Eichorst’s “championship-caliber” teams. In the last seven years, Pelini has notched wins over no. 7 Missouri (2010) and no. 9 Michigan State (2011). In that same time period, Riley has wins over no. 1 USC (2008), no. 2 Cal (2007), no. 9 Arizona (2010), no. 13 Wisconsin (2012, the same year the Badgers beat Nebraska 70-31), and no. 6 Arizona State (2014).

None of Pelini’s wins come close to Riley’s teams knocking off the no. 1 and no. 2 teams in the country. Heck, a pretty good argument could be made that none of Pelini’s wins are better than Riley’s squad this year taking no. 6 Arizona State out of playoff contention.

So are you saying Nebraska’s a lock for the playoff next year?

Of course not. Riley is far from a guaranteed success in Lincoln. With Nebraska opening against BYU, its toughest lid-lifter in a decade, it’s possible Riley could start his scarlet-and-cream career at 0-1.

Next season, Pelini’s defenders and those inclined to snark will be quick to pounce if Nebraska wins fewer than nine games. Is that expectation fair? Probably not, but it’s what Riley will have to deal with as he starts his career in Lincoln.

But the ultimate question is this. Does Nebraska have a better chance to win a conference title in the near future by making a change and hiring Riley, or by keeping Pelini and maintaining the status quo?

Eichorst made it crystal clear on which side of that question he came down. And while there will be many doubts raised about the move in the coming months, as the inevitable challenges hit Riley and his new staff in Lincoln, hopefully calmer and more rational minds can set aside those challenges that are less well thought out.

Nebraska Football: Eichorst Sets Bar For Huskers At Championship Level By Firing Pelini

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photo and story by Patrick Runge

Is that good enough?

Ultimately, that was the question Nebraska athletic director Shawn Eichorst answered on Sunday when he announced the firing of seventh-year head football coach Bo Pelini.  In his tenure, Pelini was 67-27, never winning fewer than nine games, with no major scandals and a great graduation rate.

Is that good enough?

Under Pelini, Nebraska had never missed a bowl game.

Is that good enough?

In Pelini’s seven years, only Alabama had won more games than Nebraska.

Is that good enough?

Implicit in the question is the level to which Nebraska to be as a football program. If consistently appearing in bowl games, winning nine games, and doing right by your kids is good enough, then Pelini’s performance was certainly good enough.

But Eichorst, in his comments about Pelini’s firing, pushed all the scarlet and cream chips into the center of the table.

“We just, for whatever reason, weren’t good enough in the games that mattered against championship quality and caliber opponents. I didn’t see that changing at the end of the day… Although we won a bunch of games, we didn’t win the games that mattered the most.”

There’s no doubts left in that statement, is there? At Nebraska, the standard is championships. Anything less isn’t good enough.

To say out loud that some games matter—and by implication, admit that some games don’t—is a pretty stunning thing to hear from an athletic director. It’s a huge act of confidence—or hubris—for Eichorst to say that Nebraska is the type of program that defines itself by trophies in the cabinet, not complied wins against the Average Joes of college football.

In other words, wins over middle-of-the-road programs are expected at Nebraska, and success is defined by wins over championship-caliber opponents.

That’s a high bar to set, a brave standard to hold your program. But, for most Nebraska fans, it’s an eloquent and powerful statement of how they view their team.

In terms of resources and local talent pools, there isn’t a direct comparison of Nebraska with schools like Ohio State, Michigan, Florida, and other similarly situated programs. But let’s consider how Nebraska has competed with its comparable rivals.

Wisconsin and Nebraska have similar challenges when it comes to recruiting bases and allures to athletes from warm-weather climates. Under Pelini, Nebraska was 1-3 against the Badgers. In the last two meetings, Wisconsin outscored Nebraska 129-55, surrendering 1100 yards of rushing offense.

Nebraska is 1-3 against Michigan State, another program with comparable recruiting challenges. Nebraska has dropped two straight to Minnesota, a program over which Nebraska enjoys significant advantages in terms of resources.

That’s not good enough. Eichorst said so on Sunday. And almost every Nebraska fan would acknowledge the hard truth of that assessment.

Heck, Nebraska was 1-1 in the last two meetings against Iowa, needing overtime and a miracle comeback to get a win last Friday. And we heard from Eichorst how much stock he put into the win over Iowa.

“I am trying to look at who are championship level football teams in that moment. How competitive were we in those games. We were not playing for a conference championship and neither was Iowa. And I have great respect to Iowa, it is a wonderful institution, and a great football program. But in the final analysis, there record was where it was and our record was where it was.”

Iowa is, in many ways, very similar to Nebraska. Same locale. Same climate. Same lack of local recruiting talent.

The Hawkeyes under Kirk Ferentz have (for the most part) gone to bowl games, graduated their players, and enjoyed a program free from scandal. Is that good enough?

For Iowa fans, ultimately, the answer is yes. Some of that may be due to the monstrous buy-out clause Ferentz negotiated, making his termination far more expensive than the $7.65 million it will cost Nebraska to dismiss Pelini (as reported by the Omaha World-Herald).

But more importantly, the majority of Iowa’s fan base is willing to accept the Hawkeyes’ performance under Ferentz. It’s good enough to keep filling (mostly) the stands in Kinnick Stadium, buying black-and-gold merchandise, and following the team to its bowl destination.

On Sunday, Eichorst made a statement—and a gamble—that Nebraska fans do not accept Pelini’s performance as good enough.

It’s a gamble because the hiring process could go bad. Nebraska fans have seen that movie, in 2003, when the coaching search descended into farce. (Houston Nutt, fer cryin’ out loud?) And the hire itself could be a flop—some guy whose name rhymes with Cill Ballahan demonstrated the damage the wrong guy for a program can do in a few short years.

Eichorst has put his neck on the chopping block with this move. He’s risking his job by making a bold statement about the type of program Nebraska is, and should be, in the college football world.

Pelini is a good man, and a good coach. The near-universal support he is receiving from current and former players is testament to what he did for them during their time at Nebraska. His ability to take on the cultural disaster that was Nebraska after Callahan speaks to his skill as a coach.

But so does his record against championship-level competition—in Eichorst’s words, the “games that matter.” Nebraska failed to win a conference championship in seven years under Pelini’s leadership.

On Sunday, Eichorst said out loud and with authority what most Nebraska fans believe.

That’s not good enough.

All quotes from the Omaha World-Herald.

Nebraska Football: Pelini’s Progress at Nebraska Little Different Than Callahan’s

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photo and story by Patrick Runge

Nebraska football fans know that seasons—and careers—turn on fine margins. Even coming off a number of bad losses, Nebraska was still just a few plays away from making that next step. One play going the wrong way in a championship game, keeping Nebraska from finally winning that elusive conference title.  A fumble by a wide receiver at the end of a critical game costing Nebraska a much-needed win. If both of those plays go the other way, the status of the Nebraska program looks very different.

Boy, that Bill Callahan guy was close, wasn’t he?

I know, the opening of this column sounds like Bo Pelini’s near-misses, against Texas (and Oklahoma, really) in the Big 12 title game, and last week’s loss to Minnesota. But Callahan, the man who has become a cartoon villain amongst many Nebraska fans, has a resume that looks eerily similar.

Conference title near-miss? In 2006, Nebraska faced Oklahoma for the Big 12 title. Midway through the third quarter, the score was tied 14-14 and Nebraska had Oklahoma in a third-and-long inside its own five yard line. With the statistical advantage on both offense and defense, a stop for the Blackshirts on that play gives NU the ball with great field position, momentum, and a clear chance to get the conference title monkey off its back. A win in that game puts Nebraska back on the map in Callahan’s third season, potentially changing the trajectory of the program. A stop on that third down goes a long way towards that win.

Instead, Paul Thompson hits Jermel Greshman for a 35-yard completion and converts the first down. The Sooners end up with a 99-yard touchdown drive and squeeze the life out of Nebraska, 21-7.

A late-game wide receiver turnover costing Nebraska a much-needed win? Look back to 2006 again, when Nebraska faced no. 5 Texas. With 2:23 left in the game, Nebraska held a 20-19 lead and had the ball, looking to get its first win over the Longhorns since 1999. But Terrence Nunn, after hauling in a Zac Taylor pass, lost a fumble to Texas’ Aaron Ross.

Texas drove the short field for a field goal, and Nebraska’s last-second comeback fell short, leaving NU once again coming oh-so-close to a huge win.

Of course, the analogies aren’t perfect. Pelini’s loss to Texas in 2009 was probably closer to glory than Callahan’s loss to Oklahoma in 2006. Pelini’s loss to Minnesota this year is almost certainly worse than Callahan’s loss to the no. 5 rated Longhorns in 2006.

Most importantly, Pelini is not Callahan—although his “I haven’t forgotten how to defend the run” quote after the 2011 win over Wisconsin (from Huskers.com) might hang around his neck in the same way Callahan’s “I’m doing an excellent job in every area” quote did in 2007 (from the Lincoln Journal-Star). Pelini has never missed a bowl game—indeed, he’s never won fewer than nine games in a season. Up until last week, he had not lost consecutive conference games since 2009.

The point is that football seasons turn on fine margins. We remember Callahan’s four years at the helm in Lincoln as an unmitigated disaster. And, given how the 2007 season ended, there’s good reason to look back in horror at what unfurled under his leadership.

But the smoke from the blazing hulk of the 2007 can obscure how close Callahan came to turning the metaphorical corner at Nebraska. Much like Pelini, Callahan was fingertips (literally, with Nunn’s fumble) away from a career-defining moment.

The fact remains, though, that those moments never happened, that corner never got turned. Being close to greatness isn’t greatness, just as being part of an entourage doesn’t make you a star.

Callahan had four years of getting close before a seven-loss season (along with near-universal loathing for his boss, former athletic director Steve Pederson) cost him his job. Pelini has had seven years. He’s had the same agonizingly-close brushes with glory as Callahan—along with the hide-the-children debacles on national television.

What Pelini hasn’t had is a seven-loss disaster like Callahan did in 2007. Whether that’s enough to keep him for year eight is up to current athletic director Shawn Eichorst.

Nebraska Football: Fans Should Be Thankful For Clarity Provided by Minnesota Loss

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photo and story by Patrick Runge

With the Thanksgiving holiday approaching, Nebraska fans will be looking hard for something about which to be thankful. In the course of seven days, Nebraska fans saw their Cornhuskers go from an 8-1 team on the periphery of the College Football Playoff to (at best) the third-best team in the Big Ten West. In the process, Nebraska fans saw Wisconsin running back Melvin Gordon set the FBS all-time record for rushing yards in one game—needing only three quarters to do so—and saw less-than-fleet Minnesota quarterback Mitch Leidner gash the Blackshirts for 133 yards on the ground.

So what can Nebraska fans be thankful for as they sit down to their turkey and trimmings?

Clarity.

Think about what would have happened if Jordan Westerkamp had hauled in Tommy Armstrong’s across-the-field throw for a touchdown to salvage an ugly win against the Gophers. Nebraska would have gone to Iowa City at 9-2, with a chance to win the B1G West with help. The struggles of 2014 would have been seen as a blip, rather than evidence of the program’s level.

Yes, the struggles of 2014, not just the past week. Remember, this is the same Nebraska squad that needed a miracle play from Ameer Abdullah to avoid defeat at home against FCS McNeese State. The same Nebraska squad that was down 27-3 against Michigan State going into the fourth quarter, before staging a furious comeback—fueled by a punt return and a short drive led by backup quarterback Ryker Fife.

A win over Minnesota on Saturday—driven by a broken play, a blocked field goal, and a last-minute touchdown drive—would have allowed Nebraska to paper over the cracks for another year, allowed fans to tell themselves their team was something it was not.  A contender.

In seven years, Bo Pelini’s Nebraska teams have been to three conference title games. In 2009, an Ndamukong-Suh led Nebraska squad was one second away from beating Texas. In 2010, a freshman Taylor Martinez threw an interception that likely turned the tide in Oklahoma’s 20-13 victory.

And in 2012—well, Nebraska fans all remember what a 7-5 Wisconsin squad who finished third in the Leaders Division and went to Indianapolis only due to sanctions levied against Ohio State and Penn State did to that crew of Cornhuskers.

Two years removed from that title game, and Nebraska is on track (if oddsmakers are to be believed) for Pelini’s seventh four-loss regular season in seven seasons.

As a smart and particularly handsome analyst noted after Wisconsin’s 59-24 mauling of Nebraska in Madison, a Nebraska program ending the season at 10-2 or 9-3 would be hard-pressed to dismiss Pelini, even though that record really would not be indicative of whether Nebraska was a contender to win a division title.  The record would mask the true state of the program under Pelini at the end of the 2014 season.

But with a loss to Minnesota, the second loss on the bounce against the Gophers? With the oddsmakers favoring Nebraska to drop a second straight to Iowa, producing this year’s version of a four-loss season with a three-game losing streak?

Clarity. The loss to Minnesota provides clarity to anyone observing the Nebraska program as to what it is.

The question about what to do, of course, is open. Pelini thinks his program is on the right track, and on the verge of a breakthrough season. Pelini takes care of his players, runs a clean program, and gets his teams to bowl games each year. His quote after the Wisconsin game that “[a] lot of programs across the country would die to have won the amount of games we’ve won” (from Huskers.com) is accurate.

Of course, most programs around the country don’t have the investment in football, the tradition, resources, or fan base support Nebraska provides, but that’s another story.

The bottom line is that there are a lot of good reasons to retain Pelini’s services as Nebraska’s head coach, either positive (his winning record, his recruiting, the program he runs) or negative (the cost of a firing, the trauma to the fanbase, and the fear of the unknown with a new coach).

But at least after the Minnesota loss, those pros and cons can be debated by the Nebraska fan base—and ultimately by athletic director Shawn Eichorst—with a clear perspective as to where Nebraska’s football program currently lies, without a deceptive and unrepresentative win-loss record concealing the blemishes.

Clarity. If you’re looking for something to be thankful for about Nebraska football this holiday season, be thankful for clarity.