LINCOLN — Mike Riley advanced the story Sunday. The Nebraska coach admitted that this 9-3 season had its major warts, starting with shoddy special teams. Riley fired a career-long loyalist, Bruce Read, to prove it.
Read worked under Riley for 16 years. That firing must not have been easy, but Riley didn’t dawdle.
His urgency underlines the alarming nature of NU’s 40-10 loss to Iowa. It’s different when it’s Iowa. Over 48 hours, feedback I’ve received from fans — including the “silent majority” types who aren’t prone to barking at every little mistake — suggests worry and a little dismay.
Where is the team from a month ago that fought its tail off at Wisconsin? How do Iowa’s two-star skill guys look fresher and faster than Nebraska’s three-star skill guys? Why does Nebraska keep throwing all those deep passes? Why is there no one to tackle Iowa’s running backs?
That’s the vibe I got. Not an “it’s over” vibe — not 2007 Oklahoma State or 2014 Wisconsin — but something closer to the 2012 Big Ten championship. More of a “whoa.”
Almost all fans who reach out to me don’t want to relitigate the firings of Frank Solich and Bo Pelini, even if a few media opportunists not-so-subtly do so for clicks. Riley is amiable enough for most fans. They’d just as soon he won, coached teams that played physical football, and didn’t get kicked around.
The Wisconsin game, people could handle. The Iowa game, not so much.
The Huskers squeezed nine wins out of a very manageable schedule and tried, with their usual duct-tape-it-together formula on offense, to squeeze a 10th. Had NU won Friday, Riley would have pulled off something close to a coup: 10 wins in a season filled with adversity, with an offense that labors to crack an egg, smelly special teams and nine walk-ons with scholarships.
Instead, Nebraska played like a Thanksgiving movie you thought might be good — or at least entertaining — only to land with a thud in the opening reel and never get much better. Even the decent actors turned in average performances, and the lead was cast against type and didn’t work in his role. The director needs better material, but he also tried to make magic one too many times with the same script.
Riley may have lost a little bit of the fan mandate in his quest to make Nebraska football great again. But what he lost with the masses he may have gained with his staff and players.
The 40-10 loss allows Riley to make big changes, while using that three-hour debacle in Iowa City as a reason.
» It gave him immediate cause to fire Read, who didn’t do a good enough job communicating with his players.
» It allows Riley to make Iowa a full-fledged rival, which I think he’d like to do and I think would be good for Nebraska’s players.
» It allows him the freedom to examine defensive coordinator Mark Banker’s run defense, which has given up 24 runs of at least 30 yards since he arrived.
» It allows him to address the assistants recruitniks believe are his best recruiters — Keith Williams and Brian Stewart — and exhort them to finish strong.
» Finally, it allows him to hit a big reset button on the offense. He could hit it as soon as bowl preparation, if he likes. He has to examine all the parts, too. Philosophy. Coaches. Players. Quarterback.
Nebraska’s offense succeeded in limiting its giveaways this season. Offensive coordinator Danny Langsdorf said Friday that Nebraska made “big strides” there.
But NU is averaging 60 fewer yards and six fewer points than it did last year.
That’s a regression. You saw the flaws in August and they carried over. Injuries hit the unit, sure. But they hit every offense.
NU slimmed down its playbook to suit quarterback Tommy Armstrong, who, other than throwing fewer interceptions, didn’t statistically improve as a passer. He has a lower passer rating than he did in three previous seasons at Nebraska. His completion rate — 51.3 percent — is lower than in any of those previous seasons.
Against Iowa, Armstrong was bound to the pocket because of a strained hamstring. He had good protection from his offensive line. He completed 13 of 35 passes and didn’t hit one of those deep down-the-sideline passes that Langsdorf almost insists NU must complete for the offense to function.
Nothing else is seemingly possible. Not a Wildcat series. Not a trick play. Not a new running play saved just for Iowa.
“You’ve got to be able to hit some of those, just to loosen them up,” Langsdorf said.
The result: five second-half possessions that lasted less than two minutes, including two possessions that lasted 40 and 54 seconds. Nebraska had seven plays in the fourth quarter. One of them technically didn’t count — it was an Iowa pass-interference penalty that drew 15 yards. The other six plays — all passes — lost a cumulative 7 yards.
NU called 21 passes in the second half. Eight runs. And remember: Nebraska isn’t as sophisticated passing this year as it was last year.
It’s a good thing Nebraska’s defense made Iowa run 25 plays — and convert three fourth downs — to score its last two touchdowns. Otherwise, it might have been really ugly.
The whole setup on offense seems passive-aggressive, so much like one of those congressional bills where politicians try to serve 12 special interests, little gets accomplished and no one — especially the voters — is particularly happy.
Langsdorf is a good poker player with his public comments.
“I think we’re still striving for more explosive plays,” Langsdorf said when I asked him for a season assessment. “That’s a big part of winning the game. I think we were more comfortable and further along in a lot of areas. I don’t think we’re close to where we want to be in terms of the consistency level, both in the run game and in completing passes. We’ve got work to do there.”
Yes, they do. This year, NU turned in two of its three worst offensive games in the Big Ten era. Next year, it has to find new wideouts, new tight ends, a new No. 1 running back and a much better offensive line. It has to do all that while breaking in a new quarterback.
Most fans figure it’ll be Tulane transfer Tanner Lee who resurrects the offense. That’s a lot to expect from him. It might help if Nebraska started developing the offense now instead of the spring. But that would mean risking a loss in the bowl game or perhaps having to decide which fifth-year quarterback is best fit to run it.
Those are uncomfortable choices. If NU gets the right bowl opponent — Florida — maybe it can just slog along and win a 17-16 game. Otherwise, this offense — even with a month to get healthy — risks a loss and delays the inevitable switch to something else.
Riley didn’t wait to fire Read. How long does he wait to inject his offense with some life?
On with the Rewind.
I see you
» Linebacker Michael Rose-Ivey: Finished with 10 tackles. Played hard in his final road game.
» Wideout Jordan Westerkamp: Can’t fault him for much. Caught four passes for 50 yards and took a few wicked hits.
» Wideout Brandon Reilly: He won his matchups downfield against Iowa corners. Armstrong couldn’t find him.
» Iowa running back Akrum Wadley: Two-star, no-name recruit from Newark, New Jersey, looked like the most explosive athlete on the field.
» Iowa’s linebackers: Josey Jewell, Bo Bower and Ben Niemann all had their moments. Jewell, with three pass breakups, was all over the place. They’re good.
» Iowa punter Ron Coluzzi: That guy was a stud. He averaged 41.2 yards on punts and put three inside the Husker 20. De’Mornay Pierson-El had three returns for a measly 8 yards.
» 18-14: Nebraska’s record against current Big Ten West division foes since joining the league. That’s a 56.25 percent winning rate, which translates to 3-3 and 4-2 each year. Nebraska will have to do better. NU’s records by opponent: Wisconsin (1-5); Iowa (3-3); Northwestern (4-2); Minnesota (4-2); Illinois (3-1); and Purdue (3-1). Take out Riley’s first year (1-5) and NU’s record is 17-9, which is a 65.4 winning rate, which is roughly what NU had this year at 4-2. Still not enough to win the West. These divisional teams are Nebraska’s peers. If it doesn’t beat those teams, it can’t even bother with the league crown.
» 26.8: Nebraska’s points per game this season. Short of a rare explosion of points, that’ll be NU’s lowest average since 2009 (25.1), when you might recall Nebraska had a slightly better defense than the one it has now. This offense, with its injuries and iffy quarterback play, is similar to that offense, which had the same, save for one thing: That offense, after the 9-7 disaster loss to Iowa State, knew exactly what it was. It also had a great kicker, punter and punt returner. Nebraska also finished 9-3 in the regular season precisely because that offense was such a dumpster fire. You felt better about that 9-3, of course.
» 50: Games Nebraska has played as a member of the Big Ten. It is 31-19 but has a per-game point differential of plus-1.46. You can chalk that up to eight losses of 20 points or more — three at the hands of Wisconsin, two to Iowa.
» 32.52: Nebraska’s net yards per punt average, which ranks second-to-last nationally — ahead of Rutgers, which has punted 36 more times. NU is 106th in yards allowed per punt return (11.15) and tied for 91st in yards allowed per kickoff return (21.91). Iowa’s average field position in Friday’s game was its own 40, 19 yards better than Nebraska (21). It was a major factor in the second half, when NU’s defense stiffened up.
» 13: Rushes of more than 30 yards allowed by Nebraska’s defense. That ranks 105th nationally. NU was hot and cold as a run defense all season. The Huskers held five opponents under 100 yards rushing and four teams gained more than 200 yards. NU allowed 4.28 yards per carry, which ranked 10th in the Big Ten. Teams that stuck with the run — Wisconsin and Iowa — were rewarded for it. The idea that the Badgers didn’t run the ball well on NU is inaccurate; Wisconsin ran for 223 yards and 5.87 yards per carry. That’s a good day. That’s Wisconsin’s highest yards-per-carry day all season.
After some games, I ask fans for their feedback. Selected and edited responses follow.
“Nebraska needs to develop a punishing run game and junk this finesse crap. Either that or get a coach that understands that a punishing run game wins football games.” — Tom Funk
“ Practice soft ... play soft. This is a beat-up team so I assume practice reflects that with little contact. Plus throw in a Armstrong that was not practicing full speed contributes to being off with receivers. Defense has no excuses outside of not being challenged in practice.” — Vern Montgomery
“NU did not seem prepared at all. Have our special teams ever been worse? Could the spot on the staff used as special teams coach be better used elsewhere?” — Greg Smith
“Don’t have the horses up front and severe lack of attitude all around. Very alarming that defense and special teams can’t make stops. Basic things like tackling are a huge deficiency. Should be able to keep a bland offense like Iowa under control.” — Chad Hank
“I’ve never paid $450,000 for anything in my life. But if I did, I would expect a lot more.” — Mike Chapman
“I could talk about what has not worked but I’d run out of space. No one gets a mulligan. It’s pretty simple: Iowa had way more desire. And to me that is unacceptable.” — Vince D’Adamo
Getting cold. Winter is coming.