McKewon: Mike Riley faces difficult choices with struggling Husker offense

Nebraska's offense averaged 323.5 yards and 20 points per game after the bye week. That’s a warning sign that Husker coach Mike Riley should notice.

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Just after Tennessee scored its first touchdown of the Music City Bowl, Nebraska offensive coordinator Danny Langsdorf tried, again, to run the football.

To that point, he’d called 11 runs to six passes, and four of the passes had come on third down and 8, 10, 13 and 14 yards. You get the idea. The OC was making an effort.

So on first down from the NU 25, Langsdorf sends three tight ends onto the field — all to the left side of the formation. Jumbo! And the play calls for left guard Jerald Foster to pull to his left as a kind of escort for Terrell Newby. It’s a pretty nice looking play, save for the fact that nobody blocks UT defensive tackle Kendal Vickers, who lines up near center Dylan Utter. Utter blocks to the right, Foster pulls — and no one gets Vickers. He’s just left to run right to Newby, who evades Vickers before he’s tackled by another Vol for a 1-yard loss.

“You can’t live like that,” Langsdorf said after the game. “It’s one thing to have a safety down in the box and tackle you for 4-yard gain, but when you’re getting hit for (negative yards) when you don’t have a defensive tackle blocked, it’s not very good.”

If you’d watched Tennessee’s offense at all this season — and you had a sense of where Nebraska’s defense had struggled at times this year — you knew UT would move the ball and score on these Huskers, especially with safety Nate Gerry being suspended for his final game. Tennessee’s athletes were flat-out better than Nebraska’s, and though NU’s tackling wasn’t very good Friday, UT’s skill, speed and moves had something to do with that. I try to be realistic in the Rewind. Defensive coordinator Mark Banker’s scheme is imperfect. He called too many pressures that didn’t get home and left the secondary more exposed. Still, the Blackshirts need better players. They need a four-man pass rush every so often.

But Nebraska’s offense — even accounting for the absence of Tommy Armstrong and Jordan Westerkamp — struggled in the 38-24 loss to the Volunteers. Were it not for quarterback Ryker Fyfe and wideout Brandon Reilly teaming up to make three great plays — and one well-designed and executed run by Devine Ozigbo — Nebraska’s attack would have been sunk again. And that’s because the Huskers couldn’t run the ball and couldn’t block for Fyfe. Robbed of the quarterback-run element, NU tried to line up and mash a Tennessee defense that gives up lots of run yards, and NU couldn’t do that. Did it just fine last year against UCLA. No such progress Friday. Three tight ends out there — none of whom returns for next season — and somebody forgot to block the defensive tackle.

It leaves coach Mike Riley with hard choices in the offseason. Harder than when he fired Hank Hughes or even Bruce Read, a longtime loyalist whose special teams units vastly underperformed.

It’s harder because offense is what Riley does. He’s an expert there. He could write three books on it, I’m sure.

Riley has to choose whether to stay the full course with his system — huddling up, shuttling personnel groups into the game that defenses can match, recruiting wideouts like NU’s on a shopping spree without spending much time on running backs, hard-to-execute and slow-developing screen passes — or consider, late in his career, at the job with all the resources and support he ever wanted, doing something different. Perhaps a lot different. Perhaps a little. Perhaps a little Wildcat to break up the monotony of the run game. Perhaps some real tempo to get defenses on their heels more.

To keep this offense status quo puts a ton of pressure in three places:

» Recruiting some superstars in the last month of the 2017 cycle, who then have to be solid contributors from the start.

» Offensive line coach Mike Cavanaugh, who will have four returning starters, four redshirt freshmen who can play, three more sophomores who want to play, and yet a philosophy that suggests only five of them — for the sake of chemistry — should play significant snaps unless one gets hurt.

» Junior quarterback Tanner Lee, who is clearly the favorite to run the team in 2017.

Maybe Nebraska lands those star players, and they’re that good right away. And maybe Cavanaugh’s “five” form the best line he’s ever coached. Maybe Lee is NFL caliber. It could all happen.

But Riley could also get caught waiting too long to make important tweaks.

His three predecessors at Nebraska did.

» Because Heisman Trophy winner Eric Crouch’s brilliance covered a multitude of weaknesses, Frank Solich waited one year too long to fix flaws in NU’s defense and far too long to alter his recruiting operation. The first choice produced the 2002 season, and the second error produced the 2003 offense, which averaged an anemic 345 yards per game.

» Bill Callahan should have told buddy Kevin Cosgrove to take that job with the Vikings in January 2006; Cosgrove had shown little evidence, up to that point, that he could figure out how to stop speedy Big 12 spread offenses. Cosgrove’s defense in 2006 — flush with seniors and heft — did fine, but the 2007 defense cratered. Callahan lost his job.

» Bo Pelini had to know, after the 2012 Big Ten championship game, that his staff and his defensive scheme needed upgrades. Pelini had made a hard choice on offense — moving to an up-tempo spread-run offense, a choice that, while imperfect, ultimately saved NU’s bacon more than once — but he couldn’t make the same hard choices on defense, where his staff was far too much of an echo chamber. Among other things, it cost him his job.

Now, it’s Riley. After NU gained 66 fewer yards per game — that’s a whole touchdown drive! — he has the same hard choice.

Nebraska averaged 323.5 yards and 20 points per game after the bye week. That’s a warning sign.

Big Ten defenses have already begun to go to school on Riley’s scheme. You give these coordinators another offseason — and you take away the quarterback run element — and you’re putting a lot on top-shelf execution unless there are a few more wrinkles.

Riley has to chew on it this offseason. Does he consider an outside voice for consultation? Will he consider a no-huddle tempo that even Alabama embraces? If Nebraska gets a big-time offensive lineman in this class, does he play early or get seasoning?

“You don’t plan to not run the ball and not succeed,” Riley said. “It becomes just a fact as you’re going. We’ll look at every way we can to do better going forward.”

NU got to 9-4. That’s a three-game improvement over last season. Essentially, Nebraska beat Purdue, Illinois and Northwestern. It’s a start. It can’t be the peak, though, and for the Huskers to climb higher, the offense needs to get much better.

On with the Rewind.

I see you

» Fyfe: A great story, Fyfe stood pretty tall Friday. He didn’t play perfectly, but he hung in the pocket, threw several nice deep balls, and got very little help from his pass protectors. A better game from his line, and maybe he has more of a chance to win the game.

» Reilly: Great adjustments on several passes thrown by Fyfe. Reilly always had a gift for finding the ball in the air and having zero regard for how hard his body would hit the ground after he caught it. He’ll be missed.

» Punter Caleb Lightbourn: Played his best game, averaging 42.7 yards on net punts. He’ll be NU’s punter next season, too, I’d bet — and he’ll be better, too.

» Defensive end Freedom Akinmoladun: He did some nice things in this game, including an impressive fourth-down stop after a Husker fumble.

» UT defensive end Derek Barnett: Made Nebraska’s offensive line look even worse than Northwestern’s Dean Lowry did last season. And I thought that was kind of impossible to do.

» UT wideout Josh Malone: NU needs one of these guys — 6-foot-3, 200 pounds, shifts gears like a sports car. Kenny Bell had that talent, but he wasn’t quite as tall. Quincy Enunwa had that kind of size, but he wasn’t that fast.

» UT quarterback Joshua Dobbs: One timely run after another. He was just so-so passing — Tennessee receivers were open everywhere — but he did throw a beauty to Malone for the game’s final touchdown.

» UT defensive tackle Jonathan Kongbo: Nebraska wanted him out of Arizona Western College, but Hank Hughes didn’t make much of an impression. (Kongbo wasn’t exactly the easiest guy to recruit, either.) After a so-so first year at Tennessee, Kongbo had a big game against NU. He’d look good in red.

Five stats

5.53: Yards per play allowed this season by Mark Banker’s defense. That’s the second-worst mark of the Big Ten era for the Huskers, ahead of only the 2015 defense, which allowed 5.88 yards per play. This season, NU played four offenses — Oregon, Ohio State, Tennessee and Wyoming — ranked in the nation’s top 50 in yards per game. In those four games, NU gave up an average of 478.25 yards per game, 6.48 yards per play and, when you subtract OSU’s two defensive touchdowns, 33.75 points per game. NU’s defense improved this year, but not as much as the offenses NU faced got worse. The Huskers faced the Nos. 80, 88, 94, 107, 120, 121 and 123 offenses in the nation.

4.56: Yards per carry on first down, Nebraska’s worst average of the Big Ten era. NU ran the ball 302 times — 11th nationally — on first down. That’s more than every other Big Ten team but Wisconsin. But NU’s first-down average ranked 76th nationally and ninth in the league. The Huskers also averaged 3.86 yards per carry in the first quarter. That’s NU’s lowest average since 2009.

plus-5: Nebraska’s turnover margin for the season, the first positive margin since 2009, when NU, despite that awful game against Iowa State, still had a plus-5 margin for the year. The Huskers seemed to solve their giveaway issues this season, but it appeared to come at the expense of explosiveness.

50.3 percent: The combined completion rate of Tommy Armstrong, Fyfe and Zack Darlington this season. It’s NU’s lowest completion rate since 2004 — the Joe Dailey-Beau Davis season — when the Huskers completed 48.4 percent of their passes. Nebraska completed 56 percent of its passes last season. It regressed this season. The coaches cut out too much of the passing offense.

48th: Nebraska’s current ranking in ESPN’s Football Power Index, a rating that uses analytics to measure a team’s overall strength based on season performance and performances of opponents. It’s far from perfect — Northwestern and Minnesota are ranked ahead of the Huskers — but I point it out because the Huskers were ranked 39th in ESPN’s final FPI last season. In Football Outsiders’ FEI, NU was 56th going into the bowl game after ending last season ranked 29th. In many aspects but record and turnover margin — which are, by far, the most important metrics — Nebraska was a more competitive team last season. Especially in big games.

Opponent watch

Why not? Nebraska’s first opponent for 2017 is Arkansas State, which lost its first four games, then won eight of nine — including a 31-13 bowl win over Scott Frost’s Central Florida team — to finish 8-5. ASU will return starting quarterback Justice Hansen, who originally signed with Oklahoma, but has to replace whole chunks of the defense and most of the offensive line.

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