OUTSIDE MIDWAY AIRPORT, CHICAGO — And there’s something foul in the air. Smells like sulfur. Like burning — maybe from the south, from Indiana, or perhaps from west.
Nebraska football, the state’s chief cultural export, is struggling. And even when that happens for a little while, the folks who make a living or get a dose of ego off the enterprise — they number in the millions — indulge their critical eye. That’s what makes it the state’s chief cultural export.
This collective eye is directly focused on coach Mike Riley. He is even-tempered and patiently cordial to an unusual degree for a football coach. I think that’s a core conviction for Riley, that he’s not going to let the outside noise publicly get to him or sway him, and his message to the team is to keep a similar, analytical poker face.
“The thing about Mike is that he’s going to be the same when it’s really hard and when it’s really good,” said offensive coordinator Danny Langsdorf, a protege of Riley’s and someone with many of Riley’s personality traits. “He’s a consistent person. I don’t think anybody can overreact to anything.”
Outside the walls of North Stadium, not only can they, they will and they are reacting — fiercely. Does Riley really know? I suspect he does, but part of his persona is not to let that outside panic, anger and frustration show too much with the press, or his players, who’d been conditioned, if nothing else, to know how their former coach felt about every mistake, because they heard about it, and probably saw it on his face before the words ever came out.
That kept, to some degree, the heads of a relatively undisciplined team a little more into the game.
Riley’s stoic, analytical repose, on the other hand, has not worked well in the last two weeks.
Here’s what I think after rewatching the game: Nebraska’s offensive line, again, displayed intermittent tenacity and attention to detail. The run scheme favored by Riley and Langsdorf is not that hard to execute. It shouldn’t look as ragged as it does, and Langsdorf agreed.
“I don’t think it’s good enough,” he said.
Purdue’s offense used a lot the same concepts preferred by Minnesota. Quarterback rollout and two or three passing options, one of which was in the flat. Those concepts worked even better than they did for the Gophers because NU did not adjust very well, did not attack runners and receivers with aggressive tackles and appeared a little slow.
You see the source of some “what the heck” tweets from fans when they question hustle and focus. Why would a safety knock a corner off deep coverage? Why would three Nebraska defenders try to trap a Purdue end-around play near the goal line — allowing for an easy cutback — instead of plugging the holes? And you see Riley, often alone, reading the field, hands stuffed in hooded sweatshirt pockets, his mind whirring. Toward the end, he took off his headset.
“We knew it was going to be a transition — and that it was going to be hard,” Langsdorf said of Year 1. “I don’t think anybody thought it would be as hard as it’s been.”
Why did Riley take this job? It’s the one question I still wasn’t sure he’d fully answered — perhaps even to himself — as the season began. I know why Athletic Director Shawn Eichorst hired him. I know why his style — and his team’s results — bug the persistent Bo Pelini supporters who email and call me daily. But why did Riley want this fishbowl?
He’s mentioned wanting “one last adventure” and “one last shot” in the business. A shot at what? An adventure in what?
Winning big in a massive program like this — there are 20 to 30 such jobs — is a fearsome grind that takes the kind of monotonous work, endless schedule and eagle-eyed focus that vexed Pelini. The hours and the organization Riley can handle, especially in recruiting. And Nebraska needs to recruit better.
But a thing Pelini could do really well — I am loath to bring up the near-past, but I am complimenting Pelini because it’s this trait that keeps ex-players, some media and a handful of university types pining for his tenure — was communicate consistently, with media, fans and players, his conviction that he was on the right track, fighting for some vague greater good and worth following into another fray. Whatever the diminishing returns and long-term corrosion it created, this force of personality made an interim impression and it guarded against sloth. It wasn’t Nebraska anywhere near its best — but it wasn’t Nebraska at its most uninterested, either.
These days, I watch Nebraska’s sideline as the Huskers lose to Big Ten doormats and see players almost wondering when somebody will snap.
Riley doesn’t have to be a different guy to share his convictions. He can do it in his own way.
But it’s time he stand for a bit more than run-pass balance on offense and big-play mitigation on defense.
Fans — and players — need just a little more meat.
I appreciate the “engineer” part of Riley. Where’s the architect?
Michigan State week is the place to start. He’ll get a full and fascinated house at Memorial Stadium on Saturday night. Oh, they’ll be there. It’s up to Riley — and few player leaders — to decide what they’ll see.
I see you
» Wide receiver Jordan Westerkamp: He has an outside shot at 1,000 yards receiving this season, which would be a Husker first. If NU continues to struggle to run the ball, it may come to pass.
» Wide receiver Stanley Morgan: Why doesn’t he get the ball more? Perhaps, with the large number of injuries, he will. He can break tackles, at least.
» Quarterback Ryker Fyfe: He was a lot more Joe Ganz (late 2007) than Beau Davis (mid-2004), if that makes sense. The 29 fourth-quarter points are a testament to his pluck. He was much better — and more patient — on third-and-medium. He also made a lot of risky decisions that led to five turnovers.
» Safety Aaron Williams: He smacked some Purdue ballcarriers. He also made mistakes, a few costly ones, on not pressing run plays. But generally it was a decent game when put in the tough spot, starting in place of Byerson Cockrell.
» Defensive end Jack Gangwish: He played enormously hard. The effort play after play — it’s a fine example to set.
» Purdue quarterback David Blough: I tabbed this Texan as the Big Ten’s top quarterback recruit in 2014. It’s of no consolation to Husker fans — nor should it be — but Blough would have beaten a lot of teams Saturday with the way he played. The Boilermakers may have two or three wins left in them because of him.
» Purdue running back Markell Jones: As a freshman, better than any of the Nebraska backs Reggie Davis chooses to play.
» Purdue cornerback Anthony Brown: Three interceptions. Game of his young life.
» A lack of speed on defense: Maybe the guys are just tired or hurt. Maybe it’s awareness, since “speed of recognition” can improve actual physical speed. Maybe it’s effort or confidence. Maybe it’s sheer talent. But watch this game again, and you will see blitzes that don’t get home and a quarterback who doesn’t get caught.
» An offensive line mired in mediocrity with no apparent playing time at stake: In interviews the last six weeks, line coach Mike Cavanaugh made it clear the gap between Nebraska’s starters and backups is so vast that the chemistry cart would be apparently flipped over by one drive where a different guard or tackle played. Against Illinois, Northwestern and Purdue, NU’s offensive line looked overmatched. Once again, that’s Illinois, Northwestern and Purdue. And none of the backups are good enough to play.
» Strange personnel decisions: Nebraska can bring 70 players, and yes, you prefer to have all of them able to play, but injured quarterback Tommy Armstrong should have been one of them. A captain, a supportive teammate — he should have been on that plane. You figure out a way to make that happen, especially when the guy whose redshirt was burned to become the kickoff returner — Jordan Stevenson — wasn’t one of the three guys who returned kickoffs against Purdue.
» Minus-8: Nebraska’s turnover margin. This is tied for 113th in the nation and on track with NU’s usual turnover margin disasters in recent years. Nine takeaways — tied for 104th — doesn’t help.
» 4.73: Yards per carry for Nebraska’s run game, which still isn’t that bad. It’s ahead of Iowa and Michigan, in fact. But it’s a strange run game, too. Terrell Newby ran for 56 yards on 10 carries Saturday, but two of those runs accounted for 40 yards. The other eight carries went for 16. Drive killers.
» 42.3: Passing attempts per game against Nebraska. This is no longer the most in college football — Oregon has eclipsed it. When it’s done, defensive coordinator Mark Banker may puzzle over how this season unfolded.
» 5.50: Yards per play allowed by Michigan State. The Spartans are undefeated, but repeatedly tested. They could easily have three losses. What keeps them chugging along is a quarterback (Connor Cook) and, more to the point, another good group of receivers. Those receivers, good for several years now, are an underrated part of MSU’s success. The most underrated part.
» 3: Undefeated Big Ten teams, two of which could show up in the first College Football Playoff poll released Tuesday. And I think the second one might be Iowa.
Each week, I ask fans to post their thoughts on my Facebook page about the previous game. Here are some selected and edited responses:
LuAnn Larson Schindler: “Uninspired, unemotional, lackadaisical performance. And that's by the coaching staff. Something is rotten in the state of Nebraska football and it needs to be identified and removed. This team deserves better and I will continue to support the Huskers. It's what we do, even when things don't go the Nebraska way.”
Verleen Rasgorshek: “Bo's boys gave us all a real treat! They simply don't want to play for Riley, the fans, or the school.”
Dave Lentell: “I've been a season ticket holder since 2009. Getting off the wait list was the one thing (Bill) Callahan ever did for me. For the first time since becoming a season ticket holder I am seriously considering eating a game's worth of tickets. I live in Iowa and for the night game at MSU it's gong to cost me about $250 for hotel gas and food to attend. After today, I'm truly considering giving up $150 in tickets (that no one would buy) just to save that $250. Because after today, I just don't think it's worth spending any more money to support the product we're seeing on the field this year.”
Tommy Rooney: “If the team can't rally midseason, what confidence should Husker fans have that it can rally offseason? Riley will leave before he pulls himself through coaching misery. Nebraska needs to be ready for another coaching search.”
Matthew Norman: “The team hit rock bottom, started drilling, and has disappeared into an abyss.”
Erik Olson: “May as well practice in pads all week. If this is how they tackle I don't see what sparing them from the injury risk in practice is for. What a disgrace. For the commitment this program receives financially and otherwise, this is a disgrace.”
Iowa just keeps plugging along, capitalizing on a soft schedule, new facilities and total unity behind the quarterback. The five to seven years the Hawkeyes went with substandard digs — Kirk Ferentz had to do a lot of the leg work raising the money for the new buildings — helped account for the Hawkeyes’ talent level, but obscured the sheer effort poured into the program. You’re seeing some of that coalesce now.
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