From a coach’s perspective, maybe this was the perfect season opener. Nebraska, a four-touchdown favorite, won by 33 points. On the stat sheet, it looked like the Huskers were winning by about 33 points for most of the game even though, for most of the game, they weren’t.
Instead, Nebraska was running the ball at will, making some special teams flubs, flying around on defense but committing a few costly penalties and just sort of leaning on Fresno State more than beating it.
Thus there will be many teachable moments from Saturday’s 43-10 win.
“I have many mixed emotions about this game,” Coach Mike Riley said afterward.
So will most of Husker Nation.
On the one hand, Nebraska purists reared on the run game may delight in the Huskers’ 51 rushing attempts. On the other hand, that’s what every team did to the Bulldogs last year and, based on this game at least, 2016 isn’t looking much different. It was literally the path of least resistance.
“I thought we could run, but I didn’t envision that at all,” offensive coordinator Danny Langsdorf said about running the ball 80 percent of the time on Saturday. “I think it’s good for our team, but we have to be able to hit some more throws. They way we were throwing, wasn’t giving me much confidence to throw it all.”
So the Huskers basically didn’t. Nebraska attempted just 13 passes on the night, its fewest since the Ameer Abdullah-powered win over Miami in 2014. The Huskers’ six completions were the fewest since the Melvin Gordon-powered loss to Wisconsin that same season. Senior wide receiver Jordan Westerkamp almost had a 26-games-with-a-catch streak broken, but Nebraska found a way to get him one finally in the fourth quarter.
On the one hand, this is what most everyone in red, coaches included, seemed to want following a similarly grounded win over UCLA to end 2015. On the other hand, it didn’t prove a whole lot.
Week one games against Group of 5 foes rarely do. But there were some bright spots, too.
Turnovers. Nebraska didn’t have any. Deep passes. Nebraska gave up only two, one of which came while the Huskers were coasting home with a 33-point lead.
“Those were two things that we wanted to get done,” Riley said.
But he said it sort of reluctantly. It was a “yeah, but” sort of thing. Riley’s body language was saying: <em>On the one hand, we did the three things we harped on all season: run it effectively, limit turnovers, prevent big plays. On the other hand it was 14-10 at halftime</em>.
More specifically, Riley was talking about things like this: Following back-to-back touchdown drives, Nebraska got the ball back and was already back on Fresno State’s side of the field when Riley burned a timeout because of a misalignment. The Bulldogs blew up a jet sweep, forced two incompletions and then blocked the punt, setting up their only touchdown.
Fresno State’s next drive was dead in the water deep in its own territory after quarterback Chason Virgil threw a ball away on third-and-13, but a targeting penalty on sophomore linebacker Luke Gifford gave the Bulldogs a first down. That drive ended in a field goal.
“If we make them punt, we’re getting the ball at midfield or better,” Riley said. “Then we’re going to score again and it’s going to be just about game over.”
Had that happened, this would’ve been your much more traditional season-opening laugher. Everyone would’ve discounted the plusses based on the strength of the opponent. Everyone would’ve highlighted the minuses because that’s what life is like in a football-mad place. By Monday, everyone would’ve turned the page to week two.
But this one existed in some sort of middle ground. Nebraska did some things really well, but never in quick succession until the fourth quarter rolled around.
“It just doesn’t feel real good,” is how Riley put it.
Much will be made of that, too. But if we have to be careful drawing quick conclusions based on one game, it has to apply to all aspects. Being disappointed in “sloppy” play doesn’t guarantee that sloppy play will go away.
That’ll be something for week two. In week one, however, it did make things feel a little different.
Minus the Wyoming near shocker in 2013 and BYU’s actual shocker last season, most of Nebraska’s openers since 2008 have felt much the same – 47-24, 49-3, 49-10, 40-7, 49-20, 55-7.
There was plenty to work on after all of those games, too. It’s always easy to say it and it’s almost always said.
But on Saturday, minutes after recording his 100<sup>th</sup> career win, it looked like Riley felt it.
I think he thought his team was better than it showed. Really thought it. No coach-speak here.
Now it’s up to Nebraska, staff and coaches, to turn that feeling into something tangible.