LINCOLN, Neb. – Now that Nebraska’s Mountain West portion of the schedule is over, what do we know?
I don’t know – and given that it has only been two games, you shouldn’t believe me if I said I did – but Nebraska sort of feels the same. Close to the same as last year, which wasn’t drastically different, other than record, from the year before that, which wasn’t . . . well . . . you get the point.
Nebraska is still inconsistent is probably the best way to put it. If you had to boil the last decade-plus of Husker football down to a word, that’s probably it. And what’s hard to figure out is that it has been inconsistently inconsistent over most of that span. You never really know what’s going to be out of alignment this time.
I don’t know how many times I asked myself during the Bo Pelini era what Nebraska might be capable of if it could just play even, or occasionally even win, in the turnover column. The Huskers did that Saturday. Six second-half turnovers turned what was a one-score game at the start of the fourth quarter into a blowout. The Huskers are currently plus-seven in turnover margin in 2016.
But Nebraska has found new and different ways to erode its own advantages. Special teams have been lackluster. Penalties are an early problem. The Huskers had seven last week (105th nationally) and seven more against Wyoming, some of them at the worst moments.
A holding penalty on Sam Cotton wiped a Tommy Armstrong Jr. touchdown off the board near the end of the first quarter. That drive ended when Armstrong threw an interception in the end zone. It was a bad one, the kind Husker fans saw all too often in 2015. It was maybe the lone black mark on an otherwise strong day for Armstrong. The senior completed 20-of-34 passes (58.8 percent) for three touchdowns and ran for another one, but there was the interception.
“Don’t like to say ‘but,’” Riley said, perhaps summarizing the last few years of Nebraska football. There always seems to be a “but.”
I used to think that some of that — the “buts,” the “run the ball,” the “OK, but you’ve got to be able to pass too,” the constant fretting – was just due to the extraordinarily loud echo chamber that exists around the program.
And to be clear, that’s not a Nebraska thing, that’s a big-time football thing. Programs people are passionate about get picked apart. Nothing ever seems good enough until you win them all and there’s nothing left to worry about. One concern gets alleviated and gives way to another. That’s the nature of the beast when it grows this big.
But some of it is starting to feel a little like a Nebraska trademark, too. One thing improves, another worsens. A great offense never seems to get paired with a great defense. Turnover-free games never match with penalty-free games. A leak here, a plug there, a new leak over there.
At the end of the day, the sum is simply average football.
That might seem ludicrous for a team that’s outscored its opponents 95-27 so far this year, but each of those first two games felt like they could’ve been much closer games. They were much closer games deep into the second half.
The good news is that the perception within the program doesn’t seem to be drastically different. How far is this team from reaching its potential?
“Far,” senior linebacker Michael Rose-Ivey said. “That’s the beautiful part about it. As we looked at film last week, we weren’t satisfied. And we’ll look at film this week and say we’re not satisfied.”
That is the beautiful part about it. It’s only week two.
But – there’s that word again – even at this early stage, the one thing that seems to be missing from Nebraska football through two weeks is growth. Certain details look a little different, but the net result feels about the same.
We have already seen those past versions of Nebraska beat the Fresno States and Wyomings of the world. Happens every year.
What about the Oregons? We’ll find out next week.
Nebraska is 2-0, which beats the alternative, but beyond that what do we know?
“I am going to pull back here and say we need to clean some stuff up or we are not going to have a chance to beat Oregon,” Riley said. “But if we do, we will.”
Sounds about right and, over two games, has looked plenty familiar.