There is no enthusiasm unknown to mankind at Nebraska in 2017. Very little winning of the days, scant doing of the jobs. A process? Doesn’t seem to be one. If there’s a boat, it doesn’t have any oars. The Huskers are just out there in the middle of a sea of heartbreak, left to drift wherever their opponents take them and deal with whatever the elements dish out.
While all of that touchy-feely, coaching-mantra stuff can be easy to dismiss in favor of equally intangible qualities like toughness and pride, it is at least an attempt to offer some direction. The direction of Nebraska football under Mike Riley is as clear as ever after a blowout at the hands of a below-average Minnesota team in the opening year of a cultural renovation.
The Huskers are going down. But the real problem is that there appears to be no ability by this staff to reverse that trajectory. It’s hard to even know what sort of good-faith effort has been made to do it because none of the answers after humbling losses such as this give any indication of knowing the source of the problem.
Riley was asked after the game if he felt his defense was ready to match the effort of a struggling Gophers offense that suddenly put up 54 points and 8.4 yards per play. “Here’s what happened: They moved the football and we couldn’t get them off the field,” Riley said.
Everyone who watched the game already knew that. There’s no insight there. Why did it happen? How do you stop it from happening next week? That answer leaves those questions to just float there like flotsam alongside the rotting hull of a once-powerful football program.
While it may look a little bit empty to see a 4-5 Minnesota squad bounce around on the sidelines prior to kickoff – worth noting that it was every kickoff, all eight of them – against a 4-5 Nebraska squad in a game that was only good for bowl-eligibility hopes, at least it’s something. It’s easy to eye roll at P.J. Fleck as he sprints to the other side of the field when the teams change directions between quarters, but he’s trying to set an example, prove a point.
There is no point to Nebraska football right now, no easily apparent reason it should be any better than a .500 Minnesota team that isn’t more talented, but appears to be better motivated thanks to a hokey slogan you could have lifted from the Successories kiosk at the local mall.
But at least it’s something. Nebraska counters with an average roster, below-replacement-level leadership and one of the most storied traditions in the game. It’s a bad combo and one that won’t be and can’t be around for long.
Not after Riley answered a question about sources of motivation this way: “Sometimes right now it’s personal pride. Just the idea of you like football, we like to coach football, let’s help you get better, let’s put a game plan together, let’s go play another game.”
Personal pride? That’s important at some level, but it’s not a cohesive approach. It says to each guy on the team, “hope you’re too proud to let this happen again.” Players this age want to be led, but there’s no indication here that they will be or have been.
The second part of that quote takes the tone of me asking you if you want to come over and watch some games at my house. Games are on, I like football, you like football. Want to come over and see all the crazy stuff that’s sure to happen on a fall Saturday? I’ve often written that good coaching at this level is really the attempt to remove randomness. This “I like football, you like football” approach seems like the opposite of that.
The very opposite of that was on the opposing sideline Saturday. Maybe you’re tired of Fleck and his unbridled enthusiasm, but based on what you’ve seen today and before it, assuming there are no changes, which program has a brighter outlook right now? The one with an identity or the one without?
Of course, no one who closely watches Nebraska football assumes no changes are coming. It’s Bill Moos’ move now. Nebraska’s new athletic director said in some of his earliest interviews that he doesn’t make coaching changes during a seasons. In terms of results, there’s little reason to do it. The Huskers have Penn State and Iowa on the schedule, and, barring a miracle, are headed for a 4-8 season, the fewest wins since 1961.
The choice will be obvious then, but Moos is also a man who seems well aware of the value of PR. That might be worthy of consideration right now. Nebraska could wait two weeks to reveal its decision and take the national-pundit punches of “look what’s happened to this program” until it does.
Or it could announce that a change is coming at the end of the season which says, “we know it’s not working and we’re going to do something about it.” Then the story is about what Nebraska will be rather than what it is.
The massacre in Minneapolis and the comments afterwards, stacked on top of everything else 2017 has brought, showed that it's as stagnant it has been in 50-some years.
Somebody needs to tug this thing to shore and get serious about getting it sea ready. It doesn’t seem like the captain can.
Brandon is the Managing Editor for Hail Varsity and has covered Nebraska athletics for the magazine and web since 2012, Hail Varsity’s first season on the scene. His sports writing has also been featured by Fox Sports, The Guardian and CBS Sports.