Mike Riley was fighting an uphill battle from the moment he arrived in campus in Lincoln.
First of all, he was a surprise hire from Oregon State of all places. His career .538 winning percentage at Oregon State gave detractors the easy “He’s a .500 coach” rallying cry. The number of contributing scholarship seniors on this year’s roster speaks to the amount of talent he inherited. Somehow, his reputation as the nicest guy in college football has been held against him as well.
Riley’s Pac-12 background and passing mentality are the antithesis of what has worked in Nebraska before and what many think is the only thing that will work again. The West Coast Offense had become a taboo phrase after the Bill Callahan years.
All of those factors meant Riley was going to have a hard time winning over large sections of the fan base. In fact, the only way to do so was to win on the field.
That didn’t happen in year one. Last-second losses to BYU, Miami, Illinois, Wisconsin and Northwestern in year one led to a 6-7 record following a bowl game win. The Huskers won nine games in year two, but blowout losses to Iowa in the regular season finale and Tennessee in the bowl game (not to mention the 62-3 shellacking at Ohio State) left a sour taste in fans’ mouth.
Then, this season, the loss to Northern Illinois happened, and Wisconsin running all over Nebraska happened, and the stadium-emptying blowout to Ohio State happened. Riley and his staff have dug themselves a giant ditch and are now staring up at a mountain.
Many have already made their decision about Riley’s future. They’ve determined there has been too many losses and not enough progress, and the promise of more talent on the horizon in the form of recruiting classes is not enough.
However, as athletic director Bill Moos has made clear, he was not hired to fire Riley. He was, however, brought in to evaluate the state of the program, among other things, and said during his introductory press conference that he does not fire coaches mid-season outside of special circumstances. Nobody knows exactly how he feels about Riley other than himself.
So that brings us to where we are currently. Many have already moved on and are looking to the future, but there are still five games left this season. A bowl berth and a winning record are both still on the table for Riley and his team.
What is it going to take to convince Moos that Riley deserves another year?
It starts with recording some wins. I’d imagine the Huskers have to go 4-1 at a minimum. Riley, in year three, cannot afford to lose to a pair of teams with first-year coaches in Purdue and Minnesota, and neither Northwestern nor Iowa have looked like world-beaters this season. They also can’t afford to get blown out at Penn State like they did at home against Ohio State.
A 4-1 finish with a competitive loss to the Nittany Lions is likely the baseline that Riley has to clear no matter what else happens. A 7-5 record isn’t what anyone in Lincoln wants, but a strong finish to the season would certainly show the team is at least heading in the right direction, and the Huskers were projected to go 6-6 by many national outlets for a reason.
However, those wins will not come if Nebraska continues with the status quo. Nebraska has to play better, full stop. The defense will be mostly healthy (Dog linebackers Luke Gifford and Tyrin Ferguson are the only rotation defenders expected to miss the game on Saturday) and now has eight weeks of the regular season, fall camp and spring ball under its belt.
Bob Diaco continues to express confidence in the long-term outlook of his defense in Nebraska, but time — which Diaco said it will take for the players to “eliminate gaps” — is not on his side. Nebraska cannot look as clueless as it has during the last two games. Either things need to click right now or Diaco has to make some adjustments to his scheme to put the players in a position to use their strengths and find success.
The defensive line has to hold its ground in the trenches, the linebackers have to fill their gaps and the defensive backs have to make tackles on the perimeter. Nebraska has struggled in all of those areas recently and the players, especially the young ones, have to show individual development.
On the other side of the ball, Nebraska is finally starting to get the production the coaches expected from the quarterback position as Tanner Lee has settled in. Now the rest of the offense has to step up its game.
Offensive coordinator Danny Langsdorf has alluded to some tweaks they made during the bye week, and that’s a good start. However, depth chart changes do not seem to be a part of that as Nebraska will roll out the same starting offensive line, Nebraska doesn’t have any other wide receivers to turn to and when asked about young tight ends, Riley skipped right over those that are already active and went straight to the redshirt freshmen, who he said will continue with their redshirt seasons.
The one position that has seen some change is running back, where Tre Bryant was shut down for good and underwent surgery, the coaches have given Devine Ozigbo more of a public vote of confidence than we’ve seen all year and Riley continued to mention Jaylin Bradley as someone he wants to incorporate more.
It doesn’t really matter all that much who is toting the rock, however. Against Ohio State, Nebraska couldn’t run the ball with anyone. The key to finding more balance on offense is to win more at the line of scrimmage, and that falls on each of the five offensive linemen Nebraska is going to roll out there, since changes don’t seem to be in the works. They have to make and sustain their blocks and give the offense a chance to succeed.
Nebraska has to win, but that’s not all. Close wins where the team continues to struggle won’t be enough. The Huskers have to prove themselves the better team. The second half of the season is all about improvement across the board.
What Riley needs to do in order to secure another year is to show that what he’s done so far has been building towards something. He has to paint a picture of what the program is going to look like in both the near and the distant future. That picture includes an improved record, improved play and improved talent in the form of a strong recruiting class. Riley has to convince Moos that he is capable of bringing all of those things together and putting this program on the right track.
Is he capable of doing so? I don’t know, but I’m looking forward to finding out. The mountain he has to climb is steep, and it all starts on Saturday at 6:30 p.m.
Jacob is in his third year with Hail Varsity covering Husker athletics. He has also written extensively for SB Nation’s Bright Side of the Sun and The Creightonian. His love of basketball can best be described as an obsession and if you need to find him, he’s probably in a gym somewhere watching, coaching or playing hoops.