Mike Riley does a great job of protecting his own. When the Nebraska media contingent went to war with defensive coordinator Bob Diaco over him not speaking after the first game, Riley fell on his sword and tried to take the blame. Whether you believe his version of the event or not is irrelevant, he took the blame.
And so, after his team let him down on Saturday in a 21-17 loss to Northern Illinois at home, Riley again took the blame. Or, at least, tried to shoulder the brunt of it.
“I think the most important part in the coaching right now will be really, really good teaching on ‘this is how we can get better,’” he said.
Whatever your thoughts on Riley’s X's and O's abilities are, he’s the right kind of head coach. He’s the antithesis of Bo Pelini – which, sure, is probably what landed him near the top of athletic director Shawn Eichorst's short list three years ago – and in this day and age, a quality man at the helm of a program is invaluable.
But Riley can’t, and shouldn’t, take all the blame. Now, I don’t subscribe to the notion that my position as a journalist or my ability to pen a column gives me the right to use it as a bully pulpit and criticize a group of college kids playing a game, but, the Huskers dropped the ball Saturday. And I’m not talking about the combined six dropped passes.
After winning the coin toss to begin the game, the Huskers took the ball – a departure from the plan against Oregon and a sign the staff wanted to get things going early. On the opening drive – one of the only pre-scripted aspects of a football game – things looked as good as any drive the Huskers have had this season and that speaks well to the coaches' prep.
The first play was a quick-hitting pass outside to JD Spielman – whom the coaching staff had wanted to get involved as early as possible – for 7 yards. Next, a run off-tackle from tailback Mikale Wilbon for 5 yards and a first down – get the new guy rolling early. Then a 36-yard completion out of play-action to receiver De’Mornay Pierson-El. Then a one-yard loss from Wilbon but an 11-yard completion to freshman Tyjon Lindsey to get things back on track. Then Wilbon escaped two arm tackles in the backfield for a 7-yard gain.
Six plays, 65 yards. The Huskers had it on the Northern Illinois 10-yard-line less than three minutes into the game. "We certainly want to be a fast-starting team," Riley said, and it looked like they were going to be.
Then the pick-six happened.
“I think we knew we could move the ball, and we just wanted to hurry up and do it and start scoring,” quarterback Tanner Lee said. “I do think we were pressing a little bit, and we were making mistakes and doing uncharacteristic things that we pride ourselves in not doing. It was disappointing, and we just couldn’t get out of that hole.”
That’s a pretty telling quote from Lee. And that’s not really something coaches can fix. If you’re panicking 3:36 into a game, that’s a complete lack of faith in what you’re doing as a player.
Riley called for mental toughness Monday morning and that’s something that, for the most part, his team hasn’t displayed through three games this season. A near 28-point comeback attempt that falls just short on the road in a building Riley has said is one of the top five toughest places he's been in should inspire confidence in a team’s ability to climb out of any hole. A quick 7-0 deficit at home against a MAC school after moving the ball at will to open the game shouldn’t make a team fall apart the way the Huskers’ offense did in the first quarter.
Blame the play-calling for an over-reliance on the pass (47 attempts for Lee), but Nebraska logged 36 runs and finished with a 2.4 yards per carry average.
Blame Wilbon for his 3.8 average, but he had to earn every last yard he got because of the breakdowns up front.
Blame Lee for the interceptions (seven in three games) but even his offensive coordinator, Danny Langsdorf, sounded like a broken record player post-game, again saying "I think he would be okay if he wasn’t getting hit as much."
Blame the defense for breaking on a fourth-quarter touchdown after Nebraska had finally taken the lead, but to that point they had played three quarters of shut-out, shut-down football. Through three, the Huskies had only 116 yards of offense, two turnovers and almost as many punts (six) as first downs (seven).
Blame Riley but what more can a coach do? Scream and shout and berate his players in the locker room? That has never been his M.O.
Riley being ousted doesn’t fix any problems right now.
It sets the rebuild back another three years while a new coach with a new scheme and new ideas tries to get his guys into the system. It also makes it extremely difficult to convince anyone worth their salt this is a job worth taking. And yes, that includes current UCF head coach and former Husker Scott Frost.
If Nebraska were to fire its head coach, it would be in dangerous waters. Only 16 schools among the Power Five ranks have had five head coaches since 2000: USC, Stanford, Washington, Florida, Vanderbilt, Kentucky, Ole Miss, Syracuse, North Carolina, Miami, Pitt, Lousiville (Bobby Petrino has been hired twice), Indiana, Minnesota, Illinois and Kansas. Is that a list Nebraska really wants to be on? No college football list with Kansas on it is a good one, unless you're talking about teams that have beaten Texas.
Take away USC, Stanford and Washington – all programs that appear to have their guy – and let's look at the number of conference championships amongst the remaining 13 schools in the last 17 seasons. Three. That's it. Florida owns two of those from the Urban Meyer days. Coaching turnover doesn't promote winning. The Nebraska brass would be wise to remember that when evaluating Riley after this season.
Instead, the players that are currently in the system need to be better.
The Huskers’ offense currently sits at No. 95 nationally in ESPN’s FPI efficiency, behind teams like the Jayhawks and South Alabama and ahead of only six Power Five schools. Their third-down efficiency sits at No. 111. Riley said Monday the coaching staff needs to do a better job of setting up the players for success, but those players need to execute.
After the Oregon loss, linebacker Luke Gifford – who has become a ray of sunshine peeking through the rain cloud that is Nebraska's season right now – said the mindset at halftime of that game was one of perspective. After this most recent loss, Gifford said something different.
“There is a sense of urgency and the standard here has not changed,” he said. “Losing is not okay and I know we got a group of guys that are going to work their tails off. It just makes you sick going into that locker room afterwards and it sucks. No one likes losing. So we are going to just keep working. We still have a lot of things ahead of us.”
I think he’s right about the potential. Less than a week ago, I wrote that the Nebraska offense has the potential to be really good (that aged well). I still believe that.
Now they just need to believe it too.
Derek is a newbie on the Hail Varsity staff covering Husker athletics. In college, he was best known as ‘that guy from Twitter.’ He has covered a Sugar Bowl, a tennis national championship and almost everything in between (except an NCAA men’s basketball tournament game… *tears*). In his spare time, he can be found arguing with literally anyone about sports.