Hail Varsity's Greg Smith, Jacob Padilla and Derek Peterson offer three final takeaways from the Huskers' disappointing loss to Minnesota.
As the losses have mounted over the weeks of this season we have wondered constantly about the moment where Mike Riley would lose the team or if the team would pack it in. After a stunning blowout loss to Minnesota in which the Huskers gave up 409 yards rushing to a woeful offense, have we entered that territory?
I still wouldn’t categorize this team as having “quit” or say that Riley has lost the team and they don’t want to play for him. The problem as I see it, is much bigger than that. Riley has simply lost control of the program and has no answers for how to fix a single issue on this team.
Riley doesn’t know how to fix the problem of mixed job titles and responsibilities for staff members and personnel directors. He can’t fix the problem that no one knows who is in control of the program when it should be him. All of those behind-the-scenes issues are before we get to fixing on-field problems ranging from player development, play calling, not being able to line up properly on defense or identify the correct players that should be on the field. Husker Nation loves Riley, the man, but the adventure of Riley the coach, CEO and captain of Husker football will end when the clock strikes zero on Nov. 24.
As for the players, I am encouraged by what they said post game. I’ve been encouraged by their resiliency all season long. Jerald Foster had a lot of great comments post game in Minneapolis. Part of what he talked about was pushing forward.
“I think we all know that we’ve got to keep pushing forward," he said. "It’s easy to say, it really is, but for everybody that cares about the program and cares about what’s going on, it’s going to take all of us to come together to be able to keep pushing forward, keep working so that we’re able to be ready for the next game. As a captain, I have to still be able to lead, I’ve got to be able to motivate and keep people going. That’s not going to change.
"We’ve still got two games. I’m blessed to be able to be in this position, being able to be looked at by the team as somebody that needs to push them forward, so I’m going to still do what I’ve got to do, and I’m going to still give it everything I’ve got when I’m out on the field. It’s hard whenever games like that happen.”
That’s the type of leadership needed inside the locker room to push through these final two weeks of the season.
Coming out of the bye week, the Nebraska coaches talked about how they were going to get the tight ends more involved. At Oregon State, that position was a huge part of Mike Riley’s offenses.
In the first seven games of the season, tight ends caught 15 passes on 28 targets for 163 yards and one touchdown. That’s 2.1 catches on 4.0 targets for 233 yards per game (10.9 per catch). Tyler Hoppes accounted for 14 of those catches while Jack Stoll secured the other one.
Against Minnesota, Hoppes and Stoll combined for six catches on seven targets for 54 yards and a score. Over the last three (since the bye week), the tight ends have accounted for 15 catches on 19 targets for 208 yards and three touchdowns. That is 5.0 catches on 6.3 targets for 69.3 yards per game (13.9 yards per catch).
Production from the tight end position has more than doubled since the bye week, in part because of a bigger emphasis on getting them the ball but also because of better play by Hoppes and Stoll, who has earned the No. 2 spot behind Hoppes. Nebraska has been using the tight ends as end-zone targets and they’ve responded with a touchdown in each of the last three games.
Hoppes is going to need a monster finish to the season to break Mike McNeill’s school receptions record for a tight end at 32 (Hoppes is at 24) but he has developed into the kind of weapon the coaches talked him up as during the offseason. He’s yet another Nebraska walk-on success story.
I questioned whether to go positive or negative this week. You guys are starting to grow tired of the same old storylines (I get that) and the excuses (I get that, too) but since Jacob hit on another strong showing from JD Spielman already, I’ll go with the other positive: Tanner Lee.
After a three-interception performance against Northwestern in which people were saying the “bad Tanner” is back, Lee did his part Saturday against Minnesota. In the first half, he was an efficient 13-for-18 passing for 179 yards and a score.
Nebraska got touchdowns on two of its four first-half possessions and should have gotten points on a third. Lee engineered a 68-yard drive that included a 44-yard bomb to wideout De’Mornay Pierson-El, the longest offensive play of the day for the Huskers, only to see it end on a failed fourth-and-1 run from the Minnesota 6-yard-line.
Nebraska had answered Minnesota’s opening kickoff punch to the mouth with a 12-play, 75-yard beauty of a touchdown drive, but couldn’t answer the Gophers’ opening drive touchdown that regained them the lead, 14-7.
“We had a good start,” Langsdorf said, adding that Lee was orchestrating things well from the get go. “I thought that first drive was exactly how we wanted to play that game and then it kind of got out of hand from there.”
Lee left the game at halftime with what coaches called an “impact migraine” and never returned.
“I was really, really bummed for him,” Langsdorf said. “I thought it was one of his best halves spreading the ball around and leading us to a lot of good stuff.
“He had a couple plays in that game that he had to get through to the backside of a couple throws and he did it great, he put the ball on the money.”
Redshirt freshman Patrick O’Brien was admirable in his relief effort of Lee in the second half. It was O’Brien’s first meaningful action of his career and he was being asked to climb out of a 30-14 hole on the road with a red-hot offense on the other sideline. Still, you have to wonder if the Huskers’ offense might have been able to make things closer in the second half had Lee been able to go.
Nebraska scored just one touchdown in the second half, with two three-and-outs and three turnovers on downs. No update was given on Lee’s status after the game, but Riley might provide a little more detail of what happened during his Monday morning press conference, so stay tuned for that.
On the bright side, Lee passed Sam Keller (2007) for the seventh-most passing yards in a single season in Nebraska history (2,544 yards) and moved within 151 yards of fifth place, currently occupied by Tommy Armstrong Jr.’s 2014 season.