Stryker: Soft September in Lincoln

Endless Summer. That sounds like carefree days indeed. Were the Beach Boys thinking of Mike Riley’s Nebraska football program when they recorded that album?

Unfortunately for Riley and his coaching staff, it’s September now and they have to play real football games. After a brutally disappointing 21-17 loss to Northern Illinois, the Huskers are 1-2 and reeling.

A coach who knows how to make a fan base feel good in the offseason now has to deal with a Husker Nation deflated by his inability to prepare a team for the inevitable start of the football season. The tide is going out. Does Riley, who knows all about life on the West Coast, know how to handle his deteriorating situation on the Plains?

This is what it sounds like when a series of sparkly spring and summer success stories of a powerful pro-style passing game yield to the sudden reality of a team that can’t protect NFL prospect Tanner Lee: nearly 90,000 fans gasping in disbelief at three sacks, seven quarterback hurries and three devastating interceptions, including two returned for touchdowns, all delivered by a team that graduated four of its top six defensive linemen and three of its top five linebackers from last year’s 5-7 team and lost a home game to Boston College a couple of weeks ago.

This is what it feels like when an a coach who says he wants to produce the third-best rushing team in the Big Ten watches his team get handled at the line of scrimmage by a mid-level Mid-American Conference school ranked just outside the Top 40 among major-college schools in rushing defense: a growing sense of frustration in the pit of your stomach as Nebraska produces only 85 yards in 36 rushes, fewer than 2.5 yards per carry. Sure, the Huskers missed Tre Bryant, but they weren’t exactly playing Wisconsin, either.

This is what it looks like when expectations start to recede at the university with the fourth-highest victory total of all time: shocked at a 14-0 halftime deficit and disgusted at their team’s inability to score, thousands of fans quietly leave Memorial Stadium, many of them releasing their red balloons prematurely on their way out. The energy level surrounding the program is ebbing. Why did they leave? I don’t think they recognize the Huskers anymore.

The Nebraska brand is not complicated. It’s blue collar, a physical running game with a tough Blackshirt defense. That brand has been hard to find since the end of the Illinois game last October. The Blackshirts showed improvement and held up their end of the deal Saturday, but when the Huskers can’t — or won’t — run the ball downhill, defeat is almost inevitable.

This is a proud college football blueblood suffering from a serious deficiency in the very core of its program — the offensive line, which for decades was the strength of the program. The 2017 o-line is a group with several highly-rated recruits, notably Nick Gates, Jerald Foster, Tanner Farmer and Matt Farniok, all of whom started Saturday. One year ago, I was convinced it had potential to be a great line. But time, Coach Mike Cavanaugh and ever-eroding rushing totals are making me second-guess my assessment. Add disappointing pass protection to that list, and you’ve got the major reason almost nobody is taking Nebraska seriously these days, unless you’re talking about 7-on-7 summer league play.

Yeah, unfortunately, it’s September now.

This was Bill Callahan’s 21-17 home loss to Southern Mississippi in September 2004 writ large. But that was Callahan’s second game at the helm in Lincoln. This was Riley’s 29th, and he’s 16-13. Perfect time to launch into the conference schedule.

Riley is undefeated in Lincoln when his teams rush for 200 yards or more. So trailing 14-0 late in the first half, after Wilbon made a 7-yard run to set up the Huskers second-and-3 at the NIU 20-yard line, wouldn’t you think he’d consider telling Danny Langsdorf to keep running the ball? Instead, the Huskers tried six pass plays (five of them unsuccessful) and had to settle for a 37-yard field goal attempt by Drew Brown on the final play of the first half.

The always-reliable Brown kicked the ball lower than usual, and it was blocked, capping off a first half where almost nothing went right. Maybe the folks who left took it as an omen.

Nebraska has struggled mightily in different phases of the game at different times during its 1-2 start, looking good at times and inept at others against three unranked teams. Frankly, considering the way the Arkansas State game ended, the Huskers are lucky they avoided a winless nonconference season.

They should have defeated Northern Illinois at least three touchdowns. Nebraska used to slap around teams like that for the first three quarters, then use the fourth to let their second-team quarterback have a series or two behind the first-string line before giving all the second-teamers two or three series to build valuable depth. No such thing these days. Riley’s teams have to scramble to survive each week, regardless of the opposition.

Next week, Nebraska hosts Rutgers, the worst team in the Big Ten. I’m not convinced the Huskers can put together a decisive win. Are you? After all, Rutgers started the weekend in the Top 40 in run defense.

Northern Illinois showed a total lack of respect for the Husker running game. What’s more, they showed no fear of the Husker deep passing game.They played downhill all day, pressing Husker receivers at the line of scrimmage, jumping a bubble screen for the 87-yard interception return that will always symbolize this game. They forced Danny Langsdorf to shrink his playbook to a combination of ineffective zone running plays and short passing plays, hoping that De’Mornay Pierson-El, Stanley Morgan, J.D. Spielman and Tyjon Lindsey could break tackles for big gains. That didn’t happen nearly often enough. Nebraska failed to show the big-play capability to make Northern Illinois back off and play.

With Devine Ozigbo, its best available downhill runner, inexplicably sitting on the bench for most of the game, Nebraska turned into a pillow-soft, dink-and-dunk offense that could do a decent job at times moving the ball between the 20s, but couldn’t close the deal on drive after drive. When Tanner Lee is your main threat to punch the ball into the end zone, you’ve got problems.

In his less-than-carefree postgame press conference, Riley stuck to the party line, saying the coaching staff had decided Mikale Wilbon was going to play most of the snaps. Wilbon did a serviceable job, rushing for 90 yards on 24 carries, but he’s a dancer, a juker who tends to produce a lot of zero- or 1-yard runs, and has shown no inclination to wear down a defense. Ozigbo carried the ball only twice, gaining 8 yards. Ozigbo should be used as a fourth-quarter hammer after Bryant, who hopefully returns to action against Rutgers, softens up the defense for the first three.

Because of Tanner Lee’s two pick-sixes, Nebraska trailed Northern Illinois 14-0 after one quarter, despite running more than twice as many plays from scrimmage and outyarding the Huskies more than 4-to-1. For the game, Nebraska outyarded its MAC foe 384-213, but as Bob Diaco has been saying lately, it’s points, not yards.

In the first half alone, Nebraska checked off these boxes:

Early penalties to stop a promising drive? Check. Dropped passes? Check. Wide-open receivers missed by the quarterback? Check. Devastating turnovers? Check. Confusion on the offensive line? Check. Unproductive punt return game? Check.

“We’ve been inconsistent at best,” Riley admitted.”We have to prove more about who we are. We’ve got to have a better identifying quality.”

That would be the running game, of course. The offensive line needs serious work, and make no mistake, Riley’s insistence on a pro-style offense puts extra pressure on his line. It requires top-notch athletes who pass block and run block equally well to make this scheme work. Such linemen are not being developed fast or well enough to sustain the program.

Speaking of Cavanaugh, his continued employment at the University of Nebraska should be seriously reconsidered at season’s end, if not before. Riley will succeed as head coach at Nebraska to the extent that he succeeds at making it “Offensive Lineman U” once again. That’s a distant dream. Right now, the ground under his feet feels about as solid as Laguna Beach. And it’s only September.

A longtime Husker fan, sportswriter and history buff, Tad Stryker started writing for this website in 2008. You can email him at [email protected]