Stryker: Riley has reduced Husker program to a parody of itself
Ignorance and apathy are a toxic combination for any organization, and NU football is no exception. Either quality can be the death knell for a enterprise, but when they come as a package deal, there’s no way the thing can survive, especially when it affects the very heart of the institution.
In the case of Nebraska football, the heart is the offensive line. In a system where the head coach’s preferred pro-style offense is overwhelmingly dependent upon recruiting four-star talent and developing them into all-conference and all-American athletes with great footwork, who can pass block and run block equally well. Trouble is, it just ain’t happening. Nobody from offensive line coach Mike Cavanaugh to offensive coordinator Danny Lingsdorf to head coach Mike Riley understands how to accomplish that. Even worse, nobody in the organization seems to care enough even to make it a high priority, except, hopefully the new arrival — athletic director Bill Moos, a former offensive tackle.
All eyes are on Moos now after Riley’s latest effort, a 56-14 embarrassment by the Iowa Hawkeyes, was added to his tab, dropping his career record to 19-19 overall and 12-14 in Big Ten Conference games. The utterly predictable outcome followed.
The threesome who had stewardship of the heritage of Nebraska football, the school which produced Bob Brown, Dave Rimington, Ed Weir, Forrest Behm, Will Shields, Dean Steinkuhler and Aaron Taylor, has wrecked Nebraska brand. Someone else will rebuild it, but it will take decisive action and a significant amount of time.
Riley and Cavanaugh hung around with Milt Tenopir near the end of that legendary coach’s life, but unfortunately, none of his passion or ability rubbed off on them.
The most obvious victim of Cavanaugh’s handiwork is left tackle Nick Gates, who was an all-conference freshman selection in 2015, but has regressed alarmingly under Cavanaugh’s lack of leadership. Gates looks in worse physical condition than he did two years ago, and it’s hard to describe his on-field demeanor as anything other than lackadaisical.
Cavanaugh has produced two consecutive centers (Dylan Utter and Cole Conrad) best known for getting shoved back into their quarterback’s face. Michael Decker showed promise, but injury cut short his season. Left guard Jerald Foster, who served as a team captain, showed no on-field improvement this fall. In fact, he and Gates (who have 50 starts between them) were responsible for many of the o-line’s numerous penalties.
Ignorance and apathy are hallmarks of this year’s o-line, which seem unable to pick up defensive line stunts and communicate them to each other in time to do anything about it. Even worse, they are sluggish off the ball and their body language inspire no confidence.
When Urban Meyer opened his postgame press conference after a similar 56-14 shellacking of Nebraska Oct. 14, he did his best to steer Riley in the right direction. “It starts with the offensive line,” Meyer said, as he pointed out his team’s successes that night. But Riley’s results indicate he still doesn’t get it.
Nebraska has gone from “Offensive Lineman U” to the school who breaks a few passing records while getting the hell beat out of it at the line of scrimmage. That goes on Riley’s tab. Yes, the slide started under Bill Callahan and Bo Pelini, but it accelerated threefold under Riley, who talks the talk but doesn’t walk the walk. Callahan brought in eventual NFL starters Matt Slauson and Carl Nicks, but didn’t coach them up much. Pelini had less success recruiting, although walk-on Spencer Long rose to second-team All-Big Ten under his watch. Not a single offensive lineman outside of Gates has sniffed postseason honors under Riley/Langsdorf/Cavanaugh. Their method of coaching o-line play is the poison directly attacking the central nervous system of Nebraska football. There are many other problems, probably too numerous to mention in a single opinion column, but if this coaching staff gets another year to inflict its damage on Husker Nation, there will be plenty of time to itemize them.
Riley is rapidly losing his ability to coach a team between the white lines. When it comes to his on-field performance, it’s hard to assess whether a decade from now, whether Riley’s three years at Nebraska will be regarded more as a joke or a disaster.
Yet in his postgame press conference, after proving conclusively he has little stomach for what it takes to win in the Big Ten, Riley showed the same curious combination of stubbornness and happy-go-lucky cluelessness that has reduced the Husker program to punchline status when he said, “I truly believe I’m exactly the right person to do this.”
Riley is media-savvy enough to say the right words about how disappointed he is in the outcome, but his tone of voice and body language indicate a complete lack of concern abut the fact that he just coached the Cornhusker football team to its worst record in more than half a century. It’s the same disconnect that allowed him to say convincingly that he wanted to produce the third-best rushing team in the Big Ten, yet take no effective steps over the next two seasons toward making that goal a reality.
After the Huskers rushed for fewer than 100 yards for the third consecutive game, Riley paid more lip service to how he plans to improve the running game, It only has to get stronger in the lines, he said. This sounds rather incongruous coming from a man whose name has become synonymous with weak leadership and weak results. Riley is the first coach to lead Nebraska to four consecutive home losses since 1957, the first NU coach to lose the last four games of a season since 1947, the first NU coach ever to give up more than 50 points in three consecutive games.
Under Riley, Nebraska became the place where sick teams came to get well. Teams coming off poor offensive performances looked like world-beaters against the defensive unit formerly known as the Blackshirts. Minnesota and Iowa are prime examples of teams that came in with sluggish rushing offenses and made road kill of the Huskers.
At the same time, Riley reduced his own program to a fragile condition, both mentally and psychologically. Even physically, Nebraska became increasingly fragile, as a steady parade of players tapped out or limped off the field this fall. The strength and conditioning program under Mark Phillipp did Riley no favors, but he has only himself to blame. Nebraska has become the opposite of what it used to be under Tom Osborne, a team that punished its opposition physically for four quarters.
Husker Sports Network commentator Matt Davison pronounced a benediction over the Huskers’ sorry excuse for a football season as he lamented a long string of unanswered touchdowns on NU’s home field, saying he never thought he’d see anything like this in his lifetime. “It’s hard to believe how far downhill this football program has fallen over the past three years,” Davison said.
Moos has been here for only about one-tenth of that time, but surely he has seen enough call a halt to this failure.
A longtime Husker fan, sportswriter and history buff, Tad Stryker started writing for this website in 2008. You can email him at firstname.lastname@example.org