By Tad Stryker
Its hard to have persistent forward vision when you just saw your season-opener and your nations-best opening day win streak ruined by a Hail Mary touchdown pass with the clock at 0:00. But thats just what Mike Riley and Nebraska need right now, and Riley was anxious to look ahead after the game.
If you have persistent backward vision (or if you just believe in plain old sports karma), you could say Riley absorbed the payback for the Huskers own Hail Mary win less than two years ago. They went down to defeat on approximately the same 50 square feet of Memorial Stadium real estate that Jordan Westerkamp used to make Husker history against Northwestern in 2013.
It makes more sense to simply credit Brigham Young University, its coaches and players with a classy effort to hang tough and grab an unforgettable 33-28 victory. I hope this is not the high point of their season. I hate to hear that Taysom Hill is out for the rest of the year (for the third year in a row). You wonder how BYU will recover from that. But then you look at all that Hills backup, freshman Danny Mangum, accomplished, and you think maybe the Cougars still have a chance to win nine or 10.
So does Nebraska. Its more important to play your best football in November than in September. This Husker defense looks like it will be improved against the run — especially when Michael Rose-Ivey returns from his suspension — so the Huskers could win the Big Ten West if they can figure out a way to use their own running game.
Outside of his boss, offensive line coach Mike Cavanaugh has the most scrutinized job in Nebraska for the next 90 days. He used the same five players up front throughout most of the game, which was played in 93-degree heat with a scorching south wind that ranged from 15 to 20 mph. Why the lack of substituting? The o-line was not impressive.
On the bright side, some of Nebraskas young players did a lot of growing up Saturday. The Huskers have to build on the momentum of players like defensive back Josh Kalu, who had his worst moment late in the second quarter (giving up a nearly uncontested post pattern to Mitch Mathews for an easy 15-yard touchdown), but started looking like Nebraskas best cornerback as the game wore on.
The Husker secondary was stressed all game long by Hill and Mangum, but Mangum was the difference. The BYU second-string quarterback led the two decisive scoring drives — starting with a nine-play 71-yard march to set up a field goal, including a game-changing ad-lib pass on a fourth-and-1. Then Mangum made a key scramble for a first down to ignite a seven-play, 76-yard drive that ended in the Hail Mary to Mathews.
The biggest disappointment for Nebraska was the distressing absence of the one thing Riley had stressed most during fall camp — efficiency. The Huskers shoot-yourself-in-the-foot problems have not magically disappeared after the installation of a new coaching staff. Twelve — count em — 12 penalties for 90 yards, all in the first three quarters. Were the Huskers starting to develop some discipline late in the game? Well check on that several times throughout the season.
Speaking of discipline, its time for junior quarterback Tommy Armstrong to show more of it. He takes the same kind of risks that his summertime mentor, Brett Favre, used to take. On his first two drives, he looked like he remembered everything that Riley and offensive coordinator Danny Langsdorf taught him this year about decision making. In the next quarter and a half, he looked like he forgot it all. Yet he still passed for more than 300 yards and three touchdowns. If hes still throwing into double coverage, taking three sacks a game and mishandling snaps by the time Big Ten season arrives, it will be a bad sign.
So will a stagnant Husker rushing game. Riley and Langsdorf mismanaged their backs, looking to Terrell Newby, Mikale Wilbon and Imani Cross for answers that none could provide. NU wont go far this year gaining 3.4 yards per rush. Armstrong will have to run the ball more than six times to beat teams like Miami, Wisconsin, Minnesota and Michigan State. (Im not counting his three sacks as running attempts.)
Bronco Mendenhal and his staff outcoached the Husker staff in the fourth quarter, outguessing Nebraska s third-and-3 call on the Huskers final offensive play (a fly sweep to Jamal Turner) and then catching the Huskers by surprise by running a trap play to Adam Hine on first-and-10 from their own 35 with about half a minute remaining and no time outs left. If any member of the Blackshirts could have held Hine to fewer than 10 yards, the clock would have been under 10 seconds by the time the Cougars could regroup for their next snap.
I grade Nebraska high for resiliency. The Huskers competitive spirit looked good in second half. Open-field tackling was improved over last season. If the Huskers knock down the Hail Mary pass, you could say it was the kind of day where they learned a lot and escaped with a win.
But I grade Nebraska low for consistency. The Huskers did not get dependable o-line play, and thats hard to overcome. NU came up short on a pair of third-and-short runs on their last two drives, and Armstrong saw far too much pressure. Did the o-llne have enough gas left in the tank? It didnt look like it.
The defensive line looked decent against the run, not so good on the pass rush. The young linebacking corps held up as well as could be expected. But the defensive tackles did not dominate — far from it. If Malik Collins wants to be compared to Ndamukong Suh, he has a lot of improving to do. For someone who reportedly owned fall camp against the Husker o-line, Collins was strangely quiet against BYU, especially in the first half, when the Cougars scored 17 unanswered points to take a 24-14 halftime lead.
Riley seems to have persistent forward vision. He played the role of an optimistic teacher in his postgame press conference. This game certainly had a lot of teachable moments. It will be interesting to see how he uses them.
Formerly the sports editor at the North Platte Bulletin and a sportswriter/columnist for the North Platte Telegraph, Tad Stryker is a longtime Nebraska sports writer, having covered University of Nebraska and high school sports for more than 30 years. He started writing for this website in 2008. You can e-mail him at email@example.com