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Tone-deaf game plan costs Riley, Huskers in astounding loss to Illini

By Tad Stryker

Mike Riley should have listened to Tom Osborne.

You’ll recall the new Husker coach met the Hall of Famer shortly after he was hired last December. Afterward, Osborne mentioned that he had talked about the running game briefly with Riley.

It appears Riley smiled and nodded a lot. He probably should have taken a few notes. Heck, I really hoped that he did. Turns out I was wrong.

Nebraska lost a 14-13 heartbreaker Saturday on a windy, chilly, damp day at Illinois. It was a contest the Cornhuskers would have won comfortably if they had ridden their running game.

riley (68K)
Mike Granse-USA TODAY Sports
Mike Riley on the sidelines in Champaign.
riley (68K)
Mike Granse-USA TODAY Sports
Mike Riley on the sidelines in Champaign.

Hope I’m wrong here, but this has all the indicators of a major turning point. Or maybe this team will simply be erratic all season.

Injuries cannot be blamed for this loss. The Husker defense did a respectable job rising to the occasion with four of its starters on the sidelines. The offense dropped the ball this time around because Riley and Danny Langdorf foolishly tried to fling the ball around the yard. Tommy Armstrong threw 31 passes (completing only 10) while his offensive coordinator stubbornly kept banging his head against the wall, apparently believing that doing the same thing over and over in swirling 15- to 25-mph winds would bring different results.

I thought this veteran coaching staff was flexible in its thinking, but it has not caught on quickly to Big Ten football. They seemed determined to get Armstrong a certain number of throws despite mounting evidence that it was simply not working. When NU’s most consistent player, Jordan Westerkamp, starts dropping passes, you’ve got to wonder about the wisdom of continuing to keep hammering away with the same strategy.

If you refuse to run the ball 40 times on a day like that, you ought to have your head examined.

If anyone needed convincing that Nebraska needs a weatherproof run game to win in the Big Ten, this was the game to prove it. If anyone needed convincing that such a thing has not been a high priority for Riley and Langsdorf, this was the evidence for it.

I recognize Nebraska does not have the nation’s top talent at I-back and in the offensive line. But it has at least midlevel talent at both places, and midlevel talent was enough to beat Illinois, if the coaching staff had used it the way it should have been used.

What puzzled me most was the inability of the offensive staff to do something they clearly indicated they would do – ride the back with the hot hand, which by the end of the first half, was obviously freshman Devine Ozigbo, who had early success running behind the blocking of fullback Andy Janovich.

What I’ll remember most about this game is how quickly and often Ozigbo (who gained 70 yards on seven carries) and Janovich (who ran for 47 on 11 carries) disappeared to the sidelines after they had success the previous play. The Husker brain trust was slow to adapt. It didn’t seem to comprehend that one successful running play could lead to another until late in the game.

riley (68K)
Mike Granse-USA TODAY Sports
Illinois’ Geronimo Allison celebrates his winning touchdown catch.

riley (68K)
Mike Granse-USA TODAY Sports
Illinois’ Geronimo Allison celebrates his winning touchdown catch.

A loss to an unimpressive Illinois team makes it evident that Nebraska will have to scratch and claw just to be bowl eligible this season. It’s a pity that such a lack of foresight by this coaching staff wasted a solid game by Maliek Collins and the Blackshirts and cost the team a win that it will miss badly when it’s fighting for its life in November. Nebraska is not flush with talent, but it had enough talent to win nine games the last seven seasons. This is not a major rebuilding situation for Riley and his staff.

It’s true that if Armstrong simply keeps the ball and takes a sack on third and long with less than a minute left, Nebraska wins the game. Yes, Armstrong’s panicky ad-lib cost his team a ballgame. In his third season as a starter, he has to be a better thinker and leader than that. But it should never have come down to that play.

Ultimately, the head coach and offensive coordinator cost Nebraska the game with what certainly appeared to be their extreme reluctance to allow their offense to try physical football. That’s a bad omen. Committing more turnovers and penalties than your opponent while playing finesse football seems a toxic combination in the Big Ten.

At the start of the second half, Nebraska was handed a tremendous opportunity and the ball at midfield with a controversial fourth-down ruling. It had momentum and three times had a short field. Illinois was ripe for the picking at that point. That was the time to ride the Ozigbo-Janovich combination. But Langsdorf and Riley were tone deaf to the situation. Ozigbo never touched the ball.

There could be several reasons that Langsdorf stayed with the passing game at that point. None of them will comfort the knowledgeable Husker fan. It’s possible that Riley and Langsdorf forgot that they were no longer in the Pac-12, were unaware that the wind blows and cold rain falls in the Midwest during the autumn, and had to concoct a new strategy on the fly. That seems a bit unlikely. It may be that Riley and Langsdorf have a blind trust in Armstrong and his ability to make plays. But the misfires on the Huskers’ first drive of the second half – including an interception – should have changed their minds.

The most likely reason is that Langsdorf doesn’t trust his offensive line, which makes me wonder why there have been zero substitutions this season except in garbage time against South Alabama. It’s puzzling that Mike Cavanaugh never put Jerald Foster into the game, because guards Dylan Utter and Chongo Kondolo were not up to the task on this day. It coud be that neither Foster nor anyone else nobody on the second-team line has earned Cavanaugh’s trust, which again makes me wonder, because of all the good press Foster has been getting over the last year. But maybe that press was wrong.

Is there any way somebody can transplant walk-on linebacker Chris Weber’s heart into the offensive line? This makes the development of players like Tanner Farmer, David Knevel and Jalin Barnett more urgent than I thought.

It only underscores the main thing Riley has to do to succeed in Nebraska – restore it to the status of Offensive Lineman U by recruiting and developing the best talent in the 500-mile radius – and beyond.

All the inevitable wailing and gnashing of teeth in the coming week would have been needless, had Riley taken Osborne seriously. That meeting with Osborne? It happened at the Outland Trophy dinner. Can we dream of an Outland sometime this decade? That seems like quite a stretch.

It’s only game five of the Riley era. This staff deserves a certain measure of patience as it teaches and coaches this team. I look for a much better team in 2016. But Riley and his offensive staff sure set themselves up for needless criticism by being tone deaf on a chilly, wet, windy day in Champaign.

Formerly the sports editor at the North Platte Bulletin and a sportswriter/columnist for the North Platte Telegraph, Tad Stryker started writing for this website in 2008. You can e-mail him at [email protected]. Stryker is a freelance writer, favoring topics related to Nebraska history or Christianity. You can buy his recent book at this link.