For most of three quarters, the new Mike Riley edition of the Nebraska Cornhuskers looked fine. There were some good things, and some things that needed some work; about what you would expect in a debut performance.
But for one quarter - and then one final second - things went south. BYU took command of the game during a lethargic second quarter, and nobody in red could stop it. Halftime adjustments didn't help; Nebraska went three-and-out on the opening possession. But when Sam Foltz went down - a legal hit, as D.J. Foster blocked BYU's Grant Jones into Foltz - the resulting uproar from the crowd finally sparked some life into the crowd, which hadn't had much to cheer about. And after Nate Gerry's interception of Taysom Hill gave Nebraska great field position, Riley finally unshackled the ground game. That, and combined with the knee injury to BYU nose tackle Travis Tuiloma sparked Nebraska's surge into the lead.
While Taysom Hill was as good as advertised, the star of the game was true freshman quarterback Tanner Magnum. He hadn't played a game of football in four years. FOUR YEARS, mind you. He's spent the last two years on his Church of Latter Day Saints mission in Antofagasta, Chile. Maybe he looked at a playbook, but he hasn't practiced or trained for two years. He comes in to his first game, and is virtually flawless - and throws the game winning touchdown on a Hail Mary to win the game. More on that later.
So that 0-1 to start Mike Riley's tenure. How did things break down by position? Here's the CN report card:
Quarterback: Tommy Armstrong was no where near as perfect as Magnum was, but you could see that, at least in this first game, he's picked up Mike Riley's offense fairly well. What helped him more in the second half was Riley's acceptance of a few pieces leftover from Tim Beck's offense. A little zone read and even an option run helped put BYU's defense on their heels. And that was a far cry from the second quarter, when Riley and Danny Langsdorf tried to turn Armstrong into Sean Mannion or Eli Manning. You can see the tutelage of Langsdorf in Armstrong's fundamentals; now it's more of a matter of figuring out how to bring out the best in Armstrong. We saw something to build on in those first, third and fourth quarters. That second quarter, not so much....but frankly, he didn't have a lot of help in that situation. BTW, nice block on Jordan Westerkamp's touchdown catch. That was a really bad play call, but great effort by both Westerkamp and Armstrong netted the Huskers at least an extra 4 points. Grade: B
I-Back: Where have you gone, Ameer Abdullah? Wait, we know: Detroit. Problem is, while Nebraska has a long list of I-backs, neither the previous staff nor this one have a good idea who the best of the bunch is. We know Imani Cross is the thumper, while the coaches think Terrell Newby is the gamebreaker. Problem is, we haven't really seen that out of Newby yet. (Though we did see a couple of nice runs out of Newby in the second half.) My vote is to see more from freshman Mikale Wilbon; in limited snaps, he showed more than we've seen in two seasons with Newby in games. Against South Alabama, some running back needs to get enough carries to top the century mark, because this running back-by-committee approach has failure written all over. As for this week, I'm giving the backs the benefit of the doubt because none of them were given much of a chance to succeed. Grade: C+
Wide Receivers: Looking for something really positive on this game? Start with the wide receivers, who made catches all day. Keith Williams may have been one of Mike Riley's last hires, but he might be one of his best. Alonzo Moore had one of his best days as a Husker filling in for De'Mornay Pierson-El. But he joined Pierson-El on the sidelines in the second half; hopefully it's not a long term injury. I want to see more of Stanley Morgan; he looks like the real deal. And I already raved about Westerkamp's catch. Grade: A
Offensive Line: I wish I found much to be optimistic about here. Alex Lewis had too many penalties, while Chongo Kondolo was beaten waaaay too often. That second quarter was especially craptastic, which is why I forgive Tommy Armstrong for his struggles at that time. One thing I noticed in the second half was that occasionally Kondolo and Dylan Utter switched sides. Grade: D
Defensive line: Much like their counterparts on offense, the defensive line went MIA in the second quarter, and frankly, didn't generate much push most of the day. It wasn't until defensive coordinator Mark Banker started getting aggressive with the blitz that we saw much pressure being applied to BYU's quarterbacks. And that's a shame when BYU is forced to turn to a true freshman quarterback; if you can't rattle him, who are you going to rattle? I did see a little flash from Freedom Akinmoladun; there might be a bit more depth this season than we thought. Grade: C-
Linebackers: Rewatching the second half, I saw a little more from Trent Bray's group than I did watching it live. It seemed that Josh Banderas was at his best when he was blitzing; assigning him to spy on BYU's Taysom Hill didn't work out very well at times. I saw a lot of good things to like from true freshman Dedrick Young; he looks like a keeper. Luke Gifford may have started, but he was mostly benched in favor of Aaron Williams, with Josh Kalu sliding over to play nickel. Grade: C+
Secondary: Coming out of last season, I thought the secondary would be the strength of this defense. Now, I'm not so sure they aren't the biggest concern. Against BYU, the secondary played it's best when they were aggressive in tight coverage, and that didn't happen much. Far too often, the corners gave a huge cushion, and turned the game into pitch-and-catch. And I have no idea what Banker and Brian Stewart were thinking on that final play. Lining up four defensive backs in the end zone meant that nobody was in front of Mitch Matthews when the ball arrived. Can't knock the ball away when you have nobody in position to make the play - and everybody knows where the ball is going in that situation. But hey, there were four guys behind the play to prevent being Westerkamp'd if Matthews had stone hands. Grade: D-
Special Teams: Many fans were excited to see a full time special teams coordinator at Nebraska this season, but in game one, special teams were anything but. Nobody could field a rugby punt until Nebraska inserted Stanley Morgan as a second safety. Two field goals were badly missed, and punter Sam Foltz got rolled on a bad block by D.J. Foster. Back to the drawing board, guys. Grade: D-
Strength and Conditioning: Yes, it was a hot day. But BYU didn't have near the issues with cramping that Nebraska did on Saturday, so let's not blame the heat for this one. Especially with a road trip to steamy Miami in two weeks, which promises to be just as warm, if not warmer. The 'Canes will be accustomed to the conditions; I have serious doubts the Huskers will be prepared for this one. Grade: D-
Overall: C You have to expect a few things not to work right in the first game after a coaching change, so no one should be surprised by that. Be disappointed by the loss, and hope that some of these issues can be fixed in practice this week.
Elsewhere in College Football
Kansas: 0 I think the Kansas State band had the Jayhawks pegged correctly. (NSFW... and did I really say that?)
Purdue: F Derp.
CoLOLorado: D I don't even think the Mountain West will take you anymore. And what's up with playing a game on Friday morning?
Texas: F Do you know that since the Bovines were gifted that second, they are 36-29? That's John Mackovic and David McWilliams-like.