In ancient Greece, an apologea was not an apology issued by an offender of another’s sensibilities as a means of amends, as we define the root word in our contemporary society. Rather, an apologea was a defense of another against the charges levied by a prosecuting body. Specifically, Plato issued an (ill-fated) apologea on behalf of his friend, the great teacher Socrates, on charges of impiety* against Greek sensibilities of their time. Today, I would like to offer up my own apologea for the current coaching staff, hopefully with a more successful outcome.
*impiety: lack of reverence
Despite my angst immediately after the Wisconsin game last Saturday night, I am still in support of Mike Riley’s continued leadership at the helm of Nebraska football. Husker Nation’s own charges of the Riley staff’s supposed impiety to our tradition of excellence is illogical when you consider what he inherited. It is fair to state that few if any expected that Nebraska would require a total retooling of the program on November 30, 2014, the day Bo Pelini was fired. However, it is quite evident that there are talent deficiencies, stemming from roster mismanagement which continues to plague our beloved program. One of the strongest indicators of this can be found by looking at Nebraska’s starting 22. Eleven of the twenty-two starters either did not hold another Power 5 offer other than Nebraska or entered the program as a walk-on. This is not to suggest that all of these players do not possess the ability to develop into good players (namely, Michael Decker, Mick Stoltenberg, Luke Gifford, and Chris Weber). Rather, when half of your starting line-up does not hold any other Power 5 offer, it limits Nebraska’s ceiling when facing programs with either better development (Wisconsin) or talent (Ohio State). While developmental inefficiencies need to be addressed, another key component of Nebraska’s rebuild is recruiting, and not just to beat Wisconsin, but to elevate Nebraska to a level commensurate with Ohio State or Penn State.
To illustrate the importance of recruiting’s effect on both development and results, consider the following. Upon his arrival in 2007, Pelini inherited a roster stocked with 17 future NFL draftees, including two first round picks, a pair of All-American DB’s, a once-in-a-generation DT, and 3 other All-Conference caliber defensive linemen. Riley did not inherit such a roster. In fact, the roster Riley inherited has yielded 5 draft selections with 4 of those alone in 2016, with last year’s sole pick going in the 5th round. While not a perfect indicator of college talent, the NFL draft does indicate development progress from acquisition to graduation. To address this talent deficiency, Riley has worked diligently to stock the roster with talented players with offer sheets to match. It is safe to say this was not Pelini’s approach: his staff tended to focus on “diamonds in the rough” and fighting Group of Five programs for a majority of their picks, while hoping for players like Ameer Abdullah to slip through the cracks. This lack of effort in recruiting began to show in 2011, as Pelini’s defenses started to deteriorate and the blowouts began to get larger and larger. If in your mind Callahan was to blame for any roster problems after 2010, it is fair to say that Pelini remains at fault for similar roster inefficiencies in 2017.
I know recruiting and development talk is nothing but cold comfort for a large majority of Husker Nation. No one expected the drop-off to occur, and surely there are aspects of this program that need to be addressed for a better future, but I think it may be worth Nebraska’s time to show patience at this time. Nebraska entered 2017 with 78 players on scholarship, including former walk-ons. It takes time to address roster mismanagement, and it seems like Nebraska has been too fast and too strong-headed to give staffs time to adjust. Two and a half seasons seems a little short if you consider that we’ve been locked in an existential crisis at Nebraska since November 23, 2001, 5,803 days ago. But as I’ll discuss now, there are improvements happening, they’re just lost under the noise of playing against better, more developed or talented teams.
Leaving the stadium in a smoldering rage on Saturday, I stated that I was not opposed to a coaching change after the final three Wisconsin scoring drives left Husker Nation collectively feeling like Georgia after Sherman cut a swath through the Peach State on his March to the Sea. This feeling continued through Sunday and most of Monday until I was able to sit down and fire up the DVR, and watch the game divorced of any and all emotion.
Upon reviewing the film, I was surprised to find that we actually played reasonably well. The Huskers continued to show incremental improvements that were on display in the games following the Northern Illinois loss. While lost in the noise of the loss and the horror of the fourth quarter, I want to focus on this incremental improvement, a qualitative analysis of football, rather than looking solely at the box score, the quantitative analysis. In my opinion, the offensive line is burgeoning into being a semi-functional unit. They did not allow a sack on Tanner Lee while he was in the pocket and minimized penetration on run plays; marked improvements from earlier this season. When looking for this incremental improvement look no further than how center Michael Decker is displacing a DT and being crisp with line calls. Look for Lee’s steadily improving pocket awareness and ball placement, even on the incompletions, a sure sign of shaking off the rust. Despite this incremental improvement, one concern that will remain is that Nebraska’s pullers on the Counter play, and the wing players tasked with blocking overhang defenders on Duo, struggled against the Badgers and this is not an issue that can be easily remedied mid-season. These skills, being able to overpower a squeezing OLB with better functional strength (upward lift) and functional movement (quickness on pulls), or securing a DE on Duo with heavier hands and punch, must be developed through practice reps and in the weight room.
In the passing game, Nebraska’s receivers were unable to get consistent separation, the legality of which was questionable at best. However, a dropped pass by DPE in the south end zone proved to be pivotal, as that drive ended in a punt. Despite Lee playing one of his better games, his miss of a wide freakin’ open JD Spielman on a corner route on 3rd & 4 killed a Husker drive that again ended in a punt. That’s 14 points right there, without even getting into the discussion of the pick-six on the Tailback Crack Screen to the boundary or the missed field goal.
I should note that none of these issues stemmed from Husker fans’ favorite patsy, play-calling and the play-caller, specifically. Play-callers aren’t perfect (even Tom Osborne was not without his shortcomings), but talent and the corresponding execution can go a very long way in masking bad calls. A bad play-call would be running inside when you’re outnumbered in the box. A bad play-call is running a route combo with every route short of the sticks on 3rd down. What a bad play-call is not is throwing a Crack Screen, a very safe throw designed to defeat man coverage, to the boundary when the tailback is supposed to bubble his route, but doesn’t.
Defensively, the lack of developed depth in the front 7 was evident when facing a threshing machine like the Wisconsin offense. Although they held up admirably through 2 1⁄2 quarters, the inability to get a stop led to the defense being gassed, not the other way around. With a worn-out front 7, the Husker down defenders were left susceptible to getting reached on Outside Zone, the Badger constraint to Diaco opting to defend the Badger’s run game inside-out, hedging against their vaunted bread & butter Counter play. The defensive horrors didn’t stop there, however, as the secondary found itself out of position frequently and being unable to tackle the Badger Buzzsaw Jonathan Taylor. Diaco will have to address these busts in run fits to prevent these kinds of fourth quarter breakdowns in the future, as Wisconsin pretty much gave other teams a blueprint on how to confound his defenses.
Despite these busts and execution failures, and despite the angst from last Saturday night, I am still in support of Riley, albeit with reservation. I would be dishonest if I didn’t mention that we played reasonably well against Wisconsin and continued our improvement post-NIU. No, this improvement did not show up in the Wisconsin box score and conventional wisdom states that it likely will not against An Ohio State University, either. But if we continue to show improvement, in both development and schematic familiarity, I like the trajectory.
Barring a complete disaster, like finishing 3-9, Riley deserves another year, at minimum. Being the skipper for 2018 will help ink a potentially program-changing recruiting class, and while signing players like Bookie and Joshua Moore won’t solely beat Wisconsin, the continued development through the continuance of the Mike Riley era will. Even with Riley’s retention, we may need to make some assistant coaching changes to address outstanding issues in recruiting and development. If 2018 proves to be another verse of the same song, then at that point the die has been cast and it is appropriate to discuss a wholesale change.
Until then, GBR and #WTDG.