Just five games into his tenure, Nebraska coach Mike Riley is already getting a glimpse of what life is like in Lincoln. The first-year coach is already facing plenty of criticism after the Cornhuskers’ 2-3 start, especially after how Saturday’s Illinois-Nebraska game ended and the management of a third-down play late in the fourth quarter.
While 2-3 isn’t where Nebraska or Riley wants to be, this team isn’t far from a 4-1 record. The Cornhuskers lost on a Hail Mary touchdown pass to BYU, and who knows what happens if quarterback Tommy Armstrong simply tucks and runs the ball on third down against Illinois instead of attempting a pass?
Patience is difficult for any fanbase, but Riley is just five games into his tenure. Maybe he’s not the right coach, but it’s too early to know. Considering Nebraska’s three losses by five points or less, small improvement and better late-game management could easily swing close games into the win column this year.
Need reason to be optimistic for the rest of the season? Here’s five reasons Nebraska fans should be patient with new coach Mike Riley.
5 Reasons Nebraska Should be Patient With Mike Riley
1. Close Losses/Bad Luck Eventually Flips the Other Way
As mentioned above, the bounces go a different way in two games and Nebraska is 4-1 instead of 2-3. That type of luck won’t continue forever. The Cornhuskers could also help their win total by improving a turnover margin that’s currently minus-four after Week 5.
2. The Remaining Schedule
Of the seven remaining games on Nebraska’s schedule, five are against teams projected by Athlon Sports in the preseason to make a bowl. However, none of those games are guaranteed losses, with Michigan State on Nov. 7 standing out as the toughest remaining contest. Additionally, there’s only three matchups on the road the rest of the way, including trips to Purdue, Rutgers and Minnesota. Playing at Purdue and Rutgers isn’t exactly a daunting road game for Nebraska. It’s not easy, but the schedule is manageable.
Nebraska hasn’t had the best luck in terms of health to start the season. Depth was an issue at a few spots for this team in the preseason, and the linebacking corps has missed Michael Rose-Ivey and Josh Banderas, as both have played in only two games. Additionally, standout defensive tackle Vincent Valentine has played in just two contests. The bad news continued for coordinator Mark Banker this week, as defensive tackle Kevin Maurice was ruled out for at least four weeks due to a foot stress fracture. On the positive side for Banker, end Jack Gangwish returned against Illinois and should take on a larger role against Wisconsin. Additionally…
4. WR De’Mornay Pierson-El is Back
Pierson-El returned to the lineup after a preseason foot injury against Illinois. The dynamic junior caught just one pass for six yards and was in the mix for returns. Riley and coordinator Danny Langsdorf planned for Pierson-El to play a heavy role in the offense this season as one of the team’s top receivers, as well as a rushing threat from fly sweeps. Pierson-El was a critical piece of the passing attack last season by catching 23 passes for 321 yards and four scores, while also averaging 17.5 yards per punt return. With Pierson-El back in the mix, Nebraska’s offense and special teams now have one of the Big Ten’s top big-play threats at their disposal.
5. QB Tommy Armstrong and Transition
While some coaches have an immediate impact on their new team, most take a year or two in order to implement their systems and attract the necessary talent. Naturally, patience is required by the fans. However, while Nebraska adapts to its new schemes and coaching staff, it does have one of the top quarterbacks in the Big Ten in Tommy Armstrong. The junior leads all Big Ten quarterbacks by averaging 274.2 passing yards per game this season. Sure, Armstrong needs to play better than he did against Illinois. However, having a proven quarterback can make up for some of the deficiencies in other areas. While the Cornhuskers need time to transition on both sides of the ball, Armstrong’s development so far is a positive sign and should help this team improve over the next two months.