The Cornhuskers are 1-2. Can Mike Riley find the right answers?
With a new starting quarterback and a defense making a significant switch from a 4-3 to a 3-4 scheme, Nebraska had all of the makings of a team in transition for 2017. And so far, it’s been a roller-coaster ride for coach Mike Riley’s team. The Cornhuskers led Arkansas State 41-26 in the fourth quarter but had to hold on for a 43-36 victory. Nebraska rallied from a huge first-half deficit against Oregon, only to see the game end with an interception.
However, neither game was as disappointing to the Nebraska fanbase as the 21-17 home loss to Northern Illinois on Saturday. The performance against the Huskies was simply dismal and unacceptable. Nebraska outgained Northern Illinois 384 to 213 but had two interceptions returned for scores, one drive ended on downs in Huskies’ territory and a 37-yard field goal was blocked.
Outside of the self-inflicted mistakes, Nebraska struggled to protect quarterback Tanner Lee. The Huskies recorded eight tackles for a loss and three sacks. Additionally, with running back Tre Bryant sidelined, the Cornhuskers managed just 85 rushing yards on 36 attempts.
If there was a silver lining for Nebraska following Saturday’s game, it was the performance on defense. Bob Diaco’s group only allowed two drives longer than 50 yards, forced four three-and-outs, recorded two sacks and held the Huskies to just 3 of 13 on third-down conversions.
After the loss, the cloud of uncertainty surrounding Riley's tenure in Nebraska is only growing larger. Barring a complete disaster, it seems unlikely a coaching change is in order at the end of the season. Of course, in college football, nothing would be a surprise. A 4-8 finish would certainly change the dynamic.
It’s no secret the seat is getting warm under Riley, but he was quietly extended to 2020 earlier this year. In addition to Diaco’s arrival, Scott Booker was promoted to safeties coach in June, and Donte Williams was hired to coach cornerbacks. Williams is especially valuable on the recruiting trail, as he’s regarded for his work in California. With the defense featuring three new assistants, some changes could take place if the offense continues to struggle at the end of the year.
Since a 7-0 start last year, Nebraska is just 3-6 over the last nine contests. Additionally, the Cornhuskers are just 9-8 in Big Ten games under Riley’s watch.
On the positive side, recruiting is going well (at least for now). Nebraska has reeled in back-to-back top-25 classes. Additionally, the Cornhuskers have 10 commits for 2018, with six ranking as four-star prospects. The talent level is on the rise in Lincoln.
Nebraska has lost seven turnovers through the first three games, which ranks 110th nationally. A minus-two turnover margin in back-to-back games is unsustainable the rest of the year. However, even with some movement to the even or positive ratio, Nebraska has to do a better job of holding onto the ball.
From a statistical standpoint, the picture on both sides of the ball isn’t great. Nebraska’s defense ranks last in the Big Ten by allowing 5.8 yards per play and is tied for last by giving up 33 points a game. Additionally, the Cornhuskers have forced only five turnovers, generated just three sacks, rank 11th in the Big Ten in third-down defense and has allowed three plays of 40 or more yards.
Nebraska’s offense is averaging 5.42 yards per play – up from 5.36 in 2016. Additionally, the scoring average has climbed to 31.7. But similar to the defense, a deeper look at the numbers only raises more concerns. The Cornhuskers have only one play of 40 or more yards this season, have surrendered six sacks, average just 4.1 yards per rush and rank 13th in the Big Ten in third-down offense. Quarterback Tanner Lee – considered to be a better fit for the offense than former starter Tommy Armstrong – is completing 52.5 percent of his throws and has already tossed seven picks.
With only three games in the books, those stats are far from complete and will fluctuate significantly over the rest of the season. A healthy Bryant should help at running back later in the year, and it’s possible Lee will improve once the offensive line settles into place.
Of Nebraska’s nine Big Ten contests, six are against bowl teams from 2016. Additionally, one of those programs that didn’t make a bowl (Purdue) might be the Big Ten’s most improved team in 2017. Needless to say, the schedule isn’t going to get any easier for the Cornhuskers.
With a 1-2 record through the first three games of 2017, what’s next for Nebraska?
Here are a few areas to watch over the next few weeks:
Injury has already claimed standout cornerback Chris Jones for the season, but if Nebraska can get running back Tre Bryant and offensive linemen David Knevel and Matt Farniok back to 100 percent soon, that’s huge boost for the offense in Big Ten play.
Losing the turnover battle every week is a recipe for disaster. Nebraska doesn’t have the margin for error to give away possessions right now.
Transitioning to a 3-4 scheme is a significant move for a program that was a 4-3 approach in previous years. How much will this unit progress over the rest of the season? The good news? It’s a defense featuring only three starters listed as seniors by the depth chart for Rutgers. Improvement over the final nine games would bode well for 2018.
The Offensive Line and Running Game
Quarterback Tanner Lee has to do a better job of holding onto the ball and showing more overall consistency. However, the offense is going to struggle if it can’t establish the run. Under Riley’s tenure, Nebraska has posted six games of less than 100 rushing yards. Generating more production from the ground would allow for more third-and-short situations and open up the play-action throws for Lee.
Quarterback Tanner Lee
Lee generated a lot of buzz for his performance at the Manning Passing Academy this offseason, but he's tossed seven picks to five touchdowns and the 52.5 completion percentage ranks 12th among Big Ten quarterbacks. It's hard to fault Lee for the offensive troubles considering the issues up front and on the ground against Northern Illinois. However, if Nebraska wants to turn things around, getting more consistency out of Lee is a must.
Back to our original question: What’s next for Nebraska? After Saturday’s game, there’s a lot of (and for good reason) concern. The Cornhuskers may struggle to get to a bowl game. Six or seven win campaigns aren’t the expectation in Lincoln. With a starting lineup filled with underclassmen, along with a healthy Chris Jones at cornerback in 2018, it’s easy to be a little more optimistic about Nebraska next year.
But that’s 2018. Mike Riley needs to find a way to win now.