You don't go 5–7 at Nebraska: Why Mike Riley sees a bright future after the Huskers' 2015 nightmare; Punt, Pass & Pork
LINCOLN, Neb. — More cameras than usual swarmed in just as Nebraska's practice wrapped Friday. The people toting those cameras did not come to hear how the Cornhuskers could improve on a 6–7 season—including a 5–7 regular season record—that followed the firing of a staff that had won at least nine a year for seven consecutive years. They came to hear coach Mike Riley explain how he would handle another screw-up.
This one was different from losing to Illinois or Purdue, though. Receivers coach Keith Williams had been arrested on suspicion of DUI the previous weekend. If Williams is found guilty, this would be his third DUI conviction. (He had convictions in California in 2004 and 2009.) After Williams read from a prepared statement about holding himself accountable and turning a negative into a positive, Riley and athletic director Shawn Eichorst came to explain their decision to suspend Williams for two weeks without pay and then ban him from coaching in Nebraska's first four games.
When Eichorst fired Bo Pelini after the 2014 season for failing to lift the program off a seven-year plateau, the AD probably didn't envision that his next coach would start with a losing season and then spend time after a practice before his second season explaining how the team will handle its on-field and recruiting business if the receivers coach is in jail or on house arrest. But that's where Nebraska is at the moment. The expectations of national titles have faded. Now, the fans who keep packing Memorial Stadium hope for a team that doesn't embarrass them further.
The firing of Pelini broke up the monotony of 9–4 seasons. It allowed the Cornhuskers to feel something again. Unfortunately, since Riley was hired, that feeling usually has been heartbreak. Nebraska lost four games last year on the opponent's final possession. Later, Nebraska became the first Big Ten opponent to lose to Purdue since October 2014. The Cornhuskers would have missed playing in a bowl game, but they got bailed out by a lack of enough 6–6 teams to fill all the available bowl slots.
Still, before Williams rear-ended an Uber driver's car last weekend, there was reason for optimism. As unpleasant as last season may have been, the first-year staff didn't lose the locker room. The Cornhuskers didn't quit. A week after losing at Purdue, they handed eventual Big Ten champ Michigan State its only regular-season loss. And though they got into the Foster Farms Bowl on a technicality, they played as if they belonged. The staff and quarterback Tommy Armstrong finally looked comfortable with one another, and Nebraska rolled up 500 yards of offense (326 on the ground) in a 37–29 win against UCLA. "Yeah, we were lucky," Riley said of getting into the bowl game during an interview with myself and Butch Davis for SiriusXM's College Sports Nation channel. "And I'm not going to apologize. Because we needed that. We were 5-7 at Nebraska."
Riley, long known as one of the nicest, most realistic people in the sport, understands exactly what going 5–7 at Nebraska means. It means that like Williams, who will be gone if he slips up again, the entire coaching staff is on notice. Nebraska doesn't go 5–7. Nebraska does not tolerate losing seasons. Nebraska is supposed to be better than that.
So what happened last year? It shouldn't come as a shock that some of the older players bristled at the firing of a coaching staff that had been more successful at Nebraska in 2014 than Riley's staff had been at Oregon State in 2014. "I've never been in a situation like that," defensive coordinator Mark Banker said. "You come into a program that's been winning nine games a year for seven years. Then you roll into town and they want to know what you have to offer them." Banker pointed out that Riley probably could have bought some loyalty by immediately benching some veterans in favor of younger players, but Banker said that isn't Riley's style. As players and coaches adjusted to each other, the Cornhuskers struggled in an unusual way. They lost on a Hail Mary in the season opener against BYU. Two weeks later, they fell behind at Miami, put together the biggest fourth-quarter comeback in school history and fell in overtime. On Oct. 3, they allowed Illinois to score a touchdown with 10 seconds remaining. A week later, Wisconsin's Rafael Gaglianone kicked a 46-yard field goal with four seconds remaining to silence Memorial Stadium. Then Northwestern beat Nebraska in less dramatic fashion, but the 30–28 defeat was Nebraska's fifth by five or fewer points. Then came Purdue.
"Losing to Purdue on the road was absolutely the bottom," Banker said. "When you look back, it was the best thing that could have happened. There was nowhere to go but up. We had everybody's attention." And with the players watching, what did the coaches do? Nothing different. They didn't yell more. They didn't completely overhaul the scheme. That lack of panic, players and coaches believe, had a calming effect on the team. "The players saw that these guys aren't changing because of this," Riley said. "They saw the same guys. I think players just have to see how you're going to make it better."
Linebacker Michael Rose-Ivey noticed that the resistance from the older players melted after that loss. They, too, realized they had reached the bottom. But they hadn't reached the season's end. "We can salvage something," Rose-Ivey said of the attitude in the locker room. The Huskers scored two touchdowns in final 1:47 the following week to squeak out a 39–38 win against Michigan State. The deciding score may have been controversial, but after all those heartbreakers, Nebraska may have been due to get lucky.
The Huskers were fortunate again to get into that bowl game, and the benefits likely will carry over into this season. Nebraska essentially got another camp, except this time the coaches knew the players and the players knew the coaches. It also didn't hurt that the players worked out many of their issues amongst themselves in practice a few days before the team left for California. "We got in a huge team fight," Rose-Ivey said. "It felt like everything in the whole season was in there for a good three or four minutes. The funny thing is, coach Riley usually tries to break up fights. He just let it go. It was kind of one of those big relief things. Everybody got everything off their chests."
And everyone realized how 5–7 could have easily been 8–4 or 9–3. "Just look at the missed opportunities we had last year," Rose-Ivey said. "Everyone talks about the close games we lost and the margins of the losses we had. A lot of times it came down to us making a play and getting off the field on defense. It was always just one or two guys." Those lapses receded as the season went on as players and coaches began speaking the same language. Before, Banker said, "It was an ESL program." Now, after two spring practices and a full season, the players and coaches understand one another enough that Banker can crack wise with his defenders about how dire things were at the start of last season. "He told us how handicapped they were in playcalling," Rose-Ivey said. "We could barely run our base coverage right."
The offensive staff now has a much better understanding of how to utilize Armstrong. After trying to turn him into a pocket passer and watching Armstrong throw 16 interceptions, Riley and his assistants designed a gameplan for UCLA that better matched Armstrong's skill set. He responded by completing 12 of 19 passes for 174 yards and a touchdown with no interceptions. He also ran for 76 yards and a touchdown on 10 carries. Riley seems comfortable with that kind of statline going forward. "We are probably in some fashion primarily a running team that's going to take advantage of our quarterback's ability on first and second down to fake running the ball and get out of the pocket and throw," Riley said. "He's one of the best throwers on the run that I've ever been around."
Make no mistake, the Nebraska coaches are planning for a future that includes an offense that looks more like the one they ran at Oregon State. The battle lines are already drawn for a 2017 spring practice clash between Tulane transfer Tanner Lee, who must sit out this season due to NCAA transfer rules, and Patrick O'Brien, a freshman from California who is expected to redshirt this season. Lee and O'Brien are 6' 4" slingers who play a lot more like former Beavers quarterback Sean Mannion than they do Armstrong, who was recruited to run the previous staff's up-tempo spread. But for now, the Huskers will continue to play a hybrid scheme. The difference is this one should be better than the getting-to-know-you offense that struggled last season. Even with Williams suspended, the receivers should be fine. Jordan Westerkamp leads a deep and experienced group. Add 240-pound tight end Cethan Carter's ability to create coverage mismatches to the mix and Armstrong should have plenty of targets. Meanwhile, I-back Terrell Newby could get help carrying the rushing load from freshman Tre Bryant, who has impressed Riley in camp.
Riley lit up Friday when discussing Bryant's emergence. Perhaps it was because Riley sees a brighter future in a team he understands better than he did last season. Perhaps it was simply a welcome respite from answering questions about the latest calamity in a short tenure. Either way, Riley understands how this works. Before his team lucked into a bowl game, he went 5–7 at Nebraska. He knows he had better not do that again.
A random ranking
The preseason Associated Press poll was released Sunday morning, and I had two thoughts.
1) Boy, I'm glad I don't vote in the AP poll anymore.
2) What would a ranking of the best rankings look like?
Let's try to answer No. 2.
1. The airplay data from Radio and Records
When American Top 40 returned with Casey Kasem hosting in the late '90s, this was the data used to compile the countdown. The positioning of the songs on the chart, presumably, is how Kasem had to come out of an uptempo record and do a [bleepin'] dead dog dedication.
2. Playboy's annual party school rankings
Just imagine the painstaking research involved to get this correct.
3. The AP college football poll
It's usually wrong, but it gives us something to talk about.
Again, imagine the painstaking research.
5. Any list Scott Gold comes up with
Who is Gold? He's the new bacon critic at Extra Crispy, our new breakfast site at Time Inc. At some point, he's probably going to have to list the best slabs of bacon in America.
1. Riley and Eichorst came prepared Friday to take heat for Williams remaining on the staff. "We're accustomed to a lot of pushback from a lot of different things in the public," Eichorst said. Coach and AD made sure to acknowledge the seriousness of the offense and how lucky it was that Williams didn't seriously injure or kill anyone. But they also offered reasons for keeping Williams, even though the likely real reason was pushed far down the list. Riley and Eichorst each said that Williams can use his struggles as a teaching tool when dealing with players. Most likely, Williams still has a job because he is Nebraska's best recruiter, and a great recruiter is quite valuable indeed at a school that doesn't have a huge natural recruiting base.
Eichorst and Riley said Williams, who has two previous DUI convictions, went through the typical Nebraska employee vetting process. Before this, the only odd behavior from Williams since coming to Lincoln involved him mixing it up on Twitter with his counterpart on a much more successful staff. But that was harmless. This is not.
What happens to Williams beyond his suspension is unclear. He has a court date in October, and while he was charged with a misdemeanor instead of a felony that could have landed him in jail for a year, he still could face house arrest or a short jail sentence. Also, how will he recruit with a suspended license? It's either Uber, Lyft or another coach driving him around. And don't be shocked when coaches who recruit against Williams show this photo to the parents of every player Williams recruits.
2. Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly dismissed senior safety Max Redfield and has suspended senior cornerback Devin Butler indefinitely following separate incidents late Friday night/early Saturday morning. Redfield was one of five Fighting Irish players arrested in Indiana's Fulton County after police found marijuana and a handgun during a traffic stop. Sophomore back Dexter Williams, sophomore linebacker Te'von Coney, sophomore cornerback Ashton White and freshman receiver Kevin Stepherson were also involved. All five face marijuana possession charges and Redfield, Williams and Stepherson face a charge of possession of a handgun without a license. Butler was arrested in a separate incident in South Bend. Kelly said Williams, Stepherson, Coney and White would be punished internally and also might still face university discipline that could affect their playing status. Butler was arrested in a separate incident outside The Linebacker bar in South Bend. He is accused of tackling a police officer during a scuffle.
Redfield was listed as a potential starter at strong safety, but that job probably was going to go to freshman Devin Studstill by the time the Irish open at Texas on Sept. 4.
3. The first Associated Press Top 25 poll was released Sunday. Click here to find out which reporters hate your team.
4. It's time to update the quarterback decision tracker.
On Saturday, USC named Max Browne its starer.
On Thursday, Florida named Luke Del Rio its starter.
On Saturday, Texas coach Charlie Strong said "I kind of know" when asked if he had decided between freshman Shane Buechele and senior Tyrone Swoopes. Hint: It's probably Buechele.
5. Why do we know it's probably Buechele? Because Strong has steered most answers to questions about the quarterbacks toward the freshman. In the process, Strong usually mention's Buechele's dominance at ping pong. At one point, it seemed Buechele would supplant Forrest Gump as the greatest American table tennis player, but the youngster's run of dominance ended last week.
6. Former five-star recruit Tyron Johnson has left LSU and will transfer to Oklahoma State. He'll be eligible to play for the Cowboys in 2017.
7. Sara Hill, the wife of Weber State coach Jay Hill, threw a head-shaving party last week to prepare for chemotherapy as she fights Hodgkin lymphoma. Wildcats players and coaches joined in, shaving their heads in solidarity.
8. Remember the awesome sharktooth helmet Air Force unveiled earlier this month to pay homage to the Flying Tigers squadron? The Falcons revealed the rest of the uniform last week.
9. Meanwhile, Virginia Tech revealed its uniforms for the Sept. 10 matchup with Tennessee at Bristol Motor Speedway.
10. Hawaii long snapper Brodie Nakama climbed the high dive and found a scholarship.
What's eating Andy?
The storms that flooded Baton Rouge didn't have a name and haven't gotten the attention some recent hurricanes have, but they've devastated the city just the same. A lot of people still need help. If you'd like to help, the American Red Cross is taking donations here.
What's Andy eating?
Since we started this feature, I've offered recommendations for dining in Manhattan. I've written about places in Midtown, the Lower East Side, the West Village and Chinatown. But until now, I've never told you what to eat in the Manhattan that college football fans care about most. It's time to correct that oversight. After a couple of days in Manhattan, Kan., for a radio assignment, here is the ultimate guide to dining in the Little Apple.
For the full sit-down experience, head to The Chef. Get there about 10 minutes before they open if you want a seat. Otherwise, you'll be waiting outside for a table. Once inside, you're ordering the I (Heart) Meat frittata. This isn't anything fancy, but a great breakfast doesn't need to be fancy. It's a fistful of bacon, sausage, ham and cheddar jammed into three eggs and baked.
For a quicker, coffee shop breakfast, head to Radina's Bakehouse. Either the Black Forest Mocha or the Snickers mocha will provide your caffeine fix. For your caloric needs, order the Butter Flight. This is the same concept you'd expect with wine, beer or bourbon, except with butter. Choose the herb butter and the honey butter, and spread it on sourdough. Then hit the gym, because you're going to need to burn off some of that butter before…
Bud and Bobby Cox spent some time in Memphis, and they dared to open a couple of barbecue joints this close to Kansas City without adhering to KC's dump-four-gallons-of-sauce-on-everything ethos. I had their ribs on a previous trip to Manhattan and came away impressed. But their Memphis inspiration doesn't stop at protein. It also veers into carbohydrates.
Bar-B-Q Shop and Interstate Barbecue in Memphis serve Barbecue Spaghetti, and the Cox brothers have brought this delicacy to Kansas. Basically, this is the barbecue version of Cincinnati's chili three-way, but smoked meat replaces chili. In Memphis, it's pulled pork. In Manhattan, it's brisket and sausage. The Cox brothers pack a huge portion of these meats into spaghetti. Barbecue sauce replaces spaghetti sauce, but the key here is tossing the noodles so that there is no excess sauce at the bottom of the dish. Each bite has a tangy sliver of sauce but nothing more, because that would overpower the meat and the noodles.
This one is dangerous, and you probably should head back to the gym before you head out for …
Bourbon and Baker offers a huge variety of small plates and dozens of bourbons. Get some of each. The old fashioneds and the Manhattans are mixed perfectly and less than half the price of their counterparts in that other Manhattan. Among the small plates, get the Brussels Sprouts (bacon, sea salt, sweet cider vinaigrette, parmesan cheese), the duck fat fries (with a broiled egg and Mornay sauce), the fried bologna slider and the chicken and biscuit. This last one, with a hunk of fried chicken over a fluffy biscuit resting on a small pool of cream gravy and honey hot sauce, could be a meal all by itself.
For dessert, get the chocolate ganache sandwiched between two chocolate chip cookies. Or head to the Aggieville bar district on a Friday or Saturday night and seek out the Varsity Donuts truck. Varsity's brick-and-mortar location is open daily for your donut needs, but on the weekends, the donuts are also sold out of a truck for those who have had a few too many Nancys (Old Milwaukee and pineapple juice; this is a thing in the Little Apple). Get the maple bacon bar, the Fruity Pebbles doughnut or the red velvet doughnut. That last one is red velvet cake in doughnut form, which seems like the perfect way to soak up Old Milwaukee and pineapple juice.