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  • Nebraska is 1–0 since firing AD Shawn Eichorst, but the road is about to get much tougher for Mike Riley from here. Plus more Week 5 notes, including Michigan’s secret weapon, Gary Patterson’s latest victim and the surprising improvement of Texas Tech’s defense.
By Bruce Feldman
September 26, 2017

Mike Riley didn’t enter this season on the hottest seat of any coach in football, but that’s all changed in the first month thanks to back-to-back losses at Oregon and at home to Northern Illinois. The latter, the Huskers’ first loss to a non–Power 5 program at home in 13 years, especially hurt Riley’s cause. Then last week the university canned athletic Shawn Eichorst, the man who hired him. Eichorst, we’re told, made a series of short-sighted moves that proved to be political clunkers with Huskers brass, going back to the process that led to hiring Riley.

The Huskers did get a win over the weekend, defeating a hapless Rutgers squad 27–17 in Lincoln, but the Scarlet Knights are the worst team on Nebraska’s schedule. The next easiest game is this week: a road game against an Illinois team coming off a blowout loss at USF. The schedule turns nasty from there. Three of the Huskers’ last seven opponents—Wisconsin, Ohio State and Penn State—are ranked in the top 11. They also have to face 3–0 Minnesota on the road and finish against an Iowa team that just gave Penn State all it could handle.

Riley is a good coach. He proved that by winning at Oregon State with much less than what other Pac-12 coaches had. He’s also one of the best people in the profession. I suspect that last part mattered quite a bit for Nebraska brass coming out of the Bo Pelini era. The reality is that Riley has a major uphill climb to keep his job past this season. Even winning six of his last eight games (which would mean knocking off one of those three top-11 teams) probably won’t be enough. Firing Eichorst only cranked up the pressure on Riley that much more.

Early speculation has Nebraska wanting to return to its roots by hiring Trev Alberts, now the AD at Nebraska-Omaha, to become the new athletic director, then luring former Huskers quarterback and current UCF head coach Scott Frost (who was Oregon’s offensive coordinator when Nebraska’s coaching job was last open in 2015 yet never got a sniff from Eichorst). A source plugged in at Nebraska told me there’s truth to that speculation. First things first, though, the university needs to move on hiring its new AD. The school announced Tuesday that another Huskers legend, Dave Rimington, will serve as the interim.

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Week 4 Notes

• Gary Patterson did it again, derailing a high-powered offense that got in TCU’s way. In 2006, he did it to Mike Leach at Texas Tech. A few years back, he shut down Ole Miss in the 2014 Peach Bowl. Last year, he held Pat Mahomes and Texas Tech’s offense to a season-low 345 yards one week after it had 819 against Oklahoma. On Saturday, TCU upset Oklahoma State in Stillwater, 44–31, limiting Mason Rudolph to just two TD passes to go with his two interceptions.

TCU blitzed Rudolph much less often (only about a half-dozen times) than it did last year. Patterson’s defensive backs played deeper, using more Cover-2 than his typical Quarters coverage. The Horned Frogs’ D-line whipped the Cowboys up front. The win moved TCU to 4–0 and improved Patterson’s record to a more than respectable 6–5 against teams ranked in the top six.

• Speaking of terrific defensive minds, Michigan defensive coordinator Don Brown has once again put together a nasty unit. The Wolverines came into the season with just one returning starter on defense, and yet they still lead the nation in fewest yards allowed per play. Two seniors, disruptive defensive tackle Mo Hurst and edge rusher Chase Winovich, have been outstanding, but two sophomores are off to breakout starts that have really caught the attention of rival coaches.

When Rashan Gary arrived in Ann Arbor, he was widely hailed as the nation’s No. 1 recruit, and he has backed up that lofty status. Brown told me Gary is one of the hardest workers they have at practice and uses his hands so well. I asked him if Gary reminds him of anyone he’s coached at previous stops, and Brown mentioned Boston College star Harold Landry, a guy who some analysts project as a top-10 pick in this year’s draft. But Brown pointed out Gary is a whole lot bigger: He weighs in the 280s (about 30 pounds more than Landry) and is still running the 40-yard dash in the high 4.5 range. “His ceiling is extremely high to be that big and run as well as he does,” Brown says.

Two weeks ago, the Wolverines held Air Force to 232 yards of total offense, its lowest output since 2012. Air Force coach Troy Calhoun told me this was one of the best defenses he’s ever faced. The guy who really caught his eye was linebacker Devin Bush Jr. “He doesn’t look like much, he’s maybe 5'10", but he’s so quick and tough. He just unloads and knocks the heck out of people.”

The Michigan staff loves Bush’s intelligence and how well he blitzes. He leads the team with 32 tackles (second-best in the Big Ten) and also has 5.5 tackles for loss.

One other Michigan note: Jim Harbaugh has quite a weapon in kickoff man James Foug. Purdue special teams coordinator Tony Levine told me that in 15 years as a coach he’s never seen a kickoff guy get the kind of hang time Foug gets. Most of his kickoffs end up as touchbacks. The ones that are returned end up with the opponent’s average starting field position at their 17.

Levine says anything over four seconds of hang time on a kickoff is exceptional; Foug’s kicks consistently come in around 4.5. Usually when the returner catches the kick, you want the coverage guys to be inside the 35-yard line; Levine says that by the time Michigan’s opponents receive the ball, the Wolverines’ coverage team is typically inside the 25.

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• I doubt my FOX crew is going to do a game this season featuring a more impressive person than Army junior linebacker Kenneth Brinson, who we met a week back before the Black Knights’ game against Ohio State. His GPA is 4.06 and he’s majoring in chemical engineering. In addition to everything he does over the course of a packed day at West Point, he’s also tutoring other Cadets. This is a guy who had almost a perfect score on the SATs, is the best athlete on this Army team and won the Georgia state high school wrestling title three times. He turned down Stanford, among others, to come to Army and has won the Patriot League discus and hammer throw titles.

So how does he juggle all of that?

“I got a lot of resources and a whole lot of help from my mom and my dad,” Brinson says.

He told me eventually he’d like to go to med school and become an anesthesiologist.

• Stat of the Day: Texas Tech is tied for the fewest 30-yard plays allowed (one) in the country. The Red Raiders allowed 44 such plays in 2016 and surrendered 44 in ’15. In addition, they are a respectable 47th in yards per play allowed (5.09). Last year they were 126th (7.05) and the year before that, they were 122nd. It looks like the Red Raiders have taken a big step forward in year three under defensive coordinator David Gibbs, but they’ll take a big step up in competition this week when an angry Oklahoma State visits Lubbock.

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