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Can Riley unite a house divided?

In third season, clear progress by NU coach would bring healing to the Heartland


How long will Husker Nation continue to be a house divided?

When will the clamor about Mike Riley finally die down? At times, Nebraska fans seem like two nations at war. Can we reach a consensus on the nice guy from Corvallis who makes brilliant off-the-field decisions and proved that you can indeed persuade four- and five-star high school prospects to take a serious recruiting trip to Lincoln – but who already has a losing season at NU, and whose winning percentage as coach of the Big Red (.577) is only a shade north of his career winning percentage at Oregon State (.538)?

As Abraham Lincoln once said, Nebraskans cannot continue to exist half pro-Riley and half anti-Riley. Or something like that. (I figure Lincoln had the future Cornhusker State on his mind quite often once he became agitated by the passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act in 1854.) Husker Nation must either become all one thing or all the other. And so it will. But it’ll probably take a conference championship or another sub-.500 season to sort things out for good.

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Deep into the fourth year of his first term, Lincoln was still opposed by a wide swath of the nation. Both Lincoln and Riley and their respective staffs took a beating in the Civil War (the Great Emancipator was still taking his lumps as Union casualty rates continued to skyrocket at Spotsylvania Court House and Cold Harbor; meanwhile, with the stakes substantially lower, Riley went 4-10 against Oregon while at Oregon State). Things finally swung decisively in Lincoln’s favor when Union troops captured Atlanta. Two months later, he was re-elected.

How can Riley shake off his own doubters and garner an overwhelming majority in the court of public opinion? The same way the 16th president did – by winning.

Eventually, opinions – even diverse opinions – crystallize around a coach, and his reputation is firmly established. I think Riley will succeed at Nebraska, and a large majority of Husker fans will someday line up in his camp, although it may take until 2019, his fifth season — one year longer than it did for Honest Abe. Frankly, I don’t think the majority of Husker fans are all that far apart in their assessment of their head coach even now. The vast majority of people I interviewed in my “Pregame Perspective” series last fall were strongly pro-Riley. Would it help the Husker football program if fans presented a truly united front? Certainly. But in fairness to the anti-Riley folks, it would help Husker fans line up on his side if he could simply convince them that he can coach as well on the field as he does off of it.

Is this the year he sheds his “mediocre-coach-who-occasionally-pulls-a-big-upset” reputation and starts to develop into a consistent winner? No, not according to many college football pundits, who predict NU will scuffle around the six-win mark this fall. I disagree; there’s too much talent on this edition of the Huskers to go 6-6, but for the sake of argument, let’s consider the possibility.

A .500 season won’t gain Riley an inch of ground, and could swing the pendulum irreversably against him, despite the curious recent efforts of Lincoln- and Omaha-area sports radio personalities to persuade the locals to tolerate it this fall. Most Nebraska fans’ expectations are higher than that; they define football success by consistency and championships. Sadly, they haven’t had much of either since 2001. I would argue that Husker fans are relatively patient, but in some cases, their patience is wearing thin, thanks largely to a couple of unsuccessful head coaching hires in Lincoln. So Riley needs to make a decisive move in the right direction in 2017, even with some holdover Bo Pelini recruits in the starting lineup. I think he will, largely becuse it’s time for the up-and-coming talent and depth in the offensive line to make their presence known, and because Bob Diaco seems to have lit a fire under the Blackshirts. I look forward to seeing how Diaco brings the concept of “block destruction” to life.

Pelini lost four games each season. Riley probably would have the vast majority of Husker fans solidly in his camp if he loses three or fewer games annually from here on out, although wining the West three out of five seasons and the Big Ten once every four or five years should be the expectation. It’s not all that high a standard. Six Big Ten teams achieved the three-losses-or-fewer threshold in 2015, Four achieved it in 2016, three in 2014 and three in 2013.

On-field success comes down to talent and scheme, in that order. If you have enough talent, you can consistently win with most schemes, provided that scheme is teachable and simple enough to be grasped by college players who have much less time to devote to the game each week than do NFL players.

If he can churn out a few Top-20 recruiting classes, Riley will have enough talent to make that three-loss standard a reality. The question is whether he and his staff can develop that talent.

As for scheme, Riley’s pro-style offense and Diaco’s no-crease 3-4 defense have the potential to win big. It will come down to whether the Huskers can develop consistent strength in the offensive and defensive lines – the very place they’ve been weakest the last few years. From where I stand, if Diaco can develop an effective pass rush, the defense will be championship quality in a couple of years.

Riley’s staunchest opponents seem to fear that with Tanner Lee or Patrick O’Brien at quarterback, he’ll turn into Bill Callahan 2.0 and pass the ball more than he runs it. Riley has talked a lot about balance, which brings visions of a 50/50 offense to mind. That’s a faulty vision, because he also said he wants to become the third-best rushing team in the Big Ten. It’s hard to imagine the Huskers accomplishing that feat without averaging at least 40 running plays and 200 yards rushing per game.

This year, we’ll get a better idea of exactly what Riley and Danny Langsdorf consider a balanced attack. My prediction (and my hope) is that “balanced” means the Huskers can do whatever is required to win on a given day, whether pounding the ball and grinding the clock on a cold, windy afternoon to win a 17-14 slugfest, or throwing it 45 times to outscore an opponent who stacks the box all day long.

I don’t anticipate Nebraska throwing the ball a lot more — just a lot more effectively.

The best possible scenario for Nebraska’s offense (whether you call it “pro style” or “West Coast” or “multiple”) is that it looks a lot like Alabama’s offense looked from 2012-2015, featuring a solid run game behind an athletic offensive line that run-blocks and pass-blocks equally well, a pocket-passer quarterback who takes care of the ball and completes about 65 percent of his passes, and can pick up an occasional first down with his feet when needed.

Assuming Lee can throw the ball about as well as Joe Ganz did in 2008, matching Alabama’s 57 percent running/43 percent passing split over that span would work well if you’re averaging about 5 yards per rush and about 7.5 yards per pass attempt.

Riley can bring peace with honor to Husker Nation if he continues to look great in interviews, recruit well and run a clean program – and produces consistently on the field. It’s not the world’s easiest task, but he knew that when he signed up for it.

Formerly the sports editor at the North Platte Bulletin and a sportswriter/columnist for the North Platte Telegraph, Tad Stryker started writing for this website in 2008. You can e-mail him at tad.stryker@gmail.com. Stryker is a freelance writer, favoring topics related to Nebraska history or Christianity. You can buy his recent book at this link.

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    1. Hooked on Huskers Jul 1, 2017
      Riley and Callahan was similar records for first two years. Cal: 5W-6L and then 8W-4L. MR: 6W-7L and then 9W-4L. Both inherited winning coaches (Solich&Pelini).

      Hopefully different path in 3rd season .......
    2. BalanceInThought Jul 1, 2017
      "Mike Riley is an average coach. I have decades of evidence to support this claim."

      You can "prove" the world is flat is you cherry pick the evidence. Context matters.

      "If it does work out and Riley becomes the first coach in the history of the world to become elite in his mid-60's, then Billy Devaney will probably be the reason why."

      So you're saying you dislike Riley so much that even if he's successful you won't be willing to give credit where credit is due?

      Sounds like your mind was made up day one and can't change, evidence be darned.
    3. cactusboy Jul 1, 2017
      Just because here are some loud mouths on a message board/social media doesn't mean any house is divided. Literally NONE of the Husker fans I personally know are divided on Riley..they are all fully N with Riley.

      So please quit manufacturing news/drama.
      YUENGLING likes this.
    4. YUENGLING Jul 1, 2017
      Riley's done everything he needs to do to this point to make this a quality program. He's hired an incredibly talented staff(at the expense of firing a couple close friends) a staff that can both coach and recruit. This season's schedule is challenging but all this fan base expects is a tough competitive team on both sides of the ball.
      The Ohio State, Iowa, and Tennessee games proved that you can't be competitive without a backup QB . Perhaps AJ Bush may have provided that but it was obvious that the Huskers didn't have one last season. It's critical that the backup be ready from day one with no excuses.
      I have confidence in Diaco he's got something to prove and guys like that are dangerous. He's scheming daily and he'll be prepared before and during the game. It's really just a question for him to find the right pieces this season. Yes the D-line will be important but I believe they'll improve as the season moves along.
      Sam the Man likes this.
    5. gihusker Jun 30, 2017
      Can't compare OS to Nebraska. Riley now has a way better brand to recruit with and it is showing. We are recruiting at a level we haven't seen in a while if ever at Nebraska. He had huge holes in our roster to fix which was going to take time to fix. Our coaches now are top of the line with maybe one exception and Riley has shown that he will replace you if you don't perform. Even if it is his buddy. Recruits across the country are taking notice. Can't get back to the top of the mountain without the athletes. Not to mention this will be his first year with a qb that fits his system. Yeah maybe Saban or Meyer could have done it a little faster but they were not beating down our door for the job.
      Sam the Man and steverio like this.
    6. Tadow Jun 30, 2017
      If it takes Riley 5 years, we made a poor hire. One conference title is going to get it done. Nebraska needs to be a consistent nationally relevant program again. Plenty of coaches have one good year and fade into oblivion.

      What makes you think Riley will establish a nationally relevant program? It certainly isn't in his history. The most significant thing he has won in the USA is a Sun Bowl trophy. Think about that a bit - and then consider what Bill Snyder has done at K-State.

      Mike Riley is an average coach. I have decades of evidence to support this claim. If it does work out and Riley becomes the first coach in the history of the world to become elite in his mid-60's, then Billy Devaney will probably be the reason why.

      Riley showed his poor decision making when he hired his merry band of idiots from Oregon State.

      His players have demonstrated a shocking lack of accountability. Gerry being academically ineligible last year is almost incomprehensible. The highest profile recruit in years isn't even on the team because he couldn't stay away from the reefer. Nebraska's academic achievement in football has dropped every year since Riley arrived. This shouldn't be a shock as Oregon State was near the bottom of the Pac-12 almost every year.

      Riley might be a nice guy, but he doesn't have the discipline or the desire to be the best. He has clearly demonstrated this over the past 25 years.
    7. Tadow Jun 30, 2017
      If it takes Riley 5 years, we made a poor hire. One conference title is going to get it done. Nebraska needs to be a consistent nationally relevant program again. Plenty of coaches have one good year and fade into oblivion.

      What makes you think Riley will establish a nationally relevant program? It certainly isn't in his history. The most significant thing he has won in the USA is a Sun Bowl trophy. Think about that a bit - and then consider what Bill Snyder has done at K-State.

      Mike Riley is an average coach. I have decades of evidence to support this claim. If it does work out and Riley becomes the first coach in the history of the world to become elite in his mid-60's, then Billy Devaney will probably be the reason why.

      Riley showed his poor decision making when he hired his merry band of idiots from Oregon State.

      His players have demonstrated a shocking lack of accountability. Gerry being academically ineligible last year is almost incomprehensible. The highest profile recruit in years isn't even on the team because he couldn't stay away from the reefer. Nebraska's academic achievement in football has dropped every year since Riley arrived. This shouldn't be a shock as Oregon State was near the bottom of the Pac-12 almost every year.

      Riley might be a nice guy, but he doesn't have the discipline or the desire to be the best. He has clearly demonstrated this over the past 25 years.