What’s Wrong With Nebraska Football and Is It Fixable?

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The Blackshirts of Nebraska football have been MIA for years now, but Saturday’s 55 points yielded to Purdue marked a low not seen since the 65 Colorado scored in 2007.

Of no coincidence, the 65-51 loss to those Buffs marked the end of Bill Callahan’s ill-fated tenure as Huskers head coach.

Suggesting Nebraska should hit the reset button on Mike Riley is wildly premature, but Saturday’s loss is disconcerting. The Boilermakers came into the Big Ten West matchup averaging just 23 points per game, 102nd-most in the FBS. They had 22 touchdowns previously: 12 via the run, and just 10 via pass.

On Saturday, Purdue scored four apiece.

Riley’s Oregon State teams routinely overachieved, but coordinator Mark Banker’s defense was on a downward trajectory in Riley’s last two seasons in Corvallis. Nebraska improved after giving up 36 points Week 3 at Miami, holding Illinois to 14, Wisconsin to 23 and Minnesota in a three-game stretch prior to Week 9.

However, the Purdue loss reemphasizes the theme of Nebraska’s season: When it’s not one thing hindering the Huskers, it’s another.

Nebraska was going to face growing pains in Riley’s first year implementing an offense with more of a pro-style emphasis. When Banker’s defense got it together in that aforementioned stretch in Big Ten play, those growing pains were plainly evident.

In losses to Miami and now Purdue, quarterbacks Tommy Armstrong Jr. and Ryker Fyfe showed glimpses of clicking in Riley’s system. But both had huge fourth quarters negated by the combination of slow starts and defensive ineptitude.

Nebraska football is broken, and there’s no apparent nor immediate resolution.

The Cornhuskers’ issues go back to the hiring of Callahan. Firing longtime Tom Osborne assistant Frank Solich, who inherited the head coaching position in 1998, was a grave mistake from which the program has yet to recover.

Severing ties with Solich cut Nebraska football from its identity. Callahan’s pro-style offense was ill-fitting after years of flourishing with the option, and the erosion of the Blackshirts completed.

Fresh off a stint coordinating LSU’s national championship defense, Bo Pelini was a logical hire. His tenure was even successful given what has book-ended it on either side.

But nine wins a year isn’t sufficient cover for having on-and-off-field blowups with the regularity Pelini did. Riley is a coach more reflective of the Nebraska ethos.

He’s also a good coach, as years of exceeding expectations at Oregon State despite limited resources can attest. As a close observer of Riley’s in his time at Oregon State, I was excited to see him with a bigger fan base and more commitment to top-tier football.

Despite its overall struggles, nothing suggests Riley has lost this Cornhusker team. Nebraska battled back down big today, as it had against Miami earlier this season. Jack Gangwish going into the crowd to thank the Husker faithful in attendance was not the action of a player on a lost team.

But given Nebraska’s high expectations, and Riley’s age (62), how much longer will it be before the Cornhuskers are starting over again under another regime?

Nebraska football is in a position akin to Miami or USC. These are traditional powerhouses that have hit trying times, and are struggling to adapt.

Consider such programs College Football Dads who were BMOC back in the day: tan, built, rocking the hell out of a mean Selleck ‘stache.

Now, they’re showing up to parties in their letterman’s jackets, interrupting the youngsters’ conversations about Future and Kendrick Lamar to shout about Bruce Springsteen.

Adapting to the times is a tenuous balance of not clinging to the past but without losing sight of ones identity. Nebraska is still trying to figure it out.