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Chatelain: Mike Riley’s teams couldn’t run or hide flaws in Big Ten

November 27, 2017

They met at Misty’s, the iconic steak palace in downtown Lincoln. They resisted red meat in favor of soup, salad and small talk.

One man had never coached a football team other than Nebraska. One had seemingly coached everywhere but Nebraska. Tom Osborne and Mike Riley found a connection in shared acquaintances and the game they loved.

It was February 2015, a quiet day, maybe 15 to 20 people in the entire restaurant.

Osborne’s son, Mike, coordinated the lunch and arrived early, grabbing a table in back to avoid interruptions. But the coaches met by the door and chose the first booth along the west window.

They spoke undisturbed for about 90 minutes. Then, just before leaving, Riley asked for Osborne’s advice on three topics: the Blackshirts tradition, recruiting and offense.

On the latter, Riley wanted to know if Osborne recommended any particular system for the often-blustery plains. Back in the late 1980s, Riley built a rugged CFL champion in wintry Winnipeg. Would he need to do the same here?

Osborne’s response: It’s important to run the ball because sometimes the weather won’t let you throw.

Thirty-three months later, the winds of change are sweeping through Lincoln and Riley is three and out. Why? Largely because he didn’t heed the legend’s advice. He failed the oldest lesson in the Husker history book. He committed the Big Ten’s cardinal sin.

He lost the line of scrimmage.

Had Nebraska merely failed to run the ball, maybe Riley could’ve survived. But Nebraska failed to stop the run, too. That’s a death sentence in the Big Ten.

Leaky lines were responsible for an 0-6 record against Wisconsin and Iowa. The Badgers outrushed NU 723-458. The Hawkeyes owned a staggering 730-248 edge.

But the problem was bigger than two opponents. In three years of league play (26 total games), NU rushed for 3.95 yards per carry. It allowed 4.89 per carry. That’s a difference of minus-0.94 per carry.

Put it another way: Riley’s teams had almost the same number of total carries as their opponents — 908 vs. 915. Yet opponents rushed for 884 more yards.

Here’s a ranking of Big Ten teams (2015-17) by yards per carry and yards per carry allowed. Pay attention to the difference.

Ohio State: 5.63/3.23 (2.40 difference)

Wisconsin: 4.20/3.08 (1.12)

Michigan: 4.5 .58 (0.94)

Penn State: 4.53/3.67 (0.86)

Northwestern: 3.87/3.30 (0.57)

Iowa: 4.29/3.97 (0.32)

Maryland: 4.6 .51 (0.10)

Michigan State: 3.96/3.87 (0.09)

Minnesota: 4.27/4.30 (minus-0.03)

Indiana: 3.74/4.17 (minus-0.43)

Illinois: 3.95/4.78 (minus-0.83)

Nebraska: 3.95/4.89 (minus-0.94)

Purdue: 3.37/4.92 (minus-1.55)

Rutgers: 3.40/5.74 (minus-2.34)

Statistics are through Friday’s games.

The top six teams in this ranking are the top six teams in winning percentage from 2015-17. The bottom three, aside from Nebraska, are the three worst in winning percentage. It’s no coincidence.

Run the ball. Stop the run. Riley broke the Big Ten laws over and over again.

In 2017 conference games, the Huskers were last in rushing offense and rushing defense. Wisconsin, for example, gave up 2.5 yards per carry and two rushing touchdowns. Nebraska gave up 6.0 per carry and 29 rushing touchdowns. Unfathomable.

Riley wasn’t oblivious to the weaknesses. When he discussed offseason improvement Friday night, the first thing he mentioned was line play.

“We’ll need more power. Power both sides of the ball up front. Very, very obvious in that regard.”

He said those words from an ironic location: the postgame press conference area inside the Nebraska weight room. Riley expressed hope for 2018, but there was no evidence that progress was coming, especially on offense.

Surely the problems were fundamental. But the mentality was flawed, too. When push came to shove, Riley and Danny Langsdorf had no patience for a ground attack, especially when trailing on the scoreboard.

Take Friday’s third quarter. Of Nebraska’s first nine play-calls, eight were passes.

“As the (deficit) got bigger,” Riley said, “you get a little bit more antsy to try to get back and score, so the running game doesn’t become part of that balance that you kinda need. So when we lost that balance, they teed off on pass rush and made some plays. It got harder.”

One day later, Bill Moos referenced running the ball and stopping the run. He also said this:

“Nebraska needs to get back to being Nebraska. What’s wrong with that? I’m not going to judge anyone because I was doing other things way back when, but I have an old saying: ‘If it ain’t broke don’t fix it.’ ”

Moos is right. Based on Nebraska’s history, the fact that we’re even having this discussion is preposterous. The Big Ten should be tailor-made for Nebraska’s football culture.

This is a place that produced nine Outland Trophy winners — six offense, three defense — and 15 rushing titles. A place where just last week the Class A state champions drove 80 yards in 47 seconds — all on the ground — for the winning touchdown.

The Huskers need to look more like Omaha North, Wisconsin and Iowa. Less like Purdue and Illinois.

The next coach, whomever he is, must enhance NU’s strength and conditioning, restore player development on the lines and rebuild the physical identity that served the Huskers well for decades. Nebraska should be wearing down opponents in the second half, not the other way around.

It’s easier said than done, of course. And it won’t be a quick fix.

Riley’s final 30 minutes was a microcosm of the whole mess. As Iowa piled up the rushing yards Friday, black and gold fans in the south end zone chanted, “Let’s go, Hawks!” After one of six Iowa second-half touchdowns, Nebraska fans responded with their own chant.

“Husker …”

“Power …”

“Husker …”

“Power …”

Twenty years after Tom Osborne’s retirement, it sounds more like a wish than a declaration.

dirk.chatelain@owh.com, 402-649-1461, twitter.com/dirkchatelain