Square peg. Round hole. Seven losses.
No where was this more obvious than on offense, where Mike Riley tried to force feed a pro-style offensive attack on a team that didn't have a pro-style quarterback. An obsession with passing lead to inexplicable losses to Illinois and Northwestern. (Let's not mention an epic disaster of coaching malfeasance in West Lafayette.)
Intermixed with those debacles was Nebraska's most dominating performance of the year at Minnesota. Nebraska ran the ball 60% of the time in that game-a ratio that Mike Riley called optimal. Yet the coaches didn't try to replicate it in subsequent games. To conclude the season, Tommy Armstrong threw 45 passes on a cold, blustery day with wind chills in the teens. Armstrong took a lions share of the criticism-and rather unfairly in my opinion. Yes, Armstrong threw four interceptions...but asking Tommy Armstrong to throw 45 passes is like asking Dan Marino to run the triple option.
This week, I heard a different tone from Mike Riley. He talked about being one of the top three rushing teams in the Big Ten as a goal for the direction of the Husker offense moving forward. Was this just more empty talk from a coach who was in danger of being fired by Oregon State at the end of last season?
Nope. Riley walked the walk against UCLA. They opened the game by running on 11 of the first 13 plays of the game, and more importantly, they kept running all night long. 62 runs and 19 passes on the game.
They ran the dadgummed ball. And ran it successfully. Earlier this season, Mike Riley suggested that some of Nebraska's struggles rubbing the ball were because of a lack of "want to."
I don't think it was a lack of "want" by the players, for what it's worth. That is, until the bowl game. Perhaps the realization that Nebraska had lost four or five very winnable games caused the coaching staff to finally jettison their failing offensive philosophies. Maybe it was the realization that Southern Cal and Stanford had gashed UCLA on the ground that caused the coaches to rethink things.
Either way, it doesn't matter. The point is that the coaches changed, and Nebraska won the Foster Farns Bowl.
The so-proclaimed goat from the day after Thanksgiving became the MVP the day after Christmas. Yes, Tommy Armstrong played better because he was given a gameplan that gave him and his teammates a chance to succeed.
Now Nebraska can head into the offseason feeling good about the end of the season. It doesn't erase the bad taste of seven losses, but if Mike Riley and his coaches have really changed their direction and are committed to run the ball as the first priority on offense, then perhaps there is a reason to believe that Mike Riley can actually succeed as Nebraska's head football coach.