Around the Big Ten: Can Riley make pro-style offense work at Nebraska?

Chad Leistikow

Bo Pelini’s year-by-year win totals as Nebraska football coach went 9-10-10-9-10-9-9.

That consistency wasn’t good enough. Pelini was fired, an unpopular decision among players, after his 67-28 mark in seven seasons to make way for Mike Riley. In those same years at Oregon State, Riley’s win totals were 9-8-5-3-9-7-5.

Welcome to the world of high expectations, Mr. Riley. The Cornhuskers have one of the most invested fan bases in the country, as evidenced by the 76,681 that turned out for the April 11 Red-White spring game — with adults paying a $10-$15 entry fee. (As a point of contrast, Iowa drew a generously announced 8,000 at its free-admission spring game April 25.)

The low-key Riley, 62, provides a sharp contrast to the fiery Pelini years. Team members said they have to strain to hear him in meetings.

Upon arrival in Lincoln, Neb., Riley embraced the Huskers’ past while also bringing his own pro-style offense — a shock to the system for a program that has seen great success with running QBs such as Tommy Frazier, Turner Gill, Eric Crouch and (to a lesser extent) Taylor Martinez.

“I understand tradition,” Riley told USA TODAY Sports in April. “I like to embrace it. One of the neat things about coming to a place like this is that it has it. Because you can’t create it. You can’t buy it. It takes time, history, to really have it. So we’re going to embrace every part of it.

“The exterior part of this thing is established. The history, the tradition, the Blackshirts, the walk-ons, the winning, the (sellout) streak, all that. That’s who Nebraska is. What’s in the program is what we have the ability to establish.”

Spring buzz

Returning quarterback Tommy Armstrong Jr., Nebraska’s second-leading rusher a year ago, has been told he’s a drop-back passer now. How Riley will make that work with a career 52.9 percent completion rate is maybe the big story surrounding the Husker offense.

Hawkeye fans remember, but probably would like to forget, one of Armstrong’s key intended receivers: De’Mornay Pierson-El. The sophomore’s two punt returns — of 41 yards and then 80 for a touchdown — helped rally Nebraska from a 17-point deficit past Iowa, 37-34 in overtime, to end the 2014 regular season.

Pierson-El accounted for 123 total yards (and a TD) in the spring game. He’ll again return punts in 2015, but not kickoffs — because he’s so important to the Huskers’ passing attack.

Still to be settled

The Omaha World-Herald calls running back “arguably Nebraska’s most competitive and talented position.” And that’s with Ameer Abdullah gone to the NFL’s Detroit Lions as a second-round draft pick.

Terrell Newby, a quick 200-pounder, appears to be the front-runner to start, with 240-pounder Imani Cross, along with Adam Taylor and Mikale Wilbon, also in the mix for what could be a by-committee running attack.

A really big area to be determined, though, is how good Nebraska’s defense will be under new coordinator Mark Banker, who worked under Riley at Oregon State the past 12 seasons. Banker’s defense allowed 31 or more points in seven of nine Pacific-12 Conference games a year ago, and the Blackshirts have major questions at defensive end and linebacker.

Our take

Las Vegas is skeptical that Nebraska takes off under new leadership, putting the Cornhuskers at over/under eight regular-season wins. As was proven with Pelini’s firing, the bar for success is held higher in Lincoln.

Nonconference games against BYU (home) and at Miami, Fla. (away) will be telling. Best-case scenario: Riley’s calming influence brings the best out of Armstrong and the capable play-makers around him, and the Cornhuskers come off their bye week to host Iowa on Black Friday with a chance at the Big Ten West Division title.

About this series

In advance of the conference’s media days July 30-31, Hawk Central is examining the prospects of each program in the league. Find the stories first at