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That Guy's Wearing Red, Too!

Exploring the State of Nebraska and its unique football tradition

My Bowl Runneth Over 

After living through the many twists and turns of the 2015 season and witnessing face-to-face the reactions of Coach Riley and his key players after some heartbreaking losses, in my mind last night’s exciting and hard-fought 37-29 win over UCLA in the Foster Farms Bowl could be summed up in just three words.

Vindication. Redemption. Satisfaction.

First of all, the game represented vindication for Riley and his coaches as it demonstrated that their calm and unruffled approach to managing their team can be successful in the long term. I could see the hurt in Riley’s eyes at the post-game press conferences following close losses at home against Wisconsin and Northwestern, and as the season went on I could sense the growing frustration among the reporters and journalists around me but Riley always maintained his composure and repeated what almost became a mantra: “It was disappointing to lose today but we coaches need to identify what went wrong and then fix it. They’re a great bunch of kids who respond to coaching and we’ll get back to work on Monday and move forward from there.” Meanwhile a minority of fans that I met regarded this kind of even-keeled “Mister Rogers” approach, as they termed it, to be a sign that Riley was not committed to Nebraska and didn’t care whether the team won or lost. These reactive fans obviously prefer a reactive coaching style, but anyone who has ever played a team sport under a reactive and punitive coach would know that while this type of approach may work in the short term, it is not a recipe for building a successful program over the long term. And while accepting the trophy after last night’s game, Riley emphasized his long-term view and pointed the way forward to next year for his exuberant group of players. I hope that message was also understood by the thousands of Big Red fans at the stadium and watching on TV.

For the Nebraska players the game represented redemption for the tumultuous season they had endured. While on paper a 6-7 record is nothing to write home about, the final game proved to the players and fans that this team is much stronger than its record would suggest. Several games that were lost by narrow margins in the last minute could easily have been victories, and I applaud Coach Riley for his public refusal to blame bad luck in those losses. It would have been easy to allow the players to take on a victim-like approach and blame others for those losses, but instead he encouraged his team to take a positive forward-looking approach and focus on controlling the aspects of the game that were in their power to control. For Tommy Armstrong in particular, his almost flawless display at quarterback with 174 passing yards, 76 rushing yards and two touchdowns was redemption for some earlier games in which his decision-making had been criticized in some quarters. Winning the award for Offensive Player of the Game must have felt sweet indeed, but in his typical humble style Armstrong deflected the praise towards his teammates and coaches.

For the ever-loyal Nebraska fans, the underdog Huskers’ win over the 8-4 Bruins created a very satisfying note on which to end the season. The game had something to please fans of every persuasion: it was a complete team effort with 62 rushes by 9 different players; 12 completed passes to 7 different receivers; and an outstanding performance by the defense that captured two interceptions and allowed the UCLA offense less than 22 minutes of playing time for the game. Last night’s effort, combined with some other good performances during the season that fell just short of victory, should serve to satisfy and resolve the fears of any doubters who thought the Riley experiment was doomed to failure and that the victory over Michigan State was a fluke.

The Huskers are back on track, baby! Bring on 2016!

P.S. Stay tuned for my reports on the Official Tailgate Party. I’m still searching for the Foster's, by the way.

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