My Nebraska Cornhuskers lost to the Oregon Ducks last Saturday. But the sun came up Sunday and I exercised the one faith that supersedes Big Red football – I went to Mass in Portland, Oregon, before heading home to Nebraska. As was the case throughout the weekend, I was treated well by Oregonians, including Duck fans. True-believers tend to appreciate true-believing members of other denominations.
I regained the sense that life was worth living despite NU’s loss.
My mood darkened, though, when I got to the airport and saw all the Husker red, just as I had at the game the day before. That’s when it hit me: The NU football program is not worthy of its fan base, just like the Republican Party is not worthy of its conservative voting base.
We conservative Republicans complain about “the establishment,” elite insiders content with business-as-usual politics who do not like their boat rocked. There’s an elite establishment in sports, too: administrators and coaches making seven-figure salaries, regents, “donors of substance” (as a former NU insider called the skybox crowd), and the free-riding print and radio sports reporters/commentators who don’t want to jeopardize their access/standing.
Then there’s the rest of us who block out a day, or weekend for a road game, and spend our own money to show up and support the team. Never mind the multiple thousands of dollars in extra donations that season ticket holders must cough up for the privilege of occupying a lower rung of the Big Red food chain.
We at the grassroots Tea Party level of Husker Nation are dismissed by the elites and free-riders as noisy troublemakers who don’t see the big picture.
The big picture is that in Year 3 as NU’s head football coach, Mike Riley still is not ready for prime time.
In 2012, Urban Meyer came out of retirement to an Ohio State program mired in 6-7 mediocrity and limited in recruiting by penalties for cheating. In his first year, Meyer laid waste to NU and the Big 10 Conference, going 12-0. He overcame the recruiting damage and in Year 3 won a national championship with his third-string quarterback starting the semifinal and title games.
Here’s more big-picture from a Big Red deplorable. The NU home sellout streak has been a fraud for years. NU runs ads urging people to buy tickets and leans on deep pockets to buy chunks of unpurchased seats. The sellouts ended because the flock lost faith in the shepherds and felt betrayed.
NU was embarrassed (again) on national television at Oregon, giving up 42 points and 400 yards in the first half. The predictable establishment spin cycle followed. “We won the second half.” “It’s just one game.” “It’s the Big 10 games that matter.” “We’re trying new players in new positions with new assignments.”
Same kind of whimpering excuses we get from establishment Republicans when they are shellacked in political competition.
By the way, Nebraska beat Oregon last year. Oregon went 4-8, fired its coach, and has a new regime. Shouldn’t Oregon be the program experiencing growing pains?
Our beloved Blackshirt defense, managed by a new assistant coach making $800,000 a year, looked pathetic. The improved play in the second half does not excuse the inexcusable play in the first. A back-and-forth contest that you lose 42-35 is one thing. Caving in and surrendering six touchdowns in one half to a team that is good, but not great, is an insult to the many thousands of fans who traveled to the opposing team’s stadium to support you.
Evidence of failed leadership abounds. Consider the case of De’Mornay Pierson-El (DPE).
As a freshman, DPE electrified games with his punt returns. He was the best punt returner in the nation. He was injured as a sophomore, but returned to full strength last year. Physically, anyway.
DPE has never regained his pre-Riley freshman form. As a senior he is a shell-shocked shadow of his former self – letting punts go unfielded, fumbling with alarming regularity the ones he does field, not returning them even when he has opportunities, including near the end of the Oregon game when it could have made a difference. He threw up his hand at the last moment to signal a fair-catch (I will catch the punt but not return it, so don’t hit me). He caught the ball and started running, then stopped when the referee whistled the play dead because DPE had signaled a fair-catch.
He looks lost, uncoached.
Late in the first half, Nebraska trailed 35-14 and desperately wanted to score before the half expired. On 4th-and-1 in its own territory, the Huskers boldly went for the first down instead of punting. They made it!
The accomplishment was nullified by a penalty. DPE had gone across the line of scrimmage before the ball was snapped.
The play was a quarterback sneak, a brute-force push by the middle of the line to shove the pile enough to gain a yard. DPE was a receiver split out wide near the sideline. He was not a factor in the play. He was not involved as a blocker. He was not going out for a pass and trying to beat a defender to a spot. Why was he jumping offside on a quarterback sneak?
After the penalty, Nebraska punted and it was Oregon that drove down and scored in the final moments of the half. That touchdown would provide the winning margin.
What kind of program has seniors making such unforced, make-your-head-explode errors? A program with defective leadership. I can’t imagine such a thing happening on a team coached by Ohio State’s Meyer or Alabama’s Nick Saban.
Don’t put all the blame on DPE, who made a great touchdown catch. There were lapses in judgment and execution by many players. There must be dramatic progress across-the-board to make up for the mess Riley is putting on the field now.
That’s also how I feel about the 2017 performance of the Republican leadership on Capitol Hill.
When will Husker fans and conservative Republicans see performance by their leadership that matches their dedication?