Oh, boy. Here's what happened:

This began Nebraska coach Mike Riley's explanation of a penalty from Saturday's game that he described as both "ridiculous" and being "junior high" stuff, though he respectfully noted junior high football teams probably wouldn't have made the error.

He was talking about the Huskers being flagged for 12 men on the field while receiving a punt on the opening drive of Saturday's 24-17 win against Minnesota.

It kept alive a Gopher possession, which ended in a touchdown. Riley was irritated. Husker fans, too.

Who was to blame? If placing it on Nebraska special-teams coordinator Bruce Read, as many immediately did, know that this one was shared by others.

This mistake, Riley said, was on the defensive staff. With Minnesota facing fourth-and-1 at the Husker 49-yard line, the head coach called for "Delaware." That means the defense is staying on the field.

"But, we still have a couple of issues there that we still have to deal with. For one, a player has to come out for the returner," Riley said.

Ultimately, sophomore safety Aaron Williams didn't get off the field in time, according to defensive coordinator Mark Banker after the game.

"The other part of it is, and this is kind of our own doing, it's not uncommon in college football, we have to substitute for No. 15 on defense. If Michael Rose-Ivey is in the game, he has to come out because De'Mornay (Pierson-El) is also No. 15, so that adds one more layer to it," Riley said.

Everyone also has to be the same page about which defensive personnel is staying on. Is it base, nickel, dime?

"We blew that part of it, that's what we did," Riley said. "One of the players thought that we were in base and he stays in. And we were in nickel ..."

That was the reason, not an excuse. Riley was as peeved as any.

While there are many working parts regarding special-teams play, the worst ones from the Huskers have been enough for Riley to remark after multiple games that such mishaps could cost the team a win.

Nebraska is one of just three teams that have had three punts blocked (though one of those, against Purdue, was only tipped and did limited damage) and ranks 127th out of 128 teams in net punting (32.7 yards).

Some of it is explained as simply as true freshman punter Caleb Lightbourn growing into the job in a tough situation, since he had planned on redshirting this year.

To Lightbourn's credit, he's taken his part fully on his shoulders, even showing up in the postgame interview room Saturday after a mishit that bounced backward for a punt of minus 2 yards.

But issues have been shared. Having multiple punts blocked really doesn't sit well with Riley.

"I don't know if that's ever happened to one of our teams before, so there's some glaring things there that aren't good," he said.

One of those blocked punts, against Indiana, bounced out of the end zone for a safety.

Riley said Read, who directed special-teams units for him for 14 prior seasons before coming to Nebraska, both at Oregon State and in the NFL with San Diego, is "a meticulous, detailed worker" whose scouting and game-planning "comes with a lot of thought."

While Riley said Read is the leader of the special teams, "the responsibility of coaching isn't just Bruce Read. With 11 guys on every team, we have different guys assigned to it, so it's a group effort as we go into it. The coaching parts are all divided up."

In supplying the overall view of Nebraska's special teams 10 games into this season, Riley described it as "a 50/50 bag, I think."

He's really liked parts. Drew Brown kicking off, for instance, and the work of the kickoff-coverage unit, especially from players such as Chris Weber, Brad Simpson and Luke McNitt. True freshman Lamar Jackson also had a very good game on special teams Saturday, the coach pointed out.

"The other parts, punt return is a lot better than a year ago and, of course, having De'Mornay (Pierson-El) going is a great thing," said Riley, while adding, "I'm disappointed overall we can't get him a little more room."

The junior is 42nd in the country in punt-return average (8.0 yards), with 144 total return yards.

"Get a little bit better blocking. I think he doesn't need a lot, if we could just give him some space," Riley said. "That's kind of in that 50/50 mode, too. ... The key thing in a punt return is the timing of the ball and your block, and they have to occur pretty much at the right time. And that is, again, our biggest factor is losing guys (defenders) ... and they are forcing the fair catch."

The punt team in general, Riley acknowledged, has been less than 50/50, though he thinks Lightbourn has a lot of talent and want-to.

It's not uncommon to see Lightbourn on the field on Mondays practicing his punts in an empty stadium.

"He's a good worker and I think his continued development and work with him and coaching is a big, big factor," Riley said.

It's not all bad. But the coach knows that it just takes one big "Oh, boy" to lose a big game.

"There's stuff there that’s exciting to me, but it's like, 'OK, let's go with it a little, let's take a step up and move to another level in that.'"

Reach the writer at 402-473-7439 or bchristopherson@journalstar.com. On Twitter @HuskerExtraBC.


Load comments