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Monday notebook: Riley far from pleased after first game

Even two days after his team pulled off a 33-point victory to open the season, Nebraska head coach Mike Riley still couldn’t help but linger on the negatives during his weekly press conference on Monday.

After highlighting some of the Huskers’ individual standouts and a few of the team’s strongpoints from a 43-10 win over Fresno State, Riley spent much more time stressing over the numerous mental mistakes and miscues his team committed on Saturday night.

Along with eight penalties for 70 yards, including two unsportsmanlike conduct flags and Luke Gifford getting ejected for targeting, Riley said there was just too much bad, undisciplined football to feel very good about the first game.

“I was really disappointed in all that,” Riley said. “I actually got the sense on the sideline that every time we made a good play we were going to have a penalty. That’s a bad feeling, and that’s got to stop.

“That’s a commentary on us, not the officials. I think they called it right… It’s my fault, (the players’) fault, everybody’s fault.”

It wasn’t just the penalties that irked Riley as he watched the game film on Sunday and Monday morning, though the celebration penalty on Zack Darlington after a two-point conversion and a “totally unnecessary” late hit flag on Dylan Utter seemed to have upset him as much and anything.

Riley also noted the obvious blocked punt in the second quarter that temporarily changed the tide of the game, as well as a laundry list of flat out mental lapses that occurred throughout the night.

There was an illegal formation penalty on third down that negated a first-down catch by Cethan Carter, several substitution errors, and even a problem with a player’s equipment that kept him from going into the game.

One of the more confounding mistakes came when offensive tackle David Knevel suffered a minor injury, and rather than stay down on the field to allow the staff time to adjust and make the proper substitution, he got up and quickly went to the sideline.

“That’s just part of knowing how to play the game in that regard,” Riley said.

On special teams, Riley said NU’s mishaps in things like simply fielding a punt were almost laughable.

“What should have been an advantage for us in that situation by just fair catching the ball and having about a 30-yard net on the play turned into kind of a scary play every time,” he said. “It looked like a cartoon, us trying to get away from the ball.”

Riley did make sure to note that there will usually always be some learning curve bumps to overcome early in the season, especially in the first game.

But the reality is that if Nebraska wants to contend for a Big Ten Conference championship this season, it must clean up its play in every area.

“You just want it to be cleaner than that,” Riley said. “The one thing for sure that I learned a long time ago is you can’t overlook in a win what you would never overlook in a defeat. We’ve just got to clean that up if we want to be the kind of team we want to be…

“I don’t mean to be a downer on a win either. I like that a lot better than losing on a Hail Mary in the first game of the season.”

- Robin Washut

Nebraska knows it needs to get De'Mornay Pierson-El more involved going forward.

Huskers know Pierson-El must be bigger factor

A player who was as talked about as much as any Husker over the course of the offseason hardly even got a chance to make an impact on Saturday night.

Junior receiver/return man De’Mornay Pierson-El was essentially a non-factor vs. Fresno State.

In his first game back since suffering a season-ending knee injury last October, Pierson-El did not record a single catch, nor did he return a single punt.

He ended up fumbling his lone touch on a botched fly sweep that resulted in a seven-yard loss.

Those numbers, or lack thereof, would have to change going forward, Riley said. In particular, it will be a priority to have Pierson-El back as the primary punt returner.

“I think we just need to get him in there,” Riley said. “The other night was just one of those nights where, I’ve already described what that thing looked like, so it wasn’t going to be pretty.

“He is a weapon there, and we just need to get him going with it. I’m going to talk to him this week.

- Robin Washut

Riley to re-evaluate game day coaching assignments 

Nebraska’s coaching staff decided to change things up a bit for the season opener by moving both offensive coordinator Danny Langsdorf and offensive line coach Mike Cavanaugh up to the coaches’ box.

Both Langsdorf and Cavanaugh coached from the sideline last season, but that was primarily due to it being the staff’s first season and wanting to be on the field to better interact with players during games.

Now with more than a year of familiarity, the plan was to move both coaches upstairs to give them a better view of the action, which in turn would help them make better in-game adjustments.

That plan might be changing already. While Riley said he liked having Langsdorf up in the box, but he’s strongly considering moving Cavanaugh back down to the sideline as early as this week.

“I’m not sure yet about Cav,” I haven’t even talked to them about this, but I’ve been thinking about it and may want him on the sideline… I just got a sense I’d like him to be the one meeting with the line when they come off the field.”

One way Riley could bring Cavanaugh back down to the field while also having “eyes in the sky” from the coaches’ box during games would be to send tight ends coach Tavita Thompson - who handled the on-field interactions with the offensive line on Saturday - to replace Cavanaugh upstairs.

“I think at least we’re going to evaluate it and talk about it in the next couple days and see just to make sure all of that communication is taking place and seeing if it might not be better to switch him and Tavita,” Riley said. “Tavita is smart and sees things well. He could also be the guy in the box and they could just flip it.”

- Robin Washut

Zack Darlington's versatility helped make the "swinging gate" formation a staple on NU's extra points. (Associated Press)

Swinging gate extra point play intrigues Riley

Nebraska added a new wrinkle this year on special teams on Saturday.

On extra points, NU now lines up in a swinging gate formation where the holder/former quarterback Darlington lines up in the shot gun with the linemen all to his left.

If the booth sees something not covered right, they allow Darlington to take the snap and try a two-point conversion. On Saturday we saw that executed for the very first time when Darlington converted a late conversion on a keeper.

Riley said on that particular play Darlington did not have the freedom to make that call, but it could eventually lead to that in the future.

“I think that’s a good point, because eventually as we do this a little bit you should have a green light-red light sort of deal where something is on according to what you might see,” Riley said. “We had done it enough in the game. I frankly had wanted to do this swinging gate deal because I got so tired of other people doing it and us spending practice time, I wanted somebody else to have to do it too. I kind of like it.

“We had this planned because of Sam (Foltz) – his athleticism and he was the holder. We didn’t even know if we’d be able to continue to do it, but Zack is actually the perfect guy to replace him and try to do some stuff with it, as he showed the other night. He’s a good athlete, a former quarterback, so I think it just gives us one more little threat in the game and I kind of like it.”

-Sean Callahan

Cowboys coming to Lincoln with a chip on their shoulder

When you look at this Wyoming team, there are several unique storylines to watch on Saturday, starting with head coach Craig Bohl, who played and coached at Nebraska but was fired in 2002 following a 7-6 regular season.

Riley has a lot of respect for Bohl and what he’s accomplished over the years, especially the three national titles he won at North Dakota State, and their most recent win over MAC power Northern Illinois.

NIU has won the West Division six years in a row in the MAC and projected once again to be an eight- or nine-win type team in 2016.

“This is a team that’s going to be on the rise,” Riley said. “They already started out with a nice win. (Bohl) is young in his time there at Wyoming, so we expect a good football team that is well coached coming in here.”

The other angle is you have players like Bellevue West wide receiver C.J. Johnson, Aurora offensive lineman Gavin Rush and safety Andrew Wingard all with strong ties to this state or program, but they were passed up by the Huskers.

“Every time you play somebody like Fresno or like Wyoming I know those guys because I had sort of the same deal at Oregon State,” Riley said. “They do have a little bit of a chip on their shoulder. So when our guys used to play (Southern Cal) they were fired up to do that. This is a big, big game for them, but it also should be for us.”

-Sean Callahan

Quick hits

***Riley discussed at length the need for Nebraska to be more balanced offensively after throwing the ball just 13 times against Fresno State. When was the last time he was a part of a game where his team attempted that few of passes?

“The last time I remember that was when I was the quarterback,” Riley said.

***Riley was asked to comment on the disturbing and infuriating story that surfaced Sunday that members of Sam Foltz's family had been burglarized back in Greeley, Neb., while they were in Lincoln for the game.

"It's a sad, sad deal," Riley said. "I wouldn't want to be that guy, I know that, in this state."

***Riley said freshman punter Caleb Lightbourn had an overall solid night and noted that the blocked punt was not his fault.

***Riley said the lack of explosive runs on Saturday were mostly due to downfield blocking by the receivers. He said those blocks "are the touchdown blocks" that turn big plays into scores.

***Riley said the struggles Lamar Jackson had in his first game "was good for him" and that he'll only get better because of it. He said Jackson kept competing and didn't let it phase him, which was good to see.