Husker Season Comes to Disappointing End
They filled Memorial Stadium once again, for an NCAA record of 361 consecutive sellouts, as more than 90,000 people filed through those gates that proudly proclaim Nebraska football fans the greatest in college sports.
Nebraska had no bowl berth to clinch, no conference divisional championship at stake, no spoiler role to play against Black Friday rival Iowa. These Huskers were, as the saying goes, merely playing for pride.
Yet while programs around the nation continue to struggle filling even half their stadiums for quite successful football teams, Nebraskans, on a holiday weekend, packed Memorial Stadium, sans the Thanksgiving-breaking students.
They said goodbye to a group of seniors that has been through a coaching change and tragedy, yet stuck together, through good times and bad.
They cheered as junior receiver Stanley Morgan Jr. set the Nebraska single-season receiving yards record, one held for 45 years by Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Rodgers.
They wanted oh-so-badly to will this team to a season-ending victory over a border rival, something to end a disappointing 2017 season, and perhaps an era, on an exhaling, positive note.
They also saw Nebraska end its season on a four-game home losing streak that produced the program’s first eight-loss season since 1957.
Of course, that means questions are swirling about the direction of the program, and head coach Mike Riley, who's completed this third season at Nebraska with a 19-19 record, came prepared to face those questions.
In short, Riley is ready and confident for Year Four.
“I’m going to anticipate that,” Riley told reporters in his postgame news conference, “and when I go to bed tonight, I’m going to hope for that, because I would love to do this. I truly believe I’m exactly the right person to do this.”
Riley is a veteran coach. He has steered teams through worse predicaments, especially at his most recent stop, Oregon State. He knows Nebraska (4-8, 3-6 Big Ten Conference) must run the football with more production, more success, to compete for Big Ten titles, and more.
To wit: Nebraska’s top rusher this season, junior running back Devine Ozigbo, finished with 493 rushing yards. That’s the fewest amount of yards by a Husker to lead his team in rushing in a season since 1964, when Frank Solich ran for 444 yards.
“What we didn’t do this year is run,” Riley said, “and we know way better than that, that it’s not going to work like that, but that growth, plus the defensive growth, I think we could do the same thing next year. I think this team will do that. I just feel that way.”
Riley was comparing the jump from five wins in his first season to nine wins last season. Given time, he feels a similar improvement is in the cards for 2018. This season, he said, was a “Year One” scenario, what with Nebraska ushering in a new quarterback and new 3-4 defensive system under a new defensive coordinator, Bob Diaco.
“Defensively, I don’t have any regrets about the 3-4, about what we did,” Riley said. “It is just very, very painfully obvious that this group, on defense, needs to continue to grow and practice, and lift weights, and be able to withstand strong players like we played tonight, and that’s what I would be all-in for, is that development with these guys.”
Friday’s problem was that Nebraska had forged a 14-14 halftime tie with Iowa (7-5, 4-5), only to wilt in the third quarter, when the Hawkeyes returned the second half kickoff for a touchdown.
A penalty called back that return, but the Hawkeyes still had field position deep in Nebraska territory and produced the first of four third-quarter touchdowns to get the snowball rolling, and the Huskers couldn't stop it.
“We cracked and couldn’t bring it back,” Riley said. “These guys have to learn. I told them that we’re going to have to learn to do that, we’re going to have to learn how to fight through a tough time in a ball game.”
The lopsided score, Riley said, “didn’t have to be like that,” but too many small errors led to big problems for the Huskers. Most costly in the first half was a running-into-the-punter penalty that negated an Iowa punt in Hawkeye territory and gave Iowa a first down. The Hawkeyes, given new life, drove another 64 yards for a game-tying touchdown.
Not only that, the drive ate most of what remained of the first-half clock, as Nebraska, with three timeouts, didn’t attempt to stop the clock and give its offense one final possession. By the time Iowa scored, only 25 seconds remained.
The Hawkeyes not only got the ball to start the second half, they got the 35-mph wind at their backs, too.
Nebraska, meanwhile, failed on a fake field goal on fourth-and-2 in the second quarter and also couldn’t convert on fourth-and-5 in Iowa territory in the third quarter, down 35-14.
“We just kind of let it get away from us there,” Nebraska quarterback Tanner Lee said. “It was disappointing how it ended. It was a tough season, but I think it made all of us better, and I think we’ll all be better because of it. I don’t think you really realize that unless you’re in that locker room. Very thankful for all this, despite it not going the way we planned on it going.”
Lee threw for 205 yards and two touchdowns but also tossed three interceptions. He gave no hint of his future plans – NFL Draft eliglbe or return to Nebraska – but offered effusive words of praise for Riley.
“I think he’s one of the most influential people in my life so far,” said Lee, who’s played one season at Nebraska after transferring from Tulane and redshirting here in 2016. “I’d say in a quick two years, I’ve learned more from him than I could have ever imagined. I think the way he’s handled this season, I think there’s not another man on earth that could have done it like him. Day in and day out he’s the same guy.
“He’s a great football coach. I want to tell him this, ‘I can’t wait to tell my kids that I played for Coach Riley’. I am so lucky to have played for Coach Riley, it’s unbelievable. I didn’t know how great he was until he got here and it just grew, daily. I guess the toughest part was not winning for him. I’m just very lucky for having played for him.”
Riley, the longtime Oregon State coach, believes the best is yet to come for Nebraska football.
“The football parts, I’ve been doing this so long, we know how to fix, and we also are doing a good job recruiting,” Riley said. “Those two things are going to be the key to Nebraska getting back to where everybody wants to go. The football has to grow, and the recruiting has to continue to be high level to get really back there."
Reach Brian at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter @GBRosenthal.