For Riley and his Huskers, season’s going from bad to worse
Nebraska coach Mike Riley is out of answers and in two weeks very well could be out of a job.
The Cornhuskers’ 54-21 loss at Minnesota on Saturday was their fourth in five games, greatly diminished their bowl hopes, and left them to ponder the possibility of finishing with their fewest wins since 1961.
Calls from the fan base imploring new athletic director Bill Moos to make a coaching change are only growing louder, and sports columnists for the state’s two largest newspapers suggested that Moos consider firing Riley immediately.
Since replacing the fired Shawn Eichorst a month ago, Moos has watched Nebraska (4-6, 3-4 Big Ten) lose 56-14 at home to Ohio State, win 25-24 at Purdue in the last minute, lose 31-24 in overtime at home to Northwestern, and then the beat-down at Minnesota.
Minnesota had season highs of 409 yards rushing and 514 yards of total offense while scoring its most points in a Big Ten game since 2006.
“When you lose a game because the team runs the ball down your throat, that is a team thing,” said FS1 analyst Dave Wannstedt, a former NFL and college head coach. “You see someone throw up a jump ball, it’s one guy (versus) one guy and the ball comes down and one guy makes a play. When you get run on like today, 400 yards, that’s 11 guys responsible for stopping the run.
“This is a tough loss for that Nebraska team, unfortunately. Mike Riley is a good friend of mine. You know the old expression, ‘Lose some games but don’t lose the team.’ I’m afraid that these guys have just semi-packed it in.”
Nebraska’s defense has struggled all season, and it bottomed out against the Gophers at the end of a bad week for first-year coordinator Bob Diaco.
Diaco said shortly after last week’s Northwestern loss that, given the state of the defense, there was no “reasonable reason” to think the Huskers should have been able to make the plays necessary to beat the Wildcats. When he attempted to clarify his remark on Tuesday, he said it was “alarming” how poor the Huskers’ tackling skills were when he saw them for the first time last spring.
Diaco said after the Minnesota game it was “spectacularly unacceptable,” and Riley was left to answer whether he thought the defense had given up.
“You certainly look at that as a valid question about the effort and being ready to go right off the bat, when they return a kickoff for a touchdown,” Riley said, referring to Rodney Smith’s 100-yard return on the opening kickoff.
Riley, 19-17 in three seasons, noted that the offense went 75 yards in 12 plays for a touchdown on its first possession. By game’s end the Huskers had rushed for just 69 yards, totaled 380 and played the second half with backup quarterback Patrick O’Brien because starter Tanner Lee felt ill after taking a hit to the head.
“Here’s what happened on the defensive end: They moved the football and we couldn’t get them off the field,” Riley said, adding the Huskers “never got our feet on the ground at any time that I can remember defensively.”
The Huskers finish the regular season at Penn State next week and at home against Iowa on the day after Thanksgiving. They will not be favored in either game, and if they lose out, they would end with their fewest wins since Bill Jennings’ last team went 3-6-1 in 1961.
“Right now, you have to inherently rely on the character of the people around you, the players and the coaches,” Riley said. “I think that it sounds like a broken record, but the coaches will get together to plan and prepare and the players, I think, will just have to call upon on their own personal pride to do the right thing.
“Whether or not their lights have been on all the way, whatever that is or the opinion of what it looked like today, these are good kids, they have worked hard, they did prepare. We had a plan. We did not obviously prepare for this. We were surprised by it, but I will continue to say that they had good intentions and tried in every way to get ready to play.”
This version corrects Minnesota’s rushing yards to 409 and total yards to 514.
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