September 16, 2017
Let’s be honest, here.
There’s not a player or coach in the Nebraska locker room who doesn’t feel horrible after Saturday’s 21-17 loss to Northern Illinois.
All credit to the Huskies, who became the first Mid-American Conference team to defeat Nebraska, but this isn’t an outcome that should happen in the third season of the Mike Riley era.
That’s not earth-shattering news, is it?
Riley knows it. His staff knows it.
The players, who’ve spent countless hours running voluntary sprints in 100-degree heat in June and July, most certainly know it.
So why did this happen?
That’s for Riley and his staff to decipher and, most importantly, to correct.
In the meantime, let’s allow team captains, like junior linebacker Luke Gifford, to be the voice of reason after Nebraska’s first loss to a non-Power 5/Independent team since Southern Miss in 2004.
“We are going to keep busting our tails,” said Gifford, a Lincoln native. “There is a sense of urgency, and the standard here has not changed. Losing is not OK, and I know we’ve got a group of guys that are going to work their tails off.
“It just makes you sick going into that locker room afterwards and it sucks. No one likes losing. So we are going to just keep working. We still have a lot of things ahead of us. We are going to take it game by game, play by play and we are still going to work our tail off.”
As captain Jerald Foster said repeatedly, this doesn’t mark the end of the season for Nebraska, which hasn’t even begun Big Ten Conference play.
“We understand that first we have a lot more games to look forward to,” said Foster, a sophomore guard from Lincoln. “Second, this is the non-conference games, so our ambitions for the Big Ten are still always open.
“It’s a hard game, but we are going to pull together and take it day by day. That’s what I got.”
It certainly doesn’t excuse Saturday’s loss. But it does serve as a reminder that, with 10 games remaining, it’s too soon for this team to cave underneath a heap of negativity.
“Guys are disappointed, obviously. But we came together, we had a good little talk,” fullback and senior captain Luke McNitt said. “There’s not a lot of guys in that locker room that are going to go off and do their own thing or be negative for too long, so it’s about as good as it could be after a loss like that.
“But I’m proud of these guys; they didn’t quit. The way we came together in the locker room, I think it bodes well for us moving forward.”
Saturday’s loss spoiled a strong comeback for the Nebraska defense, which continued to atone for last week’s 42-point first half in a loss at Oregon.
The Blackshirts, which held the Ducks scoreless in the second half, continued that scoreless streak through the first three quarters of Saturday’s game.
Yet the Northern Illinois offense scored one touchdown, in the fourth quarter, to spoil what had been a feel-good performance from the defense.
“We really found something to work with after that Oregon game, and we knew we wanted to get going from the jump,” Gifford said. “I think we did a good job of that, but when you get the lead back there in third or fourth quarter, and we got an opportunity to get off the field and give us momentum, we got to get it done when it comes down to it.”
Nebraska, intent on building positive mojo from the get-go, won the opening coin toss and elected to receive.
The strategy seemed to work, as the Huskers moved the ball deep into Northern Illinois territory.
Then cornerback Shawun Lurry perfectly read and jumped a bubble screen pass from quarterback Tanner Lee, intercepted the pass and returned it easily 86 yards for a touchdown.
“That was tough,” Lee said. “They just had a perfect defense. I took a gamble, and they blitzed the corner, who jumped that bubble throw and took it to the house. That was a tough way to start a game, but you’ve got to think that we are able to drive the ball and put it behind us.”
But the Huskers couldn’t do it.
In fact, Lee said the offense started pressing after falling behind early.
That was evident when Lee, under heavy duress, floated a ball as he was hit deep in Nebraska territory. Jawuan Johnson caught it and returned the interception 25 yards for a touchdown and 14-0 lead.
Nebraska, thanks to a muffed punt that set up the Huskers first-and-goal inside the NIU 5-yard line, finally scored a touchdown in the third quarter. A Drew Brown field goal and six-play, 63-yard touchdown drive, capped by Lee’s 1-yard plunge, gave Nebraska its first lead, 17-14.
But Northern Illinois immediately responded with its only offensive touchdown drive, and Lee threw his third interception on Nebraska’s final series to thwart any comeback.
“Not hurting the team with bad plays and making sure we finish plays in the end zone,” Lee said, when asked what specific parts of his game he must improve. “That is our number one goal and something we will get better at.”
In what he admitted would sound like an understatement, Riley said he was “bitterly disappointed” with a loss that drops his team to 1-2 for the second time in three seasons.
“We have to prove more about who we are, for sure,” Riley said. “We’ve been, I would say, inconsistent at best. I mean, that’s not even probably accurate, but that’s been us, and I don’t like that.
“I think that we’ve got to have a better identifying quality than just being like we’ve been inconsistent as a football team, and that’s all phases there. I can kind of cross the board with that, from the beginning to today, that we’ve been inconsistent.”
Yet Riley, understanding the season is only two games old, reiterated he likes this football team.
“I like their work ethic, I enjoy working with them,” he said. “I think I’d be making it up if I could say I sensed a performance like this coming up.”
Reach Brian at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter @GBRosenthal.