Nebraska is not back. But it’s not as far away as a loss in The Horseshoe makes it seem.
Column and photo by Matt Reynoldson, NewsNetNebraska
#6 Ohio State 62, #10 Nebraska 3
COLUMBUS, Ohio – Ohio State coach Urban Meyer walked into his postgame press conference in Ohio Stadium just as Saturday night was peeking into Sunday morning. He set down his water bottle, adjusted the microphone, and gazed out over the horde of media members dedicated to his program.
“Wow,” he exhaled. “I didn’t see that one coming.”
Less than 200 feet away, in a media room tucked away in the other corner of the south end zone, a dejected Mike Riley showed similar disbelief.
“I don’t know what it was,” said Riley as the second-year Nebraska coach tried to make sense of a baffling loss.
It’s tough to fault him for struggling to explain the unexplainable. How could Nebraska, a top 10 team entering November, walk into Columbus so optimistic and leave with the second-largest defeat in school history? How could the Huskers look so lost in every facet of the game?
“We didn’t come to play football today,” senior safety Nathan Gerry said. “We gave a really good football team some opportunities, and when you’re playing a good football team, you can’t do that.”
The dagger came when senior leader and 4-year starting quarterback Tommy Armstrong was knocked unconscious. Losing their signal caller plunged the offense and defense into disarray, stalling on fourth down the same drive that Armstrong left and giving up two Ohio State scores within the next three minutes of game clock.
But Nebraska was already facing a three touchdown deficit at that point.
A quick look at online message boards or even Twitter can tell you that Nebraska fans are fed up with these performances on big stages. Athletic director Shawn Eichorst fired head coach Bo Pelini partly for this exact reason – Nebraska kept getting embarrassed on big stages.
It had all the same flavors. Nebraska, involved in a marquee matchup in primetime on national television. The team was riding the coattails of a winning streak or positive season. Then, it all fell apart. Except this time, the differences were more noticeable than the parallels.
Yes, some of you might say Saturday night at The Horseshoe brought back memories of a dark night in Lubbock, Texas, in 2004. Texas Tech clobbered Nebraska 70-10 in a game that didn’t look all that different from this one.
Others might say it reminded them of an early October trip to Wisconsin in 2011, where Nebraska walked away reeling after a 48-17 loss.
But this is neither. While the scoreboard might show that Nebraska is light years away from being “back,” plenty of signs point in the other direction. Look no further than the post game comments after each of those contests.
“I’m very disappointed in our team’s effort,” Bill Callahan said in 2004.
“We didn’t make plays. I’m embarrassed,” Bo Pelini said in 2011.
“That was a bad game,” Mike Riley said tonight, “and we’re all responsible.”
A simple comment of ownership may have been the most important thing Mike Riley has said all season. Why? Because too often, players are thrown under the bus by their coaching staffs. On the other side of the coin, coaches that disparage themselves and leave their players free from blame have a similarly negative effect. But Riley shares the blame and makes everyone own it.
The calm attitude of the coaches and the willingness to share responsibility and hold their players accountable is a draw for this staff. Nebraska is in on more high-profile recruits in 2016 than it has been in 20+ years. High school juniors and seniors see the way Riley and his staff treats their players, and they want to be a part of it. Nebraska is gaining steam with recruits across the country for a reason.
“Coach Riley and Coach Dub [wide receivers coach Keith Williams] have a positive mentality,” said 5-star wideout recruit Joseph Lewis in October. “They just want to make the program even better.”
Recruits recognize that Riley coaches for his players, rather than his players playing for him. That’s step one to building a program.
But step two is the program showing it can win. The Huskers are not 59 points inferior to the Buckeyes like they were on Saturday night. This is a good team that’s banged up, and even Urban Meyer pointed to “these back-to-back night games, there’s some wear and tear” for the team, especially going on the road both weeks.
However, if Nebraska fans were inside famed Ohio Stadium on Saturday night, they realize that it’s everything they want their own program to be: Loyal fans that highlight a talent-rich team with a blue collar attitude. A team that honors its tradition but never lives in the past. There’s no question that Mike Riley and Shawn Eichorst want that for this program, too.
“They’ve been that team in the league lately that’s set the bar,” Riley said of Ohio State in his Monday press conference.
If Nebraska wants to regain relevance, they’ll have their shots, facing the Buckeyes three times in the next three years. Memorial Stadium awaits the matchup next season in what will no doubt be another measuring stick for the program. But with Riley’s third recruiting class undoubtedly poised to shrink the talent gap, who’s to say Nebraska can’t go toe-to-toe with Ohio State in 2017?
For 2016, this team’s goals are still clear and within reach. It starts by coming home to face Minnesota next Saturday night, and could end in Indianapolis or even a New Year’s Six bowl.
“It’s about how you respond,” senior captain Dylan Utter said. “That was pretty embarrassing, so we’re going to take each game and definitely not let that happen again.”
For the Huskers, building for the future starts now. And that future might not be as far away as it looked on the scoreboard tonight.