Whether Nebraskans loved him or hated him, Bo Pelini was remarkably consistent. His Cornhuskers teams lost exactly four games every season for six years.
New coach Mike Riley already has three losses. Forgive Huskers fans for covering their eyes, terrified of what a fourth one might bring.
BYU beat Nebraska with a last-second Hail Mary. Miami (Fla.) defeated Nebraska in overtime, after the Cornhuskers had rallied from 33-10 down — in the fourth quarter.
Those losses were excruciating but somewhat forgivable for Riley. Then came last week’s defeat at Illinois.
Nebraska led 13-0 early in the fourth quarter and still led 13-7 with the ball and 1:01 remaining, and Illinois without a timeout. On third-and-7 from the Illinois 28, Nebraska could have handed off the ball and let the clock run, leaving the Illini about 15 seconds to mount a long touchdown drive.
Instead, the Cornhuskers ran a bootleg that was a designed run for quarterback Tommy Armstrong Jr. The play call arrived to the huddle late. A tight end lined up out of position. Armstrong saw an open receiving target and improvised, throwing incomplete.
That stopped the clock with 55 seconds remaining. Illinois got the ball back four seconds later and drove for the winning touchdown.
As Dirk Chatelain wrote in the Omaha World Herald: “The honeymoon is over, folks. Nebraska is 2-3. Mike Riley and [offensive coordinator] Danny Langsdorf lost this football game with dreadful mismanagement, not just of the clock, but of the entire offense.”
Nebraska will visit Minnesota next week, trying to end a two-game losing streak against the Gophers. But first, Wisconsin plays at Nebraska on Saturday, in what feels like a must-win game for both teams. The Badgers are coming off a 10-6 home loss to Iowa.
Riley and first-year Wisconsin coach Paul Chryst are longtime friends, going back to 1991, when Riley hired Chryst with the San Antonio Riders in the World League of American Football. Riley also hired Chryst as an assistant with the San Diego Chargers and at Oregon State.
“I’ve been in tough situations with [Riley], and quite honestly, I think that’s when he’s at his best,” Chryst said.
Nebraska still ranks 128th among 128 Football Bowl Subdivision teams in passing defense, at 353.8 yards per game. That’s part of what made the Illinois loss so painful. The Cornhuskers limited Illini quarterback Wes Lunt for most of the game.
Riley, 62, is a stand-up guy and was long viewed as an underrated coach at Oregon State. He blamed himself for the third-down decision.
“In retrospect, it would’ve been much simpler just to [hand] the ball off,” Riley said. “My idea, and it was a bad idea, was that we would run the quarterback on a bootleg, and we’d maybe gain some yards, but we’d eat more clock. [Armstrong] just reacted like an athlete. Someone got in his face and he reacted. You can’t blame him. That goes back to my training of the quarterback.”
Armstrong has had some brilliant moments this season, especially during the fourth-quarter comeback at Miami. But he also threw a crushing interception in overtime that day and completed just 10 of 31 passes at Illinois.
Nebraska has sold out every game at Memorial Stadium since 1962, a streak that will reach 344 games against Wisconsin. But the patience of those fiercely loyal fans is being tested.
“All the bugs crawl out at times like this, and it’s just a great, great mental test for everybody,” Riley said. “There can be great growth out of it, if you let it.”