“It is what it is,” Nebraska Athletic Director Shawn Eichorst said not long after Nebraska lost 21-17 to Northern Illinois on Saturday. Said it a couple of times, actually, and there’s a reason for that. At times like this, words feel pretty empty.
Instead, here are some facts about Nebraska’s loss to Northern Illinois.
It is Nebraska’s third loss this century to a Group of 5 opponent at home, depending upon how you want to classify BYU. The Cougars certainly could be a Power 5 team, but they haven’t technically been yet, playing football in the Rocky Mountain Athletic, Skyline, Western Athletic and Mountain West Conferences before becoming an independent. That says Group of 5 to me. Southern Mississippi (2004) and Northern Illinois (Saturday) are the two others. Two of those losses go on Mike Riley’s tab.
It was the 62nd time Nebraska was at least a 10.5-point favorite at Memorial Stadium since 2004 – not exactly Nebraska’s most powerful era – and just the seventh loss. Five of those losses came to conference opponents. The one that didn’t prior to Saturday? Southern Miss in 2004 again.
It is the second time a Riley-led Nebraska team has started the season 1-2. Take it from here, ESPN Stats and Info:
Nebraska is 1-2 for the second time in three seasons under Mike Riley. In their previous 54 seasons, Cornhuskers started 1-2 once (1981). pic.twitter.com/UniuL4KVcH
— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) September 16, 2017
It is seven interceptions on the season now for Tanner Lee. The Huskers had nine all of last season, eight from Tommy Armstrong Jr. in 11 games, one from Ryker Fyfe. Don’t put all of those on Lee – Northern Illinois had seven quarterback hurries and three sacks on the day – but don’t absolve him of all of them either. If there’s a number that indicates how far this offense currently is from what many, myself included, thought it might be, this is it.
It is the eighth time the Huskers have attempted 40-plus passes in a game under Riley. It is the eighth time Nebraska’s lost when doing that. Lee threw the ball 47 times on Saturday, but it’s really 50 attempts when you factor in the three sacks.
It is unusual for an AD to do a postgame interview. It’s admirable, but generally not a great sign of where things stand.
It is probably time to transition to the commentary portion of this column, even though I know I don’t have any answers either, but maybe there’s value in the questions.
Saturday was really the first time the Riley era reminded me of late-period Pelini. This loss was more shocking but less gruesome than most of what occurred then, but it prompted the same question I had after 59-24 Wisconsin in 2014 or 38-17 Iowa in 2013: Why is Nebraska going to get back to being Nebraska?
Not when. You’ll never correctly guess that one.
Not how. That answer can take too many forms to be useful – get a new coordinator, recruit better, get a new coach, create a new department, add more bells and whistles.
But Saturday’s loss reminded me that “why” is the right question. I don’t know if anyone at Nebraska could give you the answer to that question in a sentence or two, and I feel as though that has been true since I started covering the team in 2011.
I don’t think having an answer to that question would change how hard the players or coaches worked. I don’t question that. I know that having an answer wouldn’t change how much the fans cared. But I do think that having an answer could bring those two sides together, and right now is one of those times when those two sides are going to feel pretty far apart.
Say what you will about P.J. Fleck, but Minnesota just beat a good Middle Tennessee State team 34-3. The Gophers are 3-0 and have outscored their opponents 99-24. Everyone was rowing in the same direction – sorry, had to – from the day he showed up.
I don’t know exactly what Jeff Brohm’s “why” is at Purdue, but he appears to have one. The Boilermakers just beat Missouri 35-3 on the road. They’ve also beaten Ohio and lost by a touchdown to Louisville this season.
Wisconsin and Iowa, two teams who have always seemed to have a clear sense of self, are both undefeated.
If Nebraska’s going to compete with those teams, it needs to know why it's going to compete. We’ve seen over the past decade-plus what it looks like when it doesn’t. They just feel like football games. There’s nothing behind it. Until there is, it's hard to predict much different results.
One of the last things Nebraska players see when they run onto the field is a sign that reads “I play for Nebraska.” It’s supposed to be something of a mission statement, a call to action.
On Saturday, yet again, it just felt like a fact, and that’s one thing it can’t be. That one has to be more than what it is.