In the midst of a 42-10 first half demolition, and a final score that didn’t accurately portray the competitiveness of the affair, Nebraska, now 4-7, played a game that didn’t mean a whole lot in the grand scheme of things.
Penn State, at 9-2 with both losses coming in conference play, can’t win its division or play for a Big Ten crown, meaning its playoff hopes are, at best, on life support. Nebraska on the other hand is limping to the finish line with more attention paid to what’s happening off the field than what’s happening on it. The blueprint was similar to what it’s been for most of the season: drama-filled week, fall down early, roar back late, fall short again.
“I’m just sorry for these kids,” head coach Mike Riley said after the game. “I think that we’re just a time away. I sure like them. There was some glimmer of some better football as we went on in the deal, which was good.”
But that’s all the Huskers’ season has really been to this point, glimmers. Brief glimpses of what the potential is for a team that is mostly underclassmen. When Nebraska goes into its Black Friday matchup with Iowa, only 11 seniors will take part in the festivities before their final home game kicks off.
“I’ve mentioned before and I’ve thought about this a lot, what this must look like in year three and kind of rationalizing to myself it’s really year one with some youthful players in it,” Riley said. “I think this could be a good group.”
While speculation runs wild about what new athletic director Bill Moos will do once the season is over, the current coaching staff has tried to insulate the team from the outside noise and just focus on improving each day.
“Having been around enough, I know that nobody needs to have me talk about that, they need to have me talk about football and getting ready for the game and they need some normalcy when they see me,” Riley said. “We kind of rely on that history because if you stay in this very long, you’re going to have a roller coaster somewhere, so you learn a little bit more, so it’s encouraging for me to see those kids and the coaches just keep working, because that’s the right thing to do. There’s no need talking about the other stuff because that’s distracting.”
Riley said he just sticks to what he’s always done. “I like what I do, I’ve been more appreciative of it lately than ever,” he said. Each day, it’s business as usual: he comes to work, watches film and prepares a practice plan – something he said is “like recess” for him. Players still hear it though. They have Twitter and Facebook and they see and hear what’s being said. For players like linebacker Mohamed Barry, it’s hard to listen to sometimes.
“It’s difficult because I know they can’t play for us at the end of the day,” he said. “There’s only so much they can do. So many games, we were in a position to make plays and it didn’t happen. I wish it could be different and I wish we could have those plays back, but the truth of the matter is we can’t.”
Barry said that’s just football. It’s just part of the learning process. It’s what Riley means when he says his third year in Lincoln feels closer to a first year on the job than anything else. With all the changes the Huskers have undergone in the last year, everyone knew it was going to take time.
“We’ve got a lot of development to do,” Barry said. “It does feel like that, it feels like a year one. It feels like players have to develop certain skill sets and patience and the ability to stay doing your job, developing discipline and all that.”
Unfortunately for Nebraska, the potential isn’t yielding results right now, and the Blackshirts have been bearing the brunt of the criticism. Nebraska surrendered 609 total yards of offense to the Nittany Lions when it was all said and done, only 47 yards away from an opponent record set back in 1956. On his first touch of the day, Penn State tailback Saquon Barkley took a handoff and rumbled 65 yards for a touchdown. Barkley finished the day with 224 total yards and three touchdowns on 23 touches.
“It’s very, very hard right now,” Diaco said. “It’s hard executing right now and my heart goes out to the players and I want so badly to help them in the game. The plays are hard right now. You’re watching it. We’ve got to pull up our bootstraps and get ready.”
Two weeks in a row now, the Huskers have been gashed by the run. Minnesota ran up 409 yards on the ground on Nov. 11. The Nittany Lions only had 263, but they threw it 39 times and still averaged 7.5 yards per carry. Diaco and Barry both said they defended the option a bit differently this time around, and were prepared for what they saw, the execution just wasn’t there.
“They didn’t do anything that we didn’t prepare, they didn’t run any formations or plays that the players didn’t practice and we didn’t prepare against as a group,” Diaco said. “Kudos to Penn State and their players and their staff, that’s an excellent offense and an explosive offense.
“We’re not executing very well on defense right now, that’s obviously the understatement of the century.”
Nebraska has less than a week left in its season to try and figure out how to fix that.
“Tomorrow is Day Five of the week and we’ve got Iowa coming to town and they’ve got to practice hard and prepare and get ready to win a football game,” Diaco said. “We love the players, we love them so much and everybody’s going to work hard this week, on a short week, for the seniors in that stadium and this program will be back.”
Derek is a newbie on the Hail Varsity staff covering Husker athletics. In college, he was best known as ‘that guy from Twitter.’ He has covered a Sugar Bowl, a tennis national championship and almost everything in between (except an NCAA men’s basketball tournament game… *tears*). In his spare time, he can be found arguing with literally anyone about sports.