With Nebraska’s season winding to a close, the focus is squarely planted on the neighbors next door, the Iowa Hawkeyes.
“I’d like to focus on beating Iowa,” Coach Mike Riley said Monday morning when asked to reflect on what had gone wrong during the season. “I think we owe our kids the energy of this preparation. … I don’t need to reflect on the big picture yet.”
On Black Friday the Huskers will welcome Iowa to Memorial Stadium and look to send off a senior class of 22 players with one last win against a budding rival. Riley said Monday it will be a physical and taxing affair.
“Everybody knows Iowa, it’s going to be run-action and a good dose of the run,” Riley said. “We’ve got to be better in run defense, we’ve got to be solid and smart playing against the play-action passes.
“They hurt us last year with a couple of sharp play-action post routes that hit us and then their zone running game is a good one. You’ve got to be able to fit the run and make the plays, get off blocks.”
Riley was asked if last year’s 40-10 loss to the Hawkeyes changed the course of Nebraska football. The Huskers entered that game 9-2 on the season. They’re 4-9 since. Riley said that game was disappointing, and everyone was upset with how it played out, but the focus is on this year.
“It would be great for this team to be able to put everything aside and finish on a real good note in what would be a real tough game and win the game,” he said.
Riley and the coaching staff met with the team yesterday. This will be the second time they’ve played a Friday game this season, so he’s hoping the week won’t be too different for his team. They lifted weights Sunday, reviewed game film and held a team meeting. During, Riley made sure his team knew this one meant a little bit more. In his mind, this is absolutely a rivalry.
“I love the idea,” he said. “Don’t you guys think that’s what it should be? I mean, it feels right. With the amount of time that we’ve been in the Big Ten, with the proximity there just seems like a lot of common ground there and it’s right over there. It feels like it should be embraced in that way.
“This is just a great opportunity for this team to get that level of satisfaction from winning a game here at the end. … Let’s focus on Iowa, let’s beat Iowa, this is that kind of game for us.”
Riley said that the Nov. 4 game against Ohio State, when Iowa shocked the sixth-ranked Buckeyes 55-24, was the most impressive film of the team. The running game stood out – Iowa ran it 38 times for 243 yards and a score against the Buckeye defense – but Iowa’s success through the air is what caught his eye. Quarterback Nathan Stanley was 20-for-31 for 226 yards and five touchdowns. Riley said his defense will need to be at its best.
“There’s no doubt [physicality is] what Iowa will present, we’ll get a good dose of that, we’re going to have to hold up against it and do well against it,” Riley said. “We’ll have to have a good plan together and then guys are going to have to be ready to play physically because that’s what it’ll be up front against them.”
Other news and notes
>> Riley announced several injury updates for key guys on both sides of the ball.
Safety Aaron Williams is still dealing with soreness in his neck after being able to play against Penn State. Riley said he’s hopeful Williams will be better later in the week.
Wideout JD Spielman also aggravated a shoulder injury on Saturday. Riley said he doesn’t expect Spielman to practice Monday but expects him back Tuesday. Running back Devine Ozigbo also sprained an ankle in the game and will be day-to-day moving forward.
>> Riley was asked how he’s stayed positive throughout a disappointing season. He said he could be angry or do things differently, but that’s not what he wants to do.
“I want to enjoy these kids and coach them and teach them and have an atmosphere that is about learning,” he said. “That doesn’t mean you disregard the demand part of it. This is a demanding, physical thing.
“I was brought up in coaching in a way that if it’s not working, it was our job to try to fix it, so the focus goes on that. I try not to get into playing the blame game, there’s no need for that. What we have to do is try to help them. I’ve always thought that – maybe it’s what I would have liked as a player or as an assistant coach – is that stability is the best thing to surround these people with, coaches [and] players, so that they can work and do their job.”
Riley said that way of going about things might have been influenced by his playing days, but it’s also because he doesn’t want to be piling on to his players’ plates.
“I talk to our team as if I’m going to be here forever and I approach each day like that,” he said. “I want to provide them our best and whatever I can alleviate that doesn’t have to do with the football part of it or their lives or their part in the program or going to class or being in the weight room, I try not to complicate it with anything else. They don’t need any of that.”
>> Riley mentioned Saturday night that he’s considered getting more involved in different ways. Monday morning, he was asked what he meant.
“That was kind of reflective over a long period of time,” he said. “I don’t want to get too much into what I might do or could have done or anything like that at this time. Those are decisions that were made a while back. What I do in the future that way, I will study it and decided how that will look.”
Could he think about playcalling duties?
“Yeah, and just more involvement,” he said.
Does he wish he took for offensive coordinator Danny Langsdorf at any point this season?
“I wouldn’t say that.”
Did he take over Saturday?
“No, I did not, I only threw in those plays that scored touchdowns there,” he joked.
>> Against Penn State, Stanley Morgan Jr. was outstanding. Seven catches, 185 yards and a score. The day brought him within 30 yards of tying Johnny Rodgers’ 1972 record for receiving yards in a season (942).
“Frankly, the other day in the game, that’s what I’ve been waiting for from him as a weekly deal,” Riley said. “I think that he goes up and wins the one-on-one battle and makes those plays. He’s capable of doing that, he’s shown that sometimes throughout his career, a lot of times in practice.
“I’ve been waiting for that. That looked good.”
At 912 yards this season with one game left, Morgan is within striking distance of the record and the first 1,000 yard receiving season from a Nebraska wideout. Riley said he’s appreciated the attitude Morgan has brought every day this season.
“Stanley Morgan has been that guy that we have appreciated since he was young, because of his approach day-to-day,” Riley said. "He’s very competitive, he uses his attributes well, he’s strong, he’s physical and he’s pretty much fearless. He’ll go play. Despite some injuries he’s had, whatever has gone on, he has remained the same person that way and so you kind of always know what you’re going to get day-to-day in practice with Stanley.”
Riley said his offenses have always been suited for a player like Morgan.
“A lot of our offense in my history has been predicated on that guy over there, if he’s one-on-one we’re throwing him the ball and we’re going to win,” Riley said.