After the last couple of results, detractors have been quick to say that Nebraska has been “exposed” or that it has “proven it was a fraud” as a top 10 team. On Saturday, Nebraska certainly proved it was not ready to compete with the Buckeyes, and as a result the Huskers rightfully plummeted in the rankings down to Nos. 20 and 21. However, we don’t live in a black and white world, and the way things are now isn’t the way things have always been.
Nebraska’s top 10 ranking was deserved through eight weeks. They took care of business against their first seven opponents and battled another top 10 team to overtime last week. Rankings are relative to the current competition, not some past standard.
But more importantly at this point, the team that took the field on Saturday in Columbus was not the same that had earned that top 10 ranking. The Huskers had been getting by despite mounting injuries, but they finally caught up to them in a big way. Mike Riley wasn’t hearing that, however.
“Oh, boy,” Riley said. “I’m not going to go too far there. I think that we expect a lot of the guys that go in and play. It feels like a cop-out statement if I was to say, ‘Yeah, that’s why that happened.’ We were beaten thoroughly in all the phases and it really didn’t remind me of our team.”
Riley certainly has a point. Nebraska was already down 24-3 when quarterback Tommy Armstrong Jr. was knocked out of the game. However, losing its starting quarterback was the most significant injury and the final blow for the Huskers to have any chance to be competitive. But several other injuries led up to that point.
Right tackle. Right guard. Left guard. Left tackle. Running back. Tight end. Wide receiver. Linebacker. Quarterback.
Those are all the positions the Huskers have either lost key players or seen limited by injury. At full strength, Ohio State has more talent than Nebraska. But the Huskers weren’t even close to full strength.
Nebraska has enough talent at the skill positions and linebacker to survive a few hits, but perhaps the most damaging losses were along the offensive line, where center Dylan Utter is the only projected starter coming out of fall camp that has been able to stay relatively healthy. Three other starters were out against the Buckeyes and left tackle Nick Gates has been playing on a bad ankle.
“You could just see statistically that our numbers were dropping as we were going forward,” Riley said. “We have got to solidify the guys that will be able to play up front and I think the foundation of what we’re going to have to do better is run the ball. Everything else goes better but we haven’t been consistent at it for a while. That’s been the crux of the problem.”
The fact that the next men up at offensive line and quarterback are current or former walk-ons serves to highlight recruiting misses of the past regime, where scholarship players either can’t see the field or transferred away. As well as guys like Sam Hahn, Cole Conrad and Ryker Fyfe have done at times, it’s going to be difficult to match-up against a team stacked with 4- and 5-star talent with all of those guys playing at the same time. But that’s a problem to focus on during the off-season. For now, Riley is going to have to find a way to get by with whoever is healthy enough to suit up next week.
The Huskers still have a lot to play this season. They still have an outside shot with some help to win their division and they’re also playing for a quality bowl game berth. The senior class is playing for its legacy in Lincoln.
“Our first goal is to win next week,” Riley said. “The rest of it is still a possibility. Now, we don’t control our destiny anymore but that doesn’t mean we can’t win our division.”
Nebraska very well might have to play again with the same complement of players they had against Ohio State as Armstrong’s status is up in the air, and Riley is going to have to find a way to compete with that group.
However, regardless of how the season finishes, the team that played in Columbus on Saturday night was not the same team that beat a then-ranked-and-much-healthier Oregon Ducks squad, or the team that ran away from what has proven to be a solid Wyoming team, or the one that won at Northwestern and at Indiana. As Brandon Vogel wrote, Nebraska still has a long way to go and a lot to prove. That being said, what the Huskers did accomplish earlier in the season does show progress from year one under Riley, and one lopsided loss against a playoff contender shouldn’t erase that.
Jacob is in his third year with Hail Varsity covering Husker athletics. He has also written extensively for SB Nation’s Bright Side of the Sun and The Creightonian. His love of basketball can best be described as an obsession and if you need to find him, he’s probably in a gym somewhere watching, coaching or playing hoops.