It took eight games and overtime in the ninth, but Nebraska finally looked like what most of the major outlets and magazines projected for 2017 – almost the equal of Northwestern.
At least that was the consensus at Stassen.com, which has tracked preseason predictions since 1993. The predictors had Northwestern in second by a pretty comfortable margin and Nebraska in third by a lonely point over Iowa. That was the national baseline for Nebraska in 2017.
Locally, it was different.
Nationally everyone has seen what Nebraska once was and locally Husker fans hold onto the belief that Nebraska can be that once again. Whether that’s possible or not in today’s game is a debate for the offseason, again, but those that follow the program most closely saw reasons to think it could climb a little closer to that this season. Or maybe they didn't want to believe the Huskers couldn't.
Whatever the reasons, what's irrefutable here and now is that the Huskers are contemporaries of Northwestern and Purdue, based on the last two games, nowhere close to Wisconsin and Ohio State, based on the two games before that, and we’ll see about Iowa. The Hawkeyes are 2-0 against Mike Riley and smacked sixth-ranked Ohio State 55-24 in Iowa City on Saturday.
You don’t need me to tell you that this isn’t where Nebraska needs, wants or expects to be. Even if that was almost exactly what was projected to start the season, hope is what drives college football and context is eventually what dashes it.
The context in Lincoln right now ain’t good. Many people scoffed at ESPN’s initial projection of 5.5 wins – round up and call it six – this season. Even if you were willing to entertain the idea of that – Nebraska needs to win two of its final three at Minnesota, at Penn State and against Iowa to even get there – it was hard to envision exactly what that sort of season would look like.
But it looks like what 2017 has been.
The Huskers dropped three straight home games – Wisconsin, Ohio State, Northwestern – for the first time since 1957. Nebraska hasn’t lost four home games (add Northern Illinois to the three above) in a season since, well, 2015. Prior to Riley’s first season at Nebraska, the last year with four Lincoln losses was 1961. The Huskers went 3-6-1 that year, Bill Jennings’ last as head coach.
It is harder now than ever to see this season as anything other than Riley’s last in Lincoln.
That wasn’t the case with as few as 10 minutes left against the Wildcats. Nebraska led Northwestern 24-17 at that point and had the Wildcats starting a drive inside their own 20. Lot of game left, but decent odds. Close this game out, stack it on top of the previous one and there’s at least something to think about.
Nebraska didn’t. Northwestern converted its only third down of the game, a third-and-9 no less, and went on to score the touchdown, converting a fourth-and-1 along the way, that would force overtime. It’s sort of the story of the season and the two that came before it. Nebraska occasionally does some things well – it’s never easy to tell when or what might be good in any given game – but never enough things well to be any better than exactly what it is. And that is a team that put together a great drive to beat Purdue on the road last week, but couldn’t do the same, either offensively or defensively, against Northwestern at home a week later.
Coaxing consistent effort, and thus mostly consistent results, out of 18-to-22-year-old football players might be the hardest job in sports. But people spend a lot of money to watch guys try, and, given the money that surrounds that entire enterprise, that’s why the very few guys who can do it year in and year out currently earn about $7 million a year. If it didn’t cost so much it would almost feel like magic.
But it’s not magic, and that, ultimately, might be the problem with the Riley era. The Huskers aren’t very consistent and haven’t been. It consistently feels, however, like Nebraska is waiting around and hoping for something good to happen; that third-down stop on the key touchdown drive, the easy interception that just gets dropped, the back-breaking holding penalty that maybe the officials miss.
Hope, however, won’t win football games. What this game really is about for coaches is eliminating hope from the equation, knowing what your team can and will do, knowing what your opponent can’t and won’t and then using that to remove as much randomness as possible. Even the best coaches can’t remove all of it, but the great ones come close.
Thirty-five games into the Riley era, the Huskers are still a team that has to hope. They seem no closer to controlling what happens on the field each Saturday than they were in game one, and that usually doesn’t end well.
But don’t take my word for it, listen to what Northwestern Coach Pat Fitzgerald had to say immediately after his Wildcats survived their third straight overtime – first FBS team to ever do it – to get the win.
Pat Fitzgerald’s tone was, ummm, interesting on BTN after the game. pic.twitter.com/AzR83Y8gow
— Brandon Vogel (@brandonlvogel) November 4, 2017
Fitzgerald is in his 12th season at Northwestern. It’s a run that doesn’t happen very often anymore in today’s game, but it certainly seemed like he knew what Saturday’s win meant.
“That’s a really good friend of mine in Mike Riley and he’s one heckuva football coach,” Fitzgerald said on the BTN telecast. “My hat’s off to him and his young men. It was a heckuva battle, but the Huskers have a heckuva head coach in Mike and that’s what I told him after the game. I love him and I’ve got so much respect him.”
Husker fans respect Riley, too. They wanted this to work or at least hoped it would. But it felt like Fitzgerald knew what had just happened.
It felt like goodbye.