What Now?
Photo Credit: Aaron Babcock

What Now?

September 16, 2017

So. What now?

After a 21-17 loss to a Group-of-5 Northern Illinois team dropped the Huskers to 1-2 on the season – the second such start under head coach Mike Riley in three years after happening just once in the 54 years prior – Nebraska was left with a collection of booing fans, a locker room of dejected players and a head coach that now finds himself very much on the hot seat.

“This will sound like an understatement but we are just really bitterly disappointed with losing the game,’ Riley said afterwards. “We have to prove more about who we are.”

But who exactly are the Huskers?

Through the first two weeks, the Nebraska offense was humming. It put up 43 points against a quality Arkansas State defense in the opener, and then came alive in the second half against Oregon to finish with 35 points. Against a smaller Huskies team, Nebraska was supposed to have a field day.

Instead, the offense entered halftime without a point, prompting frustrated fans to let their balloons – held until the Huskers score their first points – fly up and into the cool Nebraska air. It wasn’t about yardage though, Nebraska had 201 yards of total offense by the half, and finished with 384. It was about finishing. Nebraska’s opening drive went 65 yards before Northern Illinois’ Shawun Lurry jumped a second-and-3 bubble screen right in front of his own end zone and took it 87 yards to the house.

“You can’t let things like that affect you, but obviously it did,” fullback Luke McNitt said. “We were moving the ball pretty well that drive, we got down to the 8-yard-line, looking like we were about ready to score and put points on the board but you see it go the other way. That can hurt you.”

It would be the first of two pick-sixes to come from quarterback Tanner Lee before the first quarter even ended.

“I’ve got to be better,” Lee said after the game, looking about as unhappy as any of the Husker players. “Not hurting the team with bad plays and making sure we finish plays in the end zone. That is our number one goal.”

Riley was visibly upset after the Oregon loss, and he seemed at a loss for words at times after this one. Above anything else, he said he feels like Nebraska has lost its way on offense.

“We could do nothing repeatedly,” he said. “It didn’t feel like we could do anything that was consistent for us in the game that we could do again and again and make a go. The running game and the passing game was so sporadic because protection was sporadic.”

On the other side of the ball, it was the inverse. For the first two weeks, the Huskers’ defense was ripped apart. The Blackshirts surrendered 497 yards of total offense to Arkansas State in the opener and then yielded 400 yards and 42 points to Oregon before halftime in week two. Only eight teams in Division I football had given up more yards per game on defense through two weeks than the Huskers.

But Riley and company have to feel like they wasted a defensive performance in this one.

Eight of NIU’s 11 drives ended in punts. Four of them three-and-outs. The Huskies had 88 yards total by halftime and finished with only 128 yards through the air.

“We really found something to work with after that Oregon game and we knew we wanted to get going from the jump,” linebacker Luke Gifford said. “I think we did a good job of that.”

Gifford said nothing changed from a scheme standpoint. Defensive coordinator Bob Diaco didn’t throw the kitchen sink at the Huskies, even though the Huskers brought more pressure more often in week three than at any other point this season. Gifford said it was just execution on the part of the players on the field and “working [their] tail off.”

“Our defense played a lot of good football today,” Riley said. “I thought the give-and-take with the coaches and the players, press box to sideline, that was all impressive and really it was one touchdown drive in the game, unfortunately it was also a critical time.”

That score came early in the fourth quarter, but immediately following a Nebraska touchdown to finally take a 17-14 lead in the game. The Huskies went 75 yards in six plays to score their only offensive touchdown on the day, highlighted by a 47-yard pass play that marked the only play longer than 20 yards the Huskers defense would surrender through the air.

“We got an opportunity to get off the field and give us momentum,” Gifford said. “We have to get it done when it comes down to it.”

So, three weeks in and there have been zero questions answered.

Lee, who was supposed to be the missing piece in Riley’s offense, has thrown seven interceptions in three games, a 6 percent interception rate. The offensive line, who talked before the season about being able to provide a more stable pocket knowing the quarterback wasn’t going to be moving as much, has surrendered seven sacks and 11 hurries in three games. The defense was the reason for a tight finish in the opener and a massive hole last week, yet was the only reason the Huskers found themselves in the game in week three.

“We’ve been inconsistent at best,” Riley said. “I mean, that’s not even probably accurate, but that’s been us and I don’t like that. I think that we’ve got to have a better identifying quality than just being like we’ve been, inconsistent as a football team.”

With Rutgers making the trek to Lincoln next week and a Sep. 29 trip to Illinois after, the Huskers have two weeks to solve the “total combination” of problems Riley says the team is facing. “Whether it’s getting beat or being confused,” the Huskers need better play before No. 10 Wisconsin (3-0) and No. 8 Ohio State (1-1) invade Memorial Stadium on Oct. 7 and 14, or things will get even uglier than they looked against the Huskies.

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