As Nebraska head coach Mike Riley walked into his post-game press conference following Saturday’s 27-17 win over Rutgers, he looked exhausted.
After seeing his team lose 21-17 to Northern Illinois last week, then watching his boss Shawn Eichorst get fired on Thursday for their poor play, it’s easy to see why.
To make matters worse, Riley was without two of his five starting offensive linemen (on a already struggling unit), his two top X receivers, his top two safeties and two of his top outside linebackers were all not on the field Saturday.
Before Riley began to address reporters, he asked somebody to bring him a drink…no not that kind of drink, but I’m sure he could’ve used one of those too on Saturday.
“Winning games are hard,” an emotional Riley said. “I would suppose after last week, that game was…These kids are happy right now. They know it was hard, they know they played well, and they knew a lot of new parts played an important role. I’m pretty excited.”
And really that’s what Saturday was all about. This team was not going to solve the world’s problems against Rutgers.
They simply needed to get back on the field and earn a win. In the process, they found their running game and Bob Diaco’s defensive unit continues to get better each week. The 194 yards by Rutgers is the fewest allowed by a Blackshirt defense in Riley’s three seasons at NU.
"With how the beginning of the season has gone, we want to get better and win,” senior linebacker Chris Weber said. “That's really what is driving us. I think we came to work on Monday and really went at it."
Nothing was easy about this win for the Huskers. Their longest play of the day from scrimmage was just 20 yards. They only had 306 yards of total offense, and quarterback Tanner Lee threw two more interceptions.
When it got down to crunch time in the fourth quarter Riley and offensive coordinator Danny Langasdorf didn’t try to get cute. They knew it wasn’t worth it. When your job is on the line, you don’t try to earn style points.
Langsdorf and Riley wisely called running plays on 20 of NU's 22 final offensive plays.
“I’m happy for those kids,” Riley said. “One of the things that we always talk about and I stole this from John Robinson ‘The game might be up for grabs for 3 hours and 27 minutes. We might have broken it at three hours or two hours and 54 minutes. Sometimes it might take 3 hours and 27 minutes to win the game.’ It appears to me that all of ours are like that although we had a two-score lead there at the end. I think that maybe you can learn a lot from being in those circumstances and of course winning today.”
Now on to the breakdown….
What I saw on Saturday
***Nebraska did a lot of substituting on Saturday to combat the heat. Guys like Ben Stille, Daishon Neal, Sedrick King, Kieron Williams, Jaylin Bradley and Devine Ozigbo all saw their first major action of the season.
I thought both Stille and Ozigbo gave this team a spark on Saturday. Rutgers head coach Chris Ash said after the game his defense basically ran out of gas being on the field 23 minutes in the second half.
***The Huskers lost the quarterback of their secondary Aaron Williams very early in the game to a targeting penalty. Luckily both Antonio Reed and Kieron Williams stepped up and kept things together on the back end.
***I thought it was interesting to see Nebraska President Hank Bounds on the sidelines during pregame warm-ups talking to the visiting recruits and their families. Bounds is almost serving as the interim athletic director. Speaking of that, Bounds told the Husker Sports Network at halftime they should have an interim AD named in the next couple of days.
***The adventures of De’Mornay Pierson-El continue, but he showed on Saturday why he’s still back there. His 63-yard punt return in the first half was his longest return since his freshman year at Iowa. It was the play that turned the game around for Nebraska.
***NU’s 17-play scoring drive that started from the 3-yard line on Saturday was a microcosm of the season. Nothing was easy about it, but they found a way, something they haven’t been able to do much this season.
***It was good catching up with Pender native and former Husker assistant coach Bill Busch during pregame warm-ups on Saturday.
Busch told me he showed his players what a Runza was this week in meetings, and said their parents need to try one if they come to Lincoln. We also talked about Pierson-El, and he said none of their people on staff really knew how good he was, because all they see are the numbers from this season. He said, “trust me, this guy is one of the best out there.” He showed that finally on Saturday.
***I don’t care who you are, getting booed by 90,000 fans is going to affect you. After quarterback Tanner Lee threw his third pick 6 over the last two games Memorial Stadium booed him as he took the field again trailing 17-14 in the third quarter. Lee’s response, a 17 play, 97-yard drive two series later that turned the football game around. It was a tough moment for Lee and Riley, but they handled it about as well as you could.
The final grade out
Rushing offense: B+
Nebraska got 195 yards on 44 carries from their three running backs on Saturday. Devine Ozigbo finally got his opportunity and led the way with 101 yards on 24 carries. The only thing missing on the day was a long explosive run. NU had just one run/play on Saturday for 20 yards or longer, and it was a 20 yard run by Ozigbo.
Passing offense: D
Without Stanley Morgan and Bryan Reimers, their Huskers were down to their third string X receiver, which is the primary target in this offense. Quarterback Tanner Lee struggled early with two interceptions, but finished strong going 6-of-8 down the stretch. He threw just two passes for 7 yards in the fourth quarter. Still a lot of work to go in this area.
Rushing defense: A
The Scarlet Knights had just 68 rushing yards on 24 attempts. Their long run on the day was only 13 yards. The rushing defense has become the overall strength of this football team.
Passing defense: A
The Huskers forced two interceptions today, and hurried quarterback Kyle Bolin four times, holding him to just 126 passing yards and a long completion of 19 yards. There were a few breakdowns early in the game, but for the most part this was a very solid showing by the pass defense.
Special teams: A-
On a day where the wind was a factor, the Husker special teams lived up to their end of the bargain. Caleb Lightbourn put three of his five punts inside the 20, the kick coverage was outstanding and Pierson-El finally got his mojo back in the punt return game. Drew Brown also made two chip shot field goals, which played a big impact on the final outcome of the game.
Sean Callahan can be reached at email@example.com and he can be heard each day at 6:45 am and 5:05 pm on Big Red Radio 1110 KFAB in Omaha during the football season. He can also be seen on KETV Channel 7 in Omaha during the fall and each week he appears on NET's Big Red Wrap-Up Tuesday's at 7 pm.