Under Mike Riley, Nebraska finds no quick fix to habitual concerns

Tommy Armstrong and the Huskers have seen two games they seemingly had won turn into defeats this season. Robin Alam/Icon Sportswire

LINCOLN, Neb. -- In the hours, days and weeks that followed Mike Riley’s introduction as coach at Nebraska exactly 10 months ago Monday, collectively, the football program breathed deeply.

As in a sigh of relief.

For more than a decade, drama plagued the Huskers. Sensational losses and monumental distractions -- from a starring role in conference realignment to Bo Pelini’s emotional gaffes and Bill Callahan’s general inability to fit in Lincoln -- hogged the attention.

Enter Riley, the venerable and veteran coach who would represent the Huskers well in every setting and finally provide stability. Nebraska could again focus on football, the single-most unifying force in this state.

Well, five games in, it’s just as bizarre as ever.

"The fact of the matter," Riley said, "we’ve had a string of games like I’ve never seen."

The latest episode of the absurd unfolded Saturday at Illinois as Nebraska gave away victory. Up six points with one minute to play and the Illini out of timeouts, Tommy Armstrong Jr. inexplicably threw a third-down pass. It fell incomplete to stop the clock and preserve 40-plus seconds for Illinois, which drove 72 yards in 41 seconds for a touchdown with 10 seconds left to win 14-13.

Then in the aftermath, left tackle and senior co-captain Alex Lewis poorly handled the disappointment in Champaign.

"He knows what’s expected of him as a leader," senior defensive end and fellow captain Jack Gangwish said of Lewis.

Apparently not.

Nebraska, which hosts Wisconsin Saturday (3:30 p.m. ET, ESPN2), might struggle to reach six wins after this troubling start. The Huskers have lost three of five games to opponents with an average Football Power Index of 49.

In the season-opening, Hail Mary loss to Brigham Young, Nebraska’s win probability, calculated by ESPN, reached 98.5 percent before the final play. It was the highest figure this season of any team to lose -- until the Huskers topped out at 99.5 percent before the third-down mistake Saturday.

There is, perhaps, nothing more demoralizing for an athlete than to accomplish what’s needed to win, only to lose because he or she was not placed in the right position to execute.

It's happened twice in less than a month at Nebraska.

For the fateful, third-and-7 play against the Illini, the play call from Riley and offensive coordinator Danny Langsdorf arrived late to the huddle. It was a quarterback boot -- typically a pass play, but tagged run for Armstrong.

Rushed to the line, Nebraska failed to motion its tight end, a key blocker, from Armstrong’s left to right. True freshman running back Devine Ozigbo misheard the call. He thought it was a bootleg pass.

"It was a mess," Riley said.

With a timeout available, Armstrong took the snap and rolled right. Defensive back Eric Finney applied pressure, and Armstrong fired incomplete toward Ozigbo.

"I don’t blame him," Riley said. "I blame myself for the training of it. He just reacted."

Armstrong said he didn’t want to remove the Huskers from field-goal range.

"It’s on me," the junior quarterback said. "I was supposed to run the ball."

Easy to say now, but the Huskers should have called a simple handoff. Even poor execution -- as long as it didn’t stop the clock or result in a turnover -- would have likely preserved victory.

Regardless, Nebraska did not lose because of the mismanaged third down.

It lost because of a cloud over this program that prevents it from experiencing the normal ebb and flow of a season without dramatic dips. Nebraska suffers from a failure to thrive in the moments it should.

This team for instance, ranks 32nd nationally with an average gain of 6.37 yards on third down. When it’s third-and-3 or less, though, the Huskers convert 38.1 percent -- more than 20 percent below the national average and better than only three teams in America.

Its position at Illinois, up 13-0 to start the fourth quarter, served as the latest reminder that the project before Riley requires patience.

"All the bugs crawl out at times like this," said Riley, whose team ranks last in the country with 9.8 penalties per game.

The coach refused to connect any of the early problems to the transition in offensive and defensive systems endured by the Huskers this season.

"As we come out of this," Riley said, "it will be good for them to have found a way to fight through a really bad, hard time. We know that’s the case. It’s more mental than anything, and it’s really about everybody kind of batting it down.

"It’s not about speeches, but everybody just going to work."

Until that time, when Nebraska finally rids itself of the unneeded drama, this era looks like a new act of the same, old narrative.

So much for a sigh of relief.