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As problems mount, judgment must wait on Mike Riley at Nebraska

LINCOLN, Neb. -- Amid cries of hysteria and calls for patience as a football season sinks into oblivion at Nebraska, one question rises to the surface of this mess created by four gut-wrenching losses in 36 days:

Is the sky collapsing already on first-year coach Mike Riley?

I don’t know. And neither does anyone else who sits on the outside of this program.

Six games is far too soon to judge a coach and his staff. You can criticize mistakes -- and Nebraska made plenty again Saturday in a 23-21 loss to Wisconsin at Memorial Stadium -- but the verdict on Riley comes later.

When? Well, the end of next season is a good place to start.

Judgments after six weeks are based primarily in emotion and overreaction. And there’s plenty of both to go around at Nebraska after the worst first half to a season in 56 years.

As an aside, it helps the situation none for the Cornhuskers that Jim Harbaugh at Michigan and Jim McElwain at Florida have raced to fantastic starts. The fact is, though, results in the second season of a coaching regime portend long-term success with much better accuracy than the first.

The first year is about what’s left in the cupboard. It’s about transition and belief and, yes, luck.

In four losses by a total of 11 points, Nebraska has lost once in overtime and led with 10 seconds to play in the other three.

“It’s tough,” defensive coordinator Mark Banker said. “You can imagine. You put yourself in their place. It’s difficult. They work so hard, and their expectation is very high.”

Against Wisconsin, fortune finally appeared to turn as the Badgers’ Rafael Gaglianone bounced a 39-yard field-goal attempt off the right upright with 86 seconds to play. But after three unproductive Nebraska running plays and three timeouts, Wisconsin drove 42 yards to win on Gaglianone’s 46-yard kick with four seconds to play.

ESPN calculated Nebraska’s win probability, as it took possession after the errant kick, at 88 percent. These Huskers are the second team in the past 10 years to lose three of their first six games with a win probability in the fourth quarter of 88 percent or higher.

The other team, Utah State in 2011, started 2-5, then won five straight games, all by seven points or fewer, to finish 7-6. Luck balanced out. Or the Aggies learned to win.

So therein lies the next question for Nebraska: Can it learn to win? The Huskers, in fact, often won the close games under former coach Bo Pelini. They were 13-4 over the past four seasons in games decided by seven points or fewer. But Nebraska lost seven games by 20 points or more from 2011 to 2014.

The Huskers morphed almost overnight into a group that lacks confidence late in close games.

You can blame Riley and cite his own record of mediocrity. He’s 95-84 in his college career as a head coach. But the explanation is likely rooted deep within the psychology of a locker room that has experienced a major shift.

“We’re a team for a reason,” quarterback Tommy Armstrong Jr. said. “We’re a family. We’ve got to all stick in this together.”

Riley said he sees no panic in his players.

"I can just go on what I see," the coach said Monday, "and what I see is them engaged in everything they're supposed to be."

Still, as it heads Saturday to Minnesota (2:30 p.m., ESPN2), Nebraska appears in danger of a collapse under the pressure of mounting injuries, broken confidence, shattered goals and the aforementioned bad luck.

And that’s not to mention the normal problems.

“We have to find balance in our offense,” Riley said. “We’re not going to live effectively like we are now.”

No doubt, the mental toll is significant.

“They haven’t given up,” offensive coordinator Danny Langsdorf said. “I think it’s taxing on everybody. It’s hard.”

Argue all you want about Riley’s role in all everything. Was he dragged along for the ride or entrenched behind the wheel?

It’s wasted breath. Athletic Director Shawn Eichorst stands behind his coach, as he should at this early stage.

Inside the walls of Memorial Stadium, Eichorst has a better view than most of daily events. Perhaps he can see beyond the chaos of this season.

For the rest of us, only time will provide an answer.