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As Nebraska descends into punchline, once-unthinkable questions surface

Nebraska coach Mike Riley was hired by Shawn Eichorst to avoid embarrassments like the 55-45 loss Saturday to Purdue. AP Photo/Michael Conroy

Four games into last season, Nebraska had yet to lose as it hosted an old rival, Miami, and before kickoff the students at Memorial Stadium delivered a menacing message, scrawled on five large banners, for the visitors.

WELCOME TO YOUR WORST NIGHTMARE.

Eighteen games, 10 Nebraska defeats and one coaching change later, those words take on new meaning as the Cornhuskers prepare Saturday for a visit from No. 6 Michigan State (7 p.m. ET, ESPN). Now, Nebraska is living the nightmare.

The narrative around this program changed overnight -- or, shall we say, in less than four hours at a sparsely filled Ross-Ade Stadium, where Purdue had not won a Big Ten game, before Saturday, since 2012. The Huskers went to West Lafayette as a hard-luck, five-time loser this season, by a total of 13 points, a team in transition under first-year coach Mike Riley.

It left as a punchline.

I’ve seen many of the 67 Nebraska losses since its downward trend from the top of college football began in 2001. This was perhaps the worst. You can make a case for others. It’s a pointless discussion.

Saturday as the Huskers committed five turnovers and fell behind by 26 points in the third quarter, en route to a 55-45 loss, I was in the press box at Iowa, where the Hawkeyes later improved to 8-0 with a win over Maryland.

Outside Kinnick Stadium around noon, a few black-and-gold-clad tailgaters stood in a light rain, stunned as word spread through the parking lots of Purdue’s growing lead on the Huskers. Others laughed. Most didn’t notice.

This is Nebraska -- largely ignored in its own division, saddled with six losses before November for the first time ever and in danger, with a pair of top-10 foes on the schedule this month, of an 0-4 Big Ten finish at home.

It’s unthinkable. It is Nebraska’s worst nightmare. More precisely, it is the worst nightmare of athletic director Shawn Eichorst, who fired a coach one year ago who won nine or 10 games for seven consecutive seasons.

Digest what the media are saying about the Huskers. From Dirk Chatelain of the Omaha World-Herald, who describes Riley's first season as "a complete disaster":

Nebraska basically has two options: Fire the athletic director now, then the coach at the end of the season, as it did in 2007. Or ride this thing out. ... Practically speaking, Nebraska has no choice but to endure this disaster for three more weeks. Hope like heck that Riley can make the proper offseason decisions to turn it around in 2016.

From Lincoln Journal Star columnist Steven M. Sipple:

University leaders may soon -- very soon -- have to make a choice: gamble that Eichorst hired the right guy in Riley and ride out the rough waters, with or without Eichorst. Or start over again from scratch -- new AD, new coaching staff.

From Omaha World-Herald columnist Tom Shatel:

It doesn’t get any lower, does it? Mike Riley was hired by Shawn Eichorst to avoid these embarrassments. Now the pitchforks are out and it’s not because of Halloween. Forget it. Neither Eichorst not Riley is getting fired and shouldn’t. The Nebraska job would become radioactive in the coaching frat. Moreover, it’s not how Nebraska needs to do things. This is Riley’s first year. Give the man some room.

It can get lower, in fact. Eight years ago, it nearly did, when reeling Nebraska fell behind 38-0 at halftime against 3-3 Oklahoma State. Memorial Stadium emptied. Two days later, AD Steve Pederson was fired to avert a meltdown.

What happens if Nebraska folds against the Spartans? What if it follows with a loss at Rutgers and falls flat against Iowa? Eichorst can’t fix this mess. And don’t expect Chancellor Harvey Perlman to step in again. He’s already announced his retirement, effective next June.

That this is even a discussion after nine games under Riley categorizes as mind-boggling. Nothing good can come from the conversation, but it has arrived on every street corner in Husker Nation, like an airborne virus intent to infect the proud culture of a program that has sold out every home game since 1962.

As Tom Osborne, part of the College Football Playoff committee, breaks from voting and discussion sessions early this week in Texas, what must the Huskers’ former legendary coach think?

Probably, it’s like awakening in a cold sweat, wondering for a moment if that sense of dread is real or imagined.

Welcome to his worst nightmare.