LINCOLN, Neb. -- Mike Riley needs a nickname.
A few suggestions whispered in the wake of Nebraska’s Halloween loss to Purdue -- a leading candidate as the program’s worst defeat in six decades -- are not fit for print. So how about Mr. November?
After a nightmarish, nine-game start to his career with the Cornhuskers, Riley won his first November game Saturday night, 39-38 over previously unbeaten, No. 7 Michigan State at Memorial Stadium, the highest-ranked opponent this program has defeated since Eric Crouch coined his Heisman moment against No. 2 Oklahoma in 2001.
Look, it’s been a tough 15 years for the Huskers, without a conference title since 1999.
Nebraska has been unranked for all 11 weeks of this season. From 1970 to 2001, Nebraska was unranked for three weeks.
No one wants to hear about that today, though. Riley’s team came back from 12 points down in the final two minutes. It drove 91 yards in four plays over 38 seconds to win the game (in controversial style) as Tommy Armstrong Jr. hit Brandon Reilly, who returned from out of bounds, to score with 17 seconds left.
Finally. Finally, Nebraska won a close game. And hope, despite a 4-6 record and dead-and-buried status in the Big Ten West, has arrived on the scene to intersect with real opportunity for Riley and the Huskers this month.
Nebraska lost four games by Oct. 10 in the last 10 seconds of regulation or overtime, a fifth by two points to Northwestern and a sixth in the meltdown at Purdue.
“When you go through a stretch like we have,” Riley said, “one of the things that you fear the most is that people lose hope, stop working, kind of start losing that identity.”
Any questions about Nebraska’s remaining resolve were answered early against Michigan State. The Huskers partied like it was 1999 with their fans in a raucous environment after the win and celebrated with their corny coach in the locker room.
“It was awesome. It probably ranks No. 1 since I’ve been at Nebraska,” senior I-back Imani Cross said. “The result of believing and the result of having faith.”
Well, Nebraska’s secondary, lit ablaze as expected by Michigan State’s Connor Cook, won’t patch its problems in 2015. The running game is inconsistent. Armstrong, while spectacular at times, has not eliminated occasional huge mistakes. Injuries still ravage the Huskers.
But Riley’s first November in the Big Ten can play out sensationally if the Huskers beat Rutgers and Iowa.
Nebraska’s nearest league neighbor and manufactured rival sits at 9-0 -- perhaps you noticed -- with home games against Minnesota and Purdue before a Nov. 27 trip to Lincoln.
No one at Nebraska wants to get comfortable in the role of spoiler, but the Huskers have never played two unbeaten teams at home in the last month of a season, let alone beaten two of them. Before Saturday, Nebraska, as an unranked team, owned three all-time wins over opponents ranked in the top 10, most recently 1977 Alabama.
It may get a shot now at two in four weeks.
“This team’s got character,” Riley said. “It’s got some leadership. Our coaches are good. They just keep coaching, and so all of that eventually pays off with a win.”
It can also stop, at least for the moment, the talk about Riley’s job security and the contract of athletic director Shawn Eichorst. Eichorst, signed through 2019, told reporters Saturday that he has tabled talks of an extension with retiring Chancellor Harvey Perlman to avoid a possible distraction this month.
Everyone, take a deep breath.
Still mired in its worst 10-game start since 1961, Nebraska has a chance after Saturday to make something of this season -- to play in the postseason and to ruin the perfect seasons of two conference foes.
It could be worse.
“The thing we talked about is there’s no sense in playing this game unless you believe you can win,” Riley said.
Nebraska believes it can make this a November to remember. For Riley, it’s a start.