LINCOLN — As Nebraska coach Mike Riley arrived and started his weekly Monday press conference, his football team became, at least according to the major college polls, one of the nation’s 10 best.
NU hadn’t been ranked in the top 10 of the Associated Press or coaches polls since November 2011. But the Huskers are now back — No. 9 according to the coaches, No. 10 according to the media — after a 5-0 start built on a favorable schedule and a dramatic win over Oregon.
Riley, who at Oregon State spent all of three weeks (in 14 seasons) as coach of a top-10 team, embraced the ranking. He won’t say no to the attention, especially when recruits tell him about it during a weekend scouting trip to California.
“We certainly don’t have to back down or try to skirt around that, because that’s exactly what we want — to continue to try and grow in the polls and win games,” Riley said. “We’re pleased with where we’re at.”
Said wideout De’Mornay Pierson-El: “That’s just work paying off.”
Riley and Pierson-El agreed: Nebraska’s work isn’t done. Four of Nebraska’s first five opponents now have losing records. As of this week, the remaining seven opponents currently have winning records. Two — Ohio State and Wisconsin — are ranked.
“Growth is not an option or a luxury — it’s a necessity,” Riley said, repeating a quote he’d read. “That really, really hits home with me about our team. We’re trying to keep on the rise. We certainly haven’t been always pretty, but I like our team a lot and how we continue to play throughout the year.”
He later made a joke about how the Huskers could improve.
“It’s not against the rules to score more in the first (quarter),” Riley said. NU has scored just 28 points in the first quarter — and 78 in the fourth.
The Huskers spent their bye week working on other trouble areas — tripling their drill work on tackling and spending a good chunk of one practice on the punt game — and trying to get injured players on offense healed up so they can play Saturday at Indiana. Quarterback Tommy Armstrong, wideout Alonzo Moore and offensive linemen Tanner Farmer and David Knevel should play. Wideout Jordan Westerkamp, tight end Cethan Carter and running back Devine Ozigbo are doubtful.
The Hoosiers (3-2 overall and 1-1 in the Big Ten) have the kind of team that could take advantage of a banged-up Nebraska team. IU has been on an upward trajectory for several years under coach Kevin Wilson, who may have notched one of his biggest career wins two weeks ago in a 24-21 overtime victory over Michigan State.
Riley said he told his assistants they’d have to coach their players well this week. Riley said something similar the week of the Northwestern game, after Nebraska had just beaten Oregon.
“Everybody is patting everybody on the back right now,” Riley said. “I get that. We wouldn’t trade it, we like where we are, but we also have to stay hungry. Coaches, I told them, they have to do their best job of coaching at this time. Kids thrive off of good information that will help them get better personally, individually, and stuff that will help them win collectively. So the coaches have to be passionate about the plan and the presentation of the plan.”
Armstrong said the team is hungry for more wins, as Nebraska has already matched its regular season win total from last season. Safety Kieron Williams, who has already watched Indiana’s most recent game, a 38-17 loss to Ohio State, twice, agreed. The goal, he said, should be to win all of the games.
“On any team you play, no matter if it’s Alabama or Louisiana-Monroe, you say at the beginning of the season, ‘We want to be that No. 1 team,’ ” Williams said. “If you don’t have that in your mind, why are you playing? Why are you practicing? I definitely feel like we’ve put the work in and we’ve done our best to earn the right to say we’re a top-10 team.”
Nebraska at Indiana
When: 2:30 p.m. Saturday
Where: Memorial Stadium, Bloomington , Indiana
Radio: 103.1 FM