LINCOLN – Mike Riley has seen flashes of potential. The coach can articulate what he wants Nebraska football to be all about.
But after two games filled with drama and wild momentum swings, that identity remains very much a work in progress.
The weekly press conference inside Memorial Stadium is a common routine for Riley, but the unmistakable edge to many of his comments Monday is not. He called the 42-35 loss at Oregon “really disappointing” and “a lost opportunity.” The droughts on offense were “ridiculous” and the defensive transformation from a historically bad first half to a shutout second was “hard to imagine.”
“We should be so hungry to practice today,” Riley said. “When they look at that video, if they haven’t yet, they should just be sick. And they should want to get out there and work to be better than that. I don’t care if we’re playing the Green Bay Packers or whatever, it should be about us knowing we can be better.”
A common refrain from players and coaches has been about building off the positives from the trip to the Pacific Northwest. Stanley Morgan (career highs with 103 yards on seven catches along with two touchdowns) and Tre Bryant (100-plus rushing yards for a second straight game). A defense that found itself after intermission thanks to a few schematic tweaks – especially adjusting to take away Oregon’s post routes – and a recommitment to play for each other regardless of the score.
What nose tackle Mick Stoltenberg saw in the halftime locker room reaffirmed to the 6-foot-5, 305-pound junior that the Blackshirts will be more resilient than resigned when the spread offense hits the fan. That’s good.
But those opening 30 minutes are about as far as possible from what the unit wants to be.
“The second half was obviously a lot better, but that doesn’t really excuse what happened in the first half,” Stoltenberg said. “We really do need to prepare harder. We need to be ready to play at the beginning of games. It’s very vital to set the tone, especially as a defense, getting out there and making sure you get some stops early and help out the offense a little bit.”
Four home dates in the next five games – including an 11 a.m. kickoff Saturday against Northern Illinois to close out the nonconference slate – offers Nebraska a chance to figure itself out.
Quarterback Tanner Lee spent much of the offseason drawing praise from national evaluators for his accuracy, yet he’s coming off a four-interception game and has completed just 38 of 73 passes (52.1 percent) through a pair of uneven contests. NU’s offense scored touchdowns on consecutive possessions in the first half Saturday, but followed with a four-drive sequence that included three three-and-outs and a pick. It found the end zone twice to start the third quarter before again coming up empty on four ensuing drives marked by miscommunications and errant throws.
The Husker attack indeed looks good in spurts, Riley said, with some strong run-blocking sequences and impressive pass plays on display in Eugene. But going 2 of 14 on third downs is a screaming sign of what has to improve before the meat of NU’s Big Ten slate begins with Illinois on Sept. 29 and Wisconsin on Oct. 7.
“What we need is consistency,” Riley said. “It’s football, and that’s not going to change. To be called good, you have to be consistent. That’s our whole offense right now. That’s where we have to go.”
How does it get there? “Reps,” wideout De’Mornay Pierson-El said. With a relatively favorable schedule coming up in Northern Illinois and Rutgers, the senior added that practice should go a long way in smoothing out some wrinkles between a quarterback still adjusting to game speed after nearly a two-year break and receivers and running backs holding lead roles for the first time in their college careers.
“It’s just (about) bouncing back from this tough weekend and putting our best foot forward to show who we really are and what we can really do,” Pierson-El said.
The same is true for a defensive unit that Oregon torched for 409 yards of offense (313 passing) by halftime Saturday. Defensive coordinator Bob Diaco made effective changes at intermission for a second straight game – Riley called him “calculated and analytical” in those moments – but the Huskers have yet to come close to playing a complete game on that side of the ball. They’ve allowed 68 first-half points compared to 10 after the break.
To a man, defenders said Saturday and Monday that the sporadic results stem from their execution of plays rather than the play calls themselves. Cornerback Lamar Jackson said the group performed better after both halves when it forgot about scoreboards and situations.
“We just weren’t trusting our preparation,” Jackson said of the first two quarters. “A lot of things that they were doing we already knew. We feel like we had a great week of preparation, we feel like we were in good shape going into the game. … You can blame it on all types of things – speed, tempo, all types of things like that – but a lot of stuff that we seen, we prepared for. We just weren’t doing our jobs, including myself.”
Assignment football can make all the difference, Riley said, noting that Aaron Williams’ third-quarter interception came after Jackson adapted to shade his man more toward the middle of the field and was in position to tip the pass. Defending the run can be equally detailed, with gap alignments coming down to a matter of feet.
Given what happened in Oregon, the coach said, both sides of the ball should be anxious to return to the practice field and engage in a little self-discovery with so much football yet to be played.
“I think that there’s a chance to build off of how we finished,” Riley said, “and a really, really good opportunity to learn from how we started.”