LINCOLN — Fewer than 48 hours after Nebraska’s most significant nonconference win in years — and fewer than 24 hours after NU returned to the Top 25 of both major polls — Mike Riley knew he had to turn the page on his team’s 35-32 victory over Oregon.
The Husker coach said the team had to shelve the “euphoria” of a tight, exciting win and shift its focus toward the Big Ten opener at Northwestern. And given the immediate rewards of beating Oregon — a recruit committed to NU over the weekend, and the Huskers moved to No. 20 in the Associated Press and coaches polls — that won’t be easy.
“I think this can be one of your hardest coaching jobs, actually,” Riley said.
But last season’s pain — and the relative mediocrity of the last three seasons — should help Nebraska move forward.
Since 2013, NU is 13-11 in league play. In 2015, the Huskers finished 3-5, losing games at frequent Big Ten doormats Illinois and Purdue.
In the last 24 league games, Nebraska has scored just 4.2 more points per game than its opponents. On average, in other words, NU will play a lot of one-score, fourth-quarter contests.
So it’s not all that different from the Oregon thriller, which is why senior defensive tackle Kevin Maurice can say, with confidence, that Nebraska’s margin of error is “very small” entering the Big Ten.
“That’s why we’ve got to clean up where we messed up and continue to get better every day, because we’re not playing small schools or whatever,” Maurice said.
From here on, it’s Big Ten schools — and big guys on the offensive and defensive line.
“It’s physical football,” Maurice said. “It’s really time to bow up. Line play is definitely important in this conference.”
That means tougher assignments for a guy like Maurice, who occasionally has to absorb double-teams from opposing offensive lines. In the Big Ten, that can be 620 pounds pushing against him.
“What does it feel like? It hurts,” Maurice said.
Northwestern (1-2) has twice upset Nebraska — in 2011 and 2015— since the Huskers joined the Big Ten, and the 2012 and 2013 contests were won by NU in the final minute. The private-school Wildcats — with recruiting hurdles, limited football tradition and, until recently, middling facilities — have consistently given the Huskers fits.
“They don’t let the game get away from them,” Riley said of the Wildcats. “They compete like crazy.”
Said quarterback Tommy Armstrong: “They’re smart kids. They’re coachable. They’ve got smart linebackers. They identify a lot of things, definitely, off of our offense — what we do well and how we run things.”
Winning in the Big Ten, Armstrong said, will take the kind of formula the Huskers have already used to start this season 3-0. Take care of the ball, win the turnover battle and get the defense in good spots.
Nebraska’s cumulative turnover margin over five games with Northwestern is minus-5. Last season, Armstrong threw a costly pick-six in the Huskers’ 30-28 loss.
Plays like that point to how a 1-2 team could upset a 3-0 squad.
“On any given day, any Big Ten team can beat another Big Ten team,” wide receiver Jordan Westerkamp said.
Riley said he wants Nebraska’s offense to be “versatile” in the Big Ten. A balance of runs and passes, with an eye toward which pass protection schemes will work in the league and which will blow up in Nebraska’s face. Riley said NU has to be “very, very careful” with how it protects Armstrong in the league.
A consistent run game should help. Last season, Nebraska had big games on the ground — 203 at Minnesota, 196 against Wisconsin,179 against Michigan State — coupled with clunkers at Purdue (77 rushing yards) and against Northwestern (82 yards.)
“There’s some of those games where — you just don’t want to be a one-sided team, but I don’t think it’d always be great to be a team always in these conditions where you’re throwing 50 times a game,” Riley said. “I don’t foresee that. And we don’t want to be that anyway.”
What Riley and his team want most is to go on a run in the Big Ten. Nebraska immediately put itself behind the sticks in the 2015 conference race, losing at Illinois and at home to Wisconsin to start league play. This season, NU should be favored to win its first four Big Ten games before facing a double-dip of Wisconsin and Ohio State in the midseason.
Step No. 1 — Northwestern — has the Huskers’ full attention.
“Throw the records out the way — you’re going to get the best from Northwestern every time you play them,” Maurice said.