LINCOLN — In the final seconds of last season’s 55-45 loss at Purdue, Nebraska coaches and players stood quietly on their sideline, almost in mourning over one of the more surprising losses in recent Husker history. A sparse Purdue crowd cheered.
Nebraska had lost several games before the defeat in West Lafayette, Indiana, but the final score was a bit of an illusion; the Huskers had trailed 42-16 at one point.
“That was a big low point for the team,” I-back Terrell Newby said Monday. “Obviously, we had a lot of games like that where it came down to where we were in those close situations, but that game kind of hit us.”
In the postgame press conference at Purdue, coach Mike Riley sat on a janitor’s bucket, surrounded by reporters. His team had just run the ball for a measly 77 yards.
“We’re just going to keep coaching them,” he said that day. “That’s what we need to do.”
“We’re not giving up,” linebacker Josh Banderas said after that game. “So I guess I’d just ask the fans not to give up, either. There’s always an upside.”
The following week, Nebraska stunned previously undefeated Michigan State. NU now has a 9-1 record in the 10 games since a most dreary afternoon.
The guy who coached Purdue that day — Darrell Hazell — was fired on Sunday. Riley never got to know Hazell well. He’ll square off against an interim head coach. The Huskers — No. 8 and No. 9 in the two major polls — are a three-touchdown favorite over the Boilermakers. Nebraska doesn’t necessarily want to play for revenge — do that, safety Kieron Williams said, and you might miss larger goals — but Saturday’s tilt with Purdue is symbolic.
The Huskers were in a ditch after that awful game last season. They’ve pulled themselves out of it. How?
“Maybe we found a better way to coach this team offensively — what to really approach and how to do it,” said Riley, whose team has averaged 45.6 rushes per game since throwing 48 passes in the loss at Purdue. “Maybe we just got better and we just built on that.”
Nebraska finished the 2015 season on a 3-1 run — the lone loss to 12-2 Iowa — and Riley said that run carried over to the offseason. The “attitude and work ethic” in spring camp and summer conditioning were good. And Riley praised the senior leadership of the Huskers for being vocal about their goals for the team.
Riley is a big believer in personal communication — in offering “information” to his players about how they can improve, but also asking players for their feedback and thought process as they move forward in their careers. He wants his coaches to do the same, and that process has brought about a closer team.
“I can’t talk to 140 guys myself all the time, so this needs to be a staff thing,” Riley said. “And that’s why we have guys to do that. But I think this group is mature. They verbalize what they want really well. Part of the time, for us, is just to listen.”
Nebraska players had to learn, too, Williams said. The defense — which had especially struggled against Purdue — simply got better by learning more about each other and from the coaches.
“We’ve grown in the scheme,” Williams said. “Our coaches have coached us up and we’ve had more time to learn the ins and outs of the scheme and the best ways to play with each other. Right now, we’re just playing great with each other. And we know what each other is good at.”
Riley credited players with sticking with the coaching staff and continuing to play hard. The persistence has paid off, as Nebraska has matched its win total from last season, and has all of its major goals still on the table.
Not that the ingredients for success have changed, Riley said. What helped Nebraska finish strong last season has contributed to its start.
“The intentions of this team are great,” Riley said. “They work hard and they want to win. They want information. And the coaches continue to work and stay the course. Those are key factors in hard times. And they’re also key right now.”
Purdue at Nebraska
When: 2:30 p.m. Saturday
Where: Memorial Stadium, Lincoln
Radio: 103.1 FM