LINCOLN, Neb. – Coach Mike Riley stood at the podium, grasping for an answer. Nebraska had just lost 21-17 to Northern Illinois, and Riley was in some ways at a loss for words. But it’s not like Riley to say nothing, so he did his best to talk it out.
“This will sound like an understatement but we are just really, bitterly disappointed with losing the game,” Riley said Sept. 16.
He credited Northern Illinois coach Rod Carey and his players for what they accomplished, but he also expressed disappointment in his offense’s inconsistencies. While standing at the podium that day, Riley had no idea what was to come.
There would be more losses ahead to Wisconsin, Ohio State, Northwestern, Minnesota, Penn State and Iowa. The Huskers would get close in some matchups, including against the Badgers when Nebraska tied it at 17-17 in the third quarter before letting it slip away. Nebraska also would lead against Northwestern, having a chance to make it a two-score lead before quarterback Tanner Lee was intercepted and the tide turned. And the Huskers were tied at 14 with Iowa at halftime in the regular season finale, before the Hawkeyes piled on 28 third-quarter points in a 56-14 blowout.
It would be the same story, over and over again. Riley would stand at the podium many more times after the Northern Illinois loss doing his best to explain what just happened, or what didn’t happen.
After Nebraska’s 56-44 loss to Penn State on Nov. 18, Riley appeared tired and worn out. His team once again had gotten off to a slow start, which was another issue the Huskers faced all season. Against Oregon in Week 2, Nebraska went into halftime down 42-14. Although the Huskers were able to rally back in the second half to lose by only one touchdown, it just wasn’t enough.
Against Penn State, it was similar. The Huskers went into halftime down 42-10 before adding 34 points in the second half alone. Penn State was still too much for Nebraska to overcome, but the second-half performance was a significant improvement over the first.
“We just got off to a horrible start to the game, and Penn State was really good,” Riley said. “Of course, the back [Saquon Barkley] made a good run. It got out of hand right off the bat. The only thing I could say, I’m really proud of the team in the second half.”
Despite Nebraska’s losses, it was hard to doubt Riley’s intentions. When he talks about what it means to coach the team, it’s hard not to believe him.
On what would be his last Monday news conference as Nebraska’s coach on Nov. 19, he tried not to reflect too much on the past. He still had Iowa to prepare for, but there was one moment that he allowed himself to just think about his time with the Huskers.
“I have appreciated the growth of the program as a part of the culture of the team and I have really appreciated the people here,” Riley said. “I think it was an easy place to move into, people are as advertised and so that part of it … I really appreciate that comfort, walking around town as we do so often and then settling down and then getting to be a part of this. Walking out in that stadium, I will never get tired of that.”
It’s hard not to wonder how things could have gone if Nebraska hadn’t lost to Northern Illinois in September. It wasn’t the only straw to break the camel’s back of Riley’s tenure, but it was the first of many. That’s really when the speculation about the future began, even if many said it was too soon.
Riley’s story at Nebraska ended sooner than planned and was filled with more questions than answers. But Riley did at least try to answer them, which proved to be more difficult than expected.
If only things could have been different.