LINCOLN, Neb. — Nebraska was facing fourth-and-12 from the Northwestern 27-yard line. The Huskers were trailing 31-24 in overtime, and this was it. The game — and in some ways Nebraska’s bowl game chances and coach Mike Riley’s job — were on the line.
Before the ball was snapped, a Nebraska fan walked down from his seat and into the tunnel. On his way, he slammed his hat into the guard rail and yelled expletives as he left. He never turned back around.
For those who continued watching, they saw Tanner Lee’s pass fall incomplete to wide receiver JD Spielman. The stadium fell quiet for just a moment before Northwestern players ran off celebrating.
“Very disappointing loss. Probably lots of things to look back on and talk about in that game,” Riley said after the game. “But, had an opportunity to win and let that slip away and couldn’t respond in overtime.”
Yes, Nebraska had an opportunity to win. The Huskers led 24-17 through most of the second half until Northwestern tied it with 5:32 left. The Wildcats’ comeback began when Lee was intercepted early in the fourth quarter.
At that point, Northwestern began a 13-play, 84-yard touchdown drive that took 5:11 off the clock. Despite taking the ball to the Northwestern 40-yard line, Nebraska wasn’t able to answer and was forced to punt on the ensuing drive.
The Huskers are 4-5 overall and 3-3 in the Big Ten. It easily could have been 5-4 overall and 4-2 in the Big Ten. Nebraska certainly played well enough in some areas Saturday, but it didn’t matter.
“Well, we’re obviously disappointed in our finish,” Riley said. “It felt like there had been some good football, and then it kind of felt deflated right into the overtime.”
Deflated feels like the right word. What little wind Nebraska had in its sails after the 25-24 comeback win at Purdue quickly vanished against Northwestern. And with it, any extra security the win in West Lafayette may have brought to Riley’s job status and the Huskers’ bid for a bowl game.
Is it a done deal either way? Of course not, but the speculation will only grow until athletic director Bill Moos makes a decision. And Moos was on hand Saturday for Nebraska’s loss to Northwestern. It’s hard not to wonder what he may have been thinking as Lee’s pass fell incomplete in overtime to end the game.
If Nebraska misses a bowl game, it will be hard not to point to the Northwestern loss as a reason — or at least one of many reasons. The win was there at Nebraska’s fingertips, but the Huskers let it slip away.
The loss could have bigger implications than a potential bowl game as Riley fights to keep his job, but only time will tell for what it all could mean.
For now, everything feels less certain and stable.
And it was abundantly clear in that one fan’s reaction as he stormed out of Memorial Stadium on Saturday evening.