WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. — Nebraska running back Devine Ozigbo took a deep breath, let out a big sigh and threw his head back in the air.
“It feels good,” Ozigbo said with a smile.
Nebraska had just defeated Purdue 25-24 as Ozigbo stood in the cold outside of the Huskers locker room in West Lafayette. With 1:22 left in the game, quarterback Tanner Lee led the Huskers on an 8-play, 70-yard touchdown drive that would leave the Boilermakers with only 14 seconds to respond.
When Ozigbo sighed, there was a sense of relief in his voice. It had been a long few weeks since Nebraska’s last win over Illinois. In that time, the Huskers fell in back-to-back losses to Wisconsin and then Ohio State, while also hiring new athletic director Bill Moos. The uncertainty around the program — and mostly coach Mike Riley’s job — had been nothing short of palpable.
And as he walked into the locker room Saturday night, Riley seemed just as emotional as his players about the win.
“This win could be the start of something,” he said to the team.
Did Nebraska delay what could have been an inevitable outcome for Riley with a loss to Purdue? It’s something quite a few took note of following the victory over Purdue.
Important comeback win for Mike Riley & Nebraska. Huskers had to find a way to win at Purdue.
— Mark Packer (@MarkPacker) October 29, 2017
Mike Riley keeps his job for another week.
— Trent Rice (@trenterice) October 29, 2017
It’s not something players and coaches were going to talk about after the win, but that’s to be expected. After the last few weeks, it was time to celebrate just a little and not speculate.
There was one thing the players were open to discussing though, and that’s the possibility of a bowl game berth. With 4 wins on the season, Nebraska is closer to the needed 6 wins to make a bowl game possible. It’s something kicker Drew Brown had on his mind all week leading up to Purdue.
Brown can’t pinpoint exactly what happened, but something just clicked against the Boilermakers late in the game. The players started believing, and knew they “needed to win this game at all costs.” From his vantage point, it’s a testament to the work he and his teammates put in prior to the season.
“We go through the entire offseason, the entire summer and the entire fall camp preparing to win games,” Brown said. “To lose a game like this where we had two chances to win at the end would have really hurt us. We were lucky to beat a good Purdue team. We’ve put so much work into this season and to win like that on the last 10 seconds of the game, it’s exhilarating.
“All of the guys are so happy and it keeps a 6-win season in order and we’re going to try our best to win as many as we can.”
Cornerback Chris Jones agreed. He was critical of his own performance against Purdue, but he was pleased with the overall team effort. But by the end of the night, Nebraska had accomplished what it had wanted to.
And for someone like Jones who missed most of the season with an injury, every chance to extend the season is an important one.
“It’s just more opportunities for us,” Jones said. “This team, I’m proud of everybody. This team works hard and we’re going to continue to work hard and continue to get better every day. We’re just going to keep going and hopefully get that bowl game at the end.”
There are no guarantees yet. Moos still has a big decision to make this season — whether it’s to retain Riley or to let him go. He was at Ross-Ade Stadium on Saturday night to see it all firsthand, though. And if nothing else, it’ll likely be a much more comfortable trip back to Lincoln.
But beyond Riley’s job, Nebraska got one step closer to its bowl game goal Saturday night. That’s why Ozigbo’s sigh was so genuine. It wasn’t a pretty win, but it was exactly what Nebraska needed.
“This win wasn’t the way we wanted to do it, but it’s one step closer,” Ozigbo said.