LINCOLN, Neb. — Nebraska coach Mike Riley has a saying: Control what you can control. It is advice he has given his team many times before, but it was relevant more than ever over the past week.
The Huskers already were rebounding from an upset loss to Northern Illinois to end nonconference play. It was enough to focus on without major university news breaking on Thursday. On what should have been an otherwise quiet day, athletic director Shawn Eichorst was fired.
At 2:15 p.m. on Thursday, Riley met with his team before practice. He didn’t know what they knew, so he broke the news. From there, he went back to the same advice he’s fallen back on before. He told them to “put on their blinders” and control what you can control.
“We always tell the kids that,” Riley said after the 27-17 win over Rutgers on Saturday. “So you do this thing the way you’re supposed to do. If you don’t do that as a coaching staff, that makes us hypocritical. So the main thing for us was to coach our team and make sure they were prepared to play. And lo and behold, we won the game.
“Maybe we can build on that.”
Whatever the case, Saturday was a much-needed win for the Huskers. After a 1-2 start to the season, the team needed a win to start Big Ten play. It didn’t always look promising against Rutgers.
When Rutgers took a 10-7 second-quarter lead, things felt tense in Memorial Stadium. It felt as if the same story was playing out again. Though the Huskers took a 14-10 lead before halftime, things still felt uncertain. And then Rutgers took a 17-14 third-quarter lead after a Tanner Lee interception.
It could have ended there. Nebraska could have given up and buckled to the pressure. Because the pressure was there.
“I guess you feel [the pressure]. I would be lying to you if I said I didn’t,” sophomore outside linebacker Mohamed Barry said. “A win in this game and being in front of the fans and our defense and everything, it made us happy. The pressure is off basically.”
The pressure may not feel like it’s off for Nebraska fans, but the team appeared more relaxed Saturday night after the game. There were more smiles and an ease to post-practice interviews — even Larry The Cable Guy was happier postgame. The Huskers are not perfect, but they’re 1-0 in Big Ten play.
For a moment, that relieved some pressure.
And while the players may not be saying it, there’s still some uncertainty about the future of their head coach. Even ESPN’s College GameDay addressed the topic Saturday morning, with host Lee Corso suggesting Riley’s job eventually will belong to former Husker and current UCF coach Scott Frost.
Hearing those things could be defeating. Or they could light a fire. For Nebraska football players, it was about putting on the blinders and controlling what they can control.
“It is what it is,” junior nose tackle Mick Stoltenberg said. “It’s nothing that controls the product we have on the field. Upper-level stuff is something that is definitely important to the university but when it comes to stuff we do week by week and game by game, it’s something we just have to put aside.”
And put it aside they did. There will be additional tests going forward. Nebraska’s coaches and players know that, but they also know what they need to do to handle it.
Put on your blinders, control what you can control and keep moving forward.