LINCOLN, Neb. — There are two stories here.
The first is the Mike Riley redemption tour. Of the 10-1 record in the last 11 games after starting his tenure 3-6 a year ago. A story of revenge wins over Northwestern, Illinois and now Purdue, after Nebraska’s 27-14 win on Saturday.
A story of a historic program back in the top 10 and 7-0 for the first time since 2001, the last time the program played for a national title. The story of a team on the rise, and a team poking its nose back into the national spotlight with yet another impressive second-half performance to solidify a victory.
“We’re exactly where we want to be,” said junior K Drew Brown, who made a career-long 51-yard field goal on Saturday.
And then there is the other story.
The story of a team that’s barely eked out wins against 2-5 Oregon, 2-5 Illinois and 3-4 Purdue, and gave up more than 200 yards through the air in the first half against Purdue on Saturday. A team who was joked about on ESPN last week, and whose coach and offensive coordinator said on Saturday they have “no consistency” early in games.
“We were always just struggling today, it felt like to me,” Riley said, particularly about Nebraska’s inability to run against the worst run defense in the conference.
Nebraska will enter next week’s game at No. 10 Wisconsin undefeated, which is what they expected, Brown said.
But another unimpressive first half, in which Nebraska trailed the Boilermakers 14-10, and another game where the Huskers couldn’t seem to put together four good quarters, the question remains: Is this team really ready for two straight Top 10 road games at Wisconsin and at Ohio State?
“Our confidence is through the roof,” said senior WR Brandon Reilly, who had a season-high four catches for 73 yards. “I like the mentality our guys have and we need to get a few guys healed up a little bit and go up to Camp Randall.”
The rest of the team and coaching staff are on the same wavelength: 7-0 is OK with them, no matter how ugly some wins were. The Huskers are still undefeated, still the top team in the Big Ten West.
“We always try to be confident,” said S Kieron Williams, who had two interceptions on Saturday. “I think if you’re not confident that’s when things start to rattle for you. At all times we should display some type of confidence.”
Senior QB Tommy Armstrong put it simply: there’s no escaping these next two weeks. Wisconsin and Ohio State are on the schedule.
“We’re ready for any team,” Armstrong said.
But he also added that Nebraska needs to fix “everything” if it wants to win the next two games.
There are parts of this team that Riley wants cleaned up, too. He thinks the run game needs fixing. He wants the offensive line to be healthier and more consistent. He wants the defense to play well immediately, not just in the second half.
With those small fixes, Riley sees something more.
“I do appreciate how we do struggle and how we eventually have enough in us to make some plays to win the game,” Riley said. “It’s just kind of glimpses to me of how good we could be if we could just find a little more consistency.”
There are ghosts that still haunt Nebraska at Camp Randall.
The last time there, Melvin Gordan ran for an NCAA-record 408 yards in three quarters, and the Badgers blew out the Huskers by 35 points.
Brown remembers trying to kick in the snow. He remembers how much that game hurt.
A win over Wisconsin, at Wisconsin, Brown said, that would legitimize Nebraska. Would prove Nebraska isn’t just getting by. That this redemption tour, this run the Husker are on, is real.
“Wisconsin is a Top 10 team and any time you can beat a ranked team really in general, it’s big for you,” Brown said. “If we’re able to escape Wisconsin with a victory, that will be massive for us.”