LINCOLN, Neb. — Maybe Mike Riley was just in the Halloween spirit, or maybe he truly was that upset, but three times on Monday the coach of the Huskers said his team’s missed opportunities in the fourth quarter and overtime against Wisconsin were “haunting.”
“It was set on a platter for us a couple times,” Riley said during his press conference. “We didn’t take advantage of it, and that’s what makes you disappointed and kind of mad at yourself and the whole situation.”
In Nebraska’s 23-17 loss at Wisconsin, the Huskers had an opportunity to drive down the field tied 17-17 in the final minute to win. In overtime, after Wisconsin missed an extra point, all Nebraska had to do was score a touchdown and make the extra point to remain undefeated.
And yet, both times they failed. Why?
Maybe it was time management and the 2-minute drill.
The 2-minute drill was something that Riley called “sloppy” during fall camp.
But at the beginning of the season, Riley called the drill “remarkably better.”
So what happened after Wisconsin missed a field goal late in the fourth quarter and Nebraska took over with a little over a minute and a half left?
It starts with protection up front and execution in play-calling, Riley explained.
“You know we’ve got to have good, solid protection so the quarterback can then execute, and then you’ve got to execute from there, making the right choice in the throw, making the catch, all that stuff, and that frankly has been really disappointing to me because I’ve seen improvement in our team as we’ve gone through the season, in the situations that we’ve practiced during the week,” Riley said.
The offensive line only did an OK job giving senior QB Tommy Armstrong time in the pocket on Nebraska’s final drive in regulation.
Here’s what happened on the first three plays of that drive: Armstrong had just enough time to find Stanley Morgan Jr. for two throws that led to a first down. Then on first-and-10, Armstrong had time but missed TE Sam Cotton.
Armstrong was rushed on second-and-10 and had to dump off a pass to RB Terrell Newby, who didn’t have near enough time to get out of bounds to stop the clock. The corner closed in quickly on Newby. Nebraska did not call a timeout, and the play killed nearly 30 seconds off the clock.
Then, on third-and-10, Nebraska called for a one-on-one matchup with Brandon Reilly and a corner. But a rush up the middle didn’t give Reilly enough time to get separation. That forced Armstrong to throw off his back foot rather than step into a long throw, and the pass fell incomplete.
Nebraska punted on fourth-and-10, and the game went into overtime.
Riley didn’t blame anyone for Nebraska’s failure to score at the end of regulation, but he said that Armstrong could have tried to move the chains rather than look down field.
“The utilization of the back becomes a big, big deal in a 2-minute situation, and so many times, you know, they’re focusing on the coverage down (field) and the pressure up (field), and there’s a void in there, so you really have to do a better job of taking what the defense is giving you, and just move the chains,” Riley said. “It’s just execution of what you need to do, see what they’re giving you, take the throw that you can down the field, dump the ball off to whatever you have underneath and get first downs.”
Nebraska’s offense wasn’t any better in overtime. After Wisconsin’s touchdown and missed extra point, Nebraska took over at the 25-yard line. On the first play, Nebraska offensive coordinator Danny Langsdorf called a zone-read.
“The run option play, you know, that was interesting,” Riley said. “Tommy ended up giving the ball and it might not have been a real clean look at it, but boy it had great capabilities if he would’ve kept it, with the position we had and blocking on the edge.”
On the next play, Nebraska ran again with Newby for a 1-yard loss.
Running in crunch time is something that brings some risk, Riley said. He noted that at the end of regulation, the Huskers probably could have run, since Nebraska had two timeouts. The problem with that, though, was that the running game hadn’t been working well all night.
“It’s not like we have been real dynamic running the ball, I mean, so you know, 2 or 3 yards on first down like we were getting in a lot of situations wouldn’t have been a great feel for that kind of attack mode that you want to have,” Riley said.
On third down, Armstrong had enough time to find senior WR Jordan Westerkamp, who had fallen in a collision. Some Nebraska fans wanted a pass interference call on the play.
Westerkamp admitted he wanted a penalty called, but said he knew that was a tough call.
“It was a tough call to make, from the ref’s standpoint, especially at a time like that,” Westerkamp said.
Here’s another angle:
Beyond the call, Riley thought there was another option on that play.
“If we would’ve been a little bit earlier to him or waited just a hair longer, (Alonzo Moore) was going to be in great shape on that,” Riley said.
Then, on the final play, Armstrong missed Morgan in the end zone.
Riley said he liked the play call, and if the throw was just a little better, Nebraska would have won.
“Stanley beat the corner pretty good,” Riley said. “Throw it away from the safety just a hair more, and we strike up the band.”