In the minutes after Nebraska’s 31-24 overtime loss to Northwestern, the Huskers’ postgame interview area felt more like a morgue than a weight room.
Of course, the opportunities lost and the slim margin of defeat contributed.
So, too, did the bigger picture. Some clad in red surely wondered if third-year head coach Mike Riley is down to one home game remaining in his tenure here after falling to 19-16 overall, 12-11 in Big Ten play and 4-5 this fall.
Northwestern head coach Pat Fitzgerald has no doubt about his feelings toward Riley, though.
“Mike Riley is a good friend and a great coach,” he told reporters after the game. “The Cornhuskers have a great football coach here with Mike and his staff. To see how they are handling the outside noise and to take this talented team and get better and improve.”
Fitzgerald improved to 2-1 in his career against Riley and has the Wildcats (6-3, 4-2), winners of four straight, primed for a strong finish.
“From one coach to another, I tip my hat to Mike and his staff because I think he is doing one heck of a job. Like I told him after the game, I have so much respect for him. Love him dearly. We have been AFCA board members now for a number of years together and to listen to his moral compass when it comes to our game, to student-athletes, is second to none.”
Riley thought 57-yard field goal attempt was too long: The Huskers’ final drive of regulation was much different than last week’s frenetic game winner, but it momentarily felt capable of delivering a similar result.
Nebraska took over with 5 minutes, 24 seconds remaining but backed up at its own 7-yard line. Devine Ozigbo gained 16 on a catch-and-run and, three plays later, Tanner Lee converted a third down with a 15-yard strike to JD Spielman.
His next third-down conversion, a 7-yarder to De’Mornay Pierson-El, moved the Huskers into Northwestern territory at the 48. From there, Morgan hauled in a deep ball but had a foot on the sideline, Lee hit Jack Stoll for 5 yards and then missed Spielman, bringing up fourth-and-5 from the 40 with 45 seconds to go.
Instead of attempting a go-ahead, 57-yard field goal, Riley opted to punt. Sophomore Caleb Lightbourn pinned the Wildcats at their own 9 and Nebraska held for six plays to force overtime.
“That was the wrong way to be going for just a shot like that,” Riley said of moving toward the South end zone and into a breeze that swirled and seemed stronger higher up above the field.
Brown’s career long is 51 yards (2016 against Purdue) and he’s 2-of-6 from 50 or longer in his career.
Botched screen ruins overtime drive: The Huskers knew they needed a touchdown when they took the field in overtime, and Lee missed Stanley Morgan on first down.
The real trouble arrived, though, when Lee was sacked for a 10-yard loss on a failed screen.
“Just trying to find a window to get Devine (Ozigbo) the ball,” Lee said of what he saw. “I probably should have just found a way to just make a play and get him the ball there, somehow. That would have been best.”
Instead, he was swarmed by the Wildcat defense. Lee hit senior tight end Tyler Hoppes for 8 yards on third-and-20, but had a fourth-down pass batted down.
“When you get that far behind the sticks in an overtime deal, it’s not fun,” Riley said. “That’s what really caused the collapse of that drive.”
The Huskers have not been a good screen team this fall, but put themselves in second-and-long with the first-down incompletion and had struggled handling Northwestern’s pass rush all afternoon.
“As of late we’ve hit a couple (screens),” Riley said, “but that obviously was bad timing for that play.”
Jet sweep makes its return: The jet sweep, long a staple of the Mike Riley/Danny Langsdorf offense, made its return Saturday.
Redshirt freshman receiver JD Spielman turned the play into Nebraska’s longest run of the season, getting around the right side in the second quarter and bolting free for 40 yards. He added a 5-yarder on the same play later in the game, and finished as Nebraska’s second-leading rusher behind Devine Ozigbo.
De’Mornay Pierson-El picked up 7 yards on a jet sweep in the second half, and while Tyjon Lindsey lost a total of 7 yards on two carries, it was clear the Huskers found something in the play through a week of practice.
“I think it came alive for us again a little bit,” Langsdorf said. “We had a decent one faking it, too, so that was good to see. We had the big run with JD and a couple solid ones that were good positive gains, so that was good to see.”
Newby shines for Blackshirts: Marcus Newby is playing like he’s fully recovered from a hamstring injury that hampered him earlier in the season.
In likely his best game of the season, the Nebraska senior linebacker had 10 tackles, but no play was bigger than Newby’s 49-yard interception return for a touchdown three plays into the second half.
Newby’s return gave the Huskers a 21-17 lead in a quarter they controlled against the Wildcats.
“Now that he’s been healthy to practice, healthy enough to practice hard, he’s been really our top practice player,” NU defensive coordinator Bob Diaco said.
Diaco added that he told Newby earlier Saturday that the linebacker was in store for a big game.
“No one on the unit, no coach would be shocked or surprised that he was going to have a good game,” Diaco added.
Newby's interception return for touchdown was the longest by a Husker since 2009, when Larry Asante returned one to house for 74 yards.
Younger players stepping in: With injuries hampering Nebraska, several young Huskers played a lot of reps Saturday. Redshirt freshman linebacker Collin Miller was on the field a lot, and redshirt freshman safety Marquel Dismuke was on the field for every defensive snap, according to Diaco. He finished with seven tackles.
Redshirt freshman Ben Stille saw several snaps, and finished with four tackles and a pass breakup.
The Huskers were extremely thin at safety. Juniors Aaron Williams and Antonio Reed did not play. Junior linebacker Luke Gifford (hip) missed his second straight game, and freshman running back Jaylin Bradley (ankle) did not play.
This and that: Nebraska dropped to 8-4 in overtime games. … Joshua Kalu's first-half interception was the seventh of his career. … Stanley Morgan became the 10th Husker to catch 100 career passes. The junior has caught at least one pass in 23 straight games, tying for the fifth-longest streak in school history.