Husker columnist

Steven, a lifelong Nebraskan, newspaper enthusiast and UNL grad, joined the Journal Star in 1990 and has covered NU football since 1995.

Mike Riley has endured his share of solemn postgame news conferences during his rugged tenure as Nebraska's football coach.

Saturday's was particularly subdued.

He dutifully answered questions, although he was mostly going through the motions. That was my read, anyway. After the session was finished, he slowly walked toward his wife, Dee, who gave him a quick hug. A few others hugged him. He smiled and gave someone a thumbs-up. He's 64. He's been through a lot as a coach. He wasn't going to let a 31-24 overtime loss to Northwestern crush him.

So, yeah, he could muster a smile.

But at this point of the season, with Nebraska at 4-5 overall and 3-3 in the Big Ten, it all feels pretty awful if you bleed Husker red and hunger for sure signs of progress.

It certainly feels like the end is nearing for Riley's tenure at NU. In fact, the way the day felt at Memorial Stadium, with so many empty seats, with such an obvious lack of overall energy and anticipation for the game, it is indeed difficult to imagine Riley being brought back for a fourth season.

A sense of inevitability was overwhelming at day's end.

Even if Nebraska were to win its final three regular-season games, apathy entering next season would be of significant concern. It's already an issue. I've talked to more than one high-level university leader who's very concerned about it.

"Well, we're obviously disappointed in our finish," Riley said after Northwestern improved to 6-3 and 4-2 in the Big Ten. "It felt like there had been some good football today, and then it kind of felt deflated, right into the overtime.

"Now the defense did its best I think after giving up some yardage in the overtime to try to keep them out (of the end zone). It went to fourth down, and (we) didn't quite get it done. …"

Clayton Thorson was stopped cold as he tried a quarterback sneak on third-and-goal from the 1. He pushed his way into the end zone on fourth down, and Northwestern soon had a fourth straight win with three relatively easy games remaining (Purdue, Minnesota, at Illinois).

Meanwhile, Iowa was jack-hammering sixth-ranked Ohio State in Iowa City. The Hawkeyes prevailed 55-24, piling up 487 yards of total offense. Fans rushed the field at Kinnick Stadium. What a sight it must have been — and what horrible optics for Nebraska's program under Riley.

Many Nebraska fans like to pound their chest about out-recruiting Iowa, at least in the rankings. That stuff has to stop. Iowa buried the same Ohio State team that steamrolled Nebraska 56-14 in Lincoln. The Huskers surrendered 633 yards and 41 first downs to the Buckeyes. It was an utter embarrassment. 

Most of the chatter around here typically is about talent level — how much Nebraska lacks. How little Bo Pelini left in the cupboard. On and on. It's excuse-making. Iowa's recruiting isn't in Ohio State's realm. We all know that. But the Hawkeyes showed up to fight. No excuses.

These are hard truths about the culture in and around Nebraska's program. Bill Moos surely is taking notes.

It makes me wonder what he thinks of Nebraska's defensive coordinator.

Let's be clear, Bob Diaco's crew played well at times against Northwestern's up-tempo spread. Linebacker Marcus Newby's 49-yard interception return gave Nebraska a 21-17 lead early in the third quarter. The margin grew to 24-17 later in the period. But the Huskers couldn't close the deal. They've often been a soft team, and it showed up again in crucial moments.

Crucial moments? How about when backup running back Jeremy Larkin sped around left end for 12 yards to begin overtime? He followed with a gain of 6 yards, then starter Justin Jackson (31 carries for 154 yards) gained 5.

Northwestern showed much more toughness than the home team in OT.

Diaco was ready with an explanation after Northwestern racked up 475 yards. He said his defenders lack "the aptitude to execute the scope and full range of the package."

There's no reason why they should be ready to do that at this point, he said in reference to this season's switch from a 4-3 system to a 3-4.

"There's no reasonable reason considering where the defensive program was (last season) to believe that they should be able to do everything that needs to be done in the game, to win the game," he said. "The strain is spectacular, right? So, we can just go back and look at the game. Do you see the strain? Do you see it?"

"You can't play a game like that and win, right?" he added. "So, the things that happened in the game create like an impossible circumstance to win against a great team. Right?"

I'm not even sure what to say about Diaco's remarks. I was flabbergasted.

He also said he's not disappointed in any way with his defenders.

"The players are right where they should be right now in their development," he said.

He mentioned tackling. He thought it was good.

"We're getting better in a lot of areas," he said. "I know everybody's disappointed, and so am I."

My read is most Nebraska fans are more than disappointed. They're downright saddened by a season that's basically been a dud from the start. I see that strain for sure.

The onset of apathy is especially troubling.

That's when you think change is probably necessary. On this day, it felt inevitable.

Reach the writer at 402-473-7440 or ssipple@journalstar.com. On Twitter @HuskerExtraSip.

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