Mike Riley delivered a Monday candidate for understatement of the week while discussing the current state of his program between a 54-21 loss to Minnesota and a looming road trip to No. 14 Penn State.
“We’ve just come through a game of allowing 400 yards and now we’re playing a back like (Heisman candidate Saquon Barkley), we’ve got a big job ahead of us,” Riley said.
The Huskers (4-6, 3-4) opened as 23-point underdogs to the Nittany Lions (7-2, 5-2), according to VegasInsider.com, and find themselves on the verge of failing to qualify for a bowl game for the first time since 2007. Riley’s status past the fall’s final two games is tenuous at best — a 33-point defeat Saturday to a team that entered with a single Big Ten win may well have sealed his fate — and now the beleaguered program is tasked with trying to beat a PSU team with an explosive, creative offense and an athletic defense that led the nation in scoring until recently.
Instead of sounding alarm bells, though, Riley insisted that the best way for the Huskers to handle this week is to focus on details.
“I know people are working at it and when it’s not working, you've got to go back and say ‘why,’” Riley said. “In the meantime, we've got to maintain a deal where we’re accepting responsibility, nobody is playing the blame game. I’m not making excuses about it. It’s what happened. We’ve got to help the players, help the team and all those parts. ... When times are hard and you've got a team that hasn’t achieved what they had hoped to, wanted to, up to this point, then you’ve got a lot to do.”
Minnesota rushed for 409 yards, racked up 525 of offense, returned the opening kick 100 yards for a touchdown and scored at least 10 points in every quarter. Riley dispelled the notion that his players lacked effort against Minnesota, but referred to “fragile parts.”
“The way the season has gone, when you open the game with a kickoff like that, there might be some fragile parts and it might be more nerves than desire. I can’t put a tangible thing down and say, ‘this is it.’ I really don’t want to think of our guys as not giving the right effort and I believe in our effort.”
Junior left guard Jerald Foster said this is no time for doubting. Yes, the Huskers have lost four of their past five and yes, they will undoubtedly be underdogs in their final two games. After that, the offseason very well could be a turbulent one.
“If you don’t believe in yourself throughout the season — no matter what the record is — I don’t know why you’re going to be playing and I don’t know why you’d be out there,” the Lincoln native and captain said. “I believe in my team, and I believe my team believes in each other and we’re going to prepare really hard for this Penn State game.”
Even so, NU’s lack of production on both sides of the ball makes Saturday’s task a monumental one.
The Nittany Lions are second in the Big Ten in both scoring offense (37.7 points per game) and defense (13.9). They own a scoring differential on the season of plus-239, while the Huskers sit at minus-74 and have been outscored by a combined 102 over the past five games.
The Huskers do not have formal team activities Sunday, but ahead of Monday afternoon’s team meetings, Riley said he didn’t think anybody in the locker room was giving up on a disappointing year.
“This is a really important time for each position coach to stay close to his group, for the coordinators and the staff to have a good solid plan and present it with some energy and enthusiasm for it, believe in it,” Riley said. “We have some veteran people who have been through a lot of different things in coaching and so I am not really worried about that part of it. I don’t think we are at a point where anybody has lost faith in what is going on. I think that there is a trust with the coaching staff and the team that they will come to work each day.
“It has been consistent to this point, I am hopeful that it will be the same today.”
Foster said he expected exactly that.
“We’re going to be working this week to be able to beat Penn State,” he said. “We’re going to be working next week to be able to beat Iowa. We’re not going to change that up. We’re not going to be some new team all of a sudden just because of what our record is. We’re still going to (have) that drive to be able to push forward and finish off the year right.”