Husker columnist

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

Nebraska vs. Minnesota, 11/11/17

Nebraska coach Mike Riley talks with players on the bench in the closing minutes of a loss to Minnesota on Saturday at TCF Bank Stadium in Minneapolis.

ERIC GREGORY, Journal Star

MINNEAPOLIS — Nebraska linebacker Mohamed Barry was in an unenviable position.

He was backed up against a brick wall Saturday outside his team's locker room, trying to make sense of something that should've never happened.

"As a defense, you should never want a run game to eclipse over 200 yards, period," he said after Minnesota gained 409 on the ground — the Gophers' most in a dozen years — in a 54-21 triumph at TCF Bank Stadium.

Yes, that's right, period and end of story. Lest there were lingering doubts about new Nebraska athletic director Bill Moos' decision regarding Mike Riley's future at the school, all questions seemingly were answered in this game, right?

Right?

You have to ask yourself — with Nebraska at 4-6 overall and 3-4 in the Big Ten, and with this embarrassing loss in the books — if Riley deserves to lead the proud Husker program in the final two regular-season games.

The case strengthened for ending it now.

Moos has said he's evaluating the third-year Husker head coach's program. Assuming an evaluation really was still taking place, it can cease.

We have enough evidence to make the call, and a meager few would dispute it. Many would celebrate it, which sucks. But it's gotten that bad.

Riley's staff, on this particular day, arguably failed to meet even minimum standards of competence. Nebraska was taken to the woodshed by a Minnesota team that had dropped five of its previous six games. The Gophers, in their first season under P.J. Fleck, were coming off a 33-10 loss at Michigan in which the Wolverines gained 371 rushing yards, averaging 10 per carry.

Nebraska managed only a net of 69 rushing yards (2.1), the total impacted by Minnesota's six sacks for 41 yards in losses.

The 23rd-ranked Gopher defense flexed its muscles early in the second quarter, stopping running back Mikale Wilbon behind the line on fourth-and-1. Commence the onslaught. 

On the ensuing series, Minnesota quarterback Demry Croft sped 73 yards for a touchdown. The play call was a zone read, one of the most basic plays in the sport. Nebraska seemed like it was seeing the zone read for the first time as Croft rushed 10 times for a career-high 183 yards. Entering the day, the 6-foot-5, 205-pound sophomore had a total of 154 rushing yards in six games of action.

After Wilbon was stopped on the critical fourth-and-1, Minnesota scored on seven of its final eight possessions, with five touchdowns in that assault.

Which, or course, immediately makes me skeptical when Riley tells us the defense was well-prepared. It didn't appear to be well-prepared schematically. If it was well-prepared schematically, then execution was lousy.

Nebraska was awful in terms of effort and want-to. You certainly don't see a team rallying for an embattled coach. In fact, the effort I saw from one veteran Husker linebacker — no reason to name him — might get him kicked off Ohio State's team.

Granted, the 64-year-old Riley — now 19-17 at Nebraska (12-12 Big Ten) — deserves to be treated with dignity. But so does the proud Husker program. There was hardly anything dignified about their performance against the Gophers, who had scored a combined 44 points in their previous three games.

It bothers me that Riley seemed OK with his players' intensity. Thing is, there's degrees of intensity. Nebraska players showed up to play, but not to battle hard, with every fiber, for four quarters. They hardly ever do that.

Moos has said firing a coach in the midst of a season can cause players to lose focus. But this team isn't exactly laser-focused. Far from it.

You can't help question the culture of a program that very seldom puts together stretches of championship-level intensity and execution.

Moos has had to see that in three games (Purdue, Northwestern, Minnesota) since starting his job Oct. 23.

"We were prepared," Barry insisted. "I felt our Thursday practice, our Friday practice was great. I don't know how this happened. It's on us (players), at the end of the day. They (coaches) can't play for us. We wear the cleats and pads, and we have to make the plays."

Nebraska senior fullback Luke McNitt, a captain, also felt the Huskers were prepared. He may be right, but only to a point. Minnesota (5-5, 2-5) clearly was the better-prepared team.

And nobody could argue the Gophers appeared to want the "W" more. Much more.

That's damning stuff for a proud Husker program.

"Whether or not their lights have been on all the way, whatever the opinion is of what it looked like today, these are good kids," Riley said. "They have worked hard. They did prepare. We had a plan. We did not obviously prepare for this. We're surprised by it."

He should be surprised by it. Surprised and a bit embarrassed.

Nebraska obviously has suffered its share of embarrassments since 2000. It's difficult to even rank them anymore, there are so many.

But in the case of Riley's program, enough is enough. Evaluation over.

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

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