MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. — Mike Riley sat down at the postgame table Saturday, a stat sheet sitting there for him to peruse.
"What in the world could this look like?" the Husker head coach said softly, picking it up to look at a piece of paper that attempted to summarize 4-plus hours of craziness in a Florida sauna.
In this black-and-white business, all that matters are the numbers at the top of that sheet. Miami had 36 and Nebraska had 33, and stat sheets don't take into account heart and grit and almosts, and who seemed to have the momentum just before it was given away. Sports outcomes have no feelings.
"There's no such thing as a moral victory," said defensive coordinator Mark Banker. "But that's something that we'll use again this week, say, 'Hey, a handful of mistakes here and there … more attention to detail, us coaching you better, you executing better, us in this thing together. It's easy to say (almost) 3-0, but guess what, we're not. We're 1-2 right now and that's where we're at and we've got to move forward."
Nebraska quarterback Tommy Armstrong, who ran around and made many good plays to give his team an unlikely chance to win in the end, made a bad play at a bad time, not seeing a Miami cornerback named Corn Elder hiding out in the end zone. An interception was the result.
The red balloon, flying so high moments just before, was popped.
"I underthrew. That's on me," said the junior quarterback who threw for 309 yards and ran for another 49. "I had made throws in that game — some of them were great, some of them were bad. I just have to make sure I fix my mistakes. And that one happened to cost us the game."
Moments later, Hurricane kicker Michael Badgley popped in a 28-yarder, his fifth field goal of the game, and the guys in orange rejoiced that they had not screwed up a 23-point lead in the fourth quarter.
Miami led 20-3 at the half, then 27-3 early in the third quarter, then 33-10 with 11:14 to play. The mistake-prone Huskers were leaving crumbs all beneath the table.
And Miami quarterback Brad Kaaya was carving Nebraska up. He'd thrown two touchdowns before the game was 7 minutes old. He'd finish with 379 yards in the air.
NU's defensive backs had their struggles, and the offense had its drops — four big ones in the first half — and there were penalties called you barely knew existed. Roughing the snapper? It happened. NU was flagged 12 times for 98 yards. Miami was flagged 13 times for 114 yards.
Armstrong shook his head as he recalled an illegal-substitution penalty. "We can't have that. That's high school and middle school mistakes."
Perhaps the officials were a little strict with their definition of what constitutes a legal formation at times, but a team must adjust and the Huskers were sloppy, erasing two catches of 19 and 21 yards by Jordan Westerkamp in the first half.
It is worth admiring Nebraska's pluck in the fourth quarter while also wondering what the heck was going on in digging that deep a hole the Huskers clawed to get out of.
“I just thought at halftime we were our own worst enemies. We couldn’t do anything without doing something wrong,” Riley said. “Make a play and get a penalty. Something. We were just sloppy, very sloppy. We waited a long time to start playing. That was my message at halftime. This is all our fault the way this is going down, so we can change it."
You have free articles remaining.
Change certainly didn't come in the third quarter.
Some fans, in fact, started to leave Sun Life Stadium early in the fourth quarter with Miami up 23 points. It was hot and it was over. Except it wasn't.
Armstrong threw a 10-yard touchdown pass to Alonzo Moore and the Huskers converted a two-point conversion. Big deal, right? Just made the score closer. Then Armstrong, facing fourth-and-12, threw a 21-yard touchdown to Brandon Reilly. OK, sort of interesting. But the Huskers would need a quick stop. The Huskers got a quick stop.
They got the ball with 2:39 left. But they still had to go 87 yards. The Huskers went 87 yards.
Armstrong hooked up with true freshman Stanley Morgan for a TD with 33 seconds left. Then he found Westerkamp for two more points and the game was headed to overtime.
Junior safety Nate Gerry bounced to rap music as the captains met for the coin toss. One side was feeling decidedly better than the other side.
NU got the ball to start. The play call on first down, Riley said, was a throwback pass to Cethan Carter. But the Hurricanes covered up Carter and flushed Armstrong to the other side. He saw Taariq Allen wandering the back line of the end zone. …
Well, the Huskers are 1-2 now, having lost one game to BYU on a Hail Mary, and now this one.
And while it's only fair to say Nebraska has played a more challenging nonconference schedule than previous years, it's also true that this is the first time NU begins a season 1-2 since 1981.
The two losses have ended as the type of punches below the belt you don't necessarily expect in a span of just three Saturdays to begin a new era.
"It's football. It's football," said Riley. "With all that being said, I really like this team. You can't help but appreciate what happened in the second half today. But there's always going to be something that gnaws at you, because you know it doesn't have to be like that."
Punter Sam Foltz said Riley remained encouraging, while also offering a challenge, when he met a dejected team after the game.
There is hope that comes in being so close, but also great frustration.
"Like Coach Riley said in the locker room, 'We've all got to come together. We've got to make good of this. We've got to keep this in the back of (our) mind the rest of the season, and starting Monday we've got to have perfect practices. We can't have these mental breakdowns, these mistakes that keep setting us back.'
"Like he said, we're literally a minute away from being a 3-0 football team."