Mike Riley is not typically one to look too far down the road.
Earlier this month, the third-year Nebraska coach wouldn’t bite on questions about a two-game stretch against top-10 opponents, saying repeatedly that his team didn’t have to prepare for Wisconsin and Ohio State at the same time.
He insists he doesn’t ponder his own cloudy future here.
But Wednesday, he admitted that the Huskers are using part of their bye week to talk in plain terms about their goals for the remainder of the season — what they control and what they don’t as a 3-4 outfit that split its four Big Ten games and has five remaining.
“Frankly, yes, because the kids have to be able to see what might be out there,” Riley said. “Things happen, right? Some of them are out of our control, the other parts are in our control.
“Going to a bowl game is in our control. Finishing at least second in the West is in our control. Finishing first is not, but (weird) things happen.”
Yes, the Huskers lost the past two weeks to the Badgers and Buckeyes by a combined 63 points. And yes, they could quite possibly be Las Vegas underdogs on the road against Purdue when the lines officially open Sunday.
At 2-2 in league play, though, NU currently sits in second in the Big Ten West, at the moment the only team in the division besides UW with multiple conference victories. The No. 5 Badgers at 3-0 hold a commanding lead — it amounts to three games over the Huskers because of the head-to-head win. After that, though, the Boilermakers, Northwestern and Iowa all enter the weekend at 1-2. Minnesota is 0-3. That group, plus a daunting crossover road trip to No. 2 Penn State (6-0, 3-0 Big Ten), constitutes the Huskers’ remaining schedule.
“The thing I like about saying that, because I don’t usually talk like that, is that I can go right back to Purdue,” Riley said, issuing his next words with urgency in his voice. “It has to start with that. It has to go there. I think at this point, in our situation, that we have to give (the players) something that they can say, ‘That’s right.’ Give them something to be motivated by.”
The Huskers’ chances of pushing for a spot in the Big Ten title game are remote at best, but NU needs a manageable three wins in its final five to secure bowl eligibility. Sometimes, even a handful of 5-7 teams qualify due to the 40-game slate.
The head coach thinks his team is off to a good start focuswise and energywise through its first bye-week practice sessions Tuesday and Wednesday.
“I don’t want to sound pie-in-the-sky, but I think it’s been great,” Riley said. “I think the work for two days has been really good. I won’t change my mind about this group of young men. I like them a lot. They work hard. I think their intentions are to practice well and get better for the next game.”
Even so, the combination of an off-week and a season that so far has not panned out the way anybody in the program hoped can make staying on track a big task. It’s a chance to get healthy, sure, but NU cannot afford a slow start on Oct. 28 when it returns to action at Ross-Ade Stadium in West Lafayette.
Sometimes, focusing on the immediate future is the best way to keep sluggishness at bay. Sometimes, dangling a carrot that’s further out — like reminding players of what’s still attainable with a good finishing month-plus — is also effective.
“Motivation comes in all different packages,” Riley said. “I’ve got 128 guys and there might be 128 different buttons, but whatever it is that turns you on, let’s push it and let’s go. It might be you being the best player you can be. You being a senior and you wanting to have a great finish to your senior year. Whatever your motivation is, let’s punch it and let’s go.”