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Nebraska vs. Indiana, 10/15

Mike Riley is entering his third season at Nebraska, though his program has a fresh look heading into the first game against Arkansas State.

A year ago, after a loss to Purdue that dropped Nebraska's record to 3-6, Mike Riley began his Monday news  conference with a joke, "Who wants to talk about the Royals?"

Things change. Nebraska has gone 9-1 since then, and the Cubbies are the conversation starter now.

This, however, remains similar: Riley hasn't lost his knack for a good opening line.

"It was good to win, and then we had to watch the film," the Husker head coach cracked on this particular Monday.

Getting on the bus after a 27-22 win at Indiana on Saturday with a 6-0 record felt plenty good to this Nebraska team. "We love that record," Riley said.

So do the fans. "I've always been impressed with people's interest in this deal, but when you're winning games like this, there's probably a little difference," the coach remarked about the buzz.

The pollsters love the record, too. The Huskers are ranked No. 8, equal to their highest rating since joining the Big Ten in 2011.

And yet, and Husker fans will fully understand why, watching film of the latest win didn't always feel so pleasant to Riley and staff.

The Blackshirts showed up big, but the offense struggled to find any rhythm for the middle two quarters and there were two major gaffes on the punt unit that could have cost NU a win.

"It was a mixed bag for sure about our play," Riley said. "I guess the best way to say it from there was that we needed all of the parts by the time it was over."

If you want wins with style points, the Huskers don't really specialize in those.

"I don't think that matters as long as you get a 'W,'" said junior safety Kieron Williams.

If you want wins with fourth-quarter grittiness, the Huskers are stacking them up.

But that grit is going to have to remain in full supply, with road trips to Wisconsin and Ohio State coming after Saturday's home game against Purdue.

And before everyone treats the 3-3 Boilermakers as some sort of bye week for Nebraska — Purdue just fired head coach Darrell Hazell on Sunday — consider NU will go into this game again without senior tight end Cethan Carter, and possibly minus senior wide receiver Jordan Westerkamp and the two starting tackles — Nick Gates and David Knevel. The latter two are both questionable with bad ankles.

Injuries are part of the deal this time of the year, but that doesn't make Nebraska's situation on the O-line any less unsettling.

"I hate to go too far into the week without an offensive lineman practicing," Riley said of the health watch on Gates and Knevel. "There's just so much stuff, the different pressures, the pick-ups, all that. It's hard, so we need to know as soon as possible, but I don’t know what that means."

Sooooo ... what if they can't play?

Senior Sam Hahn, who has been starting at left guard after Jerald Foster was lost in August for the season, could possibly play tackle, in which case Corey Whitaker might take Hahn's spot at guard, suggested Riley.

On the right side, sophomore walk-on Cole Conrad, who played for Knevel after he left the game with an injury on the first play Saturday, would likely continue with that role.

"You know, we are going to mess around with talking about that kind of thing. ... We'll find out more about David and Nick before (Tuesday's) practice and then there's that group behind them, like Jalin Barnett, that's in that mix."

Riley made it clear he'd rather not pull a redshirt off a true freshman lineman at this point, "but we will have to look at it all for what's best for this team for the moment and be careful for what we might do."

The coach also isn't discouraged about some other young scholarship O-linemen who haven't played much — like redshirt freshmen Barnett, Christian Gaylord and Michael Decker.

"The development of people is different and that line position, that's probably the position overall in my career that we've had the fewest true freshmen or even redshirt freshmen break in and all of a sudden be a starter," Riley said. "We find that guy once in a while, but the development there both mentally and physically takes a little bit longer."

He pointed out, however, that coaches were just talking about Gaylord, a tackle, as someone who has recently improved.

"And maybe one of them will surface and as we talk, maybe one of those guys, we'll say, 'Well, this guy's got to be that guy to fill in right now,'" Riley said. "But whatever it is, I think we are going to be fine."

Factor in the injuries, then factor in that the Huskers have not led any of their six wins this year by more than 11 points heading to the final quarter. You see why senior running back Terrell Newby considers Purdue a big game even if others don't.

"I think this is one of those games that we want to be able to play a full game," Newby said. "Come out offensively and defensively and execute on all levels."

And don't get distracted about people debating if Nebraska is top-10 level or not. Riley knows that is just noise right now.

His team's sole focus needs to be on getting better.

"What I've always believed about football is that whether you start off good in season or you start off bad in a season, your story is told by how you finish."

Reach the writer at 402-473-7439 or bchristopherson@journalstar.com. On Twitter @HuskerExtraBC.

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