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Steven M. Sipple: Huskers must fend off acceptance of mediocrity

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Northwestern vs. Nebraska, 10.24.15

The head coaches, Nebraska's Mike Riley (left) and Northwestern's Pat Fitzgerald meet after the game at Memorial Stadium on Saturday, Oct. 24, 2015.

There was no labor dispute Saturday.

Not when it came to Nebraska football.

The Huskers are laboring as a program. Laboring hard and looking ordinary. There's no disputing that.

Nebraska, at 3-5 overall (1-3 Big Ten), will have to do some heavy lifting to even reach a bowl game in the wake of its 30-28 loss to Northwestern, where players in 2014 began an unsuccessful attempt to unionize.

Nebraska may have to work hard to keep many of its fans from sleepwalking through the rest of the season — a season that a week ago, after a 48-25 win at Minnesota, seemed somewhat promising despite an awful beginning.

Then, boom, Northwestern dropped a sledgehammer, its veteran defensive line and young quarterback Clayton Thorson leading the way.

Nebraska first-year head coach Mike Riley described the loss as "really disappointing."

"All those things we talked about and thought we were making strides in — like balance, run-pass ratio — didn't look too good today," he said in his usual calm manner.

The Wildcats (6-2, 2-2) put in some hard labor. They outworked the Huskers. There's no disputing that, either.

As the work day ended on a brilliant autumn afternoon, there was a striking sound inside Memorial Stadium among the crowd of 89,493. All those faces and … silence.

No booing or even much grumbling.

Quiet acceptance? I genuinely hope not, but can't help but wonder.

There was no excessive cheering from the few visitors on hand, at least nothing that I heard. In case you haven't noticed, it's not exactly breaking news on CNN to defeat Nebraska in Lincoln anymore.

Dating to last season, the Huskers have lost eight of their last 12 games, including four at Memorial Stadium. A proud program that used to win with mind-numbing regularity now looks good one week, ordinary the next — a certain sign of mediocrity.

Mediocrity would have been a good goal for Nebraska at times Saturday — especially on offense and special teams. The Huskers' kickoff-return situation has become a bane to the team's existence, and the coverage teams were lackluster against Northwestern. With an assistant coach dedicated to special teams, you expect more.

Meanwhile, Nebraska rushed 38 times for a net of 82 yards, or 2.2 per carry. Pass protection was existent only as a concept much of the time.

Riley will be peppered in coming days with questions regarding why he doesn't substitute on the offensive line. It's difficult for me to call for reinforcements up front when I can't watch practice and therefore can't judge the gap between starters and backups.

That said, what in the name of Ahman Green was going on with the running game? Its inconsistency makes it impossible for the offense, or its coordinator, to find rhythm.

"You get out of rhythm and then you're kind of reaching," Danny Langsdorf said. "You want to stay with it and be able to run. You're trying to go outside, you're trying to go inside, you're trying to sweep them. You're trying to run some power. You're trying everything you can. …"

Riley has his hands full, obviously. My sense is the losses are killing him, his even-keeled persona notwithstanding. He deserves three full seasons to get his system and culture in place. That said, it's impossible to ignore that he is just 3-15 in his last 18 conference games dating to his 2013 season at Oregon State.

One of the program's biggest challenges at the moment is to avoid feeling anything close to OK about being 3-5. The coaches and players shouldn't feel anywhere close to OK about facing an uphill battle to reach the Quick Lane Bowl or Pinstripe Bowl or Armed Forces Bowl or wherever ordinary teams go in December.

Is one of Nebraska's foremost challenges to fight off the acceptance of occupying that world? One gets that feeling as Husker coaches and players calmly explain away losses. I've noticed it dating to the Bill Callahan years. I hope it's much harder for them than it appears.

"Football's a crazy game," said Nebraska junior receiver Jordan Westerkamp. "It's kind of a roller-coaster ride. We're on it right now full-force. We'll be OK. We have great coaches here. We have a great team, great players. They know what's important.

"They're mature guys. We're all mature. We'll be OK. We'll stay together. We'll keep this thing going. We'll stay positive. We'll have a great week of practice and get ready for Purdue."

We can talk for hours about the reasons Nebraska has reached mediocrity. It's a multi-faceted discussion involving several folks, most notably a soon-to-be-former chancellor who's been around since the start of the slide.

There's no disputing the mediocrity. If you think otherwise, maybe all you had to do was listen to the quiet at game's end.

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


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Husker sports columnist

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

Related to this story

Quarterback Tommy Armstrong talks his struggle to find a rhythm in the loss to Northwestern on Saturday, Oct. 24, 2015.

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