Saturday October 31st, 2015

It’s an old saying, but it rings true: You don’t know what you got ‘til it’s gone. Right about now, no one understands that sentiment better than Nebraska fans.

On Saturday the Cornhuskers dropped to 3–6 on the season—1–4 in the Big Ten—following an inexplicable 55–45 loss at Purdue. Under first-year coach Mike Riley, Nebraska looks nothing the product former coach Bo Pelini routinely put on the field. That’s bad since, of course, Nebraska fired Pelini last November.

Despite trailing 42–16 heading into the fourth quarter against the Boilermakers, Nebraska had a chance to rally. After cutting Purdue’s lead to 11, the Huskers took over on downs at their own 37-yard line. But junior quarterback Ryker Fyfe—in for an injured Tommy Armstrong (foot)—threw behind junior receiver Brandon Reilly. Purdue’s Frankie Williams picked it off with 6:11 left, and one play later the Boilermakers turned the turnover into a touchdown and a 49–31 advantage. 

Riley, who previously coached 14 total seasons at Oregon State (1997-98 and 2003-14), inherited a historical power in Lincoln. Nebraska boasts five national titles and 42 conference championships and is the fourth-winningest program in all of college football (877). But in recent years, that success has dropped off. Pelini was fired in Lincoln not because he couldn’t win. (He never won fewer than nine games in any of his seven seasons.) He was ousted because of his issues with administrators and because he never won more than 10 games—and had a habit of falling short in big spots. As a result, the Huskers decided they wanted more.

Pelini’s dismissal begged the question: It is smart to fire a coach who consistently wins, but who doesn’t win enough? After Saturday, at least some Nebraska fans probably want a do-over. The program hasn’t fallen to 3–6 since 1961, and this year’s mark has come on the heels of some occasionally ugly football. Prior to Saturday Nebraska ranked last in the Big Ten in penalties per game (8.3) and 10th in turnover margin (-0.38). Moreover, former players aren’t happy.

It’s true that the Huskers haven’t had much luck in close games this fall, suffering five losses by a total of 13 points. But Saturday was different. They allowed the Boilermakers to score more points (55) than they had in the previous three games (42) combined. This Purdue team hasn’t won much third-year coach Darrell Hazell, who had beaten just two FBS teams during his tenure. The Boilermakers’ only other victory this season was a 38–14 win over FCS Indiana State.

It’s Riley’s first season in town, and coaching changes always include growing pains. But surely no one expected this kind of precipitous drop-off from Nebraska. If the program can’t find its footing, the rest of the season could get ugly. It faces Iowa, Michigan State and Rutgers in its final three games. Even if the Huskers win out, an unlikely proposition, a 6–6 record in Riley’s debut would be worse than any of Pelini’s seven campaigns.

It’s impossible to know whether Pelini would’ve done more with this Nebraska team, but his track record suggests he would have. Now it’s up to Riley to prove he can fix a broken situation in Lincoln. Riley might have a more affable personality than his prickly predecessor, but if the new coach can’t turn things around, the latest era of Nebraska football won’t last long.

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