Riley: Huskers facing great mental challenge after 2-3 start
LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) Mike Riley has long admired the loyalty of Nebraska fans. It's part of why he took the coaching job.
He is discovering how unforgiving some of them can be.
The Cornhuskers are 2-3, the school's worst start since 1959, and a segment of the fans so quick to embrace the genial Riley now are wondering about his fitness for the position. Their rancor on social media and radio shows especially came to the fore after a poor play-calling decision allowed Illinois enough time to drive for the winning touchdown on Saturday.
Riley blamed himself for the mistake Monday and acknowledged the edginess of a fan base that has sold out every home game since 1962.
''I can understand them being nervous,'' he said. ''We have the people who care the most and are the greatest fans in the world, so obviously they're going to have feelings about this. I understand that totally. I get it. What we have to do is just play better and win some games and then go from there.''
Up next is a crucial Big Ten West home game against Wisconsin (3-2). Both teams are 0-1 in the conference, and the loser will have a hard time recovering in the division race.
''The test is not physical right now, it's mental,'' Riley said. ''It's all about the approach. The coaches have to set the tone with just really good teaching, preparation and plan.''
The challenge is to keep the season from blowing up. Riley is working with players who are still getting to know him and his assistants, and the process can get off track when there's turbulence. The Huskers have lost games on a Hail Mary, in overtime and most recently because of what should have been an avoidable situation.
''All the bugs crawl out at times like this,'' Riley said.
He wasn't just talking about the disgruntled online chatroom coaches.
For the second time in three weeks, Riley was asked to address the antics of one of his team captains, Alex Lewis. Reporters observed the senior offensive lineman sarcastically blowing kisses at Nebraska fans as he walked off the field at Illinois. Two weeks ago, he ripped fans on social media for criticizing his play in a loss to Miami.
''We're really disappointed,'' Riley said of Lewis' latest episode. ''Not a good reflection of what we want to be.''
Riley declined further comment, saying he had yet to speak with Lewis about the matter.
Another captain, defensive end Jack Gangwish, said the team's leadership did talk to Lewis. Asked if Lewis deserved to remain a captain, Gangwish said, ''That's not my decision.''
Lewis was just a sidelight Monday, however. The main topic was Nebraska's third-and-seven play call with the Huskers leading 13-7 with under a minute to play. Tommy Armstrong Jr. rolled to his right and threw an incomplete pass. That stopped the clock and gave the Illini, who had no timeouts, 55 seconds to drive for the touchdown that produced a 14-13 win.
Riley said Armstrong had clear instructions to keep the ball on a bootleg play.
''Retrospective,'' Riley said, ''it would have been much simpler to give the ball off.''
Armstrong faced immediate pressure on the play and threw toward freshman running back Devine Ozigbo.
''The quarterback just reacted like an athlete. Someone got in his face and he just reacted,'' Riley said. ''You can't blame him. That goes back to my training of the quarterback.''
Armstrong said he didn't want to lose yards and take the Huskers out of range for a potential field goal, so he unloaded the ball.
''I saw Devine open, tried to get him the ball,'' Armstrong said. ''If it was a catch, no one would talk about it today. He dropped it. It's on me.''