With 4 games left, close losses leave Huskers far from bowl
LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) Mike Riley's first season at Nebraska is slipping away.
The Cornhuskers have lost five games before November for only the third time since 1957 - including three at home for the first time since 2007 - and they must win three of their last four to be bowl eligible. Two are against Michigan State and Iowa, both unbeaten and in the top 10.
The Huskers (3-5, 1-3 Big Ten) never missed a bowl in seven years under Bo Pelini, and Riley said Monday losing out on the extra practices that come with qualifying for a postseason game would be a setback to his work in Lincoln.
Riley said the pressure to attain bowl eligibility at a place like Nebraska is always in the back of his mind.
''The most important thing is right in front of you,'' he said, referring to this week's game at Purdue, ''but there's no doubt that lingers all the time.''
Since 1969, Nebraska has played in a bowl every year except 2004 and 2007 under Bill Callahan. In addition to the revenue a bowl generates, the practices leading to the game are invaluable for a first-year coach who's still trying to fully get his system in place and audition players for different roles.
''Oh, gosh, millions of reason to play in a bowl game. It's just good for everybody. It's more football we get to do,'' Riley said. ''We would absolutely miss that because every opportunity we get to go out with these guys is important.''
The 62-year-old Riley, who coached Oregon State the last 12 years, was a surprise hire after athletic director Shawn Eichorst fired Pelini following a seventh straight nine- or 10-win regular season. At the time, Riley said he figured he would finish his career on the West Coast, but he couldn't pass up a chance to coach at Nebraska, which ranks fourth in all-time wins in major-college football.
He surely didn't envision this kind of first season. The Huskers' five losses have been by a total of 13 points.
''We are really disappointed in what's gone on in the win-loss column,'' he said, ''but that does not deter anything about how we feel about the place. It's everything as advertised and we have to continue to work real hard from our end to make this football product better.''
The Huskers will play a Purdue team they've outscored 79-21 in the last two meetings. The Boilermakers (1-6, 0-3) have lost five in a row and are coming off an open date.
Nebraska has plenty of issues to address following its 30-28 loss to Northwestern. The Huskers ran for a season-low 82 yards, their receivers dropped eight passes and Tommy Armstrong Jr. had an interception returned for a touchdown. The defense allowed Northwestern quarterback Clayton Thorson to run for a career-high 126 yards, and the punt and kick return games were awful.
Riley said he knows fan unrest is growing but that he's not affected by the scrutiny.
''The biggest issue I deal with is the football team and how they feel, and the fact that I've been impressed with their work during the week, that gives us a chance,'' he said. ''The only thing is how you react after so many close losses. It's kind of unusual. Your season turns on close games, and ours have gone the wrong way.''
This story corrects Northwestern quarterback Clayton Thorson's rushing total against Nebraska to 126 yards.