From the beginning of the season, this year has been a gut-wrenching reality check for Nebraska.
It started with Tanner Mangum’s 42-yard heave on the final play of the game that handed the Husker’s their first loss in a season-opening game in 29 years. Two weeks later, after erasing a 23-point deficit, an interception thrown by Tommy Armstrong in overtime allowed Miami to kick a game-winning field goal.
Ending the non-conference portion of the schedule at 2-2—with both losses coming in heart-breaking fashion—there was optimism for Mike Riley entering his first season of Big Ten play. The conference slate hasn’t been any kinder to the Huskers, though.
Sitting at 1-3 in the conference, a late touchdown pass from Illinois, a game-ending field goal off the toe of Wisconsin kicker Rafael Gaglianone and a missed two-point conversion have against Northwestern has Nebraska’s back up against a wall. Eight games into the season and the Huskers are on the verge of burying their bowl hopes.
While this season has been filled with devastating disappointment on a seemingly weekly basis, the overall performance on the field hasn’t been as poor as the record might reflect.
Nebraska’s offense has been productive in nearly every statistical category for most of the season. It averages 31.9 points per game and has the Big Ten’s second-best passing attack. The ground game hasn’t been dominant, but at 180 yards per game, it’s been a complimentary asset to an effective passing scheme.
Defensively, the numbers aren’t quite as positive. Along with the conference’s second-worst defense against the pass, the Huskers have forced just nine turnovers this season. In its five losses, Nebraska has created just two turnovers.
Regardless of what the stat books read – particularly on the defensive end – the shortcomings on the field can’t be measured by the numbers, though. Given the situations of each game, it’s quite apparent the Huskers haven’t had the necessary mentality to win games. The confidence that used to take the field every Saturday has been absent.
Perhaps that poise took a hit after Mangum’s pass fell into the hands of Mitch Mathews for the 33-28 win. Maybe it’s developed over the course of the season. Quite possibly, it dates back to the dismissal of Bo Pelini. Whatever the reason, the character of this Nebraska team has changed.
That isn’t uncommon for a program going through a transition phase. Many times in college football, programs go through significant lows before reaching new heights. At Nebraska, though—one of the sport’s storied programs—this sort of thing isn’t supposed to happen. At least, not to a point where bowl eligibility is in question.
Quality of play hasn’t been a major issue for the Huskers. If it was, this team wouldn’t have competed with the likes of Wisconsin, Northwestern and Miami. If this was a bad football team, it would’ve lost the five games by more than a combined 13 points.
Nebraska doesn’t have a problem, at least not yet. It’s simply confused about the new direction in which things are heading.
On Halloween, the Huskers have another opportunity to right the ship against Purdue, a team that sits at 1-6. But even a win over a bad team, especially on the road, can help the mentality of this team.
So far this season has not gone well for Nebraska, but it hasn’t been awful. There have been plenty of positives to take away after the first eight weeks of the season.
If this team improves defensively and develops a winning mindset, it would be well worth the struggles that Riley and his players have endured this season.