Bleak Friday: Nebraska falls apart in second half against Iowa to finish with worst record in 56 years

Bleak Friday: Nebraska falls apart in second half against Iowa to finish with worst record in 56 years
World-Herald News Service

LINCOLN — As Mike Riley walked off the field of what’s sure to be his final game as Nebraska’s football coach — a 56-14 humiliation at the hands of rival Iowa — a Husker fan wearing a faded, red No. 94 jersey gave an exaggerated wave to Riley from the bleachers.

“Bye Mike!” the fan said. “Bye!” He paused as Riley entered the darkness of the northwest tunnel. “Horrible!”

A miserable 4-8 season — Nebraska’s worst since 1961 — remained that way to the bitter end.

The Huskers gave up 50 points for the third straight game and the fourth time this season — a dubious feat never achieved in school history — and 313 more rushing yards. They allowed 49 straight Hawkeye points. Nebraska’s offense — playing without injured slot receiver JD Spielman — ran 29 plays, gained 82 yards and committed three turnovers in the second half.

The 90,046 fans who entered Memorial Stadium on Friday afternoon started leaving midway through the third quarter. Some wore “Frost Warning” shirts in tribute to former Husker quarterback and current Central Florida coach Scott Frost, who is clearly NU’s top coaching target if Athletic Director Bill Moos fires Riley.

Riley said he expects to be NU’s coach until Moos tells him he’s not. Riley last talked to Moos early in the week. The conversations have been “private” and “first class,” Riley said. Still, Riley thinks he’s the man for the job, even if two of the four losing seasons since 1962 came on his watch.

“When I go to bed tonight, I’ll be hoping for that, because I would love to do this,” Riley said of keeping his job. “I truly believe I’m exactly the right person to do this. The football parts I’ve been doing so long we know how to fix, and we’ve also been doing a good job recruiting. Those two things are going to be the key to Nebraska getting back to where everybody wants to go. The football has to grow and the recruiting has to continue to be high, high level.”

The recruiting has hit a wall — another four-star prospect, Chase Williams, decommitted from the 2018 class this week — and the football parts look like broken pieces on the ground. Even when Nebraska held a lead halfway through the second quarter, it didn’t feel safe, and it wasn’t safe. With a good team, it might have been. Not the worst Husker team in a half-century.

NU led 14-7 after a 28-yard touchdown pass from quarterback Tanner Lee to Stanley Morgan, who broke the school’s single-season receiving yards record with the catch. The Huskers’ defense — creaky but not awful despite losing starters Marcus Newby and Mick Stoltenberg to injury — had forced its third punt of the game when NU safety Tony Butler ran into Iowa punter Colten Rastetter. That’s a flag. First down, Hawkeyes, who turned that into a touchdown drive.

“You’re looking and you’re thinking, ‘OK, we got the stop, we’re getting ready to go ahead 21-7,’ ” defensive coordinator Bob Diaco said. “And then a blunder, we’re back on the field … rather than 21-7, it’s 14-14. And then the second half begins the way it began.”

With a 74-yard kickoff return from Iowa’s Ihmir Smith-Marsette. Hawkeye running back Akrum Wadley, who scooted for 159 yards, finished off the short, five-play drive with a touchdown run.

Nebraska (4-8, 3-6 Big Ten) then gained 9 yards in three plays — few teams run passing routes just short of the first-down sticks like the Huskers did this season — and Riley opted not to go for it on fourth-and-1. He punted.

“Shoulda, coulda, woulda,” Riley said. “I just, at that point, didn’t want to fail.”

Iowa (7-5, 4-5) got the ball at its own 44. Iowa scored a touchdown in two plays.

Lee threw an interception to linebacker Ben Niemann, who was sitting underneath a route. Iowa set up shop at the NU 40. Iowa scored a touchdown in two plays.

That’s nine Iowa plays, six Nebraska plays, three Iowa touchdowns, a 35-14 lead, and there were still three more touchdowns to go. One of them was a 68-yard catch-and-run by tight end Noah Fant, the Omaha South graduate who wasn’t recruited by Nebraska for his preferred position. Later, another Iowa touchdown was set up by a 57-yard run.

“Little mistakes turn into big plays, and big plays turn into points,” cornerback Chris Jones said.

“To play great defense it takes 11 guys in the right spots, doing their job how they should,” linebacker Chris Weber said. “When it doesn’t happen like that, it snowballs fast.”

The snowball is an avalanche now. Diaco’s defense gave up 542.6 yards and 55.3 points per contest over its final three games. Diaco said this season was harder than he expected but wouldn’t say, because he’d be presented as an “excuse-maker.” When asked what he would have done differently this season, Diaco gave a similar response.

“The image of me is 180 degrees opposite of what’s real,” Diaco said. “I’m not sure you guys know that. I’ve tried to answer questions like this and I’ve had my skull crushed for each time I ever do it. I want to be better, I want to get better, I feel bad I didn’t help the players more than I could have.”

The players, in turn, felt bad they didn’t do more.

“I wish I could put my finger on it,” Weber said. “That’s the frustrating part.”

“It was disappointing how it ended,” said Lee, who completed 22 of 41 passes for 205 yards, two touchdowns and three interceptions. “But I’m not disappointed in what I got out of all this.”

Lee transferred from Tulane, where he quarterbacked back-to-back losing teams. He spent a lot of time at Tulane throwing under pressure. The same was true at NU behind a patchwork, inconsistent line. It was a tough season, Lee said, but Nebraska’s players will be better for it.

Riley, repeating his line about this season seeming more like “year one” than year three of his tenure, struck a similar chord. He thought the team remained a “great group,” and given the youth on both sides of the ball, he expected more growth in 2018, should he return. He said next season could be a “pretty exciting deal if you can look at it big picture-wise.”

If true, it’s unlikely Riley will be in the picture. Moos, a month into his tenure, held true to his word that he wouldn’t fire any coach before the season was over.

But the games have been played. Moos’ assessment is complete. Nebraska’s not going bowling.

“I’m not sure what ‘next’ is,” Lee said. “I’m sure we’ll have a team meeting here pretty soon and we’ll be told from there.”

Who will hold that team meeting? Riley? Moos? Diaco?

The defensive coordinator said he was in awe of so many Husker fans turning out on Black Friday to watch the game. That passion and those fans, Diaco said, are why Nebraska football won’t stay down long.

“This will get fixed,” Diaco said. “This will get fixed. The people of the university, and the people of the state, it’s too strong, it’s too good, it’s too awesome. And it will be back up with the top echelon programs in the country. I don’t have a doubt about that.”

Nebraska’s Stanley Morgan breaks Johnny Rodgers’ single-season receiving yards mark

NU wide receiver Stanley Morgan broke Johnny Rodgers’ 1972 receiving record of 942 yards in one season with a 28-yard touchdown reception in the second quarter.

Morgan entered the game against Iowa with 912 receiving yards, despite missing a game this season. The junior could become the Huskers’ first 1,000-yard receiver with 33 yards.

Morgan’s day began with a highlight-reel, one-handed 14-yard touchdown reception.

Rodgers finished with 1,013 receiving yards, including his Orange Bowl performance in 1972, but the NCAA didn’t count bowl stats as official stats during his time.

Morgan said after the Penn State game he wasn’t really aware of that record. He’s heard about it this season, but it isn’t something he’s been chasing.

“Everything around me motivates me,” Morgan said. “I’m blessed to be here. Back home, there’s not too much opportunities for a man like me, so I’m blessed to be here every day playing, no matter the score, no matter the situation. I’m very blessed.”

Reflecting on his status as Nebraska coach, Mike Riley says ‘I would love to do this’ if given more time

LINCOLN — Mike Riley said in his postgame press conference Friday that he would welcome a chance to return for a fourth season as Nebraska football coach despite the ongoing speculation that the Huskers are poised to make a change.

As far as what he might know about his future, Riley told reporters: “I don’t have any indication about that.”

But Riley said he would leave Memorial Stadium on Friday night anticipating he would return and was excited about that opportunity if it should happen.

“When I go to bed I’ll be hoping for that, because I would love to do this,” Riley said. “I truly believe I’m exactly the right person to do that.”

Nebraska finished the season 4-8 after a 56-14 loss to Iowa, its worst record since 1961. The Huskers lost four straight and six of their last seven games, leaving Riley at 19-19 overall at NU.

But Riley added, looking ahead to 2018: “No doubt in my mind we could improve the football a ton.”

Riley said he last spoke with Athletic Director Bill Moos either Monday or Tuesday of this week, and called it “just a good talk.”

“All those parts of the conversation are private, but I’ve appreciated the opportunity to talk,” Riley said. “It’s been done first-class.”

Riley again said there was some “year one” feel to his third season, with coaching changes and a new starting quarterback.

Asked what he might do differently looking back at a season gone bad, Riley said: “I’m going to have to reflect on that one for a longer answer in the evaluation of it.”

The biggest change came with Riley choosing to hire Bob Diaco as defensive coordinator — replacing longtime colleague Mark Banker — and the accompanying switch to a 3-4 scheme. The defensive numbers actually got worse, and Iowa on Friday became the fourth opponent to score 50 points this season and the third straight.

Riley said some of the most obvious improvements need to come with the strength and power of the team, and specifically the offensive and defensive lines.

“Defensively I don’t have any regrets about the 3-4, about what we did,” he said. “It is just very, very painfully obvious on defense that this group has to continue to grow, to be able to withstand players like we played today.”

Riley also mentioned a strengthened identity offensively being a must, including a better run game, but spoke highly of some returning skill players that the Huskers will be able to utilize.

“It’s a pretty exciting deal, if you can look at it big picture-wise,” he said.