Huskers peeling apart
UNIVERSITY PARK — Following a blowout 54-21 loss to Minnesota, Nebraska has fallen into an abyss that they have not seen in decades.
With games remaining against Penn State and Iowa, not only are the 4-6 Cornhuskers likely to miss out on a bowl game, but they face the serious potential of winning their fewest games in a season since 1961. Since new athletic director Bill Moos took over for a fired Shawn Eichorst a month ago, Nebraska has gone 1-3 with a crushing home 56-14 loss to Ohio State, placing head coach Mike Riley firmly on the hotseat.
“I believe in our players,” Riley said. “I don’t think we are at a point where anyone has lost faith. There’s a trust with the coaching staff and the team. They’ll come to work. It has been consistent to this point, and I hope that it will remain the same.”
One of Nebraska’s biggest problems all year has been the injury-bug. In Saturday’s loss to the Gophers, that narrative only continued garner merit as veteran starting quarterback Tanner Lee was forced to leave with an illness suffered from a hit to the head late in the first half.
Riley said that Lee has remained in concussion protocol, and the team is planning for Penn State with freshman Patrick O’Brien as the starter.
“We are today practicing Patrick O’Brien as if he were to start,” Riley said.
Despite O’Brien having only thrown 30 passes in his college career, Riley sees potential in the young quarterback. In two quarters of football against Minnesota O’Brien was 12 of 18 passing for 137 yards and had a long rush of 14 yards.
“I thought he hung in there and made some beautiful throws,” Riley said. “He appeared to have a lot of poise as he played, so I was impressed with that. Everybody can see that he has a big-time arm and can make some of those throws. He showed some good mobility.”
Of greater concern for Nebraska, however, will be the state of its defense against an explosive Penn State offense.
Nebraska ranks last in the Big Ten in rush defense, allowing over 200 yards a game on the ground. Against Minnesota the Cornhuskers allowed 409 yards rushing and six rushing touchdowns.
“There’s no doubt about it,” Riley said. “We just came through a game with over 400 rushing yards and we’re playing a back like (Saquon Barkley). We’ve got a big job ahead of us.”
The Huskers have also struggled to rush the passer all season. They rank dead last in the conference with only 12 sacks and have the fewest tackles for a loss. With quarterback Trace McSorley’s ability to avoid rushers and extend the play, things won’t get any easier for Nebraska.
“McSorley is a versatile, competitive guy that makes plays with his feet,” Riley said. “He’s never out. I’ve got a lot of admiration for how he plays. (Rushing the passer) is something we are strategically looking at that we know is missing in the factor of winning games.”
Winning games is something that Nebraska has failed to frequently do this year and with two tough conference games remaining on the schedule, Riley just hopes for continued support from fans.
“I know everybody is disappointed in what’s going on,” Riley said “This place has maintained their passion for their teams and Husker football for a long time, and I am certain that they will continue to do that. I love this team. I am positive the fans will forever love their team.”