LINCOLN, Neb. — For all the championships and other high points in Nebraska’s proud football history, there’s one thing the Cornhuskers’ ardent fan base desires most of all.
They want their team to be relevant.
Nebraska’s 35-32 win over Oregon on Saturday has put the Huskers back in the national spotlight with a 3-0 record. They’re in The Associated Press poll, at No. 20, for the first time since December 2014.
They’ve won six of their last seven since a 3-6 start in Mike Riley’s first season, and they almost certainly will be favored in each of their next four games before visiting Wisconsin on Oct. 29.
Riley, whose team plays at Northwestern this week, said the Oregon win was only a starting point.
“We’ll have to keep putting an exclamation point on it week after week to make it real,” he said.
Riley is in charge of one of the most tradition-rich programs. Only five schools have appeared in the AP poll more times since it started in 1936, and the Huskers have won or shared five national titles. The most recent of those came under Tom Osborne in 1997, and Nebraska hasn’t won a conference title since Frank Solich brought one home in 1999.
So high are the expectations that Bo Pelini, who never won fewer than nine games over his seven seasons, was fired. This is the same school where College Football Hall of Fame coach Bob Devaney once said in 1968, “I know the fans are with me, win or tie.”
Devaney may have been exaggerating a bit. Nebraska fans are known for being able to tolerate some losses as long as the Huskers show up and play with effort. That didn’t happen on the biggest stages in recent years.
Riley’s lack of sustained success at Oregon State made him a surprise hire, and his first season was full of bad luck. The Huskers lost their 2015 opener to BYU on a Hail Mary and four other games by three points or less.
“We had a lot of close games, and it came down to little details,” receiver Jordan Westerkamp said. “We said we weren’t going to be beaten like that anymore. Just the second year with this new staff, we have grown so much closer with them and have been able to take this playbook in so much more.”
The Huskers’ ascent started last year after an embarrassing 55-45 loss at Purdue. The following week they knocked off a Michigan State team that made the College Football Playoff to start a stretch of wins in three of their last four games.
Nebraska opened this season with wins over Fresno State and Wyoming and then celebrated the 350th consecutive Memorial Stadium sellout with the win over an Oregon team that leads the Pac-12 in wins since 1997 and has played in two of the last six national championship games.
“I thought it was a really good win for this team as far as confidence and momentum,” Riley said. “I think a lot of the team’s identity will be sort of defined by how we respond, whether it’s responding to a loss or responding to a win. As the games go on, if you continue to win they get bigger and tougher. This game will be really, really good for our team.”
One of the most obvious differences between this year and last has been the play of Tommy Armstrong Jr.
The fourth-year starter has thrown for seven touchdowns against one interception. Last season he was picked off four times through three games and was on his way to throwing 16 interceptions, second-most among Power Five quarterbacks.
Armstrong also has been given more freedom as a runner, and scored the game-winning touchdown against Oregon on a 34-yard quarterback draw.
“It’s a statement game for our season,” Armstrong said. “That’s our goal, to be 3-0 going into conference play. As far as this game, it’s one of the biggest games I’ve played in. In front of these fans, they did a great job of supporting us throughout the whole game.”
AP college football website: http://collegefootball.ap.org