LINCOLN, Neb. — Nebraska is unbeaten in mid-October and its No. 8 ranking is its highest in five years. Time for the fans and media to start scrutinizing just how good the Cornhuskers are.
One narrative is that the Huskers have been just good enough to beat everyone on what thus far has been a light schedule and that their worthiness of a top-10 ranking is questionable. Another narrative is that a team that has dealt with the offseason death of their all-conference punter and myriad injuries is coming out on top after losing so many close games last year.
Coach Mike Riley said Monday he tells his players the outside chatter means nothing and that what’s happened so far will have little bearing on how the season is remembered.
“We’re at a good point with our record right now. We love that record,” Riley said. “Whatever ranking that brings us right now is great. All this stuff is just fun for everybody else, and for us it’s exactly the record we want, and now we have to get better.”
The Huskers (6-0, 3-0 Big Ten) probably need to get a lot better if they hope to survive the meat of their schedule, which begins after Saturday’s home game against Purdue (3-3, 1-2).
Back-to-back road games against No. 10 Wisconsin and No. 2 Ohio State come next, and there’s a visit to defending West Division champion Iowa following home games against Minnesota and Maryland.
Inconsistency on offense and poorly performing special teams are Riley’s greatest concerns.
The 360 total yards in Saturday’s 27-22 win at Indiana were a season low and third lowest in Riley’s 19 games at Nebraska. Take away Stanley Morgan’s 72-yard touchdown — on a play in which two safeties ran into each other — and Brandon Reilly’s 45-yard catch on a deflected ball, and the Huskers averaged just 3.5 yards a play.
Tommy Armstrong Jr. threw two interceptions, a couple jet sweep plays netted little despite looking promising and an offensive line reeling from injuries took another hit when left tackle Nick Gates hurt his ankle.
But as it did in the previous game, against Illinois, the offense put together a decisive drive in the fourth quarter against a worn-down defense. Terrell Newby did most of the work on a 15-play, 60-yard possession that took nearly 8 minutes off the clock and ended with a field goal putting the Huskers up five points with 45 seconds to play. Along the way, Nebraska converted a fourth-and-1 and survived a video review of a Newby fumble, which was ruled to have occurred after his knee touched the ground.
The punt team continued to struggle. Caleb Lightbourn had a punt blocked for the second time, this one resulting in a safety, and Mitchell Paige had a 39-yard return to set up an Indiana touchdown.
“It was a bad day,” Riley said. “That team’s job is to cover and protect, and we didn’t do either of them. We have a lot of work to do there.”
He also lamented a missed opportunity on a 15-yard punt return by De’Mornay Pierson-El that Riley said was one block away from going for a touchdown.
Nebraska’s defense, particularly the much-improved secondary, continues to be the strength of the team.
The Huskers intercepted two passes against Indiana, giving them 11 through six games. Last year they picked off 10 passes in 13 games. They also had three sacks on Saturday.
Safety Kieron Williams already seems to be heeding Riley’s advice about not listening to those who judge the looks of the Huskers’ wins.
“Style points? What it looks like?” Williams asked. “I don’t think it matters as long as you get the ‘W”’.
AP college football website: http://collegefootball.ap.org