LINCOLN, Neb. — A year ago at this time, Nebraska was on its way to its best start since 2001 and cracking the Top 10 for the first time in five years.
Since opening 2016 with seven straight wins, the Cornhuskers have lost six of nine, a stretch that included losses of 59 points to Ohio State and 30 points to Iowa and continued Saturday with a 21-17 loss at home to Northern Illinois of the Mid-American Conference.
The trendline has fans in this football-crazy state questioning everything about the program, starting with the leadership of athletic director Shawn Eichorst, who made a surprising hire when he brought in Mike Riley from Oregon State after firing Bo Pelini two days after the 2014 regular season.
“We’ve had fans who have had doubts since we brought Mike on board,” Eichorst said. “You’ve got to win ballgames and nobody knows that more than him. I have a lot of trust and faith in his abilities, and we’ve got to regroup and get our kids headed in the right direction. There are no excuses to be made, and they won’t make them, whether it’s changing the scheme or the quarterbacks. Everybody’s got their challenges. We have everything we need to be successful moving forward.”
The Huskers (1-2), who open Big Ten play at home this week against Rutgers (1-2), made dramatic changes in the offseason. New defensive coordinator Bob Diaco switched to a 3-4 defense from a 4-3. Tulane transfer Tanner Lee is the first-year starting quarterback as the Huskers transition into the pro-style offense after playing a hybrid system the last two years that took advantage of Tommy Armstrong Jr.’s mobility.
The defense, which gave up almost 500 yards in a narrow win over Arkansas State in the opener and more than 500 in a loss at Oregon, was not the problem against Northern Illinois. This one was on the offense.
Lee threw two interceptions that were returned for touchdowns and a third that ended the Huskers’ final possession. He has thrown seven interceptions in three games, the most in the nation.
The offensive line couldn’t protect him, giving up three sacks, seven hurries and nine tackles for loss. Nebraska netted fewer than 100 yards rushing for the fourth time in nine games.
Riley called the game “bitterly disappointing.”
“I’ve said, and I won’t back down on this, I like this team,” he said. “I like their work ethic, I enjoy working with them. I think I’d be making it up if I could say I sensed a performance like this coming up.”
Before the season, Riley said he thought Nebraska had an offense that could score on every possession.
“Boy oh boy, we’re so far from that, I can’t even hint at that at this point,” he said. “I was wrong. I was wrong. We’ve got a lot of work to do to get back to that.”
Northern Illinois left Lincoln with more than a victory. The Huskies also earned an $820,000 guarantee. Plus they’ll be back for money games in 2019, ’21 and ’23.
The loss came after Nebraska fell behind 42-14 in the first half of a 42-35 loss at Oregon and at the end of an especially bad week for Eichorst.
Last Monday, the Omaha World-Herald first reported that Eichorst, before the season, quietly extended Riley’s contract by one year, through the 2020 season. On Tuesday, when the Big Ten announced Nebraska would play Minnesota instead of Iowa to end the 2020 and ’21 regular seasons, Eichorst announced it would be better for the players if those games were played on a Saturday rather than the day after Thanksgiving.
Nebraska has played on Black Friday for 27 straight years, and fan outcry about possibly ending the tradition led Eichorst to do an about-face on Thursday, when he announced he had begun the process of working with Minnesota to play on the day after Thanksgiving.
Now the coach Eichorst hired to replace Pelini — who went 67-27 in seven years but whose volatility embarrassed the university — is 16-13 in two-plus seasons.
Though fans and media note the 3-6 stretch the Huskers are on, Eichorst said he isn’t concerned now about how last season ended.
“My obligation is to these young men in our program and our coaches and staff,” he said Saturday. “We’ll be judged week to week based on our performance, and today’s performance was not good and not acceptable.”
Eichorst’s message to fans who booed the Huskers when they were down 14-0 at halftime or who left the stadium early?
“We have a good group of young men in that locker room who are working really hard to represent us and win ballgames,” he said, “and I would say the same thing about our staff. But everybody has got to take it up a notch and we have to get moving in the right direction.”