LINCOLN — He’d clap, walk a few steps and stuff his hands back in his coat pockets. A defensive lineman was pancaked. He’d clap some more. An offensive lineman was blown up. He’d fold his arms. A defensive back would timidly swipe and miss at an opposing ball carrier. Hands back in the pockets. A linebacker got trucked. A receiver dropped a pass. Clap. Walk. Fold. Pockets.
Nebraska football coach Mike Riley, captain of this pigskin Titanic, looked cold as he passively watched his program sink, perhaps for good, during Ohio State’s 56-14 evisceration of the Huskers. OSU led 35-0 at halftime, cleared half of Memorial Stadium in the process, and didn’t let up, throwing the ball on its final drive, ahead by six touchdowns. It was the second-worst home conference loss in school history.
“We really just had a hard time, obviously, keeping up with what they were doing,” Riley said afterward. His postgame mood matched his in-game persona. Solemn. Reserved. No anger.
But whatever guts were left in Riley’s three-year tenure may have been ripped out by OSU quarterback J.T. Barrett, the dozen Buckeye skill players who touched the ball, and the imposition of Ohio State’s collective will on both sides of the line of scrimmage. The scene evoked memories of the 2007 Oklahoma State game, when the Cowboys led big at half and sent dejected Husker fans for the exits.
On this cold, windy Saturday night, the stadium may have been even emptier than it was ten years ago.
“It’s not a great feeling, you know? But you can’t blame 'em,” said linebacker Chris Weber, who had a game-high 15 tackles.
“That’s not what the fans want to see,” said quarterback Tanner Lee, who threw for 303 yards and two touchdowns. “They don’t want to see us going into half losing like that.”
Lee at least produced a clean stat sheet, including a 77-yard touchdown pass to J.D. Spielman, who broke the school’s single-game record for receiving yards with 200 on 11 catches. Nebraska didn’t crack an egg on the ground — 44 yards on just 16 carries — but also didn’t try to run much after it fell behind.
And Nebraska fell behind quickly. The Huskers’ defense — coordinated by the highest-paid assistant in school history, Bob Diaco — was historically awful, giving up a school record 41 first downs, 633 yards and an astonishing eight straight touchdowns.
“Miserable night,” Diaco said. “Miserable night.”
NU (3-4 overall, 2-2 in the Big Ten) was missing two of its top three safeties — Aaron Williams and Antonio Reed — and the other top safety, Joshua Kalu, apparently re-injured his hamstring, according to Riley. Kalu was still able to zip, without comment, through the postgame press conference area on a Segway, but he and other Husker defenders bore witness to a diverse, fast-paced Buckeye offense that converted 10 of 13 third downs and averaged 7.4 yards per play, the most allowed by a Husker defense since the 2014 Wisconsin game.
“I don’t think anybody on our team quit,” Riley said. “I think we just had a hard time tackling them, stopping them, catching them.”
“They attack you in a lot of different ways,” Weber said.
For eight straight touchdown drives. Here’s the infamy.
First drive: Nine plays, 96 yards, 52-yard touchdown run by back J.K. Dobbins, with seemingly NU’s entire defense watching him rumble around left end, then sprint to the end zone.
Second drive: Nine plays, 85 yards, Barrett six-yard touchdown run.
Third drive: Eight plays, 80 yards, with Barrett hitting K.J. Hill for 16 yards on a crossing pattern so open that linebackers gave Hill hotel privacy as he caught the ball.
Fourth drive: Eight plays, 71 yards, Barrett 31-yard pass Terry McLaurin over corner Dicaprio Bootle, who was playing safety for the first time in his career, and not playing it well.
Fifth drive: Eight plays, 59 yards, Barrett on a three-yard touchdown run.
Take a breath. We’ve reached halftime.
Sixth drive: Nine plays, 75 yards, Barrett 16-yard touchdown to an open tight end.
Seventh drive: Seven plays, 75 yards, Barrett 18-yard touchdown pass to another open tight end.
Eighth drive: Fifteen plays, 66 yards, Barrett six-yard pass to Hill.
OSU’s ninth and final drive reached the Husker 20 before it finally died. Barrett was out of the game by then. The fifth-year senior Buckeye put up video game numbers — 27-for-33, 325 yards, five touchdowns — similar to his line in last year’s 62-3 win.
Diaco initially tried to find the “sliver lining of this dark miserable cloud” in his postgame comments until a reporter asked him if he considered the performance a step forward. Diaco called it a trap question. Later, he explained he has been on campus less than one year.
“We are just getting started,” Diaco said. “I just got here. A lot of new players are playing. We are just getting started with our unit, we are getting started with our culture, which has been under spectacular amount of strain and attack. But we're just getting started, and some of these players are just getting started, these young guys. And they're going to be really good and we're going to be really good."
Riley was no different. He spoke of the team’s youth, its injuries, and being “fairly realistic,” about where the team stands now with its injuries, inexperience and youth. He talked of what the Huskers could learn from the game and growth individual players were making, the excitement he had over being able to coach the team out of a hole and needing a “reboot” after the bye week.
Was it Riley’s stump speech for a rebuilding campaign?
“I don’t want to use ‘re,’ ” Riley said. “I will say that every season and every team should build. The actual goal is to win all the games but, as you go, you’d like to think you’re getting better through the year, playing your best ball as you go. I know this didn’t look like that.”
Riley said he has to convince the players to keep their confidence going forward, and that he didn’t know if administrators — including an athletic director who has yet to be hired, but may be soon — would give him the time to make this program competitive with the Buckeyes. But, for now, he’s operating as if he’ll get the time to do it, that the ship isn’t sunk — that it isn’t even sinking, really, because Riley said he trusts this team.
Weber, a senior walk-on captain from Elkhorn, does as well.
“We can finish the season strong,” Weber said. “We can be a resilient group that can change the narrative. I really believe that.”
It’s good to believe in things.
|Yards per carry||5.9||2.8|
Nebraska is 1-5 all-time against Ohio State.
|Arkansas State||Sept. 2|
|Northern Illinois||Sept. 16|
|Ohio State||Oct. 14|
|Penn State||Nov. 18|
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