LINCOLN — Mike Riley didn’t want to sound like a broken record. The coach would, of course, because Nebraska lost for the fourth time in this halfway-gone season, again right at the end, again after the Huskers had failed to put away the game themselves. Again with the self-inflicted, mind-numbing wounds, again and again and again with this and, now, yes, of course, because it hasn’t happened enough already, yet again.
After Nebraska’s 23-21 loss to Wisconsin — in which the Badgers hit the winning field goal with four seconds left, sending a delirious, hopeful Memorial Stadium crowd home in silence — Riley conceded he’d never quite weathered a season where a team lost four games by 11 points, all in the final 20 seconds or in overtime. And Husker fans haven’t really either. Even the lean decades didn’t really unfold like this, so many games perched on a razor’s edge right until the end, ending in losses.
Riley said he’s never seen it. And he’s coached for 40 years.
“But we’re in it,” he said, a look of glum disbelief on his face.
The Huskers were outgained by 144 yards and ran 19 fewer plays. Their defense, already short-handed, had a variety of players limping on and off the field throughout the second half. The offense puckered like a lemon’s kiss for all of the first and third quarters, and, trailing 20-14 deep in the fourth, appeared ready to do it again.
But quarterback Tommy Armstrong scrambled for 16 yards on third-and-15. Three plays later, on another third down, Nebraska’s newest running hero, Andy Janovich, bulled through a few Badgers and chugged 55 yards for a touchdown that sent a primordial, epic roar through 89,886 in Memorial Stadium.
“It was a great run,” Armstrong said of Janovich's score. Armstrong trailed behind the play, arms out like a plane, flying. The crowd was with him.
Wisconsin, which in the fourth quarter gained 236 of its 469 yards for the game, effortlessly drove down the field in two minutes on an exhausted Husker defense, reaching the Husker 21. Riley called all three of his timeouts to save time for NU’s own final drive, since “we hadn’t exactly been gangbusters offensively.”
Badger kicker Rafael Gaglianone sent the 39-yard field goal attempt off the right goalpost, the ball making a loud thud that cut the silence of the stadium and triggered another roar.
“I thought it was a good sign for us,” offensive coordinator Danny Langsdorf said.
Defensive end Jack Gangwish tackled defensive coordinator Mark Banker with glee, but Banker had a warning.
“I said, ‘Hey! We’re going back out (on the field),’’ Banker recalled telling Gangwish. “They have three timeouts.’ And I told (safety) Nate Gerry the same thing.”
Banker had a good hunch. Nebraska’s offense hasn’t been able to finish any of its five close games on the field. Blew it against BYU. Ditto at Miami with the Armstrong interception. Against Southern Mississippi, NU missed a game-clinching field goal. At Illinois, the infamy of third-and-seven. And now, against Wisconsin, Nebraska (2-4 overall, 0-2 in the Big Ten) couldn’t run for 10 yards in three plays. Riley and Langsdorf gave no thought to passing for a first down — Armstrong completed only 11 of 28 passes anyway — because they wanted to force Wisconsin to use all of its timeouts and play hurry-up.
Wisconsin did that, forced a punt and then again effortlessly drove down the field in just one minute, in part because Nebraska’s defense, on an unseasonably warm day, faced 84 plays with little depth. Banker appreciated a reporter mentioning fatigue, but waved it off.
“It doesn’t matter,” he said. “When you’re out there in a street fight and you’re out there in competition on the field, we’ve just got to go out on the field and go play.”
The Badgers (4-2, 1-1) went 42 yards in three plays. Clinically. The key play — a 23-yard pass from quarterback Joel Stave to a backup tight end — was the result of a Husker defender losing his “over the top” responsibilities, Banker said. Stave threw for 322 yards, though it took him 50 passes.
“I know it doesn’t necessarily look like it, but we are in better shape,” Riley said of the pass defense.
After Stave threw a couple of incomplete passes, Gaglianone got a second chance at the win — this time a 46-yarder. And he made it by a few feet inside that same right goalpost.
“It’s like a golfer,” Stave said. “If they hit their putt once and they miss it, they definitely will make it the second time because they know the line.”
Nebraska’s still missing those putts. Still making so many of the same mistakes.
» Nine more penalties for 89 yards, including a pass interference penalty that extended a fourth-quarter Wisconsin touchdown drive. Without saying so explicitly, Riley made it clear he didn’t agree with the officiating on pass interference plays Saturday, and even picked up an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty in arguing with a referee.
» Another disappearing act by the offense that punted four straight times to start the game and four straight times to start the second half.
“Some of it was on me — just not getting the ball there,” Armstrong said.
Said Riley: “We didn’t have any consistency running the ball.”
» A wheezing pass rush that produced one sack in 50-plus dropbacks by Stave.
» Zero takeaways.
» More drops by wideouts.
» More rotation among the running backs — the Huskers played four on Saturday — without any clarity on who, if anyone, is the top guy.
» No big plays in the return game, despite burning the redshirt of another running back, Jordan Stevenson.
Nebraska keeps losing in the final minute. But it gives up many yards and points before that.
It adds up to four losses. Four losses before Halloween. Two in the league, which makes winning the Big Ten West nearly — not entirely, but nearly — impossible.
And so five key stakeholders of Nebraska football — Riley, Langsdorf, Banker, Armstrong, Gangwish — were asked, in their own ways by different reporters, for their summary thought. It wasn’t any kind of coordinated thing, but, as with broken records, the same types of questions tend to roll around to each guy.
Gangwish, still dressed in his full uniform — his helmet placed at the base of the podium inside Nebraska’s weight room — kept it positive.
“Moving forward this week the message is going to be, it’s another week, it is a new life, we still have goals,” Gangwish said.
Armstrong: “We’ve got to just drive on. You can’t dwell on the past. You can’t sit up here and pout about what happened last week, because you’ve got another opponent that’s preparing for us. All we can do is play another game.”
And Langsdorf: “It’s just one of those things where we don’t want it to have to come down to those types of situations. We want to play better earlier, get a lead and stick with it and not have to have these heartbreakers.”
Banker used a cooking analogy.
“It’s like if I’m going to go home right now and barbecue a steak or a make a cake for dessert,” he said. “It’s like that good cook. The ingredients are about the same, but you add a pinch of this, a pinch (of that), sometimes it comes out good and sometimes it doesn’t. But we all have a plan for it to come out good. An ‘L’ is an ‘L,’ a ‘W’ is a ‘W.’”
And, finally Riley. He didn’t want to sound like a broken record. He said, again, the team is getting better. Improving. Responding well. Growing through adversity. He likes this team and believes in it.
Then there was one point, late in his press conference, when Riley got on a roll of an answer before slowing down, almost in reflection.
“I’m sorry for those guys,” Riley said of his players. “We want to help them more — than ever in our lives, it feels like.”
The record didn’t skip on that line.
|Yards per carry||4.3||5.3|
Nebraska is 4-9 all-time against Wisconsin.
|South Alabama||Sept. 12|
|Miami (FL)||Sept. 19|
|Southern Miss||Sept. 26|
|Michigan State||Nov. 7|
Nebraska has played 17 games on Oct. 10. See them all »
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