LINCOLN — If you want to boil down the Mike Riley era to one snap — less than three seconds of football — you could do worse than 10:41 left in the fourth quarter Saturday.
Here’s the situation: Nebraska has dominated Northwestern for 19 minutes after halftime, turning a 17-14 deficit into a 24-17 lead. Now the Huskers are driving, first-and-10 on the Wildcats’ 19-yard line. A couple of good plays from slamming the door, sealing a second straight win and giving the home crowd a reason to believe in the direction of the program.
Shotgun. Trips right. Seven blockers against a five-man rush. Tanner Lee drops back and has JD Spielman open in the flat as two receivers head for the end zone.
“I think it was a good time to call that play,” Lee said. “It was a good play. I liked it.”
Until Northwestern confuses the offensive line with a stunt and a 280-pounder has a free run at the passer. Just as Lee lets the ball go, he’s crushed.
Northwestern takes the ball and drives 84 yards in 13 plays to tie the game. Nebraska doesn’t score again. Riley suffers a loss that, barring a flawless finish, likely slams the door on his coaching tenure in Lincoln.
“It looked like a real good play,” Riley said, “but turned into a real bad play.”
Pretty much illustrates the past 12 months, doesn’t it? The Huskers dropped to 4-5 and they did so with the same kind of sloppy, lackadaisical performance we’ve seen just about every game since the 62-3 loss at Ohio State.
Afterward, there was little anger or drama, aside from a defensive coordinator speaking gridiron gibberish. Just a silent recognition from 90,000 fans — and perhaps Riley, too — that the season can’t be saved. Just when Nebraska gets a little bit of momentum, disaster lies just around the corner.
“That’s football,” Lee said of the critical interception. “Plays like that happen. … It is what it is.”
The Blackshirts couldn’t stop Northwestern’s run game — 5.2 yards per carry. The offense, incapable of beating the Wildcats at the line of scrimmage, flirted with disaster every third or fourth snap. The Huskers played like they always do. It is what it is.
Which is why Bill Moos — barring a miracle fourth quarter of the season — must make a coaching change. Days like Saturday have become the new normal. Fans show up and expect bad football. It’s not too much to ask for more.
Every week across college football, we see ordinary teams rise up and play with their helmets on fire. Iowa did it against Ohio State. Iowa State did it twice in October against Oklahoma and TCU. Nebraska hasn’t done it since … when?
The Huskers can’t get to full speed because they’re constantly tripping over their cleats. You can blame it on Riley’s bare cupboard or Bob Diaco’s new scheme or all the injuries. But at some point, you have to admit that the margin for error is too slim for success. The machine is destined to break down.
It is what it is.
Despite all the mistakes, Nebraska almost won Saturday. For a few fleeting moments in overtime, Memorial Stadium was rocking again.
Northwestern had first-and-goal from the 2. Diaco’s defense stiffened. Second down. Again. Third down. Again. A crowd that had endured two rocky months — and 15 mediocre years before that — stood together and hollered. Maybe, just maybe, Riley’s Huskers would give them a reason to forget.
No. Fourth-and-goal. Northwestern scored on a sneak. And Nebraska’s offense, plagued by a disastrous screen play, went down in four futile snaps.
When Lee’s final pass was broken up, Riley ripped off his headset and walked onto the field to shake hands with Pat Fitzgerald. A cluster of celebratory Wildcats ran in front of him. A few boos rained down behind him. A sense of hope surely eluded him. Who’s coaching Nebraska in 2018 is still a mystery. Who won’t be is near certainty.
Sunday morning, Husker fans will wake up and turn back their clocks a full hour. It’s a shame they can’t go back further.
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