Tom Burgess

Quarterback Tom Burgess, right, was the spark Mike Riley and the Winnipeg Blue Bombers needed to go from 7-11 in 1989 to Grey Cup winners in 1990.

Once upon a time, Mike Riley thought he was going to get fired.

The Winnipeg Blue Bombers, defending Grey Cup champions of the CFL, lost the final seven games of the 1989 season. They finished 7-11.

“I thought that was it,” Riley said.

Then Tom Burgess fell out of the sky.

Burgess was a 6-foot, 200-pound quarterback who played college ball at Colgate. He was described by his teammates as a “firecracker,” a quarterback with an offensive lineman’s mentality. Tough guy. Good teammate.

He was the backup on Saskatchewan’s Grey Cup title team in 1989 and was traded to Winnipeg to save Riley.

The Bombers clicked. The Bombers won the Grey Cup. Burgess was the MVP. Riley was saved.

“He changed the whole dynamic,” Riley said earlier this week. “He was a guy who was loved by the team. Fought like crazy. Tough as nails. He changed our team.”

As the 2017 Nebraska football season begins, Riley again finds himself looking skyward.

For a difference-maker.

For a lightning bolt.

As he enters his third season, Riley’s Nebraska has looked good off the field. On the field, it’s just there.

At last week’s Big Ten media days, the Husker program blended into the convention center wallpaper. The only buzz was the story about the once-proud program having to play Friday night this season.

That’s old news. What Riley needs is something new and fresh.

Here come the parachutes now.

One is Tanner Lee, the transfer quarterback from Tulane, with the exciting promise of a big-time arm.

Another is Bob Diaco, the hired gun defensive coordinator, with a personality and résumé that screams success.

Can these two flip that switch and jumpstart the Huskers? Can one of them do it this season?

Yes. And yes.

The 2016 season ended in a train wreck and prompted change by Riley. But 9-4 wasn’t that far from 10 or 11 wins (and certainly a few wins could have gone the other way, too).

Take the Wisconsin game. Could more efficient offense have made the difference late in that overtime loss? Yes.

And Iowa. It was a blowout. But wouldn’t a physical defense that showed up with passion have made a difference? You bet.

Do lightning bolts happen? Do heroes fall out of the sky? Do seasons take unexpected turns for the better? We’ve seen it here at Nebraska.

In 2003, we saw Bo Pelini almost single-handedly energize a program coming off 6-6 with a hair-on-fire defense whose playmaking became contagious. No, it wasn’t perfect (losses to Texas and Kansas State). But Pelini did raise the bar that year.

In 2009, Ndamukong Suh emerged on a rainy night at Missouri and put Pelini’s offensive-challenged team on his back the entire season. That team came one second from winning the Big 12.

A year later, Pelini’s decision to start freshman Taylor Martinez at quarterback transformed NU into a national contender.

One player. One coach. It happens all the time.

Riley’s job isn’t in danger. In some ways, it feels like a beginning with “his kind” of quarterback and the defensive guru he hired.

But in other ways, this is a program that feels like it’s waiting for somebody to step up, somebody to play difference-maker and lead the way.

Riley feels that, too.

“As much as a spark, we might need confirmation that this quarterback … whoa, this guy is going to be good,” Riley said. “Whoa, look at that defense.

“At this point, it’s all about building confidence. And those two things, those are the narratives of the team.”

A spark, yes. And who knows where it might come from?

Maybe Mike Cavanaugh’s offensive line, with some experience and depth, becomes a difference-maker. Maybe one of the running backs becomes someone we didn’t know was there.

Maybe one of the defensive linemen or linebackers blossoms under Diaco’s mentorship and 3-4 scheme.

Maybe the screen pass is the MVP of 2017.

Could happen. But the two most likely sources of electricity are Lee and Diaco.

Lee doesn’t have to be perfect. Far from it. Highlight throws boost energy. But Lee’s tale will be told in efficiency and reliability.

Where Lee can make the spark is in leading the team, particularly moving the chains. Converting third downs. His vibe in the huddle and sideline and locker room. If he’s that guy, and he backs it up, a lot of uncertain parts on offense could come together quickly.

It’s hard to know the timetable on the transition to a new defense. But 2017 has to be about finding the right personnel for the field — then getting that personnel to play fast, hard and confident.

There will be some instinct and luck involved — finding the right linebackers in a program that wasn’t set up for the 3-4 — and where to play Joshua Kalu is an important domino. These things may take a season to sort out.

The hair-on-fire Blackshirts, to me, is the priority. Confidence comes from comfort. This is a thing that might need to grow as the season goes. But if it can happen early, forcing turnovers, stuffing Oregon in Eugene, who knows?

A spark.

“We have a chance for either one,” Riley said.

Then the coach winked, perhaps from experience.

“I like our chances.”