LINCOLN — Standing at a new black podium on the sixth floor of Memorial Stadium, Jack Gangwish paused dramatically near the end of Nebraska’s Monday press conference. He’d been asked how important a season-opening win would be for the Huskers after a tumultuous offseason and the hiring of coach Mike Riley.
Was the Wood River senior getting wistful? Trying to put into words a difficult nine months?
Not quite. He was getting riled up.
“We’re here to play ball, we’re here to win football games,” Gangwish said. “You know, when it comes to mentality, BYU is coming to town on Saturday and they think they’re coming to our house and leave with a win. Tell you what, me and my boys are pretty sure we ain’t gonna let that happen.”
Most years, most teams wouldn’t expect to beat Nebraska in its home opener. The Huskers haven’t lost an opener — home, away or otherwise — since 1985, and in most years, the first opponent has been an overmatched pat of butter melting in the August heat. In the last decade, just one of the season openers — the 37-34 win over Wyoming in 2013 — was decided by fewer than two touchdowns.
But the Cougars, an FBS independent after years in the Mountain West and WAC conferences, are no patsies. They’ve averaged eight wins per season over the last five years, routinely take on Power Five programs and routinely do so on the road. In terms of age, they’re also one of the oldest teams in college football because some of their players — such as standout quarterback Taysom Hill — embark on two-year Mormon missions before they play.
“Obviously, they’ve got a lot of guys with experience, so you’ve got to take that seriously,” defensive tackle Maliek Collins said.
“This is going to be a really good football team that always plays with a lot of confidence and they’re very physical,” coach Mike Riley said. “We’ll find out a lot about our team through this game.”
What did Riley discover in his tenure at Oregon State? That his teams weren’t great in season openers. The Beavers finished 9-5 in Riley’s 14 season openers, including a 3-4 record since 2008. Two of the four losses came to FCS teams — Sacramento State in 2011 and Eastern Washington in 2013.
“A lot of dynamics go into it,” Riley said, regarding preparation for first games. The Beavers’ offense tended to be better in those season openers than the defense. But Riley said his first game at Nebraska has been marked by a deep concern for making sure the offense has self-edited the playbook well enough to know what works well and what won’t.
Riley, dressed even more casually than former coach Bo Pelini used to be for his press conferences, used the word “selection” often.
“We had to be very important in the selection in what we do this fall — both for our coaches’ benefit and our players’ benefit,” he said. “We studied hard the selection of the things we tried to do. We worked hard on the identity on and off the field, of what we want to do.”
What is that identity on offense?
“I don’t see us just trying to be one thing dominantly all the time, just running the ball all the time. We need variety in the running game and we need some success with some big chunks down the field. And we need some versatility from the quarterback in how we throw.”
Riley said it’s been “fun” arriving at Nebraska’s game plan, even if it has to be tested against the Cougars. Riley said a first game at NU feels mostly like the first game he ever coached. The same butterflies. The same anxiety. The same juices. Riley then conceded that this game, because he’s at a new place, might have a heightened intensity for him.
There’s certainly heightened attention on it compared to any of his games at Oregon State.
“It might not be comparable to anywhere,” he said. “It’s exceedingly good.”
Husker players, though, are used to it. They’re also used to winning this game. They’re generally used to facing teams that struggle on offense in this game, much like Florida Atlantic in 2014 — in a miserable 55-7 loss — mustered only 200 yards of total offense. NU racked up a Big Ten modern-era record 784 yards.
BYU can push the pedal much harder.
“There’s some big boys and they run some smashmouth offense,” Gangwish said. “It’s going to be a physical game and we’re going to be dealing with it afterwards. But you know what? It’s a physical defense.
“We’re ready to go, I’ll tell you that.”
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