WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. — Talk about games that matter.
This will be a stain you don’t wash out, the gum on Mike Riley’s shoe that won’t come off. Another fire alarm game.
There are losses and then there are losses that are events. Purdue 55, Nebraska 45 is one of those.
But there was one big difference with this one, played out before a lonely, half-empty Ross-Ade Stadium.
This was not Mike Leach running it up because he could, the beginning of Mark Mangino’s Orange Bowl run, Mike Gundy’s offense or Wisconsin’s Big Ten champs.
This was to the basement Boilers, who ranked 103rd nationally in offense, 97th in defense and near the bottom in everything else.
This was Purdue’s second Big Ten win in three years, and coach Darrell Hazell’s first Big Ten win at home. First.
And it was not a fluke.
That made it no less stunning to see the score. One national writer posted on social media: “RIP, Nebraska football.” This felt like rock bottom, and that’s a hope as much as it is a statement.
It doesn’t get any lower, does it?
Mike Riley was hired by Shawn Eichorst to avoid these embarrassments. Now the pitchforks are out and it’s not because of Halloween.
Forget it. Neither Eichorst nor Riley is getting fired and shouldn’t. The Nebraska job would become radioactive in the coaching frat. Moreover, it’s not how Nebraska needs to do things. This is Riley’s first year. Give the man some room.
But suddenly, there is less room for Riley. And his boss Eichorst.
From here on, both will be viewed through a different prism: from the suites down to the cheap seats, and all the other revenue streams.
Riley came to Lincoln with an Oregon State résumé that caused doubts. The 3-6 start comes with all kinds of layers, but his critics say it validates their point that this was a wrong fit from the start.
You could counter that every coach needs time to recruit and put in his culture, his way of football. Riley needs that time.
But oh, man, this game.
In some ways, it was a microcosm of this lost season. Backup quarterback Ryker Fyfe making his first start. De’Mornay Pierson-El leaves with a knee injury. Running back Terrell Newby misses the second half with an injury.
Then the rest. Seven penalties. Turnovers. Purdue getting physical with Nebraska. Dropped passes. A grand total of 77 yards rushing against one of the worst run defenses in the country.
Is the issue that Nebraska can’t run the ball or won’t? Riley’s response was “both.” My take: it was a polite way of protecting his blockers. If they could move people out of the way on a consistent basis, they would run it.
The thing is, Nebraska’s offense is better when it doesn’t even try to run.
And yet, this is an area that Riley must address in the offseason. Along with his defense. The philosophy on developing an offensive line. Playing physically in practice. Finding out who wants to play and who doesn’t. Finding out who can play and who can’t.
Finding out who can coach and who can’t.
The thought of staff changes may not have crossed Riley’s mind. He’s been with a lot of these guys for years at Oregon State.
But now everything must be on the table after this season. Riley might have wanted to wait another year to evaluate how to attack this job. But nobody will be able to stand another year like this.
Yes, the circumstances of this season need to be included in the discussion. Injuries. Inheriting a team with loyalties to the old staff, old habits, etc.
And that elusive thing called confidence. Riley almost said it last Monday when asked if the season might be different had the Hail Mary gone their way in week one.
I think there’s something to that. But confidence had nothing to do with the loss to Illinois. And just two weeks ago, the Huskers were oozing confidence after stomping on Minnesota. There was no reason to be lethargic against Northwestern.
No reason for this unthinkable day at Purdue.
Riley and his staff have not helped their own cause. Through nine games, they don’t look like difference-makers. They look like they are scratching their heads looking for something magical to work.
There are no magic formulas in college football. Nebraska has so much to work on.
It’s not all on the coaches. The players must show up. Execute. Make a play.
It will take time to find those players, build this thing back. But today there are a lot fewer folks willing to believe he can get that done, give Riley that time.
There certainly aren’t going to be “90 percent” positive emails for Eichorst, as the A.D. said he was getting earlier this season in a local TV interview.
Eichorst might not want to check those emails right now.
He put himself in the spotlight when he fired a “nine-win coach” in the name of moving the program forward. It was supported by some, but not all. When you do that, the next guy needs to be an improvement.
Eichorst zeroed in on Riley and sold it. There are fewer buyers today than yesterday. Speaking of buyers, it will be interesting to see the impact this season has on booster checkbooks.
I’ve got a feeling some boosters might be as hard to find as the athletic director.
Eichorst needs his guy Riley to win. That could happen next weekend. They could win out and go to a bowl, beat Michigan State or Iowa, put a tattered ribbon on this clunker of a season.
No, it’s not likely. The team that limped out of here in the rain, talking about going back to work, staying the course, looks like a bunch that needs this season to be over.
The end of daylight saving time afforded an extra hour for sleep overnight, something much needed by this team.
But for the athletic director and his coach, the clocks have been moved up.
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