For a few minutes on Saturday afternoon in Lincoln, Neb., roughly 90,000 jammed into a sweaty Memorial Stadium must have thought, “Here we go again.”
It came right after quarterback Tanner Lee had another interception returned for a touchdown — the junior transfer from Tulane had two last week in one quarter — and the Cornhuskers trailed Rutgers at home, 17-14, less than a minute into the second half.
“You heard it, you heard everything, it got quiet,” Nebraska coach Mike Riley said.
However, in the midst of one of the most tumultuous weeks on campus in recent memory, the Huskers responded, unlike they have at any point, really, all season. After trading punts with Rutgers on the next two possessions, Nebraska put together a 17-play, 97-yard drive that ended with an 8-yard touchdown pass from Lee to De’Mornay Pierson-El to give the Huskers a lead they would not relinquish on the way to a 27-17 victory.
Pretty it was not. And not many teams are handing out trophies for beating Rutgers. But for Nebraska, getting a win — no matter how it looked — was all that mattered. If the Huskers would not have rallied, there’s no telling what these next few days would have been like on the football-crazy campus.
After losing at home last week to Northern Illinois, athletic director Shawn Eichorst was fired and the heat was cranked up on Riley, who entered the game against Rutgers 16-13 in his third year at Nebraska. The days of nine- and 10-win seasons under Bo Pelini — those not deemed good enough for a school expecting to play for national championships – seemed like a distant memory, and a fond one at that.
Instead, frustration had taken over, right up until Nebraska decided it wasn’t going out without a fight. At least not in this game on this day. Riley stuck with Lee despite the boos raining down and used a punishing ground game to rally for the win.
“I’m really proud of them for going out there and making some plays physically at that point,” Riley said.
Where it goes from here is hard to say. Again, beating Rutgers is hardly the sign of a revival but the Huskers at least have a decent shot of stringing together a couple wins with a visit to Illinois up next. However, it gets much tougher from there as Wisconsin, Ohio State and a resurgent Purdue are next followed by Northwestern, Minnesota, Penn State and Iowa.
There’s a chance Nebraska will be the underdog in most of those games and Riley is still fighting to keep his job despite the contract extension Eichorst awarded him last summer.
“Winning games are hard,” Riley said. “I would suppose after last week, that game was — these kids are happy right now. They know it was hard, they know they played well, and they knew a lot of new parts played an important role. I’m pretty excited.”
And the Huskers are ready to play for their coach, prepared to make a push in the Big Ten West and give Nebraska a shot at the Big Ten title it has yet to win.
“It don’t matter what I think, honestly,” linebacker Mohamed Barry told the Omaha World Herald. “But I love my coach, and I’m standing behind him. We’ve got to produce on the field and that’s what we need to focus on week to week, game to game.”
Do that, and the groans at Memorial Stadium will fade quickly
Nick of time
I’ve said it before about other teams in the Big Ten — championship teams just seem to find ways to win, no matter how poorly it is playing or how long the odds.
Penn State sure looked like that team at Iowa on Saturday night. The Hawkeyes were doing well holding the Nittany Lions out of the end zone all night and when Akrum Wadley scored on a 35-yard run with 1:42 to play, Iowa had a 19-15 lead and seemed primed to pull the upset.
However, Penn State has two of the best players in college football — quarterback Trace McSorley and running back Saquon Barkley — and they rode the tandem down the field before McSorley hit Juwan Johnson with a 7-yard touchdown pass on the final play of the game to complete the comeback.
“I told the guys in the locker room, ‘If you look at any really good season, there’s always one game where the team has to gut it out and find a way to win, and we were able to do that tonight,’” Penn State coach James Franklin said. “Then Saquon Barkley, I cannot imagine that there’s a better player in all of college football.”
The stats were impressive for Barkley —211 rushing yards, 94 receiving and one touchdown — while McSorley threw for 284 yards and ran for 61.
Some other quick thoughts from around the Big Ten:
■Purdue came into Saturday’s matchup with Michigan feeling like it was climbing out of the pit of the Big Ten with a high-powered offense.
Credit to first-year coach Jeff Brohm for not sugar-coating the 10 yards his team gained in the second half.
“We learned we need to keep our mouth shut,” he said. “I have a feeling we were a little too confident.”
■Another tough break for Maryland, who got whipped by Central Florida. The Terps, just three weeks after losing quarterback Tyrrell Pigrome for the season, will likely be without freshman Kasim Hill, who was hurt in the first quarter and didn’t return.