LINCOLN — Chris Weber paused. This Nebraska senior class really has been through quite the journey.
Most current seniors were on the team when coach Bo Pelini was fired in November 2014. They knew punter Sam Foltz and grieved his death throughout the 2016 season. They’ve heard more coaching speculation in recent weeks as the losses have added up to one of the worst Husker seasons in decades.
All of it makes Senior Day against Iowa feel like more than just a football game to the 22 players who will suit up for one final college game.
“I guess I really don’t know how it’s gonna feel running out on Friday,” said Weber, the senior linebacker who owns a team-best 88 tackles this season. “But I just want to play well. I want to get a win, go out the right way.”
Said senior kicker Drew Brown: “It’s pretty crazy realizing how fast my time here has gone. But at the same time, we still have a game to win.”
Many of the usual motivators will be absent when the Huskers and Iowa kick off at 3 p.m. inside Memorial Stadium. Nebraska (4-7, 3-5 Big Ten) is almost guaranteed to miss a bowl regardless of the outcome. A win would keep NU from logging an eighth defeat for the first time since 1957 but is presumably meaningless in changing the big-picture rumors swirling around the program.
Coach Mike Riley navigated what many believe was his last press conference in his three years in Lincoln in routine fashion, opening with injury updates and moving on to a game review and preview before taking questions. He generally fended off big-picture questions asking him to reflect on the last few months. He instead zeroed in on how his squad can solve a Hawkeyes group that won 40-10 last season to help prompt NU to make an offseason change at defensive coordinator.
“Before the season ends, I’d like to focus on beating Iowa,” Riley said. “… I think we owe our kids the energy of this preparation and I think for every coach and player, in adverse circumstances, you can do a lot for who you are by what you put in.”
There’s an element of personal pride that factors into this week, Riley said. The defense should want to tackle better and end with a sense of improvement. He reminded players that when the ball came out as kids, they wanted to win no matter what was on the line.
For quarterback Tanner Lee, grinding for another week honors the offseason work everyone put in. And there are records on the line, such as wideout Stanley Morgan needing 31 receiving yards to break Johnny Rodgers’ 1972 single-season school mark.
“It’s our last opportunity to play a game with this team and we don’t want to shortchange that in any way,” Lee said. “We’re going to prepare as hard as we can to come out and get a win — end on a high note — especially for the seniors. I’ll just continue to attack this week just like the rest of the weeks.”
Rivalry talk also bubbled up Monday about the states that share a border along the Missouri River. Riley said it “feels right” for the Huskers to call the Hawks a rival. Wideout De’Mornay Pierson-El was even more blunt with his opinion. “C’mon now, who really likes Iowa?” he said. “C’mon now. Of course it’s a rivalry.”
Running back Mikale Wilbon, a junior, will have his older teammates in mind Friday when he plays in his 11th game this year. Guys such as fifth-year senior Adam Taylor, a formerly touted running back who never received a college carry and fought injuries but also encouraged Wilbon and kept him motivated when the Chicago native needed a friend.
But the finale also carries extra value for younger players looking to build momentum for a longer-than-usual offseason.
“We didn’t have the season that we’d planned, so it’s only right for us to finish strong,” Wilbon said. “For the seniors, for the fans, for everybody that just loves Nebraska football. So we just have to finish strong this week.”
Despite speculation about his job, Riley said he talks to the team “as if I am going to be here forever” and approaches each day as such. Even if Friday indeed marks his last game in Husker red, the lifelong coach won’t be just going through the motions.
“I think some things like this, in adversity, how you respond to it, go directly to your soul,” Riley said. “If you don’t work, if you let things slide, if you don’t really get ready, then you’re letting down a lot of people. But mostly yourself, about who you are.”
Mike Riley embraces rivalry
Nebraska has been reluctant to embrace having a natural football rival over the years; only Oklahoma, the long Big Eight nemesis, truly meets the bar, although Colorado designated NU as its rival in the 1980s and played spirited games into the 2000s until the series ended in 2010.
But Riley, in what may be his final game as NU’s coach, doesn’t hesitate with the Hawkeyes. They’re a rival.
“I love the idea,” Riley said. “Don’t you guys think that’s what that should be? It feels right. With the amount of time we’ve been in the Big Ten, with the proximity, it seems like a lot of common ground there … it feels like it should be embraced in that way.”
Riley noted the entire Big Ten West division will eventually feel like rivals, but the Iowa game “has a special quality that should only grow.”
The team discussed the rivalry aspect, Riley said, in a Sunday team meeting.
Two Husker players, Tanner Lee and Drew Brown, said every Big Ten West game is a rivalry. Receiver De’Mornay Pierson-El, whose punt returns helped beat Iowa in 2014, was more blunt.
“Who really likes Iowa?” Pierson-El said. “C’mon now. Of course it’s a rivalry.”
Linebacker Chris Weber, playing his final game, sees the physical challenge the Hawkeyes present. In its last two games against Nebraska, Iowa has averaged 5.56 yards per carry. In NU’s last two weeks alone, it has allowed 672 yards rushing to Minnesota and Penn State.
“They’re going to try and run the football, and if you’re looking at our last couple games, why wouldn’t you do that?” Weber said. “We’re going to have to stop the run.”
Nebraska’s injury list shrunk from last week: Riley said three players — safety Aaron Williams (neck), receiver JD Spielman (shoulder) and running Devine Ozigbo (ankle) — are probable-to-questionable for Friday’s game against Iowa.
Williams finished with four tackles but was in and out of the game, rotating with Kieron Williams. Spielman left early for a few plays and returned to play most of the game. Ozigbo left and did not return to action.
Riley said receivers Spielman, Stanley Morgan and Pierson-El, Lee and tight end Tyler Hoppes all played well on offense. Riley said No. 2 tight end Jack Stoll, who caught the game’s last touchdown, has potential.
“Physically he’s a great fit, and as he develops more in what he’s doing, he’s going to be good,” Riley said of the redshirt freshman from Lone Tree, Colorado.
Among special teams-players, Riley praised Jaylin Bradley, who filled in for Spielman on kickoff returns; Brown; punter Caleb Lightbourn; and long snapper Jordan Ober. He didn’t mention any defensive players.
Play-calling for Riley?
After Saturday’s 56-44 loss to Penn State, Riley hinted that he’d like to be more involved in NU’s offense. As an offensive coach and a longtime play-caller both before and during his head coaching tenure at Oregon State, Riley has input into the offense but tends to give coordinator Danny Langsdorf free rein on putting together the plan and calling plays.
Riley hinted Monday that he’d wrestled with the idea of taking over play-calling this season.
He didn’t take over play-calling in the second half of Saturday’s game, but Riley had begun carrying a play sheet more often during the last half of the season.
What about the defense? Riley demurred several times to address that side of the ball.
“I’d like to look at the big picture and say ‘this is what we have to do,’ ” he said.
For Lee, NFL talk can wait
Lee is treating his looming NFL decision like he would a pass play. Go through the progressions before pulling the trigger.
With one game left in his junior season, the transfer from Tulane said Monday he has not lingered on his future beyond Nebraska’s Black Friday home tilt against Iowa.
“To be honest with you, I haven’t put too much thought into it,” Lee said. “I don’t really have an answer for those questions right now. I need to talk to my family, my coaches, teammates, things like that. But right now I don’t really feel like thinking about that. I want to enjoy my college experience and I want to enjoy playing Iowa this week. I think I’m just going to leave it at that for now.”
Lee, who will graduate this year, could also transfer again.
Lee has completed nearly 58 percent of his passes (224 of 387) this season for 2,938 yards, 21 touchdowns and 13 interceptions in 11 games. If he reaches his average of 267 passing yards per game, he would end the season at 3,205. That would rank him second in school history for passing yards in a season, trailing only Joe Ganz’s 3,568 that came in 13 games in 2008.
Riley called Lee “definitely a prospect” following the Penn State game. On Monday, he spoke hypothetically about Lee’s situation because he hadn’t spoken to his quarterback about a potential NFL move. One big positive, he said, is the chance to play in competitive games for another year while building draft status.
“If they ask me, I’ll give advice,” Riley said. “I’ll tell them what I think and why. But I always add at the end this will be a personal decision. You need to do what you want to do, what’s best for you to do. And you need to get good opinions from people that care about you in a way that’s not about money — you know, they’re going to make money off you. Don’t talk to those people. Talk to the people that really care and get some good advice that way.”
Brown keeps focus
If Brown is going to be known for one thing as a Husker, it’ll be consistency.
He always wears his necklace, with the No. 27 over his shirt, in honor of his friend Sam Foltz. He’s always optimistic about Nebraska’s chances to win, be it against a top-ranked opponent or a lesser Big Ten foe.
Which is why this week, though he may want to slow down and absorb these final few days of the season, he’s going to stay steady. Keep his head down and do what he’s always done to get ready for Friday’s matchup against Iowa.
“I wish I could (take it all in), but at the same time it’s just another week, another week to get in some preparation to beat a good team, and I’m just gonna take it like it is a normal week, just going to do everything I can to do my job and make my kicks, put my kickoffs in the right place so we can end up on top,” Brown said Monday.
Brown kicked as a true freshman. He was 14-for-21 on field goals, his long being 44 yards. From there his percentages went up. He made 77.8 percent as a sophomore, 85.7 as a junior and is currently at 85.7 percent as a senior. He’s 176-for-178 on PATs.
At 59 field goals, Brown will likely finish second in school history in three-pointers made. Alex Henery holds the record at 68.
A win, he said, would be “awesome.”
“The seniors would be able to end their careers on their high note,” Brown said. “Just to be able to top it off with a win against a good team like Iowa would be something special.”
Play like you practice
Reggie Davis sees his running backs move well on inside dive plays in practice. He sees them show decent fundamentals in pass protection by keeping proper leverage on defenders.
But so many times this season, Nebraska’s running backs coach watches it all disappear when it matters most.
“We haven’t done a great job of carrying over what we do in practice into games,” Davis said Monday after practice inside the Hawks Center. “So that would be a big emphasis this week as it was last week to, ‘Let’s see in the game the same thing we saw in practice.’ ”
The Huskers rank 118th out of 130 teams nationally in rushing yards per game (111.2) and 110th in yards per carry (3.52).
None of the running backs with a carry this season is a senior. Ozigbo leads the team with 480 rushing yards on 126 totes, followed by junior Mikale Wilbon (340 on 81 carries), sophomore Tre Bryant (299 on 51 carries) and Bradley (74 on 15 carries).
“We will definitely want those guys to be working on things to carry them over,” Davis said, adding that ideally they would have a bowl game to make their final mark of the year. “It’s their last live action for a while, so we absolutely want to do that.”
» Davis said Iowa’s defense is comfortable in what it does and adjusts well, leaving Nebraska’s backs the challenge of facing an established unit that ranks 46th in rush defense (148.9 yards allowed per game).
“Just from what I know from studying them, it looks like they don’t do a ton of different things,” Davis said. “But what they do they do extremely well. … I think they just keep doing the same thing over and over and they’ve gotten really, really good at it.”
» Stoll was recruited primarily as a “bruiser” — an in-line blocking tight end — and has grown into a pass-catching role because of his hard work and better-than-expected hands. Stoll didn’t catch many passes in high school, Langsdorf said.
» Morgan has improved his ability to win 50/50 balls, which has led to 912 receiving yards this season and 185 yards against Penn State.
“He made two grabs that were tightly covered,” Langsdorf said.
» Nebraska received a preferred walk-on commitment Monday night from Norfolk defensive end Ryan Schommer. Schommer was offered the preferred spot Oct. 20.
» Injured center Michael Decker (knee) left practice riding a mobility scooter.