LINCOLN -- Nobody in Nebraska’s football program is going to complain about a Big Ten road win.
If the tenor of Monday’s news conferences at Memorial Stadium are any indication, though, nobody thinks the team’s performance in a 25-24 win against Purdue will be good enough going forward, either.
“That (can be) kind of a trap,” Riley cautioned Monday. “I think somebody once said that you can’t overlook in victory what you would never overlook in defeat.”
Echoed junior left guard Jerald Foster, “We really do need to take this win with a grain of salt and just remember that if we want to be able to beat Northwestern, we really need to improve all around.”
The most glaring department, of course, is NU’s rushing offense.
The Huskers racked up a season-best 471 yards of offense against the Boilermakers, but just 40 came on the ground.
Not only did Nebraska struggle to generate production, but now its tasked with replacing two starting offensive linemen — sophomore center Michael Decker (left leg) is possibly done for the season and junior right guard Tanner Farmer (high ankle sprain) is out for multiple weeks, according to Riley — and is preparing for a Northwestern defense that has not allowed a 100-yard rusher this season.
The Wildcats have faced three of the league’s top four backs by yardage — Wisconsin’s Jonathan Taylor, Penn State’s Saquon Barkley and Maryland’s Ty Johnson — and held them 68.5, 25.1 and 62.8 yards under their respective season averages.
“We’ve had long talks last night and this morning about the running game and what we’re going to try to do,” Riley said. “(Northwestern's) been really good. I think being selective and probably having a run or two that is repeatable. I don’t think it is wise to have a whole bunch of stuff to try to execute against this defense.”
All of that led Riley on Monday to admit that the Huskers have reason to examine and possibly revamp their offensive approach. One idea: Using the faster pace they went to on the game-winning drive and that helped rack up 188 yards in the fourth quarter.
“You know I have thought about that, absolutely,” he acknowledged. “We’re built OK for it. It’s not like we can’t do it, obviously. But we have thought about that and I have thought about what that might mean in the middle of the game.”
The veteran head coach, in his third season here, said he’s used tempo at times through his career. He certainly did not seem like he’s planning to go to it full time, but if NU decides to forego a huddle and push its pace a bit over the last four games, quarterback Tanner Lee certainly won’t complain.
“I like attacking and I think there is a place and time for it,” he said. “We kind of get the defense on their heels and kind of stop them from pressuring sometimes and just be able to complete balls and move down the field like that is something I think we are confident in, so I think it’s something we can definitely use.”
Sophomore inside linebacker Mohamed Barry struck a similar tone when evaluating his own play and the defense’s as a whole.
Sure, the win is great, but that doesn’t cover up problems that could keep NU from finding more in the final four games.
“I think I started off great, where I wanted to start off,” Barry said. “Then after that, I felt like I started tackling bad and felt like I was piss poor, honestly, and not up to my expectations for myself and of my coaches. I started off good, then started tackling bad. Then we did whatever it took at the end to secure the win.”
The 6-foot-1, 230-pound Grayson, Georgia, native missed Boilermakers running back D.J. Knox in the hole late in the second quarter, allowing what would have been a short run to rupture for 30 yards and setting up Purdue’s second touchdown of the day.
“We gave up six explosive plays and a lot of those were due to missed tackles,” Riley said. “We gave up 45 yards after contact.”
While the Boilermakers threw several different running backs at the Huskers, Northwestern will feature Justin Jackson. The senior has struggled at times this year but is fifth in the league at 644 yards and has 4,773 yards and 37 rushing scores in his career.
“He runs like a 260-pound running back,” Barry said. “He’s real physical — high knees when he runs — loves to use the stiff-arm. He plays with heart and passion and as a player you admire that. Us as a defense, we have to match that heart.”
Mostly, the Huskers agree, they need to play better than they did against Purdue.
“Once the game’s over, (the result is) just a tool,” Riley said. “And it’s going to be in the win or the loss column, but no matter what, you’ve got to look at it to make yourself better.”