LINCOLN — Mike Riley stood at the 29-yard line toward the north end zone with his hands buried in the front pocket of a gray Nebraska hooded sweatshirt, watching the Hawkeyes drive down the field on his defense again.
When Toren Young bulled over the left side for a 3-yard score, extending Iowa’s lead to 35 points and sending even more of the red-clad patrons toward the exits, Riley lifted his right leg in the air as if he were going to stomp it back to the ground.
Instead, he set it back down gently, turned away from the action and shook his head.
The beleaguered head coach, in charge of a reeling team, had hoped for a spirited season finale and, if nothing else, a high note on which to send off a senior class.
Instead, there was only frustration and embarrassment and a 56-14 loss that made this the first Nebraska team to fail to win five games since 1961.
“They played better than us, and rolled us at the end,” Riley said, “But it’s like I told our team, that didn’t have to be like that and those critical errors for our team and the stage of where we’re at. ... We cracked and couldn’t bring it back. These guys have to learn, I told them that we’re going to have to learn to do that, we’re going to have to learn how to fight through a tough time in a ball game.”
Riley finishes his third and likely final season here with a 19-19 career record, including a 12-15 mark in Big Ten play. Since the Huskers climbed to No. 7 in the Associated Press poll after a 7-0 start last fall, the program has lost 12 of 18 overall.
Those marks included a combined 1-8 record against division opponents Wisconsin, Northwestern and Iowa.
Riley afterward said he had not talked with athletic director Bill Moos since the middle of the week and that he hoped to keep his job.
“I’m going to anticipate that, and when I go to bed tonight I’m going to hope for that because I would love to do this,” Riley said. “I truly believe I’m exactly the right person to do this. The football parts, I’ve been doing this so long that we know how to fix, and we also are doing a good job recruiting. Those two things are going to be the key to Nebraska getting back to where everybody wants to go.
“The football has to grow, and the recruiting has to continue to be high level to get really back there.”
The Huskers gave up at least 54 points in their final three games of the season and in four of their final six.
Iowa’s offense, which entered Friday ranked No. 117 out of 130 Football Bowl Subdivision teams at 325.3 yards per game, rolled up 505 at a clip of 7.5 per snap.
The 2017 Huskers said they wanted to win the West Division and Big Ten. Then, when they fell short of that goal, they said they wanted to win out and finish at least second. When that went out the window, it became about bowl eligibility. Finally, the rallying cry this week centered on beating Iowa at home for the first time since 2012 and providing a senior class with a silver lining.
The autumn closed with all of those goals unfulfilled.
Riley again likened this fall to a Year 1, given the switch to a 3-4 defense and the move from a dual-threat quarterback to a drop-back passer. He pointed to the improvement from five wins in his first year to nine in his second and said he thought the same could happen again.
“I’m not going to argue my case here, but we went from what? Five wins to nine, and utilized the skills sets better, and better. ... What we didn’t do this year is run and we know way better than that, that it’s not going to work like that, but that growth plus the defensive growth, I think we could do the same thing next year.”
The Huskers actually led the Hawkeyes 14-7 in the final minute of the first half after Stanley Morgan’s second touchdown catch of the night and 10th of the year, which also gave him the school’s single-season receiving yards record.
That moment got swallowed up by 42 second-half points and 49 straight overall from the Hawkeyes, just like so many of the bright spots for the Huskers this season -- Ben Stille’s emergence or JD Spielman’s dynamic debut campaign or Drew Brown’s remarkable consistency -- which seem almost buried under a mountain of speculation about what went wrong and what is to come.
Iowa mounted a 75-yard touchdown drive just before halftime -- aided by a running-into-the-punter penalty when it looked like NU was going to get the ball back -- then set up a quick go-ahead score with a 66-yard kick return to open the second half.
From there, the Hawkeyes piled it on and the Huskers could do little to stop it.
In the end, that's largely how the 2017 season will be remembered: Frustrations that never seemed to stop growing. For a plan that didn’t come together nearly quickly enough. For a defense that allowed 36.4 points -- just 1.3 from of 2007’s all-time worst mark -- and 436.2 yards per game.
The Blackshirts surrendered an average of 54.7 points and 542.7 yards per game over the final three weeks -- all multi-score losses -- and gave up at least 54 and 505 in each.
“Any time you keep getting knocked down, you have to keep finding ways to get back up,” senior linebacker Chris Weber said after his final game here. “For the most part, a lot of guys did that. When you get the opportunity to play college football at Nebraska, you should be excited to get up for games.”
On Friday, the Hawkeyes rushed 47 times for 313 yards and six scores.
“I wish I could put my finger on it,” Weber said. “That’s the frustrating part. We were locked in and had a good first half other than those two drives. They didn’t do much. We just didn’t make plays.”
The offense’s performance mirrored the defense: Sharp in the first half and nonexistent afterward. Redshirt junior quarterback Tanner Lee was 9 of 15 for 131 yards and a pair of scores to Morgan in the first half, but just 13 of 26 for 74 and three interceptions in the final 30 minutes.
The Destrehan, Louisiana, native’s voice cracked as he discussed his head coach after the game.
“He’s one of the most influential people in my life so far,” Lee said of Riley. “I’d say in a quick two years I’ve learned more from him than I could ever have imagined. I think the way he handled this season, there’s not another man on earth that could have done it like him. Day in and day out he’s the same guy. He’s a great football coach. I can’t wait to tell my kids that I played for coach Riley.
“I guess the toughest part was not winning for him. I’m just very lucky to have played for him.”
When the clocks finally hit zero, Riley found Hawkeyes head coach Kirk Ferentz and shook his hand before turning for the home tunnel. The scrum of photographers around him swelled in size. Flanked by state troopers, Riley mostly looked at the turf or straight ahead. Most of the remaining fans above the northwest tunnel applauded politely and one yelled, "Thanks for nothing."
Minutes later at a podium in the NU weight room, Riley said he’d be hopeful as he went to bed Saturday night. Riley took an optimistic approach all season and not much turned out the way he hoped. Sunday is coming fast and the overwhelming likelihood is that all of those cameras captured the final moments he’ll spend on Tom Osborne Field as the head coach of the Huskers.