CHAMPAIGN — Nebraska has a nasty habit. And it’s just about perplexing a habit as can be imagined.
Saturday, the Huskers lost for the third time this season. But the bad habit isn’t necessarily the losing, it’s losing in most shocking of fashions, losing on the final plays of games.
Illinois trailed with 51 seconds to play and went right down the field, using a 50-yard pass play and a rapid succession of end-zone passes — the final one hitting for a touchdown — to upend Nebraska, 14-13, with 10 seconds left.
It’s just the latest shock of an ending for the Huskers. Earlier this season came that Hail Mary defeat at home to BYU and an overtime loss at Miami.
“Obviously today was a tough loss,” head coach Mike Riley said after the game. “We take our hats off to Illinois for fighting to the end. It has come down to the wire in the last three of our five games, so at some point we are going to have to find an answer.
“I don’t ever remember losing a game like this. I hope we don’t have to weather any more games like this. It’s very tough for (the players). To lose three close games on the last couple plays is rough for anyone.”
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These losses are tough ones to explain. A Hail Mary is a pretty flukey way to lose. Same goes for Saturday’s 50-yard shot downfield.
But there have been reasons why the Huskers have lost these games, and it’s the bigger sense of not playing well — and in Saturday’s case, making some strange late decisions — that should have Nebraska fans worried.
These five games have been marked by an atrocious pass defense, one that in the first four games allowed a quartet of 300-yard passing days. An inability to stop backup quarterback Tanner Mangum led to that loss against BYU. The defense was buried in points early against Miami before a late comeback forced OT. Even in a win over Southern Miss, that pass defense’s porousness nearly cost the Huskers late.
Saturday, the pass defense was much better than it’s been, limiting Illinois to 251 yards through the air, a season-best for the Nebraska defense. But on the game’s most critical play — Wes Lunt’s 50-yard pass to Malik Turner — the Huskers again couldn’t defend properly. And when Lunt flung six straight passes to the same place in the end zone with the clock ticking down, the Huskers were flagged twice for pass interference before allowing Geronimo Allison to catch the game-winning score.
“Well, I was surprised somebody got that far behind us in quarters coverage,” Riley said of the 50-yard completion. “I thought they competed the whole game. It took them some plays to finally get that rhythm they wanted, and they showed us when it was on the line.”
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Then there’s Tommy Armstrong. The Nebraska quarterback came into the weekend as the Big Ten’s leading passer. But it was interception on the first play of overtime — one of three picks he threw in that game — that allowed Miami to line up for a game-winning field goal. He pitched an interception against BYU, too.
Saturday, though the Illinois defense deserves some credit, Armstrong was not good. He completed just 10 of his 31 passes for a season-low 105 yards, also throwing another interception in the third quarter. Armstrong could be counted as a positive through the first four games, but Saturday he overthrew a bunch of receivers and was generally inaccurate.
But there was another wrinkle to Saturday’s defeat, perhaps the one that ended up being most responsible for the late loss.
Nebraska’s late drive with a six-point lead caused Illinois to exhaust its supply of timeouts. At the Illinois 27-yard line with about a minute to play, the Huskers inexplicably passed the ball on third down instead of handing it off. Armstrong’s incompletion stopped the clock.
Then, on fourth down, instead of testing the windy conditions and trying a field goal — which if successful would’ve put them up nine and effectively ended the game — the Huskers passed again, another incompletion and a turnover on downs to set the Illini up with 51 seconds left.
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Those coaching decisions were baffling to observers, causing Riley to have to defend them after the game, though not in a real satisfying fashion.
“Well, I thought earlier in the game our throwing was good,” he said. “The first pass of the game was a good throw. Ultimately, we were trying to make plays, and we were doing so, for a while.”
It all added up to a jaw-dropping loss for the Huskers, their third such defeat of the season. The Mike Riley Era is now off to a 2-3 start, certainly not what Nebraska envisioned when it fired perennial nine-game winner Bo Pelini in favor of Riley.
Though surely the heartbreaking losses can’t continue, the losing surely can. The Huskers are looking mediocre in a Big Ten West boasting threats at every turn. Northwestern and Iowa look terrific with 5-0 records. Wisconsin, despite its loss Saturday, has displayed a stifling defense. Even Purdue gave No. 2 Michigan State everything it could handle Saturday.
So here’s a real valid question: Can Riley even win nine games?
"Every loss hurts. It was a gut punch," linebacker Chris Weber said. "We need to come together and start winning some games. It's a long season and didn't exactly go how we wanted it to starting off, but we've got to come together, play for each other, play for these coaches. We'll be all right."