With two games left, Nebraska focuses on reaching 10 wins
(AP) A big win over Minnesota seemed to lift the cloud that had settled over No. 19 Nebraska.
Back-to-back losses to Wisconsin and Ohio State, the latter by 59 points, left coach Mike Riley and his players to spend the previous two Mondays rehashing all that went wrong. This week, they allowed themselves to imagine the possibilities for the rest of 2016.
Though the Cornhuskers (8-2, 5-2 Big Ten) need help to reach the Big Ten championship game, they would double their 2015 regular-season win total if they beat Maryland on Saturday and Iowa on the Friday after Thanksgiving.
“Not many teams can finish with 10 wins in the regular season,” defensive end Ross Dzuris said. “It would be big for the program.”
In 15 years as a college coach, Riley has never won more than nine games in a regular season. He said he’s proud of what his second Nebraska team has accomplished so far and called the improvement “absolutely necessary.”
Last year, the Huskers went 5-7 in the regular season, losing four games decided by three points or less and another on a Hail Mary pass. This year they’re 3-0 in games decided by seven points or less and have won four of the six games in which they trailed at halftime. That includes the 24-17 victory over Minnesota on Saturday.
“We’d all like the football better, more consistent, and I know all that,” Riley said. “But I do like the mindset of this group. It’s been fun to work with them, fun to see them turn the thing around and play with so much confidence late in ball games and always fight back – with the one outlier being Ohio State when it got way out of proportion. I like this team a lot.”
For the second straight week, quarterback Tommy Armstrong Jr. will miss practice time because of injury. He tweaked his left hamstring while tumbling into the end zone for the go-ahead touchdown against Minnesota, and Riley said the four-year starter was limping “pretty heavily” on Sunday.
Ryker Fyfe will take the first-team snaps when the team returns to practice Tuesday, with Zack Darlington his backup. Armstrong, who has started 43 of his 44 games at Nebraska, is listed as day-to-day.
Armstrong turned in an inspiring performance against the Gophers after being knocked unconscious against Ohio State. He injured his left ankle on a quarterback sneak in the third quarter and had to leave the game. He returned to lead the 91-yard winning drive and was carried to the sideline by two offensive linemen after he tweaked his hamstring on his 13-yard touchdown. He was named Big Ten offensive player of the week Monday.
“He has been quarterback forever now it seems like,” receiver Jordan Westerkamp said. “He is just a great guy to have out there. He brings so much to the table, not just his quarterback play but his mentality – his toughness being able to come back after injury after injury. It is incredible. Guys see that and that energizes us, definitely.”