The mood inside the Nebraska football program has changed dramatically since the start of Big Ten Conference play.
Nobody’s quite ready to call Mike Riley’s team a West Division title contender just yet. But opening conference play with wins over Rutgers and Illinois has helped the Cornhuskers build some much-needed momentum since they exited non-conference play with a home loss to Northern Illinois on Sept. 16.
Five days after the loss to the Huskies, Nebraska fired athletic director Shawn Eichorst, a Lone Rock native and former University of Wisconsin athletic department staffer. It left the seat under Riley, the man hired by Eichorst to help the Cornhuskers return to glory, piping hot three games into his third season in Lincoln.
But Riley and Co. caught a break from the Big Ten schedule makers. It came in the form of back-to-back games against programs in even worse shape than Nebraska, a get-well stretch that was exactly what the doctor ordered for the Cornhuskers.
“I think this team has prepared themselves in the last two weeks in a very good way to compete,” Riley said this week as Nebraska prepared for a game against UW on Saturday night at Memorial Stadium.
“I would say there’s an excitement about playing football right now for them that is contagious throughout the team.”
The confidence is particularly high on defense, especially considering where it was after the first six quarters of the season.
The burning question in Lincoln heading into the season was how quickly the Cornhuskers would adapt to a new scheme after Riley’s biggest offseason move was hiring Bob Diaco as defensive coordinator and switching from the 4-3 to the 3-4.
Nebraska opened the season by allowing 497 total yards in a 43-36 win over Arkansas State. A week later, host Oregon put up 409 yards and 42 points in the first half against the Cornhuskers.
Since halftime of that game, Nebraska’s defense has allowed 23 points. That stretch helped the team climb from 122nd to 34th nationally in total defense.
“They’ve done an outstanding job these last few weeks,” UW offensive coordinator Joe Rudolph said. “You look at some of the numbers they’ve produced, I think they are getting a lot more comfortable.”
It remains to be seen how much of the Cornhuskers’ success on defense over their past three games is real and how much of it is a mirage based on who Nebraska has played. Northern Illinois is No. 89 nationally in total offense, Rutgers is 117th and Illinois is 126th of 129 teams.
“We put together a couple of good weeks and I think it’s a testament of how we’ve come back after facing adversity,” Nebraska junior defensive lineman Mick Stoltenberg said. “Guys usually aren’t down these Mondays when we come back to work, guys are excited to get to work, they’re excited for another chance to get out on the field and show what they can do. Instead of discouraged, guys are really encouraged and excited.”
Offensively, the Cornhuskers (3-2, 2-0 Big Ten) are still a work in progress. Junior quarterback Tanner Lee had two interceptions returned for touchdowns against Northern Illinois and has thrown nine picks in all, the most in the Big Ten.
Lee, a transfer from Tulane, is coming off his best game of the season. He was 17 of 24 for 246 yards with three touchdowns at Illinois last Friday.
The Cornhuskers are 1-5 against UW since joining the Big Ten in 2011. That lone victory was a 30-27 decision in 2012 in a night game at Memorial Stadium.
Nebraska is 46-5 all-time in home night games heading into Saturday’s visit from the No. 9 Badgers (4-0, 1-0).
“To get up for this one is pretty easy,” Stoltenberg said. “You circle Wisconsin week at the beginning of the year and you know it’s coming.”