Hawkeyes have the Cornhuskers’ attention

November 21, 2017

There is no shortage of distractions this week for the Nebraska football team.

The heat on the seat of embattled coach Mike Riley seems to get warmer by the day.

The defense just gave up 609 yards and 56 points in a loss at Penn State and has given up more than 40 points four times this season.

The offense managed to rush for only 67 yards last week against the Nittany Lions.

Through all that, there is one thing that seems to be bringing the Cornhuskers together – Iowa.

The chance to finish the season with a win in a trophy game over an opponent which has won in its last two visits to Memorial Stadium is motivating Nebraska players as they work toward Friday’s 3 p.m. Heroes Game.

“It’s been a while since we’ve beaten them,’’ linebacker Chris Weber said Monday. “We beat them a couple of years ago (2014) when I was a redshirt freshman at their place, so it’s time. It’s our last game, it’s Iowa, and we want it bad.’’

Wide receiver De’Mornay Pierson-El needed fewer words to express his feelings about the burgeoning rivalry.

“C’mon now, who really likes Iowa?’’ Pierson-El said.

Like Weber, who leads Nebraska with 88 tackles and shares the team lead with eight tackles for a loss, Pierson-El said the team’s emphasis this week centers on putting together its best work of the season.

“Especially for the seniors, it’s tough to swallow that it’s coming to an end. You want to go out playing your best,’’ said Pierson-El, who returned a punt 80 yards for a touchdown to help the Cornhuskers overcome a 24-14 fourth-quarter deficit to beat Iowa 37-34 in overtime in 2014 at Kinnick Stadium.

Nebraska is 13th in the Big Ten in defending the run, allowing 205.8 rushing yards per game, and Weber said dealing with that and Iowa’s play-action passing game is where his energies are this week.

“We have a job to do and no matter what else is going on, that’s what we need to concentrate on now,’’ Weber said.

During his weekly news conference Monday, the third-year Cornhuskers coach declined to look beyond Friday’s game against the Hawkeyes.

Riley sidestepped questions on his thoughts about his tenure at Nebraska and said he has not and will not discuss speculation about his future with his players.

“I talk to our team as if I’m going to be here forever,’’ Riley said.

That approach, he suggested, is what is best for his players as they prepare for the only game remaining on the schedule.

“They don’t need any of that,’’ Riley said.

Instead, he wants their focus to remain on the Hawkeyes and the game plan the Cornhuskers are putting together in hopes of ending a two-game losing streak against Iowa and a three-game slide down the stretch of the current season.

At 4-7, Nebraska needs a win on Friday to avoid becoming the first Cornhuskers team since 1961 to win fewer than five games in a season, among a multitude of reasons that a coaching change is more than a distinct possibility.

Riley believes maintaining a normal routine and energies centered on sending a 22-player senior class out with a win this week is the best thing for everyone in the program, from coaches to players, to focus on.

“I think we owe our kids the energy of this preparation,’’ Riley said.

With a Friday game this week, Nebraska turned its attention to Iowa on Sunday.

The physical play of the Hawkeyes’ lines was among topics addressed, something Riley said his team must match if it hopes to compete this week.

“We have to be ready physically, because that is what Iowa is up front and we know they will be ready to go,’’ Riley said. “It will be a challenge, but how you respond to challenges goes directly to your soul.’’