LINCOLN — In one of the odder weeks in recent Nebraska football history, the one guy who can’t be ruffled is coach Mike Riley’s right-hand man.
Dan Van De Riet, NU’s associate athletic director for football administration and the Huskers’ head operations honcho, prepared months ago for Nebraska’s short-week, Friday night game at Illinois.
The air travel is secured in the spring. The hotels are usually scouted and vetted years in advance.
Players’ food allergies? Check.
Riley’s preference of staying near the airport?
If possible, check.
Right-sized airplane? Check.
“A ton of people are involved — the nutritionists, the trainers, all the way down to the people checking to make sure everyone’s on the bus,” Van De Riet said.
His football operations leaders — Adam Clark and Kevin Cristello — are “all dialed in.”
The behind-the-scenes machine of Husker football can’t afford to be surprised.
Even as sudden, surprising things keep happening all around it.
A loss to Northern Illinois triggered the firing of Athletic Director Shawn Eichorst. Scrambling speculation ensues. Nebraska beat Rutgers, but Riley’s job is squarely in jeopardy as Interim Athletic Director Dave Rimington — a Husker legend — is hired. Twenty-four hours after Rimington came aboard, he’s having lunch with Riley to talk about, among other things, improving a walk-on program Riley has fully supported since he got here.
“We still have a bigger team than almost anybody,” Riley said. “We have embraced it in every way. And I know the impact they’ve made on this program historically, and I’ve also got my own great stories. Our door is open.”
Oh, by the way, did we mention it’s a short week of preparation for Nebraska? Compared with two weeks for Illinois? All so the Big Ten can put a few games on FS1 for some extra exposure? And Eichorst, the sacked former A.D., agreed to it even though Riley can’t stand short-week games?
“It’s a little bizarre, but one thing that’s good is we don’t overthink anything,” defensive coordinator Bob Diaco said. “So we don’t get to spend a lot of time painstaking away on what to do here and there. We just got to go. We just finished playing, it feels like, 48 hours ago.”
It is a whirlwind now. A search continues for a permanent athletic director, who will replace Rimington. Nebraska’s coaches have no firm idea what they need to do to keep their jobs this season. Any win would help, even if a 27-17 victory over Rutgerscame with the same errors that had plagued the Huskers in that 21-17 loss to Northern Illinois.
Tanner Lee threw another pick-six. Injuries kept the Husker offense from playing consistently. Soft pass coverage gave Rutgers occasional life on drives.
But a 97-yard drive — that Nebraska hopes can alter its season — helped beat the Scarlet Knights. On that drive, Lee straightened up and converted third downs, including one for the go-ahead touchdown. Nebraska started to run the ball — and the same play, nicknamed “Csonka” — over and over. Perhaps an identity — four weeks into the season — began to emerge.
“It was great — having the pressure on your back is always nice,” captain and left guard Jerald Foster said. “It’s better than sitting on the sidelines and watching the defense have to do it or us just pass pro and watching the quarterback and the receivers having to do it.”
It gets the crowd going, too, Foster said. The crowd also seemed to appreciate the return of a genuine running back rotation between Mikale Wilbon and Devine Ozigbo, who are sharing carries while Tre Bryant remains out. Riley and offensive coordinator Danny Langsdorf hinted that the rotation may continue once Bryant returns to the field from knee pain, which will keep him out of a third straight game.
Bryant’s injury is one of several Nebraska is juggling, including those to offensive linemen Cole Conrad and David Knevel and receiver Stanley Morgan, all of whom missed the Rutgers game but will travel, and could play, at Illinois. Morgan, despite missing a game, still has nine more targets than any other Husker.
NU can use every player available. Its margin for error — even in wins over Arkansas State and Rutgers — is thin, and Illinois dealt the Huskers a 14-13 loss in Champaign in 2015. Last season, an overmatched Illini team — in its first year under Lovie Smith — nevertheless dragged NU into the fourth quarter before the Huskers’ run game finally wore it out.
This was already a trap game before Northern Illinois clamped its jaws on the Huskers in an upset. Now, it’s a hot seat moment for Riley, who was wistful Wednesday when describing the last seven days.
“It’s one more reminder that we should never be surprised,” Riley said. “It’s also one more reminder to me to be really thankful for what you’re doing and have. Daily now, the meaning of ‘this day, this practice,’ it probably really sets the focus. I really like what I do. So it makes me very thankful for all that — and I’ll take advantage of every minute of it.
“I’m really encouraged by our team. My thought on this team is we have an opportunity to get better every week and, with that, who knows?”
Riley then walked away from the media, looking for his wife, Dee. She wasn’t around, but Riley’s right-hand man, Van De Riet, was.
“You have no idea how good this guy is,” Riley said.
DVD is the one guy who can be surprised — even if something goes awry on the road. Like a player leaving behind something in the hotel.
“Phones, chargers, tablets, watches, jewelry, everything,” Van De Riet said. “Knock on wood it doesn’t happen very often, but it does. I got freaked out one time.”
The hotel sent the item back, Van De Riet continued, but it was, briefly, a pretty big deal.
A player had left behind a family heirloom.
The kind of thing people hand down for generations and can’t be replaced.