LINCOLN — It’s one of Nebraska coach Mike Riley’s favorite comparisons. Urban Meyer’s Ohio State is Pete Carroll’s USC.
He’s brought it up more than once at press conferences, including Monday’s. And it’s because Riley believes what Meyer’s done with the Buckeyes in six short years is as impressive as what Carroll built at Southern California while Riley was at Oregon State in the early 2000s.
Both programs, Ohio State and USC, raised the standards of the conference.
“As one team rises like that,” Riley said Monday, “you take a look and you either get better or you get left in the dust.”
With No. 9 Ohio State rolling into Lincoln Saturday and NU in the midst of an identity crisis in Year 3 of the Riley era, Nebraska will again have a chance to gauge itself against what Riley considers the conference’s measuring stick.
“I think that probably is a good thing that you have to do for sure,” he said.
The last time Riley faced what he calls the “standard” of the Big Ten, last November in Columbus, Ohio, his team was nowhere near up to the task.
The circumstances surrounding Saturday’s matchup mirror a those from year ago. Nebraska lost to Wisconsin 23-17 on the road in 2016. That tough overtime loss led to a sluggish and tight week, Riley said.
NU lost to Ohio State 62-3 the following week, the second-worst loss in school history.
A year later, Nebraska is coming off a demoralizing 38-17 loss to Wisconsin. The Badgers ran the Huskers into the ground in the fourth quarter, and Nebraska now sits at 3-3 on the edge of falling below .500.
The Buckeyes, meanwhile, are rolling. Since their 31-16 loss to Oklahoma, the Buckeyes have won their last four games by an average of 42 points. In their last three games, they scored more than 50 points. They tout the No. 14 defense in the country, and senior quarterback J.T. Barrett is the Big Ten’s No. 1 offensive player in total yards through six weeks.
“I think about the way they’re playing right now, they’re playing at a high level since that one loss and outscoring opponents,” Riley said. “They’re versatile and productive offensively in almost every category, near the top (nationally) in everything. Same thing defensively, so it’s a major, major challenge for us.”
There are lessons to be learned in losses to the team that sets the bar.
Last year’s beating taught Nebraska a few things. For Riley, he’s said in the past, it showed him how far Nebraska needs to come on the recruiting trail. Junior nose tackle Mick Stoltenberg said last year’s game made the team realize how much more seriously it needs to take preparing.
Quarterback Tanner Lee watched the game from home while he was redshirting and said he didn’t think there was anything to take away from the loss. Riley said on Monday the Huskers will watch film of last year’s game, but only because they feel like they have to.
“There wasn’t a lot there that’s going to be real exciting where we say this is a good thing,” Riley said. “But we look at it, we look at it because they’ll look at it. And we review it. And basically see now we’re different a little bit offensively and defensively. So that part of it will not be as helpful as it once would have been.”
But Riley’s also coached for a few decades. So there are things he’s learned about playing coaches like Meyer. Things he learned while going up against Carroll.
Primarily: They’re not indestructible.
Riley beat Carroll twice while at Oregon State. In 2006 unranked Oregon State upset No. 3 USC 33-31. That was Carroll’s sixth season at USC. Riley beat Carroll’s No. 1 USC again two years later, when the Beavers were 24-point underdogs.
On Saturday, Nebraska will be a 24-point underdog. This is also Meyer’s sixth year.
Riley knows it isn’t that simple. History often doesn’t repeat itself against the standard.
“We’re working to get this team better each day,” Riley said, “and we’ll do that through the week, and they’ll be ready for their best on Saturday night.”
Rushing stats tell the story
Nebraska’s 38-17 loss to Wisconsin, Riley said, boiled down to a simple stat.
“When you look at statistics and you see that one team ran for 360 and the other team didn’t, it’s not hard to pick the winner,” Riley said. Wisconsin ran for 353 yards.
What happened to Nebraska’s run defense? Wisconsin’s a “condensed” offensive team, Riley said, that stresses a defense’s gap integrity.
“The magnitude of not being in a gap, or being in position on the wrong side of the head of somebody can be magnified into plays,” Riley said. “And it was magnified in big plays.”
On other plays, Riley said, a Nebraska defender would “overcompensate” and get NU’s defense into “more trouble.”
Still, Riley praised Ozigbo for “some good runs” and receivers Stanley Morgan, De’Mornay Pierson-El and JD Spielman for their play. Quarterback Tanner Lee, Riley said, “made some really good throws and really hung in there.”
On defense, Riley praised Kalu, Williams, and linebackers Luke Gifford, Chris Weber and Dedrick Young, who have had his “best game,” Riley said.
Punter Caleb Lightbourn, Riley said, flashed his “talent” with a 67-yard punt but needs to continue showing “consistency,” as two punts that could have been downed inside the 20 instead sailed into the end zone.
OSU D-line a challenge
Ohio State’s defensive front is the strength of its defense. Offensive line coach Mike Cavanaugh said after practice on Monday this week will be an even bigger challenge than Wisconsin was. “Very athletic, very talented, they play the run well, they play the pass well. they’re a very talented group obviously,” Cavanaugh said. “We gotta keep improving on our technique every week and that’s the emphasis. Details and doing things right every day. Trying to hone in and get better.”
Cavanaugh was mostly pleased with his groups performance against Wisconsin. Nebraska ran for 110 yards and didn’t give up a sack against the Badgers. But it was the inconsistency of the run game that bugged Cavanaugh most.
“We were kind of hit and miss with runs. You’d get eight (yards) and then two or one,” Cavanaugh said. “So that consistency has gotta be there.”
Finishing blocks is the key. That’s where the fight starts in the run game, Cavanaugh said. In terms of protecting Lee, it’s the posture that needs some work.
“I think overall we gotta bend our knees better and have better posture when it comes to the passing game. Feet. Posture. Punching. All gotta keep working on it.”
The challenge of Ohio State’s defensive front will be different from Wisconsin’s, mostly because the Badgers run a 3-4. Plus, Ohio State is so versatile it sometimes lines up four defensive ends on its third down package.
“They’ll mix it up,” Cavanaugh said. “But I’ll learn more about it tonight.”
Ticket prices falling
Tickets for Nebraska’s marquee home game of the season were selling for far less than face value Monday on ticket-resale websites.
Face value for a single-game ticket to the Ohio State game is $135. But tickets on StubHub.com — one popular ticket resale site — were going for less than $50 on Monday. Even some seats on the sidelines — which tend to be more coveted real estate for Husker fans — were going for less than $100.
The OSU game was the most expensive home ticket of the season. A single-game ticket to the Wisconsin game cost $110, while Northwestern is $75 and Iowa is $80.
Back in black
Senior cornerback Chris Jones was given a Blackshirt before practice on Monday.
Jones appeared in his first game of the season against Wisconsin. He’s been recovering from torn knee cartilage.
Medical redshirt for Bryant?
Nebraska officials are actively considering a medical redshirt for Husker running back Tre Bryant, who has missed the last four games with what coach Mike Riley called a “mystery” knee injury.
Bryant will practice this week, Riley said, and see how he feels.
“We’re going to be real careful with every decision made about Tre Bryant,” Riley said. “First of all, we want him to feel good and healthy if he does indeed play again.”
Bryant hasn’t played since the Oregon game, when he left after three quarters of play. Despite having knee tendinitis throughout training camp, Bryant started the first two games and took almost all of NU’s carries in those games — 51 in all. Since his injury, Devine Ozigbo and Mikale Wilbon have taken the lion’s share of the carries.
Wilbon suited up for Saturday’s game against Wisconsin, but he didn’t play because of a sprained ankle suffered during the Illinois game. Wilbon told reporters Monday that his ankle didn’t respond like he wanted in warm-ups. He’ll practice on Monday.
“I don’t know if the guy intentionally tried to roll my ankle or twist my ankle, but he twisted it,” Wilbon said of the unnamed Illini player who made the tackle. “On another play, somebody was punching me in my ribs in the pile. That’s what kind of team they were.”
Two defensive backs who returned to play — Jones and Joshua Kalu — were healthy coming out of the game, as was outside linebacker Marcus Newby. Safety Antonio Reed (knee) is “questionable to doubtful” for Saturday’s game against Ohio State, Riley said. Safety Antonio Reed has a soft neck tissue strain that will keep him out of practice Monday.
Offensive linemen David Knevel and Cole Conrad — neither of whom are starting — are the healthiest they’ve been in weeks, Riley said.
Ohio State at Nebraska
When: 6:30 p.m. Saturday
Where: Memorial Stadium
Radio: 103.1 FM