By ERIC OLSON
AP College Football Writer
Nebraska keeps finding new ways to lose, and now the Cornhuskers are off to their worst start in more than a half-century.
First-year coach Mike Riley and offensive coordinator Danny Langsdorf are taking the brunt of criticism from fans and media after Saturday’s 14-13 loss at Illinois. The reaction was triggered following mismanagement of the game clock on the final offensive series that allowed Illinois - with no timeouts - enough time to drive 72 yards for the winning touchdown with 10 seconds left.
Judging by social media and radio shows, this outcome hit a higher mark on the frustration meter than either the Hail Mary loss to BYU or the overtime loss at Miami. A headline in the Omaha World-Herald on Sunday read: “Tick, tick, tick, times up: Honeymoon is over.”
Nebraska (2-3, 0-1) plays Saturday at home against Wisconsin (3-2, 0-1), which lost its Big Ten opener at home to Iowa. Another defeat would dim the Huskers’ hopes of winning the West Division and continuing their seven-year streak - all under previous coach Bo Pelini - of winning at least nine games.
“I’m going to say what I have said before,” Riley said. “This loss was similar to other losses that we have had this year, and I’ve given them the same speech. Each time the reaction is the same and then we go out and have a good week of practice. We just have to finish the job.”
The defense, the main target of criticism through four games, was solid for three quarters. The Huskers led 13-0 with under 14 minutes to play on a wet, blustery day in Champaign, Illinois.
Nebraska was up 13-7 when it started its final possession at its 38 with 4:38 left. The Illini burned their last timeout with 1:46 to play, and after a run Nebraska faced third-and-7 from the 27.
Instead of running the ball twice to keep the clock moving, Tommy Armstrong Jr. misfired on two straight passes. The Illini, instead of having a dozen seconds left, got the ball back with 55 to play.
Riley and Langsdorf said Armstrong was supposed to run - definitely not pass - on third down. Armstrong, a captain, declined to speak with reporters after the game.
“I don’t ever remember losing a game like this,” Riley said. “I hope we don’t have to weather any more games like this. It’s very tough for them. To lose three close games on the last couple plays is rough for anyone.”
The team’s leadership will be tested now that even bowl eligibility can’t be assured.
“It’s all about pride now,” fullback Andy Janovich said. “We’ve just got to keep going. We just have got to stay strong, really. There’s nothing else we can do. We’re all we got.”
It was 1959 when the Huskers had a worse start, at 2-4.