By ERIC OLSON
AP College Football Writer
LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) - With Nebraska off to its worst nine-game start since 1960, athletic director Shawn Eichorst released a letter to fans Monday expressing confidence that “the future is bright” under first-year coach Mike Riley.
Eichorst’s 450-word letter, posted on the athletic department’s website, came two days after the Cornhuskers’ 55-45 loss at Purdue and in advance of their toughest game to date against No. 6 Michigan State.
Riley made a 12 1/2-minute opening statement at his weekly news conference, using the last four to directly address his team’s poor performance, which he called “the elephant in the room.” He said he appreciated Eichorst’s support and understood the fans’ frustration with Nebraska (3-6).
Eichorst hired the 62-year-old Riley away from Oregon State four days after firing Bo Pelini last November. Riley’s Mr. Nice Guy personality runs counter to the volatility of Pelini. But there was consternation among some fans because Riley, who signed a four-year contract, was just 93-80 in 14 years with the Beavers and never finished higher than third in the Pac-12.
Concerns about Riley being up to the task have resurfaced now that the Huskers face the prospect of not going to a bowl after Pelini won no fewer than nine games in his seven years and made it to three conference championship games.
“There’s no doubt we have failed in the eyes of what everybody wants to do,” Riley said. “That’s a given.”
Eichorst opened his letter thanking fans who have attended games home and away.
“Your support and patience as Mike Riley rebuilds our storied program one brick at a time mean the world to our young men, our staff and our university,” Eichorst wrote.
The Huskers’ first five losses were by a total of 13 points. The sixth loss came against a Purdue team that hadn’t won a Big Ten home game since 2012.
“While many are understandably disappointed in the current record of the football team and the heartbreakingly close losses we have suffered,” Eichorst wrote, “I am confident the future is bright because I see it in the eyes of our players, coaches and staff and I am impressed by what I know is going on behind the scenes.”
Eichorst also said Riley has a plan to build and sustain a winning program that will compete for championships every year.
Riley inherited a roster that was thin at several positions. Just under one-third of the Huskers’ travel roster for the Purdue game was made up of walk-ons or former walk-ons.
The Huskers also have been hamstrung by injuries. Third-year starting quarterback Tommy Armstrong Jr. didn’t play against Purdue because of a foot injury. Playmaking receiver and return man De’Mornay Pierson-El missed the first four games with a broken foot, and he blew out his knee against Purdue and is out for the season. There have been 20 different starters on offense and 20 on defense because of injuries and suspensions.
Nebraska ranks near the bottom nationally in pass defense, total defense and turnover margin. Purdue converted five turnovers into 28 points in what some observers have called the Huskers’ most embarrassing loss since the 1950s.
“Our biggest battle is probably ourselves mentally,” Riley said. “We can overcome that. We can get ready to play and have a great opportunity to win.”
Long-term, Riley said, “There’s no doubt we want to win the championship, and there’s no doubt what we want to do inside the program. The football part of it and how you compete and what you want to do, that part is easy. The other part is real important to me personally - that this is a program all can be proud of. Those two things are always going to be at the top end of what we try to do goal-wise in our program.”