By ERIC OLSON
AP College Football Writer
LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) - Mike Riley would appear to have a tough act to follow at Nebraska, replacing a coach who never won fewer than nine games.
A deeper look at the numbers indicate there’s plenty of room for improvement in a program that once prided itself on being in the annual national championship conversation but now has gone 15 years without a conference title.
The Cornhuskers have become known more for wilting in the biggest games. They’ve lost six of their last seven against Top 25 opponents, lost two straight to an unranked Minnesota team and allowed 129 points in their last two against Wisconsin.
When they met the Badgers in Madison last year, they gave up a then-FBS-record 408 yards to Melvin Gordon, and they surrendered an average of 521 yards while going 0-3 against ranked teams.
In seven years under Bo Pelini, Nebraska was higher than No. 20 in the final Associated Press poll just once.
Athletic director Shawn Eichorst’s hiring of the 62-year-old Riley caught the nation by surprise. Riley had coached 14 years at Oregon State and planned to retire in Corvallis. But with a nudge from a friend and former assistant, new Wisconsin coach Paul Chryst, Riley and his wife Dee looked at the Nebraska job as “one last adventure.”
“I felt it was a good fit,” said Riley, whose five-year contract pays him $2.7 million this year. “I had the inside scoop on Shawn from Paul Chryst. Paul and Shawn worked together at Wisconsin, and Paul had told me a few years back that if you ever want to do anything different than you’re doing, this would be a great guy to do it with. All of that has really been confirmed. I really appreciate this place.”
Riley takes over a team that finished 9-4, and he’ll have a three-year starter in quarterback Tommy Armstrong Jr. and a Maliek Collins-led defensive line that should be the best in the Big Ten West.
He demurred when asked what the Huskers must accomplish for him to consider his first year in Lincoln a success.
“That’s really a hard one for me because all I think about is winning the first game and then winning the one after that,” he said. “I want to win them all, and then that will translate real well. But I also know you can’t win them all if you don’t win the first one. BYU is a really tough first opponent.”
Some things to know about Nebraska:
THE NEXT AMEER? The Huskers have had a 1,000-yard rusher each of the last six seasons. Ameer Abdullah is gone, and next in line is Terrell Newby. He was No. 3 on the depth chart last year, but a strong spring pushed him ahead of Imani Cross. Also watch out for Mikale Wilbon, who has raised eyebrows in early practices.
PASSING STRUGGLES: Riley’s offense requires the quarterback to be able to make every kind of throw, and Armstrong has struggled so far in practices. Riley’s not overly concerned, saying that his best Oregon State QBs got better as the season progressed. The receiving corps took a hit Wednesday with the announcement that De’Mornay Pierson-El, also one of the nation’s top punt returners, would be out until October with a foot injury.
NEW MOOD ON DEFENSE: DT Vincent Valentine said he and his mates are playing with free minds under new coordinator Mark Banker. Last year, Valentine said, “we felt like we were playing with everybody against us. ... I feel like now we have the type of feeling where we’re going to go out there and lay it on the line every week and whatever happens happens.”
STRONG KICKING GAME: PK Drew Brown set a freshman scoring record with 101 points and was perfect on PATs, and P Sam Foltz averaged 42.2 yards and had 26 punts downed inside the 20-yard line.
NO REST TILL NOVEMBER: The Huskers will play 11 straight weeks before having an open date before the Nov. 27 game against Iowa. It’ll be the longest stretch since they played 11 without a break in 2007. Nebraska never went further than six games into the season without a bye under Pelini.