Tough stretch? Badgers big enough problem for Riley, Huskers

FILE - In this Saturday, Sept. 23, 2017, file photo, Nebraska head coach Mike Riley follows the second half of an NCAA college football game against Rutgers in Lincoln, Neb. Nebraska faces back-to-back games against top-10 opponents in Wisconsin and Ohio State and then a tricky road game at Purdue. The three games could go a long way in determining how the season and coach Riley are judged. (AP Photo/Nati Harnik, File)

LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) Nebraska is entering a stretch of games that could go a long way in determining how the season, and coach Mike Riley, are judged.

No. 9 Wisconsin comes to town on Saturday night, No. 10 Ohio State comes in next week and, after an open date, the Cornhuskers hit the road for a tricky game at much-improved Purdue.

Riley rapped his knuckles on the dais at his news conference Monday when asked about the upcoming schedule.

”Do I have to talk about anything past this week?” he said. ”I’m not thinking about that. Why do I have to think about a stretch? This isn’t baseball. I only have one game to think about this week. We don’t play any doubleheaders that I know of. So that’s my answer.”

The two wins that have followed the stunning home loss to Northern Illinois and firing of athletic director Shawn Eichorst have done nothing to alleviate pressure on Riley, who is 18-13 in three seasons at Nebraska.

The Huskers beat a Rutgers team that just lost its 16th straight Big Ten game, and they went on the road and defeated an Illinois program that has lost 40 of 50 conference games since 2011.

Nebraska (3-2, 2-0 Big Ten) has lost four in a row and five of its last six against Wisconsin (4-0, 1-0). The Huskers lost 62-3 at Ohio State last year. They beat Purdue in Lincoln last year but lost in West Lafayette, Indiana, in 2015 – the Boilermakers’ only conference win that season.

The Huskers haven’t won so much as a conference title since 1999, but given their history of success, they aspire to run with the same company as Wisconsin and Ohio State and the rest of the Big Ten’s upper echelon.

These next two home games are measuring sticks for sure, and they had better be wary of the trip to Purdue, too.

”Oh, it’s tough,” linebacker Mohamed Barry said. ”That’s why you play football. You play for games like this, big-time games. Wisconsin, then Ohio State and then a good Purdue team at that. That’s where you want to peak.”

Last year, Nebraska came into the Wisconsin game with a record of 7-0 and ranked No. 7 and lost 23-17 in overtime. That started the six losses-in-nine games funk that ended with the Northern Illinois game and put Riley in the predicament in which he finds himself.

In 2015, Wisconsin won 23-21 in Lincoln on a field goal with 4 seconds left.

”The thing that’s evident in our history with Wisconsin is that you have to be the team that finishes,” Riley said.

Wisconsin has scored at least 31 points in each of its games this season, and the Badgers’ are in the top 10 in rushing defense, scoring defense and total defense .

”When you talk about the big picture of playing team defense, playing together, being in sync,” Riley said, ”this is the best football team and the best all-around offense, defense put together – the best team we’ve seen.”

The Huskers are in a good frame of mind to take on the challenge. They held Rutgers and Illinois to fewer than 200 yards each and a total of 16 points.

”I think confidence has been building week in and week out,” nose tackle Mick Stoltenberg said. ”We’ve put together a couple good weeks. It’s a testament to how we have come back after facing adversity. These Mondays we come back to work, guys are excited to get to work and excited for another chance to get on the field and show what they can do.”

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