Coaching debuts: Riley heartbreak trumps Harbaugh hype
LINCOLN, Neb. — Jim Harbaugh won all the hype. But heartbreak? Well, Mike Riley took that one.
Fifteen coaches with new teams in major conferences were on the sideline as the college football season began, going 7-8 in their openers. None, though, had as agonizing a finish as Riley at Nebraska.
His day started off fine. He stepped off the team bus a couple hours before the game against BYU and was greeted by a mass of Big Red fans outside Memorial Stadium. He looked around and said, "This is nice."
At halftime, his Cornhuskers trailed by 10 points. At the start of the fourth quarter, they were up by four. And they still led by one until the last snap, when freshman backup Tanner Mangum delivered the play of the day in college football — a 42-yard throw to the end zone that Mitch Mathews caught to beat the Cornhuskers 33-28.
The loss marked Nebraska's first in an opener since 1985, ending the nation's longest streak.
No, Riley will never forget this loss. But neither will he stew over it.
"With that continued effort, we can definitely improve some things and change some things to make us get better. I've got good faith that'll happen," Riley said. "There was some pretty good football at times, I thought, by us."
Nebraska was on the winning end of the same play two years ago against Northwestern. In that game, third-string quarterback Ron Kellogg III heaved a 49-yarder that was tipped and landed in the hands of Jordan Westerkamp for a 27-24 victory. Mathews made his catch in nearly the same spot in the south end zone.
"That's probably a 50-50 chance you're going to catch that ball," Huskers quarterback Tommy Armstrong Jr. said. "Two years ago we had one, this year we had one against us. We're on the opposite side of it, but we've just got to let it go now and just drive on and try to have a better week next week."
A look as some other coaching debuts:
—Michigan's Jim Harbaugh is the new coach everybody's been talking about. A 24-17 road loss to a good Utah team Thursday was no embarrassment, but it showed Harbaugh has a lot of work to do with that offense.
—Florida's Jim McElwain had a drama-free Saturday night at the Swamp. The Gators led New Mexico State 34-13 at half and won 61-13 for the most points in a first game for a new Florida coach.
—Houston's captains presented Tom Herman with a game ball after a 52-24 win over Tennessee Tech. It gets tougher this week for the former Ohio State offensive coordinator when his Cougars travel to Louisville.
—Paul Chryst might have a good enough Wisconsin team to win the Big Ten West, but the 35-17 loss to Alabama showed that the Badgers are lacking in many areas.
—Oregon State's Gary Andersen opened with a 26-7 win over Weber State. There will be growing pains. Seth Collins is the first freshman quarterback to start for the Beavers since 1996.
—Tony Sanchez made the jump from high school to the college ranks, and his UNLV Rebels were respectable in a 38-30 loss at Northern Illinois. It gets only tougher from here, with UCLA visiting this week and then a trip to Michigan.
—Pittsburgh's Pat Narduzzi survived for a 45-37 win over FCS Youngstown State thanks to a running game that churned out 325 yards. Narduzzi, the former Michigan State defensive coordinator, knew the guy on the opposite sideline pretty well. Bo Pelini, the former Nebraska coach, was making his debut with the Penguins.
— David Beatty might be asking what he got himself into at Kansas. The Jayhawks came back from a 24-point deficit against FCS South Dakota State and would have had a chance at a tying field goal if Montell Cozart hadn't fumbled a snap as he tried to spike the ball in the final seconds. The Jayhawks lost 41-38 for their second loss to an FCS opponent in six seasons.