LINCOLN — It's gut-check time.
Any question about where Nebraska football stands came into greater focus against Northern Illinois in Lincoln Saturday.
Right now it's not a pretty picture.
Nebraska looks listless, lacks focus and is nowhere near ready for the upcoming Big 10 conference season.
Perhaps it's a sign of the times in Nebraska football when NU Athletic Director Shawn Eichorst took the unusual step in addressing the media after NU's stunning 21-17 loss.
Arguably Nebraska's worse performance in years comes just days after Eichorst extended Head Coach Mike Riley's contract by one year; essentially putting his full support behind the third-year coach.
Eichorst told reporters he's "frustrated, disappointed" and said "everybody's gotta take it up a notch," telling fans to "hang in there." Eichorst said "there are no excuses to be made" and he continues to have confidence in Riley's abilities. "We gotta win games," Eichorst said.
Right now it's difficult to tell where Nebraska goes from here following two-consecutive losses.
Now is not the time to overreact; Riley deserves a shot to right the ship.
NU was a mess in nearly every facet of the game.
Let this simmer for a minute: A Mid-American Conference team came into Memorial Stadium and beat Nebraska fair and square.
The silver lining, if any, is this week the focus was taken squarely off the Nebraska defense. Still, that unit gave up the six-play, 75-yard game-winning drive to the Huskies with 8:52 to play.
To put this into perspective, it was 14-0 Northern Illinois at the end of the first half - on the heels of two pick sixes thrown by Tanner Lee, including an 87 yarder in the first quarter that killed an otherwise good drive.
On this day, the offensive line struggled to protect Lee who put this team in an early hole.
Don't look now, but Lee has seven interceptions in the past two games, at a time when this team could benefit from an offense that stays on the field with sustained drives. Lee made risky throws all game long, but in fairness, rarely had time to throw and was trying to make plays.
Lee's errant throws allowed Northern Illinois to gain early confidence, and rode it to arguably the biggest upset ever in Lincoln.
In the first quarter Lee's two interceptions combined for more yardage than did his completions, including the 87-yard interception return in the first quarter.
"That was tough," Lee said. "They just had a perfect defense, I took a gamble and they blitzed the corner who jumped that bubble throw and took it to the house. That was a tough way to start a game, but you've got to think that we are able to drive the ball and put it behind us.
"I do think we were pressing a little bit, and we were making mistakes and doing uncharacteristic things that we pride ourselves in not doing. It was disappointing, and we just couldn't get out of that hole."
It's hard to fathom why Nebraska struggled to put together a drive all game long, on a day its defense never faced a serious challenge until NIU's big drive at the end.
There's something not right with this offensive line. It's difficult to come up with a reason why NU didn't control things up front from start to finish. But give credit where it is due; Northern Illinois' defensive front was disruptive. Nebraska had just 85 yards rushing and couldn't protect Lee enough.
In the second quarter, that protection broke down in a big way when he seemingly fumbled on a jarring hit and NIU returned the ball to the Nebraska 9. Replay reversed the fumble, but at this rate the junior quarterback won't be long for the starting lineup. This Nebraska line has holes all over the place as Lee was sacked three times.
The only first-half excitement for Nebraska came near the end of the second quarter, when NU sacked NIU quarterback Daniel Santacaterina on a third-and-23, and Nebraska running back Mikale Wilbon ripped off a 21-yard run on the next NU possession.
Nebraska had to put together a mad scramble on offense to set up a Drew Brown field goal attempt that was partially blocked. Northern Illinois led 14-0 at half, making it the first time since 2004 Nebraska was held scoreless in the first half of any game. Oklahoma led NU 23-0 at half in Norman, on the way to a 30-3 victory.
Here's an interesting statistic, since 2010 teams that throw two pick sixes in a single game have won just six of 75 games. That held true to form in Lincoln.
After a couple of unsuccessful drives to open the second half, Nebraska recovered a muffed punt that set up a 2-yard touchdown run by Lee to make 14-7 with 8:05 to go in the third quarter. Drew Brown added a 36-yard field goal with 6:20 to go in the third to pull Nebraska to within 14-10. A nice pass from Lee to J.D. Spielman at the beginning of the fourth quarter, set up a 1-yard touchdown run by Lee to make it 17-14, Nebraska.
Nebraska got the ball back with about three minutes to play after NIU took a 21-17 lead, but Lee threw his third pick of the day inside Nebraska territory and the Huskies ran out the clock.
"We are just really, bitterly disappointed with losing the game," Riley said in the postgame.
"I don't want to diminish what Rod Carey and Northern Illinois did. They played a good game, they made big plays early to take the lead and then they made big plays late to the touchdown back to retake the lead, so give them credit for that. Obviously we're not playing good enough on offense right now."
On Lee's performance: "We have to coach him and support him right now. I don't know him well enough in these kind of tough situations, but the time I've been around him I've been very impressed with him. I think he'll come back to work."