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November 7, 2011

Husker Buzz: A defining stretch

A coach once said to me "people remember what you do in November."

For Nebraska, October's success seems like a distant memory after the Huskers' 28-25 loss to Northwestern this past Saturday.

NU took the Wildcats for granted and expected an 8-1 record to fall right in its lap. Now the Huskers are 7-2 and staring at quite possibly the toughest back-to-back road game stretch in program history.

This will be a season-defining stretch for Bo Pelini's squad that will test the toughness and character of this football team.

"It's going to be a great challenge and hopefully we come away with two wins," junior quarterback Taylor Martinez said. "Right now we have to have Michigan State lose a game for us to go to the championship, so hopefully we can win out and get a chance at it.

"(We just) need to take each game one at a time. If it's meant to be everything else will fall into place and we'll go to the Big Ten Championship."

I think you saw for the first time this season the wear and tear of the Big Ten Conference finally get to the Huskers.

The timing of their first bye week was perfect after physical games with Wisconsin and Ohio State. It allowed the Huskers to get healthy and then travel to Minnesota and play Michigan State on fresh legs. They didn't have those fresh legs against Northwestern, and they certainly aren't going to have them over the next few weeks.

"Anytime you get later in the season, especially in November, those things start to wear on you and start to really test you mental and physical toughness," wide receiver Kenny Bell said. "We're absolutely going to find out what we're made out of these next three weeks."

From a player perspective, though, there is a lot of excitement for these back-to-back road trips because NU will be playing in two of the most historic venues in college football.

That alone should give the Huskers an extra spark when they take the field in front of over 216,000 people the next two weeks.

"I'm excited as a player because those are to historical places," senior fullback Tyler Legate said. "This is something we can look forward to after what happened last week. Starting out with Penn State playing in front of 100,000 fans is going to be exciting. I don't think any of us have ever played in front of 100,000 people. We just have to work hard this week, because it's a three game season."

Early kickoffs favor the road team

I think Nebraska caught a break by getting both the Penn State and Michigan games with early 11 a.m. kickoffs.

If there's one thing we've learned in this league, winning on the road at night in the big venues is nearly impossible. Michigan beat Notre Dame, Michigan State beat Wisconsin, Ohio State beat Wisconsin and Nebraska beat Ohio State all at night on the big national stage.

That won't be the case the next two weeks though, as the crowd won't have near as much time to "prepare" for the game and create that deafening atmosphere.

I can tell you after being at Penn State in 2002 to cover Nebraska's 40-7 loss, that's a place you want no part of in a big night game atmosphere. The best analogy I could give was it was like a Colorado game in Boulder with twice as many angry and rude fans going after you.

NU needs to get d-line healthy

Defensive tackle was once the deepest positions on the entire team coming into the season, and now it's quite possibly the biggest question mark.

NU played this past Saturday with only two healthy defensive tackles in Baker Steinkuhler and Terrence Moore, as Chase Rome was limited due to a muscle injury. It doesn't appear Thaddeus Randle could be back until the bowl game either.

Pelini moved junior walk-on Justin Jackson back to defensive tackle after Jared Crick's injury, but he only played a few snaps on Saturday. The bottom line is you can't expect Moore and Steinkuhler to play 70 to 80 snaps a game, especially against mobile quarterbacks.

"Obviously, we are nicked up there up front," Pelini said. "We anticipate getting Chase Rome back, which will help us, but you have to go with what you have. We are ready to move a guy inside here and there and do some things to reduce the load for Terrence (Moore) and Baker (Steinkuhler).

"They got tired toward the end of the game and we are working to reduce their workload, but it's part of the deal this time of the year. You have a couple injuries and guys have to step up here and there and do the best with what you've got."

Big Ten should reconsider nine-game conference schedule

The SEC announced on Monday that when the league expands from 12 to 14 teams in 2012, there are no plans in the future to play a nine-game conference schedule.

That means SEC teams will play six divisional games, along with one annual crossover and one non-divisional game each season.

If you want your league to compete for national championships and two BCS bowl bids each year, I think an eight game league schedule is the way to go.

The Big Ten is committing cannibalism by expecting its teams to play nine conference games along with a league championship game. That means in order to compete for a national championship you may have to win 10 conference games, which is virtually impossible to do. The extra game will also hurt the Big Ten's chances of gaining two BCS bids.

For the stat geeks

***Wisconsin now leads the Big Ten in both rushing and passing offense.

***Penn State's defense has only given up 12 touchdowns on the season.

***Nebraska kicker Brett Maher leads the Big Ten with 15 made field goals and also leads the league in punting average at 45.5 yards per attempt.

***To put Michigan quarterback Denard Robinson's passing struggles in perspective, Taylor Martinez has actually nearly caught him in total yards. Robinson has thrown for just 1,617 yards, while Martinez is slowly gaining on him at 1,545 yards.

Around the state

***Tomorrow's Howells vs. Giltner game in the Class D-2 quarterfinals may have more Division I and FCS talent on the field than a lot of the Class A and B games you'll see in the playoffs. Giltner is led by Iowa tight end recruit Drew Ott, while Howells has three or four players that are either potential FCS or Division I prospects led by offensive lineman Jordan Brichacek and defensive end prospect Brian Bayer.

***One of the more under-rated players in the state is Gretna linebacker prospect Andy Janovich. He's arguably the best all-around player in Class B right now.

***Give Omaha Central coach Jay Ball's team some credit. The Eagles went on the road and handled a very good Grand Island team 34-24. 2013 running back Jackie Davis continues to impress, as he had 180 yards on 33 carries.

***An assistant coach from Grand Island told me last week that when they played Lincoln Southeast they couldn't run at all to whatever side of the field Husker defensive end recruit Sam Cotton was playing on. Cotton also had a 6 yard touchdown catch this past Friday in a 28-7 win over Millard South in the quarterfinals.


Sean Callahan can be reached at sean@huskeronline.com and he can be heard each day at 6:50 am and 4:50 pm on Big Red Radio 1110 KFAB in Omaha during the football season. He can also be seen on KETV Channel 7 TV in Omaha during the fall and each week he appears on NET's Big Red Wrap Tuesday's at 7 pm.


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