With the reaction that they’ve garnered over the past two weeks, you would think that he Nebraska Cornhuskers are coming into this match-up versus the Washington Huskies with a 0-2 record, not 2-0.
But alas, the burden of big expectations is a heavy one.
Hosting Washington for the first time since 1998, Nebraska will aim to right the ship by doing something they haven’t done in either of the two games they have played thus far – performing well on both sides of the ball. In Week 1, as the Huskers absolutely thumped Chattanooga by 33 points, the defense quite obviously came to play whereas the offensive -- led by Taylor Martinez, of course -- showcased more of the same in the way of inconsistency. Against Fresno State the two units traded place -- in the second half, at least -- with the offense coming up big when it mattered most, and the defense floundering.
The Huskies, for their part, are committed to making sure nothing comes easy for their counterparts on Saturday. Despite the fact that his team holds a 2-0 mark for only the second time in the last 10 seasons, head coach Steve Sarkisian reaffirmed on Monday that mental toughness is key when facing a team like the Huskers.
"You try to paint a picture. I'm not going to send them in there without them knowing anything about it," said Sarkisian
"But the reality of it is part of it is I'm not here to coddle these guys, either. ... We will make sure they are mentally tough enough to handle the environment."
The Washington head coach, of course, served as USC’s offensive coordinator back in 2007 when the Trojans handed Nebraska an 18-point defeat at Memorial Stadium. He knows precisely what lays ahead for his team and, as such, he’s making sure nobody on his side takes this outing lightly.
Realizing that a complete effort would be required of Washington this weekend if they were to have any shot at a win, Sarkisian pressed his team in a grueling 75-minute practice session on Monday. This past weekend, the Huskies defeated Hawaii 40-32 – though the final tally doesn’t tell the whole story.
Washington jumped out to an early 21-0 lead before the second quarter even got underway, but then, slowly but surely, they found a way to let their opponents back into the game. As the game progressed, Keith Price continued to utilize quick, efficient passes as a means of moving his team forward, however, they were never as crisp after the second quarter as they appeared to be in the early going.
For Nebraska, this will be a statement game. The quickest and best way to silence doubters, critics and the like is by putting forth a solid, complete effort. Given the way that some of Washington’s most notable weaknesses play so well into what the Huskers have been struggling with over the past few weeks, look for Pelini and Co. to find a way to exploit the glaring holes.
Against Chattanooga, in particular, Martinez and the rest of the offense showed an undeniable knack for putting themselves in third-and-long situations. Although they were able to convert on half of those, it was still a troubling sign for a squad who had a reputation for not being able to effectively move the ball. Washington, for their part, has showed a certain weakness for sending offenses packing on third down. Instead, they’ve teams like Hawaii to get back into the game – something that should no doubt work in the Huskers benefits.
Sarkisian said this much on Monday.
"Third down: If you look at the number of third downs for our defense - gosh, we just have to contain the dang quarterback. That's killing us on third down right now. It's not like we're not there in coverage. But when a guy has the ball and he rolls right, and he rolls back left -- it's hard to cover a guy that long, whether you're in man or zone coverage.
"And that's obviously going to be doubly important this week as much as any, with (speedy Nebraska quarterback Taylor) Martinez."
Furthermore, the Huskies defense also leaves a lot to be desired. Whereas Nebraska’s defense is highly-touted and simply coming off an unimpressive effort, Washington’s defense isn’t particularly good and is coming off an unimpressive effort. Even with all of the offensive line concerns that the Huskers have had so far, Washington, in all likelihood, won’t be able to pressure Martinez. That, in turn, may allow the young passer to finally showcase just how solid his arm can be when given the opportunity to stand in place, scan the field, and deliver a timely throw.
Pelini realizes that this coming game is an opportunity to make a much-needed statement, and he showcased some of the fiery spirit he hopes his squad will have on Saturday during his recent press conference. When asked about whether or not the Fresno State game was a wake-up call, here is what he had to say:
“I think it was,” Pelini said. “You guys told our guys for six months how great they were going to be, and I think they bought into it. You have to respect Division I opponents. Fresno State is a great football team. They out-executed us. I’m furious about our performance, and I’m embarrassed and I hope our players are too.”
Writing Nebraska off as busts or overrated at this point in the season is as ludicrous as anointing them champions was in the preseason. Two hard-to-get victories in the early going don’t come with asterisks in the wins column – they still qualify as wins. The Huskers have shown glimpses of brilliance in between their mediocre runs over the last couple of weeks and, that, above all else, is why they’re still a top-10 team in the country.