Nebraska Cornhuskers Must Make a Statement vs. Northwestern Wildcats

| by Alex Groberman

The mindset of the Nebraska Cornhuskers heading out of last week’s dominant win versus the Michigan State Spartans, and into this week’s unpredictable battle with the Northwestern Wildcats is interesting for a variety of reasons.

In many ways, this battle on Saturday will tell us a lot about how well Nebraska is able to learn from and apply past lessons, and whether or not the team we’ve seen over the last two weeks is the one we’ll see from here on out.  

Last Saturday, the Huskers were attempting to slow down a squad that had all of the momentum in the world behind it.

A week after stunning victory over the Wisconsin Badgers with a last minute Hail Mary, the Spartans had rejuvenated their conference championship hopes and aspirations and seemed poise to close out the year strongly. Their major rushing weaknesses were somehow less relevant, and their stout defense was billed as being inpenetratable.

Nebraska’s win -- in which they ran the ball down Michigan State’s throat -- showed just how quickly perceptions of a given team could change.

Much in the same way that they brought the Spartans back down to earth, the Huskers also showed that their defense could be brought back from the dead in similarly speedy fashion. Two weeks after they were ranked anywhere from the mid-60s to the mid-90s nationally in most major statistical categories, Bo Pelini’s bunch had a resurgence.

Here are three other important takeaways from Nebraska’s 21-point shellacking of Michigan State last Saturday, and how they apply to this week’s showdown:

Rex Burkhead is the real deal. Amazingly enough, Burkhead’s 130 yards and two touchdowns on the ground -- plus his one receiving touchdown – last week don’t tell the whole story. Through the first half, the Huskers literally could not do a single thing through the air. They accumulated zero passing yards en route to their 10-3 lead going into halftime.

Everyone, everyone knew that Burkhead was going to be doing the heavy lifting for Nebraska offensively, and they still couldn’t stop him from acquiring 50 yards and a score through two quarters.

Then, in the second half, when the rest of the offense gave him a little something to work with, Burkhead managed to put up another touchdown and 80 yards rushing. Plus, on top of that, one receiving touchdown on the heels of being knocked out of the game due to injury.

He was the all-everything for the Huskers offense, and Burkhead didn’t even get his yardage on some shifty big runs. Rather, he got them in the trenches, with a 3.7 yard per carry average – earning every single inch he got.

The Northwestern defense is nowhere near as potent as Michigan State’s was. Both Burkhead and his offensive teammates should get a lot more freedom to work this Saturday.

The defense is alive. It’s alive. On October 29, two days before Halloween, Nebraska’s otherwise lifeless defensive players decided to let defensive coordinator Carl Pelini resurrect them. In what could only be described as a brilliant display unity between every aspect of the defense – ranging from pass rush, to pass protection, to run protection -- the squad shined.

Alfonzo Dennard and Daimion Stafford flanked Michigan State wide receiver B.J. Cunningham, holding him without a catch for the first time in 41 games. They also disrupted quarterback Kirk Cousins’ flow so much so that he was forced into throwing one of his most blatantly awful interceptions of the year straight into the waiting hands of Lance Thorrell.

Thorrell, of course, then took the ball back 26 yards and set things up for an eventual Nebraska touchdown.

All in all, the Huskers showed that their defense can be absolutely lethal when it’s firing on all cylinders. It showed that there was a reason for everyone assuming that, even despite their losses in the secondary this past offseason, they should still be feared and respected by opposing offenses. They showed that their Blackshirt roots are still somewhere in their system, even if it was evident all season long.

Now was that showing an aberration or the beginning of a trend? We’ll find that out on Saturday as well.

These players have more heart than people gave them credit for. The most important thing Nebraska’s players proved last Saturday was that the public wrote them off too soon. That their embarrassing defeat to the Badgers was more of an abnormality than anything else, and that they’re still very much of the mindset that they can win the Big Ten in 2011.

As it stands, the Huskers control their own destiny. If they can win out for the remainder of the season, they’ll be in line to play against the Penn State Nittany Lions, the Badgers, or whoever else the Leaders division wants to throw out against them for the conference crown.

Kickoff for Nebraska vs. Northwestern is scheduled for 3:30 p.m. eastern time, Saturday.