The Nebraska Cornhuskers have only played two games against Big Ten competition so far in 2011 – and both outings ended up being very, very memorable.
On the road against the Wisconsin Badgers, the Huskers got absolutely smoked on both the offensive and defensive ends. Quarterback Taylor Martinez looked completely out of place competing against a Heisman candidate in Wilson, throwing for three interceptions and being totally unable to read the opposing defense as they barreled in on him. A lot of the offense's problems, even Martinez’s errors, were really the fault of offensive coordinator Tim Beck who refused to utilize the run attack featuring Rex Burkhead and instead opted to allow his quarterback to throw the squad out of the game.
The defense didn’t fare any better, giving up a total of 48 points and allowing Wilson to dissect the unit with impunity. He finished the game with no interceptions and, by virtue of his excellent passing, opened the field up for Badgers running back Montee Ball to explode for four touchdowns and about five yards per carry.
Nebraska ultimately fell to Wilson and Co. in a massive 31-point blowout, 48-17.
The very next week, the Husker squared off against the Ohio State Buckeyes at home, hoping for a vastly different result. Through halftime, it didn’t look like that hope would come to fruition. Nebraska trailed 21-6 after two quarters and, despite his better efforts to stay efficient this time around, Martinez gave up a costly interception going into halftime. Burkhead wasn’t any better. A week after being underutilized in the Wisconsin game, he opted to underperform with only 10 yards racked up to end the second quarter.
As had been the case all season long, the defense, once again, didn’t live up expectations. It allowed Ohio State quarterback Braxton Miller to have his best outing of the year right up until he got hit and went down with an injury late in the game. If he hadn't gotten hurt, it's very reasonable to assume that the defense would have squandered the offense's solid play like it had on numerous prior occasions.
Midway through the third quarter, the score was 27-6 and the boo birds were flying high at Memorial Stadium. Fortunately, it all changed in the third quarter.
Thanks to a clutch takeaway by linebacker Lavonte David and a timely series of scores by Martinez and Burkhead throughout the rest of the game, Nebraska was able to muster up the biggest comeback in school history to ultimately win the game 34-27.
Following that historic effort, the Huskers’ 2011 Big Ten record now stands at 1-1.
Obviously Nebraska’s new conference presents a whole new group of challenges that they must overcome, and an entirely new environment to which they must acclimate themselves. At the same time, there are signs that this group having finally, possibly, figured things out on both the offensive and defensive ends.
Will they actually be able to apply these lessons over the course of the second half of the year? The answer will come in these three games, a.k.a. the biggest tests remaining for the Huskers in 2011.
October 29 – Michigan State
Fortunately for Nebraska, this will be a home game. The Spartans are currently 5-1 on the year and 2-0 in the Big Ten, with their only loss coming in a shocking defeat to the Notre Dame Fighting Irish back in September. Quarterback Kirk Cousins is a constant threat with the pass game and, given the precarious situation that Nebraska has going on in their secondary, it’s safe to say that the Cousins’ ability to connect with BJ Cunningham and Keshawn Martin could pose some problems.
Similarly, if the Huskers don’t put the clamps on Michigan State running back Edwin Baker quick -- like they didn’t against the Fresno State Bulldogs and Washington Huskies -- things could get dicey – quick.
November 12 – Penn State
Martinez showed one and all against Wisconsin that going into a Big Ten stadium with a vicious home crowd isn’t as easy as it looks. Get ready for part two of that lesson against the Penn State Nittany Lions, who boast one of the more boisterous fan bases in the entire conference. Penn State has a 6-1 overall mark and is 3-0 in the conference, with their only loss on the year coming to a very tough Alabama Crimson Tide group that currently ranks No. 3 in the nation.
Even though Penn State doesn’t boast a particularly fearsome aerial attack, what with their two-headed quarterback "monster," the Huskers defense will have to account for Silas Redd who to date has racked up 688 yards and five scores.
Nebraska’s offense is actually notably better than Penn State’s when it’s firing on all cylinders, so if the offense is right and the defense isn’t completely off the mark this would be a fairly easy away from home in-conference win. The only variable that complicates the matter is Penn State’s homecrowd, who could potentially throw a wrench in the proceedings depending on how the Huskers react.
November 19 – Michigan
Even though the Michigan Wolverines are coming off their first loss of the year to rival Michigan State, they’re still 6-1 for the season and 2-1 in the conference. A case could be made that the Wolverines aren’t as good as their record would indicate based on the opponents they’ve faced, then again, the same case could be made about the Huskers.
This is another road game for Nebraska and, much like the Penn State game, a rowdy crowd is absolutely guaranteed.
Michigan quarterback Dennard Robinson is a beast, and currently leads the Big Ten in all rushing categories that Burkhead comes in at No. 2 for. On the year, he’s racked up 692 yards and nine touchdowns on the ground. Through the air he’s anything but efficient with 11 touchdowns and 10 interceptions – but the Nebraska substandard secondary is far too feeble to take advantage of that either way.
Look for where both teams rank around this time to play a big role in whom ultimately wins. If either squad feels like they have nothing to play for based on some earlier losses, then that may end up being the deciding factor in who moves on with a win and who moves on with a loss.