Part two of Nebraska’s introduction to Big Ten play commences on Saturday, when the No. 15 ranked Huskers host the much-maligned Ohio State Buckeyes in what promises to be a grueling battle.
Straight off a 48-17 shellacking courtesy of the Big Ten powerhouse Wisconsin Badgers, Nebraska head coach Bo Pelini and his team find themselves in a unique position. Do they continue playing the way they have been playing and hope that the worst is over? Or do they radically change things up -- on both the offensive and defensive ends -- and experiment until they discover a winning formula?
According to Pelini, he’s going to do a little bit of both. While maintaining that his strategy will remain the same, the outspoken leader at the helm of Nebraska’s program did admit that lineup changes will likely ensue.
"The system works. You stay the course. There's no reason to make drastic changes.
"We're looking for the right combinations in a few areas. We're not afraid to make changes," Pelini said. "We put a lot of stock in practice and how guys practice, so you'll see a couple different combinations."
On the defensive end, those changes may very well come in the secondary – where Ciante Evans and all of the spare parts not named Alfonzo Dennard have struggled to even mildly disrupt opposing quarterbacks. Against Wisconsin, specifically, the Husker secondary gave up around 18 yards per reception with no interruptions – allowing Russell Wilson to surgically deconstruct the defense throw by throw.
Over on offense, things will likely be a little easier to fine tune. For better or worse, the Huskers are committed to Taylor Martinez as a starting quarterback. That means that offensive coordinator Tim Beck will need to continue to utilize Martinez’s quickness and ability to scramble all the while limiting his mistakes by a.) re-emphasizing the need to hold on to the football and b.) limiting his passing attempts. Look for Beck to find ways of putting the ball in running back Rex Burkhead’s hands after puzzlingly avoiding him throughout last week’s massacre.
Pelini, even though he’s more of a defensive maven, still understands the importance of propping up the offensive stars and giving them something to get enthused about. While speaking to reporters, he repeatedly cited the leadership intangibles that certain players on both ends -- namely Martinez, Burkhead, Mike Caputo, Lavonte David, Jared Crick and Austin Cassidy -- bring to the table.
"Let me tell you, those guys were hurting after the game," Pelini said. "Nobody wants to win more than they do. I've told them all along: It's not about want-to. Yeah, you've got to have want-to. But how you go about it is what allows you to accomplish your goals."
By the sound of things, the changes that will be made before Saturday by Nebraska will need to be as much mental as physical.
"What I don't like is, I don't think we responded real well to adversity in the game," Pelini said. "I just don't think we did. We did earlier in the year; I thought we did well in the Washington game.
"I thought we were playing pretty well, playing pretty well and then boom — we didn't handle the end of the first half real well. And then I thought from that point on, we got worse as a football team. We didn't respond to the adversity real well. Somebody's got to step up and make a play. You have to come together as a unit, as a football team, and attack it. I don't think we quite did that."
When asked about Ohio State’s troubles going into this year, and how much that’ll play into this weekend’s outing, he dismissed most of the sentimental stuff regarding him being a Buckeye alum.
"Honestly, it's all about our football team. I don't really pay attention to that," Pelini said. "It's not more meaningful or less meaningful. It's about doing a job and doing a job right and doing what you can to make our football team better.
"I want us to walk off the field next Saturday night a better football team than we were when we started. That's the challenge."
Ohio State, meanwhile, comes into this game with their own problems.
Early in the week reports surfaced that three Buckeye players accepted too much money for too little work while working their summer jobs. As a result, Ohio State’s leading rusher Daniel Herron, wide receiver DeVier Posey and offensive lineman Marcus Hall will not be permitted to play this weekend against the Huskers. And, given Nebraska’s woes in the secondary and against defending the run, the absence of those three pieces may ultimately play a crucial role in the final outcome.
Herron and Posey had been sentenced to five-game suspensions during the preseason due to a prior NCAA investigation. They were expected to return this weekend to give their team a much-needed boost, however, that will no longer be the case.
The 3-2 Buckeyes will head into Memorial Stadium with something to prove. They have taken a lot of blows both on and off the field throughout this young season and, as a result, a lot of frustration and anger is just waiting to burst through. The Huskers may end up feeling the wrath of disrespected team looking to turn the year around, all the while currently just trying to stay above water themselves.
Last week’s showdown versus Wisconsin was essentially for conference supremacy. This one against Ohio State, though – it’s for conference survival.
Winner gets to live ‘til the next game and, unfortunately, loser goes home knowing that their year is over.