There were a lot of question marks surrounding the Nebraska Cornhuskers heading into 2011, but a few things were certain. They, at their core, were an experienced team that would transition smoothly into the undeniably different playing style that the Big Ten offers.
Their stars at the key positions, however young, all had some mileage on their odometers and knew how to win games. And, most importantly, this year there would be no surprises – in any form.
That mindset didn’t even last through the preseason.
From the very beginning, the Huskers found themselves hampered by injuries to important players on both offense and defense and, as a result, necessary substitutions were made. The offensive line, in particular, which was supposed to play a critical role in the implementation of offensive coordinator Tim Beck’s brand new scheme, was almost entirely ravaged. In response, Nebraska did the only they could – they patched the holes up with what most regarded as spare parts.
A true freshman at right tackle. Walk-ons at center and right guard. And two unknowns at left tackle and left guard. Hardly a recipe for success, right?
Heading into Nebraska’s Week 3 game against the Washington Huskies, the Husker running attack -- aside from Taylor Martinez -- was putting up an anemic 3.3 yards per carry. Mind you, this is a team that was heralded as an ideal fit for the Big Ten’s run-centic offensive style of play before the year began.
As it turned out, all Nebraska needed to get the ball rolling was for their unknown protection unit to get acclimated to their new surroundings. The steady and consistent play from Mike Caputo and Spencer Long in the midst of a rotating group of linemen, in particular, proved vital to the overall success of the squad and has translated into unquestionable success. Through three games in 2011, the Huskers put up at least 40 points – a feat that hadn’t previously been achieved since the 1995 season.
Against Washington’s rush defense, which was ranked seventh in the nation going in, Nebraska racked up 309 yards. Running back Rex Burkhead who had been unable to break out all year long finally exploded to the tune of 100+ yards and two scores. And while the majority of praise (as usual) went to the skill position players like Martinez and Burkhead, it was the guys up front who made it all possible -- much like they did the following week against the Wyoming Cowboys -- that really deserved the credit.
Similarly, the special teams unit has also flown under the radar despite the fact that one of Nebraska’s truest breakout stars of 2011 has been a rookie making a name for himself in the return game.
With just under 12 minutes left in the game and Fresno State still very much challenging the Huskers in what was supposed to be an early season, Week 2 tune-up, it was 18-year-old Ameer Abdullah who stepped up to put the outing out of reach. Thanks to his thrilling 100-yard kickoff return -- which remains the play of the season, thus far-- Abdullah not only handed the win to his squad on a silver platter following a particularly weak showing from the defense, but he also made it known to one and all that you did have to account for the special teams unit when you were gameplanning against the Huskers.
In a very unordinary season, Nebraska has gotten contributions from a very unordinary set of players in freshmen, walk-ons and complete unknowns. Whereas teams like the Wisconsin Badgers and Michigan State Spartans are getting the vast majority of their production from the pieces you’d expect for them to be getting their production from, the new kids on the Big Ten block have been doing it the old fashion way.
Just like Nebraska expected very little from the players that would eventually become key to the team's success, the rest of the Big Ten community is now expecting very little from them against Wisconsin.
Time for the underestimated Huskers to shock the world – again.