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August 6, 2008

The state of Nebraska always asks a lot of its only major-college football team. Year after year, hopes are high for the Cornhuskers, and often a top 10 preseason rating added extra weight to the normal load of expectations the coaching staff and players carry into a new season.

This year is different. At least it is outside the state, where expectations are lower than usual coming off a 5-7 season. The national media won’t give NU much respect this fall, and you really can’t blame them. It’s because of that five-game losing streak. It’s because of that “76” that Kansas rang up last November, and that “65” that Colorado put on the board three weeks later. It’s because of those ABC-TV images of gaping holes that Southern Cal carved in the Husker defensive line. It’s because of how Nebraska generally got pushed around. The Huskers have a lot of work to do to win back respect on a national scale.

But inside Nebraska, the task may be even more daunting. It will be at least as hard to win back respect inside the state as it will around the nation.

It’s true that most of the 1.7 million people in Nebraska are optimistic about the upcoming season and are preparing a thunderous ovation to greet Bo Pelini and his team, but it will take some doing to satisfy the Husker Nation. They will cut Pelini some slack in his first year, but they’ll want to see progress. The natives are anxious to believe that we’ve moved beyond the Bill Callahan era – and its images of stunned red-clad fans leaving Memorial Stadium in the second quarter. But they’ll be looking for solid reasons to do so.

First and foremost on the list is the return of the Blackshirts. The real Blackshirts.

Nebraska fans may be able to deal with a talented Missouri team winning in Lincoln for the first time in 30 years, but they want to see Chase Daniel take a beating in the process. They may accept a loss in Lubbock, Texas, but they want to see their team harass Texas Tech’s quarterback Graham Harrell and knock All-America receiver Michael Crabtree into the cheap seats at least once. They could tolerate a defeat in Norman, Okla., but they want to see the Huskers force a stalemate with the big-name Sooner lines on most plays from scrimmage.

NU needs to re-establish its home-field dominance, and it needs to return the word "smashmouth" to the Husker lexicon.

None of that will happen if Nebraska doesn’t earn back its reputation as a physical football team. NU needs to start forcing turnovers again. It needs to start running the football with authority again. It needs to start wearing down the opposition at the line of scrimmage again.

The Huskers were 117th in the nation in turnover margin last year, mainly because they forced an anemic 11 turnovers – fewer than one per game. Nebraska opponents fumbled 15 times, but the defensive unit formerly known as the Blackshirts managed to recover only three of them. Kevin Cosgrove’s defense last season was worse than lame. It was tame. And befuddled.

But this season is not about Cosgrove; he’s long gone. It’s about Cody Glenn, who volunteered to switch from I-back to linebacker to do everything he could win a championship as a senior. It’s about seniors like Barry Turner, Ty Steinkuhler and Zach Potter who return from the debacle of 2007 with the rarest of opportunities in their grasp – a chance to win back respect for themselves and their football program, which for at least the last half-century has been the finest in the nation.

Nebraska needs to take back its rightful place in the college football universe. But to do that, the Huskers have to re-assert themselves as a relentless, hard-hitting bunch of overachievers.

Bill McCartney saw what was missing from the Nebraska arsenal. The former Colorado coach saw that no longer were the Huskers the kind of physically dominating team that opponents feared, and he mentioned it to Osborne. When a rival says you’ve lost your distinctiveness, you’d better listen.

It would be nice to win eight games – or more. It would build a ton of momentum to pull a big upset on national TV. It would be great to have four or five All-Big 12 players, and an All-American. It would feel like old times to be rated in the top 25 again.

But let’s not have too many expectations too soon. First thing is, Nebraska has to win back its honor. Then everything else will fall into place.

Formerly the sports editor at the North Platte Bulletin and a sportswriter/columnist for the North Platte Telegraph, Tad Stryker is a longtime Nebraska sports writer, having covered University of Nebraska and high school sports for more than 25 years. He started writing for this website in 2008.