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September 19, 2008

The Nebraska Cornhuskers are taking the weekend off before launching into what appears to be their most difficult three-game stretch of the 2008 season. This about the place where last year's Huskers started to crash and burn, so this trio of games will be a good barometer to measure how much change has already been wrought in Lincoln, which for decades took nine-win seasons for granted.

Have things really changed from last year? When we wake up on Columbus Day, will Nebraska be 3-3 and headed downhill fast? Or will the ledger look more promising? Will the national media be talking about the Big Red at all after they finish their run against Virginia Tech, Missouri and Texas Tech?

The media will not be too excited about Nebraska yet, because in my opinion, NU will be 4-2 at that time. But the Huskers will be set up to finish the season on a strong note. More on that later.

It's the political season, but even when we're not talking politics, we still find that "change" is the theme. Nebraska, a rock-solid red state for decades when it comes to presidential elections, has discovered that change is not always good – at least, not Steve Pederson's brand. Having traveled too far down that road, NU now knows that corrective change is an absolute must. But the Husker Nation is looking to Pelini, not Palin, for a Red revival.

And at the first of two bye weeks this season, Bo Pelini has made noticeable progress on at least one thing – retooling Nebraska into a physical football team.

The sum of the takeaways and sacks produced by the Husker defense already this year (15 in three games) compares very favorably with last year's final total (24 in 12 games). The Husker defense is holding opponents to 78 yards per game on the ground, compared to 232 yards per game last year. That figure will increase, but it will stay well below last year's astronomical average.

If you can force turnovers and defend the run well, you will be competitive against almost any team you face. That alone makes Nebraska a much better team this year than last.

Much better, but probably not good enough this year to beat Virginia Tech, Missouri and Texas Tech in succession. My prediction: the Huskers win one of the next three. After that, look for steady improvement from Nebraska, which I think will close the season with a powerful surge if it can avoid more serious injuries. The key will be the Kansas game on Nov. 8 in Lincoln, which will come a week after a tough road trip to Oklahoma. By then, we'll see just how physical Nebraska has become.

Although the Huskers haven't gotten much publicity nationwide this year, people are watching them. In Colorado, college football fans are excited about freshman running back Darrell Scott and the CU Buffaloes. (This week, Scott said he hoped to help attract more five-star recruits to Boulder and predicted that the Buffs will be national title contenders within a couple of years.) But they're also keeping track of the Huskers along the Front Range.

Irv Brown, Joe Williams and Jim Armstrong, who host a sports talk show on a Denver-area ESPN Radio affiliate (104.3 FM), commented twice in the past couple of weeks that Nebraska made a "big mistake" by hiring Pelini instead of Paul Johnson. Johnson is currently in his first year as coach at Georgia Tech, but was still at the U.S. Naval Academy and available when Tom Osborne was doing his interviewing late last November. The commentators theorized that Johnson would have installed his option running attack and restored the Huskers' rushing game to greatness. They didn't say whether Johnson and his staff would have been able to fix the Nebraska defense.

Frankly, if Osborne had been motivated by fear of losing his job, then hiring a man with head coaching experience would have made a certain amount of sense. It would have been harder to second-guess than going with your gut and selecting Pelini, who had great success as a defensive coordinator and a strong connection with the Husker fan base. Then again, consider that Johnson has not proven himself as a recruiter at the top level of NCAA football. The service academies don't recruit their football players like other Division I-A schools do, and prior to his stint at Navy, Johnson coached at Georgia Southern, a Division I-AA school.

I like what I see from Pelini and his staff so far, and I suspect that five years from now, Nebraska will have spent a lot more time in the Top 25 than Georgia Tech. Pelini and his staff are running ahead of general expectations as recruiters, and they seem to be relating well to the players. Pelini's retention of Shawn Watson as offensive coordinator still makes a world of sense. His decision to hire back Ron Brown has ratcheted up the enthusiasm on the Husker sideline and re-established a much-needed link to the golden era of the 1990s.

There is a fairly sizable element who isn't convinced that Barney Cotton (fired after the 2006 season as offensive coordinator at Iowa State) deserved another shot at NU as offensive line coach. The Husker O-line underperformed the first two games, but took a big step forward with 330 rushing yards in the win over New Mexico State. If Nebraska runs for about 200 yards against each of its next three opponents, Cotton will have very few detractors left – and my prediction of a 4-2 record on Columbus Day may be too pessimistic.

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. You can e-mail him at [email protected]. | Archive