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T A D    S T R Y K E R
September 15, 2009

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We’re firing up the latest round of debate on whether Nebraska is ready for a return to major player status in major college football. And before ABC-TV rolls the credits Saturday evening, we’ll have more answers. I think it’s only a matter of time, but is now the time?

The Cornhuskers played three Top 10-rated teams last year. They weren’t ready for Missouri and Oklahoma. They were ready for Texas Tech, but couldn’t close the deal in overtime.

Is Nebraska, which has not defeated a Top 20 team on the road since its last national championship season of 1997, ready for this? The Hokies go into the game rated No. 13 by the Associated Press, and NU is rated No. 19. It’s the first time that Nebraska and its opponent have both been rated in the AP Top 20 since the 2007 Southern Cal game in Lincoln, when the Husker fans were well-prepared to host ESPN College GameDay, but the Huskers themselves were not anywhere close to ready for the Trojans.

In 2006, NU and Texas were both in the Top 20, and an athletically superior Texas team squeaked out a 22-20 win in Lincoln. Earlier that year, NU and Southern Cal were both in the Top 20 before the Trojans’ 28-10 win in Los Angeles, when once again, Nebraska’s opponent was clearly superior in athletic talent.

We’ll see Saturday that Nebraska has closed the gap when it comes to talent. I think the Hokies will still have a bit more than the Huskers, but the difference will be much smaller than last year, when Tech won 35-30 in Lincoln.

Virginia Tech was beaten soundly by Alabama in the season opener. We presume that they were battle-tested by that experience, but if Nebraska jumps out to an early lead, it just might reintroduce a few negative thoughts into the Hokies’ psyche.

Is the Nebraska offense ready for this? It looks like it, although you never can tell when a quarterback starts his first road game in a tough atmosphere like Lane Stadium, where the Hokies have defeated their last 10 current non-conference BCS opponents by an average of 20 points per game.

Is the Cornhusker defense ready for this? An emotionally-charged, in-your-face defensive effort would be nice, but the front seven has been softer than expected against the run. The defensive line — the strength of the Husker team last season — has not carried the same momentum into the 2009 season. Last year, Tech outrushed NU 206-55. I expect that will even out this Saturday, but if not, it will be a long day for the Big Red.

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Is the Nebraska kicking game ready for a trip to the birthplace of Beamerball?

I think the answer is yes. Last year, Tech used a blocked punt in the first quarter to score a safety and returned a subsequent interception to the NU 5-yard line to set up a touchdown and set the tone for the game.

But having gotten knocked down by Beamerball, coach John Papuchis’s special teams rose up and struck a blow against the old master when Nate Swift returned a punt 88 yards for a touchdown in the fourth quarter. Papuchis (who did his undergrad work at Virginia Tech) said he respects the Hokies and the way they go about their business, but he’s more concerned about the way Nebraska executes its plan on special teams.

“We’ve got to be technique-sound and do what we always do,” said Papuchis. “We’re not going to change our approach. We have a lot of respect for what they do and the way they do it, but for me, it’s more making sure that we are solid and firm in our techniques, and everything else will take care of itself.” The coach noted that NU’s kickoff and punt coverage teams have played well over the first two games, and the kickoff return squad has gotten the ball out to the 30-yard line or beyond every time except one.

Most importantly, is Alex Henery ready for this?

Henery may well be the most important player on the field for Nebraska. If both teams’ defenses are on top of their game, two or three field goals could be the difference — as long as Henery’s punts keep the Hokies bottled up deep in their own territory.

A veteran placekicker, Henery will be punting for just the third game. He looked unprepared in the opener, but did much better against Arkansas State, pinning the Red Wolves inside their own 20-yard line on two occasions and looking much more confident doing it.

“He enjoys doing both,” Papuchis said. “I think it keeps him more into the game. I think right now, we’re going to keep it how it is.”

Overall, it looks like a good scenario for NU, which is going up against a team that has won more games over the past 14 years than everyone except Florida, Ohio State and Texas. Nebraska has a lot to gain and little to lose. At Blacksburg, the Huskers will make their biggest one-game improvement of the season. Whether that’s enough to get a W in a huge road game is another thing.


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 tad.stryker@gmail.com. | Archive