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T A D    S T R Y K E R
December 2, 2009

If nothing else, Nebraska football is on schedule under Bo Pelini.

Pelini would say he’s a year behind — in fact, he said it on Monday. There weren’t many people who thought Nebraska would win the Big 12 North in 2008, but it happened in 2009.

High expectations followed Tom Osborne’s choice of Pelini as head coach, and rightfully so. After all, Nebraska is major college football’s No. 4 team all time in total victories. Despite all their well-documented disadvantages (the lowest population of any state with a team in a BCS conference, plus a remote location and a cool climate) the Cornhuskers are used to being at the big boys’ table.

When Pelini took over the Huskers in 2008, they were coming off a 27-22 run under Bill Callahan and their defense was in shambles. Pelini quickly changed the tone. With Ndamukong Suh leading the way, the Blackshirts stopped backpedaling and started pounding. They earned back their place of honor.

Pelini brought back mental toughness to Memorial Stadium; his teams have already won more Big 12 road games in two years than Callahan’s did in four.

This week, in the Big 12 Championship, Pelini gets a chance to give the program’s comeback a lot more momentum. The Huskers play No. 3-rated Texas, which also happens to be the No. 2 team in all-time victories. The nation will watch and decide how much ground the Huskers have regained.

It will take more than high expectations for Nebraska to beat the powerful, well-heeled Texans. The Huskers made a 41-point turnaround against Oklahoma from 2008 to 2009, but a couple of key injuries played a big role in the Sooners’ downtrend. The Longhorns will be at top strength, and a highly motivated Colt McCoy will be down to his last chance for a Big 12 title.

The coaching matchup will be intriguing. Pelini, who had never been a head coach until Osborne hired him, has a tough task in his first head-to-head battle against Mack Brown, who has more than 200 career victories, including 127 at Texas. But Pelini has been in games like this before. His three years as defensive coordinator at LSU should serve him well this week as he prepares to face one of the best spread offenses in the nation.

After all, he has some history of his own to fall back on. This is where helping beat Tim Tebow, Percy Harvin, Urban Meyer and the Florida Gators in 2007 should come in handy. Pelini has seen enough of the spread in the Southeastern and the Big 12 conferences to learn a thing or two about slowing it down.

The Huskers don’t have the horses that the Bayou Bengals did in 2007, at least not on offense, and that well could lead to their downfall in Dallas. The Blackshirts have weathered a lot of adversity this season while allowing less than 12 points per game, but if Zac Lee and the offense suffer through too many three-and-outs, the NU defense probably will wear down against the Longhorns.

Then again, Nebraska has a history of overachieving when it has the right leadership. That will be critical this Saturday night at Cowboys Stadium. Going in as a two-touchdown underdog, NU needs all the overachievement it can get.

What Nebraska needs most is to decide once and for all that it belongs on the national stage again.

To win, the Huskers need to make this a 15-round heavyweight bout. Senior linebacker Phillip Dillard already has said the Huskers will come out swinging. They’ll get knocked down a couple of times, but they’ll need to get back up and keep punching. The defense needs to be solid, the special teams need to be airtight, but Nebraska can’t win its first conference title in a decade without significant help from its offense.

The offensive line, which has sputtered most of the season, has finally produced a few signs of life lately. It needs to land a bunch of effective body blows, as it did on the 13-play, 80-yard fourth-quarter touchdown drive at Boulder last week. Offensive line coach Barney Cotton was in a back-to-basics mood Monday night after practice, stressing that physical play is what the Huskers need most.

“The big thing is, when you block a good run defense, you’ve got to put a hat on guys, have backs who run hard and have receivers who go down and get hats on secondary guys,” said Cotton. “It’ll be 11 guys trying to be physical. We’ll see what we can do.”

It’ll have to be a lot more than the Husker line has shown thus far. If my e-mailbox is any indication, there is plenty of discontent about Cotton in Husker Nation, and this is a big chance for his unit to make a statement. If his o-line can punch out a 200-yard rushing effort against Sergio Kindle, Earl Thomas and their Texas teammates, it would right a lot of things that have gone wrong offensively this season. Just as importantly, it could give the Blackshirts enough rest to keep them at peak efficiency.

This would be a great time for Rex Burkhead, who got his first 100-yard game against Colorado, to make a triumphal return to Texas. It would be a good time to open more recruiting doors throughout the Lone Star State, as the Husker coaches have begun to do.

Win or lose, at the very least, Nebraska needs to prove itself on both sides of the ball as the re-emerging, hit-you-in-the-mouth physical team that Pelini and Cotton have talked about. Anything less would be a real letdown.


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