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October 3, 2010

Consistent enough for October stretch?

It was apparent all along that October would show what the 2010 Nebraska football team has really got, and that’s the way the season has set itself up.

Thursday in a national ESPN broadcast, the Cornhuskers will face a run-first, run-often Kansas State team, which is still undefeated and features Daniel Thomas, possibly the best running back in the Big 12. That is followed up by games against pass-oriented Texas, balanced Oklahoma State and pass-oriented Missouri. Of the four, it’s possible that only the Cowboys will be a Top 25 team by the time they play the Huskers.

Even though its combined record is 15-2 right now, I wouldn’t exactly call the foursome a murderer’s row. All are quite winnable games for Nebraska. The problem is, it’s going to be very hard to win them in succession. It will be a real test of consistency for a team that has not yet achieved that level in Bo Pelini’s third year as head coach.

Tom Osborne was almost daily compared to Bob Devaney throughout his first decade on the job because, although he almost always beat the mid-level teams, he often failed to win the "big one." Now Pelini, who reminds me of Devaney in several ways, has to live up to Osborne’s legendary standard of consistency.

Going 4-0 in the nonconference schedule for the first time since 2003 is a good start. Nebraska has not defeated a rated team yet this season, but the win over Washington is looking better after the Huskies (2-2) went to the L.A. Coliseum and knocked of previously unbeaten Southern Cal.

To this point, Nebraska has proved that the thing it does best is defend the pass. The thing it does worst is throw the forward pass. So it’s possible that the Kansas State game could provide the greatest test of the four, but I think NU will wake from its South Dakota State slumber and hold K-State to less than 200 yards rushing. Look for Niles Paul to set up at least one touchdown with an explosive play as the Huskers beat the Wildcats by 12 to 17 points.

Against Texas, the first quarter will be critical. If Nebraska struggles early with turnovers or penalties (it’s in the worst 25 percent of all major-college teams for penalty yardage) and gets into a three-and-out rut on offense, it could be a long day, but if the Huskers make something good happen early on offense against Texas and get a score from the defense or special teams, they could roll the Horns decisively.

Texas (3-2) has tried to re-introduce the power running game to Austin, but it’s been a frustrating experience for the defending conference champs. Although they’ll try to run the ball enough to keep the Blackshirts honest, the slumping Longhorns likely will try to beat Nebraska with short and medium-range passes, but the Huskers are exceptional at defending the pass and tackling well on short throws. This game sets up well for Nebraska, even though Texas has a five-game winning streak against the Big Red and has managed to escape Lincoln three consecutive times with narrow victories.

I think the game at Stillwater, Okla. – where Nebraska has not won since 1995 – will be the toughest October game for Nebraska to win, especially if NU beats Texas. The Cowboys have a balanced attack with great playmakers at running back and wide receiver, a soon-to-be 27-year-old quarterback who is gaining momentum and a defense that is questionable. A consistent Nebraska offense should be able to outscore the Cowpokes, but if the Huskers are coming off an emotional win over Texas, I think they’ll have no more than a 50-50 shot of winning this one.

If NU rolls into Stillwater undefeated, it may be the biggest test of consistency that Pelini has yet faced. Working in the Huskers’ favor is the fact that they have played well on the road lately. But if OSU loses to Texas Tech at Lubbock on Oct. 16 – which could easily happen – it actually could help the Cowboys play relaxed and error-free the following week and beat Nebraska.

Missouri must play Colorado, Texas A&M and Oklahoma before facing Nebraska on Oct. 30, but if the Tigers can win two of those games, they will be in position to tie for the North lead with a win in Lincoln, and the tiebreaker would be in their pocket. But even though Blaine Gabbert is the league’s best bet to become a starting NFL quarterback, old Mizzou doesn’t have a salty enough defense and probably not a good enough running game to beat the Huskers this season.

The Huskers have finished the season strong in their first two seasons under Pelini, but only after they’ve stumbled badly at the midpoint. We’re about to find out if they have the steadiness to avoid a misstep in October.

Formerly the sports editor at the North Platte Bulletin and a sportswriter/columnist for the North Platte Telegraph, Tad Stryker has covered University of Nebraska and state 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