For the third time in Bo Pelini's five years, the Nebraska Cornhuskers are playing in a conference championship game. It rarely came easy this year, but they enter the rematch with Wisconsin at 10-2 and ranked in the top 15.
Last week's Iowa game has been described in many unflattering terms. A slogging, boring game that set football back 50 years. But beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and for most Husker fans, a win is a win at this point in the season. In addition, it's just another example of why a strong running game and stout defense are essential for late November, mid-western, hard hitting football.
Since the Ohio State debacle, this team has come together. It has toppled adversity time and time again (admittedly, much of it was self-induced). When they were on the ropes, they came out fighting. They were not to be denied. The coaches are pushing the right buttons, and players are making the necessary plays. The intangibles are always difficult to gauge, but this team has them. The seniors are leading this team and big time players are making big time plays.
All of this gives me cautious optimism for Saturday night. There's just something about this team that makes me think they will overcome all odds (starting center, Justin Jackson, out, starting defensive tackle, Baker Steinkuhler, out, trying to beat a team twice in one season). Excuses are for the weak, though. This team hasn't used them all season; they just keep working and playing hard.
Wisconsin is more than a worthy opponent. They're two time defending B1G Champions, extremely well coached, and littered with talent at many positions. They are tough and hard hitting, and they've been here before.
Nebraska is now 12-4 in its initial two seasons of Big Ten play. They have one more game to reach the pinnacle of the conference, one more game to smell the roses. Here are a few keys for Nebraska to leave Indianapolis with a trophy:
- Wrecking Ball: After a slow start to the season, Montee Ball has really picked up steam. In the last half of the season, he's been churning out yards and scoring touchdowns at a pace equivalent to his incredible Heisman-finalist 2011 year. Nebraska's front seven, without their sturdiest player Baker Steinkhuler, will need to be ready for the physical, down-hill style of Wisconsin's offensive line and running backs. Nebraska needs to limit the big runs and keep Ball in check (as much as you can keep him in check). Ball and Wisconsin will get some rushing yards; Nebraska will need to make them earn it and limit the damage.
- 3rd and Long: This probably goes hand-in-hand with the above key, but I really like Nebraska's chances if the Blackshirts can keep the Badgers in third and long situations for most of the game. Their quarterback, Curt Phillips, although a fifth year senior, is relatively inexperienced. Wisconsin's offense relies heavily on play-action passes set-up by their strong running game, so keeping them in third and long negates the play-action, thus limiting the plays their stud wide receiver, Jared Abbrederis, can make. Plus, Nebraska's difference making defensive end Eric Martin can feast on their offensive line in obvious passing situations.
- Utilize Speed: It would be a gross misconception to characterize Wisconsin as a slow, plodding offense and defense. They have plenty of athletes and plenty of speed. That being said, Nebraska's team speed, particularly in the offensive skill positions, could be a major factor in a controlled, dome environment. The Cornhuskers need to utilize the skills and speed of a Kenny Bell and Jamal Turner. Get the ball to them in any way possible, quick screens, reverses, whatever they have to do to take advantage of their speed. Execute zone-reads and other plays designed to get Taylor Martinez going north-south with his incredible acceleration. And just like Tim Beck has done all year, get Rex Burkhead and Ameer Abdullah around the edge with pulling guards, centers and fullbacks clearing the way. Once the edge is established, smack them up the middle. Look for a huge game from Kenny Bell, and look for Rex Burkhead to will his team as much as one man can.
60 Minutes: This maddening and magical and crazy and kooky season comes down to sixty minutes of football. Cornhusker fans everywhere have waited over a decade for another conference championship. It's right there for this team. The seniors who came in with Pelini's first class want to leave a legacy. They want to establish Nebraska as the heart of heartland football. Want-to won't be enough. They have to bring it for the entire game, four quarters. Don't tempt fate with two quarters of sloppy football. They need to be at their best for sixty minutes. Just like Nebraska, Wisconsin has improved tremendously since that exciting game in late September. To beat them a second time, the Huskers need to be crisp and clean from the coin toss to the final gun.
- Turnovers & Takeaways: Here it is, one final time for the keys in 2012. Win the turnover battle, or at least keep it even, and more than likely win the game. We can probably count on a turnover or two from the Nebraska offense. Hopefully not, but that has been the pattern. So to neutralize that, the Blackshirts need to create their own takeaways. Wisconsin is one of the best teams in the nation in protecting the ball, so it won't be easy. But the Blackshirts have become more adept at creating takeaways as the season has rolled along, and if they want to be crowned B1G Champions and spend New Years in Pasadena, they will need to continue that trend.