It’s Time

That thing that happened in Memorial Stadium on Saturday? It wasn’t a football game. That would imply some sort of competition between two equally capable teams. This was not that.

Nebraska and Idaho State are separated by at least a few steps on the college football food chain. The Huskers were the predator, the Bengals the prey and the outcome of this particular game was written into the DNA of both programs long ago. There was no other available outcome other than a big Nebraska win. In this case, 73-7. Like one of those old nature documentaries on the Discovery Channel, the only drama was finding out exactly how Idaho State would meet its demise.

Hope everyone had fun because now things get real. Not just because conference play is a different animal, but also because the Big Ten is a wounded animal and Nebraska, while far from fully formed, looks like it could be near the top of that food chain too.

After four non-conference games here’s what we know about the Big Ten teams on Nebraska’s schedule:

–Wisconsin has put up less than 300 yards of total offense twice, fired its offensive line coach, switched quarterbacks, and witnessed senior running back Montee Ball’s first career fumble all in the past four weeks. The Badgers could be without Ball next Saturday after he went out of this week’s game with a possible concussion.

–Ohio State has the quarterback in Braxton Miller to hurt the Huskers, but the Buckeyes have looked strangely pedestrian the past two weeks in closer than expected home wins over California and Alabama-Birmingham.

–Northwestern, at 4-0, is a better team than the one that came into Lincoln and won last year.

–Michigan was still tangling with Notre Dame at the time of this writing, but the Wolverines have struggled to stop the run and Nebraska runs it pretty well.

–Michigan State doesn’t have an offense. Following its 41-7 week two win over Central Michigan, the Spartans went seven straight quarters without scoring a touchdown while sleepwalking past Eastern Michigan, 23-7.

–Penn State might be getting better, but they’re not quite good yet.

–Next week’s game between Iowa and Minnesota in Iowa City seems like a toss-up which tells you how those two teams are trending.

As things stand right now, Nebraska would likely be favored in all but two of those games and calling Michigan State a favorite right now is based almost solely on the fact that the teams will play in East Lansing. You could perhaps say the same about the Nebraska-Michigan game, but the point is this: The conference crown is there for the taking.

Now Nebraska needs to do something it hasn’t done before under Pelini – go out and take it.  The loss to UCLA was ugly and got uglier with the Bruins loss to Oregon State on Saturday, but Nebraska has rebounded. The Huskers have something a lot of teams in the Big Ten don’t right now: momentum.

“I think we’re right where we need to be,” quarterback Taylor Martinez said following Saturday’s game. “If we just keep this momentum going, we will be tough to beat.”

Lopsided wins over Arkansas State and Idaho State are rarely the building blocks of a conference title type season, but given how the Big Ten’s national reputation has nosedived over the past few weeks, it’s as good an edge as any.

Now throw in the fact that it’s not just the conference opener next Saturday, but Wisconsin, the team that so rudely welcomed Nebraska to the Big Ten last year.

“It kind of put a bad taste in our mouth after last year, starting off that way in the Big Ten,” running back Rex Burkhead said Saturday.

Nebraska should use that. It should also use what will likely be a well-lubricated home crowd under the lights and it should use whatever extra juice it can get from the excitement over fancy new uniforms.

The Huskers should move the ball pretty well against Wisconsin. Nebraska enters Saturday averaging 541.75 yards per game on offense. Only Indiana – who played Indiana State, Massachusetts, and Ball State – even comes close to that number.

The Huskers should be able to stop Wisconsin. The Badgers are averaging just 312.75 yards per game. That’s the worst in the Big Ten.

Nebraska definitely should win this game, but that’s been the case numerous times before and the Huskers have faltered. But this might be the ultimate must-win. The Huskers have a chance to state clearly that the road to Indianapolis runs through Lincoln.

Are they up to it?

“We’ll find out next Saturday,” coach Bo Pelini said. “I’m looking forward to it.”

So are thousands of Husker fans. Those fans can go into this game confidently. They should go into this game confidently.

It’s time for the Huskers to play that way, too.