Ready or Not
ANN ARBOR – Lose on Saturday to Michigan and Nebraska’s probably playing for 2014 in the last cold weeks of 2013. Technically, the Huskers wouldn’t have been eliminated from the Legends Division race but they would’ve needed a combination of wins and losses from other teams so bewildering that it wouldn’t have even been worth trying to sort it all out. Few would have bothered. Easier to consider prospective coaching prospects.
But Nebraska didn’t lose in Ann Arbor. Instead, it won the right to do everything itself. More importantly and perhaps shockingly, this young Nebraska team showed that it might be ready to do it now.
Maybe. Michigan State looms next week in a de facto division playoff game and the Spartans are as a tough as shoe leather, but Nebraska has a whole week to get ready for that challenge. And that’s the thing about being young. An hour can feel like days. A week sometimes seems to take a month. You can grow a lot when time is expanded and, for the first real time this season, growth seemed indisputable.
Look at how young that Nebraska team was on Saturday. The Huskers played without three starters on the offensive line after Jeremiah Sirles fell prey to the knee injury epidemic that’s befallen the offensive line of late. In their place were three lightly used linemen in Mike Moudy, Ryne Reeves and Zach Sterup.
They protected a redshirt freshman quarterback as he led the first game-winning drive of his career. The Huskers final touchdown drive started with Tommy Armstrong overthrowing a wide-open Cethan Carter, another freshman, when a simple completion might have meant six-points right there. It’s a throw Armstrong will make in the future, maybe next year or two years from now. Or maybe next week.
You never know with youth.
The Huskers’ defense took its first teetering steps last week in the second half of the win over Northwestern. This week, it looked like a toddler racing around the Big House; still shaky in spots, yes, but totally in love with its newfound ability to move and blindly confident in that power.
That unit has four seniors who are significant contributors. It looks to two freshmen at middle linebacker to get everyone in the right spot – perhaps the most significant task in this scheme — and two new defensive ends when it really wants to get after the quarterback.
Nebraska did both of those things remarkably well on Saturday, holding a Michigan offense that, in its previous home game, gained 751 yards against Indiana, to just 175. That total includes negative 21 yards rushing thanks to seven sacks, led by JUCO-transfer defensive end Randy Gregory’s three.
“The farther we go down this season we kind of figure out we’re a good unit,” Gregory said. “A lot of people were kind of looking down on us early in the season and I think that kind of gave us fuel for the rest of the season.”
Youth sometimes works like that too. Tell them they can’t do something and it becomes exactly what they want to do.
“I said as this group comes of age, this has a chance to be a really good defense for a number of years,” Bo Pelini said minutes after Nebraska had just given up its fewest yards since 2010. “I think we’re watching some guys grow up in front of our eyes.”
It definitely looked that way and there isn’t much question as to the future. It looks bright with all of this young talent. But what about right now?
It’s a question few thought they’d be asking after this trip to Michigan. Nebraska was supposed to lose. It wasn’t consistent enough. The stage was maybe just too big for a young and inexperienced group. Michigan had never lost at home under Brady Hoke.
As the 2013 season looked less like the one Husker fans were hoping for, talk predictably turned towards the next one. Saturday’s result showed that Nebraska is still alive in this one. The Huskers get their biggest game of the season at home. Memorial Stadium will be monstrous.
But that’s seven days from now, an eternity for those guys that placed another pencil mark (Michigan, 2013) on the doorjamb on Saturday.
“I’m going to enjoy this one today,” Pelini said. “I’ll worry about (Michigan State) tomorrow.”
Funny because the win offered the exact opposite for Nebraska fans. For another week at least, they get to think about today rather than tomorrow.
Fittingly, that’s a freedom typically reserved for the young.