Saturday marks Nebraska’s third trip to Madison since joining the Big Ten in 2011. There have been 90 Associated Press polls released over that span. Nebraska has been ranked in 52 of them (57.8 percent) with an average rank between 17th and 18th. That is the picture of a program that hasn’t been bad, but has struggled to get over the hump.
A big part of the reason why? Wisconsin.
Nebraska has traveled to Madison ranked no worse than 11th (8th/11th/7th) in three trips. Wisconsin has been ranked 7th, 22nd and 11th. In a nod to the difficulty of playing at Camp Randall, the average line in those three games has been Wisconsin -8.2. The games were nowhere near as close, ending in a 31-point Wisconsin win in 2011 and a 35-point win in 2014.
Wisconsin didn’t just club the Huskers back to the pack in those games. The Badgers Jose-Bautista-bat-flipped Nebraska back to Lincoln.
Those games didn’t look like total mismatches at kickoff, but they did at the final gun. How do you explain it?
“I can’t,” Wisconsin Athletic Director Barry Alvarez said in an interview with Hail Varsity Radio this week. “The last time we played up here we were down two touchdowns in the first quarter. We turned it over a few times, but then our guys responded well. Sometimes it’s a match up. Sometimes a player gets hot. Sometimes a defense isn’t prepared for certain things. You can’t put your finger on it.”
Husker fans have stopped trying to put a finger on those games. That’s what a coaching change gets you — a mostly clean slate. So this week is all about writing a new story.
I think there are reasons to believe it will have a different ending, too, and you can start with the man in charge.
“This is the 2016 Husker team, so we’re going to just get ready to play football against a good football team,” Coach Mike Riley said Monday when asked about the previous meltdowns in Madison. “We have to win on the road if we want to be that team that we want to be, and we’ve done that twice and now it’s going to be a bigger, tougher environment . . . I’ve loved how we’ve responded and competed, and know that we’ll do that, and it’s just a matter of playing better than them on Saturday night. That’s what it’s going to boil down to. The history of it doesn’t really matter to me.”
Those are the right words. Will they translate to the right sentiment come Saturday?
It is harder to find reasons to think they won’t rather than to think they will.
Nebraska’s biggest loss of the Riley era remains the 10-point loss at Purdue. You could make the argument that, even with your backup quarterback, losing by 10 as a 7-point favorite to the Boilermakers is a pretty significant collapse. I’ll hear that argument and note that it could have been much worse. It was much worse — 42-16 — headed into the fourth quarter. The Huskers played horribly against a horrible team, no sugar coating it, but it didn’t get blown out and it absolutely could have.
Riley’s Nebraska hasn’t been blown out yet and that matters. Say what you will about the Huskers’ 7-0 start — nobody in Nebraska really thinks it is any more than it is, which is an undefeated record with the toughest games yet to come — but there have been moments along the way to that record when Nebraska had every opportunity to fold.
Driving to the tie game late in the second quarter against Oregon, a red-zone turnover turns into a Ducks touchdown one play later. Then the Huskers follow it up with a punt. It’s here that Oregon typically puts the pedal to the metal. Instead the Blackshirts hit the brakes, force a punt and Nebraska goes on a brisk touchdown drive.
Nebraska trailed Illinois headed into the fourth quarter and was averaging 2.87 yards per carry against one of the Big Ten’s best defensive lines. The Huskers run it on 18 of 21 fourth-quarter plays anyway, average 6.33 yards per rush and score 21 points.
Against Indiana, the Huskers went up 17-0 but were clinging to 24-22 lead with 8:26 remaining. Nebraska was rushing for barely 3 yards a carry at that point. It decides to run it on 15 straight plays, burns 7:41 off the clock and gets a Drew Brown field goal, leaving the Hoosiers with 45 seconds to mount a 75-yard touchdown drive. Doesn’t happen. Disaster averted.
Then there was Purdue, a scenario so similar to the first two it almost defies belief. Minus Tommy Armstrong Jr.’s 22-yard touchdown run on Nebraska’s first play from scrimmage, the Huskers are averaging 3.15 yards per rush against the Big Ten’s worst rush defense and up just 17-14 on the Boilermakers, a 23-point underdog. Guess what happens next? Nebraska somehow finds a way to run the ball (4.63 yards per carry in the fourth) and wins. It was unimpressive, but it was a win.
You can look at all of the above as reasons to think Nebraska is a very soft 7-0. I wouldn’t even disagree with you. The margin between the 2016 Huskers and whichever team they are playing has looked razor thin at times and that is not the way to win friends and influence pundits.
But I would argue that shouldn’t be the primary takeaway from what the Huskers have done this season and what Riley has done in 20 games at Nebraska. That’s focusing on what the Huskers have yet to prove rather than what they have.
I look at all of the above and start to realize this isn’t the temper-tantrum Huskers any more. This isn’t the team you have to buy the bag of candy for in hopes of avoiding the supermarket-aisle meltdown that makes your neighbors pretend they didn’t see you.
What does that mean for Saturday in Madison? It doesn’t mean that Nebraska will win. Wisconsin is good and proven and a legitimate favorite. But I do think it means fans on both sides will finally get the game everyone expects. It might be ugly. It might be a punt-filled, who avoids the big turnover, who gets the last big play Big Ten classic. It might be a heartbreaker for one of these teams.
But it won’t be a meltdown. That feels like the old Nebraska.
And that feels like progress.