When the Huskers came back from the bye week before Illinois, head coach Mickey Joseph said they had a five-game season remaining. Each game involved a strong, physical, tough conference opponent built to bruise.
That schedule didn’t get any easier after the Illinois loss and the calendar flipped to November. Nebraska has Minnesota, No. 4 Michigan, Wisconsin and rival Iowa to close out the regular season.
“It’s a Big Ten November,” team captain Garrett Nelson said during Tuesday’s press conference.
From the remaining four games must come three wins in order for the Huskers to earn the unlikeliest of bowl bids. The greatest common denominator of this grand quest is preparation to be the best team on the field each Saturday.
“I’m confident that they’ll come back and bounce back this week,” Joseph said in his opening statement. “We talked this morning and they guaranteed me that they’re still ready to go, we’re ready to get after it and be the best team on Saturday.
“This time of the year we’re dealing with a lot of injuries so we have the next-man-up mentality like we talk about every week.”
That starts at the linchpin of the offense. Quarterback Casey Thompson sat out Tuesday’s practices to see doctors for an arm injury Joseph referred to as a nerve issue. He’s considered day to day and backups Chubba Purdy and Logan Smothers took equal reps in Tuesday’s practice. Joseph said they’d reevaluate Thompson on Wednesday.
In the backfield, Jaquez Yant seems to have emerged as the go-to No. 2 option behind Anthony Grant. Running back Rahmir Johnson played well in special teams, Joseph thought against Illinois. But Johnson missed his only target against the Illini, just two plays before the hit on Thompson when the Huskers held a 9-6 lead.
Nebraska’s short-staffed offensive line could see a boost. Jailen Weaver came to Joseph on Saturday afternoon during the bye week with the idea. The 6-foot-8, 345-pound redshirt freshman is “super athletic” for his size, lineman Colton Feist said on Tuesday.
Defensively, the Huskers played without team captain Nick Henrich for the first full game. Luke Reimer rose into that leadership role among the linebackers and true freshman Ernest Hausmann stepped up among a group of young linebackers. Coaches effectively benched Hausmann earlier this season. The Columbus native said he trusted the process and stuck with it.
“There’s just that split-second time, in high school you might have extra time to make the decision, I would say in college that decision is a little bit quicker,” Hausmann said. “Maybe early on I’d hesitate, whereas now I would say I’d make the decision.”
And what about the physicality?
“A lot more physical,” he said.
Hausmann trusted Reimer and the other veterans on the defense like senior linebackers Eteva Mauga-Clements and Chris Kolarevic.
Feist, the Yutan native, has started every game at defensive tackle for the Huskers. He admitted he’s had to adjust throughout the year to build himself up to that longevity of playing the majority of the snaps in each game.
“We’re going to get a little beat up, you may be sore the next day,” Feist said. “We always talk about investing our time in recovering instead of spending it. So just having that mindset with trying to get yourself ready for the next game and practice, stuff like that.”
Minnesota poses a similar challenge that Illinois did. It’s another physical, run-first offense coming to Lincoln, led by a Mohamed Ibrahim, who is 45 yards shy of cracking 1,000 yards this season.
“He’s a monster, man,” Joseph said. “He runs low to the ground, he gets his pads down, he finishes runs.”
Joseph said Nebraska’s defense will have to swarm to the ball and gang tackle. Arm tackles won’t cut it the rest of the season. The Huskers have four more consecutive weeks of answering the physicality call and Big Ten ball.