One of the biggest college football games of the upcoming weekend also has some major historical significance, as Nebraska's storied program plays its first Big Ten conference game.
Unfortunately for the Cornhuskers, Jim Delaney isn't going to let them just ease into things with a nice little game in Lincoln against Minnesota or anything like that. Instead, they're heading to Madison for a night game against Wisconsin, the consensus favorite in the Big Ten this year and a legitimate national championship contender.
We reached out to our good friend Darren Carlson at the great Nebraska blog Big Red Network to try and get a handle on how things are shaping up for the Children of the Corn.
1. This being Nebraska's first-ever Big Ten game, you're about to find out how real football is played. Are you scared?
No. Husker fans are excited, but not scared.
As you know, Nebraska was very capable of playing toe-to-toe with best teams the Big 12 had to offer the last two years. Based on that, the run of consecutive 10-win seasons under Pelini and the overall talent of this team, there is no reason for Nebraska to be "scared" of anybody in the Big Ten.
This is an excellent league. It's a very competitive league with great teams and strong tradition. To a man, Husker fans are thrilled to be a part of it. For Nebraska to play arguably the Big Ten's best team in their opening Big Ten game...that's just fantastic.
2. Madison has proven over the years to be one of the toughest environments for opponents to come to and win, especially at night when everyone is drunk. Do you have any concerns about the Cornhuskers' composure?
This may be one of the most important variables in the game. Madison will be nuts. Camp Randall will be rocking. That's an advantage for Wisconsin, certainly. Just as it is for any home team. Keeping their composure and not making mistakes is the only way for NU to keep the home field advantage from going to 7 points from 3. If the Badgers jump ahead early, it will compound from there. Nebraska must make plays early in the ball game (on special teams, maybe?) that can help take the crowd out of it.
On the plus side, this current group of Husker coaches and many of the players have been in some tough spots before. I don't think they will shrink on a big stage. Coach Pelini has typically played the "us against the world" card with pretty good success. So, the team will be pretty well girded for Saturday.
3. If you were advising Wisconsin offensive coordinator Paul Chryst on how to attack Nebraska's defense, what would you tell him?
Attack the Husker secondary and linebackers. Nebraska's current defensive problems are not up front. They are because the linebackers and/or safeties are getting caught out of position. Anything the Badgers do to make those players take false steps or mis-read a play will be successful.
4. Offensively, where do you see NU potentially having an advantage over the Badger defense?
Speed kills. Nebraska's skill position players are much faster than anybody Wisconsin has seen so far this year. They might be the fastest they face all year. If Wisconsin thinks NU is only going to line up and run power with Rex Burkhead, they are mistaken. Martinez can go by people like a breeze. And, the other skill people - like tight end Kyler Reed and wide outs Kenny Bell and Jamal Turner - are very fast. The Badger linebackers trying to cover Husker backs on wheel routes is a good potential example. If Martinez can be a distributor and get the ball to these players in space, it is advantage: NU. The key will be getting them the ball. That's on Martinez.
Nebraska's offensive line has improved significantly in the last two weeks as coaches have made roster change-ups. The Husker o-line is pretty deep, so players should be fresh. I genuinely think Nebraska can score the ball in this game.
5. People don't realize how much of a weapon Nebraska had the last few years in kicker Alex Henery. How have the special teams units performed following his graduation?
Brett Maher has taken over both the kicking and punting duties and is arguably the biggest surprise of the 2011 season. The guy is nails. As a punter, he's averaging 49 yards a kick with a long of 61, and that's with having a 70+ yard punt called back by penalty. As a kicker, he's gone 8 of 9 on field goals and made all 21 extra points. He went 4-for-4 in his debut, including a 50 yard kick in to the wind that was good with room to spare. His only miss is debatable. It went above the uprights in the thin air in Wyoming. Nebraska will continue to have a very high-quality kicking game.
The return game appears to be in solid - even spectacular - hands with explosive freshman Ameer Abdullah returning both kickoffs and punts very well.
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