photo and story by Patrick Runge
Nebraska football fans were relieved to leave Evanston on Saturday with a 38-17 win over Northwestern, and could be forgiven for sneaking a peek at Wisconsin. After all, the Badgers look to be Nebraska’s next big test, with home games against Rutgers and Purdue standing in the way.
But those games still need to be played, and the chance exists for either team to upset Nebraska. Could that happen? Here are three things to worry about.
The First Defensive Series
Other than against Fresno State and (remarkably) Michigan State, Nebraska has allowed each opponent this year to score on its opening possession. Nebraska has not lost any of the games in which it has conceded an opening-drive score, but that doesn’t lessen the fire with which NU is playing.
There are only a few ways teams with inferior talent can pull off an upset, particularly away from home. One is to get a lead early and play keep-away, hoping that the pressure of a potential upset on the favorite will lead to more mistakes.
Surrendering an opening drive touchdown doesn’t necessarily lead to an upset. Nebraska gave up opening scores to Florida Atlantic and Illinois before blowing those teams off the field. But Nebraska also gave up an opening score to FCS opponent McNeese State, helping the Cowboys to stay confident and able to hang with NU until the very end of the contest.
If Nebraska wants to avoid an upset prior to Wisconsin, coming out of the gate strong defensively would be a significant first step in doing so.
The Sneaky-Good Opponents
Hear me out. Yes, Nebraska has Rutgers and Purdue prior to Wisconsin, teams that at the start of the season would have been assumed wins.
Rutgers showed at least some signs of life this year, putting up a 5-2 record including a win on the road at Washington State. But the Scarlet Knights’ close loss to Penn State is looking less and less impressive as the Lions struggle. And Ohio State ran Rutgers off the field last week, beating the Knights 56-17 in Columbus.
Purdue came into the season looking to be the worst team in the Big Ten. And at 3-5, the Boilermakers look to be fitting right into that prediction.
But Purdue’s record can be a little misleading. The Boilermakers gave both Iowa and Michigan State a game, losing to the Hawkeyes 24-10 in a game that was closer than the score indicated and 45-31 to the Spartans.
Rutgers’ 5-2 record already suggests that the Knights could be more of a challenge than thought of at the start of the season. And with a win over Michigan, Rutgers showed it could beat a team with significantly better talent (albeit one in the midst of a total collapse).
In some ways, 2014 feels like a different season for Nebraska. A comfortable win over Northwestern and a resilient (if ultimately unsuccessful) comeback on the road against a top opponent may be evidence that Bo Pelini’s squad this year is ready to shake off the doldrums of a four-loss season.
But that four-loss ceiling hasn’t been broken yet. And Pelini’s teams still have a track record of head-scratching losses to inferior teams. Both Rutgers and Purdue have inferior talent to Nebraska, and both games are in Lincoln. On paper, Nebraska should be prohibitive favorites against both teams.
But Pelini’s teams have in the past shown a propensity, or at least a vulnerability, to lose games they should win. Falling victim to that propensity could lead to an upset, and a real setback in Nebraska’s attempt to reclaim national relevance.