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Nebraska sees historic change on horizon

3/31/2011

LINCOLN, Neb. -- Nebraska's transition to the Big Ten is taking place at different speeds.

By the time spring practice kicked off, Huskers defensive coordinator Carl Pelini already had broken down game film of the eight Big Ten opponents Nebraska faces this fall. Players like running back Rex Burkhead and center Mike Caputo also have been checking out clips of their new conference brethren.

Tim Marlowe, a wide receiver from Youngstown, Ohio, has become the resident Big Ten historian on the squad.

"Everyone's always asking me about the Big Ten," Marlowe said.

For others, the Big Ten isn't quite on the radar. New offensive coordinator Tim Beck is too busy installing a new system this spring to pore over Big Ten film (though he will eventually). Players like tight end Kyler Reed have caught glimpses of Big Ten games but haven't dived in just yet. Head coach Bo Pelini is keeping the focus on Nebraska rather than its new league.

Big Ten logos aren't plastered around the Osborne Athletic Complex, Memorial Stadium or downtown Lincoln. But change is coming to Husker Country.

On July 1, Nebraska becomes a member of the Big Ten. Three months later, the Huskers' football team plays its first Big Ten game against defending league champ Wisconsin in Madison.

"It's pretty cool to play new teams, see new stadiums, some really historical stadiums: big, huge, loud," Reed said. "When I'm older, I'll be able to say, 'Yeah, I was there when we first started playing in the Big Ten.'"

Nebraska is ready for the change. Despite its ties to the Big 8, Nebraska won't miss the Big 12, a league where it seemed to lose influence as the power shifted to the South division.

The Big Ten provided the stability Nebraska sought, and though the Huskers haven't played a regular-season football game against a Big Ten team since 2003, there's confidence the school and the league will blend well.

"When you get up north in the Big 12," Carl Pelini said, "the tradition, the weather, everything about this place, the type of kid we have here, marries up with the Big Ten much better than we did with the Big 12."

The Pelini brothers should know.

They grew up in Youngstown, Ohio. Bo played safety for Ohio State from 1987-90 and started his coaching career at Iowa. Carl grew up as an Ohio State fan and also had some affection for Penn State, then a Division I-A independent. He rooted for the Buckeyes against Arkansas in the Sugar Bowl and for Ohio State's basketball team in the NCAA tournament.

"It's hard to cheer against the Ohio boys," Carl Pelini said. "Those are deep-seated loyalties. Obviously, I won't feel any of that when they come here [Oct. 8]."

Beck also grew up in Youngstown and attended the same high school (Cardinal Mooney) as the Pelinis. While the Big Ten move makes things come full circle -- "All our families are excited," Beck said -- there's a lot to learn.

"Usually, you know, even personnel wise, what you're going to be up against," Beck said. "Who's fast, who's physical, who's big, who's slow. You always had an idea in the Big 12, and going into a new conference, you're not really sure. You're not really sure the venues you're going to play in. I know they're incredible. But it's different. Is it a Texas loud? Is it an Oklahoma loud?

"How are those stadiums going to be?"

Nebraska will find out right away. The Big Ten did the Huskers no favors with their initial league schedule. Big Red travels to Wisconsin, Penn State and Michigan in addition to hosting defending Big Ten co-champs Ohio State and Michigan State.

The new surroundings pose a challenge, but Nebraska still must win games between the lines. What do the Huskers expect from their new league foes?

"You think SEC, fast; you think Big 12, kind of mixture, and then you think Big Ten -- it’s just powerhouse running, run-it-down-your-throat type football teams," wide receiver Brandon Kinnie said. "It's just the assumption you get, the stereotype."

Kinnie is on the right track.

"You're going to get bigger, stronger, more physical guys in this conference," Beck said. "Not that the Big 12 didn't have them, but you're probably going to see more of them, and every team's going to have them."

Nebraska has them, too, especially on defense. The Blackshirts ranked 11th nationally in total defense last fall (306.8 ypg) after finishing seventh in 2009 (272 ppg). They led the nation in points allowed in 2009 (10.4 ppg) and ranked ninth this past season (17.4 ppg).

Superb defense has been Bo Pelini's hallmark, and his defenders enter the Big Ten with supreme confidence.

"You hear all the hoopla about how it's a power conference and they're going to run it down our throat and come right at us," Huskers star defensive tackle Jared Crick said. "I've seen Big Ten games and they do run the ball a lot, a lot of power, a lot of lead. But if we play our defense, it doesn't matter who's running at us with what. We're still going to beat them. Everybody on this defense believes that.

"If we can execute our defense, there's not one team in the nation who should be able to put points up on us."

The term championship-level defense is used a lot around here, and for good reason. The Blackshirts boast multiple All-America candidates. If the new offense clicks, Nebraska could be very dangerous this fall.

Despite the schedule, Nebraska enters its new league as an immediate title contender. After falling short in the Big 12 championship game the past two seasons, the Huskers are motivated to make their mark right away in a potentially wide-open Big Ten.

"We're going to the Big Ten, and we're not changing just to be changing," Kinnie said. "We're going to win."