Monday, April 2, 2012
Huskers heightening expectations for 2012
By Adam Rittenberg
LINCOLN, Neb. -- The belief that Nebraska would waltz through the Big Ten in Year 1 as a league member turned out to be farfetched.
Or perhaps it was just premature.
Nebraska quarterback Taylor Martinez and running back Rex Burkhead are testing each other this offseason.
While expectations outside the Huskers program might be a bit more tempered heading into the 2012 season, the bar certainly has been raised inside the walls of the Osborne Athletic Complex. Just listen to a guy not known for making bold statements, or, for that matter, many statements at all.
"If we don't go to the national championship, I'll be pretty disappointed," junior quarterback Taylor Martinez told ESPN.com, echoing a sentiment he has voiced during the spring. "If you don't set your goals high, I don't know why you'd be playing football."
Nebraska hasn't won a conference championship since 1999, and hasn't played for a national championship since the 2001 season. The Huskers have won 38 games in the past four seasons under Bo Pelini and reached back-to-back Big 12 title games in 2009 and 2010, but they'll need to take some major steps this fall to put themselves in position to make a run for Miami.
Martinez and his teammates think they can get there. It's why when they break the huddle in practice, they shout, "BCS!"
"We're just trying to get into everybody's head," Martinez said, "knowing that we will be going to the BCS."
Nebraska was a confident team a year ago, especially on the defensive side, where stars like Jared Crick, Lavonte David and Alfonzo Dennard returned. And at times, the Huskers looked to be an elite squad, never more so than when they thrashed eventual Legends division champion Michigan State at Memorial Stadium.
But players and coaches both have acknowledged the Huskers struggled to handle success. A week after the Michigan State triumph, they were outplayed at home by a Northwestern team that had lost five straight games.
"You saw it all over the country where teams were coming off big wins and it seemed like they took a step back, thinking that 'We're doing OK now,'" tight end Ben Cotton said. "That goes with any team, especially a young team. Now with these guys coming back for another year, that shouldn't be as much of an issue for us."
Nebraska has stressed details throughout the offseason. During the winter, the offense had one player from each position group teach an element of the offense to the entire unit each week. The group then took a test. If it failed -- more than two wrong answers equaled an F -- the process would start again.
"They all passed," Martinez said of his lesson, which was on handling a certain blitz scheme.
At least 12 more tests await this fall. The Huskers will be ready.
"We've got our eyes on the Big Ten championship," Cotton said. "We've spent a lot of extra time meeting as groups, meeting as positions, and as an entire team, trying to improve the chemistry, the leadership, and really getting things back on track to a championship-level around here."