Big Ten: Will Compton

Only 22 Big Ten players heard their names called during the 2013 NFL draft, the league's lowest total in nearly two decades (it had 21 draftees in 1994).

But as soon as the draft ended Saturday, the free-agent signings began. And there were plenty around the Big Ten from all 12 squads.

Here's our first look list of free-agent signings or team tryouts from the conference. As a reminder, this is not a final list, and we'll have updates later on either here on the blog or on Twitter.

Here we go ...

ILLINOIS

C Graham Pocic, Houston Texans
DE Justin Staples, Cleveland Browns
DE Glenn Foster, New Orleans Saints

INDIANA

C Will Matte, Kansas City Chiefs (tryout)
DE Larry Black Jr., Cincinnati Bengals
DT Adam Replogle, Atlanta Falcons

IOWA

WR Keenan Davis, Cleveland Browns
OL Matt Tobin, Philadelphia Eagles
QB James Vandenberg, Minnesota Vikings

MICHIGAN

WR Roy Roundtree, Cincinnati Bengals
S Jordan Kovacs, Miami Dolphins
LB Kenny Demens, Arizona Cardinals
DE Craig Roh, Carolina Panthers
OL Elliott Mealer, New Orleans Saints
OL Patrick Omameh, San Francisco 49ers
OL Ricky Barnum, Washington Redskins
LB Brandin Hawthorne, St. Louis Rams
(WR Darryl Stonum, dismissed before the 2012 season, signed with the Kansas City Chiefs)

MICHIGAN STATE

CB Johnny Adams, Houston Texans
DT Anthony Rashad White, Pittsburgh Steelers
OL Chris McDonald, New England Patriots

MINNESOTA

CB Troy Stoudermire, Cincinnati Bengals
TE MarQueis Gray, San Francisco 49ers
CB Michael Carter, Minnesota Vikings

NEBRASKA

DE Eric Martin, New Orleans Saints
LB Will Compton, Washington Redskins
TE Ben Cotton, San Diego Chargers
TE/FB Kyler Reed, Jacksonville Jaguars
K Brett Maher, New York Jets
DE Cameron Meredith, Oakland Raiders

NORTHWESTERN

OL Patrick Ward, Miami Dolphins
DL Brian Arnfelt, Pittsburgh Steelers
LB David Nwabuisi, Carolina Panthers (tryout)
WR Demetrius Fields, Chicago Bears (tryout)

OHIO STATE

CB Travis Howard, Houston Texans
S Orhian Johnson, Houston Texans
FB Zach Boren, Houston Texans
TE Jake Stoneburner, Green Bay Packers
DE Nathan Williams, Minnesota Vikings
DL Garrett Goebel, St. Louis Rams
LB Etienne Sabino, New York Giants

PENN STATE

OL Mike Farrell, Pittsburgh Steelers
CB Stephon Morris, New England Patriots
OL Matt Stankiewitch, New England Patriots
FB Michael Zordich, Carolina Panthers

PURDUE

CB Josh Johnson, San Diego Chargers
QB Robert Marve, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
RB Akeem Shavers, Tampa Bay Buccaneers

WISCONSIN

CB Marcus Cromartie, San Diego Chargers
CB Devin Smith, Dallas Cowboys
S Shelton Johnson, Oakland Raiders

Big Ten lunch links

March, 5, 2013
3/05/13
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Snow around Big Ten country, and two more spring practices (Ohio State and Illinois) kick off.

To the links ...

B1G postseason position rankings: LB

February, 19, 2013
2/19/13
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It's time for another installment of our postseason position rankings, and today we're looking at one of the strongest groups in the Big Ten in 2012: the linebackers.

Just about every team boasted one standout linebacker last season, and many had multiple ones. That makes this list one of the tougher ones to date, and there's not a whole lot of separation between teams, especially in the middle. Star power matters, but depth is also important.

You can see how we ranked the linebackers entering the season here. Here's how we see things now:

1. Penn State (Preseason ranking: 2): We ranked the Nittany Lions second in the preseason, not knowing for sure how Michael Mauti would bounce back from his latest knee injury. Well, we picked him as our Big Ten defensive player of the year. Gerald Hodges was his usual brilliant self, especially when he switched into beast mode during league play. And the guy nobody talks about, Glenn Carson, also had a very solid season. Linebacker U., indeed.

2. Wisconsin (Preseason: 3): Mike Taylor and Chris Borland were so good and so consistent that we may have begun to take them for granted. Taylor collected 123 tackles, while Borland had 104, and the two combined for 25 tackles for loss and 7.5 sacks. The unsung member of the trio, Ethan Armstrong, added 93 stops. Once again, the linebackers were the strength of a very good Badgers defense.

3. Michigan State (Preseason: 1): Max Bullough was a first-team All-Big Ten performer who led the Spartans with 111 tackles. Denicos Allen didn't match his 2011 numbers but still managed 10 tackles for loss and three sacks. Sophomore Taiwan Jones surpassed Chris Norman late in the year to give the unit even more depth. This group may have lacked the truly huge, game-changing plays, but it's hard to ask for much more than what it provided all season.

4. Michigan (Preseason: 5): The Wolverines linebacking crew became the backbone of the defense in 2012. Jake Ryan turned into a star with his flair for the big play; he piled up 16 tackles for loss and four forced fumbles. Kenny Demens and Desmond Morgan were both solid, underrated players, and freshmen James Ross III and Joe Bolden helped give this group outstanding depth.

5. Northwestern (Preseason: 11): The Wildcats made the biggest jump from the preseason rankings, as all three starters (Damien Proby, David Nwabuisi and Chi Chi Ariguzo) collected at least 91 tackles. Ariguzo developed into a big-time playmaker, with 10.5 tackles for loss, two interceptions and four fumble recoveries. Proby and Nwabuisi were almost criminally underrated.

6. Ohio State (Preseason: 4): The Buckeyes had the most interesting stories at linebacker. Ryan Shazier emerged as a destructive force of nature, especially in the second half of the season. Zach Boren switched from fullback to linebacker midseason and made a surprisingly smooth transition. Etienne Sabino broke his leg but came back to finish the year. Storm Klein returned from a suspension to contribute a little. There were some weak spots and shaky moments here, but Shazier's sheer strength helped hold this group together.

7. Iowa (Preseason: 8): Stats alone would tell you that the Hawkeyes had one of the best linebacking corps around. First-year starter Anthony Hitchens was one of the top tacklers in the nation with 124 stops, while James Morris (113) and Christian Kirksey (95) also ranked among the league leaders in that category. But tackle numbers alone don't tell the whole story, and Iowa lacked the kind of high-impact plays from its linebackers that teams above it on this list produced.

8. Nebraska (Preseason: 7): The Huskers had their issues on defense, but it was hard to fault the play of Will Compton, who led the team with 110 tackles and three fumble recoveries. Alonzo Whaley, Sean Fisher and David Santos ably filled out the rest of the group, but Nebraska had trouble finding the right combination of speed and experience at linebacker.

9. Minnesota: (Preseason: 10): The Gophers were young in a lot of spots but not at linebacker, where experienced veterans like Mike Rallis and Keanon Cooper led the way. Aaron Hill rounded out what was a solid, if unspectacular, corps that helped Minnesota make great strides on defense.

10. Illinois (Preseason: 6): Injuries were one reason why Jonathan Brown didn't blossom into the superstar we expected to see. He had 9.5 tackles for loss but played in only nine games. It says something about both the Illini linebackers and the defense as a whole that true freshman Mason Monheim led the team with 86 tackles. He and fellow first-year player Mike Svetina at least give Illinois some reason for optimism.

11. Purdue (Preseason: 9): Dwayne Beckford was kicked off the team in August, and things didn't get a whole lot better from there. Will Lucas led the group with 66 tackles, but it was a sign of Purdue's problems at linebacker that converted quarterback Sean Robinson started here. Improving the linebacker play should be a top priority for new head coach Darrell Hazell.

12. Indiana (Preseason: 12): Junior-college import David Cooper stepped right in and made an immediate impact, recording 86 tackles and nine behind the line of scrimmage. But the Hoosiers struggled to find consistent play elsewhere at the position. It's no coincidence that Kevin Wilson's latest recruiting class includes several potential linebackers.
As a pre-med student at Nebraska who earned academic honors from two separate conferences, Sean Fisher prepared himself well for life after football.

Fisher will begin that phase of his life rather than return for a sixth season with the Huskers. He made it official Monday, saying he'll be spending the fall in medical school rather than on the gridiron.
"The opportunity to be part of this football program the past five years has been a great experience and one that is difficult to walk away from, but I made the determination it was time to move on," Fisher said in a statement released through the team. "I am planning to enroll in medical school in the fall and am putting all my energy toward preparing for that. I appreciate Coach [Bo] Pelini and the coaching staff leaving the door open for me to consider returning to football and giving me the time to finalize my decision."

Fisher appeared in 34 games for Nebraska, starting 12, and recorded 87 tackles, including eight for loss, to go along with a fumble recovery, a pass breakup and three quarterback hurries. He had a promising redshirt freshman season in 2009 (35 tackles) but missed all of the 2010 campaign with a broken leg. Fisher racked up 48 tackles in five starts this past season.

He earned academic all-conference honors from both the Big Ten and the Big 12 during his career and earned second-team Academic All-America honors from CoSIDA (College Sports Information Directors of America) in each of the past two years.

Fisher's departure thins Nebraska's depth at linebacker as the team also must replace leading tackler Will Compton and Alonzo Whaley, who finished fourth on the team in tackles in 2012. The Huskers will rely heavily on younger players like David Santos, Zaire Anderson and Michael Rose next fall.

Best of luck to Fisher at medical school. He has a very bright future ahead.
As we continue to put a bow on the Big Ten's bowl season, here are some superlatives from the league's seven postseason contests:

Best game: I picked the Outback Bowl as my favorite matchup before the postseason began, and Michigan and South Carolina showed why. The game featured all kinds of big plays and four lead changes in the final 15:02. The Gamecocks won 33-28 thanks to a 32-yard pass from their backup quarterback with 11 seconds to go. And Jadeveon Clowney made the play of bowl season with his thundering hit on Vincent Smith and one-handed grab of the loose ball.

Worst game: Purdue insisted it would be ready to surprise Oklahoma State in the Heart of Dallas Bowl. Instead, the only surprise was just how badly the Boilermakers played. They fell behind 45-0 before eventually losing 58-14, turning the ball over five times and allowing 524 yards. It was the largest margin of defeat in any bowl game.

Best moment: They should have called it the Curseslayer.com Gator Bowl. Seeing Northwestern break its 63-year bowl drought was emotional for its fans, players and head coach Pat Fitzgerald. "This was the one last negative we needed to erase," Fitzgerald said on the field after his Wildcats defeated Mississippi State in Jacksonville.

[+] EnlargeJadeveon Clowney
Kim Klement/USA TODAY SportsMichigan, South Carolina and especially Jadeveon Clowney put on a show in the Outback Bowl.
Best finish: Michigan State spent most of the season coming up short at the end of close games. So it was good to see the Spartans reverse that against TCU in the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl. Backup quarterback Connor Cook drove the team down the field for Dan Conroy's game-winning 47-yard field goal with 1:01 left, a nice redemption for Conroy's shaky season. And the defense held on in the final seconds to preserve the 17-16 victory.

Worst finish: Minnesota led Texas Tech 31-24 with a little more than 70 seconds left in the Meineke Car Care Bowl of Texas. But Seth Doege hit Eric Ward for a 35-yard touchdown pass to tie the game. The Gophers' Philip Nelson then threw an interception on a deep ball on third-and-7 from his own 33 that D.J. Johnson returned 41 yards. That set up the Red Raiders' winning field goal on the game's final play. Should Minnesota simply have played for overtime after Texas Tech's touchdown pass? Jerry Kill defended his aggressiveness. "We were in a two-minute offense and trying to win the game," Kill said. "We had a minute left on the clock, we were indoors, our kicker [Jordan Wettstein] has a chance to kick 50 yards and we were on the 35-yard line. We make two or three passes and kick a field goal and win the game."

Craziest sequence: The Capital One Bowl between Nebraska and Georgia provided plenty of points and entertainment value, especially during a wild first quarter. Midway through the quarter, the teams combined for three touchdowns on four plays from scrimmage (not counting PATs). After a Taylor Martinez touchdown strike to Jamal Turner, Nebraska's Will Compton picked off a second-down pass from Georgia quarterback Aaron Murray and returned the ball 24 yards for a touchdown. Murray responded on the next Georgia play, finding Tavarres King for a 75-yard touchdown pass. The teams combined for 30 first-quarter points.

Best quarterback impersonation: As if Le'Veon Bell hadn't done enough for Michigan State this season, he completed a 29-yard pass from the Wildcat on third-and-2 in the third quarter to set up the Spartans' first score. He finished with more passing yards than starting quarterback Andrew Maxwell. That was enough for us to forgive his awful attempt at a throwback pass to Maxwell early in the game on a terrible-looking trick play.

Best running back impersonation: What position will Denard Robinson play in the NFL? Who knows? But we wouldn't bet against him at whatever he tries. In his final collegiate game, Robinson ran 23 times for 100 yards while lining up primarily at tailback. In doing so, he set the FBS record for rushing yards by a quarterback, even though he technically didn't play the position in his final few games. No one ever said Robinson was conventional.

Best season microcosm: (Tie) Wisconsin and Nebraska. Sometimes, teams can reverse their tendencies in bowls after a month-long layoff. Not so much for the Badgers and Cornhuskers. Wisconsin showed that the Big Ten title game win was the aberration in their season, as their 20-14 Rose Bowl loss to Stanford was a near carbon-copy of their previous five defeats in 2012. The lack of a strong passing game and the inability to close out games once again cost them. It was a similar story for Nebraska, which showed the ability to score points and move the ball at will against a talented Georgia defense. But the Huskers' problems with ball security (three turnovers) and defensive lapses turned a 31-31 game into a 45-31 Capital One Bowl loss.

Strangest moment: Michigan gambled on a fake field goal on a fourth-and-4 in the fourth quarter against South Carolina, and Floyd Simmons appeared to come up just short. The officials called for a measurement, and the ball was clearly short of the first down marker by a full chain length. Yet referee Jeff Maconaghy signaled first down for the Wolverines, sending Gamecocks coach Steve Spurrier into a rage. "We felt like he was pointing the wrong way," Spurrier said later. "I asked if he meant that way. He wasn't going to change his mind." After one of the oddest calls we've ever seen, Clowney exacted his own form of justice with the hit of the year on Smith.

Goofiest moment: You knew Stanford's irreverent band wouldn't miss an opportunity to make a big splash at the Rose Bowl. At halftime, the Cardinal band presented an ode to cheese in deference -- or mockery -- of one of Wisconsin's chief products. The show was full of often painful cheese puns, with the band spelling out "Homage" on the field and then changing it to "Fromage," and a voice over the P.A. system saying things like "Leave us prov-alone." Wisconsin fans didn't like it very much and booed the performance. I thought it was pretty funny, or "punny" as the band spelled out at one point.
Earlier this week, Brian Bennett took a look at five Big Ten offensive players to watch during the 2013 season. Now it's time to spotlight five possible breakout defenders.

As a reminder, these lists try to identify younger players (ideally non-starters) who showed flashes in 2012 and who will be in positions to make a greater impact this coming season. Examples from the 2012 season on the defensive side include Ohio State linebacker Ryan Shazier, Michigan linebacker Jake Ryan, Penn State defensive end Deion Barnes and Northwestern linebacker Chi Chi Ariguzo. Players who earned All-Big Ten honors in 2012 aren't eligible for this list. We're looking for players who haven't come close to their ceilings yet.

Lastly, we realize a list of five excludes many promising players, but we had to cut it off somewhere.

Here we go (in alphabetical order) ...

Michigan LB Joe Bolden: A decorated 2012 recruit, Bolden enrolled early and immediately began impressing the coaching staff. The 6-foot-3, 222-pound Bolden saw the field in all 13 games as a true freshman, recording 31 tackles, including four for loss and a sack, to go along with a fumble recovery. Bolden likely will step into a starting role in 2013 as Michigan loses Kenny Demens to graduation. If Bolden takes a big step like Ryan did as a sophomore, Michigan could challenge Michigan State for which team boasts the Big Ten's top linebacking corps.

[+] EnlargeShilique Calhoun
Mike Carter/USA TODAY Sports Shilique Calhoun could fill the starting defensive end spot that used to be belong to NFL-bound William Gholston.
Michigan State DE Shilique Calhoun: Calhoun definitely is a projection pick, but he clearly made strides before the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl and delivered two tackles for loss, including a sack, and a quarterback hurry against TCU. The departure of William Gholston to the NFL draft frees up a starting spot opposite Marcus Rush that Calhoun could occupy in 2013. The 6-foot-4, 240-pound Calhoun saw action in all 13 games as a redshirt freshman this fall and should get bigger and stronger for a potentially big sophomore season.

Penn State LB Mike Hull: Hull is definitely the most familiar name on the list, but after waiting his turn as a reserve, his number will be called much more in 2013. The 6-foot, 228-pound rising junior had starter-like numbers in 2012, recording 58 tackles, including five for loss and four sacks, to go along with an interception, two fumble recoveries, four pass breakups and a blocked kick. He's already one of the Big Ten's best special-teams players and should be among the league's top linebackers this coming season as Penn State must replace standouts Gerald Hodges and Michael Mauti.

Nebraska LB David Santos: Bo Pelini and his staff have acknowledged the team's pressing need at linebacker after transitioning from the Big 12 to the Big Ten. Although finding a difference-making defensive lineman might be the Huskers' biggest desire, they still need help in their defensive midsection and should get more out of Santos. The 6-foot, 220-pound Santos appeared in 13 games as a redshirt freshman this season, recording 24 tackles, including two for loss, and a forced fumble. Nebraska needs leadership at linebacker following Will Compton's departure, and Santos looks ready to take on a bigger burden.

Ohio State DE Adolphus Washington: The Buckeyes have to reload along the defensive line after losing Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year John Simon and interior space-eater Johnathan Hankins, among others. Urban Meyer and his staff landed several elite defensive line recruits in their first class, including Washington, who appeared in 10 games as a true freshman and recorded three sacks, 3.5 tackles for loss, a forced fumble and a blocked kick. Along with classmate Noah Spence, Washington is expected to take on a bigger role in 2013 and could be a breakout performer.
The college football postseason all-star games kick off in the next few weeks, so I thought it would be a good time to see who from the Big Ten is headed where. These games feature NFL draft hopefuls from around the sport, and we'll have full coverage of each contest, particularly the Senior Bowl in Mobile, Ala.

These rosters will be updated in the coming days, but here are lists of confirmed attendees.

SENIOR BOWL

When: Jan. 26 Where: Mobile, Ala.
EAST-WEST SHRINE GAME

When: Jan. 19
Where: St. Petersburg, Fla. NFLPA COLLEGIATE BOWL

When: Jan. 19
Where: Carson, Calif. RAYCOM COLLEGE FOOTBALL ALL-STAR CLASSIC

When: Jan. 19
Where: Montgomery, Ala. CASINO DEL SOL COLLEGE ALL-STAR GAME

When: Jan. 11
Where: Tucson, Ariz.

Season report card: Nebraska

December, 26, 2012
12/26/12
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We're back with another report card, as we're doubling down on these in order to finish before the New Year's Day bowls. Nebraska, come and get your grades for the 2012 regular season:

Offense: A

The Huskers led the Big Ten in total offense and ranked second in the league in scoring at 35.1 points per game. It all started, not surprisingly, with an outstanding rushing assault that averaged more than 254 yards per game, good for eighth-best in the nation. What made that even more impressive was that Rex Burkhead missed most of the season with a knee injury, yet the offense hardly missed a beat as Ameer Abdullah topped 1,000 yards. Give the offensive line a lot of credit, especially All-American guard Spencer Long. But it wasn't all about the running game this year for Nebraska, as quarterback Taylor Martinez took his performance to a higher level. While he didn't reach his lofty preseason goal of a 70 percent completion rate, he did connect on a respectable 62.2 percent of his throws while going for 2,667 passing yards, 21 touchdowns and 10 interceptions. He led the Big Ten in total offense while nearly running for 1,000 yards. A deep and multi-talented group of receivers and tight ends, paced by blossoming star Kenny Bell, made the Huskers dangerous all over the field, and coordinator Tim Beck wore opposing defenses out with his high-paced play calling. The only reason the offense doesn't earn an A-plus was a frustrating lack of ball security; Nebraska lost 32 turnovers this year, more than all but five teams in the country. That the Huskers nearly always found a way to overcome such sloppiness was a testament to their explosiveness.

Defense: C

If you go simply by the numbers, Nebraska's defense had a strong year. The Huskers led the nation in pass defense and were the No. 22 overall defense in the country. Ah, but we did watch the games. And there's simply no way to excuse some of the massive defensive breakdowns that led to three losses this season: giving up over 650 yards to UCLA, surrendering 63 points to Ohio State and of course the 70-point fiasco in the Big Ten title game. There were some success stories, like the excellent play in the secondary by guys like Daimion Stafford and Ciante Evans, Will Compton's leadership at linebacker and Baker Steinkuhler plugging up the middle of the line. But a Bo Pelini-coached defense should never be routed as many times as these Huskers were, and a No. 95 national ranking against the run shows some weaknesses up front. When Nebraska's defense was good, it was pretty good. When it was bad, it was about as bad as it's ever been in program history.

Special teams: B

Kicker/punter Brett Maher was the star of the show on special teams again, but he proved less consistent than he was in his excellent 2011 campaign. He still could make clutch, long kicks and boom punts, but he struggled a bit early with his field goal accuracy and had a few too many shanks in the punt game. Abdullah led the Big Ten in punt return average. Nebraska was a mediocre on kickoffs.

Overall: B

The embarrassment of the Big Ten title game loss lingers, but this team still won 10 games and captured the Legends Division this season. The Huskers lost only one league game during the season, though it was another bad blowout in Columbus. They beat Wisconsin (in the regular season) and Michigan after losing to both teams last year and staged some thrilling comebacks to win at Northwestern and at Michigan State. Only fans who have been spoiled by decades of success could complain about a 10-3 season. Yet it's impossible to ignore the feeling that this team was capable of so much more this year, especially with the Rose Bowl bid right there for the taking against a 7-5 team in Indianapolis. Given the expectations and the firepower of the offense, this season can't rate as much higher than a "B" level.

Previous report cards:

Illinois
Indiana
Iowa
Michigan
Michigan State Ohio State

B1G bowl primer: Capital One Bowl

December, 17, 2012
12/17/12
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Our snapshots of each bowl featuring a Big Ten team continues.

CAPITAL ONE BOWL

No. 16 Nebraska (10-3) vs. No. 7 Georgia (11-2)

Where: Orlando, Fla.; Florida Citrus Bowl

When: Jan. 1, 1 p.m. ET

TV: ABC

About Nebraska: The Huskers won the Legends Division title in their second year in the Big Ten, saw tangible strides from junior quarterback Taylor Martinez and overcame the absence of star running back Rex Burkhead for most of the season. But many of the good things Nebraska did were overshadowed by two implosions on big stages, first on Oct. 6 against Ohio State in Columbus and then Dec. 1 in the Big Ten championship game against Wisconsin. The Huskers surrendered 133 points in the losses, had damaging turnovers and fell apart defensively midway through both games. Primed to win their first league title since 1999, Nebraska fell flat in Indy and instead plays in the Capital One Bowl for the second straight year. Nebraska leads the Big Ten in offense (462.2) and boasts a nice collection of backs, receivers and tight ends. The Huskers lead the nation in pass defense (148.2 ypg). They rank 105th nationally in turnover margin.

About Georgia: Like Nebraska, Georgia heads to Orlando a bit glum after falling short in its league championship game. Unlike Nebraska, Mark Richt's team showed up in its title contest, only to fall late to No. 2 Alabama. The Bulldogs took care of Florida to win the SEC East division and benefited from a regular-season schedule that didn't include Alabama, LSU or Texas A&M. After a blowout loss against South Carolina and a near letdown the following week against Kentucky, Georgia really buckled down on defense, surrendering just 43 points during a five-game stretch. All-America linebacker Jarvis Jones leads a unit that ranks 17th nationally in points allowed (18.8 ppg). Like Nebraska, Georgia is very good against the pass (eighth nationally). Junior quarterback Aaron Murray leads an offense that ranks 19th in scoring (37.2 ppg) and does a much better job of taking care of the football than Nebraska.

Key players, Nebraska: Martinez had a mostly excellent season for Nebraska, racking up 2,667 pass yards, 973 rush yards and 31 touchdowns. He has plenty of help in the backfield in Burkhead and sophomore Ameer Abdullah, the team's featured back for most of the season who had 1,089 rush yards and eight touchdowns. Sophomore wide receiver Kenny Bell emerged as Martinez's top target this season. Nickel back Ciante Evans and safety Daimion Stafford headline the secondary, while linebacker Will Compton anchors the middle and Eric Martin triggers the Huskers' spotty pass rush with eight sacks and 14.5 tackles for loss.

Key players, Georgia: It all starts with the strong-armed Murray, who ranks second nationally in pass efficiency (172.4 rating) and 45th in total offense (261.1 ypg). He has two big-play targets in Malcolm Mitchell and Tavarres King, while dynamic freshman Todd Gurley triggers the rushing attack. Although Notre Dame's Manti Te'o received more recognition, many think Jones is the best defender in college football. His stats are staggering: 22.5 tackles for loss, 12.5 sacks, seven forced fumbles, 33 quarterback hurries and an interception. Mercy. Don't forget about freshman linebacker Jordan Jenkins, who boasts four sacks and seven tackles for loss. Safety Bacarri Rambo leads the secondary with three forced fumbles and three interceptions.

Did you know: This marks only the second time Georgia and Nebraska have squared off. Nebraska defeated the Bulldogs 45-6 in the 1969 Sun Bowl. ... Nebraska makes its third trip to the Orlando bowl, having lost to Georgia Tech after the 1990 season before the South Carolina loss in the 2012 game. ... The Bulldogs are 3-1-1 in previous trips to the Capital One/Citrus/Tangerine Bowl, with all three wins coming against Big Ten teams (Ohio State in 1993, Purdue in 2004 and Michigan State in 2009). ... Nebraska makes its 49th bowl appearance, which is tied with USC and Tennessee for the third-most in the nation. The Huskers are 24-24 all time in bowls. ... Georgia makes its 48th bowl appearance, tied for sixth most in the FBS. The Bulldogs are 26-18-3 in bowls.

Big Ten weekend rewind: Week 14

December, 3, 2012
12/03/12
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With just one game during the weekend, we'll dispense with the usual categories and do things a little differently with the rewind. Here's the good, the bad and the ugly from Wisconsin's 70-31 win over Nebraska in the Big Ten championship game.

The good: Good doesn't begin to describe Wisconsin's running game. The Badgers piled up 539 rushing yards, the most ever yielded by a Cornhuskers defense, and it was hard to single out one guy. Montee Ball had 202 yards and three touchdowns. James White ran for more than 100 yards and had five total touchdowns, including a touchdown pass. Melvin Gordon, who came into the game with 354 rushing yards the entire season, finished with 216 yards on just nine carries. Wisconsin used him to devastating effect on jet sweeps, and he became an effective decoy on plays where he didn't get the handoff.

[+] EnlargeMontee Ball
Richard Mackson/USA Today SportsMontee Ball focused on his production after contact this season. Wise move. He enters the Rose Bowl with 21 TDs.
Overall, the Badgers just looked faster than they had all season, surprising us all by taking better advantage of the turf at Lucas Oil Stadium than Nebraska did. They also ran to the outside more than we had seen all season.

"They were on the edge most of the game," Cornhuskers linebacker Will Compton said. "They weren't the up-the-middle, pound-and-pound team. They had got outside plays and really stuck with it, and then when that stuff works, why get away from it?"

Wisconsin stayed with it most of the night, throwing only 10 passes yet scoring 10 touchdowns.

The bad: The announced attendance for Saturday's game was just 41,260, or about 23,000 fewer fans than at last year's inaugural title game. Whole sections in the upper end zones and corners of Lucas Oil were empty, especially on the Wisconsin side. The Big Ten anticipated a smaller crowd than last year because of the unusual circumstances of the Badgers' season, but the league was hoping to cross the 50,000 mark through strong walk-up sales. By comparison, the ACC title game Saturday -- usually the butt of bad-attendance jokes -- drew 64,778.

That said, Indianapolis again proved to be an excellent host, and it sure didn't hurt that it was 60 degrees on Saturday. The streets were packed with red Friday and Saturday, and the Big Ten fan fest was packed before the game. The small crowd had some wondering whether the league should move the game to Chicago, where there are more casual Big Ten fans, or play it at home sites. But there's no guaranteed way to attract more fans. The Pac-12 title game between UCLA and Stanford was held Friday at Stanford. The announced crowd: 31,622.

We really can't judge this game until there's a team involved that has a chance to play for a BCS title or a spot in the forthcoming four-team playoff. Or if Ohio State or Michigan are in it. Then we'd probably see a whole different atmosphere.

The ugly: Nebraska's defense, obviously. This was as bad a defensive performance as you could see on a big stage, and the Cornhuskers for some reason looked completely unprepared. They took lousy angles to the ball and settled for arm tackles instead of trying to wrap up ball carriers. While coach Bo Pelini rightly said that the absence of injured defensive tackle Baker Steinkuhler was only a tiny factor, it's also true that Wisconsin's offensive line took advantage of a smallish defensive front featuring guys like 250-pound Eric Martin and 260-pound Cam Meredith. And as the game began to slip away, so did Nebraska's effort on defense, highlighted by some comical attempts at tackling Ball on his 57-yard touchdown run.

"What is defensive football?" Pelini said (and no, he wasn't asking for advice, smart aleck). "It's play your gaps. Handle your responsibility. Be where you're supposed to be and make tackles when you're there. We did none of the above."

The continual defensive lapses by this program on the road under a defense-first coach make you wonder. The Omaha World-Herald's Sam McKewon offered this stat Monday: In the Huskers' past 17 games away from home, they are giving up an average of 30.3 points and 400 yards per game. Record in those games: 8-9. (The offense isn't helping much, either, as Nebraska has an unfathomable minus-27 turnover margin and 40 giveaways in those 17 games.)
INDIANAPOLIS -- When the Big Ten championship game ended and both teams went to the middle of the field to shake hands, Nebraska safety P.J. Smith stayed back a few yards.

Hands on his hips, Smith simply stared at the Wisconsin players celebrating a 70-31 victory and a league title. It was almost too much for the senior to process.

"Everything, I mean, everything went wrong," he would say a few minutes later in a news conference. "It's just ... I don't know. It's hard to explain."

As a group, the Cornhuskers clearly appeared dumbfounded by this result. They went into Saturday's game having won six straight games to cap a 10-2 regular season. After a humiliating 63-38 loss at Ohio State in early October, the team bonded together and got its defense back to playing at a level worthy of the Blackshirts label.

Then came this nightmare of a performance, as Wisconsin ran for 539 yards, the most rushing yards ever surrendered by a Nebraska defense. The Badgers had 42 points at halftime. When they scored their ninth touchdown early in the fourth quarter, Huskers coach Bo Pelini turned his back to the field and threw his play sheet in the air.

"Shock doesn't even begin to ... shock doesn't even begin to explain it," he said.

[+] EnlargeNebraska's P.J. Smith
AP Photo/Michael Conroy"Everything, I mean, everything went wrong," Nebraska's P.J. Smith said. "It's just ... I don't know. It's hard to explain."
So what in the heck happened? Pelini said the Huskers practiced against "99 percent" of what Wisconsin used on offense. But the Badgers showed several new wrinkles and a handful of trick plays. While Nebraska was worried about the interior of its defensive line because of an injury to starting tackle Baker Steinkuhler, the Badgers spent more time than normal running outside. Their three terrific tailbacks repeatedly beat Nebraska defenders to the edge and then turned the corner for huge gains.

"They were bouncing runs to the outside to get us in space," defensive coordinator John Papuchis said. "We've had some struggles with that this year, and they exposed us with that tonight."

Wisconsin dictated play with its offensive line, which has improved immeasurably since the Huskers' 30-27 win against the Badgers in Lincoln on Sept. 29. Nebraska contributed to its own demise by continually missing tackles and losing leverage. The most embarrassing moment in a night full of them for Big Red came when Montee Ball spun out of an arm tackle from Jason Ankrah and raced down the sideline, where cornerback Ciante Evans had the angle on him. But Ball stiff-armed Evans to the turf and scooted in for another touchdown.

"They controlled us up front, and when they do that, you don't have a chance," defensive line coach Rick Kaczenski said. "It just got out of hand, and there wasn't a whole lot we could do to help. That's bad when you're a coach, because they're looking toward you. And I didn't have an answer."

The blowout loss was wildly disappointing on so many levels for Nebraska.

The program still hasn't won a conference title since 1999 and likely won't ever have a better opportunity than this championship game presented, against a five-loss team that finished third in the Leaders Division. Ohio State looks like it is building toward dominance and could be a formidable opponent in Indianapolis for years to come.

The defeat also raises familiar, uncomfortable questions about Pelini's ability to get this team over the hump. Pelini is 49-19 in Lincoln and has won at least nine games every season. But the Huskers have had some notable defensive disasters under a coach known for his knowledge of that side of the ball. In their three losses this season, they have allowed 653 yards to UCLA, 498 to Ohio State and now 640 to Wisconsin. They thought they had it fixed after the Ohio State game. They were wrong.

"Hell, we were the No. 15 [total] defense even with the UCLA and Ohio State game on top of us," senior linebacker Will Compton said. "We killed it at practice last week. I'm at a loss for words right now. I'm embarrassed. It's just awful."

These humbling setbacks shouldn't be happening at the end of Year 5 under Pelini. So the Nebraska fan base will debate again whether he can get the program over the hump or whether he's taken the Huskers as far up the mountain as he can. It sounds silly to say Pelini will be on the hot seat, but Huskers fans demand championships.

A bleary-eyed Pelini opened and closed his news conference with an apology to Nebraska fans everywhere. But he bristled when asked whether Saturday's loss showed cracks in his foundation.

"You can try to put a big thing on it," he said. "It's on me. Put it on me."

The Cornhuskers hadn't suffered this type of loss with so much on the line since Colorado beat them 62-36 in the final regular-season game of 2001. That Nebraska team still somehow found its way into the BCS national title game. This one just went from a potential Rose Bowl appearance to a possible spot in the Outback Bowl.

"This was it for us," Compton said. "And we blew it."

All that's left is another painful search for answers.
Rather than the normal Friday Q&A, we decided to reach out to two coaches who faced both Big Ten championship game participants -- No. 12 Nebraska and Wisconsin -- earlier this season. Michigan State head coach Mark Dantonio and Penn State head coach Bill O'Brien were nice enough to oblige. Both Michigan State and Penn State beat Wisconsin and lost to Nebraska (both in somewhat controversial fashion). Michigan State rallied to beat Wisconsin 16-13 in overtime Oct. 27 at Camp Randall Stadium, and fell to Nebraska 28-24 the following week in East Lansing. Penn State lost 32-23 at Nebraska on Nov. 10 and finished its season with a 24-21 overtime win against Wisconsin last Saturday in Happy Valley.

Dantonio's Spartans played in last year's Big Ten championship game against Wisconsin and have had several exciting games against the Badgers in recent years.

Here's what Dantonio and O'Brien had to say about the title game participants.

On the challenges the two offenses present ...


[+] EnlargeNebraska's Taylor Martinez
Eric Francis/Getty ImagesQuarterback Taylor Martinez helped rally Nebraska past Wisconsin in September.
Dantonio: They're two different types of offenses. You have Nebraska, which is a no-huddle and a more running-spread type thing, and it incorporates option, zone read and different things. Wisconsin is more power-oriented, more pro-style-attack. Both of them play to their strengths. You have marquee players in [Taylor] Martinez from Nebraska, and then also Montee Ball and even James White with Wisconsin. And with Nebraska, you combine it with having [Ameer] Abdullah back there, he's an outstanding player as well, a powerful runner relative to his size.

O'Brien: Both teams are really good. Offensively, it comes down to, in my opinion, how well Wisconsin will be able to run the ball with Montee Ball. For the Nebraska offense, how well does Taylor Martinez play? Those two guys are the focal points of their offenses.

On the two defenses ...

Dantonio: Two very systematic approaches, but two different styles. Nebraska is a 4-3 and more man-conscious. Even when they're zone-conscious, they'll play a lot of man coverage with a downfield safety and different combinations. Wisconsin's going to be a little more zone-oriented. They will get in Cover 1 and man coverage, but you get a little more zone pressure out of Wisconsin than Nebraska. With Nebraska, it's a little more man pressure. You have two defensive coaches by trade [Wisconsin's Bret Bielema and Nebraska's Bo Pelini], and both have been very successful defensive coordinators. Both programs are built on toughness, and both have big-play ability. They have marquee defensive players with [Chris] Borland and [Mike] Taylor on Wisconsin, and then with Nebraska, 51 [Will Compton] and [Eric] Martin stand out, and their secondary is very, very good as well. But I think Wisconsin's secondary can play, too.

O'Brien: I believe Wisconsin has a very, very physical defense, and Nebraska on defense is also very physical and they do a very good job on third down. They disrupt the timing of the passing game. They hit your receivers at the line of scrimmage and do a really good job of that. And like I said, they make it really difficult for you on third down, and I think that's because they are a game-plan, third-down team. They don't just do what they did in previous weeks on third down; they're going to have something new for you. I think a lot of the credit goes to their players and to Bo Pelini for that.

On Wisconsin quarterback Curt Phillips (only Penn State faced him) ...

O'Brien: I thought he was a very poised player. Beaver Stadium is not the easiest place to play, and our front four is not the easiest to play against. But he kept his poise and played a good game and brought them back down the field for a tying touchdown. He knows their offense and is obviously a bright kid and a poised guy.

On which Wisconsin and Nebraska players Michigan State prepared the most for ...

Dantonio: Martinez, because it all goes through him, and we felt [wide receiver] Kenny Bell was excellent. We thought Nebraska really had as good a group of wide receivers as there are in the league. And we had a great deal of respect for Abdullah -- obviously for [Rex] Burkhead, but felt like he probably wasn't going to play against us. We saw Abdullah making a lot of plays. And then for Wisconsin, obviously it's Ball. They're on their third quarterback, which makes a difference, but I thought [Phillips] played pretty well against Ohio State. So Ball and the type of power-oriented attack they have, they get a lot of people to the point of attack with their runs. They create some different things with different formations. And White is another guy, and Gordon can make some plays, too. They have three very good running backs.

On what the game could come down to ...

Dantonio: When you look from afar, you see this league having a lot of parity. Any week, anybody can rise up and play. I know what Wisconsin's record is, and I know what Nebraska's record is, but you can throw out the records as far as I'm concerned. The game always comes down to who makes the least amount of mistakes. I looked at our game last year [against Wisconsin in the league championship] and how it flowed back and forth. Whoever can really regain momentum once they lose it will have an edge. If you can eliminate the big play and eliminate turnovers, or get the big play and eliminate turnovers, then you've got a great chance to win. I think it'll be a great football game.

O'Brien: Both teams are really good. Like every game, it could come down to special teams and a play in the kicking game. Any time you get into a championship game and have two good teams and two really, really good head football coaches, it's going to go right down to the wire.
Taylor Martinez/Montee BallUS PresswireNebraska's Taylor Martinez and Wisconsin's Montee Ball both have experience playing in title games.
After the different -- but equally painful -- ways in which Nebraska lost Big 12 title games in 2009 and 2010, you wouldn't have blamed the Huskers for clamming up this week.

Their league championship memories aren't exactly rosy ones.

"We've kind of seen everything but a victory," senior tight end Ben Cotton told ESPN.com.

But Cotton and other Huskers veterans have been more than willing to rehash the past in recent days. They use their failings as fuel as they prepare for the third league title game in their careers Saturday night, when they face Wisconsin in the Big Ten championship.

Nebraska players don't need to be reminded of the last time their storied program captured a conference title. And they hope to party like it's 1999 on Saturday night at Lucas Oil Stadium.

"Me and [fellow tight end] Kyler Reed, we were talking, and in our opinion, we should have one or two rings on our hand already, and we let 'em slip away," Cotton said. "As a senior group, as the leaders of this team and as a team as a whole, we're going to do everything that we can to scratch and claw our way to that victory on Saturday."

They'll have to claw past a Wisconsin team that also is no stranger to the title game stage. Although the Big Ten championship is in just its second year, Wisconsin played in the inaugural event last December, outlasting Michigan State 42-39.

Michigan State outplayed Wisconsin for much of the game, but the Badgers did enough to win and earn their second straight trip to the Rose Bowl.

"I remember it being a lot of fun, being down there in Indy, but the game itself was a dogfight," Badgers center Travis Frederick recalled.

While Frederick downplays Wisconsin's previous title game experience, his teammates see benefits.

"It's important," Badgers junior linebacker Chris Borland said. "It'll calm guys' nerves a little bit, understanding we’ve been there before. It's almost like a bowl game atmosphere in a lot of ways. So guys will be able to deal with it well, and the older guys will help the younger guys who weren't there last year, who didn't contribute last year.

"Last year's experience is going to a long way to help us be comfortable come game time."

Although this year's title game isn't generating as much attention as its predecessor -- in large part because Wisconsin didn't win its division and has five losses -- the stakes haven't changed. The winning team punches its ticket to Pasadena.

"The environment was incredible -- the whole lights and cameras and just the fans screaming," said Wisconsin running back Montee Ball, who had 137 rushing yards and three touchdowns, plus a receiving touchdown, in the 2011 championship game. "It was something that was very special. Just the energy we had on our sideline was great, and I'm really hoping that the same thing happens this weekend."

While Ball and the Badgers happily recall their title game appearance, the burn remains for Big Red. In 2009, the Huskers seemingly had No. 3 Texas beaten in the 2009 title game, thanks to one of the most dominant performances by a defender (Huskers defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh) in recent college football history.

Nebraska appeared to secure a 12-10 win when the clock ran out following a Colt McCoy incompletion. But officials put one second back on the clock and Hunter Lawrence nailed a 46-yard field goal to give Texas the 13-12 victory.

"We tasted what it was like to win a championship for a few seconds there," Nebraska senior linebacker Will Compton said.

Cotton added that Nebraska "could've, should've, would've had that game."

The heartbreaking loss spurred the Huskers in a dominant performance in the Holiday Bowl and throughout the offseason, according to Cotton. It's what made the second title game loss even tougher to deal with.

Nebraska built a 17-0 lead against Oklahoma but watched it vanish in a flurry of mistakes as the Sooners rallied for a 23-20 victory.

"That one was a little more emotional for me because we got up on them and we just weren’t able to finish," Cotton said.

Nebraska has finished games much better this season, four times rallying from double-digit deficits in the second half to win. Since 1996, only one team (NC State in 2000) has recorded more double-digit second-half rallies in a season.

Junior quarterback Taylor Martinez was instrumental in this season's comebacks. He's looking to atone for a rough performance in the 2010 Big 12 title game, where he threw an interception in the end zone, lost a fumble and was sacked seven times.

"It's very motivating for our team and for the whole state of Nebraska," Martinez said this week. "They haven't had a conference championship since 1999, and we're really excited to go out there and play for a third one in the past four years. ...

"Hopefully, we can bring this one home."
RexWatch 2012 gripped the state of Nebraska for more than a month, as all who love Big Red focused on one man's tender left knee.

TV stations led off their broadcasts with it. Pastors led off their sermons with the latest update. Forget the weather, the lottery numbers or the election results. The biggest story in the state was: When would Rex Burkhead be back?

OK, that's embellishing it a bit. But the anticipation to see No. 22 back on the field for Nebraska had grown with each passing week.

Here's the irony: When Burkhead finally returned to the field last Friday at Iowa, hardly anyone noticed.

"I had no clue until the second half when I saw him out there in the huddle," Nebraska quarterback Taylor Martinez said. "I was like, 'Dang, is he going in, or is he just out there supporting us?' And then I saw him running out there."

It took Huskers tight end Ben Cotton even longer to realize what had happened.

"I was on the outside of one of the plays and I was blocking," Cotton said, "and I look back and see our running back, and it was Rex, it wasn't Ameer [Abdullah], so I was a little bit surprised."

[+] EnlargeRex Burkhead
AP Photo/Charlie NeibergallRex Burkhead (22) provided a spark to the Nebraska offense in his return, gaining 4.3 yards per carry and scoring a TD against Iowa.
Out since Oct. 20 after aggravating his knee injury for the second time in as many games, Burkhead returned for the second half of Friday's win against Iowa. Nebraska trailed the Hawkeyes 7-3 at halftime and had nothing going on offense.

Burkhead provided 69 rush yards and the Huskers' only touchdown on 16 carries in the second half as Nebraska prevailed 13-7 to advance to Saturday night's Big Ten championship game against Wisconsin.

"Coach Bo [Pelini] came up to me after halftime, asking me if I was ready to play, and I said, 'Absolutely,'" Burkhead said. "It was just good to be out there, getting in the flow of the game, and having fun."

Other than the team's success, the season hasn't been much fun for Burkhead. He injured the knee in the season opener, missed two games, aggravated it Oct. 6 at Ohio State and again in the Northwestern game. After setting Nebraska's single-game carries record (38 last season against Iowa) and coming two carries short of the team's single-season mark (286 by Lawrence Phillips in 1994), Burkhead has appeared in just one full game -- coincidentally, against the Wisconsin team he'll face Saturday night in Indy.

Although Nebraska wanted Burkhead in the mix every time it took the field, the senior is back in the fold for the most important game of the season. And if Nebraska beats Wisconsin, Burkhead also will be there for the Rose Bowl matchup Jan. 1.

"It's a big boost for our team," Pelini said.

Nebraska had fared surprisingly well without Burkhead, as Abdullah stepped into a featured role and rushed for 1,071 yards and eight touchdowns, earning second-team All-Big Ten honors from the league's coaches. Martinez became more active in the run game, especially in Big Ten play, and Braylon Heard (315 rush yards, 2 TDs) and Imani Cross (289 rush yards, 6 TDs) also chipped in.

The Huskers lead the Big Ten and rank eighth nationally in rushing offense (252.2 yards per game).

Still, adding a player of Burkhead's caliber at this point in the season could be the difference in winning a Big Ten title and a Rose Bowl title.

"It's nice to be able to add that weapon back to our arsenal," Cotton said. "It'll make [offensive coordinator Tim Beck] feel a little bit better, too. When you've got a backfield of those caliber of players, it's going to be a lot easier for him to make play calls."

Even in one half of action at Iowa, Burkhead showed Nebraska what it had been missing. After scoring just three points in four possessions, the Huskers scored on two of their first three drives with Burkhead in the game.

On a miserable day where field position proved crucial, Iowa pinned Nebraska at its own 1-yard line early in the fourth quarter. Facing second-and-9 from the 2, the Huskers turned to Burkhead, who carried defenders eight yards for a first down. He then gained nine yards to ensure the Huskers wouldn't have to punt from their own end zone.

"In the fourth quarter, I was sitting there, trying to stay warm, you look up and we’re getting big runs, fighting for extra yards, second efforts, third efforts out of Rex," linebacker Will Compton said. "I was just smiling and happy to have him back.

"That's the Rex we know."

It's the Rex they've missed. Burkhead helped Nebraska run out the clock with a 15-yard run, followed by a third-and-3 conversion.

"He ran hard, he ran with passion, he did some really good things, made some really tough yards," Pelini said.

Burkhead had targeted the Big Ten title game for his return, but circumstances forced it to happen earlier. He had no soreness following the Iowa game and should be fresh Saturday night.

"Whatever way I can contribute, I'm happy to do that," he said. "It's been a learning experience these past weeks, and it's just great to be back with the team and be out there on the field having the opportunity to make plays."
Bo Pelini's message to his team after an Oct. 6 loss at Ohio State won't conjure up images of Knute Rockne. His speech likely won't be mounted on the stadium wall, as Tim Tebow's 2008 post-defeat promise was at Florida.

Yet if Nebraska is able to finish this season out as expected, Pelini's words could be remembered for a long time by Huskers fans.

Things looked anything but promising for his team after Ohio State blew the doors off Big Red in a 63-38 humiliation. A Big Ten title probably seemed like a pipe dream that night.

But Pelini, a guy who constantly talks about "the process" and doesn't like to discuss big picture items during the season, offered his team a rare long view that night in the locker room at Ohio Stadium.

[+] EnlargeWill Compton
Bruce Thorson/US PresswireAfter an embarrassing loss to Ohio State midseason, Will Compton and the Huskers have won five games straight.
"He told us, 'Everything we want is still out there to take,'" offensive tackle Jeremiah Sirles told ESPN.com. "He said, 'I know this game hurt, and it should hurt because you got embarrassed. But all we have to do is win out, and we'll control our own destiny.'"

"He told us, 'Usually I'll come in here and say our goals are still out there and we've just got to improve,'" tight end Ben Cotton told ESPN.com. "But he laid it out flat for us. He was honest. It was kind of a, look-you-in-the-eyes-straight, man-to-man statement. He was making it clear to everybody what we had to do if we wanted to win a Big Ten championship."

Pelini repeated his "win-out" mantra a few minutes later when meeting the media, saying: "We have six weeks, and we need to win the next six football games." That seemed a lofty goal at the time, as Nebraska still had to go to Northwestern and Michigan State and play Michigan and Penn State at home, and especially in the moments after the defense got shredded like never before under Pelini.

Winning out meant first getting better, and that began the next week during the team's bye week practices. Pelini didn't make a lot of changes. He just asked the team to work harder and correct mistakes.

"That's what you try to do, and we have stayed the course," he said Monday. "We didn't panic, and I think our kids have gotten better."

That didn't mean things came easy. In their first game after Ohio State, the Huskers trailed by 12 points in the fourth quarter at Northwestern and had to score twice in the final 5:55 to pull out a 29-28 victory. They also had to rally from double digit deficits in the second half to beat Michigan State and Penn State.

But somewhere along the way, this team developed a confidence in its ability to win under difficult conditions.

"We're confident that we're capable of doing the impossible until the final whistle at the end of the game," Cotton said.

The offensive production has been there all season. The defense has steadily improved since that Ohio State disaster, culminating in the starters leaving last week's game against Minnesota without allowing a point in the eventual 38-14 win. Nebraska now ranks No. 19 nationally in total defense.

"We knew we were a better team than what we showed against Ohio State," linebacker Will Compton told reporters this week. "It just sucked having to hear about how bad we did. ... We knew we could take care of ourselves, and we knew we were a good football team when we are clicking on all cylinders."

The Huskers played their most complete game of the season last week, as the offense finally started fast and limited its turnovers and other mistakes. Now the team needs one more solid effort this week at reeling Iowa, and it will clinch the Legends Division title and head to the Big Ten championship game.

And that would mean the Huskers went 6-0 in the second half of the season, fulfilling Pelini's "win-out" motto. If they bring the first conference championship back to Lincoln since 1999, those words could become part of the program's lore.

"It was a big turning point," Sirles said. "There was no looking back after that. It was move forward, guns ho, foot on the gas pedal, let's get after it."

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