Monday, August 22, 2011
Why Nebraska can win Big Ten in Year 1
By Adam Rittenberg
Nebraska has no plans to tiptoe across the Big Ten's doorstep this season.
The Huskers fully intend to break down the door.
Head coach Bo Pelini and the Cornhuskers believe they have the talent and depth to compete for the Big Ten and national titles.
Since the Big Ten approved Nebraska as its 12th member on June 11, 2010, the goodwill has flowed from Lincoln across the league footprint. Nebraska has heaped praise upon its new league -- occasionally tweaking its old one, the Big 12, in the process -- and repeatedly noted that the Big Ten's history and culture provide an excellent fit for one of college football's iconic programs.
But the time for pleasantries is over. The Huskers aren't just happy to be here.
"We have all the pieces to win it all this year," senior defensive tackle Jared Crick said. "Not just the Big Ten championship, but the whole thing."
Bold words from arguably the Big Ten's best player. But there's evidence to back it up.
While moving to a new conference brings unique challenges for Nebraska coach Bo Pelini and his players, they fully believe they can win the Big Ten in Year 1. It would be quite an accomplishment for a program that, despite its storied history, last won a conference title in 1999 and hasn't recorded a top 10 finish in a decade.
Nebraska's case for a Big Ten title begins with its players, particularly on defense. Crick is one of three All-America candidates -- linebacker Lavonte David and cornerback Alfonzo Dennard are the others -- headlining a unit that ranked among the top 15 nationally in each of the past two seasons. Crick and David both earned second-team All-America honors in 2010, while Dennard recorded four interceptions for a secondary filled with NFL prospects.
But Nebraska is about more than star power. Veterans Baker Steinkuhler and Cameron Meredith join Crick on one of the nation's top defensive lines, while safety Austin Cassidy quarterbacks the unit and Sean Fisher returns from injury to assist David.
Despite losing first-round draft picks in each of the past two years (Ndamukong Suh, Prince Amukamara), the Blackshirts are setting the bar even higher in a league where elite defenses rise to the top.
"We have more talent than we've had in the past," said Crick, who has recorded 9.5 sacks in each of the past two seasons. "We have depth coming out of our ears. It's a great thing to know, that if you want a breather, you can come out and the next guy will come in and he won't let down. That's true across the board."
The Big Ten's best teams, namely Ohio State, boast elite defenses nearly ever year, and Nebraska brings a strong track record.
"Look at who coaches them," Huskers wide receiver Brandon Kinnie said. "You've got two defensive brainiacs."
Those would be Bo Pelini and his brother Carl, Nebraska's defensive coordinator. Bo Pelini has coached a top 15 defense in seven of the eight seasons since returning to the college ranks from the NFL.
Their intricate scheme asks a lot of the players but can suffocate opponents.
"There’s not one defense that’s comparable to ours," Crick said. "Very complex, and that's what makes it unique. As a defensive lineman, I have five responsibilities, where other defensive linemen, all they've got to do is shoot their gap. We want it that way."
Nebraska might have a championship-level defense this season, but questions swirl around an offense that has been unreliable. After the unit stumbled late last season, Pelini switched gears, promoting Tim Beck to coordinator.
Beck's system is designed to provide greater freedom for players and not bog them down in details.
"We're getting it down every day in practice," Kinnie said. "We haven't scratched the surface of what we can do."
The offense likely will hinge on sophomore quarterback Taylor Martinez, whose inconsistent 2010 season mirrored that of the entire unit.
He sizzled during the first seven games, eclipsing 100 rushing yards five times and lighting up Oklahoma State for five touchdown passes. But an ankle injury suffered against Missouri derailed his season, which got ugly both on and off the field.
Martinez has earned high marks from his coaches and teammates during the offseason, both for his play and for displaying greater maturity.
"He's much more confident playing," Beck recently told reporters of his quarterback. "I'm really proud of his leadership, the way he's handling everything."
The Huskers are also a hungry bunch after dropping back-to-back Big 12 championship games by a combined four points. While the rest of the Big Ten gets adjusted to division play, Nebraska knows what it takes to reach a championship game, and the pain that comes with falling just short.
"We were really close, and we had some disappointments," Pelini said. "As a whole program, we've got to get over the top."
Despite a new league, 11 new opponents and a much-discussed schedule that makes stops in Madison, State College and Ann Arbor, there's a belief among the Huskers and the supporting evidence that they can take the next step.
"All over, we’ve got a good team, and we can do big things," Dennard said. "Last year, we ended up very bad, so we're going to try and go out there and show the world that Nebraska is a better team."