NCF Nation: Will Compton

The first Saturday of April kicks off spring football scrimmages around the country.

Baylor will unveil its new quarterback, while Georgia and Nebraska might need name tags on defense with so many new starters.

Most spring games are nothing more than glorified controlled scrimmages, and Florida's figures to be even less exciting because of injuries.

Here's a closer look at a few of Saturday's spring games:

Baylor Bears: Baylor fans will get their first chance to see if the Bears' transition to a new quarterback will go as smoothly as the last one.

Junior Bryce Petty is the heir apparent to replace Nick Florence, who threw for 4,309 yards with 33 touchdowns last season after replacing Heisman Trophy winner Robert Griffin III.

Petty, who was headed to Tennessee until coach Phillip Fulmer was fired, completed seven of 10 passes for 97 yards with one touchdown in six games last season.

The Bears also bring back eight defensive starters, after allowing 37.2 points per game last season.

Florida Gators: Because of myriad injuries along the offensive line, the Gators won't have a traditional spring game on Saturday at The Swamp. Florida coach Will Muschamp said the Gators will still have some team scrimmage work, but they'll also compete in individual coverage, pass rush and blocking drills.

"I can't ask these guys to line up and go 80 straight plays," Muschamp said. "Actually, it's going to be more beneficial for us to get the individual work, instead of just putting the ball down and scrimmaging."

Because of injuries, Florida is down to only six scholarship offensive linemen available for the spring. Four returning linemen are hurt and one is suspended; five more freshmen linemen will join the team this summer.

Among the walking wounded: starting guard Jon Halapio (shoulder), right tackle Chaz Green (ankle), guard Ian Silberman (shoulder), and guard Max Garcia (back). Guard Jessamen Dunker has been suspended since Jan. 16 after he was arrested for stealing a motor scooter.

Georgia Bulldogs: Quarterback Aaron Murray and tailbacks Todd Gurley and Keith Marshall are back, but much of the focus in Saturday's G-Day spring game at Sanford Stadium will be on UGA's defense.

The Bulldogs have to replace star linebackers Jarvis Jones and Alex Ogletree, as well as nose tackle John Jenkins and free safety Bacarri Rambo. In all, defensive coordinator Todd Grantham has to identify seven new starters on defense.

Freshman Tray Matthews, a mid-year enrollee, has raised a lot of eyebrows during spring practice and might emerge as a starting free safety this fall. Sophomore Josh Harvey-Clemons, another big hitter, appears set as the starting strong safety. Senior end Garrison Smith and sophomore linebacker Jordan Jenkins have emerged as two of the most consistent pass-rushers.

UGA fans won't see receiver Malcolm Mitchell, who will miss the spring game because of torn cartilage in his knee. He's expected to be ready for the start of preseason camp.

Nebraska Cornhuskers: Like Georgia, the Cornhuskers are undergoing a complete facelift on defense, after ranking 58th nationally in scoring defense (27.5 points per game) and 90th in run defense (192.5 yards per game). Nebraska lost end Cameron Meredith, tackle Baker Steinkuhler, linebacker Will Compton, along with five other starters on defense. The Cornhuskers will unveil their new-look defense in Saturday's spring game at Memorial Stadium.

A lot of eyes will be on freshman tackle Vincent Valentine, who might be the Cornhuskers' most physically imposing lineman since Ndamukong Suh. At 6 feet 3, 325 pounds, the Cornhuskers really need Valentine to contribute this coming season. Fans are also excited to see end Greg McMullen, and JUCO end Randy Gregory is expected to help when he gets on campus this summer.

Thomas Brown, Michael Rose and Jared Afalava are freshmen to watch at linebacker.

Cornhuskers coach Bo Pelini is expected to play it safe with quarterback Taylor Martinez, who will probably only see a couple of series. I-back Ameer Abdullah, linebacker David Santos and cornerback Daniel Davie have already been ruled out.

Virginia Cavaliers: Virginia fans will get an up-close look at the Cavaliers' revamped coaching staff in Saturday's Orange-Blue spring game. After the Cavaliers went 4-8 for the second time in coach Mike London's three-year tenure, he hired four new assistants.

Longtime defensive coordinator Jon Tenuta spent the spring installing an aggressive, blitz-heavy scheme, and former Colorado State coach Steve Fairchild was hired to take over the offense. Former NC State coach Tom O'Brien was hired to coach tight ends and serve as associate head coach for offense, and former Idaho State coach Larry Lewis is the new special teams coordinator/running backs coach.

On the field, sophomore David Watford is battling Greyson Lambert and Phillip Sims for the starting quarterback job. Sims, an Alabama transfer who started four games for the Cavaliers last season, went into the spring at No. 3 on the depth chart.
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 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.

Big Ten weekend rewind: Week 14

December, 3, 2012
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

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 "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 "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."

Big Ten stock report: Week 6

October, 3, 2012
The NASDAQ and the Nikkei got nothing on this market.

Stock up

Penn State's Killer Zs: Zach Zwinak was no better than the fifth-string tailback for the Nittany Lions this summer. But in the last two games, the 230-pound sophomore has rushed for 94 yards against Temple and an even 100 versus Illinois. "He's got good speed, but he's not a scat back," head coach Bill O'Brien said. "He's a physical, downhill guy that likes to press the line of scrimmage." Penn State's second-leading rusher is Michael Zordich, a senior whose 30 carries this year are just five shy of his previous career total. Don't sleep on these Zs.

Jordan Cotton: The Iowa receiver came to campus as a well-regarded in-state recruit but spent two years doing not much of anything after a redshirt season. Cotton is finally emerging, with four catches in the Hawkeyes' last two games, including a 47-yard touchdown grab on a flea flicker last week against Minnesota. Cotton is averaging 20.2 yards per catch this season.

[+] EnlargePenn State's Zach Zwinak
Bradley Leeb/US PRESSWIREZach Zwinak has rushed for a combined 194 yards in Penn State's past two games.
Ohio State's offensive line: A maligned group most of the offseason and even early in the year, the Buckeyes' offensive front exerted its will last week at Michigan State. Ohio State ran for more than 200 yards against a Spartans defense that was leading the Big Ten and was among the best in the nation against the run. What's more, they closed out the 17-16 win by churning out yards and first downs in the final minutes when Michigan State knew the run was coming. Urban Meyer named his five starters the offensive MVP after the game. "Those five guys are locked and loaded," he said. "That's the group right now that I'm most pleased with."

Nate Sudfeld: The Indiana quarterback didn't arrive on campus until this summer but looks like he should be starting going into Week 6. Sudfeld replaced an injured Cameron Coffman against Ball State and led a rally that nearly won the game for the Hoosiers. Last week, after IU fell behind Northwestern 20-0 in the first half, Sudfeld came on right before halftime and gave the offense a spark, leading a comeback that ultimately came up short. Sudfeld is still competing in practice with Coffman for the starting job, but his needle is definitely pointing up.

Blackshirts' seniors: When Nebraska needed to make a defensive stand after falling 17 points down to Wisconsin last week, its seniors stepped up. Defensive tackle Baker Steinkuhler and linebackers Will Compton, Alonzo Whaley and Sean Fisher combined for eight tackles for loss and two sacks to stymie the Badgers and lead the comeback effort. Compton in particular had a terrific game. The Huskers veterans haven't always performed at an elite level, and they'll need to carry that Wisconsin effort over to this weekend and beyond in order to win the Big Ten.

Stock down

Minnesota's safeties: Jerry Kill said one big reason his team couldn't stop the Iowa running game last week is that his safeties missed too many tackles in run support. Even Derrick Wells, who's had a fantastic season, turned in a poor performance, Kill said. The Gophers will spend much of the bye week working on improving that with their safeties, and getting Brock Vereen back fully healthy should help.

Michigan's road production: As Kyle Meinke writes, the Wolverines are averaging 20.9 points per game on the road the past two seasons, compared with more than 40 at home. This year, Michigan has scored just 20 total points in its two games away from Ann Arbor (albeit against outstanding defenses in Alabama and Notre Dame). Denard Robinson's numbers are much worse away from the Big House as well. It's an issue the team must resolve before going to Purdue this week

Ex-Iowa running backs: The grass isn't always greener, even if it's FieldTurf. As Mike Hlas points out, former Hawkeyes running backs Marcus Coker and Mika'il McCall aren't exactly flourishing after leaving Iowa City. Coker is the second-leading rusher on his team at FCS Stony Brook and ranks 66th in the division in rushing yards. McCall has 8 fewer yards than Coker at Southern Illinois. Neither of them have come close to walk-on Mark Weisman's 507 yards, which he's accomplished in a mere three games. So maybe it's not the player, but the system.

Peace, love and understanding between Spartans, Buckeyes: Mark Dantonio wasn't the biggest fan of Urban Meyer during recruiting season last winter. Ohio State defensive tackle Johnathan Hankins said before last week's game that he would try to rip Michigan State running back Le'Veon Bell's head off. Hankins nearly had his eyes gouged out by the Spartans in a scrum. And defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi complained that the Buckeyes didn't send over the proper game film. Can't we all just get along?

Illinois' offense: Weren't the Illini supposed to be more explosive with Tim Beckman's spread attack? The team ranks 97th in the country in scoring at just 22.6 points per game and 96th in total offense. And those totals include a stat-padding 44-0 win over a truly awful FCS opponent (Charleston Southern). Not much has gone right for Illinois this year, but if the program wants to start building interest among its fans, scoring some points would be a nice way to start.
The Big Ten still is a mostly muddled mess after the first Saturday of league play. While Penn State made a statement and Iowa showed it shouldn't be counted out, few other squads looked truly impressive in Week 5. Wisconsin looked better than it has but still fell at Nebraska, and while Michigan State came close against Ohio State, the Spartans still haven't turned the corner on offense.

There's no shuffling at the top and very little separation throughout the rankings. Although both Wisconsin and Michigan State fall, while Penn State rises, you can slide a sheet of paper between these teams. Ohio State remains at the top but will be tested this week by Nebraska.

Let's get to the rundown ...

1. Ohio State (5-0, 1-0 Big Ten, last week: 1): It's not easy to overcome three turnovers on the road, but the Buckeyes received enough magic from quarterback Braxton Miller and solid play along both lines at Michigan State. Linebacker Etienne Sabino stepped up in a big way for the defense. Urban Meyer's team has its flaws, but it can still win a lot of games in a flawed Big Ten. Ohio State showed it can win a big road game. Nebraska provides a nice test this week.

2. Nebraska (4-1, 1-0 Big Ten, last week: 2): After a miserable start against Wisconsin, Nebraska rallied from 17 points down in the third quarter to record a win it absolutely had to have. It tied the second-largest comeback in team history, and provided Taylor Martinez and the offense some confidence heading to Ohio State. The Huskers are loaded with offensive weapons and received terrific linebacker play from Will Compton, Alonzo Whaley and Sean Fisher. They still put the ball on the ground too much, though, and can't afford another slow start in Columbus.

3. Northwestern (5-0, 1-0 Big Ten, last week: 3): Thanks to Kain Colter, Northwestern remained perfect on the season and starts 5-0 for the third time in five years. The concern is that the Wildcats once again couldn't finish off a team after storming out to a 27-0 lead. No lead is truly safe with Northwestern, and while the defense has been very good most of the season, it needs to limit bad quarters like the third on Saturday. This is a young, maturing team that continues to win, but the tests get tougher beginning this week at red-hot Penn State.

4. Michigan (2-2, last week: 5): In this year's sputtering Big Ten, sometimes it pays off not to play. Michigan moves up in the rankings after Purdue struggled to hold off Marshall on Saturday. There's not much separating the Wolverines and the Boilers, and we'll find out the superior team this week when they meet at Ross-Ade Stadium. Michigan's defense took a nice step at Notre Dame, but as usual, the team's fortunes likely rest on how quarterback Denard Robinson performs.

5. Purdue (3-1, last week: 4): After storming out to a 42-14 halftime lead, Purdue had to hold on to win a shootout against Marshall and thus drop a spot. Although the Boilers won't face another passing offense quite like Marshall's this season, they have to be a bit concerned about their defense, which surrendered 439 passing yards and 534 total yards. Purdue faces another spread-ish offense -- and certainly a spread-ish quarterback in Michigan's Robinson -- this week in West Lafayette. The Michigan game begins a defining stretch for Danny Hope's crew.

6. Penn State (3-2, 1-0, last week: 9): The Big Ten's hottest team makes the biggest move of the week, rising three spots after another impressive win against Illinois. Linebacker Michael Mauti is leading a revived defense, while quarterback Matt McGloin continues to perform well in the new offense. You can't say enough about the job Bill O'Brien has done in his first season as Lions coach. Penn State faces its biggest test since the season opener this week against Northwestern before a challenging stretch with three of four on the road.

7. Michigan State (3-2, 0-1, last week: 5): The Spartans lost to Ohio State by only a point and were burned by a premature whistle that killed a potential fumble return for a touchdown. Then again, Michigan State had numerous opportunities to beat Ohio State and held a plus-3 turnover margin on its home field. The offense simply isn't coming together well enough, as good passing Saturday was offset by an invisible Le'Veon Bell. We still think the Spartans can make a run for the Big Ten title, but they haven't looked impressive in the early going.

8. Wisconsin (3-2, 0-1, last week: 8): For a half and change, it looked like Wisconsin would make a major move up the power rankings. The Badgers came out hot against Nebraska and took a big lead behind the inspired play of linebacker Chris Borland and the poise of quarterback Joel Stave in his first career road start. But the same problem that plagued the Badgers in the first four weeks -- flimsy offensive line play -- coupled with a defense that couldn't keep pace with Martinez led to a crushing defeat. Wisconsin still can take some pluses from Saturday night. It needs to take another step this week against Illinois before next week's showdown at Purdue.

9. Iowa (3-2, 1-0, last week: 11): Besides maybe Illinois, no team needed a win in Week 5 more than the Hawkeyes, and they delivered in a big way. Iowa took control from the get-go against Minnesota and brought home the bacon to fill its long-empty trophy case. Running back Mark Weisman continues to be one of the Big Ten's best early season stories, and the Hawkeyes' defense responded well from a poor performance against Central Michigan, receiving great play from the linebackers. An open week comes at a good time before Iowa resumes play at Michigan State.

10. Minnesota (4-1, 0-1, last week: 7): Week 5 brought a reality check of sorts for Minnesota, which never really challenged Iowa and lost the Floyd of Rosedale for the first time since 2009. As coach Jerry Kill said Sunday, the Gophers really need top quarterback MarQueis Gray (ankle) to get healthy, as backup Max Shortell had three interceptions at Iowa. More unsettling was the play of Minnesota's defense, which couldn't stop Weisman. The Gophers can regroup during the bye week before their league home opener against Northwestern.

11. Indiana (2-2, 0-1, last week: 10): Credit the Hoosiers for fighting back at Northwestern and making it a one-possession game in the fourth quarter. Indiana has some serious talent at wide receiver with Kofi Hughes and Cody Latimer, both of whom made circus catches Saturday. The Hoosiers also saw some good signs in their run game. But again, the defense continues to struggle mightily, surrendering more than 700 yards to the Wildcats. Until IU can defend like a Big Ten team, it won't win a Big Ten game.

12. Illinois (2-3, 0-1, last week: 12): Oy vey. If we could drop Illinois to 13th, we would. Tim Beckman's program is in complete disarray just five weeks into his first season. From the turnovers to the special teams miscues to a supposedly elite defense showing cracks each week, Illinois is in a tailspin. The Illini really needed to build some confidence at home. Instead, they're going to have to get it together on the road against Wisconsin and then Michigan. There's a lot of talent in Champaign, but once again, it doesn't seem to matter.
The groan on the other end of the phone said it all.

The wounds from Nebraska's loss to Wisconsin in 2011 haven't fully healed.

"Oh god," Huskers linebacker Will Compton told "I hate to reflect on that. It was definitely a bad taste, a terrible ride back."

[+] EnlargeBo Pelini
AP Photo/Nati HarnikBo Pelini and the Huskers will host Big Ten rival Wisconsin on Saturday (8 p.m. ET, ABC).
It's not easy for Nebraska players to recall the night of Oct. 1, 2011, when their Big Ten debut turned into a debacle in Madison, as they were pounded 48-17 by the Badgers at Camp Randall Stadium. Nebraska dropped its league opener for just the third time in 37 seasons, lost by its biggest margin in three seasons and allowed its biggest points total since 2008.

Although it's difficult for the Huskers to look back, it's very easy for them to look forward and gear up for Saturday night's rematch with Wisconsin at Memorial Stadium.

"We're really looking forward to this week, just because of what happened last year," Nebraska quarterback Taylor Martinez told "That still haunts us in the back of our minds. Everyone's pumped up for it."

No Huskers player more so than Martinez, who endured quite possibly the worst performance of his career at Camp Randall Stadium. He threw a career-high three interceptions during a stretch of four possessions midway through the game. Wisconsin converted each Martinez pick into six points and turned a 14-13 second-quarter deficit into a 34-14 third-quarter lead.

Martinez was the least popular person in the state the following week, taking criticism from media members and fans. He responded by leading a dramatic come-from-behind win against Ohio State, but the Wisconsin loss stung.

"It was a tough week," he said. "A pretty tough week."

A different Martinez is key to a different result against the Badgers. Martinez elicited some chuckles around the country before the season when he said he would aim for a 70 percent completion rate (he entered the fall as a career 57.4 percent passer and had looked awkward throwing the ball).

But the junior is backing up his goal so far, completing 70.7 percent of his attempts (65 of 92) through the first four games. Martinez is tied for the Big Ten lead in touchdown passes (nine) and has thrown only one interception. He leads the Big Ten and ranks 10th nationally in pass efficiency (180.9 rating).

"People snickered when I said, 'I think Taylor's going to make a huge jump this year,' and he has," Nebraska coach Bo Pelini said. "I saw it through the spring. I saw it in practice through fall camp. He just needs to stay on the same track. If he keeps playing the way he is, it makes our offense pretty hard to stop."

Nebraska boasts the Big Ten's top total offense (541.8 ypg) and scoring offense (48.5 ppg) through the first four games. Although Wisconsin slowed the Huskers by forcing mistakes a year ago, Martinez doesn't think the Badgers are Nebraska's biggest obstacle Saturday night.

[+] EnlargeTaylor Martinez
Brace Hemmelgarn/US PresswireQB Taylor Martinez didn't have much success during the Huskers' 2011 game in Madison, Wis.
"The only person that can beat us is ourselves," he said. "It was the same thing last year. The turnovers on offense, that's what killed us. We're our own worst enemy, so if we beat ourselves, we'll lose the game. But if we stay on our task, then we'll win."

Nebraska's defense had to contend with Wisconsin stars Montee Ball and Russell Wilson a year ago, but Compton agrees with Martinez that the Huskers' enemy lies within.

"We were in the game going into halftime, and we came out, threw an interception, and we let that snowball effect take a toll on us," Compton said. "We all started to point the finger early."

Although Wisconsin immediately gets Nebraska's attention, Compton and his fellow defenders also draw motivation from their poor performance in Week 2 against UCLA, which racked up 36 points and 653 yards against Big Red. Huskers defenders were "embarrassed" by their play, according to Compton, and cite the game as a teaching tool for the rest of the season.

Wisconsin used to put up UCLA-like stats on offense, but the unit struggled for most of non-league play. Wilson is starting for the NFL's Seattle Seahawks, and the Badgers' offensive line already has gone through a coaching change. Although the offense showed some life in last week's win against UTEP, it comes to Lincoln ranked 110th nationally in yards (312.8) and 100th in scoring (21.5 ppg). Redshirt freshman quarterback Joel Stave, who performed well against UTEP, will make his first career road start.

"Their production, compared from last year, there is a difference, but they still have a great football team," said Compton, who leads Nebraska with 34 tackles (three for loss, two sacks). "They haven't done what they've wanted to do so far, but I know they're going to be well-prepared coming in this week."

Pelini apologized to all Nebraskans after the loss to Wisconsin in 2011, calling the Huskers' performance "a joke." He acknowledged Monday that the better team won in Madison, but added that he doesn't care what happened in the past.

"Different time, different place, different football team," he said.

From a motivational standpoint this week, Pelini has an easy job, but the Huskers are focused more on themselves than their opponents.

"In my mind and in all the players' and coaches' minds, we're the only team that stands in our own way," Compton said. "The decision in this football game will ride on how we prepare.

"I know we're going to do a lot better this year, and hopefully, it goes a different way."
Nebraska's defensive players enter their first game week feeling good vibes.

"Our confidence is high," senior linebacker Will Compton told "And I think it's only going to get higher as the days go on."

All offseason, the Cornhuskers have talked about having a better understanding of the scheme and principals on defense, of communicating better and working together more. That, they believe, will lead to a much stronger performance from the Blackshirts than the disappointing showing of 2011.

[+] EnlargeWill Compton
Cal Sport Media via AP ImagesWill Compton is looking to help Nebraska's defense regain its swagger after struggling in 2011.
Nebraska's defense had better be ready. Because it doesn't get much time to ease into things.

The season begins Saturday against Southern Miss, a team that averaged nearly 37 points per game a year ago. Week 2 brings a road trip to UCLA, followed by a visit from Arkansas State, which is now coached by former Arkansas and Auburn offensive whiz Gus Malzahn. September ends with a showdown against Wisconsin, which hung 48 points on Nebraska last season in Madison.

"We are going to get challenged right out of the gate," Compton said.

The Huskers think they're up to the challenge more than last year's defense was. Despite leaving the generally more offensive-minded Big 12, Nebraska's defensive numbers took a major tumble. To wit:

2009: 272 yards allowed per game (seventh in the FBS); 10.4 points allowed per game (first)

2010: 306.8 ypg (11th); 17.4 ppg (ninth)

2011: 350.7 (37th); 23.4 ppg (42nd)

So what has changed? More knowledge and more attention to detail. Better depth up front on the defensive line. And more experience at safety, a crucial spot in Bo Pelini's scheme.

"It's a much more mature group," first-year defensive coordinator John Papuchis said. "Guys like Daimion Stafford, Ciante Evans, Andrew Green were in their first year of playing last year. Another year in the system gives them a greater understanding of their roles.

"Right know, our knowledge of what we're asking our guys to do is at a greater level, and we're able to progress further along in our package than we were a year ago."

It is also a defense that, at least going into the season, lacks stars. Last year's team had Jared Crick, Lavonte David and Alfonzo Dennard as the defensive headliners. These Huskers don't have a single player who was a first- or second-team All-Big Ten performer on defense in 2011. But they don't expect to be a no-name defense for long.

"These guys will certainly be better well-known through their play this year," Papuchis said. "Daimion Stafford, Ciante Evans, Will Compton, Jason Ankrah -- these guys are on the cusp of being the names people identify with and recognize.

"But at the end of the day, I believe this is a very unselfish defensive unit. I don't believe that they're worried about individual recognition and who the stars are. They want to go out there as a group and play the best defense they can. I don't think anybody needs to be the star to do that."

Pelini called Compton the unquestioned leader of the defense this summer. Papuchis said leaders at other positions have emerged this month, including Stafford in the secondary and seniors Baker Steinkuhler and Cameron Meredith on the defensive line.

Leadership could be key early as Nebraska deals with some unknowns. Southern Miss has a new head coach in Ellis Johnson, a new starting quarterback and a new offensive coordinator in Steve Buckley, who spent the previous five years as a high school coach. Huskers coaches have prepared by watching all kinds of different film, including high school games, but they expect surprises.

"You're going to see some things that we haven't seen before, and we have to be ready to make adjustments on the fly," Pelini said Monday.

Compton has seen evidence of his team's ability to do just that in preseason practice. He said the defense has done a great job of getting off the field on third downs and readjusting if it does give up a third-down conversion. In doing that and communicating on the field, he said, the Blackshirts have "made a big jump."

Nebraska's defense is eager to show that last year was a blip and that this is another dominant unit. They'll get the chance to prove themselves in September.

"We need to take care of business our first couple of games," Compton said. "It's on us to do so. We need to make a statement early."

There's a vacant U.S. Senate seat in Nebraska. If Rex Burkhead were a few years older, he might have tried to claim it in November.

Burkhead is a folk hero in the Cornhusker State, by far Nebraska's most popular player. The senior running back has won over the Husker faithful with his production, versatility, durability, humility and success both on and off the field. No one in Big Red country needs to be convinced that Burkhead is among college football's best players.

[+] EnlargeRex Burkhead
Jesse Johnson/US PresswireRunning back Rex Burkhead isn't yet a household name outside of the Big Ten's borders.
Burkhead also has little to prove in the Big Ten after rushing for 1,357 yards and 15 touchdowns on a hoss-like 283 carries (21.8 per game). He recorded a league-high 197 carries in conference games in 2011, averaging 106 yards and scoring eight touchdowns.

But on a national scale, Burkhead remains fairly anonymous. Most preseason Heisman Trophy watch lists include Wisconsin running back Montee Ball, a 2011 Heisman finalist, and always electric Michigan quarterback Denard Robinson, but good luck finding Burkhead's name here, here or here. Burkhead's backfield mate, mercurial Huskers quarterback Taylor Martinez, might be a bigger name nationally than No. 22.

Why doesn't Burkhead's name resonate beyond Big Ten borders?

"The right people know," senior linebacker Will Compton said, "as far as next level [NFL], things like that. Coaches know, scout personnel knows. Rex, he's going to get more national recognition. Coach Bo [Pelini] and all that, we've never really been the team that goes out and sells players. But Rex, he'll have the right attention at the right time. He's a well-respected athlete and ... more eyes will be on him. People will understand what he's all about."

Burkhead isn't one for self-promotion and almost seems pained at times talking about his success. Nebraska hasn't launched a national awards campaign for Burkhead like Wisconsin has for Ball. Robinson, meanwhile, needs no PR push. As he mentioned during his players' speech Friday at the Big Ten Kickoff Luncheon, President Obama and LeBron James both know who he is.

While Burkhead doesn't yet have that same reach, Pelini thinks he should. The Huskers coach raved about his running back last week at Big Ten media days, calling the senior "the definition of what a role model is and what a student-athlete should be."

"The things he does in our community, the type of leader he is, the type of example he sets on a daily basis, what he's accomplished in the classroom, I wouldn't trade him for another player in the country," Pelini said.

Burkhead can help his cause with some big performances early in the season, particularly during a Week 2 clash against UCLA at the Rose Bowl. He also might need a signature moment or two. He had a career-long 52-yard run last season against Fresno State, but he had no run of longer than 22 yards in Big Ten play.

"Just like Montee Ball, he can go through you or around you," Compton said. "... He's got some moves. Even though we know what he can do, it still surprises you and amazes you, watching him in practice, what he can do. Heck, he runs the Wildcat, he takes handoffs, he catches passes, throws it. Rex is a special guy."
Earlier this summer, I took a look at the Big Ten's top candidates to throw for 3,000 yards, to run for 1,000 yards and to compile 1,000 receiving yards this season. Well, offensive guys don't get to have all the fun.

Let's move to the defensive side of the ball now and see which guys might produce the top tackling numbers in the league in 2012. We'll start off by examining the leading returning 100-tackle men from last season and their outlook for the coming fall:

1. Mike Taylor, LB, Wisconsin: Taylor had a true breakthrough year in 2012, leading the league with 150 tackles in 14 games. His 10.7 tackles per game ranked 13th nationally. Taylor sat out this spring while dealing with a hip injury, but is expected to be fully healthy in time for training camp. And there's no reason to think he won't be among the league leaders in stops again this year, along with ...

[+] EnlargeMike Taylor
Andrew Weber/US PresswireWisconsin's Mike Taylor's 10.7 tackles per game ranked 13th nationally.
2. Chris Borland, LB, Wisconsin: You'd be hard pressed to find two more productive returning linebackers than the Badgers' duo. Borland finished just behind Taylor with 143 tackles in '11, successfully making the transition to middle linebacker after missing a year due to injury. There's little question that Taylor and Borland are two defenders Wisconsin will heavily rely on to get stops. And speaking of dynamic duos, let's go ahead and lump the next two together ...

3-4. James Morris and Christian Kirksey, LB, Iowa: The Hawkeyes' pair didn't get as much attention as Borland and Taylor but were awfully good in their own right, as each one recorded 110 tackles (Morris did it in 12 games, Kirksey in 13) in 2011. Both will be counted on this fall as Iowa breaks in a very young defensive line in front of them. Considering both are juniors who have had two years of playing experience, the future appears bright for these two.

5. Jonathan Brown, LB, Illinois: Brown was another guy who had a breakout sophomore year, making 108 tackles and a lot of plays in opposing backfields. He's got great speed and should only improve as he matures and continues to develop. He's a darkhorse candidate for Big Ten defensive player of the year honors.

6. Gerald Hodges, LB, Penn State: Hodges was a first-team All-Big Ten performer last year and enters this season as one of the top linebackers in the country after posting 106 tackles in 2011. He's a big-time playmaker who had a 19-tackle game last year against Illinois. The sky's the limit for Hodges, even in a new defensive scheme under first-year coordinator Ted Roof.

7. Ibraheim Campbell, S, Northwestern: Campbell was a pleasant surprise for the Wildcats, finishing with a team-best 100 tackles as a redshirt freshman. He's a hard-hitter who could help Northwestern's defense improve off a disappointing showing last year. Of course, any time your safety is getting 100 tackles, it usually indicates that the guys up front are giving up too much room. So it's probably a good thing if Campbell's tackle numbers go down in '12.

Those are the guys who hit triple digits last year and are coming back. Now here's a quick look at some other players who could reach the century mark this year.

Kenny Demens, LB, Michigan: Demens led the Wolverines with 94 stops last season, and Michigan's defensive line might not be quite as strong as last year's group, meaning he could meet more ball carriers himself.

Dwayne Beckford, LB, Purdue: Fully reinstated to the team last month, Beckford is the most experienced linebacker of the group. He had 91 tackles in '11 and won't have Joe Holland (94 stops as a senior in 2011) to pick up the slack next to him.

Max Bullough, LB, Michigan State: Bullough is the captain of a strong Spartans defense as the middle linebacker and had 84 tackles a year ago. But the players around him are all so good that the tackle numbers could be spread out.

Will Compton, LB, Nebraska: Now that tackling machine Lavonte David is off to the NFL, someone will have to carry the load. That could well be Compton, who had a nice year in 2011 with 82 tackles.

Mike Rallis, LB, Minnesota: Safety Kim Royston paced the Gophers with 123 tackles in 2011. But like Northwestern, Minnesota would rather not see a defensive back lead the way in stops again. Rallis (83 tackles last year) or fellow linebacker Keanon Cooper (77) might see an uptick in stats with a better Gophers' defensive effort.

Ryan Shazier, LB, Ohio State: The Buckeyes did not have a player record more than 75 tackles last year. That might change this season, and veteran linebacker Etienne Sabino could put up some big numbers. But I like Shazier -- who had 58 tackles in only 10 games as a freshman, including 15 against Penn State -- to emerge as the next Buckeyes linebacker star.

David Cooper, Indiana: The Hoosiers are high on this junior-college transfer and hope he can have an immediate, Lavonte David like impact. They need someone to make a big mark on a defense that really struggled a year ago.

Michael Mauti, Penn State: The Nittany Lions have Hodges and also Mauti, who can be a major factor if he's recovered from yet another devastating injury. He had 67 tackles two years ago in an injury-shortened season and was playing extremely well before he hurt his knee last September. If he's sound, Penn State could have a top tackling duo a la Wisconsin and Iowa.
LINCOLN, Neb. -- Nebraska linebacker Will Compton reaches into his jeans pocket and pulls out his iPhone.

The lock screen displays the following: "Thank God, go to work, do extra, don't give yourself an excuse and become the absolute best." Compton's phone also contains what he describes as desire statements and reward statements.

Desire statement: "I want to be one of THE BEST linebackers in the country."

Reward statement: "Reap the benefits. All-Conference, All-American, getting drafted to the NFL."

Compton reviews the messages every day as part of a routine he adopted during the offseason. His goal: becoming a trusted and genuine leader for Nebraska's defense, which loses several from the 2011 team -- linebacker Lavonte David, cornerback Alfonzo Dennard, safety Austin Cassidy, tackle Jared Crick.

As Nebraska's starting middle linebacker, Compton, who earned honorable mention All-Big Ten honors last season, knows leadership comes with the territory. But he has taken a uniquely proactive approach to the responsibilities he'll shoulder in 2012.

"I've put in extra time to know what I can do in that role," Compton told last month. "You can't just all of a sudden be a leader. I try to lead with my personality, be a genuine type of guy instead of just out on the field barking all the time, saying, 'Hey, I'm a leader now. Let's do this and do that.'

"You might naturally have things, but you also need a sense of direction when you're stepping in a role like that."

Compton has taken many of his cues from a book, "The Mental Edge," by noted sports psychologist Ken Baum. During a team flight to a game last season, Compton noticed Huskers star running back Rex Burkhead reading the book and asked him about it.

Burkhead told Compton about some of the visualization techniques the book promoted and how to gear the mind to produce outcomes. Compton admits he's not a big reader, but he became interested.

"I was like, 'Has it helped you out?'" Compton said. "And he said it's done wonders for him. Once he got done with it, I've had it ever since and I've just gone over it a lot, done all the techniques. It's probably the best book I've read."

Compton began spending 10-15 minutes a day visualizing game scenarios and moments of success: a 13-tackle effort in a win at Penn State ... pressuring quarterback Kirk Cousins in a win against Michigan State ... celebrating with his teammates after forcing a turnover ... racking up a career-high 15 tackles in a win against Fresno State. He tried to tune his mind so he could literally "feel the wind and smell the grass." He began doing breathing exercises to relax.

He also worked on performance cues, simple acts that put him in the right mind-set to perform. The cues can be as simple as squeezing a fist or touching an index finger to a thumb.

"When you hit those performance cues," he said, "when you're about ready to take the field, those feelings of excitement and success enter your body."

If Compton needed an extra boost, he watched video of Baltimore Ravens standout linebacker Ray Lewis, whose pregame speeches and displays are never short on emotion.

Burkhead saw changes in his teammate during the winter months and when Nebraska began spring ball.

[+] EnlargeWill Compton
Troy Babbitt/US PresswireLB Will Compton says he's putting the pressure on himself to make Nebraska a standout team in 2012.
"You can see it on the field," Burkhead said. "His energy, his leadership toward the defense, his aggressiveness, the toughness he has to keep pushing throughout practice, you can definitely tell he's made significant improvement."

Compton always has been interested in the mental side of football, but he used to struggle with it. After starting eight games as a redshirt freshman in 2009, he missed the first five contests of 2010 with a foot injury and finished the season with just 15 tackles in nine games (four starts).

The 6-2, 230-pound Compton started 11 games last fall and recorded 82 tackles, including seven for loss.

"A couple years ago, all I thought was, 'Gosh, don't mess up. I don't want the coaches to chew me out,'" he said. "I firmly believe that it's all mental, the way you think for yourself and the way you think of success against negative feelings. When you start to make plays, you don't even worry about messing up any more."

Compton relays a similar message to Nebraska's younger linebackers, especially those who will help fill the void left by David, one of the nation's most productive linebackers the past two seasons.

"It's not being the next Lavonte David," he said. "It's about playing your role, and that role happens to be the starting Will linebacker. You just want success in that."

Nebraska's coaches acknowledge the team's depth at linebacker still isn't where it needs to be for the Big Ten, which requires more linebackers on the field than the Huskers used to play in the Big 12. The issue is being addressed in recruiting, but the Huskers will lean on a select few this fall.

Compton has shown he's ready to answer the bell.

"He's a fifth-year senior, he knows this is his last go-round for this team and the program," defensive coordinator John Papuchis said. "You can tell everything he's done in the offseason has been purposeful."