Big Ten Team Profile: Nebraska Cornhuskers
WNUR Sports’s Jeffrey Eisenband (@JeffEisenband) previews the Nebraska Cornhuskers as part of our summer Big Ten Preview series. To check out our previous previews, click: Illinois | Purdue | Michigan | IndianaNebraska spent its first two Big Ten seasons feeling around the division. In 2011, the Cornhuskers’ inaugural Big Ten game was a 48-17 bell ringer at Wisconsin. Nebraska reached as high as #9 in the nation at 7-1, before losing a 28-25 classic at the hands of…oh right, the Northwestern Wildcats. Later that season, the Huskers got blown out in the Big House at Michigan and blown out in the Capital One Bowl against South Carolina to finish at #24 in the AP with a 9-4 (5-3) record.
In 2012, Nebraska took a step forward. While the Huskers lost in the Capital One Bowl again, they added another victory to finish 10-4 (7-1) and #25 in the AP. The only regular season Big Ten loss came to an undefeated Ohio State team in Columbus, although Wisconsin torched Nebraska for 70 points in the Big Ten Championship Game. UCLA and Georgia handed the Huskers the other losses. Nebraska almost lost another game in the Greater Chicagoland Area, but WNUR Sports refuses to comment on that affair.
In 2013, Bo Pelini’s team is poised to take that next step in the Big Ten: a conference title.
The stage is set for Nebraska. Ohio State and Wisconsin are dropped from last year’s schedule and Purdue and Illinois are inserted. UCLA also comes into Lincoln this year, rather than battling at the Rose Bowl. Northwestern, Iowa and Michigan State all have to play at Memorial Stadium. Michigan and Penn State should be the only road tests for the Huskers (although neither of those are anything to scoff at).
On the field, Nebraska has the names to make a run at a Rose Bowl, and maybe even a National Title. Taylor Martinez is entering his fourth year as a starter and is arguably the most experienced quarterback in Division I-A. With two straight Capital One Bowl appearances, Nebraska is hungry for more.
To continue on about Martinez, he has improved each season in Lincoln and all signs point to the culmination of something special in 2013. Last season, he completed 62.0 percent of his passes for 2871 yards and 23 touchdowns (141.6 rating). He also rushed for 1019 yards and ten touchdowns. Martinez passed for at least 1631 yards and rushed for at least 874 yards in his freshman, sophomore and junior seasons.
Beyond the numbers, Martinez is a playmaker and a leader. His dual-threat presence keeps the Cornhusker offense spread out and opposing defenses on their heels. Perhaps what puts Martinez above the second tier of dual-threat quarterbacks (say, Kain Colter and pre-2012 Nathan Scheelhaase) is his arm. Martinez can throw the ball downfield with the top pocket passers in the nation. Northwestern fans recall this from his 342-yard, three-touchdown outpour in Evanston in 2012, which included a fourth quarter comeback by the Huskers. If Martinez can put the pieces together, and he is known to have a few mid-season bumps in the past, he can be a Heisman candidate.
Two other stars to watch are Ameer Abdullah and Kenny Bell. Last seasons, Abdullah was supposed to spend his sophomore season playing second fiddle to Rex Burkhead. However, with Burkhead hampered by injuries throughout the season, Abdullah led the Huskers with 226 carries. He turned those rushes into 1137 yards and eight touchdowns. Now the clear feature back, Abdullah will show gifted speed, despite just a 5-9, 190 lbs. frame.
Despite opening the season with just 11 catches in the first four games, Bell also had a breakout sophomore season. He made 50 receptions for 863 yards (17.3 average) and eight touchdowns. Bell turned into the deep threat Martinez needed to make him an elite passer, and the two will look to continue their success in 2013.
Last year’s 70-31 loss will stick in every Nebraskan’s mind for a long time to come, but it may sting most for the Nebraska defense. With a trip to the Rose Bowl on the line, a consistently stout unit allowed 640 yards and nine touchdowns.
Only four starters return from the 2012 defense, which may be a good thing considering the aforementioned paragraph. The pass rush takes a hit with the losses of Eric Martin, Cameron Meredith and Baker Steinkuhler, but hope is not lost. Jason Ankrah should step up to be a star this season. The senior accounted for 26 tackles, including six tackles for a loss and two sacks in a lesser role as a junior. As a senior, he will be asked to do more and appears ready for the challenge.
Another name to watch is defensive back Cianci Evans. The senior improved by the game in 2012, a season in which he had 56 tackles (38 solo) and eight pass breakups. Evans is versatile, as he is able to play cornerback or safety. If the pass rush slows this season, Evans will be the backbone of the pass defense.
The defense is a bit of a question mark, but the offense is among the top units in the nation. Taylor Martinez is not going to win a Heisman Trophy, but his name will pop up on Kirk Herbstreit’s short list at some point during the season. Bo Pelini is also one of the most consistent coaches in the nation, and it is time to toss his name around there with the best of them.
This is the year Nebraska has a chance to return to the national spotlight. With the schedule the way it is, the Cornhuskers should only have a few contests to worry about. Give Nebraska non-conference wins against Wyoming, South Dakota State and Southern Miss (although the Golden Eagles are nothing to sleep on). Home contests against Illinois and Iowa should be handled easily, as should road trips to Purdue and Minnesota.
That leaves home games against UCLA, Northwestern and Michigan State and road games at Michigan and at Penn State. With Nebraska losing only one home game since joining the Big Ten (Northwestern, 2011), it will not be easy for any of the three teams. Let’s say either Northwestern or Michigan State get the Big Ten win in Lincoln.
Penn State is on the decline with the Post-Paterno scholarship issues, so the Cornhuskers should hold on there. On the other hand, Michigan should be on the rise in the Post-Denard-saga Era. The Wolverines hold on here.
That puts Nebraska at 10-2 (6-2). Unfortunately for the Cornhuskers, they will need some help to overcome losses to Michigan and Northwestern/Michigan State to get to the Big Ten title game. A 10-2 season will look like a letdown with an Outback Bowl appearance.
Even tougher to swallow for Cornhusker fans will be the loss of Taylor Martinez. Like the Brooklyn Nets, Nebraska is going for it in 2013, and if they miss, that opportunity window may close very fast.