LINCOLN — The revelation hit them.
You could see it in Will Compton's eyes. Hear it in his voice.
The Nebraska senior linebacker was talking about his conversation over dinner with teammates Rex Burkhead and Kyler Reed before Big Ten media days. As he spoke, Compton had this amazed look on his face.
Like he had just seen Christmas morning. Or the Nebraska version of it.
“We were soaking in the fact that we can win 'em all,” Compton said. “There's not a game on the schedule we can't win. When you honestly break it down, you have a one-game season every week. If we approach it like that, there's not a team we can't beat.
“Not that we didn't know it. But it was like, ‘Wow, we can really do something special. We want to bring it back. We want to be known as that group.'”
Then they got the legacy speech, on the eve of boot camp.
Grant Wistrom, a drill sergeant from days yore, gathered the 2012 Nebraska team together on Thursday for his version of a pep talk.
The former All-American and Lombardi Trophy winner touched on all the basic food groups: responsibility, accountability, desire, playing to a higher standard. And while many of the current players may never have seen Wistrom play, they knew this was someone important.
“He had everybody's attention,” senior defensive end Cameron Meredith said. “He got us fired up. When one of those guys from the '90s talks, you listen.”
The 2012 Nebraska seniors — the first Bo Pelini recruiting class — hit the field running on Saturday, with an apparent grasp of the situation. They're saying all the right things. They have the dream. They want their piece of history. And they've been told what's important and how to go about it.
But Wistrom can't do it for them.
Now comes the hard part. They have to figure this out for themselves.
It's Nebraska tradition. Each of the great eras of the last 50 years came without a road map.
In 1962, with Bob Devaney as their guide, the Huskers began a run of 47 wins and four New Year's Day bowls in five seasons — coming off of six straight losing seasons.
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Then, in 1970, Jerry Tagge and Co. learned the art of going undefeated — in two straight seasons — and put NU in a whole new stratosphere.
From 1981 to 1983, Tom Osborne took a giant step with the help of some triplets.
Then came the vaunted 1990s, spurred by a quarterback recruit, a defensive overhaul and a unity council.
This isn't a comparison of the 2012 bunch with the great teams in Big Red lore. Those teams had hall-of-famers up and down the row. Depth, scholarship limits, schedules were also different.
But it's interesting that, time and again the last 50 years, Nebraska football greatness has had to reinvent itself. Find a different way to take that next step.
The goal in 2012 is somewhat different. Taylor Martinez aside, not a lot of Huskers are talking national championship. This program hasn't been to a major/BCS/New Year's Day bowl since the 2001 season. Or won a conference title since 1999.
Those are the logical “next steps” for this team.
Besides all that talent, the old Nebraska champions had another thing the 2012 team doesn't: some proof, and in some cases heartbreak.
The 1970 team had gone 9-2 the year before and beaten Oklahoma by 30. The 1981 team won its last eight regular-season games and lost an Orange Bowl with a shot at a national title. The storied '90s run began with an unforgettable, gut-wrenching two-point loss to Florida State for the national championship.
This year's Huskers have big plans. But they're coming off a 9-4 season in which they lost games by 31 points and 28 points and a bowl performance that was more meltdown than courageous.
Senior tight end Ben Cotton said Wistrom told the current players they would find out during the week how good they were. Practice and preparation are where you gain consistency.
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True. But to get over the hump, Pelini's program needs something drastic to happen on the field. Something to kickstart momentum. A signature win.
How about a signature month?
Draw a circle around Sept. 29 and go to Nov. 3 on this year's schedule. In that time, NU hosts Wisconsin, goes to Ohio State and Northwestern, has Michigan in Lincoln and goes to Michigan State. Six weeks that will change the season.
A win over Wisconsin on Sept. 29 could mean a 5-0 start. But that's not enough. If the new guys want to be the old Nebraska, the old Nebraska would roll through that six weeks. One loss, minimum.
How do they get to the other side? Talent isn't the issue here. It's mental. It's everything Wistrom preached to them. But it's also being like Wistrom on game day, staring down the other guy and making plays. Then making some more.
“As seniors, we have one opportunity to do this,” Compton said. “If we do that, then the people on the outside will say we restored this. Man, I mean, that would be incredible.”
That's the dream. Now comes the hard part.
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