N stands for November.
Welcome back, old friend. Sure, your days grow shorter, the north wind brings a cold slap to the face. But these are the days that warm a football fan's heart.
This is the bookend to August, the month of anticipation. This is where the story gets good. This is where you find out whodunnit. Or, who's gonna do it.
November always used to be Nebraska month.
Once upon a dynasty, November meant one thing. Oklahoma. Often a Nebraska season was a long buildup to one game. Big game, national media in town, everyone watching. You found it at the end of November.
Times change, leagues change. Now there's a new November for the Huskers to negotiate.
Today the Big Red invades East Lansing, Mich., for a football scrum with Michigan State. This will not be pretty. Please bring extra gauze.
But today's game is a fitting preview of future Novembers for Nebraska. If you believe in the recruiting rankings, returning rosters and résumés, the Huskers will likely need to negotiate either Michigan or Michigan State — or both — in the final month to get where they want to go.
That's for later. Today finds NU relevant again in November.
Granted, the words “relevant” and “Big Ten” are more antonyms than words that should hang out in the same sentence.
But let's be honest: The Huskers are in the thick of a race for a division title, and beyond, here in November. Feels good, huh?
Nebraska controls its destiny with a win today, then a sweep of Penn State, Minnesota and Iowa. Do that, and it wins the Legends Division.
There is slight margin for error. NU could afford one loss and perhaps still end up in the Big Ten title game, but for that scenario to play out, Michigan would have to lose one more time. When the Wolverines invade Columbus, Ohio, later this month, the Buckeyes might be looking to secure an undefeated season in Urban Meyer's first Michigan game. You do the math.
Today, the issue is outslugging Spartacus. This will not be a complicated puzzle. It will be a test of manhood.
The charge for NU: find a way to outscore MSU. And bring 22 pairs of brass knuckles.
For a Nebraska defense that has found its groove and preferred color of practice jersey, the Michigan State offense provides a simple task. Stop the run. The Spartans score 19.5 points a game. They are slow and plodding, and that's a compliment. Big Le'Veon Bell runs it straight ahead (117.9 yards per game). Young quarterback Andrew Maxwell has had an educational year (55.9 percent completions, nine touchdowns, five interceptions).
The Spartans' defense does the heavy lifting. It keeps the team in the game and makes it ugly. The Spartans will knock your block off and smile as you hit the turf.
As usual, the test for Taylor Martinez and Co. is to avoid turnovers, though if there was one game where the opposing offense wouldn't make you pay, this might be it. Still, I wouldn't test that theory.
The offensive line will be under the scope today. So will Martinez's arm, since his sore ankle might preclude him from keepers. Might be a good day for some up-tempo play-calling from Tim Beck. Try to wear down the Spartans.
It might be a Brett Maher kind of day, too.
It should be a cold day, maybe a red day, too. In a Detroit Free Press story on Friday, MSU officials expressed concern about a Husker invasion and a Spartan Stadium with as much red as green.
Could happen. And the Big Red will need all the help they can get as they get the hang of November again.
NU hasn't won a league title since 1999; we know that ditty by heart. But of the last 10 Big Red seasons, only five have had games that mattered in November. And in a couple of cases, they didn't matter very long.
The Huskers were in this exact spot a year ago, 3-1 in the Big Ten and controlling their path. They finished 2-2, with losses to Northwestern at home and at Michigan.
Coach Bo Pelini needs to get his No-jo back. Bo is 12-4 in four Novembers, including 4-0 in 2009 and 3-1 in 2010 to clinch Big 12 North division titles. Pelini's teams generally have gotten better as the season has grown later.
Cue the gray skies and cold Big Ten wind. Hold onto the ball and your hat. Time to find out what you're made of.
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