LINCOLN — Dialogue among Nebraska football players at the team hotel this weekend was presumably different from the conversations they had at this time a year ago.
They won't see CNN satellite trucks on the way to Saturday's game. And they won't need extra security to get there.
The 16th- and 18th-ranked Huskers will face off against Penn State in Memorial Stadium with their minds focused on football, and only the standard set of game day distractions to deal with.
“We're ready to go,” coach Bo Pelini said matter-of-factly after practice Thursday.
There's no real reason to question the Huskers' concentration before this one. There was last year versus Penn State.
The Nebraska players' focus started to waver when the team landed in Happy Valley, about 24 hours before kickoff.
For a full week, the Huskers had effectively blocked out the news coverage as they prepared for their game at Penn State, where university leaders and coaches were embroiled in the burgeoning Jerry Sandusky sexual abuse scandal.
The week before, while Nebraska was struggling in an eventual upset loss to Northwestern, Sandusky was getting released on bond and two PSU athletic department officials were being charged with perjury. On the Huskers' third day of practice that next week, legendary coach Joe Paterno announced that he planned to retire at the end of the year — only to be dismissed by the board of regents hours later.
About 12 hours after national news organizations carried live footage of riots on the PSU campus streets, Pelini was meeting with Tom Osborne to discuss whether Nebraska should play the game.
But the Husker players had ignored all of that.
Then they landed in State College, Pa., and checked into the team hotel.
“We were hearing about it, watching it on TV,” junior nickel back Ciante Evans said. “People were calling us, asking us 'what is going on? There might be a riot. Buses might get flipped over.'”
The chatter continued for the rest of the night.
“It was eerie,” linebackers coach Ross Els said. “There were so many questions. 'What's going to happen?' ”
Few could have predicted what ended up unfolding on Nov. 12, 2011, at Beaver Stadium, what might actually be the turning point in a heated rivalry between two tradition-rich programs.
The Nittany Lions and the Huskers gathered at midfield — shaking hands, hugging and kneeling among one another — as NU assistant Ron Brown led the teams in a pregame prayer, a moment of solidarity meant to recognize the victims of a tragedy.
“Awesome,” quarterback Taylor Martinez said this week. “Emotional,” Evans said. “I'll remember it for the rest of my life,” junior offensive tackle Jeremiah Sirles said.
Then Nebraska and Penn State played a football game, light on trash talk, but full of competitiveness and physicality. The Huskers won 17-14.
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“It was a tremendous shock to the system,” Brown said. “The players had to find something deep down inside.”
And Brown has urged his players to carry a similar mindset into Saturday's rematch.
The Penn State community has been healing for a year, but the football program faces a murky future now that the NCAA has levied a crippling set of sanctions. Some Nittany Lion players bailed before the season, but those who stayed have managed to find some on-field success. Though ineligible for the postseason, they have won six of their past seven games.
“I don't think I have more respect for any team than Penn State right now,” Brown said. “Our guys better be ready — and I think we are — to out-character these guys. Because these guys are loaded with character.”
The Huskers' leaders have been reminding the team of that.
Even though this year's matchup against Penn State isn't being played amid a firestorm of national publicity, there are always plenty of ways to lose focus.
But Sirles has seen a businesslike mentality from NU since October, and he expects that to continue into Saturday. The Huskers, in first place in the Legends Division, don't want to spoil a promising stretch run.
“Every week, we've got things going on — at this place, that place,” Sirles said. “We've done a really good job of being mature as a football team, not letting the things outside of this place distract us from the ultimate goal.”
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>> Video: See last year's pregame prayer at Penn State: