LINCOLN — You can be humbled in a heartbeat.
It's a lesson, Nebraska coach Bo Pelini said Monday, he learned quickly during his nine-year career as an NFL assistant. It “hardened” him to the vagaries of football. There's a thin line between victory and becoming an opponent's object of wrath.
“You develop a respect for the game,” Pelini said during his weekly press conference.
He's a man whose team rides a five-game winning streak into Friday's game with Iowa, the only Big Ten team Nebraska might play with a losing record. NU's offense and defense are ranked in the nation's top 20. Pelini uses words like “professional” and “businesslike” to describe the Huskers' approach.
Poise under pressure. It hadn't always been so this year.
On their long, quiet plane ride home from a 63-38 loss to Ohio State, the Huskers felt humbled. Stunned. After an offseason of seniors claiming they'd be different — that nine wins weren't good enough — NU sat at 4-2, with the meat of the Big Ten schedule still to come and a bye week to stew over it.
“We had that hangover almost all week in the bye week,” linebacker Alonzo Whaley said. “We allowed it to hurt in a good way. We allowed it to motivate us.”
Said linebacker Will Compton: “It just sucked to hear how bad we did.”
Instead of sending assistant coaches out to recruit throughout the bye week, Pelini kept them in house for the first couple of days. Nebraska needed to fix itself. And Pelini instructed the coaches, Whaley said, to “nitpick” every part of the Huskers' recent performances. Indulgent film study is part of Pelini's process — his formula for success. NU took it to another level after OSU.
“It's always hard when you have a coach sit down and critique you about all the wrongs because you miss the rights,” Whaley said. “But sometimes that's the best way to go about things. It allows you to grow as a player.”
At the time, Pelini said he had an “angry team.” And he wanted one.
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He also desired a team that battled through the adversity that sunk it in Columbus. That adversity struck again at Northwestern, but the Huskers flipped it into a dramatic comeback with a dash of luck — Wildcat defenders dropped two sure interceptions — but also a better display of stringing defensive stops and offensive scores together to create momentum.
Compton didn't necessarily chalk this chemistry up to more confidence in quarterback Taylor Martinez — who engineered comebacks at Northwestern, at Michigan State and versus Penn State — but an understanding that the offense has so many weapons and such an effective no-huddle pace.
“Michigan State for example,” Compton said of NU's 28-24 victory. “We had to get the ball back to our offense. We got a lot of playmakers on offense ... There's something about those fourth quarters. The defense — even when we might have played bad in a different quarter — when we've needed stuff, we've come through. Getting the ball back to our offense in the fourth quarter is always a good thing.”
Back on the practice field, assistant coaches said during the five-game winning streak that workouts were getting more physical because the players created the atmosphere for it. A trio of games against three of the league's most physical defenses — Michigan, Michigan State and Penn State — likely necessitated an upgrade in intensity. NU outrushed those teams by a per-game average of 247-177. None of those defenses gives up more than 151 rushing yards per game.
“We're playing pretty well on the offensive line,” Pelini said.
Offensive coordinator Tim Beck has refined the game plan, staying more consistently with plays that Nebraska executes well — like its basic toss — and adjusting tempo as the situation dictates. A team identity, Martinez said, has emerged: Fast. Physical. Heart.
“When we were losing at UCLA and Ohio State, I don't know if we knew exactly who we were yet,” Martinez said. “Now I think we know who we are. And we just have to keep on going.”
That means beating a Hawkeye team that's lost four games by three or fewer points. A win in Iowa City guarantees NU's entrance to the Big Ten title game. A loss means Nebraska needs Ohio State to beat Michigan in its annual rivalry game on Saturday.
That's why Husker players said they're treating Friday's game as a “championship” game instead of a rivalry battle with Iowa. Whaley said every game in the five-game winning streak has been approached that way, for a reason that points back to a familiar NU mantra.
“We have something to prove,” Whaley said. “Think about the beginning of the year. Everybody counted us out. Nobody said 'Nebraska will be contending for the Big Ten championship.' The Big Ten Conference — I don't want to say they had something out for us, but I don't feel like they had faith we could contend year-in, year-out for a Big Ten championship.
“We proved that Nebraska can. And we will.”
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>> Video: Nebraska coach Bo Pelini at Monday's press conference
>> Video: Taylor Martinez
>>Video: Will Compton
>> Video: Ameer Abdullah