Published Friday, September 13, 2013 at 9:45 pm / Updated at 2:33 pm
Shatel: Game sets tone for entire season — for Huskers and fans

Johnny Entitlement flashing money signs and talking trash. Oklahoma State's dirty laundry, with a fresh hamper each day. The words “Alabama” and “impermissible benefits” in the same sentence.

You sure you want to be nationally relevant?

Would you settle for a victory over UCLA?

This is a must-win for Nebraska today. And not because Huskerville wants Yahoo or Sports Illustrated checking into the Cornhusker Hotel for a month.

It's a must-win or a must-not lose, whichever comes first.

It's a must-win because it's time for Nebraska football to make a noise, be seen, show up on a radar screen, any radar screen.

A victory over the 16th- and 17-ranked Bruins would not be a signature win for Bo Pelini. The Bruins are good, but this is the kind of team Nebraska needs to expect to beat, especially at home.

But victory could lead to a signature season the coach and program could really use.

It's a must-win because the Huskers have the kind of schedule that can be taken advantage of — the kind that could get NU back to a major bowl. The path is much easier with a win today.

Life around here the next six weeks hangs in the balance.

Beat UCLA and you can see a 7-0 record going into November, and 8-0 heading to Michigan on Nov. 9. Beat UCLA and the buzz and belief factor go off the charts as NU goes up the charts over the rubble of teams losing. Top 10 by November? It's possible. With a win today.

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Lose today and here's your next several weeks: South Dakota State, bye, Illinois, Purdue, bye and Minnesota. Lose, and I see a lot of finely mowed lawns each Saturday throughout the state. Maybe even some hoops talk.

Lose to UCLA and there are nine games left to get back up and make something big of the season. Remember the run last season?

But crunch time will be a lot easier to navigate with a major shot of mojo. That's why it's a must-win.

Big Ten Network analyst Gerry DiNardo said this week that this was the biggest game for Nebraska in the last five years. Coach DiNardo wasn't here for the Texas hoedown in 2010.

He also said he didn't think NU needed to win the game, but just look good. I'll disagree. At this point, NU needs to start winning these games.

Pelini has won a handful of meaningful, tough games. Oklahoma in 2009, Oklahoma State and Missouri in 2010.

But too often the last three seasons, the Huskers have had the shanks when the lights went up. Texas. OU in the Big 12 title game. Wisconsin. Michigan. UCLA. Ohio State. Wisconsin again. Yes, the two Capital One bowls.

It's a must-win for the fans who expect UCLA to come in and push Nebraska. For the Huskers who commit turnovers and penalties in these kinds of tests.

The issue here is not physical. This is a mental hurdle. What can go wrong will go wrong. What does it take to make it all go right?

A win over a very good UCLA team, in front of a nervous fan base with one hand over its eyes, could flip the switch.

The day will start with the right tone. Nebraska will have a moment of silence for UCLA walk-on Nick Pasquale, who passed away last weekend. The Huskers will also have a sticker with Pasquale's No. 36 on their helmets.

When it comes to these classy gestures and sportsmanship, there really is no place like Nebraska

The Bruins will be emotional. And then eventually settle down to playing football. This figures to be a wild, tight offensive shootout. Grab the oxygen. Don't blink.

I think it's Taylor-made for the guy who wears No. 3.

The Bruins can bring some heat on offense. Quarterback Brett Hundley won't sit in the pocket and let Randy Gregory smother him. These guys can run, catch and throw it. They're going to get theirs. The young Blackshirts have a tall task, each mistake or bust magnified.

But this is where Nebraska's offense breaks off the shackles of the first two games and takes shape. And that's where Taylor Martinez comes in.

The senior quarterback has played well in big games. He's also thrown some ill-timed picks. Some who doubt NU today doubt the quarterback. No doubt.

The situation reminds me of the 1997 trip to Seattle, when Scott Frost transformed his legacy and set himself up for a big senior year by leading victory at Husky Stadium.

Could Martinez make that same transformation today? I've had that hunch all summer.

I say Martinez comes up big today, bigger than ever, against a hometown team he knows too well. That doesn't mean big stats. It means playing clean, managing the offense and dropping in a few big plays around a running game that has the chops to dominate the game and the depth to wear down UCLA and keep Hundley at bay.

I say Martinez and Co. figure this one out, before a crowd that will be most appreciative.

It doesn't mean the season's over if they don't. But it's time to find out what happens if they do.

* * *

Video: Pelini discusses the UCLA game following Thursday's practice

Video: Big Red Today Show, Sept. 10

Contact the writer: Tom Shatel    |   402-444-1025    |  

Tom Shatel is a sports columnist who covers the city, regional and state scene.



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