LINCOLN — This is the month of Bo Pelini's best wins and bitterest defeats. A month where his teams rise to occasions — and occasionally crash to earth.
October. A Pelini-coached Nebraska team has never made its way out of this month without a loss. Since 2008, the Huskers are 12-7 in October. And Nebraska often suffers a loss of such bafflement and inverted awe — the 9-7 bumbleroosky against Iowa State in 2009, the 48-17 beating at Wisconsin in 2011, the 63-38 boat race at Ohio State last year — that it throws fans (and the team) into a midseason quest for answers.
The funny thing is: NU often finds those answers in quick order. Pelini's three best regular-season wins — 51-41 at Oklahoma State in 2010, 31-17 vs. Missouri in 2010 and a 24-3 humbling of Michigan State in 2011 — have come in October, all of them following October losses. Nebraska's offense dug deep to win 29-28 at Northwestern last year, when Pelini's “win out” dare looked doomed out of the gate.
This October — either a gift or a trap door from the Big Ten scheduling deity — will not feature any of Pelini's greatest hits. A menu of Illinois and road games at Purdue and Minnesota won't produce any high highs. Low lows are possible, but rather unlikely; NU is liable to have as many fans at Purdue and Minnesota as Purdue and Minnesota supply on their own, while Illinois hasn't won a Big Ten game since Oct. 8, 2011.
Nebraska's in the equivalent of Wimbledon's early rounds: Hold serve with your offense, occasionally break the opponent's serve with your defense, win in straight sets and get to November. It's a good proving ground for the process Pelini is so often preaching.
If it works — if NU's coaches know it and coach it and the players adhere to it — this is the kind of month that the Huskers, even with all their questions, should manage without burpy heartburn. They have more talent, a more experienced staff, better depth and more passionate fans. Who wouldn't want road games where the home team's offense is getting noise on third down?
October should be a month that tips its cap to the football industrial complex Nebraska has built: the weight room, the training table, the practice facilities. NU's season should be defined in November, when it picks on programs its own size and those teams pick on it.
It all “should be.” After a September of soul-searching, the answers will have to be seen, not just presumed. The offense moved closer to an identity in the South Dakota State game. The defense spent a bye week trying to find one.
In big games, “identity” can be overrated. In big games, you win and who cares how. But an October like this is where good teams forge their identity. Nebraska — Pelini — needs this trio of games to be a bridge, not a burden. A November with five 50-50 games is trouble enough.
On with the Rewind.
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» Defensive end Randy Gregory: He's met my expectations as an athlete, and he puts some effort into his thoughts during interviews. A very good addition in more ways than one.
» Wide receiver Quincy Enunwa: With 17 catches for 202 yards and five touchdowns, Enunwa's become a legitimate 1A option to Kenny Bell. He remains the team's best perimeter blocker and an intriguing NFL prospect.
» Running back Ameer Abdullah: Nothing wrong with 116 total yards per game. Something still wrong with the ball security. Abdullah, excellent on the perimeter, still seems to lack vision in traffic. He doesn't get the ball ripped from him so much as it's blasted loose.
» Cornerback Stanley Jean-Baptiste: He's getting chances at interceptions because he takes more risks — which means he can be beaten more often. Still — it's hard to throw around or over a 6-foot-3 corner.
» Defensive end Avery Moss: Strong. Physical. Collapses the pocket. Needs to start.
» Quarterback Taylor Martinez: He's always responded to pressure, but this situation is a little different. His current backups are not the balls of panic their predecessors were. Martinez's biggest advantage, these four years, has been an ability to forge through whatever trouble, in his usual risk/reward style, because the coaches knew, at the very least, he wouldn't go into a shell. As he returns — when he returns — Martinez has to dial down the risk, play more to his strengths and focus on first downs more than giant scores.
» Linebacker Zaire Anderson: Time for Anderson to play through his mistakes and weaknesses. He'll bring an energy and edge to the position. Gamers don't always emerge in practice.
» Running back Imani Cross: More carries are in order for this backup who's clearly put in the work to be a better running back. He's averaging 6.6 yards per carry, seems to break a tackle on every one of those carries and has developed a good nose for the end zone with nine carries for 57 yards and four touchdowns in the red zone.
» Linebackers Josh Banderas and Nate Gerry: For now, these guys belong together. True freshmen who are great athletes and take their licks this year before morphing into something special down the road. They still should play quite a bit. But when NU can limit their exposure to power offenses, it should.
» Tough talk from North Dakota State: The Bison — tops in the FCS and good enough, I think, to finish middle-of-the-pack in the Big Ten — beat South Dakota State 20-0. They held the Jackrabbits — who ran for 227 yards against Nebraska — to minus-32 yards rushing. Zach Zenner, who ran for 202 yards against NU, gained 4 yards on eight carries.
First things first: NDSU's offense milks clock like few other teams. It held the ball for 40 minutes and led 7-0 entering the fourth quarter. The Jackrabbits ran 49 plays, and at least 37 of those, when you include seven sacks and 30 throws, were called passes.
But Bison linebacker Grant Olson gave the Fargo Forum some tough words about NU's defense, which he watched struggle to stop SDSU.
“Watching that film, it wasn't like (the Huskers) didn't have the opportunity to make plays,” Olson said. “They had silly mental mistakes, and it looked like they weren't playing that hard, to be honest. I thought South Dakota State was the more physical team. So I thought for us to stop them, we had to be the more physical team, and I think we did that.”
Olson isn't saying anything Pelini didn't say after the game. But the notion that an FCS defense was that much more prepared and serious about stopping Zenner and SDSU doesn't speak well to NU's defensive culture two weeks ago. I suspect it's changed — maybe a lot — since then.
» Recruiting: Nebraska's made enough inroads with good prospects — and will do more work during the Oct. 19 bye week. But making it to November at 6-1 may determine how many official visits the Huskers can draw from these prospects. Winning isn't an essential ingredient to every recruiting class — Tennessee and Kentucky have great 2014 classes already, and I'd be surprised if either goes to a bowl — but Nebraska makes that one of its top sales points.
» Field goals: Neither Pat Smith nor Mauro Bondi has been really tested heading into October. One drawback to the Big Ten backloading all of its biggest conference games is that some teams aren't stressed in all three phases. If NU needs a 45-yarder in the fourth quarter for the win, can Bondi or Smith embrace the pressure and bang home a kick? We don't know.
» 2: Sacks given up by Nebraska's offensive line this year. That's tied for first nationally. NU's line is still a considerable strength if offensive coordinator Tim Beck can let the group play fast and fierce.
» 53.45 percent: Illinois' third-down conversion rate, good for 12th in the nation. The Blackshirts will have their chances, I suspect, to win third-and-medium often and force punts or field goals.
» 75 percent: Nebraska's touchdown rate in the red zone, 18th in the nation. Out of 20 trips, NU's scored 15 touchdowns and kicked two field goals. Last year, the Huskers scored a touchdown on 62.9 percent of their trips inside the 20-yard line.
In its relatively easy 23-7 Floyd of Rosedale win at Minnesota, Iowa seems to be returning to its roots as a team that runs downhill, plays great run defense and doesn't beat itself. The Hawkeyes rank seventh nationally in opponent rushing yards per game and 12th in yards per carry. The defensive line — which includes Dominic Alvis from Logan, Iowa, and Drew Ott from Giltner, Neb. — is physical and has better depth than it did last year. Since the three linebackers — James Morris, Christian Kirksey and Anthony Hitchens — are among the Big Ten's best, the Hawkeyes force offenses into throwing the ball. It's a good unit. When Iowa's good, the defense is usually why.
Minnesota, meanwhile, is its usual paper tiger self. And this is the best Gopher team that coach Jerry Kill has had — or will have for years to come.
Partly cloudy on Martinez's turf toe.