LINCOLN — Nebraska coach Bo Pelini wasn't sure before the season he'd like two bye weeks sandwiched into the 2013 schedule. But the youth of his defense and injuries to his whole team — including four starters on offense — changed his mind.
“It's helped prepare us for the six-week stretch that we are about to face,” Pelini said at his weekly press conference.
Said wide receiver Kenny Bell: “We definitely needed these two bye weeks. They couldn't have timed up better for us.”
The bye weeks are exhausted. The breaks will be relegated to Mondays, the designated day off for the Huskers.
What remains is the proving ground.
Five games against Legends Division foes, all of whom still have winning records. A sixth game at Penn State, one of the league's toughest road trips and one of NU's most physical games.
It's the same six-week stretch — against the same teams, albeit in a different order — the Huskers faced last year. Nebraska won six straight to end the regular season in 2012. Once again, a stop-and-go start to the Big Ten slate finishes in a flourish that NU players freely admit will frame their season.
“It's a six-week meat grinder,” offensive tackle Jeremiah Sirles said. “No more bye weeks. No more breaks. It's gotta be one after another, boom-boom-boom-boom. It's going to define who we are as a football team. We've grown leaps and bounds from week one to where we are now, both offensively and defensively, and this next six weeks, everything's out there for us. It's anyone conference right now. We have a chance, if we run the table, to be sitting back in Indy.”
That'd be Lucas Oil Stadium, site of the Big Ten Championship. Nebraska lost to Wisconsin 70-31 there last year, but not before a memorable six-game winning streak spurred on by Pelini's proclamation that NU would have to “win out” following a 63-38 loss to Ohio State.
The Huskers' lone bye week came after the Buckeye loss, and coaches and players spent much of that time off searching for answers — especially on defense — and trying to ignore critics who'd seen NU fall flat in another big game. This year finds Nebraska (5-1 overall and 2-0 in the Big Ten) with more wind in its sails because of a three-game winning streak.
NU's offense appears ready to welcome back four-year starting quarterback Taylor Martinez, and had a week to practice after losing starting guard Spencer Long. Junior Mike Moudy and sophomores Ryne Reeves and Givens Price are the top candidates to replace Long, who was an All-Big Ten and All-America player last year.
Overall, the offense was “pretty banged up,” Bell said, including himself and wide receiver Quincy Enunwa among those dealing with aches and pains.
The Huskers' young defense, which has featured nine true or redshirt freshmen at some point this year, is coming off a five-sack, near-shutout performance at Purdue.
Quarterback Tommy Armstrong, who has filled in for Martinez, said he's seen the defense “get over that hump” in the last month, assisted by two bye weeks.
“The defense is getting better and better each week,” he said. “They're getting to that stage where they're feeling comfortable, getting a couple stops here and there. We got a bunch of young guys, but we're getting to that stage where our defense is really helping us out some games ... our defense is starting to click at the right time.”
Bell said player health and confidence is on an upturn — and they'll need both for the ups and downs of the slate ahead.
“First thing you say is: 'Strap it in tight,' ” Bell said. “It's going to be a bumpy road. There's no doubt about it. When you're playing great teams every week, it's tough. Look at Northwestern.”
The Wildcats were ranked in the top 20 before a 40-30 loss to Ohio State, a 35-6 loss at Wisconsin and a 20-17 loss to Minnesota, which is Nebraska's opponent this week. Bell's childhood friend, Northwestern quarterback Kain Colter, missed most of the last two games.
“The one way you get through it is the way you prepare during the week,” Bell said. “You can look on Saturday and tell. Football games are won during the week. How you prepare. Look at how many upsets there were this past week.”
Pelini noticed them, too.
“Everything is pretty wide open,” Pelini said. “That's just the nature of college football. In my opinion, you can throw 40 teams in a hat and go week to week, and the teams that are going to execute that given week are the teams that are going to win football games. It's not just the Legends Division. It's across college football.”
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Video: Bo Pelini
Video: Kenny Bell
Video: Tommy Armstrong
Video: Jeremiah Sirles
Video: Andrew Green