LINCOLN — Later in life, Nebraska senior wide receiver Quincy Enunwa may pause more to reflect on not winning a conference title during his time in Lincoln. He, like all other current Huskers, are part of a drought that reaches back into a previous century, extended by a loss to Michigan State last week, a dry spell that lingers over coach Bo Pelini's stated primary goal of winning championships.
But when Enunwa gathered fellow seniors Tuesday to discuss a week of preparation for Saturday's tilt at Penn State, he didn't mince words: Don't simmer in disappointment. Shoddy play in Happy Valley in front of a Big Ten Network audience could make a season full of injuries and misfires even harder to stomach.
“It's about pride,” Enunwa said. “If you don't play for pride, you shouldn't be playing at all. At this point in the season, we're not going to make it to the championship game, so you have to play for pride.
“You gotta play for the 'N' on the side of your helmet. If you just go out there and play lackadaisical, you're just going to look stupid.”
The 7-3 Huskers and 6-4 Nittany Lions clash at 2:30 p.m. in Beaver Stadium. PSU hasn't been ranked all year; NU hasn't been for nearly a month. Nebraska has been hit hard with injuries, especially on offense; Penn State has been hit hard by NCAA sanctions and scholarship reductions in the wake of the Jerry Sandusky scandal.
The Nittany Lions are old pros at playing without the carrot of titles and bowl games dangling in front of them. Sanctions prevent them from playing in the postseason. Coach Bill O'Brien said Saturday's game is for a senior class that chose to stay at Penn State despite the sanctions.
“The most important reason for our coaching staff and myself personally is it's the last home game for these seniors,” O'Brien said. “So we're putting everything we can into practice and making sure that we do as good a job as we can to help these seniors go out on a winning note.”
NU's Senior Day looms next week against Iowa. Until then, the Huskers remain a team defined by youth — and the mistakes youth can make — at several positions, and the simmering subplot surrounding Pelini's job status. Pelini's boss, Athletic Director Shawn Eichorst, does not comment on programs or coaches until after their season.
Redshirt freshman quarterback Tommy Armstrong is at the intersection of those narratives.
His two relatively unforced fumbles against the Spartans led to backbreaking, short-field touchdowns. Yet Pelini is steadfast in his confidence in the player from Cibolo, Texas. Armstrong will get the start Saturday hoping for a repeat of his steady performance at Michigan, where he led the game-winning drive.
If one is inclined toward further investing in Pelini's process, Armstrong's development is one argument. The mistakes he makes now figure to be less likely next year, and if he wins NU's final two games, he will have finished the regular season 7-1 as a starter.
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Armstrong appeared in front of the media Monday, shouldering the blame for the Michigan State loss.
His teammates, he said, have rallied around him. He's also ready to bounce back from one of the tougher moments in his athletic career.
“We want to finish strong,” Armstrong said. “Last week is last week. We have two more games and then a bowl game against whoever they put up against us. We're going to prepare the right way.”
Nebraska defenders — the front seven features five starting underclassmen — are eying continued development themselves. After a run of impressive series spanning the wins over Northwestern and Michigan, the defense stumbled against Michigan State on the most crucial down — third down — especially in the second half.
Linebacker David Santos said the defense's ability to gel over the last quarter of the season will pay dividends into 2014.
“It's the No. 1 thing we're working for right now,” Santos said. “We can't get where we wanted to get, but as a defense, we still have stuff to prove to everybody. We've shown we're getting better, but it's a continuation of that and preparation for next year as well. That's a big emphasis for us.”
Pelini's perspective Monday perhaps took the widest view.
“I told them, 'You are going to deal with things like this for your whole life. You can either stick your head in the sand and cry and duck and run or you man up and go,' ” Pelini said. “I believe in the character of this team and they understand.”
Character. It's a buzzword for Nebraska's program. So is pride. So is process. The Huskers, throughout the week, suggested those words — and the actions behind them — would carry them to Penn State.
“I don't really see there being a letdown, just because I think we have too high character of guys to have a letdown in practice and really at the end of the season,” offensive tackle Brent Qvale said. “I think we'll be doing just fine.”
Time to see if that character wins a road game halfway across the country.
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Video: Nebraska coach Bo Pelini on Thursday