Mohamed Barry

As one of four captains, senior linebacker Mohamed Barry is tasked with getting the Huskers mentally focused for the start of Big Ten play. "We're 0-0," Barry said. "It starts with Illinois this week."

LINCOLN — For Mohamed Barry, it’s the linemen.

If Nebraska’s senior inside linebacker and co-captain closed his eyes and blitzed a quarterback, he would still know what league he was in by the size and sturdiness of the blockers he was hitting. Teammates have said the same thing about tall and tenacious defensive backs or roster depth that makes every special teams play a grind.

Now it’s that time again. Big Ten time.

For all that has happened to the Huskers in three weeks — the offense’s slow start, an overtime gut punch against an old rival, key injuries in the defensive secondary — everything resets for the upcoming nine-game Big Ten slate. The preseason pick by media members to win the West Division and a popular dark horse nationally, Nebraska and its offseason hype are on a collision course.

“It’s a fresh start,” Barry said. “We gotta go 1-0. Nonconference games, nothing matters now. We’re 0-0. It starts with Illinois this week.”

NU players sidestepped questions Monday that represent potential distractions to Saturday’s 7 p.m. road tilt with the Illini. A win would be the program’s 900th, a feat accomplished by only five other college football teams. It would snap an eight-game road skid, which ties for longest in school history. It could set up an appearance from ESPN’s “College GameDay” for next week’s ABC prime-time showdown with Ohio State.

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What the Huskers want is a continuation of Saturday’s 44-8 win over Northern Illinois, when the defense played four strong quarters and the offense got more players involved than at any other point in the young season. The potential is starting to come into focus.

“Going into conference is just adding fuel to the fire,” senior defensive lineman Darrion Daniels said. “It’s going to intensify our play. Of course, the competition is going to get better, but that’s what we want. We want to play the best of the best, so we’re eager and anxious to play.”

Illinois is still smarting from a 34-31 home loss to Eastern Michigan on a field goal at the gun Saturday. It has a new quarterback — Michigan transfer Brandon Peters — and a defense that coach Scott Frost said can try a little of everything. Defenders said NU won’t look ahead in part because the early exploits of playmakers like running back Reggie Corbin (180 yards on 24 carries, two touchdowns) and USC transfer receiver Josh Imatorbhebhe (10 catches for 167 yards and three TDs) won’t allow it.

For all of Nebraska’s struggles in recent years, it has still won five of six games against Illinois since joining the Big Ten, including a 28-6 contest in Champaign in 2017 and a 54-35 win last year amid consecutive 4-8 campaigns. The Huskers are 5-3 overall in Big Ten openers.

But NU isn’t the same team it was three weeks ago, let alone last year. Freshman receiver/back Wan’Dale Robinson said he’s learning the speed of the college game and is adjusting to the physical way defenses try to contain him. Inside linebacker Collin Miller didn’t know just how much easier life would be as part of a reliable three-man rotation and with a deep defensive line in front of him.

Sophomore quarterback Adrian Martinez went through the gantlet last year and called this weekend the start of a “new season.” The 19-year-old has already had an eventful month, settling in as a runner and working to get the offense up to speed for the games that matter most.

“It’s my job to let those guys know that this is the Big Ten,” Martinez said. “Everyone is going to be good, everyone is going to be solid and you have to come ready to play or else we are going to get beat. We know that we can’t go out and expect to win, we have to go out and perform.”

Barry said it’s precisely because Nebraska’s goals are so large — he’s been outspoken about playing for a Big Ten title — that players are able to stay so focused on the daily work and weekly opponent. If NU beats Ohio State but loses to Illinois, Barry said, it’s essentially a wash. That’s why he was eager Monday to get back to work tinkering with run defense rather than looking ahead to more glamorous foes.

Frost, who went 3-6 in his debut Big Ten season, said he’s ready for one more opportunity to begin 0-0 in 2019. For a team that has taken considerable strides since fall camp, it means another chance to show it can finish.

“We took a big step Saturday,” Frost said. “If we build off of that, we will be in good shape.”

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