On Saturday in Evanston, Nebraska football starts its sixth season of Big Ten conference football play. Time flies, doesn't it?
Five seasons is a pretty decent chunk of time to wade through and examine how the Huskers have done so far. I've seen every one of these games in person — the highs and lows, the great stadiums (Ohio State) and the overrated ones (ahem, Michigan). I've survived a snow squall heading back from a Penn State game, sat on the Chicago L train at midnight watching the homeless ask drunk college students for money, and felt my hands turn to ice in Barry Alvarez's frosty press box that I guess he doesn't want to renovate.
Here's a statistical snapshot, with thoughts at the end about five seasons of games:
Nebraska's record: 25-16
Record by year
2012: 7-2 (includes, as it should, the Big Ten title loss to Wisconsin)
Home games: 13-7
Away games: 12-8
Record against AP-ranked teams: 4-7
Record while an AP-ranked team: 16-9
Average point differential: +2.10 points per game
Cumulative turnover margin: -37
Record in games decided by 10 or fewer points: 12-8
Record in games decided by 17 or more points: 10-6
2011: Rex Burkhead (106.0 yards per game, 8 TDs)
2012: Taylor Martinez (86.89/8)
2013: Ameer Abdullah (137.88/5)
2014: Abdullah (112.25/13)
2015: Imani Cross (46.57/4)
2011: 166.6 yards per game, 23.6 attempts per game, 7.1 yards per attempt.
2011: Kenny Bell (35.9 yards per game, 1 TD)
2012: Bell (58.9/4)
2013: Quincy Enunwa (52.8/5)
2014: Bell (54.1/4)
2015: Jordan Westerkamp (65.4/3)
2011: 175.75 yards per game, 4.11 yards per carry
2011: 175.4 pass yards per game, 7.2 yards per pass attempt
Largest margins of victory:
37 (Purdue, 44-7, 2013)
31 (Illinois, 45-14, 2014)
27 (Minnesota, 41-14, 2011)
24 (Minnesota, 38-14, 2012)
23 (Minnesota, 48-25, 2015)
Largest margins of defeat
39 (Wisconsin, 70-31, 2012)
35 (Wisconsin, 59-24, 2014)
31 (Wisconsin, 48-17, 2011)
28 (Michigan, 45-17, 2011)
25 (Ohio State, 63-38, 2012)
1. 2011 Michigan State, 24-3: The Huskers played arguably their best defensive game of the Big Ten era, shutting down an MSU team with an NFL quarterback (Kirk Cousins), running back (LeVeon Bell) and wide receiver (Keshawn Martin). It was a real whippin'.
1A: 2015 Michigan State, 39-38: This absolutely belongs on the list and I originally, well, forgot it. (Brain is full sometimes.) NU and MSU traded punches all night, but the Huskers landed the last blow on a (not really) controversial touchdown pass from Tommy Armstrong to Brandon Reilly, who was forced out of bounds by a MSU defensive back before coming back into the field of play to catch the TD. Nebraska's offense was steely that night, and the Husker defense did just enough.
2. 2012 Michigan, 23-9: The win that essentially wrapped up the Big Ten Legends title that season. The Wolverines lost quarterback Denard Robinson in the second quarter, and the Huskers pulled away in the second half.
3. 2011 Penn State, 17-14: This was an odd experience, since the game took place the week that the Jerry Sandusky scandal exploded in Penn State's face, Joe Paterno was fired, and students rioted on campus. There was real question as to whether the game would be played. But it was and Nebraska prevailed after a pregame prayer that showed a much-needed warm moment during a cold, painful week. Pelini's best moment, perhaps, came in the postgame press conference, when he said all the right things about the week.
4. 2011 Ohio State, 34-27: The largest home comeback in school history, played out in the rain with Rex Burkhead leading the way. It should have been a triumphant moment for Husker coach Bo Pelini, who beat his alma mater, but he instead turned it into an opportunity to mine negativity in ways that would haunt him for the rest of his NU career.
5. 2013 Michigan, 17-13: Not a vintage Michigan team, but the Wolverines did have a long home winning streak snapped by a dramatic final drive from the Huskers' Tommy Armstrong. Great playmaking from No. 4, capped off with a nifty option run from Ameer Abdullah.
1. 2012 Big Ten title game, Wisconsin 70-31: Nothing particularly comes close — not even the 2014 Wisconsin game — because this loss remains, even now, a little inexplicable. Before that night, Nebraska had been ranked — get this — every week but two in the Big Ten era, and was 12-4. Including that loss, the Huskers are 13-12 since. Nebraska's defense gave out, Martinez ran out of magic, and Pelini never really recovered. I've noted this before: The tone of my emails on Pelini and the program changed that night and the following morning. They changed to, in essence, what in the fresh hell was that?
2. 2015 Illinois, 14-13: A pointless loss, a loss Nebraska didn't need to have and shouldn't have had, a failed gameplan and a botched play and more or less the real defining moment of a really disappointing opening season for Mike Riley. The weather was like Scotland and Nebraska's out there throwing the ball around.
3. 2014 Wisconsin, 59-24: The Badgers lived rent free in Husker minds that snowy afternoon. Nebraska's defense finally gave out, but the offense wasn't any better for the final three quarters or so. Afterward, most of the NU players — Jake Cotton was a notable, admirable exception — put up their hoods and sulked back to the team buses.
4. 2015 Purdue, 55-45: This loss had some reasons attached to it — a backup quarterback starting his first game, a crowd so disinterested and sparse I nearly fell asleep — but it's regarded as a low point in Nebraska history. For me it wasn't — Purdue was competitive in a few games last season — but I get it, and Nebraska did fall behind 42-16. Athletic director Shawn Eichorst's expression in the press box that day was pained.
5. 2011 Michigan, 45-17: A meltdown at every level — offense, defense, special teams — and I thought Nebraska just plum got outcoached. Yes, NU lost 48-17 to Wisconsin that year, but was a great team. Michigan was not.
>> The Big Ten has some great stadiums and great campuses, but none is greater than Ohio State. The stadium is epically big, and the campus feels like a small city. The only other place I've felt that: Texas.
>> Penn State is a trip you can't quite put into kind words. You just have to go there. Paterno's legacy is rightly tarnished for his mistakes in handling what he knew about Sandusky — he didn't do nearly enough, in my view — but I'm appalled he built a winning football program in State College. A beautiful place, but small, cold, and in the middle of nowhere. If you go there, you'll agree.
>> The most indelible image in covering Nebraska in the Big Ten thus far was at that 2011 Penn State game, but it wasn't the prayer. It was standing outside Beaver Stadium, as a young girl — a Penn State fan — petted a horse, which carried a cop in riot gear. Eerie, strange. Tailgate scenes that were nearly silent gave way to crowd noise that, by the end of the game — when Penn State was driving — was thunderous, emotional. I can remember that day like it was five minutes ago. I'm surprised a football game was played in that setting, and yet it's an experience I wouldn't trade.
>> Madison is a great town and I look forward to returning. It's a wild place after a Wisconsin win, though, especially at night, especially in 2011.
>> The coldest game was 2012 Iowa, especially after the game, when the wind whipped through one end of Kinnick Stadium into Nebraska's locker room. The Huskers wore divisional champ hats. The whole locker room felt very good about beating Wisconsin the next week.
>> There are always moments where sportswriters, late in a game, look at each other with that "this is something" look, and two stand out: The 2012 Michigan State game, when Nebraska pulled a win out of its big red caboose and MSU was furious, beside itself. Eric Martin was carrying Taylor Martinez off the field and, for once, Martinez looked like he was enjoying himself. Anyway, the whole "chip on its shoulder" thing with Sparty is real. Michigan State doesn't lose close games, it has them taken away by conspiracy. The other is 2015 Illinois. Nothing quite like that third-and-seven, because it was supposed to be mundane, and it took a few seconds to register how the play turned out, and once it did, you thought, "Illinois is winning for sure." And it did.
Best meal: Zingerman's in Ann Arbor. And I've had some good meals. But that pastrami — accept no substitute. Not cheap, either. Second place goes to Minnesota, which serves Dilly bars for dessert.
Weird meal: Not bad, per se, but Penn State serves this goofy buffet that includes hot dogs, spaghetti, ice cream, fruit, other stuff. It's leftover night, only it's all fresh, and it's arrayed in this small room, almost like a parlor.