LINCOLN — Cast your football brain ahead to Dec. 3, and imagine, for a minute, that Nebraska’s football team won its division and made its second trip to Indianapolis for the Big Ten championship, successfully navigating the first year of the league’s nine-game schedule.
Like all Big Ten West teams, the Huskers will have played five road games. Even if NU holds serve at home — it should be favored over all four home league foes — it probably can’t afford more than two missteps on the road.
On paper, the two easiest of those five road games — 6:30 p.m. Saturday at Northwestern and Oct. 15 at Indiana — are the first two on the calendar.
The hardest games — Oct. 29 at Wisconsin, where NU has lost 48-17 and 59-24, and Nov. 5 at juggernaut Ohio State — reside in the middle, with border rival Iowa waiting Nov. 25, the day after Thanksgiving.
It may be Nebraska’s toughest road slate in years, and it’ll be busy, with five trips in 10 weeks.
Coach Mike Riley enjoys road games. He likes seeing new stadiums especially, though he’s ended the practice he once had of taking his team through a stadium walkthrough the day before a game. Riley believes, as many coaches do, that the key to playing well and winning on the road involves making the trip as normal as possible. Since Nebraska players stay in a hotel the night before home games, that part remains the same on the road. The rest is about focus and consistency.
“If you can get your team into the mindset that it really doesn’t matter, you’re staying in a hotel the night before the game and you’re playing the game the next day, it’s just getting to the hotel is a little different,” Riley said.
Safety Nate Gerry agreed.
“Effort and preparation,” Gerry said when asked for his keys. “When you get in different environments, your mind kind of boggles around. The environment is a hassle. You’ve got to be able to focus on your job and get lined up.”
Nebraska’s Big Ten road history has been middling. The Huskers are 12-8 in true road games since joining the league. Six of the eight losses have come by double digits. Six of the 12 wins have come by six or fewer points. As a result, Nebraska has cumulatively been outscored by 17 points in Big Ten road games.
It’s a sharp shift from the end of NU’s time in the Big 12. In Nebraska’s final two years with that league — 2009 and 2010 — the team was 8-2 in road games. The two losses were by 1 and 3 points. In 2011, Nebraska’s first Big Ten road game was a memorable, infamous Saturday night trip to Wisconsin. ESPN’s “College GameDay” was in town. Both teams were ranked in the top 10. The eventual Big Ten champions smacked the Huskers 48-17. Near game’s end, the Camp Randall Stadium crowd began a chant: “Big Ten Football.” Clap, clap, clap, clap, clap. “Big Ten Football.”
Since then, the only 10-win Big Ten team Nebraska has beaten on the road is the 2012 Northwestern squad. The Huskers won 29-28 that day thanks to two late touchdown passes from Taylor Martinez and so many NU fans at Ryan Field that the Wildcats reportedly had to use a silent snap count on offense.
The north-of-Chicago locale, coupled with Northwestern’s smallish alumni base, makes Ryan Field the most Husker-friendly stadium for a road trip.
“This is like going to a game at Burke Stadium,” said Kelly Keegan, who owns Chicago Dawg House in Omaha and will be in Evanston for the contest.
Northwestern’s program hasn’t been as easy to overtake as its stadium. Aside from a 38-17 Nebraska win in 2014 — that night, NU nursed a 21-17 lead headed into the fourth quarter — the Huskers and Wildcats have played four nail-biters. Northwestern won in 2011 and 2015. Nebraska won in 2012, 2013 and 2014, with the 2013 game ending on a Hail Mary play to Jordan Westerkamp.
Last season, Northwestern’s defense took the fight to Nebraska, returning an interception for a touchdown and stuffing the Husker run game. NU ran for a scant 82 yards.
“That was hard to watch,” Nebraska running backs coach Reggie Davis said.
So while the Wildcats are 1-2 — with close losses to Western Michigan and FCS squad Illinois State — defensive tackle Kevin Maurice said 3-0 Nebraska has to throw records out and prepare to face a tough test.
Davis, coaching his second season in the Big Ten, compared the game to a heavyweight fight.
“We’ve got to be physical up front with our big boys and we’re going to have to pound ’em,” Davis said. “When you approach the guys you say, ‘Look, this is Big Ten football. Put your big-boy pants on and let’s go.’ ”
Put on the road game blinders, too. Safety Kieron Williams said Nebraska did that well in 2014 at Northwestern.
“We went there with a business-like mentality and it wasn’t a lot of extracurriculars going on,” Williams said. “It was, ‘Let’s go there, let’s win the game and let’s go home.’ ”
That approach works for Riley, who has coached road games in multiple countries and two continents. The most exotic locale: Barcelona, which was part of the World League of American Football.
“That was interesting,” said Riley who coached San Antonio’s WLAF franchise. “We were the visiting team and we stayed down on the Mediterranean (Sea) somewhere. We got to the game and the home team had a bus problem and they got there right before the kickoff. That was a unique start to the ballgame.”
Playing games at California, Riley said, was also among his favorites.
“Just driving up to the stadium in Berkeley was always a show,” Riley said.
The curtain’s about to rise on the 2016 Big Ten season.