When Husker fans looked up and down that schedule magnetized to their refrigerators this summer, here’s guessing the eyes did not fixate on the two Saturdays that come before us now.
Arkansas State and Idaho State don’t exactly get a fan’s blood pumping the way Wisconsin and Ohio State do.
But just look how a bad weekend in Los Angeles can alter perspectives.
Sophomore receiver Kenny Bell was mindful of what awaited the team even before the bus left the Rose Bowl last Saturday night.
“The sky’s obviously going to be falling in Lincoln,” he predicted.
It was an accurate prognostication. “The Good Life” wasn’t exactly a fitting motto for the state this week after Nebraska’s defense gave up the second-most yards in school history — 653 head-shaking yards.
With that came surly moods and the realization Arkansas State and its fast-paced spread offense that ranks seventh nationally could present a significant challenge in itself.
Suddenly, these next two weeks carry more importance than could have previously been guessed, with the Huskers needing to make the most of limited time and find defensive answers before Big Ten play begins.
“It’s critical,” said defensive coordinator John Papuchis. “These next two weeks are obviously huge for us. We live by taking it one day at a time, but the reality of the situation is we need to be closer to where we need to be by Sept. 29.”
These two weeks could be especially pivotal for a batch of young players — four freshmen and two newcomers from the junior college ranks who figure to see more action as the Huskers look for the right defensive pieces to put the puzzle together before Wisconsin shows up at the door.
Husker coach Bo Pelini has said freshmen defensive linemen Aaron Curry, Avery Moss and Kevin Williams, who saw 42 snaps against UCLA, are all likely to have expanded roles going forward.
Then there’s redshirt freshman linebacker David Santos and junior college transfer Zaire Anderson, who have been working with the No. 1 defense at WILL linebacker this week.
Also expect junior college transfer Mohammed Seisay, who is now almost 100 percent recovered from an ankle injury, to see his first action as a corner for Nebraska.
How much the youth movement will factor in Saturday is unclear, but coaches have been clear in saying they plan to give those younger players their chances.
“It’s just something you got to do,” said defensive line coach Rick Kaczenski. “They might surprise you, too. As coaches you’re always thinking about the worst-case scenario, especially in tight games, so it’s really hard. You look over and see a true freshman (and think), ‘Maybe next year. OK, maybe if we get up two scores.’ Then all of a sudden it’s a tie game, you’re down a field goal, all that. It’s just real tough.
“We bounce all those things off each other. We say, ‘Is this the right time? Is this the right decision?’ But we’re going to go with it. We’re going to go with it. You’re going to see those (young) guys. And like I said, they might surprise you.”
It’s not lost on those young players that any snaps received are a chance for them to earn the faith of coaches and more playing time down the road.
“Any game they put me in, I’m taking it as another mountain to climb and an opportunity to get better,” said Moss, the true freshman defensive end. “If I get in these games, I want to show them how good I am, so they have more trust in me and can put me in the next game and the next game.”
The ambition is there. The knowledge of the defensive scheme's finer details is still coming.
After just arriving to campus this summer, Moss said he only began to feel in a comfort zone with understanding certain aspects of the defense this past week.
“When I got in against Southern Miss, I was really shaky. I was hoping they didn't call certain play calls because I didn't know what to do on those,” Moss said. “But after these couple of weeks I've been studying a lot … and am starting to really get the hang of stuff.”
Curry, whose role as a defensive tackle figures to only grow with the departure of Chase Rome, has been taking his playbook home and watching film whenever he can to know the stuff that might help him get on the field.
He also understands the significance these two weeks could have as coaches decide who to rely on the most going into league action.
“It’s a big deal because I just want to go out there and play. That’s been my plan from the get go,” Curry said. “I’m just going to try my best and prove myself that I can play a lot of snaps.”
All those young players are options Pelini will closely look at in these final nonconference games, trying to find the fix for a defense that comes into this week ranked 96th nationally in total defense and 83rd in scoring defense.
The fifth-year head coach is confident the answers will come.
“We have a lot of football to be played,” Pelini said. “So let’s not make too much of a snap judgment yet.”
Pelini said his defense’s tackling must improve “first and foremost,” noting that Nebraska could have had twice as many tackles for losses against UCLA if not for missed tackles.
Papuchis, meanwhile, spoke of the need to get more speed on the field.
What this means both schemewise and personnelwise will be revealed Saturday.
What’s known for sure is that the fixes must come in a hurry if Nebraska is to achieve the goals set out at the season’s beginning.
So begins an important two Saturdays few Husker fans would have seen as important just a few weeks ago.
“We can either learn from the mistakes and get better or have the repeat of what we had Saturday night,” Papuchis said. “And I know with the staff, that’s not even in the equation. And with the players, they want to be better. And we’re going to be better.”