Huskers get ready for six-week 'meat grinder'

2013-10-21T20:30:00Z 2013-10-22T21:00:18Z Huskers get ready for six-week 'meat grinder'By BRIAN CHRISTOPHERSON / Lincoln Journal Star JournalStar.com

The band is shuffling off the field. Halftime is over. Now, the serious stuff.

The Huskers are staring at the same road they encountered a year ago – a six-game journey they hope will take them to Indianapolis, the land of Luck.

It’s well understood what could await them there: Yes, possibly, Urban's Buckeyes and the chance to grab roses and redemption at the same time.

But all that is on a hill in the distance. It’s a long six weeks of tests that must be passed first.

Better to just focus on the step in front of you, lest you trip.

“It’s a six-week meat grinder, is the way I look at it,” said Husker senior offensive tackle Jeremiah Sirles. “No more bye weeks. No more breaks. It’s got to be one after another -- boom, boom, boom, boom. I think it’s really going to define who we are as a football team.”

It starts Saturday at Minnesota. Then Northwestern, at Michigan, Michigan State, at Penn State, Iowa.

They are the same six teams Nebraska took on to finish the 2012 regular season.

Remember that wild ride? Nebraska came out of a bye week wobbling at 4-2, having just lost 63-38 to Ohio State, with Bo Pelini talking of the need to win six straight.

Somehow, some way, the Huskers did just that, coming back in the second half in four of those six games, rallying from double-digit deficits three times.

Having been on the front line then, junior wide receiver Kenny Bell knows well the next six weeks are as much about overcoming the mental challenges as the physical ones.

His advice to the younger players now in the middle of the fray?

“First thing you say is, ‘Strap it on tight,’” Bell said. “Because it’s going to be a bumpy road. There’s no doubt about it. When you’re playing great teams week after week, it’s tough.”

And be ready to bring it at practice, Bell tells them. You'll play how you practice.

Complete focus is necessary, considering no Husker team has gone through a conference regular season without a loss since 1997. (Even the 1999 Big 12 title team tripped at Texas).

Certainly, the Big Ten has taken its share of knocks in recent years, with the perception of the league low enough that an undefeated Ohio State team would probably need an assist from others to get into the BCS Championship Game.

And the Legends Division doesn’t seem to have a juggernaut, with preseason media pick Michigan already down a game in the loss column and popular top contender pick Northwestern virtually all but eliminated after an 0-3 start.

Then there’s Michigan State, 3-0 in league play, but offensively challenged, scoring just one offensive touchdown in a 14-0 win against Purdue last Saturday.

Still, whatever darts some might throw at the league, the Huskers are about to take a significant step up in competition from what they saw in the first half of the season, save for the UCLA game.

The five teams Nebraska has defeated so far are a combined 12-22. The six teams left on the schedule are a combined 29-12, with two road trips (Michigan and Penn State) to places with 100,000-plus-seat stadiums.

How ready are the Huskers?

The results will tell all, but Sirles knows this team is in a much better place than it was at the beginning of the season.

“I think we’ve grown leaps and bounds from Week 1 to where we are now both offensively and defensively,” Sirles said. “And these next six weeks, everything is all out there for us. It’s anyone’s conference right now."

At this point, with Iowa, Minnesota and Northwestern all having at least two league losses, the best bet is a three-team Legends race between Nebraska, Michigan State and Michigan.

It could all come to a head in the first three weeks of November, when the three schools play each other. On Nov. 2: Michigan at Michigan State. On Nov. 9: Nebraska at Michigan. On Nov. 16: Michigan State at Nebraska.

But this season, it’s not wise to make any sure bets, as evidenced by last weekend, when nine ranked teams lost.

There are no givens on Saturdays during the conference season, something the Huskers must keep in mind this week at Minnesota.

“You look around college football. I think everything is pretty wide-open. That’s just the nature of college football,” Husker coach Bo Pelini said. “In my opinion, you can throw 40 teams in a hat and go week to week and the teams that are going to execute that given week are the teams that are going to win football games. It’s not just the Legends Division. It’s across college football. It’s the way it is.”

So don’t count Pelini among those who were surprised when Minnesota took down Northwestern on the road last Saturday.

“Hopefully it caught our guys’ attention,” Pelini said. “I’m sure it did.”

With chaos erupting everywhere, it was a good week to be watching from home.

The popular opinion in the Husker camp is that Nebraska’s two recent bye weeks – which came within three weeks of one another – have been surprisingly welcome, and have the team feeling fresher heading into the stretch run than in past years.

Sirles said the time off has given the Huskers the chance to “mentally regain yourself.” And Bell believes “it couldn’t have happened any better for us.”

It’s also allowed quarterback Taylor Martinez – who returned to practice Sunday – two extra weeks to recover from his turf toe injury.

Pelini said the extra time has aided his defense – ranked 107th before the first bye week, 72nd now – in its progress.

More must occur. At this point in the year, standing still is no option.

“If we keep getting better as the year goes on, I think we’ll like the results,” Pelini said. “If we get comfortable and we stop preparing the way we need to prepare and our progress gets halted for whatever reason, we’re not going to like the results. That’s kind of the way it works.”

Reach Brian Christopherson at bchristopherson@journalstar.com or 402-473-7439. Follow him on Twitter @HuskerExtraBC.

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