People speak of that fine line. In this case, it’s more like a string of floss.
We’re talking about that oh-so-slim line between what is considered success and failure.
One game, one quarter, one play. That is all it takes, for better or worse, to shape the view of an entire season.
And so arrives this B1G game Saturday night – Nebraska and Wisconsin. The winner claims a podium moment, a championship banner and a trip to the Rose Bowl.
Alluring prizes, those.
But Husker players also understand there’s more at stake.
“We’ve kind of taken the attitude each week that everything we’ve been able to do, everything we’ve accomplished so far, it won’t mean anything without a win on Saturday,” senior tight end Ben Cotton said this week.
The Huskers have enjoyed the joyous ride the past six games to get to Indianapolis. But they also know a loss Saturday would cast a shadow over what came before.
That’s the reason senior safety P.J. Smith wasn’t about to wear a Legends Division championship hat after last Friday’s win against Iowa.
“I gave it to my dad as soon as I saw him,” Smith said. “Because, I don't want it. I want the one (this) week.”
If that sounds like a lot of weight to put on one game, understand the Huskers have been carrying that burden all season.
A conference championship has been their No. 1 goal since January, and Bo Pelini, his assistants and players have not been hesitant to talk about the bar that was set.
“We want to win the Big Ten,” defensive coordinator John Papuchis said a week before conference play began. “We haven’t made any bones about that.”
Fast forward to the scene outside the Husker locker room last week.
“The Legends (Division) is great, but all that does is give us an opportunity to play for everything in Indy,” said defensive line coach Rick Kaczenski.
Many on this Husker team have seen up close how conference championship games can alter the perspective of a season.
Senior Will Compton recalled the 2009 Big 12 title game against Texas, when the Huskers “tasted winning a championship.”
Then they had to spit it out.
Husker players ran onto the field when they felt time had expired. Officials put one second back on the clock. You know the ending to that tale.
Then there was the title game vs. Oklahoma in 2010. The Huskers jumped to a 17-0 lead. It evaporated in a hurry and the game ended with a Sooner party.
“A nasty feeling,” Smith remembers.
That year serves as a prime example of just how the perception of a season can so greatly be altered by just a play or two.
If the Huskers had managed one second-half touchdown against Oklahoma, they would have gone to the Fiesta Bowl to play a less-than-impressive UConn team that happened to be the best of a bad Big East Conference.
In such a scenario, Nebraska very likely could have ended that season 12-2 and ranked in the top five in the final polls.
Instead, it was a 23-20 loss to Oklahoma, then the dejection of getting sent back to the Holiday Bowl for a rematch with Washington, then an uninspired performance to finish the season 10-4 and barely ranked.
Everyone always remembers the finish.
And Nebraska’s veteran players -- especially some of the juniors and seniors who were around for the recent flirtations with conference titles -- know there is little solace in almost ending a Husker championship drought that stretches 13 years.
“We’ve realized that each win became more important, and every week the stakes have gone up -- and they truly have,” Cotton said. “This is as high as they’re going to get.”
That’s some serious pressure, right?
“I wouldn’t say it’s pressure,” Smith said. “I’d say it’s our time. It’s something we’re built to do this year.”
The safety thinks Pelini deserves this championship. This team deserves this championship. “We’ve worked too hard to let it slip right now.”
Go back to the summer.
Compton sat surrounded by reporters at Big Ten Media Days.
He could not hide his passion as the subject turned to what it would mean for his class to leave with a championship legacy.
That sentence gave him goose bumps, he said.
“If we do that, then from here on out (people will say), ‘You restored this, you restored that.’ Man, that’s incredible. If we …”
Compton stopped. Changed his wording.
“When we do that. I don’t want to say if. When we do that, I can’t begin to describe it. It’s going to be awesome. I cannot wait. I cannot wait. I just can’t wait.”
Here, finally, the biggest moment of all the moments.
The chance to be champions. The chance to end the wait.