Nebraska vs. Miami, 9.19.15

Nebraska's Jordan Westerkamp is slow to get off the turf after taking a shot during fourth quarter action on Sept. 19, 2015 at Sun Life Stadium.

The kid with the video game would have hit the reset button the second that pixelated Cougar fell into the end zone. He would have pressed it again when Tommy Armstrong's overtime throw sailed into the arms of a Hurricane.

But dang it, real life and all, there are no mulligans. The good news for the Huskers is the ball is still in play. The bad news, after a 1-2 start, is that it's sitting behind a tree.

Then again, you could look at it one other way: What has happened, while not how you'd draw it up, was part of an always expected September project that NU fans can hope is leading to a team ready to turn near misses into triumphs in what very likely is a season-defining month of October.

"What's happened is already in the books and now all we can do is build from that," said Nebraska senior cornerback Jonathan Rose.

Build is the right word. After all, before this season began, back in those laid-back summer months when fans and media talk about the possibilities of losses like they won't sting near as much as they do when they actually happen, it was discussed how September would be a month of building.

With a new staff and new scheme, and some young players in key roles at certain positions, it was oft said how everyone should expect this Nebraska team to be jarred by some bumps. The key, it was just as often expressed, would be if the Huskers were adapting to their coaches and molding into a team that could make its move in Big Ten play.

So, about that. Even with a record not seen around here since 1981, has this team been forming the right ingredients to play good football in the upcoming month that will matter most in judging that season?

Players, naturally, think so.

"One hundred percent," said linebacker Josh Banderas. "I wouldn't say that we've taken really a step back in any game. … We started slow (against Miami), but in three quarters they got (16) points. And we got them off the field on 11 of 14 third downs. The numbers show pretty good. Miami had a great game, but I like the way we're moving and progressing as a team."

"It just so happens that's the way it fell," said senior defensive tackle Kevin Williams. "But we fought in every single one of those games. By a matter of seconds, if we rewind it a couple seconds, we could be 3-0. So that right there shows we have a lot ahead of us, and we've got a dang good group."

Not to sugarcoat it, there are also enough warts to give reason for worry.

The Huskers have been penalized 12 times in each of their two losses. And while going against some quarterbacks with better arms than NU might see in much of the Big Ten, ranking 126th nationally in pass defense is a humbling statistic.

There are key injuries. Linebacker Michael Rose-Ivey is out for at least four weeks, Banderas has a nagging groin injury, and De'Mornay Pierson-El, while appearing close to a return, will have to hit the ground running when he makes his first appearance right in the heart of the season.

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The offense has moved it to the tune of 36.3 points a game and 489.3 yards a game, the latter placing Nebraska a very respectable 26th nationally in total offense despite facing tougher foes than many. Still, a skeptic's choir remains about whether NU can impose its will in the run game when it counts.

And yet, starting next week, the Big Ten West Division is out there to be won, and you could make as good an argument for Nebraska as you could Wisconsin, Minnesota, Iowa and surprising Northwestern, which has moved into the top 20.

"The record right now looks kind of bad, but I feel like this is the team that is going to be the underdog … who, as the last game comes upon us, I feel like we're going to win out," Rose said. "And then everybody is going to see, 'Well, they did lose on a Hail Mary. They did lose an overtime game. That shows their fight.' So I feel like if anybody gives us that chance to fight again … we can fight for a Big Ten championship. I feel like we're going to prove some people wrong."

The proving must begin now. Southern Miss appears to be moving away from the Southern Mess the Huskers saw when the Golden Eagles last visited Lincoln in 2013, and Nebraska football needs a momentum boost heading into a stretch that will let you know if the Huskers are a lead dog in the West or, in worst-case scenario, out of the mix for a trip to Indy by Oct. 24.

First comes an Oct. 3 game at a seemingly improved Illinois program, then Wisconsin in Lincoln, then a trip to Minnesota to try to break a two-game skid against the Gophers, then a visit from a Northwestern team which has a win over Stanford and has allowed just one touchdown this season. You'll know have a good idea whether it's worth looking at airfare to Indy by Halloween.

Given what is just ahead, the Huskers need a carryover against Southern Miss from last week's furious fourth-quarter rally in which they scored 23 points in the game's final nine minutes. Momentum to be gained even in defeat?

"It should be, you would think," said wide receivers coach Keith Williams. "I think they believe that. It's more important for them to think it's a carryover than for me to think it's a carryover. We've had discussions about that, about growing on the positives, which was that second half."

For Husker head coach Mike Riley, this week of work is the same, whether you're 3-0 or 1-2. No reset buttons. Just lessons. You are what your record says you are.

But if you adapt the proper "pattern to preparation," as Riley called it, your team should just keep getting better and better.

There's no time to cry about what could've been. The season rolls on, everyone in the West is 0-0 in that key set of standings next week, and this Saturday is a chance to keep building the type of team that can make October better than September.

It's a big game because it's the next game.

"We in college football have to basically approach it like every game's a playoff game," Riley said. "Of course, in everybody's eyes, when you lose a couple, then the next game really becomes (where) people talk about 'must win.' But for us, our approach is we must win them all."

Reach the writer at 402-473-7439 or bchristopherson@journalstar.com. On Twitter @HuskerExtraBC.


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