Every block has a bully.

Back in the old Pac-10 days when Mike Riley was at Oregon State, that bully (a term applied in admiration here) was Southern Cal. That was the "it" team, the team everyone got fired up to play.

"At that time, early on in the 2000s when Pete Carroll did come on the scene and kind of rejuvenated it, it's like Ohio State (now)," Riley said during Monday's news conference.

"They've got all of the tools there and all of the history, and so they're just kind of kick-starting it once again. But when that happened, they became that team, so it was always exciting to get a chance to play them. But you knew it was going to be tough."

Tough like Saturday's going to be tough when No. 9 Nebraska visits sixth-ranked Ohio State. Another week to show where the Huskers stand among the elite.

The challenge can be beneficial with the right outlook. The Buckeyes' recent success should push Big Ten teams that much more to find the right stuff to challenge them.

"You either rise and better yourself or you get left in the dust," Riley said. "So the bar is set high and I think the whole Big Ten is rising and is competitive, and I think that's part of the process of how leagues and teams get better."

As Nebraska comes off its first defeat of the season, losing a 23-17 overtime fistfight at Wisconsin, the Huskers prepare to head into an even bigger and louder stadium for a game that will have even more eyeballs across the country on it.

If you think Nebraska is going to let its first loss of the season damage its psyche, just know that Riley doesn't see that happening.

"I think that is a good question that won't apply to our team. I think our team actually will be mad," he said. "You can be sad, or you can be mad and have a chip on your shoulder and know we can be better and go play hard, which we'll have to play hard and well to win the game. That's the approach I think our team will take."

So does senior tight end Trey Foster.

The 7-1 Huskers remain ranked in the top 10, and hold a one-game edge over Wisconsin in the race to win the Big Ten West Division.

"The season is still right in front of us," Foster said. "Nobody's dreams have been crushed."

Ohio State has lost to only two Big Ten teams (Michigan State and Penn State) since Urban Meyer took over in 2012. Meyer's worst season in Columbus? That was 2013. The team finished 12-2.

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But this Buckeye squad has shown vulnerabilities in recent weeks. After pulling off an overtime win at Wisconsin, OSU blew a two-touchdown lead and lost to the Nittany Lions 10 days ago despite being statistically superior.

The Buckeyes followed that with a 24-20 home win against Northwestern on Saturday that was anything but easy.

Struggles is a relative term here. Ohio State has had what might be considered struggles and is still 7-1, ranked No. 6 and heavy with future NFL talent throughout its roster. Oddsmakers have the Buckeyes favored by more than two touchdowns against NU.

"They're a different kind of animal," Husker senior wide receiver Jordan Westerkamp said of the program that won the national title two seasons ago. "They've been so good for so long. This is a huge game for us. We know how good they are, but they're beatable."

When asked about the intimidation factor of playing Ohio State at the Horseshoe, Riley said, "You know, I don't know about that."

Riley has seen it long enough to know that dominance in every league goes in cycles. When he was out West, USC was the big dog, then power transferred to Oregon, and now Oregon has let go of it and perhaps it belongs to Washington.

In the Big Ten, Ohio State has been viewed as that kingpin. Even though Michigan State took the championship crown a year ago, and even though the Buckeyes came into the season with a young team, OSU was still a big favorite in a preseason media poll to win the league.

It's not just because of their success on the field. The Buckeyes have annually been producing top five-rated recruiting classes.

In the current cycle, Ohio State is No. 1 according to the 247Sports composite rankings, with a class that includes five five-star prospects and 11 four-stars. (Nebraska, by the way, is No. 22).

"We understand that to compete with them we've got to get in that league of recruiting and we've got to get some of those guys," Riley said. "I think we're doing pretty well and growing and learning more about it as we're here."

One thing that sure can't hurt those recruiting efforts? Beating the Buckeyes head-to-head in their house. Just one of the important things that Nebraska has the chance to win Saturday night.

As Westerkamp put it, "It could be a huge statement game for us."

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


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