Nebraska vs. Northwestern, 10/13/18

Nebraska's Jaron Woodyard fails to make a catch as Northwestern's JR Pace intercepts the pass during last year's game at Ryan Field in Evanston, Ill. 

Perhaps Bo Pelini saw it all coming — all the painful Saturdays that left Nebraska football fans feeling cold, literally and figuratively.

During the months leading to Nebraska's first season in the Big Ten in 2011, legions of Husker fans anticipated the change with a sense of excitement. Most welcomed with open arms the idea of stability and prestige during an unstable period in college football. But there also was the novelty factor — new opponents and destinations, some more appealing than others.

Behind the scenes, Pelini wasn't exactly thrilled about the change — he barely wanted to talk about it at all — largely because Nebraska's defense at the time was ill-equipped for the physical, ground-oriented offenses in the Big Ten. Pelini, the Huskers' head coach at the time, had a slew of excellent defensive backs for the wide-open spread teams of the Big 12, but a dearth of big linebackers.

Pelini is an intelligent coach. He understood the Big Ten's culture of physicality. Understood the dramatic nature of the change. But he couldn't possibly have anticipated the level of struggle the Huskers have encountered since joining the league.

Nebraska going 1-5 against traditional national power Ohio State is one thing. But 1-7 against Wisconsin and 3-5 against Iowa, with the Hawkeyes winning each of the past four? Really?

Even Northwestern is 4-4 against Nebraska, with two straight wins in the series entering a 3 p.m. contest Saturday at Memorial Stadium.

Tell me, Husker fans, that in 2011 you envisioned the level of struggle that Big Red has encountered against Pat Fitzgerald's crew.

Nebraska was supposed to roll through Northwestern each year the way it did in the 2000 Alamo Bowl, a 66-17 trouncing that got out of hand in part because former Husker head coach Frank Solich seethed at how the Wildcats cut-block his defenders and therefore was OK with keeping the pedal to the metal.

Although I'm 53, there still are some things in life that fill me with wonder. To wit: One week after ultra-talented Ohio State rolled into Lincoln and shredded Nebraska with machine-like precision (needing a mere 2 hours, 54 minutes to do it), the Huskers will face a program that looks and operates much, much differently from the Buckeyes.

Nevertheless, Northwestern often has confounded Nebraska, including last season's startling comeback in Evanston, Illinois. The Wildcats went on to win the Big Ten West Division with an 8-1 record. Yes, 8-1. Think about Nebraska fans' reaction if the Huskers ever finish 8-1 in the Big Ten. There will be parades.

The key to the Wildcats' success? It's much about an age-old bit of wisdom: Know thyself and operate (read: recruit) accordingly.

"That's huge," says Nebraska inside linebackers coach Barrett Ruud, who starred as a Husker in the early 2000s before playing eight seasons in the NFL. "I think the most successful coaches at all levels know exactly what they want to be as a team and know the exact type of guy they need to do it with."

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What's more, Northwestern has enjoyed remarkable staff stability under 14th-year head coach Pat Fitzgerald. The Wildcats went seven straight seasons without any changes on their full-time staff before a couple of coaches left before the 2018 season. Offensive coordinator Mick McCall and defensive coordinator Mike Hankwitz both are in their 12th seasons at the school.

"I think whenever a staff has been together for a while, they really understand each other and what the needs are," Ruud said. "And if they do need to modify as the years go on, they know the subtle tweaks they need to make."

"They have a lot of answers," added Ruud, again referring to staff continuity. "It comes down to playing technique against this team. You're not really going to out-scheme these guys."

Plus, you've heard all week from Nebraska coaches that Northwestern seldom beats itself. Even in the Huskers' 27-24 triumph against the Wildcats in 2013 — Big Red's only home win in four tries against Fitzgerald's crew since joining the Big Ten — the visitors were plus-three in the turnover category. The home team needed a miraculous catch in the end zone by Jordan Westerkamp with no time left to steal the win.

And get this: Upper-level Nebraska officials weren't exactly doing cartwheels in joy after the win. Then-athletic director Shawn Eichorst was ready to move on from Pelini, and Pelini's staff knew it beyond a shadow of a doubt. On the sideline that day, Husker legend Ndamukong Suh seethed because his financial adviser was removed from the sideline by an NU official for not having proper credentials.

In short, it created a mess that spilled into an otherwise joyous postgame locker room. Nebraska, a program slowed since the early 2000s by a revolving door in the coaches' offices, prevailed against a program renowned for its stability and cohesiveness, but not necessarily its high level of talent.

"Northwestern is recruiting obviously high-level academic kids while Ohio State's been able to get the cream of the crop for a number of years," Ruud said. "But one thing is very similar: They both execute at a very high level."

Make no mistake, Ruud is keenly aware of Nebraska's recent history against Northwestern.

"Don't beat yourself — that's kind of a coaching cliché," he said. "These guys really don't do it. This is a big challenge for our team."

Nebraska fans know it all too well.

Reach the writer at 402-473-7440 or ssipple@journalstar.com. On Twitter @HuskerExtraSip.


Husker columnist

Steven, a lifelong Nebraskan, newspaper enthusiast and UNL grad, joined the Journal Star in 1990 and has covered NU football since 1995.

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