As Wisconsin-Nebraska II nears, it's fascinating to examine the path the programs have taken since last year's Big Ten debut of the Huskers.
As Louis Bien recaps in this morning's Badger Bits, Wisconsin welcomed Nebraska into the conference with a primetime match-up in Camp Randall, drawing ESPN's College GameDay to town and actually forcing students into the stadium on time. Of course, the result was a 48-17 smackdown that in hindsight set the tone for both team's seasons. The Badgers found their way into the Rose Bowl, while Nebraska finished 9-4 and lost to South Carolina in the Capital One Bowl.
Now, everything is remarkably different. The Badgers have stumbled to this point, dropping a game to Oregon St. and this year's transfer quarterback in the process. The Huskers, minus, a 36-30 loss to UCLA at the Rose Bowl, would probably be sitting prettiest among Big Ten teams. After last weekend's 73-7 dismantling of Idaho State, Nebraska sure has confidence, to say the least.
For this week's opponent Q&A, Corn Nation was kind enough to have a few contributors break down our questions. They had quite a bit to say, so we'll break this down into two parts, with the second coming later this afternoon.
1. B5Q: To start, how is Husker Nation (is that what you call yourselves?) feeling about the season thus far? How do you expect that to translate into Saturday's game?
David McGee: There seems to be a semi-cautious optimism. Some of the defensive breakdowns are concerning, but they seem to have responded well from that. They shut down what was considered to be a dangerous offensive team in Arkansas State. Last week doesn't count. The offense has been efficient and explosive with depth and weapons at every skill position, but the line has been a leaky at times which tends to unnerve the masses.
Salt Creek and Stadium: Cautious optimism? Pffffft. We're #teamsunshine all the time. We've had a bit of the (Phil) Steele-Aid [Warning, excessive image use] and we're ready to win the Big Ten. Of course, this is how we felt in 2010 right before Texas ruined our good-bye party...but hey, it's not 2010 any more and Taylor Martinez can pass and our receivers can catch!
Jon Johnston: I'm feeling that none of it so far really counts. It's told us some things about our team, but now we can throw it all away and start the conference season. I'm holding off any further opinions until Sunday morning, ‘cause I know that Wisconsin feels the same way.
Husker Mike: We're still upset over the UCLA game; the way the defense was scorched was alarming to say the least. But then we looked over the other dumpster fires in the B1G...and realized that things could be worse...a lot worse.
Billgrip: After going undefeated in non-conference games for the past two seasons, it's disappointing to come into conference play with a loss. Despite that, this season still has the potential to be a very successful one, and the pieces are in place to make that happen.
Aaron: The UCLA loss was disappointing, but I think the team will be better for it. They've played pretty solid and a lot of Husker fans are kind of holding their breath. The B1G looks down and it might be our year, but we don't want to get the expectations too high for fear of heartbreak again. We'll know more after the OSU game in a week where this team is capable of going.
2. B5Q: So Taylor Martinez has some good numbers this season. How good has he been? As a whole, how has the offense functioned?
DM: He's been very good. Better than most expected. The explosiveness we saw in the first half of his freshman year seems to be back which adds a level to the offense that wasn't there last year. His much maligned throwing motion is better. It's not great, but it's allowed him to be more accurate in getting the ball to a talented group of receivers. That WR corp is deep and talented they catch just about everything, have speed to burn and are fierce down field blockers. Add in a healthy Kyler Reed, who the Big Ten never really got to see last year, it's tough to defend. Oh, and I haven't even mentioned Rex Burkhead and those running backs yet. He looked good last week in rebounding from his MCL sprain. Not quite 100%, though. He's got some running mates that have lended some sense of relief that all wouldn't be lost had his injury been more than it was and certainly gives a lot of hope for next year and beyond when Rex graduates. Short answer long, the offense has the potential to be the best in the conference. If it is, this team will be difficult to beat.
Salt Creek: I think DM's got it covered - our offensive improvement makes it difficult to truly gauge how much Martinez has improved. We entered the season with one of the better regarded receiver corps in the Big Ten and they've done a good job making their case. And yes, the running backs are amazing.
Jon: Everyone laughed when he said his goal was a 70% completion rate. He's currently at 70.7%, which is pretty amazing when absolutely no one thought he'd come close. He and Denard Robinson appeared to have swapped places as laughingstocks, so you have to happy about that.
Husker Mike: That being said, there are still a few holdouts who still wish someone else were starting. But they are becoming fewer and fewer. The big thing with Martinez is that he really hasn't run the ball much; he hasn't really needed to. That probably changes this week.
Billgrip: I'm very impressed, and you should be too. So far he's made a big jump as a passer, and the stats back it up. After the first 4 games in 2011, Martinez had 657 passing yards, a 50.57% completion percentage, 4 TDs, and 2 INTs. After the first 4 games this season, Martinez has 878 passing yards, a 70.7% completion percentage, 9 TDs, and 1 INT. Regardless of whether or not he can maintain what he's done so far, opponents now respect his arm just as much as his legs, and that alone makes the Huskers much harder to beat.
Aaron: He has looked a lot better this year, but he hasn't been pressured too much. He felt a little heat at UCLA and his lower numbers that game showed it. If he has protection, he can be a very effective thrower.
3. B5Q: Defensively, where does Nebraska rank in the Big Ten?
DM: Middle of the pack at best, especially with what we've seen from Minnesota. Nebraska's still trying to find some answers in the front 7 and can be gashed in the running game. The secondary is better than most expected, well, at least better than I expected.
Salt Creek: They did finally learn to tackle though whether they can tackle Ball or White will be interesting to see. We did some shuffling around to get speed on the field, but they're young players which means the risk of busts is higher.
Jon: Uh, damned near last, actually. Okay, eighth in total defense, but it might as well be last. We're 11th in rushing defense, just ahead of Michigan.
Mike: The defense got torched against the only decent opponent we've faced...so we're a little nervous about that.
Billgrip: What we're learning this season is that Bo Pelini's brilliant defensive mind does not have the ability to magically make his players run faster or tackle better. We also have a new defensive coordinator...which is worth mentioning but is not an excuse when you've got Bo Pelini as head coach. I think they'll get better as the season goes on and we find the right combination of personnel to match Bo's scheme. But for now...this defense is average at best.
Aaron: Hard to say at this point. There have been some ups and some downs. The offense is capable of scoring 35+ every week so the defense doesn't need to be 2009 good, but you would still like to see them shut people down.
Check back later this afternoon for Part 2.