Every Monday during the season, Sam McKewon breaks down Nebraska football news, last weekend's game and previews the next opponent in the Husker Rewind column.
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IOWA CITY — Years ago it would have already been lore, what Nebraska just pulled off. A hard-charging, jaw-jutting coach doubling down and daring his boys to “win out.” The team answering with a series of heartburn-inducing, screwball wins.
But the scientific world — that self-anointed home to knowledge, facts, analysis and “right” — continues to drag the last mythic American sport by its nose into the 21st century. And so NU's six-game winning streak has been, and will be through this week, a hard, grim ride, driven by seniors who ache for a true accomplishment and a quarterback for whom joy seems impossible to admit.
I suspect few of them could tell you how good their breakfast tasted Saturday morning. Because, in a 24/7/365 world, there's another Saturday.
Husker coach Bo Pelini didn't even want to look at the Legends Division champions hat. And he may not reflect much on one of his finer coaching performances. He coached Friday like an NFL man who knew he had better players and figured it would bear out in four quarters. Which it did — once Pelini rolled the dice one last time and inserted Rex Burkhead, the lore-worthy running back.
Though Pelini's brusque exterior hides a sentimental streak, he didn't play Burkhead for sentiment's sake. Bo is “evolving” — science again — beyond that. In his running style, Burkhead offered a tangible good. In his leadership, he offered a tangible, visible, emotional boost. And despite Taylor Martinez's often brilliant play throughout the winning streak, Pelini had no illusions about No. 3 on Friday. There was no point to prove about Taylor's talent, just a game to win.
Outside of Martinez's production, the Iowa victory continued trends that evolved throughout the winning streak. Beyond the fist-pumps, bold proclamations and mythic moments of this winning streak, the Huskers forged a football identity — a pop psychology term that we love to use and then prove — across all three phases.
They didn't do everything right. But they began to do the same right things consistently.
» Nebraska's defense created turnovers: 12 since the second half of the Michigan game. It's the No. 1 factor in the winning streak; in the Pelini era, only the 2009 defense got more takeaways in the last six regular-season games. They helped offset NU's own (often ridiculous) giveaways. In it last five games, NU is actually plus-1 in turnover margin. That's after being minus-9 in the first seven games.
» Martinez ran the ball like he never has in conference play: He gained 495 yards the last six games, averaging 5.6 yards per carry. In an injury-hampered 2010, he ran for 216 yards and 4.1 yards per carry in NU's last six regular season games. In 2011, he ran for 253 yards and 3.4 yards per carry.
Martinez ran more, not less, in 2012, with explosiveness and authority. He claims his left ankle is sore and has been since the win against Michigan. He doesn't much look like it. Even in Friday's win at Iowa, he presented enough of a threat to keep the Hawkeye defense honest.
Nebraska has the Big Ten's best bunch of wide receivers, and running back Ameer Abdullah emerged as a shifty, dependable running back during the streak. But Martinez's fully realized mobility is the difference in this offense. He slowed backside pursuit of Abdullah's perimeter runs. He saved NU's bacon against Penn State, which unsuccessfully dared Martinez to scramble.
And, of course, he took down the Big Ten's cockiest defense, Michigan State. The Spartans didn't respect Martinez enough for most of the game, then feared him so much on a fourth-and-10 that they allowed him to calmly deliver a pass to tight end Kyler Reed. Watch that play again. MSU has two linebackers in position, and both are staring down Martinez, afraid he'll run.
» Brett Maher delivered: The senior from Kearney, Neb., missed one field goal during the last six games and two in the conference season. In the six-game streak, he kicked 19 touchbacks on 35 kickoffs.
Punt and kick coverage delivered, too: Nebraska's return units were south of awful. But the coverage units were north of very good. In the last six games, opponents averaged 18.1 yards per kickoff return and 6.1 yards per punt return.
» Terrific fourth-quarter run defense: Nebraska gave up 3.4 yards per carry in six fourth quarters of the winning streak, and that includes the final 15 minutes against Minnesota, when the Huskers had backups on the field. Take out that game, and the per-carry average goes down to 3.24. No run longer than 17 yards. Just three runs longer than 8 yards, and two of those were quarterback scrambles. Opponents couldn't run out the clock on the Huskers. That set the stage for comebacks.
» Even better pass defense: Opposing quarterbacks completed just 40.5 percent of their passes in the six-game winning streak. For the year, the Huskers are now No. 1 nationally in pass defense and No. 2 in pass efficiency defense.
When Pelini likes his secondary, believe him. But also know this: He mixed and matched cornerbacks — and inserted dime corner Justin Blatchford — throughout the streak. Only nickel Ciante Evans qualified, in my book, as a lockdown guy. That's why it was so key for safeties Daimion Stafford and P.J. Smith to shrug off early-season struggles and play their best football. Aside from a handful of missed tackles in the Michigan State game, they did.
» Best of all, third-down defense: Opponents converted 30.1 percent of their third downs in the six-game winning streak. Also of note: For the year, Nebraska faced more third downs than any other defense in the Big Ten. That's because the Huskers forced those third downs by making stops on first and second down.
That identity points back to Pelini. He tabbed Martinez as his quarterback. It's his pass defense that frustrates Big Ten quarterbacks. It's Bo who instituted a push-up plan in practice when the Husker defense dropped interceptions.
If he gets NU to carry out its six-week plan for one more game in Indianapolis, he'll be a big winner. His critics won't be able to shade it any other way. And however many critics Pelini has, rest assured — with a Big Ten title, he'll get the spoils of lore — and lucre. Lots and lots of lucre. On with the Rewind.
I see you
» Burkhead: Ran like a Texas bull.
» Tight end Ben Cotton: Clutch, tough catch on NU's game-winning touchdown drive.
» Evans: He'll have to battle several good corners to win All-Big Ten honors, but he's earned it.
» Running back Braylon Heard: Brings a slightly different tempo than Abdullah.
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» Maher: He made two field goals. Iowa missed one.
» Defensive end Eric Martin: Man on fire.
» Defensive tackle Cameron Meredith: One of the hidden highlights of this year, a defensive end battling in the tackle trenches.
» Center Mark Pelini: Good snaps in relief of Justin Jackson.
» Stafford: When you're thinking about “athletes Iowa doesn't have,” No. 3 comes to mind.
» Linebacker Alonzo Whaley: The roller coaster heads back to the top.
» Baker Steinkuhler's and Jackson's injuries: Pelini didn't hedge on their status for next weekend: They're out. Jackson, a center, anchors the Huskers' perimeter run game with physical pull blocks. Steinkuhler has been a workhorse in the trenches, splitting double-teams and covering inside gaps.
Cole Pensick or Mark Pelini might make a smooth transition to center, but if Pensick starts, Nebraska loses its three-man rotation at guard, putting more of an onus on Seung Hoon Choi.
Steinkuhler's absence is a bigger problem against Wisconsin's physical offensive line. It's a lot to ask Meredith to play 70 snaps at tackle. That means Thad Randle, Kevin Williams or Aaron Curry — all of whom have played sparingly in recent weeks — have to step up next to Chase Rome, who will get the most extensive action of his career.
» Punt returns: The perfect conditions in Lucas Oil Stadium should help the Huskers look semi-competent fielding the ball.
» Pass-interference penalties: Wisconsin's passing game will take its shots downfield, and Nebraska's secondary has to respond with man-to-man coverage. The Big Ten's presumably best officiating crew will be making spot decisions on what's allowable and what isn't.
» Stanford or UCLA? Stanford, after the Cardinal punched the Bruins in the mouth with Saturday's 35-17 win, and figure to do more of the same in next week's Pac-12 title game at Palo Alto. Stanford's playing style is like a steakhouse dinner: Classic food done well, in big portions.
» Alabama or Georgia? The Bulldogs and Crimson Tide both have downfield throwing games that will keep the opposing safeties honest. Both teams create turnovers by the bushel. The game boils down to whether Georgia quarterback Aaron Murray can fit the ball into tight spots against Alabama's pass defense. The Tide's defense will force a lot of quick, short throws that Murray must complete.
» Who are your Heisman favorites? Texas A&M's Johnny Manziel, Notre Dame's Manti Te'o, Ohio State's Braxton Miller, Kansas State's Collin Klein and USC's Marqise Lee. I'll pick my winner in this section next week (I don't have a vote, so I can).
» 15th: Nebraska's national rank in total defense. That ranking is a triumph of coaching, experience and film study.
» 117: Cotton's receiving yards on first down this year. When offensive coordinator Tim Beck wants to dial up a first-down, play-action pass, it's often to Cotton. Reed, by contrast, has 120 yards receiving on third down.
» 5: The number of Big Ten players in the nation's top 25 for rushing yards. Le'Veon Bell won the league rushing crown with 1,648 yards. But NU led the conference in total yards and yards per carry.
Wisconsin lost five games this year by a total of 19 points. The Badgers also lost three of their last four in overtime. Translation: Wisconsin can play four quarters with any team. But it struggles to close.
That weakness rests squarely on the shoulders of an offense that needs a play called and blocked just so for it to work. The Badgers lack even a good quarterback — fifth-year senior Curt Phillips gallops around, doing the best he can — to complement running back Montee Ball and wide receiver Jared Abbrederis. But the defense repeatedly holds up, makes plays in the red zone, and forces offenses to earn their way down the field.
If Nebraska's defense can win first and second down, it wins the Big Ten title. Phillips just doesn't have enough juice to throw Wisconsin to a win on a series of great third-down passes.
No wind in the dome. Lots of red in Indy. A growing myth in the air.
Contact the writer:
402-202-9766, firstname.lastname@example.org; twitter.com/swmckewonOWH