LINCOLN — Nebraska’s players aren’t yet ready to reflect on their six-game winning streak with any sort of nostalgic sense of satisfaction.
They say there’s more work to do.
It’s why some players didn’t want to wear Legends Division championship hats after Friday’s win at Iowa (senior P.J. Smith gave the cap to his dad). And why team leaders were texting one another last weekend to arrange film study groups.
This stretch of six straight wins, a fulfillment of a public Bo Pelini edict and an accentuation of the Huskers’ resiliency, has earned Nebraska a berth in the Big Ten title game against Wisconsin. NU’s improvement this year has been evident.
But a loss Saturday would ruin everything.
“We’ve kind of taken the attitude each week that everything we’ve been able to do, everything we’ve accomplished so far — it won’t mean anything without a win on Saturday,” senior tight end Ben Cotton said Monday.
That goes all the way back to offseason leadership training exercises, to individual strength workouts, to film room cram sessions. The chemistry-building moments after gut-wrenching defeats at UCLA and Ohio State. The fourth quarter comebacks at Northwestern and at Michigan State. The third quarter rallies against Wisconsin, Penn State and Iowa.
In the minds of the Husker players, Saturday’s game will have a definitive impact on their perspective of the 2012 season, more than any moment so far.
“This is what we’ve been working hard for, this opportunity right here,” Smith said. “And we’re here now. So it’s time to get it done.”
It’s apparently a team-wide viewpoint. Smith said he saw about five defensive backs watching extra game film at the football facility Monday morning. They’d all stayed late after workouts, some of which begin as early as 7 a.m.
Smith said he and senior linebacker Will Compton exchanged texts Sunday — the Huskers’ off day — trying to figure out a time to watch film together.
Cotton said guys have gone out of their way to watch again the 13-7 win over Iowa, the 30-27 Sept. 29 victory against Wisconsin and several of the Badgers’ recent games. They caught up on sleep and rested their bodies last weekend, but no one wanted to waste a chance at possibly getting more mentally prepared.
“Every week, the stakes have gone up,” Cotton said.
Many of the veterans are still haunted by the near-misses in 2009 and 2010, when Nebraska came close to winning conference championships but lost league title games. The Huskers had won five straight before falling short against Texas in ‘09, and they’d won five of six before collapsing against Oklahoma a year later.
Nebraska last won a conference championship in 1999.
Senior Alonzo Whaley was sure it hadn’t been that long — until he asked Compton at practice last week and his teammate pointed toward the banners hanging along the walls in the indoor practice facility.
“I think a lot of us have that in mind,” Whaley said.
Hence the increasing sense of urgency within the NU locker room.
The Huskers’ words during conversations with reporters Monday morning were filled with humility, which presumably reflects their approach this week.
They complimented Wisconsin, cautioning each other to ignore the 7-5 overall record. Junior Jeremiah Sirles said the Badgers’ familiarity with the title game in Indianapolis (Wisconsin won it last year) gives UW a subtle advantage.
But being able to stay focused has been a strength for the Huskers all year, according to Whaley. They aren’t taking anything for granted.
“We don’t look over any team and I think that’s why we’re in this position that we’re in,” he said. “We do a great job of preparing and understanding who we’re going against, and never underestimating anybody.”
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