We're through the non-conference part of "Know Thy Foe," so it's time to get into the real meat of the Badgers' 2012 schedule. We'll continue the series today by previewing the Nebraska Cornhuskers, who will host the Badgers in Lincoln, Neb., in this season's Big Ten opener.
It should be a very interesting game for the second year in a row, after the Badgers officially welcomed the Huskers to the Big Ten in Camp Randall. The game turned into a blowout after two quarters, but the excitement for a new era in Big Ten football was palpable during the days leading up to the game. We'll see if the Huskers can get revenge on their home turf on Oct. 1.
Joining us today for "Know Thy Foe" is Sean Callahan, who runs HuskerOnline.com, part of the Rivals.com network. Sean is an expert on Nebraska football, and we're certainly grateful for sharing his insight on the Huskers as we get ready for the 2012 season.
Know Thy Foe: Nebraska
How would you describe the shape that the Huskers are in as they head into their second season in the Big Ten? I'm not sure what fans or media members expected about their first season, but how are they looking for 2012?
Sean Callahan: I think (2011) had a lot of good moments, like wins over Penn State, Michigan State, and Iowa, but then obviously there were two or three pretty bad moments. The Wisconsin game, the Michigan loss, and losing at home to Northwestern is the one that kind of sticks out. If they get the Northwestern win, they're about 10-2, which is about what most people thought, but naturally people were a little upset. They were right there in the division race, they beat the team that won the (Legends) division, and now in year two the questions are 'Can Taylor Martinez really take the next step,' and if the defense (can rebound). It wasn't really a Bo Pelini-style defense that we had been used to seeing.
How much of their early struggles do you think you can attribute to switching conferences? It doesn't seem like a huge factor on the surface, but do you think that played a big role in 2011?
SC: The one thing the coaches always said to me was 'Man, this league just beats on everybody.' I think it's such a physical league and the style is really physical that you have to be pretty deep and have some breaks go your way to win this thing. Everybody beats each other up pretty bad. Nebraska knew it was going to be a different style of league, but I think going through year one let them know just how much different it was from a physical standpoint … The biggest thing for Bo Pelini is now he has a year under his belt to kind of build a defense that kind of fits this league better.
How do the Huskers look in terms of returning starters? Are they going to be an experienced team or will they be breaking in some new players?
SC: Well on offense they're going to be really good. They have almost everybody back. Martinez, Rex Burkhead, Ameer Abdullah, they return all their major receivers, they return their top two tight ends, and three of their five starters on the offensive line. They still need a center and a couple of tackles. The offense has the potential to be really good, as long as Martinez steps forward.
The defense has a very good defensive line coming back, which is very good to have in this league. But at linebacker, they may have the least to work with, in terms of experience, as any team in the conference. They only really have one or two guys with major experience. They have very good safeties returning … it's the corner positions where they lose a lot. They arguably have the best special teams in the Big Ten, too. Having that with the offense sounds like a good start.
Could you give me a run-down of the Huskers' offensive philosophy? I know these two teams played each other last year, but how would you describe the Huskers' game plan?
SC: I think it's an offense that tries to attack an opponent's weakness. If they're giving you the run, they're going to go for the run. If they're giving you the pass, they're going to go for the pass. When you have Burkhead as a running back … Burkhead is good for four to six yards almost every time. As long as he gets you to second-and-four
or second-and-six, the offense is always going to be in a good spot. Because you can't really scheme Taylor Martinez that way- you don't know what he's going to do. If Martinez is in a long passing situation where you know he has to pass, he's just not a very good quarterback in that situation. I think the biggest thing is Burkhead makes this whole thing go, and his ability to keep things on schedule with long runs on first down is what's going to help Martinez and this offense.
Do you think it's fair to say that the Huskers' fortunes are going to live and die with Martinez this year then?
SC: I think a lot of success will come from him, because you can only ride Burkhead for so long. Ultimately, to win a championship you need elite quarterback play, and I think that's what's been missing these last couple of years. Martinez has given you moments … so you know he can do it. He's taken extra instruction this offseason, but when the bullets are live in that first Big Ten game against Wisconsin, we'll know more about him and where he's come since the offseason.
Switching to the other side of the ball here: What kind of mentality does the defense usually work with? What can we expect to see out of the blackshirts?
SC: The mentality … obviously stopping the run is huge on defense. It's a two-gap system, which makes the defensive tackles have a lot more responsibility. Instead of covering one gap, they have to cover two … and they're very few defenses in college football that do that. It asks them to do a lot of different things. They don't ask their defensive ends to rush the passer very often. They kind of stay at home, and they like to put seven men in coverage when they can. It really makes it very hard to throw on them. If they can stop the run and force the throw, Pelini is as good as any coach in those situations.
Do you think you could give me a best-case and worst-case scenario for the Huskers this year? Is it 'Legends division or bust' or is there a little room for error?
SC: I think the best case would be winning the division, and ultimately winning the conference. But odds are that to win the Big Ten, if you play in the Big Ten Championship Game you're going to be playing a team that you've already played, so that will be interesting. I think the best case is a 10-2 or maybe even 11-1 team, I don't know. But I think realistically a 9-3 or 10-2 season is more likely if I had to throw it out there today. Worst-case I think is 8-4, I think they'll be favored in all four non-conference games, and I think the way the schedule sets up, they should be able to get four more wins out of it.
I know the game is a couple months away still, but what's you're gut feeling on the Wisconsin-Nebraska game this year? Do you think the Huskers will be feeling a little more pumped up for this game after last year's Big Ten opener?
SC: It's going to be a big game. I think we're going to see Adidas put Nebraska in some different kind of uniforms for this game … it's going to be a pretty cool stage. I think it's a game where Nebraska was pretty embarrassed. They were playing right there for two quarters or a quarter and a half, and then Martinez throws three picks and the game just blew apart. I think that's something that will stick in the back of their mind. The Husker fans will be pretty upset too, after they were thrown around on that big stage.
Thanks again to Sean for his insight on the Huskers. For more news about Nebraska football, check out HuskerOnline.com.
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