Penn State and Nebraska haven't played as many games against one another as you'd expect from a rivalry like these two teams have formed over the decades. There are probably more memorable moments--important, historic moments--in this 14-game series than Penn State has total with Boston College, Maryland, West Virginia, or any of the other traditional rivals. There is something special about Penn State vs Nebraska. 1981. 1982. 1983 (ugh!). 2002. Hell, this rivalry is so unique, its most famous controversy happened during a season when the two teams didn't get to play against one another--the 1994 national championship.
But overall, the thing that stands out in this rivalry is that it's generally been one of the more friendly contests Penn State will play. Nebraska's fans are known to be the best in the sport, frequently cheering opponents following wins or losses.
Now that the two teams are in the same conference, with an annual contest locked in for at least the near future, things should have heated up. But now that Penn State might have a few down years, it could be some time before we get the national powerhouse games many envisioned when the inter-divisional game was announced.
So what's in store for this year's edition of the Nebraska Cornhuskers? Join me below the jump to find out...
The Past Few Seasons...
Once the Bill Callahan era came to an illustrious thud, Bo Pelini was brought in to right the ship. He had been the interim head coach for the 2003 Alamo Bowl, following the firing of Frank Solich. Pelini is a defensive-minded coach, obviously a major appeal for the program that was giving up record points under Callahan from 2004-2007. From Pelini's first season (2008) to his second, the Cornhuskers went from giving up 28.5 points per game, down to just 10.4 per game. It was an unbelievable one-season turnaround for a unit that lost the privilege of calling themselves the "Blackshirts."
Prior to realignment and its entrance into the Big Ten, Nebraska actually made Big 12 title game appearances in its final two seasons in that conference. Both times, the Huskers fell short by painfully slim margins--one point in 2009; three in 2010.
Coming into the Big Ten last year, Nebraska hoped to continue on its upward path. The Big 12 had become stale, while the Big Ten West (Legends) division seemed to be up for grabs. But yet again, Nebraska couldn't break through. In their first ever Big Ten conference game, the Cornhuskers were blown away by Wisconsin. Coming back to reach 7-1 and ranked 9th in the nation, things seemed to be falling into place. Northwestern would have something to say about that, however, as the Wildcats pulled a stunner in Lincoln. Nebraska would wrap up the season at 9-3, yet show up completely flat in the bowl game, losing to South Carolina 30-13. For the fourth consecutive season, Nebraska lost exactly four games.
Could this year finally be the breakthrough campaign for Pelini and his team? It's never easy to tell, but with most of the starters returning from last year's team, it would seem experience is on the Cornhuskers' side.
Offense could lead the way in 2012, as the two-man attack in QB Taylor Martinez and RB Rex Burkhead will take the field once again. Last year, the tandem combined for more than 2,200 rushing yards and 22 touchdowns. Martinez threw for 2,089 yards, but only completed 56 percent of his passes. With such a ground attack, Nebraska should have little trouble getting to the 250 rush yards per game mark. Helping the run game will be returning receivers Kenny Bell, Quincy Enunwa, and tight end Ben Cotton. The offensive line should be about the same as last season.
Nebraska lost Jared Crick to injury last year, as he was supposed to be the disruptive force up the middle that so many of the Huskers' defenses rely on to dominate the front wall. This year shouldn't be as tough to replace him, compared to if he had played all 13 games last year. But the defense has some good talent coming back, with linebacker Will Compton assuming the starting role in the middle. Expect a decent level of improvement from the defense, after giving up 23.4 points per game last year.
There's no reason to think Nebraska, provided it doesn't grossly under perform, can't start out the season 4-0 heading into the conference opener against Wisconsin. That game could be another lopsided one, depending on how the Badgers live up to expectations that are just as high as last season. Trips to Ohio State and Northwestern shouldn't provide much of a break, even though the game against the Wildcats is a huge revenge opportunity for Nebraska. Making the middle of the season that much tougher are dates against Michigan and at Michigan State, before closing with Penn State and Minnesota at home, then wrapping up in Iowa City.
If Nebraska plays up to its potential this season, it might avoid a fifth-straight season with four losses.
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