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It's November, the stretch run of college football, and Kansas State hit Nebraska with its best shot Saturday night at Memorial Stadium. It wasn't enough, but it was a sure sign of what's coming next ... Colorado's best shot Friday afternoon in another nationally televised game.
There isn't a coach on the Husker staff or a player on the team who doesn't expect CU to play its best game of the season when Thanksgiving leftovers are served in Boulder.
When you designate Nebraska as your rival, and you're coming off a game where you probably should have beaten an Oklahoma State team that's a whisker away from a Top 10 ranking, not to mention a possible BCS bowl bid, you know what the Buffs must be thinking: Let's use every physical, emotional and strategically tactical weapon this side of NORAD to beat the team we'd like to beat most.
Bill Snyder tried something different to find a kink in the Blackshirts' armor. "Kansas State came out in the first half with a lot of plays we'd never seen. They weren't even on film. They opened up a whole new playbook," Nebraska senior safety Larry Asante said after an impressive audition to be the Huskers' player of the game.
Asante had a team-high 10 tackles, intercepted a pass and had what he called a "dream hit" that forced a fumble at Nebraska's 1-yard line and resulted in a turnover that changed the game.
Asante's typical physical stick knocked the ball into the hands of teammate Prince Amukamara and exemplified the attitude of a Nebraska defense that has now kept opponents out of the end zone for 10 straight quarters at home.
Make no mistake. This is a defense that has been carefully crafted, emotionally overhauled and physically rebuilt by a former defensive coordinator who knows what it takes to win a national championship.
Bo Pelini went old school in his laser-like focus to transform the nation's softest defense two years ago into a unit worthy of the Blackshirt name and whatever fame that might imply.
The Goal ... to be Hard-Hitting and Hard-Nosed
"We want to be known as a hard-hitting, hard-nosed defense ... one where everybody is making tackles and making things happen," All-America defensive tackle candidate Ndamukong Suh said Saturday after making nine tackles, breaking up two passes and being credited with a sack-and-a-half.
Suh is the most disruptive force in college football. ESPN commentator Lee Corso and NFL draft analyst Mel Kiper Jr. are among those telling the world just that. Jason Peter, who was re-introduced to another Nebraska sellout crowd Saturday night, is also "SUHweet" on Suh's game-day performance, and Peter said he's looking forward to watching what Suh does against Colorado and Texas before he casts his vote on the Heisman ballot.
Here's the deal. As good as Nebraska's defense has been through an 8-3 season, we may not have seen the best of Suh or the best of the Blackshirts. Players who were written off and told how bad they were two years ago do not complete their transformations at the same time. Each game is more experience, and every week becomes an opportunity for confidence to be gained and ghosts to be lost.
"Look how far they've come," Pelini said. "It's fun to watch."
For the record, in 2007, Nebraska's defense gave up an average of 476.8 yards and 37.9 points per game. In 2008, those totals dwindled to 349.9 and 28.5, and this year they've gone down to 280.1 yards and 11.0 points per game.
"I'm happy for our football team," Pelini said. "We've been through a lot. They've persevered. I still think our best football is out there for us to play."
Who knows when that might happen? Colorado will be the third straight team to hit Nebraska with its best shot and hopefully, to fail. Then, it's Nebraska's turn to muster up everything from within and to see how its own best shot measures up to a national championship contender like Texas.
The Huskers will let it all hang out, play like there is no tomorrow, talk with their pads, compete with their hearts, leave it all on the field and, well ... you get the idea.
Nebraska was favored against a talented KU team on the brink of psychological collapse, a surging K-State team facing its final game and now a scary Colorado team that definitely will bring down the curtain on a season the Buffs would rather forget unless, of course, they manage to hijack the Huskers on their way to Dallas.
Will 2009 Title Game Be Reminiscent of 1996?
Please forgive us for looking ahead, but there is so much potential for irony in this Big 12 Championship Game that we simply cannot wait another week to bring it up.
We're talking a Nebraska vs. Texas matchup that is strikingly similar to the first-ever Big 12 Championship Game between the 'Horns and the Huskers in St. Louis in 1996.
Nebraska battled back from an early-season loss at Arizona State that season to position itself for a possible third straight national championship game. The third-ranked Huskers were heavily favored to beat unranked Texas, but an in-house flu bug and a Longhorn running back named Priest Holmes spoiled everything in a 37-27 upset that derailed what could have been an unprecedented four consecutive national championship run.
Now, 13 years later, Texas is the team flying high and Nebraska is the one under the radar. The Huskers are rated 23rd in the coaches' poll, but are still unranked in the media poll. Talk about role reversal from that first conference championship. Both teams are looking at the same landscape, the same stakes and the same prospect for shock and awe.
Nebraska fans, of course, would like to see a game similar to the Longhorns' 16-13 win over Oklahoma this year in Dallas.
Texas has a great offense, a leading Heisman Trophy candidate in Colt McCoy and a defense that shows signs of being great.
Nebraska has a great defense, the leading Outland Trophy candidate in Mr. Suh and the best kicker and one of the best punters in college football in Alex Henery.
You won't catch Nebraska coaches or players, though, looking past Colorado even if you tried. The fans and the media are the ones who simply can't stop looking ahead.
Tim Griffin, the Big 12's leading blogger, was in Lincoln Saturday and wrote that the Blackshirts give Nebraska "a puncher's chance of sticking close to Texas, which might be looking ahead to a BCS title game more than facing the Huskers."
The Cornhuskers "are built to win games like Saturday's battle over Kansas State," Griffin wrote. "They will challenge Texas, but likely don't have the firepower to dent the Longhorns' emerging defense."
Upsetting Texas Might Take Some Magic
It's hard to dispute Griffin's logic. But in between player interviews Saturday night, the San Antonio-based writer for ESPN.com did not discount the possibility of Nebraska manufacturing an upset commensurate to the one Texas pulled off in 1996.
"The Blackshirts can play with just about anybody," Griffin told me. "If they can shut Texas down, and Henery can keep the 'Horns pinned back with his punts and kick a few field goals ... and Helu can break one, and the ball bounces funny a couple times ... you never know."
One thing seems certain. Asante, a guy who likes to hit everyone with his best shot every time he gets the chance, says his tackle that jarred the ball out of K-State's hands and became the game's turning point in the third quarter showcased a skill that has been taught and a mindset that has been ingrained.
"We take it personal as a unit," Asante said. "We don't want to give up any points. Our coaches taught us to play every play like it's our last."
Asante said the K-State game was emotional for all 13 Nebraska seniors. "But we also know that every game from here on out will be just as emotional, if not more emotional," he said.
Yes, the Huskers have come a long way from that 2007 defensive nightmare season. "We needed a 360 turnaround, and luckily, these coaches came in, installed their culture and applied their practice principles and changed the program," Asante said. "They got us all going in the right direction."
Asante admitted to tearing up on his last Tunnel Walk Saturday night and getting emotional again after talking to the media and finishing a post-game radio interview with Lane Grindle on the Husker Sports Network.
Before he left the North Stadium and walked into the night with his family, Asante paused long enough to make one final point about a player he thinks just might be Nebraska's most underrated weapon.
"Man, I can't tell you what it means when Alex Henery booms a 61-yard punt that pins the offense down at the goal line," he said. "I mean, he's a big part of our defense just like he's a big part of our offense. When he pins people down there by their own end zone, we can play more aggressive and get a little more physical. If he has to, Alex will even make a tackle. We need to show that guy some love. He deserves a Blackshirt, and I'd be all for giving him one."
Voices from Husker Nation
Suh is the most dominant defensive player in the country. He should be considered one of the best players on offense or defense. Alex Henery is a stud and definitely deserves a Blackshirt. And Bo Pelini should be Coach of the Year. What he has done in such a short time is undeniable. GO BIG RED! Chris Snipes, Canton, Georgia
I love the defense, and the way we're starting to go back to smash-mouth football. It is and will be the beginning of old-school domination - again. Bo knows it will be easy on an already great defense, and nobody wants to line up against the triple option. Go knock the HORNS off Texas! Paul Bonertz, Seattle, Washington
Thank you for the fine article. Isn't it amazing that our defense has accomplished so much with players recruited by the previous staff? What a difference in coaching philosophies!! Cindy Bethel, Plattsmouth, Nebraska
I enjoy watching Larry Asante play football. He plays with aggression and excitement every time he takes the field, and that attitude has to be contagious to those around him. Yesterday, he put his helmet right on the ball to cause that turnover. You could tell it wasn't by accident. Hope to see many more big plays from him and those around him in the last three games. Fortunately, those games are all on the road, and this staff and these players seem to thrive on that challenge. Mark Wilson, Omaha, Nebraska
I agree with Larry Asante about giving Alex Henery a Blackshirt. He's a kicking BEAST, and whoever doesn't agree with that statement obviously hasn't watched him play. Look what he did for his team last season and this season. I can't wait until he plays his senior season. It's always fun to watch him kick. You never know what to expect from him, other than greatness, that is. Haley Cox
I also agree with Larry Asante: Alex Henery deserves a Blackshirt. I admit to being worried about our offense in the upcoming games, but I do believe that our defense can handle whatever comes their way. I am really proud of them and what they have done and am a Husker fan no matter what. I know the guys play their best, even if we don't win. The Huskers are the best! Becky Larson