Conditioning: Huskersí X-Factor in Big Ten Showdown
Talk all you want about the X's and the O's and the uber-explosive Nebraska offense against the ultra-physical Michigan State defense. Talk about the battle royal between the fast and the furious Taylor Martinez vs. Kirk Cousins, college football's newest folk hero. We all know what everyone's wondering: Which quarterback has the confidence and the control to launch the biggest missiles in the biggest game of the year for both teams?
Hey, it's all monumentally relevant, but not necessarily the most relevant. We would like to submit something that may well be the difference in a battle of 6-1 teams trying mightily to see which one can stake its claim as the Legends Division favorite to qualify for the first-ever Big Ten Conference Championship Game in Indianapolis.
James Dobson, Nebraska's strength and conditioning coach, despises publicity more than he's repulsed by a flabby stomach, but we believe that his 12 Rules for a Championship Season are, in essence, a manifesto to help you understand Nebraska's chemistry, commitment and camaraderie. Once you read Dobson's 12 rules, you will be able to understand what might happen if each team punches the other one in the nose for the first three quarters Saturday. The fallout of a game like that will go to whichever team still has its legs, its heart and its swagger in the fourth quarter. That team not only will be the winner, but move on to more national telecasts in the next month.
We are serious about connecting Saturday's outcome to the physical road Nebraska has taken since last January. Dobson's rules are designed to deliver results in college games that might remind some of a black-and-blue Chicago Bear/Green Bay Packer brawl. This matchup between head coaches who know each other and have shared with each other is bound to become a battle of strategy and a test of will, and should those become equalizers through three quarters, the survivor will be the one that still has a vial of oxygen in each nostril, not the one that's gasping for air.
Michigan State's athleticism has been recruited, honed, chiseled and continuously refined for five years under Mark Dantonio, who preaches physicality based on aggression and an assault-like mindset. The Spartans have their eyes squarely on the prize - their first Rose Bowl appearance in 24 years. Nebraska's process is based on continuous quality improvement and a firm belief that no matter how the first three quarters play out, one team is going to have more gas in the tank and more acceleration despite the rigors of fatigue. Nebraska and Bo Pelini covet the same 2012 Rose Bowl, the site of the Huskers' last BCS postseason appearance 10 years ago.
Cook, Others Find Value in Dobson's 12 Rules for Success
If you don't think Dobson's 12 rules for a championship season have merit, ask the man who read them on Huskers.com and promptly sent them to every coach he knew in the state of Missouri. Then there's John Cook, Nebraska's volleyball coach who didn't read Dobson's 12 rules until well after they were published. But he enjoyed them, embraces them and has shared them with a team that has climbed to the nation's No. 1 ranking.
If those 12 rules mean that much to those competitors, imagine what they mean to a roster full of players that have committed themselves to living and breathing that philosophy every day they get up and every night they go to bed. We all know that big games are decided in the trenches, but they're also influenced in the recesses of players' minds, so it makes sense to revisit Dobson's attitudinal intangibles and measure the impact they might have on your Nebraska Cornhuskers in late October:
Rule #1) Never complain. Has anyone heard Nebraska complain about losing Jared Crick, one of college football's best, down the stretch? Me neither.
Rule #2) Don't ever feel sorry for yourself. If anyone had reason to hang their head after a certain game in Wisconsin, the Huskers did, but a week later, they staged the biggest comeback in school history against Ohio State, the six-time defending conference champion.
Rule #3) Compete. Has anyone seen Rex Burkhead find his second wind in the fourth quarter and make 4, 5, 6 and 7-yard gains out of what would have been no-gain or negative plays from a whole fleet of other talented running backs.
Rule #4) Crush your enemy totally. We're not there yet, but we see this more from an emotional perspective than anything on the stat sheets. The last quarter-and-a-half against Ohio State is the standard for this rule. Dominance doesn't come from a defense ranked where Nebraska's is, but opportunity always knocks. Remember Lavonte David, who just might have made the play that will define the rest of the season?
Rule #5) Ignore the noise. Let's hope that becomes a Spartan problem Saturday, and that means even the oldest Big Red fans in the stadium are going to have to warm up their vocal chords. We should also point out we're part of what Dobson considers "noise" because we're speculating while they're hunkering down to diagnose strengths and weaknesses so they can exploit some and hide others.
Rule #6) Prepare. Bo Pelini has been doing that with a sharpened focus since adding two new coaches to his offensive staff and two more new coaches to his defensive staff. Anytime you overhaul your offensive philosophy and field a young team, you go into it knowing that radical change doesn't happen overnight. It takes time. It takes patience. It takes a team coming together on both sides of the ball at the same time.
Rule #7) Amidst turmoil, never lose your mind. Bo didn't, even when everything went south in Wisconsin. He apologized to the fans and moved on. Have you?
Rule #8) Create a sense of urgency. See Rex Burkhead. He's a calm, cool, collected customer, but he may sic Yoshi Hardrick on anyone who doesn't have that look in their eye when they all meet for breakfast Saturday morning.
Rule #9) Know your role. This may be the most important rule of all in this Big Ten showdown. Trust yourself. Trust your teammates. Do what you're taught to do and do not panic, regardless of what might go wrong and, of course, something will go wrong. Even though Nebraska's young defense can't match the stat sheets of Michigan State's veteran defense, it will have to show some of the explosiveness that helped the Spartans win back-to-back-to-back games over Ohio State, Michigan and Wisconsin.
Rule #10) Work hard - outwork your opponent. That started last winter, continued through spring practice and is now in full gear this fall. Ask Nebraska's first-teamers how deep that work ethic is woven into the team's fabric. Because depth is better now than it's been in Pelini's four seasons, Nebraska's scout teams are providing much stronger looks than they have in the past.
Rule #11) No excuses. Take this one to the bank. Bo is all about accountability, and he puts himself at the top of the list every day, every week, every month, every season. Remember his apology to Nebraska fans after the Wisconsin game? He meant every word of it.
Rule #12) Focus on the process. Every time the Huskers come up short, their coaches keep reminding them about the importance of this rule and why they have to keep improving every day. Win or lose Saturday, that will continue to be the bond that holds Nebraska together.
Bo's Teams Improve the Last Half of the Season
Here's the deal. Bo has a performance standard that needs to continue like his first three Nebraska teams have, if not better. In the second half of his first three regular seasons at Nebraska, Bo's teams have gone 5-1 in 2008, 5-1 in 2009 and 5-1 in 2010. If process is king, this might be the season those 5-1 finishes can become 6-0. And that's not all. Nebraska's ground game can be both explosive and the kind that can control the clock, especially in the fourth quarter when conditioning is ultra-critical. The Huskers' second-half rushing attacks have raised some eyebrows over the last five games.
Nebraska went from 92 first-half rushing yards to 217 second-half yards against Washington. At Wyoming, the Huskers went from 113 in the first 30 minutes to 220 in the last 30. At Wisconsin, they went from 60 to 99 and, here's where stamina and conditioning get dramatic: Nebraska went from 37 first-half rushing yards to 195 second-half yards in the 34-27 comeback win over Ohio State.
Last Saturday, the trend reversed itself, but that can happen in a lopsided result. At Minnesota, Nebraska had 213 first-half rushing yards and 133 after intermission. I would ask Dobson why Bo's teams are stronger in the second half of the season and why the Huskers are so much more effective in the second half rushing the ball, but really, there's no reason to ask either question. Nebraska's superior physical conditioning has been the difference. You know it, and I know it. You just hope that Michigan State does not accomplish what Wisconsin pulled off against the Huskers. Turnovers, as always, are critical, and penalties, as always, have a dramatic impact on field position and momentum. Did we mention that after a flurry of personal foul penalties at Michigan, the Spartans had no penalties against Wisconsin in East Lansing? Huge factor, even immeasurable.
Therefore, the biggest question in my mind this week is simply this: Will Nebraska come out strong and be able to "Pound the Rock" that greets them on their way out of the locker room and onto the field? Another important question is what kind of "12th man" will Nebraska's crowd be? To help spur the Huskers on, let's hope Big Red fans are ready to rock and roll, even though kickoff is just a few hours after most of us have finished our orange juice and bagels with cream cheese and marmalade.
Foundation is Built on Confidence, Tempo, Physicality
Now that you know the 12 rules, you can come to your own conclusions about why Nebraska is considered a slight favorite against a Top 10 team. Obviously, most of that advantage comes from playing at home, where the Huskers come to work every day and believe in the foundation that Dobson and his staff have built. Hopefully, it will enable the Huskers to compete with a certain confidence, a fast "No Huddle" tempo and relentless physicality that must meet or exceed what will be coming right at them all day long.
Here's one final point for Big Red fans that like to count down to kickoff. If you're lucky enough to have a seat for what could be a classic showdown, make sure you leave the stadium with a sore throat. You can always buy some cough drops on the way home.
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