No. 17 Huskers expect test against Southern Miss

Nebraska opens against Southern Mississippi on Saturday hoping

the fifth season under Bo Pelini marks the start of the

Cornhuskers’ return to its traditional place in the hierarchy of

college football.

It’s going on 15 years since the Huskers won a national

championship, 13 since they won a conference title and 11 since

they played in a BCS game.

They’ve lost no fewer than four games in a season since 2003 and

haven’t been ranked in the final top 10 since 2001.

Preseason prognosticators see more of the same for the No. 17

Huskers, picking them third in the Big Ten’s Legends Division.

There’s been a confident buzz coming out of preseason practice,

however. Taylor Martinez is beginning his third year as starting

quarterback and, by all accounts, is a better passer and more

comfortable in offensive coordinator Tim Beck’s spread-option

system.

The defense, embarrassed in lopsided losses to Wisconsin,

Michigan and South Carolina last season, believes things have been

shored up with new coordinator John Papuchis and new line and

secondary coaches.

”I know what we can do, what we can be by the end of this

year,” senior linebacker Will Compton said. ”We’re not looked at

as national level right now. We’re on the outside looking in. I

think we’re closing that gap.”

Last year – Nebraska’s first in the Big Ten – was a step back.

The Huskers were a popular pick to win the conference but ended up

9-4 after a 17-point loss to South Carolina in the Capital One

Bowl. The Huskers had made it to the Big 12 championship game the

previous two years, narrowly losing both times.

Penalties, turnovers and inconsistency plagued the offense. The

defense proved vulnerable to the run and couldn’t get much pressure

on quarterbacks.

A 2-3 record after October left Pelini, his players and fans

wanting more.

”I still feel like people respect us, but as far as being a

nationally dominant team and stuff like that, we haven’t been over

the last 10 years or so,” running back Rex Burkhead said. ”As

seniors, we’re trying to get us back on that map.”

Nebraska doesn’t know exactly what it will be getting in

Southern Miss. The Golden Eagles were 12-2 a year ago and

Conference USA champions. They finished the season at No. 20, four

spots ahead of Nebraska.

Southern Miss is in rebuilding mode after Larry Fedora left to

coach North Carolina and four-year starting quarterback Austin

Davis graduated. Ellis Johnson took over for Fedora after spending

the previous four seasons as South Carolina’s defensive

coordinator. He’ll have a first-time starter in junior quarterback

Chris Campbell, who has never taken a snap in a college game.

Freshmen Ricky Lloyd and Anthony Alford also could take snaps

against the Huskers.

”Sometimes playing an opponent like Nebraska can be a motivator

and help in camp, so our players should be focused on something as

exciting as this,” Johnson said. ”It’s certainly going to be a

challenge, and a lot of people have them ranked as 15 in the

nation, which they probably deserve that.”

The Eagles likely will count on their running game to take

pressure off Campbell and the other quarterbacks. Tracy Lampley,

Kendrick Hardy, Desmond Johnson and Jeremy Hester each ran for more

than 300 yards last season.

”They’re as talented as I’ve ever seen,” center Austin

Quattrochi said of the running backs. ”We have four or five guys

who can really run the football. We’re always going to have fresh

legs back there.”

Southern Miss returns three of its top four tacklers from a unit

that held seven opponents under 100 yards rushing.

The Eagles are preparing for a heavy dose of triple-option

football, with Martinez and Burkhead leading the way for the

Huskers.

”Nebraska is a great team, but it’s not the Nebraska I was used

to growing up,” linebacker Alan Howze said. ”People used to say

`Nebraska,’ and you’d think how they’re coming downhill at you.

They’re kind of a wing team. They want to push it to the edge on

you. They’re going to test our speed as much as they’re going to

test us downhill.”

Because there are so many unresolved position battles, Pelini

plans to rotate a lot of players. The Huskers hope to get a good

measure of themselves before they head to UCLA next week.

As for the big picture, the three-touchdown-favorite Huskers

could use a convincing win to help reinvigorate the Nebraska brand,

which has been built on 846 all-time victories and five national

championships.

”There is respect for the `N’ and, I believe, for where our

program is heading,” Pelini said. ”Are we where we want to be?

Absolutely not. There are a lot of positives, a lot of great things

I believe we’re headed for.”