Nebraska looking to avenge 2011 loss to Wisconsin
When Taylor Martinez and his Nebraska teammates needed an extra push to get through a summer workout, all they had to do was remember that cool October evening in Madison last year when Wisconsin gave them their Big Ten initiation.
''Just what happened last time, I keep thinking about that,'' Martinez said.
Revenge, of course, is a powerful motivator. And the No. 22 Cornhuskers (3-1) are using it for all it's worth heading into this Saturday's Big Ten opener against the Badgers (3-1).
''We owe these guys one,'' offensive lineman Jeremiah Sirles said. ''We all know it. We all know we need to play our best to beat these guys. We enter big-time play now, Big Ten play.''
The Huskers were a popular choice to win the Big Ten in their first season in the league. They went to Madison 4-0 and ranked No. 8. The Badgers also were unbeaten and ranked No. 7.
After a promising start for the Huskers in front of a national television audience, Martinez threw three interceptions over a six-minute span of the second and third quarters. Nebraska's 14-13 lead turned into a 41-14 deficit. Final score: Wisconsin 48, Nebraska 17.
''I remember being on that field at the end of the game last year,'' Sirles said. ''It left an awful feeling in my gut. We have to come out and play hard. We need to.''
Last year's loss started Nebraska on its way to a third-place finish in the Legends Division. Wisconsin ended up winning the Leaders and going on to its second straight Big Ten championship.
Nebraska is picked to end up third again in the Legends, but based on Michigan State and Michigan's performances the first month of the season, the division looks wide open.
With Ohio State and Penn State ineligible to play in the Big Ten championship game, Wisconsin is favored to repeat in the Leaders Division.
The Huskers' 73-7 victory over Idaho State of the Football Championship Subdivision closed out an eventful nonconference schedule.
Martinez showed off his improved passing ability in the opener, throwing for a career-high 354 yards and five touchdowns in a 49-20 win over Southern Mississippi.
The next week the Huskers' defense surrendered 653 yards - second-most ever by an opponent - in a 36-30 road loss to UCLA.
Coach Bo Pelini had a health scare the following week. He left by ambulance in the middle of a 42-13 win over Arkansas State, complaining of heartburn and dizziness. Hospital tests were negative, and Pelini went back to work the next day and said he had been given a clean bill of health.
On the personnel front, the Huskers have had starting defensive tackle Chase Rome quit the team, then return a week later, and had promising linebacker Zaire Anderson sustain a season-ending knee injury.
Though Arkansas State and Idaho State were clearly overmatched opponents, defensive coordinator John Papuchis said his charges are ready for conference play. The Huskers allowed 286 yards to Arkansas State and 210 to Idaho State.
''What I know is that over the last two weeks we've gotten better,'' he said. ''We still need to continue to improve to be where we want to be at the end of the year. I like the trend and direction we're heading.''
Papuchis said the first campaign through the Big Ten was a learning experience. The second go-round should be smoother because the coaching staff is more familiar with the opponents.
''I feel more comfortable understanding not what they do schematically, but more the personnel,'' Papuchis said. ''I think that was the hardest thing to evaluate off the film a year ago. You knew what they were trying to do offensively and defensively, but you didn't know quite how good guys were, how big they were, how fast they were until you saw them full speed and in person.''
Wisconsin might be without Montee Ball, who sustained a head injury in Saturday's 37-26 win over UTEP. Ball tore through the Huskers last year for 151 yards and four touchdowns.
Nebraska's offense will be full strength. Rex Burkhead, who missed two games with a knee sprain, wore a brace while running for 119 yards and two touchdowns on eight carries against Idaho State.
Martinez completed 9 of 13 passes for 165 yards and two TDs before turning things over to backup Ron Kellogg the third in the second half. A 56-percent passer last year, Martinez is completing 70.7 percent through four games and is 10th nationally in passing efficiency.
''I think we're right where we want to be,'' Martinez said. ''If we keep this momentum going we'll be tough to beat.''