Plenty at stake in Madison

October 25, 2016 GMT

As sports reporters were reminding everyone last week about the Huskers’ 55-45 loss at the hands of Purdue a year ago it got the old wheels a turning. More on last season in a moment.

What did former Nebraska football coaches Bo Pelini and Frank Solich have in common? Yes, both were fiery coaches on the sideline who chewed out more than a referee or two while roaming the sidelines at Memorial Stadium in Lincoln. But there was this detail that sticks out like a sore thumb. Travel back with me through the football seasons from 2000-14.

Prior to Tom Osborne’s retirement at the end of the 1997 championship season, we could always count on Nebraska to be competitive in the games it played. The Huskers didn’t always win, but when they got on the national stage and all eyes were them for the big games they either won or were competitive a great deal of the time.

That soon changed.

Nebraska lost by 17 to Oklahoma in 2000. The Huskers went 10-0 in 2001 before being trampled by Colorado by 29 points in the Big 12 title game, then they lost by 23 to Miami in the national championship. In 2002, Nebraska lost by 33 against Penn State, 22 against Iowa State, 36 against Kansas State and 15 against Colorado.

In 2003, Missouri beat Nebraska by 17, Texas won by 24 and Kansas State was a 29-point winner. Good bye Solich.

The 2004-07 seasons don’t count. Nebraska didn’t play football back then. Bill Callahan was here.

In 2008, Pelini arrived on the scene but NU still lost to Missouri by 35 and Oklahoma by 34. In 2009, there was a 21-point loss to Texas Tech. In 2012, there was a 25-point loss to Ohio State, 39-point shellacking by Wisconsin and 14-point bowl game loss to Georgia. Even in 2014, Pelini’s final season, there was a 35-point loss to Wisconsin.

Nebraska didn’t just lose games under Solich, Callahan and Pelini. The Huskers were embarrassed time and time again. The bigger the game, more often than not, the worse the Huskers looked. The national image continued its downward spiral. It brought all the Nebraska naysayers of the world out of the woodwork.

Shawn Eichorst hired a man of character, a man of class, a man well liked in the college football community. In came Mike Riley and immediately the athletic director’s hiring came under fire as Nebraska tumbled and stumbled through a 5-7 regular season in 2015.

That brings us back to the Purdue game of a year ago. It was a humbling and disastrous defeat by 10 points. Do you realize that was the biggest loss of the season?

Losses came by five to BYU, three to Miami, one to Illinois, two to Wisconsin, two to Northwestern and eight to Iowa. Not a blowout in the bunch.

This season, Nebraska might not be winning big and winning pretty, but the Huskers are winning, to the tune of being 7-0 heading into Madison.

All season we have been hearing about how Nebraska is not worthy of its rating. Sports analysts from across the country have been making fun of Nebraska’s inclusion into the top 10. People keep tripping over themselves in calling Wisconsin the best two-loss team in the country.

Most people are not giving Nebraska a snowball’s chance on the equator of beating the Badgers. Most feel Nebraska doesn’t even belong on the same field with Wisconsin. And, most can’t wait for Nebraska to get blasted into oblivion so they can proudly boast, “I told you so.”

Nebraska lost a 23-31 heartbreaker at home last season on a last-second field goal. Nebraska is a better team. So is Wisconsin. But we have not seen Nebraska’s best effort yet. The Huskers have yet to put together four full quarters of football.

Wisconsin did have its complete game and let a two-touchdown lead slip away in an overtime loss to Ohio State.

The final score Saturday is important, but not necessarily the deciding factor in proving that Riley was the right man for the job and that he is bringing prestige for the program back to Lincoln. Nebraska needs to play with dignity and pride. The Huskers need to keep their heads up if things don’t go 100 percent their way. They need to play from the opening kickoff until the final gun sounds with all the heart and desire of those teams from back in the mid-1990s.

Can Nebraska beat Wisconsin on Saturday? Sure they can. Will Nebraska beat the Badgers? Only time will tell. But something tells me a new era of winning football could springboard from this game, win or lose.