The lead-up to Nebraska’s prime-time matchup with Ohio State last weekend featured more hullabaloo than any game this season and probably more than any in some time around Lincoln.
Even after it didn’t go as Husker fans — or players and coaches, for that matter — wanted, it might be easy to look at a Saturday matinee against Northwestern, even on Homecoming, and think, “Eh, it’s Northwestern.”
That, though, would be a gross underestimation of just how important this game is for both the Huskers and the Wildcats, a fact Nebraska head coach Scott Frost put in plain terms on Thursday.
“Looking at how this season has played out, I think this is probably as important a game as there is all year for them,” Frost said. “I just got done telling the guys I think it’s the same thing for us.
“I know they’re going to come in ready to play with where their season is. We have to be ready to play with where our season is.”
Both teams entered the season among a crowded field of Big Ten West contenders that felt like they could top the division. Both already find themselves at something of a crossroads. Nebraska is 1-1 in the conference after fending off Illinois on the road and falling to the Buckeyes. Northwestern is 0-2, unable to overcome two of the league’s fiercest defenses in Michigan State and Wisconsin.
Since the Big Ten moved to its current East/West format, none of the five West division champions have made the trip to Indianapolis with more than two conference losses. In the three seasons since the Big Ten moved to nine league games, the West division champs have finished 7-2 (Wisconsin in 2016), 9-0 (the Badgers the next year) and 8-1 (Northwestern last fall). The only team that’s played for the Big Ten title at all with more than two conference losses since the first such game in 2011 was Wisconsin in 2012, and that was only because both Ohio State and Penn State were in UW’s division and ineligible due to postseason sanctions.
So even if the parity that prevailed as preseason consensus shows itself in the West — those thoughts came before the No. 8 Badgers (4-0, 2-0) and No. 14 Iowa (4-0, 1-0) rolled through September in dominating fashion — neither Nebraska or Northwestern has much remaining in terms of margin for error.
“We’re on the West side, we want to win the West,” Husker senior cornerback Lamar Jackson said. “That’s been the goal from the jump, just win the West. We’ve still got that possibility, so at the end of the day this is a big week for us. We’ve got to main sure we get this one if we still want to do what we want to do.”
In fact, Nebraska is facing a critical two-week stretch, with a trip to Minnesota (5-0, 2-0) next weekend before a bye week.
“We plan to go 2-0. That’s the plan,” sophomore defensive back Cam Taylor-Britt said this week. “That’s what’s in our minds right now and we have to come out and click from the first drive, first snap, first kickoff, return or anything.
“That’s our plan, we've got to win our next two games.”
By the time the Huskers fly home from Minneapolis, they will be one of only two teams in the Big Ten to play each of the season’s first seven weeks. Then they will have two off weeks in a four-week span, with a home date against Indiana (Oct. 26) and a trip to struggling Purdue (Nov. 2) in between.
The bottom line is the coming month is a golden chance for Nebraska to make some hay in the division and also get some rest.
“We’re focused on this one game. If you want me to look at the whole layout of the season, I think it’s good,” Frost said Monday. “We’re not a team with a ton of depth right now, so I think it’s good that this is a year where the schedule falls and we have two bye weeks. These next two weeks, we are going to sell out and do everything that we can until we get to that bye week. Then we got two more and we get another bye week.
“I think that will give us a chance to lick our wounds, heal up a little bit physically and recuperate mentally, too, and breaks up the season pretty well for us.”
The fact that it sets up well, of course, only matters if Nebraska capitalizes.
“This week is Week 6, it’s going by fast, people be banged up, but we’ve got to practice. We’ve got to go,” Jackson said. “It’s hard, the daily things, but at the end of the day we’re using the bye week to keep people motivated — keep people going, push, give it their all and know at the end of the day that there’s some rest up around he corner.
“Go ahead and get these wins for the team these next two weeks.”