Four Downs: Will Nebraska's defense step up?

Saturday is almost here. Can you feel it? Can you sense it? OK, if you can’t, just fake it until you make it.

Every team gets four downs to make something happen. So, why not me? That’s the idea behind this article. Here’s what’s running through my mind as I dream fancifully about Week Two of the Big Ten season.

4 QUESTIONS

1. Will the Nebraska defense play, well, defense? The unit looked a lot like last year’s unit, which got trampled in losses at UCLA, at Ohio State and to Wisconsin in the Big Ten title game. The Cornhuskers beat Wyoming—barely—in the opener en route to yielding a whopping 602 yards. So, if you’re scoring at home, Nebraska has allowed 640 yards to Wisconsin; 589 yards to Georgia; 602 yards to Wyoming. Deep breath: Nebraska’s 1,831 total yards allowed over the last three games is the most by a Big Ten team in a three-game span since 1996 and the seventh most of any BCS conference team in that same time. Exhale.

2. Can Ohio State dominate for four quarters? Last week vs. Buffalo—the Bulls, not the Bills–the Buckeyes looked like the No. 2 team in the nation … in the first quarter. Ohio State coach Urban Meyer smiled and nodded a lot in watching his Buckeyes build a 23-0 lead. But a funny thing happened on the way to a blowout: OSU seemingly lost interest, getting outscored 20-17 the rest of the way and Meyer was spiking his headset. You want Brutus to sing “Hang On Sloopy” after that? That’s not how teams with national championship aspirations should perform vs. lesser foes. Next up: San Diego State, which got whacked by FCS Eastern Illinois in its opener, 40-19.

3. Will Michigan State’s offense take flight? Talk about déjà vu all over again. The Spartan offense vs. Western Michigan looked an awful lot like, well, the Spartan offense circa 2012. It’s amazing to think Michigan State went through an entire spring practice, summer workouts and training camp … and still couldn’t come up with a No. 1 quarterback. Now, one week is in the books, and the search for a signal-caller and offensive consistency continues. How long will this last? MSU should cruise past gawd-awful South Florida this Saturday and FCS Youngstown State the next. But then comes a trip to Notre Dame on Sept. 21. Does Mark Dantonio have any new trick plays? Just asking.

4. Can Devin Gardner deliver a big win? He took over starting duties late last season after Denard Robinson got hurt, leading the Wolverines to a 3-2 record. Not bad, but the victories came vs. the likes of Minnesota, Northwestern and Iowa. The losses? To Ohio State and South Carolina. Get the picture? Gardner hasn’t beaten a big-time team yet. The Northwestern victory was his best—and the Wolverines needed a miracle finish to pull out that triumph. Gardner needs to protect the ball—and he’s going to have to hit at least half a dozen big passes if Michigan wants to beat Notre Dame.

[ MORE: Who wins Week 2 games? Cast your votes! ]

4 PREDICTIONS

1. The Big Ten will go 11-1 this weekend. The lone loss? You guessed it: Illinois will fall to Cincinnati, which will make Bearcats coach Tommy Tuberville 2-0 in the Big Ten this season.

2. Purdue will bounce back from that bag-over-the-head performance vs. Cincinnati with a big win over Larry Bird’s Indiana State Sycamores. I didn’t say you had to be impressed. I just said the Boilermakers would win. Hey, baby steps, people. Baby steps.

3. Wisconsin will rush for over 400 yards vs. Tennessee Tech. Heck, it may even be 500 yards. In fact, the Badgers may not have to throw a pass to beat … who is it again? … oh, yes, Tennessee Tech.

4. Indiana will beat Navy—barely. Look, I hate to call the second game of the season a “must win.” But, let’s be honest: This is a must-win if the Hoosiers hope to play in a bowl for the first time since 2007 and just the second time since 1993. The Midshipmen will pose a tough threat, with a triple-option offense that will feature some Pistol formations. Kevin Wilson will sound even raspier than usual on Sunday after this one. Is that possible?

[ MORE: Read Tom Dienhart's Best of Week 2 Preview ]

4 TRUTHS

1. The Big Ten has some good true freshman running backs. Check out Nebraska’s Terrell Newby, Wisconsin’s Corey Clement and Michigan’s Derrick Green. Also watch Ohio State’s Dontre Wilson and Purdue’s Dalyn Dawkins.

2. I was wrong about the impact of the new penalty for targeting. Only six players were ejected nationwide for targeting the first week—none from the Big Ten. Two players who played against Big Ten teams were booted for targeting, a player from Indiana State (Indiana) and Cal (Northwestern). The Cal player had his subsequent ejection overturned.

3. Iowa will be better than I expected. The loss to Northern Illinois was painful, but this team looks good enough to win at last six games with Jake Rudock at quarterback.

4. Minnesota’s offense needs some weapons. Running backs Berkley Edwards and Donnell Kirkwood are banged up and likely won’t play this weekend at New Mexico State. Wideout Jamel Harbison is suspended. Maybe the special teams and defense can deliver big again for the Gophers. Maybe not.

[ MORE: Keep an eye on these Big Ten freshmen ]

 JOCKSTRAP GAMES

What’s a “jockstrap game,” you ask? All a team needs to do is throw its jockstrap onto the field and—voila!—a victory will appear.

1. San Diego State at Ohio State

2. Sam Houston State at Texas A&M

3. Eastern Kentucky at Louisville

4. South Carolina State at Clemson

4 FACTOIDS

Thanks, STATS!

1. Iowa has also lost seven of their last nine games at Kinnick Stadium after losing only seven times over their previous 34 home games. Oh, and no team in the nation has lost more games by three or fewer points since the beginning of the 2008 season than Iowa: 14.

2. Nebraska’s 1,831 total yards allowed over the last three games is the most by a Big Ten team in a three-game span since 1996 and the seventh most of any BCS conference team in that same time.

3. Wisconsin is 56-6 at home since the beginning of the 2004 season, the third-best home record in the nation (Boise State, 55-2; Oklahoma 52-4).

4. Northwestern has more regular-season non-league wins vs. BCS league schools than any other Big Ten school since 2007: Eight.

[ MORE: Ty Law breaks down Michigan-Notre Dame rivalry ]

4 MOST DIFFICULT BIG TEN CAMPUSES TO GET TO

1. Penn State. If you can’t fly into and stay in State College, you are stuck in Harrisburg, Altoona or some other hamlet miles from campus and must navigate a long, winding road. Bottom line: bring a GPS. When you get there, it’s beautiful.

2. Purdue. Flying really isn’t an option unless you have your own Piper Cub. So, hop a Southwest flight to Indianapolis and make the hour drive north on I-65. Pay attention, or you may miss the exit.

3. Illinois. Like Purdue, if you want to get there by plane, your best bet may be to parachute. But at least three interstates come to Champaign—I-74, I-72, I-57.

4. Indiana. No interstate access. Best bet—fly or drive to Indy and amble down U.S. 37. Beware: Watch the cops in Martinsville. They’ll get ya!

***

About Tom Dienhart BTN.com senior writer Tom Dienhart is a veteran sports journalist who covers Big Ten football and men’s basketball for BTN.com and BTN TV. Find him on Twitter and Facebook, read all of his work at btn.com/tomdienhart, and subscribe to his posts via RSS. Also, send questions to his weekly mailbag using the form below and read all of his previous answers in his reader mailbag section.

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1 Comment

Your Opinion?
Show Comments (1 Comment)
doug moore on 9/6/2013 @ 5:39pm EDT Said:

Tom..I enjoy you so..you keep me so grounded. Finally a comment about the LIONS..& negative..of course & nothin to do with ths team..hey according to you PENN STATE is #1 in something..yea! Do you read the stuff you write..I rarely do anymore.
As for the new rule..if you wish..look at the PSU opener & you’ll see back-to-back serious violations..1st #35 smashes much hyped HACKENBERG in the lower face..no call..2nd on the next play LION receiver is speared by #8 (I think) no call..those Big 12 officials were bad! Go NU..rite, Tom.

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