In his book Desperate Networks, Bill Carter recounts the story of how The Apprentice came to be on NBC. Mark Burnett was developing the show in the early 2000′s, he pitched it to ABC. At ABC, Lloyd Braun, then president of the network, loved the show and wanted to buy it before Burnett the room; unfortunately, due to the cost of the show, he had to take it up the chain of command at Disney. Disney management, misinformed on how the new brand of reality TV worked, didn’t understand that they had to commit to an entire run of episodes and made an embarrassingly low offer to Burnett. So Burnett pitched the show to NBC, who, like ABC was wowed in the room. We know the rest of the story.
On the field Saturday, Nebraska and Iowa were two teams who played mediocre games on offense. The difference was, Nebraska could buy their way out of their mistakes.
This was the game that Nebraska fans feared was coming. On a short week, Nebraska faced its only its second 11 A.M. kickoff of the season, against a team with nothing to loose. After throwing the wide receiver screens that Husker fans dream of the previous week, Tim Beck went back to an ultra-conservative, 33% passes, 67% runs. Iowa limited Nebraska’s offense to the max; neither Kenny Bell or Jamal Turner had a catch. But after a season of his team overcoming his loss, Rex Burkhead came off the bench and bailed out his teammates, setting them up for the conference title game they’ve striven all season to get to.
There was a lot of irony in this game. Iowa holding Nebraska to 259 yards of total offense, their lowest of the year. Good stretches of red-clad fans in Kinnick Stadium, a sign some Hawkeye faithful bailed on the team. Brett Maher, after failing to nail teams deep, nailed Iowa inside the five and hit two very good punts into the wind. But in the end, both teams turned out to be the teams they were meant to be. Iowa found a way to loose down the stretch, and Nebraska put Alonzo Whaley’s interception on the close win highlight reel next to his own recovery of Montee Ball’s fumble and Jamal Turner’s two go-ahead touchdowns.
So, after this close win against a genuinely terrible team, the question of just how good Nebraska is seems most valid, even more so when they were beating average teams like Northwestern and Michigan State. Are they as good as Pelini’s 2010 team? My guess is this team is slightly better. Of course, there is the issue of which team was better healthy. But I would say this team is guided by a more even keel; the 2010 team had seven game where they failed to score after halftime, and faded down the stretch. Going into the Big 10 Title, this team has better momentum and hasn’t gone downhill after a peak in late October/early November.
Which leads to the question, has this team peaked? While I thought that was the case going into the Big 12 Title Game two years ago, I don’t think that’s the case this time. This was a more conservative game plan, given the wind and what Nebraska is going to play for next week. Don’t kid yourself, Bo Pelini playing for the Big 10 Title Game. Over the last two weeks, Ameer Abdullah has had only 32 carries, and even Burkhead’s carries were limited when he came back.
But the main reason I don’t think Nebraska has peaked is that Pelini has saved his defensive juice. Each of the last two years, Pelini has built special game plans for the teams he thought he would need to beat to win his division title, Missouri in 2010 and Michigan State in 2011. Even with a veteran defense, Pelini hasn’t throw out that one special defensive game plan this year, even for Michigan. That send a powerful unspoken message to the players: our goals is a conference title, period.
If Burkhead doesn’t get at least 35 touches in the Big 10 Title Game, I’ll be rather surprised. The indoor environment, a negligible factor for the power-running Badgers, really helps Nebraska, who opted to throw the ball 14 times in the wind yesterday. Even though Wisconsin has improved since the two teams played on September 29th, there’s no question that Nebraska is the better team, with the better quarterback by far. But between the two teams, Wisconsin plays with the better mojo. If the Badgers turn a Husker turnover into points quickly, it could set them up for a long day.
Tthe biggest variable is what will Wisconsin choose to do on defense. Last time around, the Badgers played an aggressive zone, figuring that Martinez would eventually make mistakes and Nebraska’s offensive line would let up, which it did at times. Yesterday, Iowa did a great job of clogging the middle of the field, even Nebraska tried to spread the field. Wisconsin, if they mix up their defense, has a shot to really confuse Nebraska.
But, as we saw yesterday and throughout the season, Nebraska has the talent to buy their way out of their mistakes.