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All Points West: Forget rankings, give me heart
October 21, 2016 Frank Marquez   

Read more by Frank Marquez

Inching up the college football rankings does a few things – it’s a nice thank-you for the week’s previous performance, but it also ratchets up the pressure to win, if and only if, you believe that a number can truly rate your team. There are all those other parts – such as heart – that prognosticators and analysts largely ignore. And, don’t forget the 12th man, the fans.

In Week 7, Nebraska is ranked No. 8 in the AP Poll ready to play the Purdue Boilermakers to likely collect yet another win halfway through the season. The Huskers also presently sit atop the West Division standings in the Big Ten with an unblemished 3-0 record (6-0 overall). Although, not the prettiest of games, the win against the Indiana Hoosiers proved this Nebraska team does indeed have heart. It’s that intangible all teams want. Of course, it’s easier to look down the road with a winning record, but getting there, as any coach knows, a lot of things need to go right.

So, what needs to go right for Nebraska? Husker Nation wants to know to what extent its team has a greater chance than most of winning, including against Wisconsin and possibly Michigan. That’s all. It doesn’t need to be for a division or conference championship or even a national championship, although that would be nice. We haven’t won one of those since 1997, an almost 20-year drought.

After the nationally televised game against the Hoosiers, a 27-22 victory on the Ides of October, Head Coach Mike Riley called his team “fighters” finding a way to get it done. Their approach throughout, probably something they already have mastered, is not to count any team out, even the downtrodden Boilermakers, a team that fired Head Coach Darrell Hazell last Sunday at probably the worst time.

Purdue is 3-3 overall, and beat Illinois in overtime, but lost to the sliding Iowa Hawkeyes, 49-35. Their biggest loss came against Maryland on October 1. The Terps took Purdue to the woodshed, 50-7. Hazell’s winning percentage progressively has suffered. In four seasons, he has a 9-33 overall record with only three Big Ten wins since taking the job in 2013. Sadly, even his defensive coordinator, Ross Els, a linebackers’ coach at Nebraska from 2011 to 2014, could not help. Though Purdue triumphed over Big Red last year, 55-45, it was without QB Tommy Armstrong and against a reeling Husker team that already had suffered several narrow losses. I’m pretty sure we could call that game a “gimmee,” but is by no means lost as a motivator. Safety Nate Gerry couldn’t bring himself to watch the game film.

Meanwhile, Purdue’s wide receivers coach and recruiting coordinator Gerad Parker was named interim coach; he is in his fourth season with Purdue. The team’s offense was called inconsistent in preseason, and relies on sophomore QB David Blough, and running back Markell Jones. Obviously, the steam engine needs a few more coals. Its offensive line, and defensive secondary remain severely suspect, which plays into the hands of Nebraska’s wide receivers, exclusively Brandon Reilly, who caught a circus catch in the first quarter against the Hoosiers last week. One could argue that Reilly’s catch set the tone.

Key receivers Jordan Westerkamp (back) and Tight End Cethan Carter (elbow) did not practice.

The offensive line also may have a few gaps with Nick Gates (ankle) and David Kneval recovering from injuries. Husker I-Back Devine Ozigbo, who made a brief appearance against the Hoosiers, may return, but whether they’ll be able to go full speed has yet to be seen. Not to fret, senior motor Terrell Newby, seems to be creating a pattern of putting the team on his back in the fourth quarter, and has done so in the last two games.

So, back to the original questions sans motivation and the team’s health.

What needs to go right? After the Purdue game, which odds makers say Nebraska should win by at least three TDs, the Huskers face Wisconsin, which already has lost to Michigan and Ohio State, but is still a formidable two-loss team. The Huskers can win, keeping momentum and focus in its favor.

Late October and November take on an entirely different flavor. This is four weeks of make or break. If the win comes against the Badgers, it’s quite possible to ride that wave against Ohio State the following week. Either way, Nebraska has shown quite a bit of toughness and resiliency, not accounting for style points. Over time, Nebraska has been scrappy, and on occasion flashy, bringing on the razzle dazzle, when it needs to.

Looking to the East Division, I predict the Buckeyes will lose to Michigan on November 26, and they might also lose to a resurgent Michigan State. Given that possibility – because anything is possible in college football – things could play out pretty evenly in both divisions.

Tie-break wins and losses matter. If by chance, Nebraska whittles off its shortcomings – penalties and turnovers – and gets everybody back healthy down the stretch, and finds ways to win in every game (remember, in November everyone’s out for blood), Nebraska could find itself in familiar territory, vying for titles.

As we have discovered so far, given everything else and the Huskers are punching all cylinders, all it takes is heart. Factor that into the rankings Kirk Herbstreit, and any other of you skeptics and doubters.

Nebraska should take care of business against Purdue.

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