Back on October 15, in one of those exhibitions that manifested a willful man's capabilities, 'Cat defensive end Tyler Scott attended his grandfather's funeral in Ohio in the morning, hopped a private plane for a flight to Iowa City and played against the Hawkeyes that evening.Three days later, in one of those twists that manifested the blithe fickleness of fate, he pinched a nerve in his neck during a simple tackling drill and found himself destined for two-weeks of inactivity. "Stuff happens," he will say laconically when asked if he appreciated the irony of it all.
"I mean, I was disappointed. I didn't want to sit out two weeks. That wasn't a plan of mine. When you're out, it's rough, especially when you've been playing for six games and having a great time. Not playing, it was rough. I struggled with it a little bit, but I'm ready to go this week."
His injury, in the official lexicon of his sport, was called a stinger and, says he, "It wasn't allowing my shoulder muscles to fire, so I didn't have any strength in my left arm." It was only early this week, in fact, that his strength did return and on Tuesday he was finally cleared to practice again and prepare for his team's Saturday visit to Nebraska.
This is no small blessing for the 'Cats. Scott had, before his injury, emerged as both their most consistent defender and a playmaker capable of disrupting any opponent's offense. Can he return at that level? "I was getting better week-after-week, just getting in that mode of playing and seeing different stuff, and I don't think this will set me back," he says. "Yeah, I didn't practice and get the physical aspect. But I was still in the film room. I got to see, from a different perspective, how the defensive attitude was. . .and how I can help and how I can make myself a better leader."
WELCOME BACK II:
Another who returned to practice this week was Will linebacker Bryce McNaul, who had been hobbled by a bad back for the last two weeks. "We got it shored up," he reported. "I'll be ready to rock on Saturday."
THE TIME IS NOW:
There is no sugar-coating the dire straits the 'Cats find themselves in as they head off to the valley of darkness that is the Cornhuskers' Memorial Stadium. "We've got to find a way to win. We've got to find a way to keep this team alive," is the way head coach Pat Fitzgerald puts it. "That's where we're at right now. When you put your back against the wall because of the way that we coached and the way that we played, I think we have a good sense of urgency."
"It's got to be through the roof right now," McNaul says of that sense of urgency. "We have a win-or-go-home attitude at this point. We have to. We are definitely focused on the task at hand and that's beating Nebraska. It's nothing else. It's beating Nebraska."
MORE ON THAT VALLEY OF DARKNESS:
Since 1986, the Huskers' record at Memorial Stadium is 153-15 (91.1 percent). There has not been an empty seat for a Huskers' game at Memorial Stadium since 1962 and their NCAA-record consecutive home sellout streak now stands at 316. Then there's this:
"It was pretty crazy," remembers 'Cat freshman running back Treyvon Green, who took in a game there as a Husker recruit. "Being in high school and seeing a college football game, especially there, you start to wonder how it is everywhere else. It was pretty crazy there, actually. Just the fans and how much they scream. I'd never really seen fans go so crazy over a football game."
"There's no doubt what's important to that state, there's no doubt what's important to that university. It's impressive," echoes Fitzgerald. "Thank goodness we're not playing the whole state. We're just playing the 11 on the field. But that's a challenge in-and-of itself."
Last Saturday at Memorial Stadium, the Huskers welcomed a Michigan State team fresh off an upset of previously unbeaten Wisconsin. Here's what happened. Their quarterback Taylor Martinez completed just seven passes for 80 yards and their offense netted just 270 total yards. But their running back Rex Burkhead rushed 35 times for 130 yards and two touchdowns, and their defense not only limited the Spartans to a mere three points and 187 offensive yards. It also stymied the estimable quarterback Kirk Cousins, who was sacked four times, picked off once and able to complete just 12 of his 27 passes for a paltry 86 yards.
"There's a lot of great backs in this league, but I don't know if there's anyone tougher than him," is what Fitzgerald will say of the 5-foot-11, 210-pound Burkhead.
Of that defense, he will say: "They locked Michigan State down. They couldn't get off the press, they couldn't get open. Now that defensive line has that extra step or two to get home. That was the key to their success. They really battered around Kirk and really pressed and locked down the receivers. It was very impressive."
Martinez, the Husker quarterback, is their second leading rusher, which is why he often calls up memories of Michigan's Denard Robinson. "Bigger, first of all," Fitzgerald says of Martinez. "I think Taylor maybe isn't as key (to his team as Robinson is to the Wolverines). But they're very similar, very dynamic. This year in particular Nebraska's running more option than Michigan and different option looks, not just lead option, but speed option, belly option, some different things."
The Huskers are averaging a Big Ten best 252.1 rushing yards per game and 27.9 yards on kickoff returns, which is also a conference best. Their quarterbacks, it should also be noted, have been sacked only 10 times in their eight games. . . The Huskers played their first football game in Omaha way back on Nov. 27, 1890. In it they defeated the Omaha YMCA, 10-0. . . Nebraska's nickname in that game was the Bugeaters. It changed to Cornhuskers in 1900. . . When Bob Devaney took over as Nebraska's head coach in 1962, it hadn't won a conference title since 1940. But in his 11 years there, it went 101-20-2, won or shared eight Big 8 titles and pulled in a pair of national championships. This was the start of the Huskers' tradition of success. . . The Husker defense is known as the Blackshirts, a tradition that dates back to 1964. The NCAA, that year, allowed the return of two-platoon football and Devaney sent an assistant named Mike Corgan to buy some different colored jerseys for the defense to wear in practice. He got them at a local sporting good store and, yes, they were black. "I told Mike the only reason they had black ones was because they didn't sell," Gene Kelly, the defensive line coach at the time, once cracked.
Fitzgerald, when asked why the Huskers' kick return game is so good: "They've got great talent. I don't think there's a guy in their program that's even visited us."