Things might not be going well in Evanston, but the Wildcats are hardly the only team in the nation turning in a disappointing campaign.
To find another one right in the Big Ten conference, all the Cats have to do is look across the field Saturday.
Nebraska might have only two losses, but for a program that its fans view as one that should perennially be one of college football's finest, that's two losses too many. Particularly, the disappointment stems from the way those two losses have come. Sept. 14 vs. UCLA, the Huskers went up 21-3 before allowing 38 unanswered points to fall, 41-21. Then last week against Minnesota, the Huskers' defense was again torched in a game Nebraska was expected to win.
Throw in the release of that years-old audio of head coach Bo Pelini ranting against Nebraska fans, and the future of the program is very much a topic of discussion.
“It’s something you deal with year after year," Pelini said at his weekly press conference Monday. "Every group is a little bit different. It’s a challenge every single year and every single week. You have to have respect for this game. At the end of the day, you have to be ready every single week or you can get humbled in a hurry.”
Pelini's job security has been very much in question this season, and though there are plenty of teams — like Saturday opponent Northwestern — that would be pleased with a two-loss record right now, this is hardly how the team that was runner-up in last year's Big Ten championship game expected 2013 to go.
“I knew there were going to be some ups and downs," Pelini said. "Do I wish we were ahead of where we are right now as far as our eye discipline and our focus and our overall knowledge of what we are trying to get done? Heck yeah I do. I want to fast forward this thing to where they are hitting on all cylinders and where they are communicating and everyone’s executing at a high level. When we’re not having a breakdown here or a breakdown there and giving people things that I believe are ridiculous. What am I going to say? I watched the film. You (are) just frustrated, but you have to keep teaching. You have to look at guys and keep growing. Coach each guy and keep bringing them along.”
It's the frustration on both sides of the field that makes Saturday's game an important one for both Northwestern and Nebraska. These teams are looking for a win, any win to get them back on track.
The on-field matchup itself could come down to which defense will disappoint least. Nebraska and Northwestern rank ninth and 10th in the Big Ten, respectively, in total defense, each allowing more than 410 yards per week to opposing offenses. Now that Northwestern got its running game working again in last week's overtime loss to Iowa, that Nebraska defense could have its hands especially full. That goes both ways, too, as the Huskers boast running back Ameer Abdullah, the Big Ten's second-leading rusher.
Quarterback play also figures be key. Kain Colter breathed some life back into the Northwestern offense last week after returning from injury, but the Wildcats still scored one touchdown in 60-plus minutes of football. No. 2 quarterback Trevor Siemian likely wouldn't have seen the field had Colter not had to shake off an injury at the close of one offensive series. Meanwhile, Huskers quarterback Taylor Martinez did the opposite Saturday, returning from an extended absence and struggling to reach the same types of offensive heights reached during his absence. Martinez won't play vs. Northwestern, yielding instead to backup Tommy Armstrong, who played very well in Martinez's prior time away from the field.
Even with all the turbulence surrounding the Huskers this season, though, the players themselves aren't getting worked into the same end-of-the-world lather that many fans and media are in Lincoln.
“The biggest thing is just everything that we want is still out there," senior wide receiver Quincy Enunwa said. "We have the same record we did last year at this time and we shouldn’t get down on ourselves just from a loss. We can still do everything that we want to accomplish this year. We just have to make sure we learn from our mistakes. Last year, we came back 5-2, we won the rest of our games and got to the Big Ten Championship Game. There’s no reason we can’t do that again this year. Don’t think that just because we lost the game that all of a sudden the season is over. Minnesota played their hearts out. They played a great game against us. There was just too many mistakes on our side and obviously when you don’t play a good game, you lose. We just need to learn from our mistakes and come back next week with a better attitude.”
For Pelini, however, even a much-needed win against this reeling Wildcats team might not be enough to placate the Nebraska faithful or even himself.
“I don’t think the state of our program is any different from where it was a week ago," Pelini said. "Until we win them all, I’m not going to be satisfied. That’s what we are looking to do. That’s what we are working towards. That standard isn’t going to change. That’s what the expectation is and that’s what the expectation should be in a place like this.”