No. 10 Nebraska aims to continue strong start at Indiana
At one time, being a top 10 team was old hat for Nebraska.
Not these days, which is why the Cornhuskers' rise to No. 10 in this week's poll is a big deal. It's their first top 10 ranking since November of 2011, when they promptly lost to Northwestern.
If Nebraska (5-0, 2-0) isn't ready to go after an open date, this visit to the top 10 won't last long. It visits Indiana (3-2, 1-1) Saturday for what arguably is its toughest game to date.
While Oregon was ranked 22nd when the Cornhuskers edged it 35-32 on Sept. 16, the Ducks have lost four in a row, taking luster off that win. The Hoosiers' defeats are to 5-1 Wake Forest and No. 2 Ohio State, which had to work for nearly the full 60 minutes in last week's 38-17 verdict.
"Growth is not an option or a luxury, it's a necessity. That really hit home with me about our team," Nebraska coach Mike Riley said. "We've got to keep on the rise. We've got plenty of growth still yet to do."
Along with plenty of healing, for that matter. Despite the well-timed off-week, the Cornhuskers still have more injury concerns than they'd prefer. Running back Devine Ozigbo, who leads the team with 76 carries, is doubtful with a sprained ankle.
Tight end Cethan Carter and wide receiver Jordan Westerkamp are also doubtful with elbow and back injuries, respectively. And quarterback Tommy Armstrong, Jr., who makes the offense go, just got his ankle out of a walking boot but should be able to play.
If Ozigbo, Carter and Westerkamp do sit out, Armstrong becomes more of a marked man. And an Indiana defense which is leaps and bounds better than last year is certainly capable of putting Armstrong under siege.
For his part, Armstrong is worried about just one thing.
"We just want to keep winning, treat every game like it is a big game and take it a week at a time," he said. "It is all going to fall into place for itself. This team is really hungry for success."
The Hoosiers should come to their homecoming game with burgeoning appetites as well. They could have made things tougher on Ohio State, but couldn't convert a 4th-and-1 inside the Buckeyes' 5 with more than 10 minutes left.
A touchdown would have pulled Indiana within 31-24, giving it more than enough time to really put game pressure on the Buckeyes. The Hoosiers gave up just 93 passing yards against the efficient J.T. Barrett, 37 of those on a scoring strike in the last four minutes.
"We have had some blunders, previously, as far as not finishing," admitted Hoosiers coach Kevin Wilson. "We have talked about that and we can execute better. We can call some better plays. When it doesn't work, you should always do something else."
Like Nebraska, Indiana is dealing with injury concerns. All-America offensive guard Dan Feeney (concussion) has missed the last three games and last year's leading receiver, Simmie Cobbs, is out for the year with an ankle problem.
But the Hoosiers can still pose a threat to most defenses as they lead the Big 10 in passing yardage at 293 yards per game. JUCO transfer Richard Lagow is completing 60 percent of his passes and has thrown for 11 touchdowns, but also has seven interceptions.
This will be the first meeting of the teams since Nebraska joined the Big Ten five years ago. Of the conference's current alignment, Indiana and Maryland are the only schools the Cornhuskers haven't played.
Wilson touched on that unfamiliarity Monday, comparing Nebraska to Ohio State because of the similarities between the teams.
"I probably don't know them as well as Ohio State," he said, "but there are similar traits offensively with line play, running game, a great quarterback that can make a lot of plays and speed on the perimeter."
Riley is hopeful his team can flash all those attributes before they get to the second half. Slow starts have been a concern, and one in this game against a sneaky good team could be costly.
"We have to remind them that it's not against the rules to score in the first and get something going," he joked.