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Top 25 Countdown: Nebraska is No. 22

Published: Thursday, July 18, 2013 12:47 a.m. CST • Updated: Thursday, July 18, 2013 12:52 a.m. CST

The Huskers will contend if ... quarterback Taylor Martinez drastically upgrades his passing, and the defense plays like the Blackshirts of old or at the very least Darkershirts than they have lately.

Coach: Bo Pelini (7th year, 49-20)

2012 record: 10-4 overall, 7-1 Big Ten

2012 bowl: Lost 45-31 to Georgia in the Capital One Bowl

Returning starters: 7 offense, 5 defense

Bo knows pressure: Hard to say just how warm or hot Bo Pelini’s seat is, but many fans are grumbling about the inability of the defense to play up to the level of fans’ expectations, and he’s supposed to be Mr. Defense. Nebraska allowed an unranked, six-loss Wisconsin team to score on nine of its first 11 series and roll up 640 yards on it in a 70-31 blowout in the Big Ten championship game, and the Badgers were there only by default since Ohio State and Penn State were ineligible.

The gruff but — how shall we put it — animated Pelini has put up nine wins or more the last five years and won 10 games in three of those seasons. But defensive meltdowns and a BCS bowl-game appearance drought that now extends to 11 years aren’t sitting well with Nebraska faithful eager to return to national prominence. It’s been 13 years since the Huskers won a league title.

Friendly schedule: Check out the Huskers’ fast track to the Rose Bowl. One of the more favorable schedules around has Nebraska at home for the first five games of the season and eight overall. They catch weaklings like Wyoming (4-8 last year) and Southern Miss (0-12) — but also a pair of 2012 nine-win teams in Pac-12 runner-up UCLA and South Dakota State, a FCS playoff team two of the last four years — and get to bypass both Ohio State and Wisconsin. And Northwestern beat Nebraska in Lincoln two years ago and returns this fall. If Nebraska isn’t 8-0 going into Ann Arbor in November, the fans will be restless.

Just to make sure they’re ready for the Bruins, that game Huskers will break out new alternate uniforms from Adidas that include black jerseys with the “N” logo on the front left hip and a facemask that is red in the front and black toward the back. Now whether they’re Blackshirt-worthy depends on how the defense improves after ranking a lowly 90th nationally — and 10th in the Big Ten — in rushing defense as well as 10th in the league in scoring defense.

Bullseye on Martinez: A huge key will be Martinez’s development as a passer. He’s run for 31 touchdowns and thrown for another 46, but still needs work on his mechanics and his habit of forcing throws into too tight windows. If he can upgrade his passing — and he has improved under California quarterback mentor Steve Calhoun — Nebraska can exploit defenses with strong offensive weapons like I-back Ameer Abdullah and wide receivers Kenny Bell and Jamal Turner.

Martinez, who led Nebraska to win four times after double-digit comebacks, was chosen the Big Ten’s all-conference quarterback, but threw two interceptions in the title game against Wisconsin. Just as disturbing is his lack of success in the post-season — he’s 0-3 in bowl games. In his career, he’s thrown 27 interceptions. Of the 17 games when he’s thrown at least one interception, Nebraska is 8-9 with the wins against Michigan State twice, Michigan, Ohio State, Fresno State, Idaho, South Dakota State and Kansas.

Back to the future: Nebraska’s athletic department buried 200 time capsules at the East Stadium historic Gate 20 entrance and included some diverse items for historians to review. Chancellor Harvey Perlman contributed an Orange Bowl watch and some personal notes for the 2062 chancellor to read. Athletic Director Emeritus and coaching legend Tom Osborne filled his time capsule with a towel, a pennant and a few books on Husker history.

No one thought of chipping in a videotape from the Longhorn Network. But a creative guy in marketing buried an iPhone 1 in one of the time capsules. With a charger.

Did you know?:

That Nebraska has appeared in its conference title games three of the last four years, but has lost all three, was crushed by Wisconsin in the Big Ten championship game last December and is still sticking pins in its Hunter Lawrence dolls.

Of the six Husker quarterbacks to make All-American, only one was homegrown — 2001 Heisman winner Eric Crouch, who is embarking on a career as a broadcaster, hails from Omaha.

The Cornhuskers were a negative-12 in turnovers last season.

•••

THE PAST FIVE YEARS

2012: 10-4, L Capital One Bowl

2011: 9-4, L Capital One Bowl

2010: 10-4, L Holiday Bowl

2009: 10-4, W Holiday Bowl

2008: 9-4, W Gator Bowl

Total: 48-20, 2-3 in bowls

•••

RETURNING LEADERS

Passing: Taylor Martinez, 228-368-2,871 yards, 23/12

Rushing: Ameer Abdullah, 226-1,137-8 TDs

Receiving: Kenny Bell, 50-863-8 TDs

Tackles: CB Ciante Evans, 56

Sacks: CB Ciante Evans, 2; DE Jason Ankrah, 2

•••

RETURNING ALL-BIG 10

QB: Taylor Martinez (first team)

OG: Spencer Long (first team)

RB: Ameer Abdullah (second team)

WR: Kenny Bell (second team)

OT: Jeremiah Sirles (second team)

•••

HUSKERS SCHEDULE

Sept. 7 — Southern Miss

Sept. 14 — UCLA

Sept. 21 — South Dakota State

Oct. 5 — Illinois*

Oct. 1 — at Purdue*

Oct. 26 — at Minnesota*

Nov. 2 — Northwestern*

Nov. 9 — at Michigan*

Nov. 16 — Michigan State*

Nov. 23 — at Penn State*

Nov. 29 — Iowa*

* Big Ten game

———

©2013 Austin American-Statesman, Texas

Distributed by MCT Information Services

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