LINCOLN, Neb. — Let me take you back, just for a second, to that night in 2014 when Melvin Gordon buried Nebraska in the snow at Camp Randall. The last time Nebraska was nationally relevant.
The Huskers were 8-1. The No. 16 team in the country with a legitimate shot at winning the Big Ten. A win over Wisconsin puts them close to the top 10, essentially solidifies another Big Ten West title and Bo Pelini’s squad likely ends up with 10 or 11 wins.
Instead, Gordon had himself a track meet.
The Wisconsin running back ran for 408 yards in three quarters and the Badgers thumped Nebraska 59-24, putting the last nail in Pelini’s coffin. Nebraska has been recovering since that night, searching for something to put them back in the national spotlight.
This weekend is Nebraska’s shot.
Saturday against No. 22 Oregon is the Huskers’ first real chance to regain part of what they lost that night against Wisconsin. The first chance for Mike Riley and his group to get their first meaningful win as a team over .500 in nearly two years. For Riley to solidify himself as the anti-Pelini, the coach who can win the big game.
And he’s accepting it. Instead of calling this just another game or downplaying its importance, he’s embracing it.
“This is a big, great game for our team,” Riley said after practice on Thursday.
Just how big?
Some say it’s the biggest since the 2009 Big 12 championship game against Texas. Others argue 2012 vs. Wisconsin in the Big Ten championship.
I lean more toward 2014 at Wisconsin.
Beating Oregon gets Nebraska no closer to winning the Big Ten or going to a Rose Bowl. But it will do loads for bringing national attention back to Lincoln, which this fan base desperately needs.
Beyond the state border, Nebraska football essentially means nothing. The lore of the 1990s doesn’t excite young fans anymore. And the only thing anyone remembers about the 2001 national championship loss is how incredible Miami was. Part of the Nebraska brand is wearing off.
But beating one of college football’s strongest brands? Beating the team whose jerseys create a buzz every week? The program that is essentially Nike’s test run for products?
For the old school program to beat the trendy program? Yeah, that would mean a lot.
Because think about this.
If Nebraska pulls off a win, the Huskers will likely be ranked in the Associated Press Top 25 for the first time since November 2014, and though the fact that we’re making a big deal about being ranked shows just how far the Nebraska brand has fallen in the past five years, being ranked after last season will say a lot.
A win over Oregon would bring Nebraska to 6-1 since the embarrassing 55-45 loss to Purdue, and would include wins over Michigan State, UCLA and Oregon, with the only loss coming by eight to then-undefeated No. 4 Iowa.
Three wins over big brands, and three wins that Nebraska can start to build on.
One win, and the Mike Riley era shifts, too. Riley goes from nice coach who smoothed out the Pelini public relations nightmare to the coach who got Nebraska back on track. The coach who won over a torn locker room, unified a split fan base and beat the team he never could at Oregon State.
One win, and momentum likely builds for Nebraska to go into Wisconsin on Oct. 29 undefeated, probably ranked in the teens in the AP Poll.
And there, at Camp Randall, Nebraska would get its chance to climb out of the snow.
Saturday is a pivotal moment, and Nebraska fans know it. Student guest tickets sold out in one minute this week. Memorial Stadium will likely be brimming with 92,000 fans, the most in its history.
“This win would mean a lot for this particular team,” Riley said after practice Thursday.
I agree, coach, just with one small change.
This win would mean a lot for this particular program.