So you’re a Nebraska fan, and your wife is still fuming after you chucked the begonias at the television set in response to J Leman going on the Big Ten Network and declaring Indiana — THE HOOSIERS?? — as his upset special of the weekend:
OK, are all the sharp objects put away? Groovy. Now let’s start with the whole “untested” notion for a second.
First, the 5-0 part of the Cornhuskers’ CV isn’t the problem here. It’s the 10-18 part posted by their opponents after the season’s first six weeks.
It’s the .357 — which is great if you’re Kris Bryant, but not so good when it’s the winning percentage of the teams you’ve beaten so far.
Now, granted, it’s not Mike Riley’s fault that Oregon (2-4) decided it might be fun for a season to switch bodies with Colorado, “Freaky Friday” style. Or that Illinois is Illinois, even after the new Lovie Smith paint job. Or that beating Northwestern in Evanston might be the Big Red’s most substantive victory on paper to date.
But the fact remains: Wyoming (4-2) is the only team No. 10 Nebraska (5-0, 2-0 Big Ten) has taken out that currently boasts a winning record. And the Cowboys might be the only one of those first five dance partners to finish the regular season on the plus side of .500. So maybe not so much “untested” as “unproven.”
And defensively, it’s actually a push. Because here’s what Brian Fremeau’s BCF Toys site has to say about the true quality of the offenses the Hoosiers and Huskers have faced so far, comparatively, excluding “first-half clock kills and end-of-game garbage drives and scores”:
Fresno State, No. 103 in points per drive versus FBS opponents; Wyoming, No. 85; Oregon, No. 25; Northwestern, No. 76; Illinois, No. 97. Average rank: 77.7.
Florida International, No. 106 in points per drive versus FBS opponents; Ball State, No. 87; Wake Forest, No. 102; Michigan State, No. 88; Ohio State, No. 6. Average rank: 77.8.
Points per game allowed: Nebraska, 17.6; Indiana, 25.0.
Although in terms of comparative offensive efficiency, BCF Toys tells a completely different story:
3.16 points per drive (No. 13)
1.83 points per drive (No. 86)
Should you be curious? Absolutely.
Should you be throwing flora? Heck, no.
In the sort of backhanded compliment usually tossed at Pat Fitzgerald’s Wildcats, the Hoosiers (3-2, 1-1 Big Ten) are better than you think, or what the conventional wisdom in the crowd is telling you to think. If not for Don Brown at Michigan and Justin Wilcox at Wisconsin, Indiana defensive coordinator Tom Allen would likely be the league’s most viable candidate for the Broyles Award, presented annually to the top assistant in college football.
And Allen still brings a damn good case to the table. The Hoosiers’ defensive turnaround — from completely abysmal to fairly serviceable — has been one of the more quietly impressive feats in a season dwarfed by Ohio State and Michigan rolling up points at a Golden State Warriors pace and Michigan State falling off the radar entirely. Consider: IU’s yards allowed per game is down from a whopping 509.5 (last in the league) in 2015 to a less-painful 375 per contest (ninth). The Hoosiers’ points per game is down from 37.6 (also last) to 25.0 (also ninth). IU’s 1.8 takeaways per game is up from 1.69 last fall.
Indiana’s first loss, at home, came without the services of its best player, guard Dan Feeney, and came at the paws of a 5-1 Wake Forest squad that’s one of the most improved in the ACC after a 3-9 finish last fall. The second defeat was at No. 2 Ohio State, by three touchdowns.
Which doesn’t sound that impressive, until you realize that:
a. The Buckeyes’ average margin of victory through four games was 48 points;
b. The Hoosiers were within a touchdown, 24-17, midway through the third quarter; and
c. The Fighting Urbans’ 38 points against IU marked a single-game low this autumn.
Plus, trading shots with Ohio State quarterback J.T. Barrett in Columbus — and not shaming yourself in the process, Barrett’s 137 rushing yards notwithstanding — is probably as good a prep work as one can get in advance of a day with Huskers signal-caller Tommy Armstrong, another confident upperclassman who can drive you bonkers with either his arm or his feet.
Nebraska was a 3.5-point favorite as of late Wednesday night, according to VegasInsider.com, but that wasn’t meant as a jab. Since 2003, Huskers coach Mike Riley is 13-8 when coming off a bye week. A positive trend, yes, but not a definitive one.
This isn’t 1978, the last time the Big Red set foot inside Memorial Stadium, when Tom Osborne drove Lee Corso one step closer to a career in mascot-head-donning with a 69-17 clubbing of the host Hoosiers. These Huskers aren’t those Huskers (yet), and programs that somehow give up 55 points to a Darrell Hazell Purdue team have to earn that respect back, one weekend at a time.
John Mellencamp U, meanwhile, hasn’t beaten a top 10 team since a 1987 visit to Ohio State, when Anthony Thompson was running wild and then-coach Bill Mallory was giving IU football what Joe Tiller would give to Purdue football a decade or so later. A sense of pride, a stamp of identity (Tiller through the air, Mallory on the ground) and the ability to put the fear of God into teams that weren’t prepared for a fight.
Chances are, Riley will have this bunch prepared. Because if they aren’t, may the Lord have mercy on your begonias. And, for that matter, your wife.