LINCOLN, Neb. -- Think of Nebraska as a football program that fell into a 15-foot hole, shallow enough to see the light from above but too deep to climb out easily.
For the sake of this discussion, let’s say the Cornhuskers disappeared from ground level -- the plane on which championships are contested -- on a January night in 2002, courtesy of a swift uppercut from the Miami Hurricanes.
Several times, this program has scaled the slippery walls, seemingly ready to leap out before Texas or Oklahoma or Wisconsin shoved it back into the darkness. With each fall, the likelihood of another fast climb diminished.
On Saturday night, as most of the nation focused elsewhere, the Huskers reached a collective hand over the edge of that hole and grabbed hold of flat ground.
Nebraska is 4-0, its first unbeaten nonconference finish since 2011, after a 41-31 win over its postseason rival from the glory years in Lincoln. The Huskers churned for 343 rushing yards and generally pummeled Miami, save for the first and last five minutes at Memorial Stadium.
Now, this was not vintage Miami. And Nebraska still needed a last-minute escape this month to beat McNeese State.
But the Huskers, who open Big Ten play on Saturday at home against Illinois, look set to head to Michigan State as an underdog next week with a chance to make a major statement.
It’s too soon, yes, to declare that Nebraska gives the Big Ten its best chance at the College Football Playoff. Nebraska hovers on the far edge of the national radar. But a win in East Lansing would distinguish it as a contender.
Are the Huskers ready to carry the torch for the Big Ten at the end of the league's dispiriting month?
“Our goal is to win them all,” defensive tackle Maliek Collins said. “We’re just going to take the momentum and keep going with this.”
ESPN’s Football Power Index gives Nebraska a 1.1 percent chance to win out. The Huskers’ probability to win the Big Ten, according to the FPI, is 9.3 percent. By comparison, Wisconsin sits at 40.1 percent, which makes the Badgers a huge favorite in the West. And Nebraska must visit Madison in November.
“We’ve got four tough road games in the conference,” defensive coordinator John Papuchis said on Saturday night. “Hopefully, the resolve that we showed [against Miami] will translate when we go on the road. It’s going to be a battle all the way through, but I think our offense is good enough to score points on anyone. And I think we’re good enough to stop anyone that we play.”
The Huskers showed that resolve twice in the second half on Saturday as fights erupted following interceptions of Miami QB Brad Kaaya.
The first pick was overturned by a roughing-the-passer penalty. Nebraska stiffened defensively to force a field goal. After the second scuffle, Nebraska marched 40 yards for a touchdown to go up 17 with less than five minutes to play, icing the win.
“We just played as Nebraska plays,” left tackle Alex Lewis said. “We didn’t care about Miami.”
The Huskers remain deficient at spots on defense. Quarterback Tommy Armstrong Jr. has performed spectacularly at moments, but his consistency must improve.
Still, reasons exist to believe Nebraska will respond differently to adversity this season. The Huskers have broken even in the turnover category after forcing three against Miami, a huge improvement. Special teams look solid, another important change over last year.
Primarily, though, Nebraska has Ameer Abdullah, who offers an answer in most every situation. He ran for 229 yards against Miami, “a man possessed,” according to coach Bo Pelini.
“Our running game is what won this football game for us,” Pelini said. “That’s what Nebraska football is all about.”
Abdullah, a two-year captain, provides a strong voice in the locker room. His message to the Huskers as the Miami game approached figures to apply for as long as the Huskers continue to play well.
“Don’t believe the hype,” Abdullah said. “Don’t buy into anything that you hear.”
Miami poked the bear and paid for it on Saturday, said Papuchis, the defensive coordinator. We’ll learn soon if that bear is ready to crawl out of his hole.