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Nebraska midseason review: Blackshirts leading the perfect start

The Huskers are holding opponents to just 18 points per game. Bruce Thorson/USA TODAY Sports

At the quarter mark, Nebraska was being careful not to let itself get too carried away while also trying to tap the brakes on the hype machine outside the program.

At the halfway point, the buzz is only getting louder for the Huskers. Is the proud program back as the legitimate contender it grew accustomed to being for so long?

With a perfect 6-0 mark and a deserved spot as the new favorite on top of the West Division standings, certainly it appears that Mike Riley’s program is trending in the right direction. And it can’t be denied with a No. 8 ranking that Nebraska is in position at this point to not only contend in the Big Ten, but it’s now survived unbeaten long enough to be taken seriously in the College Football Playoff conversation.

“It was an indicator of what this group of kid is like when they have their backs to the wall and have to do something to win a game,” Riley said Saturday after a gut-check win on the road against Indiana. “That is what we have shown so far. There is so much football that we have to do be better. At the same time I would not trade this team for anything, for the way they fight, finish, and hang in there together. It was a good team win.”

The Huskers are going to need more of them to accomplish their highest goals, of course, and the degree of difficulty is about to ramp up significantly.

But Nebraska has nothing to complain about in the standings, and if it keeps stringing together wins, it won’t be able to quiet the growing noise about what it might be capable of once again.

What’s gone right: The Blackshirts are living up to the legacy. Midway through the season, the Huskers are holding opponents to just 18 points per game and rank No. 4 in the Big Ten in total defense. Perhaps even more important for a team that had struggled in the turnover battle recently, the Huskers have generated 12 takeaways -- including a conference-leading 11 interceptions with four different players having nabbed multiple picks already this season.

What’s gone wrong: The Huskers haven’t lost, so there obviously aren’t any issues they haven’t been able to overcome. But as good as Tommy Armstrong Jr. has been in guiding the Nebraska offense, some familiar weaknesses did pop up in the tight battle with the Hoosiers last week. Armstrong has thrown only four interceptions this season, but half of them came against Indiana -- and it’s probably not a coincidence that the perfect record nearly slipped away in that game. When Armstrong is sharp, the Huskers are a tough out. When the bad decisions or misfires with his arm pop back up, Nebraska is vulnerable.

What to watch in the second half: The Oregon victory doesn’t appear to mean as much as it did at the time. And while conference road wins rarely come easily, knocking off Indiana and Northwestern even when the two are showing some improvement isn’t going to do much to build an undeniable case as a national contender. The Huskers can prove they belong on the big stage after one more tuneup, following up this week’s home date with Purdue with critical back-to-back challenges on the road against Wisconsin and Ohio State. The ceiling for Riley’s club this season will be revealed quickly moving forward.