Big Ten road is Nebraska's proving ground

Bo Pelini hasn't said anything to his team this week about going home. The Nebraska coach has so far deflected all media questions about returning to the state where he was born and facing his alma mater.

That's no surprise, given Pelini's usual tight focus during the season. But his players don't need to hear some big speech from the Youngstown, Ohio, native about the importance of Saturday's game against No. 12 Ohio State.

"We know that," Cornhuskers safety P.J. Smith told ESPN.com. "He doesn't have to tell us that. We know it's really special for him. We know it's a huge game."

Saturday's game might serve as a homecoming for Pelini. But more importantly, it's a major conference road test for his No. 21 Huskers. And given the way the biggest Big Ten trips went for them last year, they'd better put all their concentration toward acing this challenge.

In Nebraska's first year visiting some hallowed Big Ten stadiums, the road was sometimes cruel. Its league debut at Wisconsin resulted in an embarrassing 48-17 loss. Late in the year, with a Legends Division title still possible, the Huskers got humbled 45-17 at Michigan. They did win 17-14 at Penn State, but that came days after the Jerry Sandusky scandal broke in as chaotic a game week as any home team has ever faced. It wasn't so much a hostile environment as it was a surreal one.

At 4-1 this season with the league's top offense and best rushing attack, Nebraska has an excellent chance of winning the Big Ten. But it can't truly call itself a league power until it beats other top teams on the road. Here's the key: Three of the team's next four games are away from home, including a trip to Northwestern in two weeks and a Nov. 3 date at Michigan State. While Ryan Field isn't the most unwelcoming stadium for opposing teams, the Wildcats did beat the Huskers in Lincoln last season. It doesn't take much sleuthing to discover that Nebraska's Legends chances depend on its road success.

The road already has presented an obstacle this year, as Pelini's team suffered its only loss at UCLA in Week 2. The Horseshoe in Columbus figures to be a more daunting environment than the laid-back Rose Bowl.

"I've heard many great things about it," senior running back Rex Burkhead said. "I'm sure it's going to be rowdy and loud, and being a night game, I'm sure it will be a great atmosphere. As an offense, we'll need to key in on our communication and make sure everyone knows what's going on."

Big Ten road venues are still new to Nebraska, which hasn't played in Columbus since 1956. Smith and Burkhead say they will look around the stadium before the game, but once kickoff arrives, they might as well be playing in a parking lot.

"A lot of people talk up stadiums, but once you get there, it's not what you thought it would be," Smith said. "I don't even get excited about certain stadiums. I just want to go and win.

"It's very important that we come out really fast this weekend and take their crowd out of it. Set the tone. Let them know we're here to take care of business."

The Huskers didn't do that last year at Wisconsin and Michigan, where they let some adversity snowball until the score got out of hand. I asked Pelini if this year's group is more prepared to keep things together on the road when things get tough.

"Every week is a different, every challenge is different," he said. "I don't think it necessarily has to do with where you are. It's how you play. We know we have to play our best football Saturday to go play a really good football team."

Pelini can continue to downplay going home this week. But if his team can win this one on the road, its importance can't be overstated.