Michigan, Nebraska seek defining moments

Michigan hired Brady Hoke in January 2011, seven months after the announcement of Nebraska’s departure from the Big 12 Conference.

Back then, it was still a strange idea, the Cornhuskers in the Big Ten. But the image of Nebraska versus Michigan every fall eased the awkwardness. It felt right, scarlet and cream against maize and blue, even if the series would likely never develop into a primary rivalry for either storied program.

Well, they’re about to play for the third time some 3 1/2 years after we caught wind of this arrangement. Neither of the first two divisional games ranked as a classic. Saturday in Ann Arbor marks the last scheduled Nebraska-Michigan game until 2018, the continuity of this series detonated with the Big Ten’s Legends and Leaders structure.

That didn’t quite work as planned.

The same could be said, at this juncture, for the football progress at both schools.

In year No. 6 under Bo Pelini at Nebraska and in Hoke’s third season at U-M, both coaches still seek an identity that came promised with their arrivals to supplant out-of-place, unsuccessful regimes.

Here we are, on the cusp of another Nebraska-Michigan game, and both teams sit unranked and largely unnoticed nationally. It’s gut-check Saturday at the Big House. Who’s ready to take the next step, and is it even possible on Saturday in a blue-blooded duel reduced to a battle of the walking wounded?

Nebraska played without six offensive starters for much of its victory last week over Northwestern; Michigan was bloodied and bruised at hands of Michigan State.

The Huskers needed a Hail Mary at home to beat the Wildcats. Two weeks ago, Nebraska lost to Minnesota for the first time since 1960. Michigan, even before the MSU debacle, surrendered 47 points to Indiana and barely escaped Akron and UConn.

Despite an upward track at Nebraska in 2009 and for much of 2010, recruiting successes and a Sugar Bowl victory at Michigan, these programs today appear only small steps closer to hardening their soft underbellies than when Pelini and Hoke arrived.

Look, if all else failed in the cold November of the Big Ten, Pelini and Hoke were supposed to have constructed sound, tough defensive units on which their teams could rely.

In a twist of irony, that program exists in the Legends Division. It just beat the Wolverines 29-6. Michigan State visits Lincoln next week. If the Huskers can’t create a more efficient offense than the group that sputtered against Minnesota and Northwestern, the Spartans might throw a shutout at Memorial Stadium.

Their defense is that good. The last time Nebraska was shut out at home, Pelini was 10 months old

The next four weeks promises to tax Nebraska, considering its collective health, unlike any period in Pelini’s time at the school.

“That’s what life is about,” Pelini said. “It’s about dealing with adversity and trying to overcome adversity. I know one thing: We have a bunch of guys in there that are going to do whatever they possibly can to go, and if they can go, they’ll go.

“If they can’t, then other guys will be asked to step up.”

The Huskers have never won fewer than nine games under Pelini. They’ve also lost four every season.

The standard won’t be met with ease this fall.

“Every game is going to be tough,” freshman quarterback Tommy Armstrong Jr. said. “Coach tells us that we’ve got to have a bunch of young guys step up. If their numbers are called, they’ve got step up and perform. We told you all that before, and that’s how it’s going to be.”

At Michigan, the mood has grown contentious in the wake of last weekend. The Wolverines are not running the ball well. They’re not defending the pass well.

And they didn’t protect their quarterback in East Lansing, as Michigan State sacked Devin Gardner seven times.

Still, Hoke on Monday at his press conference took time to disagree with a reporter’s suggestion that the Wolverines were “pushed around” by MSU. And he corrected an assessment that Michigan can’t win the Big Ten this year.

Yes, it’s mathematically possible, but don’t count on the Spartans, unbeaten in league play, losing out while Michigan runs the table and beats Ohio State twice. By the coach’s preseason proclamation, anything less rates as a failure.

No matter, his players won’t lack for motivation, Hoke said, because of “how they feel about each other and how they feel about Michigan and how they feel about the person pride that they have.”

This is a time for leaders to emerge, Hoke said, and for the deficient areas of the team to grow.

Such talk is common at places like Michigan and Nebraska. They preach pride in the program and the importance of playing for the name on the front of the jersey. It sounds great when the pendulum is swinging forward. When progress stalls, the words lose some meaning.

Michigan responded well in a spot similar to this in 2011, Hoke’s first season. It beat Nebraska and Ohio State in November en route to 11 wins. It could happen again.

Pelini’s teams, too, have handled adversity. Backed against a wall, Nebraska fought against Northwestern. It fought from behind last year against the Wildcats, Penn State, Iowa, Michigan and Michigan State, winning each game.

Such resiliency breeds an identity. There are worse traits for which to be known. For Nebraska and Michigan this year, it’s not cast in stone; these teams have time still to be defined.

Time, though, is growing short.