Nebraska Football: 4 Games the Cornhuskers Must Win to Finish in Top 15

Kevin Boilard@@KevinBoilardCorrespondent IJuly 9, 2012

Nebraska Football: 4 Games the Cornhuskers Must Win to Finish in Top 15

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    In 2011, the Cornhuskers finished third in the Big Ten Legends Division behind Michigan State and Michigan.  This year, Nebraska looks to rank in the top 15 teams in college football—something they have not done since 2009 when they finished 14th in the AP Top 25.  In order to do so, Nebraska needs to improve their in-conference play.

    Before concluding the season with a 30-13 loss to South Carolina in the Capital One Bowl, Nebraska posted a 9-3 overall record with all three losses coming to Big Ten opponents.  Their performance last year earned the Cornhuskers a ranking of 24th in the AP Top 25.

    While Nebraska picked up quality wins over 11th ranked Michigan State and 12th ranked Penn State in 2011, the team also dropped disappointing matchups with 18th ranked Michigan and unranked Northwestern.  The Cornhuskers will need to be much more consistent in Big Ten play if they want to be considered a top 15 team.

    The four biggest games on Nebraska’s 2012 schedule—and what they need to do to win them—will be highlighted in this article.

Week 5 vs. Wisconsin

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    The 2011 the Wisconsin Badgers finished 11-3 overall (6-2 in Big Ten), claiming the top spot in the Big Ten Leaders Division.  Led by quarterback Russell Wilson, who transferred from North Carolina State before last season, Wisconsin possessed one of college football’s top offenses.

    Wilson made it look easy in his team’s 48-17 victory over the Cornhuskers in 2011, throwing for 255 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions.  However, Wisconsin will not have the advantage of fielding such an experienced quarterback in 2012.

    Wisconsin was the only Big Ten team to finish in the top 10 of the AP Top 25 last season, but Nebraska can level the playing field by applying pressure to an inexperienced quarterback in their early season matchup with the Badgers.  Wisconsin will likely be forced to rely on a heavy dose of running back Montee Ball, who finished last season with 1,923 yards and 33 touchdowns.

    If the Nebraska defense can play strong up front, limit the Badgers’ rushing success and force their offense into making mistakes, the Cornhuskers will have a very good chance of emerging victorious in their first “must-win” situation of the season.

Week 7 @ Northwestern

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    Nebraska needs to prove that their 28-25 loss to Northwestern last season was a fluke.  The Wildcats were overlooked when they came into Memorial Stadium with a 3-5 record, and were eventually able to pull out an incredible upset victory.  The Cornhuskers have a chance to return the favor in 2012.

    Nebraska played flat when they hosted Northwestern on November 5, allowing the Wildcats to take the lead in the first quarter.  Despite winning the turnover battle, Nebraska was never able to pull ahead of an inferior Northwestern team.

    The Cornhuskers, who were ranked 10th at the time, allowed Wildcats sophomore quarterback Kain Colter to rush for two touchdowns and throw for another.  Colter was one of three different Northwestern quarterbacks to attempt a pass in that game.  It’s safe to say that the Nebraska defense will not allow that kind of production from anyone that lines up under center in their 2012 matchup with the Wildcats.

    Nebraska has the opportunity to achieve revenge on their conference rivals when they visit the Wildcats in late October.  After last year’s embarrassing loss, Week 7 at Northwestern will be the perfect game for offensive stars such as quarterback Taylor Martinez and running back Rex Burkhead to explode for huge statistical days.

Week 8 vs. Michigan

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    In 2011, The Cornhuskers suffered a late-season thrashing at the hands of Michigan, who finished the season ranked 12th in the AP Top 25.  The 45-17 score was Nebraska’s second biggest loss of the season.

    The Wolverines’ offense proved to be too much for Nebraska’s defense to handle.  Michigan quarterback Denard Robinson torched the Cornhuskers for two touchdowns through the air as well as two touchdowns on the ground.  Nebraska struggled to find an answer for Robinson all game, as he passed for 180 yards and added 23 rushes for 83 yards.

    Robinson has to be the number one threat on Michigan’s roster in 2012.  He is a versatile athlete that already has his name in the early Heisman discussions.  If Nebraska wants to pull out a win in Week 8, they need to contain Robinson.

    Nebraska will have the advantage of taking on Michigan in front of their home crowd in 2012.  If the Cornhuskers can limit Robinson’s production and cut down on the turnovers (Nebraska lost three fumbles to the Wolverines last year), they will be able to pull off a quality win, giving them a greater chance of being considered a top 15 team.

Week 9 @ Michigan State

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    Unlike Nebraska’s match-up with Northwestern, the Cornhuskers need to prove that last year’s 24-3 win over Michigan State was not a fluke.  Nebraska was able to hand the Spartans, who finished first in the Big Ten Legends Division, their only conference loss of the 2011 season.

    Michigan State was ranked 11th in the AP Top 25 by the end of the season, yet Nebraska had no trouble subduing the Spartans when they hosted them on October 29.  Their 17-point margin of victory was Nebraska’s largest of the season over a ranked opponent.

    Burkhead pierced through the Spartans 10th ranked defense in 2011.  His 130 yards on 35 carries allowed the Cornhuskers to control the pace of the game and kept Michigan State’s offense off the field.  Burkhead scored all three of Nebraska’s touchdowns in a dominating performance.

    In order to go into Spartan Stadium and emerge victorious in Week 9, Nebraska could use a repeat performance from Burkhead.  The Spartans will be very hungry when they host the Cornhuskers, as they look to avenge last year’s only conference loss.