LINCOLN — Nebraska football's biggest captain, 6-foot-4, 315-pound senior guard Spencer Long, stood Friday on the sixth floor of Memorial Stadium talking about the little things and their effect on the Huskers' quest to win their first conference title since 1999.
“All the little things that we see as negative — however small they may be — eliminate them even more,” the Elkhorn grad said an hour before he signed thousands of autographs with a black Sharpie at Nebraska's annual Fan Day.
Little things, little things — let them in, and the Huskers don't win a conference title. It's been 14 years. The Huskers have lost three league championship games in the last four years. The first two — 13-12 to Texas in 2009 and 23-20 to Oklahoma in 2010 — suggested NU was just a play or a decision away from closing the deal. The 70-31 loss to Wisconsin in the last year's Big Ten championship did not.
Long is wise to this history. He first watched it as a walk-on backup, then lived through it last year as an All-Big Ten performer. Four losses per year since coach Bo Pelini arrived in 2008. And though another Big Ten team — Ohio State — is the prohibitive favorite to win the league, Long senses the expectations growing.
“The bar just keeps getting higher every single year,” Long said. “We have to make changes. In order to do something better, we have to do something different. Obviously we haven't been getting it done. Every single year that we fail, the sense of urgency goes up even more.”
People think the Huskers need drastic changes to break through, NU senior defensive end Jason Ankrah said.
“But really,” he said, “it's the little things like technique and knowing the game plan.”
Of course, the Huskers have made more than cosmetic changes to the leadership structure in the offseason. Pelini — citing the “right guys” and the “right time” to do so — picked captains for the team and assistant captains for each position group. In interviews Friday, senior offensive tackle Jeremiah Sirles used words like “liasion” and “face point” to further describe the purpose behind switching from a system that drafted dozens of daily leaders to one that assigns more responsibilities to just a handful.
“We have always said we wanted to have leaders, but now we have a face point, of someone whose face is there,” Sirles said. “They are the leader, and they are somebody that we can go up to and trust them. I think Coach Bo did a great job of putting people in position that we can go talk to.”
Another development: more self-inflicted punishment for the offense when it commits a turnover in practice. The Huskers led the nation in fumbles lost with 22 and were second with 35 turnovers.
“One thing we've tried to correct in the offseason is to make sure we have better focus,” said wide receiver Jamal Turner, whose position group had the second-largest line of fans waiting for it behind quarterbacks. “When we do have a turnover, we try to punish ourselves. No one likes to be punished. If someone fumbles — that's so many runs or up-downs.”
The Huskers committed four turnovers in a 63-38 loss at Ohio State last October. NU hung with the Buckeyes — who finished the year undefeated — for 2 Ĺ quarters before defensive busts finally turned it into a blowout. A 26-member media poll conducted this month unanimously predicted OSU would win the league crown. The coaches poll, released Thursday, had the Buckeyes No. 2 nationally with three first-place votes.
“We ain't even started practicing yet,” running back Ameer Abdullah said when asked about Ohio State's favored status. “To say some team's going to be there. That's just plain lip service. The season haven't even started. We all got to put in the work. We gotta take it week by week. You never know.
“Things happen all the time college football. That's why I love it.”