Published Friday, November 15, 2013 at 9:49 pm / Updated at 6:40 pm
FOOTBALL
Shatel: Something special's happening in Lincoln, but Spartans want blood

Welcome to College Football Town, USA. It's going to be sunny and 65. Kickoff is 2:30 p.m. And we've got meaningful football in November.

Isn't life grand?

Maybe that's what Kenny Bell was getting at the other day. Nebraska's junior receiver sat in a chair in the Hawks Championship Center on Tuesday night. His teammates and coaches had long since cleared out.

Bell leaned back in a folding chair, his afro touching the wall, and talked about this journey, and the stuff you see when you take the time to notice.

“Last Saturday was the favorite football game I've played in,” Bell said. “Just the history, the depth, everything we've been through so far.

“To go into the Big House and get a win, when nobody said we could do it, and the way we won.”

What he said next was totally cool.

“I took a second after that game, just took a seat on the 40-yard line, looked up at the lights and just really appreciated what I do for a living,” Bell said.

“I think guys lose sight of that. To feel the love and appreciation for the game. I went up to all the Michigan guys afterward, to say 'heck of a game, guys,' and that's why we play football.

“To give everything you've got, and come through, especially in such a historical venue. I was the last one to walk into the locker room. I just squatted on the 40-yard line, looked up at the lights and took it all in.”

There's a cherish-the-moment message in there, and I think it applies to this season, and to today's game.

This hasn't been the Nebraska season a lot of people expected. In a lot of ways, it looks like it was drawn up in the dirt.

Youthful defense with glaring holes. Taylor Martinez out. Offensive line decimated. Loss to Minnesota. Hail Mary. Win at Big House.

And yet, here the Huskers are, on Nov. 16, playing for the Legends Division lead, against the division leader, at Memorial Stadium. They took the long way here. But this is where they expected to be, and what they expected to be doing.

No, it hasn't been dominant. And they are decided underdogs at home to Michigan State, a team that has never beaten Nebraska. There are people who talk about the coach's job security. There are people who don't see the point in winning a division and getting a ticket to the Urban Meyer Take-No-Prisoners Show.

But flip that thing over and look what they found: a division favorite that became an underdog, a team that was left for dead two weeks ago, a bunch of hungry young guys building steam. The team with next year's quarterback and next year's defense, trying to figure it out this year.

There's something fresh going on here, something you can rally around. This is a team that's been beaten up, by opponents and its own fans, a team that keeps losing offensive linemen, a team with kids who might keep winning because they don't know any better.

No, there's definitely something going on here. And though Michigan State might stomp on it and crush it today, the Spartans are going to have to fight the thing that has emerged out of this strange season: a Nebraska team.

“I love the history of Nebraska football,” Bell said. “That's one of the reasons I came here. We come here to hang banners.

“But as my time has gone on here, at the end of my fourth year, I've learned to appreciate the guys involved. That's huge for me.

“The guys that I come in here and grind with every day, that's what means the most to me. I love the fans. I love what the state does for us. But when the chips are down and you've got nobody else, the guys who are on the second floor (football offices) here, every single day, 350 days a year, those are the guys you really appreciate the most.

“That's what is happening now. We're so together. The confidence is changing. When we muffed that punt last week, I heard guys saying, 'Don't worry about it, we got it.' That took me aback.”

This is a fresh coat of paint on a season that has been average in many respects. Nebraska has won seven, but given the state of Michigan football, there haven't been a lot of good wins. The same can be said about Michigan State. Stout defense, but who did they play?

It's a game that could define two seasons. If MSU wins, it takes a firm grip on the Legends Division, the last one before Sparty joins the Ohio State-Michigan Alliance.

Michigan State will also have conquered a demon. The Spartans have never beaten Nebraska. They played sluggishly here two years ago, then let the thing slip away at home last year. This is a big deal. The Spartans have pointed to this game all season. They speak in reverent tones of Nebraska tradition, the fans, the whole thing.

That's kind of cool. Even some Nebraska fans don't do that anymore.

But you wonder if this Nebraska thing is kind of like a Texas thing for Nebraska, a mental hurdle that keeps getting higher the more times you stumble over it.

Meanwhile, for Nebraska, this is last call to make something of this season. As disjointed as it's been, the bar this season was still set at a division winner and going back to Indy.

Lose today and that's over. And even with all the injuries and youth, not winning this division in a year where Michigan and Northwestern aren't factors, and you had MSU at home, will feel like a wasted opportunity.

The future looks pretty good in Tommy Armstrong's uniform, and that defense that looks like it's figured it out. But what the kids need to understand is that at Nebraska, the future is always now.

* * *

Video: Big Red Today Show



Video: Nebraska coach Bo Pelini on Thursday after practice:

Contact the writer: Tom Shatel

tom.shatel@owh.com    |   402-444-1025    |  

Tom Shatel is a sports columnist who covers the city, regional and state scene.

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