(AP) – Nebraska has had a habit of losing a game it shouldn’t at least once a year under Bo Pelini, usually before November.
It hasn’t happened so far this season, and Pelini is doing all he can to make sure it doesn’t.
He shortened practices with the idea of keeping the team fresh for the stretch run and started Sunday yoga sessions for the players. He also hasn’t allowed a sense of contentment to creep in.
That’s why after a 42-24 win over Rutgers last week, he nitpicked his team’s performance so much that he sounded like a coach who had just lost by 18. The players parroted Pelini in their postgame comments.
And now comes November, the most pivotal month of the season. The 17th-ranked Cornhuskers (7-1, 3-1 Big Ten) go into Saturday’s home game against Purdue (3-5, 1-3) tied with Minnesota for first in the Big Ten West. Four of the seven teams in the division have one conference loss.
”You’ve got to put your foot on the gas pedal at this time of year,” Pelini said Monday. ”It’s the only way it works. Those are the teams that are going to be standing at the end.”
Nebraska has stumbled at the worst times since joining the Big Ten in 2011. That first season included a blowout loss at Wisconsin in the Huskers’ inaugural Big Ten game and was followed a month later by a loss at home to Northwestern. In 2012, the Huskers were blistered 63-38 at Ohio State and embarrassed 70-31 by Wisconsin in the conference championship game. Last year, they lost at Minnesota and at home against Iowa.
With Nebraska in control of its destiny at the halfway point of the conference schedule, and with the biggest games still to play, Pelini is doing what he can to minimize the chance of underperforming.
”You have to play this game on edge. You have to prepare on edge,” he said. ”You have to have respect for this game because you’ve got to realize how quickly a game can turn.”
Pelini increased the tempo at practices and shortened them from two hours to 90 minutes. Quarterback Tommy Armstrong Jr. said Monday that, physically, he didn’t feel as if he had played a game two days earlier, largely because of the new practice routine.
Now, he said, it’s a matter of keeping the mind fresh and focused for the games that will determine who goes to the Big Ten championship game.
”We’re good, but we can get better,” Armstrong said. ”We’re a dangerous team when we actually are all in and giving 100 percent and mentally strong.”
The effort of Heisman Trophy candidate Ameer Abdullah shouldn’t be questioned. He averaged 11.8 yards per carry while running for 225 – his fourth 200-yard game of the season – and three touchdowns against Rutgers, also setting a school record with 341 all-purpose yards.
Abdullah leads the nation in rushing with 1,249 yards, and his 19 total touchdowns (two receiving) are tied for first in the country. He credits much of his success to the team’s blocking, which includes the efforts of wide receiver Kenny Bell.
”I know in (the wide receivers’) room they have a chart with who has the most knockdowns,” Abdullah said. “I think Kenny leads the team. He’s a pretty feisty guy. He likes to get after people.”
He does his share of catching passes, too. The senior has a school-record 167 career catches, and his 2,473 receiving yards are six behind 1972 Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Rodgers – a mark he should surpass Saturday.
“We really weren’t looking at trying to break (records) this game or next game. We wanted to play our offense,” Armstrong said. “Fortunately, the ball went to him, and I’m glad for him.”
Purdue ranks second-to-last in the 14-team Big Ten in allowing 255.5 passing yards per game, and it also gave up 285 rushing yards in a 39-38 loss to Minnesota in its last contest Oct. 18.
Coach Darrell Hazell knows it won’t get any easier trying to contain Abdullah and a Nebraska unit that ranks second in the conference in total offense at 514.8 yards per game.
“You’ve got to defend both (Abdullah and Armstrong),” Hazell said. “If you try to key on one of them you’re in trouble, because the other guy can beat you with big plays. Both of those guys compliment each other so well.”
The Boilermakers forced Armstrong to throw three interceptions in last season’s meeting, but Abdullah rushed for 126 yards and a touchdown in Nebraska’s 44-7 victory.