Published Monday, October 22, 2012 AT 8:13 AM / Updated at 9:22 AM
Mad Chatter, Oct. 22
Dirk Chatelain Omaha World-Herald

I have a wife and I have a 2-year-old. She is a Seat-Belt Sheriff. Always has been. Worse, she has turned him into a Seat-Belt Sheriff.

I can’t turn on the car in the morning without him shouting from the backseat, “Put your buckle on, Dad!” And so I do, before I shift into reverse.

That’s how this week in Nebraska football feels.

Coaches, players and fans have talked a lot about goals the past 10 months and — aside from a national title — the only one that really matters is the Rose Bowl. Win a conference championship. This is the year.

Nebraska cannot get there without beating Michigan. No chance. This is the game.

Lose Saturday and November is gonna feel like a consolation bracket. Win Saturday and the Huskers are the overwhelming favorite to win the Legends Division. (More on that in Wednesday’s Chatter.)

Lose Saturday and Bo Pelini is gonna have a hard time making an argument that his process works — and that his program is headed in the right direction. Win Saturday and you’re gonna see Pelini and players bursting with joy — and O Street rocking ’til last call.

It’s Monday morning. Put your buckle on.

***

>> As many of you noticed, I was very critical of Nebraska’s performance Saturday. I spoke of a higher standard, beyond wins and losses, that NU hasn’t met in a long time.

I don’t expect the Huskers to match their success in the 1990s, or even the 70s and 80s. I do expect them to play relatively clean. Stop getting in the way of their own talent.

The rash of penalties, turnovers and mental lapses hasn’t improved — the Huskers remind me of the Dallas Cowboys. And until it does improve, Nebraska will never get over the hump. Bo recognizes the problems. He doesn’t hide from them. He speaks of them often, including Saturday night. He just hasn’t figured out how to fix them.

>> On the actual scoreboard, here’s what I expect of Nebraska: Be a top-15 program — right now, it’s between 20 and 30. In the average decade, the Huskers should:

– Finish in the Top 25 eight or nine times.

– Finish in the Top 10 four or five times.

– Qualify for the national championship game — or at least the four-team playoff — once or twice.

What programs currently fit that profile?

– Oklahoma (six Top-10s, nine Top-25s the past decade).

– Georgia (five Top-10s, eight Top-25s).

– Wisconsin. In Bret Bielema’s six years, he has three Top-10s and five Top-25s. That track record is a reasonable target for Pelini and Nebraska.

>> Eric Crouch. Tommie Frazier. Steve Taylor. Turner Gill. In the past 35 years of Nebraska football, those are the only men to start three seasons at quarterback. Each became an All-American.

Taylor Martinez hasn’t reached that level. He likely won’t reach that level. But days like Saturday, he shows why coaches believe in him.

Yes, he would’ve been one of the scapegoats if Northwestern holds onto those interceptions on back-to-back plays in the fourth quarter. But No. 3 took advantage of his good fortune. He made critical throw after critical throw in the final 7 minutes.

Martinez doesn’t always handle adversity well within a game; in fact, he often forces things when NU gets in a bind. But I find it interesting that some of the best performances come after his worst performances. Give him a week to stew over his situation and, like his coach, he usually responds.

Remember, Oklahoma State 2010 came right after Texas. Ohio State 2011 came right after Wisconsin. This Northwestern performance followed four turnovers (and two bad press conferences). Martinez was the best player on the field in Evanston. He may need to play at that level again versus Michigan.

>> Martinez plays one of the best games of his career. The defense plays its best game of the season. And Nebraska still needs an unlikely rally in the final 8 minutes. That’s what happens when you’re minus-3 in turnover margin.

>> Martinez, however, avoided the turnovers. Nebraska is now 2-8 away from home when he commits a turnover, and 5-0 when he doesn’t. Remarkable.

>> After the game, Bo Pelini made reference to the eerie similarity between this year’s Northwestern game and last year’s. He felt like he was watching the 2011 game film, he said. He’s right.

There was one difference. Last year, Nebraska scored with 8:55 in the fourth quarter to cut Northwestern’s lead to three, 21-18. Then the Wildcats ran the ball 13 straight times in 7 minutes, ramming the ball right down Nebraska’s throat to clinch the game. This time, Nebraska stopped Northwestern three-and-out. That’s progress.

>> You want a good omen for Michigan week? Nebraska, under Bo Pelini, has played its best football on the last Saturday of October. His two Top-10 wins — Missouri and Michigan State — both came on this weekend.

>> Why would Pat Fitzgerald ever leave Northwestern? Because of a scene like Saturday’s. I’ve been to dozens of Nebraska road games. I’m not sure I’ve ever been to a stadium — certainly not a full stadium — in which the Huskers had more fans. It was pretty close Saturday. Considering what happened the last time Nebraska went on the road, it says a lot about Husker fans and their loyalty. It had to be an emotional blow for Fitzgerald’s team.

>> Sam McKewon asked in his Rewind column today if the Big 12 was really better than the Big Ten. If so, by how much? In my opinion, it’s generally a one-game difference. So a 9-3 season in the Big Ten, for instance, is an 8-4 season in the Big 12. What do you think?

>> Kansas State schooled West Virginia Saturday night. Flat-out schooled ‘em. Dan Wetzel praises Bill Snyder. And here, Sam Mellinger writes about Snyder’s impact on Manhattan and his university.

>> The big game of the college football weekend is Notre Dame at Oklahoma. Sooner fans’ hate for the Irish goes back half a century.

>> Driving through Illinois and Iowa Sunday, I caught several NFL games on radio. I heard the names Prince Amukamara, Niles Paul, Mike McNeill, Chris Kelsay, Matt Slauson and Alfonzo Dennard. Nebraska football may be down the past decade, but it’s still well-represented in the big leagues. Let’s not forget local products Danny Woodhead and Greg Zuerlein.

>> Speaking of radio, nobody does it better than Kevin Kugler and Mark Malone, who handled Patriots-Jets Sunday. Those guys know how to call a football game.

>> A profile of a broadcasting legend, Verne Lundquist, a late-bloomer who has learned the power of silence.

>> Is Bubba Starling the next Mike Trout or Bryce Harper? No. But after his first full year in the minors, he’s everything the Royals thought he was.

>> An MLB stat bouncing around on Twitter Sunday night: Since 1975, 14 home teams have won a Game 6 to force Game 7. Thirteen of 14 went on to win Game 7. The lone exception: the 2006 Mets versus the Cardinals. Pretty incredible statistic. I suppose if anybody can win Game 7 on the road, it’s St. Louis.

>> Missy Franklin, who became a star at the Olympics, is intent on retaining her amateur status. The high school senior chose Cal over the weekend.

>> How many of the NFL’s 10 best teams are in the AFC? Two? Three? Houston, for sure. Maybe Baltimore and New England — but if so, they’re between 6th and 10th. The NFC, meanwhile, has Atlanta, Chicago, Green Bay, San Francisco and the Giants. None are historically great teams, but they’re all equal or better than the AFC’s best.

>> Finally, I wanna know what you’ll be watching tonight: Bears-Lions, Giants-Cards or Obama-Romney?

About Dirk Chatelain

Dirk Chatelain is a staff writer for The Omaha World-Herald and covers Nebraska football and general assignments. You can follow Dirk on Twitter (@dirkchatelain) or email him at dchatelain@owh.com