September 2, 2013 at 1:08 am

Matt Charboneau

Nebraska's 'bad dream' defense continues into new season

Wyoming confounded Nebraska's defense in the Cornhuskers' narrow 37-34 win. (Nati Harnik / Associated Press)

A year ago at this time, the Big Ten was hardly puffing out its collective chest.

Sure, they had just posted an 11-1 record on the first weekend of the season, but there were plenty of disturbing signs that a stellar season was not in store.

Penn State accounted for the lone defeat — at home to Ohio — but several of the wins were far from convincing. Wisconsin needed a late stop to hold off Northern Iowa, Iowa rallied to beat Northern Illinois by a point and Indiana barely survived against Indiana State (an FCS team).

It was simply a precursor to disappointing nonconference losses and, overall, a forgettable season for a conference that saw its champion — Wisconsin —head to the Rose Bowl with five losses.

Which brings us to opening weekend 2013.

The Big Ten went 10-2. Not bad, right? Well, it depends on where the focus lies.

Ohio State and Michigan — two teams many believe will square off in the conference title game —were impressive, while Wisconsin had little problem in Gary Andersen’s first game as head coach. Northwestern and Penn State also picked up nice road wins.

Indiana and Minnesota piled up tons of points in victories, but neither looked like it has a defense that will be able to stop anyone on a consistent basis. However, none of that is a surprise.

The rest of the results likely led to more questions than answers

Michigan State’s offense looked no better — maybe worse — than a season ago in its win over Western Michigan, Purdue looks to be in full rebuilding mode after getting destroyed by Cincinnati, Illinois looks just a little bit better after surviving against mighty Southern Illinois and Iowa’s woes look to be a long way from being cured after falling to Northern Illinois at home.

Yes, Northern Illinois played in the Orange Bowl last season, so the 30-27 victory over the Hawkeyes isn’t a stunner. But three turnovers from Iowa, including a late interception, will not bode well.

But the biggest alarm should be going off in Lincoln, Neb.

One of our last impressions from Nebraska was its complete meltdown against Wisconsin in the Big Ten Championship game last December. The Huskers gave up 640 total yards in that game, including 539 on the ground.

We all know the Huskers can score, but the emphasis in the off-season was getting the defense good enough to complement the offense — kinda the exact opposite of what is happening in East Lansing.

Well, apparently the Huskers are just as far from gaining any sort of balance as the Spartans. They defeated Wyoming, 37-34, but it took the recovery of an onside kick to secure the win.

Wyoming racked up 602 yards of offense with quarterback Brett Smith completing 29 of 43 passes for 383 yards and four touchdowns. Dominic Rufran caught 11 passes for 120 yards and Shaun Wick rushed for another 101.

“To me, it was a bad dream,” Nebraska defensive coordinator John Papuchis said. “It was close to being a nightmare.”

The offense was good, and that was to be expected. Quarterback Taylor Martinez threw three touchdown passes and ran for 80 yards. Running backs Ameer Abdullah and Imani Cross each ran for more than 100 yards and the Huskers won their 28th consecutive opener.

But little has changed since 2012, even if all the right things were being said.

“Well, we’re 1-0 and I’m happy we’re 1-0, but obviously we’ve got a lot of work to do,” Nebraska coach Bo Pelini said. “I just told our team, whether you win the game by three or win 65-0, it’s never as good as you think it is and it’s never as bad as you think it is.”

For Pelini’s sake, he better hope it’s a lot better than it looked.

Wildcat 'injuries' ire Cal

Northwestern entered the season ranked in the top 25 for the first time since 2001.

And the Wildcats posted an impressive 44-30 win on the road at California. But few people were talking about that after the game. Instead, a good portion of the attention was on Northwestern’s multiple “injuries” late in the game.

As Cal was trying to mount a rally with its up-tempo offense, Northwestern players were hitting the ground as the boos filled Memorial Stadium.

“It affected it a lot,” Cal coach Sonny Dykes said. “It was just unusual. It seemed like every time we got a first down they had an injury. I hadn’t seen that, wasn’t expecting to see that, was disappointed that I saw that. But that’s the way it goes sometimes.”

Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald didn’t take kindly to the accusation.

“If anybody were to question the integrity of myself, our program or our players, I question theirs,” he said. “When our guys get dinged up, they are instructed to go down, not hobble off to the sideline.”

What could be a bigger concern for the Wildcats are injuries that were not questioned. Quarterback Kain Colter lasted just two plays before suffering what was reported to be a concussion and cornerback Daniel Jones was carted off the field after suffering a leg injury.

Big day for freshman QB

For the Michigan State fans hollering for freshman quarterback Damion Terry to play, they can take hope in what happened at Penn State.

True freshman Christian Hackenberg admitted he was a little nervous just before kickoff, but that didn’t linger as the first-year signal-caller threw for 278 yards and two touchdowns.

“It’s a big change,” Hackenberg said. “This coaching staff has helped me get through this. The team has helped me get through this, just really trying to immerse myself in the team and what the coaches are preaching every day.”

Coach Bill O’Brien is all in with Hackenberg, but he did issue a bit of caution.

“He’s a young guy who’s got a tremendous future,” O’Brien said. “But we’re not ready to waltz him into the College Football Hall of Fame.”

How the Big Ten fared

LegendsSaturday’s games
Iowa (0-1) lost to Northern Illinois 30-27vs. Missouri St., 12 (BTN)
Michigan (1-0) beat Central Michigan 59-9vs. (14) Notre Dame, 8 (ESPN)
Michigan State (1-0) beat West. Mich. 26-13vs. So. Florida, 12 (ESPNU)
Minnesota (1-0) beat UNLV 51-23at New Mexico St., 8
Nebraska (1-0) beat Wyoming 37-34vs. So. Mississippi, 6 (BTN)
Northwestern (1-0) beat California 44-30vs. Syracuse, 6 (BTN)
LeadersSaturday’s games
Illinois (1-0) beat Southern Illinois 42-34vs. Cincinnati, 12 (ESPN)
Indiana (1-0) beat Indiana State 73-35 vs. Navy, 6 (BTN)
Penn State (1-0) beat Syracuse 23-17vs. Eastern Mich., 12 (BTN)
Purdue (0-1) lost to Cincinnati 42-7vs. Indiana State, 12 (BTN)
Ohio State (1-0) beat Buffalo 40-20vs. San Diego St., 3:30 (ABC)
Wisconsin (1-0) beat UMass 45-0vs. Tennessee Tech, 12 (BTN)

mcharboneau@detroitnews.com
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