The Northwestern Wildcats knew they were in for a challenge last November in Nebraska.
The matchup featured a struggling Northwestern team and red-hot Nebraska, played in front of a sold-out Memorial Stadium.
The atmosphere gave Northwestern a bit of motivation; meanwhile the Cornhuskers underestimated the punches they would receive. The Sea of Red of was stunned as the Wildcats earned a 28-25 upset of Nebraska.
"It was cool that there was silence—85,000," said Northwestern center Brandon Vitabile, reflecting on the 2011 game. "It was a great feeling that we went there, did our jobs, and played a physical game."
Nebraska learned it can't overlook Northwestern, not after a last year's result. Husker head coach Bo Pelini is keeping his team focused on Saturday's game, not avenging its previous loss.
“We never play on the revenge angle,” Pelini said. “It’s about execution. It’s about doing what we need to do to play better and be a better football team. Everybody has their different motivations. Whatever that is, it is. But at the end of the day it comes down to what you’re going to do between the white lines.”
This season, Nebraska isn't the top-ten team Northwestern defeated, but the Wildcats are still expecting a great challenge. The focus remains the same for NU: win the week.
"We've got to come in with the same mentality and not make it too big or too small, just keep a level head," said Vitabile. "We can't make a huge deal out of it. It's still a game and they're still going to line up the same way we're going to line up. We've got to keep it as what it is."
Nebraska presents the toughest test yet for a young Northwestern team. The Cornhuskers have averaged 292 rushing yards per game, fifth-best in the nation, led by dual-threat quarterback Taylor Martinez and dynamic running back Rex Burkhead.
One of Northwestern's most pleasant surprises has been its stifling run defense, which has allowed just 109.9 rushing yards per game, good for 21st in the nation.
The Cornhuskers are impressed with what Northwestern displays on defense, both in talent and intangibles.
“They’re a good defense, and their really well coached” said Nebraska quarterback Taylor Martinez. “They are going to play their hearts out.”
Northwestern knows what makes a Bo Pelini-coached team unique. The Huskers persevere through grueling, physical practices, which fosters team toughness. That trait is what best characterizes Nebraska.
"They take on Bo's personality," said Northwestern head coach Pat Fitzgerald. "He's a tough guy. He's got great passion. The team plays physically, they play together."
The Nebraska "Blackshirt" defense has struggled, namely in containing the run. The Huskers have surrendered 189.2 rushing yards per game, ranking 95th in the nation. However, the Wildcats must prepare for a schematic challenge from the unique Pelini defense.
"It may not be a traditional Big Ten defense," said NU senior wideout Demetrius Fields. "They play more [man-to-man] defense than others. They're very physical, very athletic, like everyone else that we play. They're really gritty. That will be a joy to play against. Well play them and let the best man win."
The stakes are high as Northwestern and Nebraska meet for the second time as Big Ten foes. The winner will find itself in the driver's seat on a trip to Indianapolis for the Big Ten championship game.
"It's a great challenge, but that's why you play Big Ten football," said Fitzgerald. "We're excited for the challenge."