Undefeated Nebraska ready to play spoiler for Ohio State, Michigan

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Emily McMinn | The Daily Nebrask

Illinois quarterback Wes Lunt (12) falls during the game against Nebraska at Memorial Stadium (Lincoln).

By Dan Escalona, Columnist

With the Cubs becoming the sports story of October, the 2016 election in its death throes, and Ohio State and Michigan dominating the Big Ten, you can be forgiven for neglecting interest in the Nebraska Cornhuskers.

Well, you should look now, because Nebraska football is off to its best start since going to the national championship in 2001.

Following a not-so-pretty victory on the road against Indiana, Nebraska is now 6-0 — along with the seemingly invincible Buckeyes and Wolverines— and a frontrunner to win the Big Ten West.

With the Cornhuskers now in the conversation for a division title and a conference title, it is now high time to consider them as a legitimate threat to spoil the playoff hopes for Michigan and Ohio State.

They may certainly not be getting the attention of the Big Ten East powerhouses, but this Nebraska squad cannot be taken lightly by the team that ends up winning the Big Ten East.

What is driving the Cornhuskers to the best start for the program in 15 seasons?

A combination of vintage Nebraska defense, an efficient running game and a renewed focus from senior quarterback Tommy Armstrong is fueling the Cornhuskers’ success.

Defensively, after both Michigan and Ohio State, the Cornhuskers consistently rank as one of the Big Ten’s top defensive units.

They currently rank fourth in the conference in scoring defense (giving up 18 points per game), total defense and opponent’s third-down conversion percentage. Nebraska is also tied for first with Ohio State for most interceptions in the Big Ten, and the Cornhuskers rank third in defensive pass efficiency.

This current iteration of the Cornhuskers may not yet be the vaunted “Blackshirts” of the past, but you certainly have to like their chances to make life difficult for the remaining teams on the schedule like Wisconsin, Ohio State and Iowa (and Michigan if they meet in the Big Ten title game).

Offensively, Nebraska has seen solid contributions in the running game — good for fourth in the Big Ten in rushing offense. Starting tailback Terrell Newby has averaged 5.3 yards per carry and has rushed for 429 yards and four touchdowns on the season thus far. Newby has split much of the carries with Devine Ozigbo, who averages a solid 4.2 yards per carry along with four touchdown runs.

Of course, Armstrong is another key component to Nebraska’s ground attack. Armstrong is currently the second-leading rusher on the team, averaging 4.6 yards per carry to go with a team-high five rushing touchdowns.

As a passer, Armstrong is flourishing in his second season under the direction of second-year head coach Mike Riley. Through six games, Armstrong has only thrown four interceptions, which puts him on pace for about eight interceptions all season — he had 16 last season.

Armstrong is also on pace to have his best season as the Nebraska starting quarterback in terms of having the highest quarterback rating of his career.

The key to Armstrong having his best season as a senior is likely that he has only been sacked four times this year.

The biggest knock on Nebraska’s success is the relatively weak schedule it has encountered. The team’s strength of schedule is ranked 55th in the country — a ranking likely pushed down due to early-season games against notorious Fresno State and Wyoming.

Nebraska’s one signature win over then No. 22 Oregon has lost most of its impressiveness simply because Oregon is in the midst of a four-game losing streak and sitting at 2-4 on the season. Its only conference games so far have been against average and below-average teams — Illinois, Indiana and Northwestern. Lowly Purdue is coming up this weekend for the Cornhuskers.

The first real chance to see how good this Nebraska squad actually is will be on Oct. 29 under the lights against Wisconsin at Camp Randall. The November schedule will include an intriguing showdown on the road in Columbus and an end-of-season matchup in Iowa City.

Only then can the rest of the country know if Nebraska is truly ready to chuck a screwball into the College Football Playoff picture.

Yet, the real treat in all this is that the Cornhuskers will have a massive say in which Big Ten teams make it, or don’t, to the College Football Playoffs.

It is up to Nebraska to prove that its 6-0 start wasn’t just an aberration but the sign of a team ready to make its presence known in a conference dominated by other teams.

 Dan is a graduate student in Media.

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@danescalona77