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Nebraska’s Big Ten inclusion creates ‘meat-grinder’ division

April 13, 2011

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— The Fisher household figures to be a flash point for the new Nebraska-Iowa rivalry in the Big Ten.

Sean Fisher will be a junior linebacker at Nebraska this fall. Cole Fisher will be a freshman defensive back at Iowa. Cathy Fisher of Omaha might want to invest in one of those half-Cornhusker, half-Hawkeye jerseys for moms with split allegiances.

“My parents make jokes about it pretty frequently,” Sean Fisher said Tuesday during the Big Ten Legends Division spring football teleconference. “Unfortunately, we both play defense, so I don’t think I’ll probably get the opportunity to tackle little brother, which would be fun, unless it’s on special teams. It’s all in good fun within the family.”

Fun isn’t the word Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald uses when discussing the challenges for him and his Legends brethren.

“It’s going to be a meat-grinder,” he said. “You have to find a way to win and move on.”

The Cornhuskers, who leave the Big 12 officially on July 1, figure to have the toughest road to the first Big Ten championship game on Dec. 3.

They play Ohio State, Michigan State, Northwestern and Iowa at home and Wisconsin, Minnesota, Penn State and Michigan on the road. Coach Bo Pelini said the Huskers haven’t worked on any Big Ten opponents in spring practice, preferring instead to focus on shoring up their own areas of concern.

Pelini played at Ohio State and understands Big Ten rivalries. The Huskers haven’t had a true rival since Oklahoma in the old Big Eight days.

Having Iowa as a border rival fits the bill for Huskers fans hankering for a red-letter opponent. The feeling is mutual on the other side of the Missouri River.

“I think the most requested team or opponent through the years has been Nebraska,” Hawkeyes coach Kirk Ferentz said. “When you go to events, people ask, ‘Are you going to be picking them up in nonconference?’ Outside of playing Iowa State, that’s been the most asked question. You get out toward western Iowa, and they’re closer to Nebraska’s campus than ours.”

Making the rounds: Even though Nebraska will play Washington three times in one calendar year, the Huskers will see 24 different opponents in two seasons with their entry into the Big Ten.

The Huskers’ schedule will let them know in a hurry where they stack up in their new league.

“I definitely think it’s a way to measure yourself against some of the competition that has done such great things in terms of going to bowl games and having success,” Fisher said.

Hoke history lesson: First-year Michigan coach Brady Hoke takes over a team that lost six of its last eight games, the last three by a combined 137-49.

That isn’t acceptable in Ann Arbor.

“We’re getting ready to play the 132nd year of football at Michigan in the 2011 season,” Hoke said. “When you have all that legacy, all the tradition that’s there, we’re going to be accountable to it. We’re going to play for the guys who have worn that winged helmet before and understand the expectations are high and should be high. For us, it’s something we need to uphold and embrace and be accountable to.”

Offensive coordinator Al Borges is installing a pro-style system, and former Baltimore Ravens defensive coordinator Greg Mattison’s charge is to shore up the Big Ten’s worst defense.

Defensive tackle Ryan Van Bergen said when he thinks of great defenses, he thinks of those Ravens units molded by Mattison.

“When you come in with a reputation like that,” Van Bergen said, “everything the guy says is gold to you.”

It’s my turn: The wait is almost over for Iowa quarterback James Vandenberg. He’s in line to take over after backing up three-year starter Ricky Stanzi for two years.

Two years ago, Vandenberg started at Ohio State and in a win over Minnesota that clinched an Orange Bowl berth. He saw limited action last season.

“The thing that most impressed me was how James prepared last year,” Ferentz said. “All of us had total confidence if he had been called upon.”

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