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Nebraska 1 win from berth in Big Ten title game
By LUKE MEREDITH
IOWA CITY, Iowa (AP) It's been 13 years and one seismic league change since Nebraska won a conference championship.
One more win against downtrodden Iowa will move the Huskers a step closer to their first Big Ten title.
The surging Huskers (9-2, 6-1 Big Ten), winners of their last five games, play at Iowa (4-7, 2-5) on Friday for the first time since 1999. A berth in the league title game against Wisconsin on the line for the Huskers.
"We have a lot of maturity on the team and I think we know we have to beat Iowa for us to go to the Big Ten Championship," Nebraska quarterback Taylor Martinez.
Nebraska can still reach the title game with a loss if Michigan falls to Ohio State on Saturday. But few expect it to come to that. The Huskers are considered heavy favorites to beat the Hawkeyes, losers of their last five, and book its trip to Indianapolis.
The annual Nebraska-Iowa game on the day after Thanksgiving was supposed to be one of the marquee matchups of the new-look Big Ten.
But the Huskers are playing as well as anyone in the league outside of Ohio State - and hardly anyone has been worse than Iowa over the past month.
Nebraska has regrouped after a humbling 63-38 loss to Ohio State. The Huskers had a comeback win over Northwestern and thumped Michigan 23-9 to earn what's turned out to be a crucial tiebreaker in their division.
Nebraska survived close games with Michigan State and Penn State before trouncing Minnesota 38-14 last weekend.
The Huskers have seemingly put their poor defensive efforts in losses to UCLA and the Buckeyes behind them. But coach Bo Pelini also believes that coordinator Tim Beck's offense has been just as important to Nebraska's success as its defense.
"I can't say enough (about) what coach Beck and the offensive staff have done offensively. I think he has done a phenomenal job. They make adjustments every week, they practice and have gotten better every single week and I think they are playing at a very high level," Pelini said. "I think offensively we have played at a high level all year, and I think right now we are kind of hitting stride and playing pretty good in all phases of the game and that's got to continue."
Iowa won't be bowl eligible for the first time in 12 years.
What began as a shaky start for the Hawkeyes has disintegrated into a complete collapse.
Though Iowa has played in six games decided by three points or less - more than anyone else in the country - Michigan left little doubt about how far the Hawkeyes have fallen in a 42-17 blowout last week.
The Wolverines scored touchdowns on their first six possessions, leaving exasperated coach Kirk Ferentz to search for answers during an offseason that'll be much longer than anyone in Iowa City thought possible.
"We're 4-7 right now. That's what we are. So be it talent, coaching, performance, whatever, there are a lot of things that go into results," Ferentz said. "Typically, it's not quite as bad or quite as good as you think. Again, that's for another day."
Nebraska won the first installment of this new rivalry 20-7 in Lincoln a year ago. The Huskers didn't exactly light up the scoreboard, but their defense shut down what had been a decent Iowa offense.
This year the Hawkeyes are worse on both sides of the ball, and Nebraska looks like a team primed for two more wins and the league's coveted Rose Bowl spot.
It's gotten so bad in Iowa City that one of the main fears among Hawkeyes fans was that Kinnick Stadium will be flooded with Nebraska supporters who snapped up tickets from frustrated Iowa fans.
If the game goes the way most expect, there will be a ton of Nebraska red in Indianapolis next week as well.
"I think we know what we have to do," Martinez said.
Follow Luke Meredith on Twitter: http://www.twitter.com/LukeMeredithAP
Updated November 22, 2012