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No. 14 Nebraska hoping for title luck vs. Badgers

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No. 14 Nebraska hoping for title luck vs. Badgers

INDIANAPOLIS (AP) Nebraska's Will Compton may never forget the agonizing details of his first two conference championship game.

A third one could finally put those nightmares to rest.

On Saturday night at Lucas Oil Stadium, No. 14 Nebraska will rely on some of the lessons from losses in the 2009 and 2010 Big 12 title games as they try to claim their first Big Ten crown.

``We've been there a couple times and we've even tasted winning a championship because we ran out there the first time against Texas before we got that called back. So we've tasted the winning,'' Compton said. ``We've got to do everything necessary to not be in those positions again and get it done this year.''

Despite being one of only seven schools with 800 wins (856), appearing in 34 consecutive bowl games from 1971 to 2003 and winning 43 conference championships, the Cornhuskers (10-2, 7-1) haven't claimed a conference crown since 1999.

It's not been for lack of effort.

In 2009 against Texas, Nebraska started celebrating when Colt McCoy's errant pass sailed out of bounds as time expired. After a replay review, the officials added 1 second to the clock - enough time for Hunter Lawrence to make a 46-yard field goal as time expired again, sending the unbeaten Longhorns into the national championship game with a 13-12 victory.

A year later, Nebraska was back. This time, it jumped to a 17-0 second-quarter lead against longtime rival Oklahoma, surrendered the lead before halftime, got the lead back on a 42-yard field goal with 8 seconds left in the half, and then got shut out in the second half. Oklahoma hung on for a 23-20 victory in Nebraska's final Big 12 game, preventing the Huskers from reaching a BCS bowl.

So when this week began, Compton and the upperclassmen didn't need any reminders about championship games past.

``It's very motivating for our team and the whole state of Nebraska, they haven't had a conference championship since 1999, and we're really excited to go out and play for our third one in four years,'' quarterback Taylor Martinez said. ``Hopefully, we can bring this one home.''

It's been such a strange year in the Big Ten that Nebraska isn't even facing a ranked opponent in Indy.

The league's best team, No. 4 Ohio State (12-0), can't play because it is ineligible for the postseason under NCAA sanctions. Resurgent Penn State couldn't play, either, because of the same reason. The only other ranked teams in the league, No. 21 Michigan and No. 22 Northwestern, are in the same division as Nebraska, putting the stumbling Badgers (7-5, 4-4) in the title game.

Wisconsin comes into the game after back-to-back losses to the Buckeyes and Nittany Lions, three losses in overtime this season and two by a field goal, including a 30-27 defeat Sept. 29 at Nebraska.

But the Badgers do have Montee Ball, a Heisman Trophy finalist in 2011 and the new career touchdown leader in the Bowl Subdivision, and a long history of performing well with titles at stake. Wisconsin has been to the last two Rose Bowls and is trying to become the first Big Ten team to make three straight trips to Pasadena, Calif., in more than two decades. Michigan last achieved the feat following the 1987-89 seasons.

And a year ago, Wisconsin passed its initiation into these title games by holding off Michigan State in Indy.

``The thing I remember about that game was the environment was something that every player dreams of. It was great. The lights, the cameras, the energy on our sideline, and we hope it's very similar this weekend,'' Ball said. ``You play on a pro field, so that's very special and it felt like a bowl game. It was just very fun to be a part of.''

Wisconsin made it back to Indy despite losing quarterback Joel Stave with a broken collarbone for the final month of the season and going with little-used Curt Phillips at quarterback. Phillips has been sacked nine times in the last three games, and Badgers linebacker Chris Borland has been bothered by a leg injury.

``They are different situations and I think we have different teams, too,'' Borland said comparing this year's trip to Indy against last year. ``There's no lull in excitement, though. We do come into this year with five losses and that's different, but we're not that far off from being undefeated, so I think we'll come into this game with a lot of excitement and try to win our third straight championship.''

Nebraska, meanwhile, would settle for just one elusive December win.

It should have running back Rex Burkhead, who returned from a sprained left knee last week against Iowa, , and the Cornhuskers have won six straight.

Will it be enough to win a title? The upperclassmen can only hope so.

``It's good to be back in a conference championship game again,'' Burkhead said. ``The first two times we were in it, it was kind of a bum deal. Being part of Coach Bo (Pelini's) first recruiting class, we had it as one of our goals to win a conference championship, and we have a chance to do that.''

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Despite all the challenges of the early season, Reirden’s promotion still a ‘dream come true’

Despite all the challenges of the early season, Reirden’s promotion still a ‘dream come true’

Since taking over as the head coach of the Washington Capitals, Todd Reirden has had to deal with Tom Wilson getting suspended, a number of injuries and a team-wide Stanley Cup hangover.

So how would he describe the start to his first season as an NHL coach?

“It’s obviously a dream come true,” Reirden told NBC Sports Washington in a recent interview.

Reirden’s playing career came to an end in Europe in 2007, but his coaching career really began in 2004 while he was a player with the Houston Aeros of the AHL. Out with an injury, head coach Todd McLellan encouraged Reirden to take more of a coaching role with the team. It didn’t take long for Reirden to realize his real future in the game was as a coach and not as a player.

Reirden climbed the ranks as a coach from college, to the AHL and finally to the NHL. He spent the last eight seasons in the NHL behind the bench as an assistant and associate coach before finally getting the opportunity to become a head coach.

“Something when you start coaching just as I used to think about as a player, was the ultimate was to be able to play at the highest level,” Reirden said. “I was able to do that as a player and now able to see that dream come true as a coach. First things first is it's been amazing from that standpoint.”

The history of the NHL – and all professional sports for that matter – is full of assistant coaches who just could not make the transition from assistant to head coach. There is no doubt Reirden knows what he’s doing when it comes to the development of players and on-ice strategy. The last few years working with the Caps as an assistant and then associate coach have shown us that.

But being a head coach is about more than just what happens on the ice. That’s the part that first-year head coaches seem to struggle with initially.

“How everything works behind the scenes in terms of organizationally, dealing with the salary cap and sending down players, keeping them on board and the constant contact with Hershey,” Reirden said. “You spend a lot of time on those type of things. It's been a little bit of a transition too I would say with two new staff members in terms of how I'm delegating responsibility and empowering them in their particular areas. That's probably been the things that have been the most different for me.

“The hockey part, the coaching part, talking to the players in between periods, the media, that stuff has all gone really smoothly,” Reirden said. “No real transition there. But I'd say more the stuff behind the scenes is the stuff that's been a little bit different than expected.”

Reirden is certainly getting a crash course on roster construction given the recent spate of injuries and recalls. That has unquestionably affected the play of the team and is a major reason why the Caps have looked so inconsistent to start the season. It is not how Reirden would have scripted his first season to start.

But even with everything his first season has thrown at him and a 9-7-3 record, Reirden still feels like he is exactly where he wants to be.

“Every day is a chance for me to grow and get better and get used to responsibilities as a head coach,” Reirden said. “So it's been a lot of fun and definitely a challenge, but something I love and wouldn't trade places with anybody in the world for.”

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Three things to watch for Wizards vs. Blazers, as John Wall and Damian Lillard square off

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Three things to watch for Wizards vs. Blazers, as John Wall and Damian Lillard square off

John Wall, Bradley Beal, Dwight Howard and the Washington Wizards take on Damian Lillard, C.J. McCollum, Jusuf Nurkic and the Portland Trail Blazers. Tipoff is at 6 p.m. on NBC Sports Washington. 

Here are three things to watch...

Schedule heats up

The Wizards really needed that one on Friday night. Though the Nets, even without Caris LeVert, aren't an easy out, the Wizards wanted to fully take advantage of a soft spot of their schedule. It's tough to lose to the Nets when you consider the road ahead.

The Wizards play seven straight games against teams at .500 or better. That includes a road game against the Raptors, who are tied for the league's best record. They also see the Rockets, the Pelicans twice and play at the Sixers. It all begins Sunday against the Blazers, who are tied for the fourth-best record in the NBA.

Rematch

Most of the Wizards' games this season have been lopsided one way or the other, and usually in the direction they would not prefer. But they have played a few close games and their most entertaining one happened to come against this same Blazers team.

The Wizards and Blazers went to overtime on Oct. 22 in Portland. The Wizards forced the extra period thanks to a three by Bradley Beal, and they won thanks to Otto Porter Jr. blocking Damian Lillard's shot in the closing seconds. 

The Wizards and Blazers have played some classics in recent years. Markieff Morris beat them with a game-winning three two years ago and last season Beal dropped 50 at the Moda Center. The matchup between both teams' star guards seems to bring the best out in everyone.

Howard vs. Nurkic

Much of the focus in this matchup is always on John Wall and Beal vs. Lillard and C.J. McCollum, but there will be a lot of action in the paint with Dwight Howard going up against Jusuf Nurkic. The Blazers are one of the best rebounding teams in the game and Nurkic, who pulls in 10.7 per game, is a big reason why. Nurkic also averages 15.5 points.

Howard is coming off his best game as a Wizard. He had 25 points and 17 rebounds against the Nets on Friday night. He was hurt when the teams first met in Portland.

Both are bruisers around the rim who don't stretch the floor with outside shots. It should be a physical battle on Sunday night.