September 29, 2011

Thursday notebook: Huskers focused on winning

Since the final second of last week's win over Wyoming ticked off the War Memorial Stadium scoreboard, Nebraska has been zeroed in on preparing for arguably its biggest game of the season.


The No. 8 Huskers find themselves getting ready to travel to take on No. 7 Wisconsin in what could be the most hyped game in the Big Ten Conference this year. With all the attention the showdown has been receiving on a national level all week long, head coach Bo Pelini has done his best to keep his team focused and away from the many outside distractions.


As the Huskers wrapped up their final full practice of the week on Thursday before heading up to Madison, Pelini said he felt good about the way his players have handled the hoopla thus far.


"Our approach doesn't change," Pelini said. "It's just the next game. Our approach doesn't change, so I don't have many worries about that… I thought it was a good week. I thought we had a good week of practice. We'll find out on Saturday. We've got to execute, and it'll be a fun game to be a part of."


Along with the fact that two top-10 teams will be facing off on Saturday, the game obviously carries unprecedented significance in that it's Nebraska's very first Big Ten contest as members of the conference.


Ticket prices for the game have skyrocketed to record levels, and it will also be the feature national primetime broadcast on ABC. As expected, ESPN College Game Day is all set to broadcast from Madison on Saturday.


Still, Pelini said his players have done a good job of ignoring all the attention the game has received over the past week. Just as it's been for every week since Pelini took over back in 2008, he said the Huskers have only been concerned with what they can control.


"It's just the next game for us," Pelini said. "It is just part of the process of what we are trying to accomplish as a team. Historically, it doesn't affect our guys. Obviously, our guys are going to hear about it because you're going to write about it. That means nothing to what you have to accomplish on the field."


Wisconsin's Camp Randall Stadium will be one of the most intimidating venues Nebraska will play in all season, but the coaches say last week's trip to Wyoming was a good warm-up in preparing for what the Huskers will face on Saturday.


Offensive coordinator Tim Beck said having gotten their first road game out of the way, the Huskers are feeling far more excited than nervous about what they'll encounter from the Badger faithful in Camp Randall.


"I think last week was a nice test for us, just because it was an away game," Beck said. "Some people had called it a trap game in between some games, and I thought our guys did OK… I know it'll be different, but I think they're excited. I think the football team's excited for this kind of venue. It's why you come here to play football."


For the players themselves, playing through adversity will be nothing new. Nebraska has already had to fight through some tough games during its non-conference schedule, which the team says gives them a bit of an edge in knowing they can battle back from difficult situations.


"We had a lot of chances this year to tuck our tail, but I think the team got stronger as the game went along," senior offensive tackle Jermarcus Hardrick said. "I think that helped us a lot, because if things do go bad in Wisconsin, we won't dig ourselves in a bigger hole, I think we'll come out of it. I think a lot of that struggling earlier made us stronger."


- Robin Washut


Huge exposure opportunity


Over the next two weeks Nebraska will get a rare opportunity to expose themselves to the entire country on a national television viewing audience on ABC primetime.


NU obviously travels to Wisconsin on Saturday for the college football game of the week, but the Huskers game next Saturday with Ohio State will also be aired in the ABC primetime slot.


"You hope it helps in recruiting," Pelini said. "Obviously the better you play the more it helps you, but just being out there and the exposure you get, I think it's a good thing for the program. It should be a good thing for both programs. A lot of people are talking about this game with everything that kind of surrounds it, and hopefully that'll help us."


When defensive line coach and recruiting coordinator John Papuchis looks at this opportunity, he knows Nebraska has to take advantage of the exposure they're going to get the next two weeks on the national stage.


"It's a huge opportunity," Papuchis said. "To be on the national stage two weeks in a row with College Game Day at Wisconsin and having the opportunity to be the featured game of the week is certainly important for recruiting, but what's more important than that is us going out and playing well.


"We need to focus on preparing this week and hopefully the product sells itself on Saturday."


- Sean Callahan


Badgers know Crick will be a tough test


As could be expected, there's not one player on Nebraska's defensive front seven who's garnered more attention from Wisconsin's players and coaches than senior defensive tackle Jared Crick.


Since the Badgers started officially preparing for Nebraska this week, their offensive line has had a close eye on what has made Crick such a dominant presence while studying game film.


"I think he's a very, very talented player," UW guard Travis Frederick said. "I'm really excited to get a chance to go against him and see where I am. Obviously he garnered a lot of attention last year. Watching him on film you could tell he's a very high level player. I'm really excited."


One thing that has stood out on film the most for Wisconsin's interior offensive linemen is Crick's ability to explode off the line of scrimmage while engaging and shredding blocks exceptionally fast.


"His explosiveness," center Peter Konz said. "I compared him to (Michigan defensive tackle) Mike Martin, somebody who really uses their feet and their hands really well as opposed to just using brute strength to put you around. He's very strong, too, but the thing about him is you have to get on him fast and then you have to keep on him. He's just that good with his feet and his hands. If he knows he's close to the play he's one of those special guys that nine times out of 10 he'll probably make it."


While Crick was forced to sit out of last week's win over Wyoming with an undisclosed injury, he's practiced all week and is fully expected to be back in the lineup on Saturday.


With Crick in the mix, Frederick said Nebraska's front four would be a huge challenge for the offensive line in terms of holding blocks and allowing enough time for plays to develop.


Frederick said he's seen a lot of similarities between Nebraska and Iowa's defensive lines based on the way they attack offensive linemen and get off of blocks quickly. Because of that, he expects Wisconsin to approach the Huskers close to the same way they do the Hawkeyes.


Last season, the Badgers rushed 38 times of their 64 total plays against Iowa for 142 yards and three touchdowns in a 31-30 victory.


"I think they do a lot of similar things," Frederick said. "We focused on that all week because we knew that was going to happen. Again, I think Nebraska is very good at locking out, getting their reads and shedding their block. I think that's something we need to work on this week."


- Robin Washut


Beck confident in Martinez's poise on the road


It seems that whenever Martinez plays well in road games, Nebraska's chances of coming away with a win dramatically increase.


With a full year of starting experience and a number of big time road games under his belt, Martinez says he feels far more poised and in control while leading the Husker offense in hostile road environments.


"Just to know that I've already been there before, and that I've played in that type of environment, and that I'm ready to play in this environment again," Martinez said when asked what about the experience he's gained over the past two seasons. "It should be fun."


Beck echoed Martinez's confidence, saying he saw his quarterback handle all the adversity that comes with playing on the road last week much better than he did last year as a redshirt freshman.


Even though Martinez completed just 12-of-21 passes for 157 yards and rushed for a season-low 37 yards against Wyoming, he didn't turn the ball over and was able to make some clutch plays to extend drives and help put points on the board.


With Camp Randall likely being one of the most hostile venues Martinez will have played in during his young collegiate career, Beck said he's been preaching all week long to Martinez the importance of not getting caught up in the atmosphere and just focusing on what he needs to do on the field.


"You've got to handle the crowd and still be focused on everything that's going on," Beck said. "It's hard, but you've just got to be focused, everybody does, to cadence, to defenses, to how guys are lining up, personnel, all the different things.


"Obviously in a loud environment you have to be able to handle that… Just be who you are. Just go play hard. Don't try to be something you're not. That's where guys make mistakes."


- Robin Washut


Quick hits


***Pelini said Crick was "fine" and was "doing good" after practicing the entire week. Crick missed all last week of practice and the Wyoming game with an undisclosed injury.


***Asked what the some of the keys would be for Nebraska to beat the Badgers, Pelini said ball security and limiting penalties and playing all-around efficient football would be top priorities.


***Many people expect Wisconsin to be the most physical team Nebraska will have faced this season, but Pelini said the game wouldn't be any more physical than any of the first four games of the season.


"I don't think this game will be any more physical than any other game," Pelini said.


***Just as Nebraska cornerback Alfonzo Dennard is excited about going up against star Wisconsin receiver Nick Toon on Saturday, Toon is just as eager to face off with Dennard.


"I look forward to the match-up," Toon said. "It should be fun. He's a good player and I'm looking forward to the challenge. I watched the tape from last week and some film from last year. Like I said he's a good player and I'm looking forward to being matched up against him.


"He's a very physical player and he does a lot of things well. They have some good players over there on the defensive side of the ball. It should be a challenge and it should be fun."


***Running backs coach Ron Brown said the progress of freshmen running backs Braylon Heard, Aaron Green and Ameer Abdullah has gone almost exactly as planned over the first four weeks of the season.


"I think they're learning," Brown said. "My big thing was that they go out there and learn something every day. Like young kids should do, they should be expanding their horizons and being trained in certain things. As I look at it right now, they've all had a chance to play, they've all hit the end zone. Braylon's our third-leading rusher right now. There are certain plays that they run really well, and they provide a dynamic of speed.


"We just want them to get better and better. We found a way to get four of those guys on the field fairly regularly, and they're talented kids who want to play. I've said there's room at the end for the kind of offense we're running. I'm pleased with the way things are going right now."


***While all the credit for Nebraska's success running the football against Wyoming went to the running backs and offensive line, Martinez did his part to help spring a few runs, too. Brown gave his take on Martinez's ability as a blocker, as the quarterback threw at least one good block on the backside of a toss play against the Cowboys.


"He did a nice job on that one," Brown said. "Historically over the years you've seen a lot of Nebraska quarterbacks on the backside of tosses blocking. There are no prima donnas in our offense. Everybody's a player, everybody's a blocker, everybody's got a role on a particular play."


Are the Huskers sure they want their quarterback out there blocking?


"Sure. Why not?" Brown said. "It's helpful when a pitcher hits a home run isn't it? That way he's not just an easy out. Same thing with a quarterback; we don't want him to be an easy out."

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