October 26, 2011

Wednesday notebook: Randle ruled out

The depth on Nebraska's interior defensive line was dealt another blow on Wednesday when a team spokesperson confirmed through head coach Bo Pelini that sophomore Thaddeus Randle would not play on Saturday against Michigan State.

Randle suffered a knee injury this week in practice and his status going forward after Saturday won't be determined until some more tests are conducted by NU's medical staff.

Randle was seen at Wednesday's practice on a set of crutches with his right knee wrapped up.

Randle's absence for Saturday's Michigan State game means NU has now lost two of their five best defensive tackles in the last few weeks.

Senior defensive tackle Jared Crick suffered a season ending pectoral injury during NU's win over Ohio State on Oct. 8.

Without Randle in the mix for Saturday, defensive line coach John Papuchis said he'll rely on veterans Baker Steinkuhler and Terrence Moore, along with redshirt freshmen Chase Rome and Jay Guy to carry the load against the Spartans.

Rome made his first career start last week against Minnesota, and Guy was added to NU's travel roster last week from the scout team and played the entire fourth quarter against the Gophers.

"You go with the guys you've got," Papuchis said. "We'll be just fine."

Randle's numbers weren't exactly eye-popping, as he has just eight tackles and one sack on the season. His injury though just delivers another blow to the overall depth of the defensive tackle position.

The good thing though is Papuchis feels like NU has enough depth in place at defensive tackle to get by without Randle on Saturday.

"I think right now we've been fortunate to be able to develop some more depth over the course of the last couple of years that allows us to still be very comfortable with the guys that we've got," Papuchis said. "The depth has been better than it's been.

"That's part of the game and you feel bad for the guys that got hurt, but that's part of the game and you move forward."

- Sean Callahan

Offense ready for physical, aggressive MSU front seven

Nebraska feels it has faced some pretty formidable defensive front sevens already over its first seven games, but statistically speaking, none have been anywhere close to the challenge Michigan State will present on Saturday.

Ranked second nationally in total defense at just 222.9 yards allowed per game, the Spartans ranked in the top 10 in all but one major defensive statistical category. The only area they're not inside the top 10? Tackles for loss, where they rank 20th with 7.6 per game.

Needless to say, Saturday will be a huge test for Nebraska's offense, particularly its offensive line.

"I think it's a great challenge," offensive coordinator Tim Beck said. "Obviously the offensive line, they've got to come to play. We've just got to take care of ourselves. We've got to play well, play with good technique and fundamentals and we've got to play physical. We've got to hang onto the football and those types of things, and play the way we're capable of playing. We've got to worry about ourselves and what we need to do to improve as a football team. I think if we can do those things, I think we'll be in good shape."

The No. 1 match-up to watch on Saturday will be Nebraska's running game against Michigan State's run defense. The Huskers come in leading the Big Ten and ranked seventh nationally with 261.0 rushing yards per game, while the Spartans lead the conference and rank eight nationally against the run at just 88.9 yards per game.

Beck said he would compare MSU's style of defense to what Nebraska saw against Wisconsin and Ohio State, but considering the Spartans knocked off both of those teams already this season, one could argue they'll be the best of the three.

"I think they're very comparable," Beck said. "I mean, obviously they beat those two teams, so you could say they're better than those guys are. Defensively, they're as good a defense as we've faced and probably will face. They're a physical, well-coached, disciplined football team."

The Spartans also boast one of the country's best pass rushes, ranking sixth overall nationally in sacks with 3.4 per game. Senior offensive tackle Marcel Jones said he kind of hopes Michigan State makes an extra effort to rush the passer, saying heavy blitzing teams often leave themselves vulnerable if they don't get to the quarterback.

"Blitzing teams, it's good because if they harp on the blitz, if we pick it up we can gash them," Jones said. "If they blitz and that's all they've got, if we stop the blitz and give Taylor enough time, we can gash them. On the flip side of that, if we miss it, it's a big loss to us. So it's just something to be a little more focused about, watch a little more film on and be a little bit more prepared for."

- Robin Washut

Cousins' mobility better than most think?

Compared to some of the many speedy and athletic quarterbacks Nebraska's defense has faced over the past few seasons, Michigan State's Kirk Cousins looks like a potential sitting duck for the Huskers' pass rush on Saturday.

What Cousins may lack in straight-line speed and shifty moves in the open field, NU defensive coordinator Carl Pelini said, he makes up for with exceptional awareness and presence in the pocket.

"He's more mobile than I think you give him credit for," Pelini said. "There's guys who are real fleet guys, running-type quarterbacks, and there's guys who have a good feel for the pocket and know how to avoid pressure, and that's how I see him. He's not necessarily a guy who likes to get out and run, but he moves his feet and gets out of trouble.

Cousins has just 16 rushing attempts on the season, and most of those came on sacks. Either way, he's rushed for -70 yards on the year, with a season-long run of just seven yards. However, he's only been sacked nine times in seven games, tied for the second fewest total in the Big Ten. Pelini said the Spartans do an excellent job of keeping Cousins upright

"They max protect a lot and keep their backs in (to block)," Pelini said. "They'll keep tight ends in and run three-man routes and two-man routes, especially out of their big personnel, so it's hard to get pressure on them."

Junior defensive end Cameron Meredith said Nebraska has watched a lot from recent Michigan State losses to see what their opponents did well defensively to shut Cousins and Co. down.

Meredith said both Notre Dame earlier this season and Alabama in last year's Capital One Bowl used a lot of pre- and post-snap movement up front along with some heavy blitz packages to fluster Cousins and get him on the ground.

"He's not a scrambler," Meredith said. "We've faced a lot of running-type, dual threat quarterbacks over the years, and he's more of a pocket guy. He just stays in the pocket and looks down the field. He likes staying in the pocket. He doesn't like rolling out.

"We've watched teams that beat them like Notre Dame and Alabama last year, and they kind of did a lot of movement and sent a lot of pressure. I think that will be a big key to the game."

- Robin Washut

Kinnie returning to forefront of passing game

Senior wide receiver Brandon Kinnie's early season slump was well documented over the first few weeks, but he's steadily becoming the factor in the passing game everyone had hoped coming in.

Since the start of Big Ten play, Kinnie has a modest six catches for 88 yards, but he's been a primary target on third downs with three catches to preserve drives on third-down passes.

Last week against Minnesota, Kinnie took a screen pass 61 yards before being brought down just short of the goal line. The play currently stands as the Huskers longest pass play of the season.

Despite his rough start, the Kansas City, Mo., native is tied as the third-leading receiver on the team with 11 catches for 127 yards. It hasn't been nearly the level of production he expected coming into his senior season, but at least Kinnie has finally been able to have a presence on the NU offense again.

"I think I could be better," Kinnie said. "I've been contributing some, but I think I could be better. I think my blocking has been good, but just catching the ball and making plays. Like I said, we run the plays that are called, so you really can only do so much in whatever opportunity you get. I'm just staying at it, staying the course."

If anything, the way Kinnie handled his bad start to the year and was able to work himself back into the mix should serve as a great example for Nebraska's cast of talented young receivers.

By not getting frustrated or upset and maintaining an even-keeled approach, Kinnie showed the perfect way to handle getting out of a slump.

"BK's a thermostat. He's not a thermometer," redshirt freshman Kenny Bell said. "He stays at the same temperature whether he's doing great or not as great. He just keeps himself level headed. I knew he was going to pull out of it. BK's a tremendous athlete and can obviously catch the ball. I wasn't too worried about him, and his demeanor didn't change at all."

- Robin Washut

Quick hits

***In other injury news, linebackers coach Ross Els said redshirt freshman linebacker Trevor Roach did not travel with the team to Minnesota because he's been dealing with a hamstring injury.

"Trevor (Roach) has a little bit of a hamstring injury that he's trying to nurse through," Els said. "We'll see how he does this week. I'm not sure if he's going to be ready to go this week or not."

***Els said it was hard to know how many of his guys woud play this week against the Spartans until they see what MSU comes out in on Saturday.

"The more wide receivers they have in the game the more defensive backs we'll have in the game," Els said. "It just depends on what they show us."

***Defensive backs coach Corey Raymond said Michigan State wide receiver B.J. Cunningham would be the best wide out Nebraska will have faced since Washington's Jermaine Kearse and Wisconsin's Nick Toon. He said Cunningham was an NFL talent.

"He's a big bodied guy, a great athlete who can track the ball well," Raymond said. "He's a big NFL-type guy… They throw the ball a lot and put in their athlete's hands. That's why B.J. Cunningham is a real big time player."

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