October 19, 2010

Tuesday notebook: Poor tackling a concern

After Monday's revelation that Nebraska missed a staggering 28 tackles in its loss to Texas, it was of little surprise that the issue has been a hot topic for the Husker coaching staff this week in practice.

For a head coach who's philosophy revolves around his defense, Bo Pelini was obviously determined to correct the problem as quickly as possible. Though he couldn't recall NU's previous single-game high for missed tackles, Pelini said it was far and away the most he's had since he took over in 2008.

"That would be the worst tackling game I've ever been a part of," Pelini said.

The Huskers' tackling woes were just one of a number of mental breakdowns against the Longhorns. As Pelini and his staff try to find the reasons for the team's sudden collapse in fundamentals, the third-year coach has been left scratching his head as why his defense couldn't seem to bring anyone to the ground on Saturday.

"I don't know," Pelini said. "Like a year ago (against Iowa State), why do you put the ball on the ground nine times? Some things you can't really answer. I'm searching for that answer, why that happened. It's not an easy thing to put your finger on. Is it lack of focus? I don't know. Is it too much want-to? I don't know what it is.

"It's something that comes down to you've got to be the same. You've got to be consistent all the time in your approach. I don't know if that's happening. I don't know. Once again, I'm looking into everything to see what we can do for that not to happen again."

Defensive coordinator Carl Pelini thought it might have been a case of the Blackshirts just being too pumped up and trying to make highlight reel hits instead of focusing on their form and making the sure tackle.

"I think we've been pretty good tacklers to this point," he said. "If you look at the individual missed tackles, a lot of it was just overzealous guys trying to make the big hit in the open field when a good tackle in the open field is just getting the guy down. That's how you've got to approach it. You can't always go for the big hit in an unrestricted space."

While the general theme for Nebraska this week has been moving on from Saturday's loss and focusing solely on getting ready for the next game against Oklahoma State, Carl Pelini said the Huskers' tackling performance would be one the team would seriously evaluate even if they had pulled out the win.

"If you're a coach and you're worth your salt and you're going to do what you preach, you've got to dwell on what you did wrong," Carl Pelini said. "Whether you win or lose, it doesn't matter. You can't change that. We can't go back and change a result, but whether we won that game or we lost that game, we were poor tacklers. If we would've won the game, we still would've dwelled on that. That's just the approach we have to take."

Aside from the missed tackles, Bo Pelini said he was overall pretty pleased with Nebraska's play defensively. However, even if the Huskers did everything else to perfection, he admitted that it wouldn't matter one bit if they couldn't made a tackle when they needed to.

"We didn't play awful defensively," Bo Pelini said. "If we would've tackled we would've been just fine. I mean, they couldn't throw the ball on us, and they ran the ball more because we missed tackles and blew assignments more than anything else. You take care of yourself and good things happen. When you don't, bad things happen.

"It comes down to us. It comes down to us executing our football and (the players) doing things the way they were coached to do it, putting their eyes where they need to be and playing disciplined team defense. That's when you play pretty good. When we do that, we're pretty good. We're real good."

- Robin Washut

Thursday practice takes
Road running: After last week's dismal offensive performance against Texas, a recent trend suggests Nebraska might get a shot in the arm when it travels down to Stillwater, Okla., to take on Oklahoma State. Not because of the Cowboys' defense, which ranks fourth in the Big 12 in rushing defense at 124.5 yards per game, but more because when the Huskers hit the road they seem to run the ball better than ever. In two road games this season, NU has rushed for an average of 417 yards and nearly 8.7 yards per carry along with 11 rushing touchdowns.

Points at a premium: By limiting Texas to 20 points on Saturday, Nebraska extended its streak of holding opponents to 21 or fewer points to 14 consecutive games. Not only is that streak impressive, it's also far and away the longest in all of college football. After the Huskers, West Virginia is currently second at six straight games - eight games behind NU - while Florida State is third at five games. Dating back to the start of last season, Nebraska has held 18 of its past 19 opponents to 20 points or fewer.

Injury report: Head coach Bo Pelini did not report any new injuries for Nebraska during Tuesday's press conference, and he was unavailable to media to give an update following practice. However, there were no noticeable injuries to report.

What's on tap next: The Nebraska football team practiced of in full pads inside the Hawks Championship Center and the fields north of Memorial Stadium on Tuesday. The Huskers will return for another full-padded session on Wednesday as they try and rebound against Oklahoma State on Saturday at 2:30 p.m.

Lee content with his role

After his surprise relief appearance in the third quarter against Texas, senior Zac Lee re-entered Nebraska's quarterback situation once again.

Even though Pelini and offensive coordinator Shawn Watson both insisted redshirt freshman Taylor Martinez would continue to be the Huskers' starting quarterback, some fans argue the offense might actually be better off with Lee playing a larger role.

Whatever his coaches decide to do at the position as the season rolls along, Lee said he's perfectly content with continuing to be ready whenever he's called upon.

"Even though you're the backup, you're still in the game, you're still watching coverages and you're still on the headset between series' and stuff like that," Lee said. "You're still in the game. It takes a second to get warm and stuff like that, but it's not necessarily super difficult.

"You never know, and I think that's the way I kind of look at it. I'm just going to be ready, and if I'm called upon I'll go out there and do my best."

Lee said he entered Saturday's game looking at it as an opportunity to once again showcase what he could do in a big game when his team needed him the most. He said his experience from starting all of last season made it easier to jump right in against one of the Big 12's top defenses, and he didn't feel much rust at all on his first few throws.

Even after essentially being demoted to third string to start the season, Lee said he's continued to prepare as if he were the starter every week. When his number was finally called on Saturday, that consistent preparation definitely paid off.

"I know our coaches don't like pulling a quarterback," Lee said. "I was in that same situation last year, so I know how that goes. It's a hard decision to make. I'm just always going to be ready, and if I'm called upon I'll be ready to go.

"I'm still going to be studying and preparing like I'm the guy. I think that's how you have to prepare."

- Robin Washut

Husker leaders must step up

At one point during Nebraska's weekly Tuesday press conference, Pelini was asked about the leadership within his team and whether he has seen any of his players step up and emerge as vocal leaders since Saturday's loss.

While the Huskes may have plenty of players who let their play on the field do the talking for them, Pelini said part of him is still waiting for some of them to rally the team and become the link between players and coaches.

"I wish that would happen more often, but you always do," Pelini said. "You always wish the team and the players would be more vocal. Leadership happens in a lot of different ways. You don't have to be vocal. It's not about that. A lot of guys lead by example. It depends on what personalities you have on your team. Every team's different that way."

In most cases, the starting quarterback handles the majority of the leadership responsibilities for an offense and even the entire team. In Nebraska's case, though, having such a young QB in Martinez, who is a relative introvert personality to begin with, has had the Huskers looking elsewhere for that voice in the locker room.

"He's finding his place," Watson said. "I think his leadership is by example than it is more than anything else right now, because he's still finding his place. He's still a work in progress, and one of these days he'll develop into that guy who I'm sure just takes everybody with him. But right now, his work is his leadership.

"It's something that in his case he's got to get a feel for it. You can't rush him into it, otherwise it's what - it's phony. If it's phony, it's no good. No one's going to follow that kind of leadership anyway. He just humbly goes about his work and makes his fixes, and I think everybody respects that."

So who are the Huskers' leaders?

The most common answers from the players when asked that question were seniors Roy Helu, Pierre Allen, DeJon Gomes, Keith Williams, Prince Amukamara and Niles Paul.

Paul said he and Helu have made it a point this week to step up their presence in practice and make sure NU comes into Saturday's showdown with Oklahoma State with much more focus than it did last week.

"Me and Roy know that we're going to turn it up in practice a little bit," Paul said. "We're going to turn it up and take it to the next level in practice. Not to say we haven't been practicing hard, but we're going to try and take the next step."

- Robin Washut

Quick hits

***After watching the film from Saturday's game, Paul said he counted eight dropped passes from Nebraska's wide receivers. For him, he said the biggest issue was a matter of making sure his focus was 100 percent on every single play.

"I'm extremely frustrated with myself just knowing that I can make those catches and I've been doing it and I've proved myself worthy of making those catches," Paul said. "Then you get to a game like that and it just doesn't happen. You just have to look yourself in the mirror, man up to your mistakes and refocus on how to get it fixed."

***Pelini said there is no set order on Nebraska's quarterback depth chart behind Martinez, as Lee and sophomore Cody Green should be considered co-No. 2's because they will both come into games based on individual situations and circumstances.

"Like I've said before, we have confidence in all three quarterbacks," Pelini said. "Taylor's the starter, and the other two guys, we use them situationally. Nothing's changed there."

***Sophomore linebacker Will Compton saw his first game action of the season on Saturday, and now with more than a week of full practices under his belt, Pelini said Compton should continue to be a bigger part of the defense.

"He hasn't played a lot of football yet," Pelini said. "He was hurt. But I think he's ready to go now. He has more than just a week under his belt of practice, and I think that helps a guy, and I think he's about ready to go."

***Even though junior linebacker Lavonte David is on pace to set Nebraska's single-season school record for tackles this year, Pelini said David is still struggling with some of the mental aspects of the game.

"He's coming along, but he's still got a long way to go, which is to be expected," Pelini said. "He's learning a lot as he goes. He's real active, he's tough, he's competitive, but he still makes a lot of mistakes. That's part of the deal when you're playing with a young and inexperienced guy, but I am seeing progress.

"(The tackles) shows that he's an active, good football player, but there's a lot more to the game than statistics. I'll put it that way."

***Despite his school-record 95-yard punt return against the Longhorns, Pelini said senior Eric Hagg has not seen any reps at punt returner this week in practice.

***It was pretty obvious that Texas's defense was well aware of the contrasting styles between Lee and Martinez coming into the game.

Said Lee:

"I did notice one of the guys, one of the d-linemen for Texas, when I came in he kind of held up his hand and said 'They're passing! They're passing!' So that was kind of funny. I guess there was a little bit different mindset for them when I came into the game."

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