September 13, 2011

Tuesday notebook: Offensive balance a priority

It wasn't until the key final drive of the game that Nebraska was actually able to effectively pound the ball right at Fresno State's defense with the running game.

While it was encouraging they came through with the physical, clock-chewing drive when they needed to, the Huskers are well aware they need to be able to grind it the entire game.

"No matter how many they have in the box, we expect to be able to run the ball," junior running back Rex Burkhead said. "We expect that execution to come through no matter what and that's kind of how we think. And when we can't get those plays going it kind of upsets us a little bit. We just try to fix what's happening and hopefully it works."

Through the first two games of the season, Nebraska has been noticeably reliant on the big play as its primary source of offense. Rather than chip away on defenses with intermediate runs and passes, the Huskers have been boom or bust when it comes to reaching the end zone.

Combine that trend with their new fast-tempo offense, and the Huskers held the ball for less than 23 minutes of Saturday's game. Of Nebraska's 15 drives against the Bulldogs, only three lasted longer than three minutes, with longest taking up just 3:24.

"It's important, hopefully to wear the defense down… help our offense get more plays in," Burkhead said. "That's a big thing too, we kind of like to increase the tempo to get in and out at a time to keep the defense off balance. But those long drives can definitely wear a defense down and it'll definitely help later in the year."

Head coach Bo Pelini acknowledged Nebraska would have to control the football and the game clock much better than it has the past two weeks, especially when they enter the start of Big Ten Conference play.

However, he didn't seem to think getting a consistent running game going would be much of an issue for the Huskers moving forward.

"I don't have a lot of concern there," Pelini said. "We played an unusual defense. I was more concerned the first week than I was the second. We had a pretty good idea about their style of defense. That is what Fresno struggles with - the big play. They are going to hit you for a lot of no gains but you can hit them with big plays. I knew going in that that is how the game was going to go for us offensively."

Even so, it's not as if the Huskers are complaining too much about being able to score at any time from any spot on the field.

"I'd like us to be more consistent running and being able to throw it, but certainly if we're able to find the soft spot in them and hit it and get some big plays, that's good," offensive coordinator Tim Beck said. "That's kind of part of football sometimes. It's like asking a guy if he's tired of hitting home runs."

- Robin Washut

Choi could see time on Saturday

Offensive line coach Barney Cotton said earlier in the week he wants to make an effort to play more bodies on the offensive line.

One player who may see more snaps this week on the interior is junior guard Seung Hoon Choi. The 6-foot-2, 295 pound walk-on from Lincoln Christian was working with the first team offense for part of Tuesday's practice and said he'll be ready if he gets the call for playing time on Saturday.

"I'm just getting some reps and the coaches want me to get some reps," Choi said. "I've been running with the ones and the twos."

During the portion the media was able to watch of practice on Tuesday, Choi was seen working at the No. 1 left guard spot when the offense came out and did some simulation work.

"He's been working with the one's some this week," senior center Mike Caputo said. "Seung (Hoon Choi) is a great player and I'm you'll see him on Saturday. He's a big strong dude.

"He just works hard and keeps his mouth shut. He just does his job."

-Sean Callahan

Grade still out on Martinez

Statistically speaking, Taylor Martinez has been as productive through the first two games as any offensive player the Big Ten, if not the entire country.

The sophomore quarterback ranks third nationally and leads the conference in with 150.5 rushing yards per game, and he also leads the Big Ten and ranks 14th nationally with 318 yards of total offense per game.

When you look past the numbers, however, things aren't quite as pretty as they seem with Nebraska's signal caller.

Coming into Saturday's game against Washington, the many ups and downs in Martinez's play over the past two weeks have been one of the bigger reasons for concern for the Huskers' offense. He has two interceptions to one touchdown pass, and he's continued to struggle with his fumbling issues.

On one drive last week against Fresno State, Martinez almost accounted for three turnovers on one possession, as he had an interception end in a fumble and recovery by NU on the return, a fumble that was recovered by FSU out of bounds, and he was stopped short on a fourth-and-1 for a turnover on downs.

Beck said Martinez has improved in protecting the ball during contact, but he's had issues with securing it in the open field and along the sideline when he's not expecting to be hit.

"I've talked to him about it," Beck said. "He's got to get out of bounds when he's running. Even there, he almost pulls up as he's running to the sideline, I've noticed watching film. We've definitely visited with it, and it's something I know he's going concentrate on and work this week. He's aware of it and he's working on it."

For Martinez, he's actually felt pretty good about his performance thus far, saying just being able to play 100-percent healthy again has given him a huge lift from last season.

"I feel great just to get back on the field and feel 100% and being able to do what I'm able to do," Martinez said.

- Robin Washut

Stafford's stock on the rise

Very rarely will you see a player move up the depth chart as fast as junior college transfer safety Daimion Stafford.

Stafford arrived to campus just three days before the start of training camp in August, but has already managed to take the starting job away from junior Courtney Osborne.

Stafford finished Saturday's game with 11 tackles and Pelini said he's proud of the progress he's made.

"He has come a long way in a short amount of time," Pelini said. "He plays hard and has done a good job. He is a physical guy and does a nice job of playing the football. He is a work in progress and has a lot to learn but he has come a long way quickly.

"We feel like we have four safeties back there that are good players. We have a couple young guys that we think are on the come too, in (Corey) Cooper and Harvey Jackson. It is a good problem to have at the safety spot."

The challenge for Stafford is making sure he understands all the concepts of Pelini's defense.

Senior safety Austin Cassidy continues to be impressed with how much Stafford has picked up in such a short amount of time.

"It's incredible that someone can come in at the beginning of fall camp and start picking up on what we're doing defensively because it's not an easy defense to pick up," Cassidy said. "To have that level of understanding that you're ready to go out there and start the second week, that's pretty incredible.

"Obviously it's fun to watch what he does. He's all over the place and he's always around the ball making plays, knocking people's heads off. That's fun to play next to someone like that."

-Sean Callahan

Quick hits

***Beck said senior tackle Jermarcus Hardrick, who suffered an ugly dislocated pinky on Saturday and has his right hand in a cast, hasn't missed a single rep in practice this week, and he fully expects Hardrick to play this week against Washington.

"He's a tough kid, man," Beck said. "I appreciate his effort and what he's doing."

***Senior cornerback Alfonzo Dennard (leg muscle injury) did not practice again on Tuesday.

***Washington comes into this week's game boasting the top-ranked rush defense in the Pac-12 Conference. Even though those numbers can be deceiving considering the Huskies have faced two pass-heavy offenses in Eastern Washington and Hawaii, Beck said UW definitely still has a formidable front seven.

"Both teams they've played have been throwing teams, but they are good up front," Beck said. "They do load the box and do a lot of things to try and prevent you from running the football. They did that to us last year, too. We're going to have to find ways to run it."

***Washington comes to Lincoln currently on a six game winning streak, which is tied for the fourth longest in the country. Only Auburn (17), Stanford (10) and Ohio State (8) have won more games in a row.

***The Huskies are plus-5 in turnover margin this season, which is tops in the Pac-12 and sixth in the country.

***Senior wide receiver Brandon Kinnie has just two catches for seven yards in Nebraska's first two games this season, and his lack of production hasn't gone unnoticed by Beck.

"BK worked hard, I expected a big year," Beck said. "It's just for some reason he's struggled a little bit. I know he's disappointed in himself. I think he feels like there were some catches he should've made, but you've just got to keep working through it. All great hitters go through slumps, and maybe he's just in a little bit of a slump right now. But he'll bounce out of it, and we're going to need him. He knows that. We still love him, and he's still working hard."

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