September 26, 2011

Monday notebook: Huskers avoiding the hoopla

The week every Nebraska fan has been waiting for since the 2011 Big Ten Conference schedules were released roughly 13 months ago has arrived.

The Huskers are finally getting ready to play their first ever conference game as members of the Big Ten, and it just so happens they'll be facing Wisconsin, the No. 7 team in the country and the preseason favorites to win the league.

ESPN College Gameday has already confirmed it will be in Madison, Wisc., for Saturday's contest, and there might not be a bigger game this week in all of college football, if not one of the biggest games all season.

Head coach Bo Pelini knows full well that the hoopla surrounding this week will rival any he's experienced in his previous three seasons at Nebraska, but as far as what goes on within his program, he insists things will be business as usual this week for the Huskers.

"I don't pay attention to that stuff," Pelini said. "That's for you guys. You guys approach it any way you want. We don't talk about if we are underdogs or 30-point favorites. Our approach doesn't change… We don't really pay attention to what people think. We are playing a good football team. They're a well-coached, good football team, in a tough environment. At the end of the day, it doesn't matter what people think. It's going to be won or lost on the field."

As much as Pelini may want to play down the anticipation and overall importance of Saturday's showdown with the Badgers, it's not as if he won't use a bit of the hype as motivation for his players.

Though Pelini won't admit to it publicly, senior offensive tackle Jermarcus Hardrick said Pelini has used disparaging articles and quotes from opponents to psyche up the Huskers during game weeks.

Hardrick said Pelini did it just a few weeks ago before the Fresno State game, when a Bulldog defender said Nebraska's offensive line wasn't as good as California's, which Fresno had played the week before. The player went on to say he expected FSU's defense to dominate the Huskers up front.

Beginning on the first offensive line position meeting of that Monday, Pelini and o-line coach Barney Cotton read that quote to the unit before every meeting the rest of the week.

"I know Coach Pelini really don't get into the media and things," Hardrick said, "but if something does pop up in the media and things like that, he will hold something up and tell us to get us pumped or he'll find an article that says something like we're not good enough, things like that."

As far as public perception goes, Nebraska is being pegged as a fairly big underdog coming into the game. After the initial point spread had Wisconsin as seven-point favorites, the line had already moved to 10 points by Monday afternoon.

For a spread to jump that much so quickly, it means many people didn't hesitate to put money on the Badgers to pull out a convincing win.

It may only be Monday, but there already seems to be plenty of motivation for the Huskers to prove their doubters wrong.

"Everybody on the team, we have something to prove," sophomore quarterback Taylor Martinez said. "We're ready to shock the world."

- Robin Washut

Huskers ready for rowdy Camp Randall

Wisconsin's Camp Randall Stadium is regarded as one of the rowdiest venues in college football, but Nebraska's players don't seem to be all that concerned about handling the hostile environment.

Pelini's teams have generally been as good if not better on the road than they are at home, as last week's win over Wyoming bumped NU's road record up to 12-4 since 2008. On the other side, Wisconsin comes into the game as one of the better home teams in the country, winning 11-straight home games.

Still, having played in all sorts of raucous stadiums like Texas A&M, Virginia Tech, Oklahoma and Washington over the past three years, the Huskers say they're ready for whatever the Badger faithful will throw at them.

"That's my favorite thing is going on the road and playing in front of loud crowds and I think we do better off of that," Martinez said.

The Huskers said playing on the road last week would be a big help in preparing for a much louder game on Saturday. For the offense in particular, this will be the second week in a row they will have heavily practiced their silent counts and running their fast-paced style while using loud simulated crowd noise and music.

"I think (the Wyoming game) benefited us a lot just because it was the first time away and a lot of younger players have never played on the road before," Martinez said. "Going from that away game to this away game, I think it'll help a lot."

Pelini said he's also much more confident with Martinez leading the offense on the road than he was last season. As a true freshman in his first year as a starter, Martinez guided NU to a 4-3 record on the road, losing the last three games away from Memorial Stadium.

"I've said I feel that Taylor is much more in control and a much better football player than at this point last year," Pelini said. "I'm a lot more comfortable because he has a year under his belt."

- Robin Washut

Running game hitting full stride

Probably the most impressive aspect of last week's win over Wyoming was the way Nebraska controlled the line of scrimmage offensively and ran the ball all over the Cowboys, especially in the second half.

The highlight of the night was obviously running back Rex Burkhead, who's career-high 170 yards and two touchdowns were one of the biggest differences in the entire game.

On Monday, Burkhead said the Huskers' running game is starting to hit on all cylinders, and the timing couldn't be much better.

"You could see it in the game (against Wyoming), just the way we're operating and the execution of blocks and stuff like that," Burkhead said. "We still had some mistakes that we can improve upon, but just seeing the transition from Week 1 to now has been tremendous on film."

Wisconsin comes into Saturday's game boasting the Big Ten's third-best rushing defense, allowing just 89.2 yards per game on the ground this season.

However, the Badgers haven't faced a running game anywhere close to Nebraska's through the first four weeks. The Huskers have two of the top-20 rushers in the country in Burkhead and Martinez, as Martinez ranks 18th nationally with 422 yards and Burkhead, just one yard behind him at 421, ranks 19th.

The Badgers' front seven will also face its biggest test thus far from Nebraska's offense. Hardrick said the Huskers' combination of speed, physicality and fast tempo would be unlike anything Wisconsin had seen.

"We've got speed everywhere, and we're going to run option and be physical," Hardrick said. "We're going to be physical, and I don't think they've seen anybody be physical yet or played nobody that's been physical yet. I think we've got a great chance to wake them up."

- Robin Washut

Quick hits

***Defensive coordinator Carl Pelini said defensive tackle Jared Crick looked as good as new in his first practice back on Monday since suffering an undisclosed injury against Washington.

"He looks good," Carl said. "He looks like Jared. He feels 100 percent. You cautious with those injuries, but he was really chomping at the bit Saturday night, and he would've gone if we would've let him."

***Assuming Crick is good to go this week, Saturday will mark the first time Crick, linebacker Lavonte David and cornerback Alfonzo Dennard will have been on the field together this season. Carl Pelini said having his full compliment of defensive stars will be a huge lift against the Badgers.

"It'll ease my pain a little bit," Carl said. "It's nice to have your guys back and healthy, and they all looked good out there today. It was good to see."

***Saturday won't be the first time Bo Pelini will have been on the same field with Wisconsin head coach Brett Bielema. Turns out their relationship goes all the way back to 1991 when Pelini was a graduate assistant at Iowa and Bielema was a defensive lineman for the Hawkeyes.

"He was very physical, the same way he coaches," Bo said. "He played with great intensity. I was there his junior year. He was a captain and everything else. He was a good football player and his success as a coach doesn't surprise me because of his approach and type of person he is."

***Hardrick said he and the rest of the offensive line had an especially difficult time dealing with the 7,220-foot elevation of Wyoming's War Memorial Stadium.

"I don't ever want to go back to Wyoming again," Hardrick said. "I couldn't breathe. A lot of couldn't. We run a fast-paced offense, and after two plays your mouth goes dry and you just couldn't breathe out there."

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