October 18, 2011

Tuesday notebook: O-line playing with aggression

NU confident run defense will improve

It's a strange sight to see Nebraska ranks towards the bottom of the conference in run defense, but that's exactly where the Huskers are through the first six games of the season.

After being one of the best in college football at stopping the run over the past three seasons, NU has been gashed on the ground for an average of 167.8 rushing yards per game and a dismal 4.5 yards per carry. As a result, the Huskers rank 10th in the Big Ten Conference in run defense and 75th nationally.

While Nebraska was able to pull out a comeback win over Ohio State two weeks ago, the Buckeyes ran wild to the tune of 243 yards and two touchdowns on 41 carries, an average of 5.9 yards per attempt. Even worse, OSU had rushed for 178 yards in the first half alone.

Despite their recent struggles in stopping the running game this season, Nebraska's defensive players are confident their issues are all fixable mistakes that can be easily corrected.

"That's the thing, it's all fixable," redshirt freshman defensive tackle Chase Rome said. "We're not just getting driven off the ball. It's not like we're just getting blown by. You've heard Bo say it before, it's one guy here, one guy there, you know? It's little things, technique wise and kind of just locking in on some focus things that we to mature as a group in doing."

One of Nebraska's biggest problems on defense all year long has been containing mobile quarterbacks. Especially in their past two games against Ohio State and Wisconsin, the Huskers have given up huge chunks of yards to quarterbacks who were able to get out of the pocket and scramble.

The Buckeye's Braxton Miller rushed for 91 yards on just 10 carries, with 79 of those coming in the first half. Had it not been for an ankle injury that forced him out of the game in the third quarter, Nebraska may not have been able to slow him down.

The game before against Wisconsin, Russell Wilson was able to come up with some key scrambles, including a 21-yard scamper and a 10-yard touchdown run. This trend certainly doesn't bode well for the Huskers this week, as they'll face arguably the most athletic quarterback they'll see all year in Minnesota's MarQueis Gray.

Gray leads the Gophers and ranks seventh in the Big Ten in rushing this season with an average of 74.2 yards per game. Senior NU safety Austin Cassidy said it would be up to all three levels of the defense to contain Gray to the pocket and make him try to beat the Huskers with his arm.

"I think you really need to know where you're getting your help on the run, who's in the run fit and where your eyes have to be at all times," Cassidy said. "Usually one of the safeties is going to have help on the run and if you don't have your eyes on the right place at the right time, then either there's going to be a wide receiver running down the field wide open, or the quarterback is going to be at 15 yards before anyone gets to him. You just have to be on top of your game and make sure you're reading the right keys and have your eyes in the right place."

The Huskers are aware of the problems they've had against the run, but they are sure the defense will find some answers sooner or later.

"I look at the details on film, and it's a lot of technique things," Rome said. "It's not things that we can't do, it's things that we aren't doing. We're going to mature as a group, and I think especially with a blow like this, that everybody is going to step their game up, and the attention to detail will be greater. I think it's something we'll get fixed. Bo always says stay focused on the process, and it really is a process throughout the season. You're not a finished product ever, but as the season goes on, you kind of get better and better."

- Robin Washut

Nebraska ties run deep for Minnesota's Kill

When Nebraska takes the TCF Bank Stadium field on Saturday, it will be an all to familiar foe for Minnesota head coach Jerry Kill.

A native of Wichita, Kan., Kill grew up during the peak of the Huskers' success in the Bob Devaney era, and he always tried to model his teams after NU throughout his 26-year coaching career.

In fact, Kill was even partly responsible for producing a pair of brothers who went on to have standout careers for the Huskers.

"I know a lot about the University of Nebraska," Kill said during the Big Ten coaches' teleconference on Tuesday. "I grew up in Kansas… and I coached at Webb City, Missouri, when the Wistrom brothers were there. I coached the oldest one, Chance, and he went to Central Missouri. I think Grant was a freshman at that time and Tracey was an eighth grader.

"So I've got a lot of followings to Nebraska. I've been to a lot of spring practices and games and so forth and watched and observed. I know Coach (Frank) Solich very well and several others, so I know about the rich tradition of Nebraska football and have a great deal of respect for it."

As for the Nebraska team his Gophers will face on Saturday, Kill said he had a lot of admiration for what head coach Bo Pelini has done since he took over the program. He said the tough, physical approach Pelini's Huskers bring to the game is something he would like to establish at Minnesota.

"No. 1, it's their toughness," Kill said. "I mean, they're hard-nosed tough, and I think they simulate their head coach. They're the type of football team we want to be and would like to be. Hard-nosed, tough, they can run the football, they've got a great quarterback, great tail back. I think their quarterback has improved each week, and certainly in throwing the football. They put you in one-on-one situations where you don't want to be.

"From an offensive standpoint, they're physical up front, and from the defensive standpoint it's the same way. They have great special teams, great return guys, and that's why they're one of the better teams in the country. We'll have our hands full and we'll have to play with a lot of heart and toughness, and we'll have to play together."

- Robin Washut

Coaches monitoring Burkhead's workload

As much as Nebraska's coaches might like to, they know putting the ball in junior running back Rex Burkhead's hands every single play isn't a realistic offensive game plan.

With the season now halfway through, Pelini and offensive coordinator Tim Beck are keeping a close eye on how big of a workload they give Burkhead not only in games, but during the week in practice.

Through six games, the Plano, Texas, native has run, caught or passed the ball 116 times, second on the team only to quarterback Taylor Martinez. His 107 carries on the year are the most on the team and are tied for the fourth-most of any player in the Big Ten. Since 2009, Burkhead has 401 career touches.

"You know, we always try to limit Rex because if it was up to Rex, he'd take every snap," Pelini said. "I thought we gave him a little bit of rest last week. Plus we have some young guys at that position we need to continue to develop and get more reps. It's not like we sat him out or anything like that, but we keep that in mind each and every week, what kind of workload somebody might have had and when do they need rest. Do they need a little extra rest?

"Rex is a guy you have to be extra careful with. You could tell him that he has a day off, and he's going to find his way to suit up and sneak himself into the huddle. That's just what his makeup is."

Burkhead would never be one to openly complain about being tired or sore, but he did say he enjoyed the bye week last week as it gave his body a much-needed chance to recuperate.

"It's just that midseason timeout," Burkhead said. "Your body takes a pounding so much throughout the year. It's the perfect time to really get recovered and clear up any bumps or aches that you've had so far. And really to just get recovered fully for the second half of the season."

As much as his body enjoyed the time off, Burkhead admitted just sitting around on a fall Saturday was an unusual experience.

"I just laid around and watched football," Burkhead said. "It was weird on Saturday watching other teams. I just got off my feet and did nothing."

- Robin Washut

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