October 25, 2011

Tuesday notebook: Huskers thrive late in games

One of the biggest reasons for Nebraska's offensive success this season has been its ability to really turn it on and wear defenses down late in the game.

Along with posting the biggest comeback in school history earlier this season against Ohio State, the Huskers have for the most part been at their best offensively in the third and fourth quarters.

The biggest reasons for that are NU's dominant running game paired with an offensive tempo that doesn't allow defenses to rest as long as they're on the field. Head coach Bo Pelini said team conditioning was stressed more than ever over the off-season after offensive coordinator Tim Beck took over and the Huskers switched to their fast-paced scheme.

As a result, they've still been going strong when opposing defenses have been running on fumes.

"I think our tempo wears people down some," Pelini said. "You hope that you're in great shape, and our football team I believe has worked hard during the off-season and during the season. I think we're in really good shape, and you hope that lends to getting stronger as the game goes on."

Following the comeback win over Ohio State, in which Nebraska erased a 21-point third quarter deficit, many of the players said they could see the Buckeyes' defense struggle to keep up as the game went along.

Aside from maybe the Wisconsin game, Husker players have said they've seen the same thing in most games they've played this season.

"Once you hit that seven-minute mark of the fourth quarter, sometimes you can see them start getting a little bit tired," redshirt freshman Kenny Bell said. "Ohio State I thought got a little bit gassed. That's just a testament to our strength and conditioning staff that does a great job with us in the off-season and in season."

Again, a big reason for Nebraska's late-game offensive success has been its running game.

The Huskers are averaging 261.0 rushing yards per game on the season, including 147.9 yards in the second half. They eclipsed 200 second-half rushing yards against Washington and Wyoming, and put up 195 yards on the ground after halftime against Ohio State.

Nebraska will undoubtedly have to continue to rely on its running game as the season rolls along, and with the way things have gone late in games so far, the Huskers' feel that will play in their favor perfectly.

"I think that has a lot to do with our success," junior tight end Kyler Reed said. "We think we're in really good shape. We play a lot of teams with a lot of big guys, and we think if we pick up the tempo, it's hard on them, especially teams that like to substitute.

"If they don't like to substitute much, they've got their guys staying in there. They're d-linemen especially kind of get worn down. We were able to wear Ohio State down and start making big plays."

- Robin Washut

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," 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."

- Robin Washut

MSU's Dantonio praises Huskers

While there's been a lot of talk about Michigan State following its back-to-back upsets of Michigan and Wisconsin, Spartan head coach Mark Dantonio had nothing but praise for Nebraska during his interview on the weekly Big Ten coaches' teleconference on Tuesday.

Dantonio broke down the strengths he's seen from the Huskers on film on both sides of the football, and he was especially impressed with what he saw from Taylor Martinez, Rex Burkhead and the rest of the NU offense.

"They do things that complement their players that allow their players to function at a high level in their scheme, but they also do things off of particular schemes that exploit other areas," Dantonio said. "They're going to have two ro thre or four or five things off of same formations, like most people do, but they're going to create a lot of run-pass conflicts for you and overload you a little bit in terms of how they present an option to you.

"I think the run-pass threat with Martinez, whether he goes back to pass and scrambles or whether he's on an option. Then with Burkhead and just the downhill running and the physicality that he displays when he runs the football. They have a mismatch tight end. They're wide receivers are really very talented as well. I've been very impressed with their offensive line in terms of their technique. So all those things together make them very formidable."

With the talk from the Huskers on Monday about Burkhead possibly being overlooked on the national level, Dantonio said he and the MSU coaching staff certainly have certainly taken notice of what he brings to Nebraska's offense.

"I wouldn't say he's undervalued from where I'm sitting right now, that's for sure," Dantonio said. "I would say that he's extremely tough running back who plays with great effort, catches the ball well, runs the ball, breaks tackles. What we call it, he 'runs through the smoke' and runs through tackles. You've got to get him down. You've got to put him on the ground.

"He does a lot of things for Nebraska in terms of offense. I think he's a tremendous football player. Obviously last year, his sophomore year, he had a big year, and I think he'll probably surpass that year this year. He makes things go."

As for the defense, Dantonio said he had tremendous respect for Pelini and the schemes he's developed everywhere he's coached over the years.

"He's been successful wherever he's been defensively," Dantonio said. "He teaches not only great technique, but schematically, great schemes that they're involved in. They're a very well coached football team. They play at a very high rate of speed. They recruit talented players. So you put all those things together, the equation spells success. I think he's always on the cutting edge of things defensively."

Dantonio will be making his first trip to Lincoln as Michigan State's head coach on Saturday, but he's very familiar with the challenges Memorial Stadium presents to opponents. He coached in Lincoln twice as an assistant at Kansas in 1992 and 1994 and then again as an assistant at MSU in 1996. He's 0-6 against Nebraska in his career, and his teams were out-scored by a combined 279-91 in those games.

"I've been there three times, and three eventful times where we were thrashed pretty good all three times," Dantonio said. "I was always impressed with the fans, their support, the stadium. It would always hit me how the end zones, how many people were in those end zones… I think it's just a great atmosphere and another great experience that our football players are going to have just playing in the Big Ten Conference. We're looking forward to it."

- Robin Washut

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