November 7, 2011

Monday notebook: Wildcats stealing signals?

The problems Nebraska had during Saturday's stunning upset loss to Northwestern were hard to explain after the game, but quarterback Taylor Martinez gave one theory as to the source of the Huskers' troubles.

During Monday's weekly press conference, Martinez essentially accused the Wildcats' defense of stealing NU's offensive signals from the sideline. Possibly through extensive film study of the signals, the sophomore suggested that Northwestern was able to decode the plays and know what the Huskers were going to run before the ball was even snapped.

"They were looking at our sidelines to see what plays we were running, and they were doing stuff like that so maybe they caught on to what we were doing," Martinez said. "They were looking at our sidelines on every single play."

Before every play, Nebraska has four or five coaches and signaling in plays from the sideline though various hand and arm movements. However, only three of those coaches are considered "live" on a given call, meaning the other two are merely used as decoys to help prevent defenses from recognizing signals.

Martinez said he didn't notice Northwestern's defenders observing the play signals until later in the game. When the Huskers finally did catch on to what the Wildcats' were doing, he said they started mixing up their signals to different meanings.

"During the game I kind of caught on that when we would look over (to the sideline) they were looking at me for the play or at the sidelines for the play," Martinez said. "So during the game we kind of mixed up each signal."

Martinez said that was the fist time he had noticed a defense blatantly trying to steal play call signals during a game. He added that he was a bit surprised the Wildcats would take the time to do it seeing how fast paced Nebraska's offense is and how fast it gets to the line to prevent defensive substitutions.

He said he has the option to change the play at the line at any time, which could help deter opponents from zeroing on the sideline signals in the future.

The only way Martinez figured Northwestern could have picked up on the Huskers' signals so quickly would be through extensive film study of the signals made on the sideline before each play and what NU would then run.

"It's Northwestern," Martinez said. "Smart school."

- Robin Washut

Pelini confident in direction of program

A loss like the one Nebraska suffered on Saturday could be viewed as a big blow to the progress of a program looking to take the next step in becoming an annual championship contender.

The Huskers controlled their own destiny in terms of clinching the Big Ten Legends Division title and playing for the conference championship, but now they'll not only need to win out, but get some help along the way as well.

Head coach Bo Pelini was obviously disappointed with the way his team played in a game many thought would be the easiest of NU's remaining regular season contests, but he said his evaluation of the Huskers' progress in his four years in Lincoln hasn't changed.

"I feel good about our progress," Pelini said. "I do believe in the process and what we have accomplished and where we are heading. I'm not always a results oriented guy. A lot of people are and I think there is a lot of other things that go into it. You have to do the best you can and keep getting better and that's what I see.

"Who is to say what will happen as this season ends? What we can control is the next couple weeks and we have our challenges ahead of us. Every year is a little different. The challenges now are a little different than the last few years and next year. You just have to persevere and go."

One reason why Pelini wasn't completely discouraged after Saturday's loss was because he knew every week would be a new challenge for his team in its first ever run through the Big Ten. Having to prepare for an opponent he, his staff or his players had never seen has been a difficult task every week, Pelini said, but that still doesn't excuse the Huskers' performance on Saturday.

As Nebraska tries to regroup and move on this week at Penn State and then on the road again at Michigan, Pelini said this month would be a true test of his team's character and determination as it tries to keep its conference title hopes alive.

The best way to make it through the grind of the final three weeks of the season, Pelini said, was to do what he's preached since his first day on the job back in 2008 - stay the course and focus on the process.

If the Huskers can do that, he said, everything else will fall into place, and the progress of the program will only continue to rise.

"You hope that the players listen to you and take it to heart or believe the hype," Pelini said. "I don't ride the roller coaster. You are challenged as a player every week and you can't buy into the hype or what you are favored by or anything else. You have to be ready to play your best football and find a way to come out each and every week with the type of fire that makes you special. You need the focus that allows you to execute at a high level."

- Robin Washut

Burkhead holding up despite heavy workload

Part of it was because of Northwestern's defense and part was his offensive line not opening up many holes, but there was still something visibly different about Rex Burkhead in Saturday's loss.

Yards were much harder to come by for the star junior running back, as his 69 yards on 22 carries were 41 fewer than his season average coming into the game. Many pointed to his 35 carries the week before against Michigan State as a big reason for Burkhead's off day, as maybe the workload was starting to get a little heavy for the Plano, Texas, native.

As much as Burkhead shakes off the idea that he's being asked to do a bit too much in the running game, Pelini said in retrospect he likely would have rotated any or all of his three freshmen running backs into the game to help reduce the beating Burkhead ended up taking against the Wildcats.

"Anybody can be an armchair quarterback," Pelini said. "The other day I thought we could have rested him more, but I think it was a culmination of things that happened in that game. He said he felt good going in and I thought he looked good early. He took a shot that affected him a little bit.

"I think he is a little beat up. He took a shot early in the game and Rex is a guy that is not always going to tell you how he is feeling. I think he will be Ok. He is nicked up a little bit and we will rest him this week. We can maybe reduce his load a bit here and there and take care of him during the week. He will be ready to go."

Burkhead's teammates are well aware of the importance of his role in Nebraska's offense, but none see any problem with him putting the team on his shoulders as long as he's physically up for the challenge.

"I don't think Rex Burkhead can be overworked," redshirt freshman receiver Kenny Bell said. "The workload capacity he has, no, he's not getting overworked."

Said sophomore offensive tackle Jeremiah Sirles:

"I would have no one else that I'd rather have that workload. Rex is just such a great person, a great football player, a great competitor. If there's anyone that I could trust to put that workload on week in and week out, it'd be Rex… It's Week 10. No one's going to feel like they did in Week 1 or 2. I mean, that guy just takes a beating every game we play, and I just think he's going to fire through it, and I feel like he gets stronger as the season goes on."

- Robin Washut

Offensive line unhappy with performance

Less than 24 hours after Saturday's extremely frustrating loss to Northwestern, Nebraska's offensive linemen got together like they always do to watch film of the game and try to figure out what exactly went wrong.

As could be expected, it wasn't a happy mood in that film room, as the offensive line had just been held to only 129 rushing yards on 35 carries by the Wildcats and were dominated for the majority of the game, especially in the third and fourth quarters.

After going through the entire game tape and seeing all the mistakes that turned potential big plays into losses or short gains, the overlying theme for the offensive line was they were their own worst enemy more often than not.

"A lot of it was just we didn't take of ourselves, a lot of shooting ourselves in the foot," Sirles said. "I mean, Northwestern came out and played a hell of game, I take nothing away from them, but it was just a lot of everyone took their turn (making mistakes). The thing with the offensive line is if all five guys aren't working together, it's not going to work."

Part of the reason for Nebraska's mistakes up front was because of confusion cause by they way Northwestern spread out the line of scrimmage. Through a lot of post-snap lateral movement along the line instead of coming right at offensive line, Sirles said the Wildcats were able to hit running gaps before blockers could get there.

That defensive strategy had its biggest impact on NU's option game, as Northwestern's defense was able to pursue Martinez's while still having contain on the outside to account for the pitch man.

"It was a missed block here, and with the option, if you miss one block and you have two guys to pitch off of instead of one, it's never going to work," Sirles said.

As disappointing as the game was to watch again on film, Sirles said he was encouraged by the way the offensive line seemed to respond afterwards. Knowing the Huskers' offense relies almost entirely on their performance, Sirles said the unit was determined to clean up its play and dominate in their remaining three regular season games,

"We were all pretty frustrated," Sirles said. "We were all pretty hard on ourselves, which I think is good. We went and watched film and we realized we have a lot better football ahead for us to play that we need to keep pushing to find.

"I think we showed we were able to bounce back pretty good against Wisconsin. I feel like we just need to keep pushing and we'll be fine. We've got to earn it this week in practice, and that's what's going to make the difference."

- Robin Washut

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