October 4, 2012

Q&A: Examining the Buckeyes and Huskers

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COLUMBUS, Ohio - In what should be one of the wilder atmospheres in college football all year, the No. 12-ranked Ohio State football team will welcome No. 21 Nebraska into Ohio Stadium this weekend for an 8 p.m. kickoff. In order to get a different perspective on this weekend's Big Ten battle between the Buckeyes and Huskers, I sat down with Sean Callahan of HuskerOnline.com for a question and answer session about this weekend's game.

BA: Given the come-from-behind nature of last year's Nebraska win over Ohio State and even the Huskers' win over Wisconsin last week, this team really has to feel like it's truly never out of a game. What is it about this Nebraska team that doesn't allow it to ever be counted out?

SC: In some ways Nebraska is almost a team that does better under controversy or when it's in a big hole. Under Bo Pelini some of his greatest moments as a head coach happened when either everybody counted them out or they were a big underdogs. It goes all the way back to 2008 when the they won the Gator Bowl and shut down a Clemson offense that featured C.J. Spiller and Jacoby Ford. Earlier that year they were a fourth down stop away from beating Mike Leach's best Texas Tech team ever in Lubbock with a defense that featured several walk-on starters.  Or even in 2009 when they beat Oklahoma when everybody counted them out and later that year when they took 12-0 Texas all the way to the wire when they were big underdogs.

For whatever reason, Pelini's teams play much better when it's a "us against the word attitude." It's something that Pelini has always played up and the team plays their best in that role. Another example would be last year's 24-3 win over Michigan State after the Spartans beat Wisconsin the week before and Nebraska was drilled by the Badgers a few weeks before that.

When Nebraska has been expected to win big games under Pelini that has almost been when they play their worst. The team for whatever reason plays better when their backs are against the wall. It's obviously a formula not built for consistency, hence why Nebraska has kind of been stuck in a 9 to 10 win spot and can't take that next step to 11 or 12 wins under Pelini. However, with the Big Ten in the spot it's in right now, it's definitely not out of the question for this team to get there in 2012.

BA: Last year, Taylor Martinez obviously didn't seem like he wasn't the greatest passer in the world, but was a guy that could be counted on to get in a rhythm and make plays when he needed to. How was he progressed since the last time Buckeye fans saw him?

SC: I think the biggest thing we've seen is just more confidence from Taylor when he's back in the pocket. The second half of the Ohio State game last year was the turning point for him I feel. Over the final 7 ½ games of the season Martinez only threw two interceptions and he has just one this year. So if you were to take his last 50 quarters of football he's thrown only three picks, compared to 10 interceptions the previous 48 quarters.

He's a much better game manager and he knows when to run and when to check it down. He doesn't expose his body to unnecessary hits near as much as he did before, and he knows how to throw balls away and not take big sacks.  There's been several growing pains along the way, but he's definitely become a much better all-around quarterback. Joe Ganz, NU's former starter in 2008 is Nebraska's graduate assistant/QB coach and I think Joe has done an excellent job of teaching what he learned from guys like Bill Callahan, Shawn Watson, Zac Taylor and Tim Beck and passed that QB knowledge on to Taylor.

BA: Defensively, how do the Huskers compare to last year's squad?

SC: The biggest difference is they don't have Lavonte David and Alfonzo Dennard. Those two guys were such playmakers a year ago, and you are seeing it from David already in the NFL as he had 14 tackles for Tampa Bay this past Sunday.

This year I think NU has made a concerted effort to be more aggressive with their scheme. They are blitzing more and turning their defensive line and linebackers loose. They currently lead the Big Ten in both sacks and tackles for loss. Under Pelini they have never been in this position, because he's always a believer in keeping seven men in coverage whenever he can and letting his defensive line do the work up front and force pressure. I think this year he's been more creative in finding ways to get pressure on the quarterback and their last three games have been very good on defense.

BA: Ohio State coach Urban Meyer has already described the atmosphere that he expects for Saturday as "insane." Are the Nebraska players and coaches excited for a primetime matchup like this or is it business as usual for them?

SC: The thing Nebraska has going for them is this will be their third primetime match-up of the season. They played at night at UCLA and had a night game against Wisconsin last week. A year ago they also played night games with Ohio State and Wisconsin. So these type of games are nothing new for Nebraska.

The hardest thing with playing at night on the road is keeping your emotions bottled up all day in a hotel room. That was the problem last week for Nebraska. They almost came out too hyped up and it affected their play at the beginning of the game and they fumbled three of their first nine plays and two of their first four plays to let Wisconsin jump up on them 20-3. That can't happen again this week on the road. You can get away with that home, but it's  a whole different story with 105,000 "prepared" fans screaming against you. They've addressed that this week and said a fast start is absolutely crucial if they want to get a win.

BA: With this being the fifth year that Pelini has been at Nebraska, and his second in the Big Ten, how would you describe the current state of the Huskers' program?

SC: That's hard one to answer. People can get so uneasy at times, mainly because there have been some really bad losses the last couple of years to teams like Wisconsin, Michigan and Texas. The main thing people want right now is a conference title. It's been since 1999 when Nebraska last won a league championship. They were really close in 2001, 2006, 2009 and 2010, but came up short. People are almost getting impatient.

Pelini has really brought solid 9 to 10 win stability to the program, as they are only one of seven teams in college football that has won 9 or more games the last four years. The next step that has to happen now is either a league title or at least a BCS at-large bid. For the most part people are very happy with where the program is under Pelini. The Omaha World Herald ran a survey on Pelini, and he had a 78 percent approval rating amongst Husker fans. It's the vocal minority that really makes their voice heard, but in general I think most people are very much behind Pelini and what he's accomplished.


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