Football Insider: Nebraska Pre-Game

Football insider Jack Whitver takes a look at the Cyclones' Big 12 battle with Nebraska Saturday afternoon at Jack Trice Stadium. ISU will be gunning for three consecutive conference victories and first place in the North. Whitver believes the passing game will need to make some plays for a Cyclone victory.

CN: Already possessing back-to-back Big 12 victories, what would a triumph over Nebraska this weekend do for this Cyclone program?

Whitver: A victory this weekend would rejuvenate the Cyclone program. If the Cyclones win, they will be in the driver's seat for the Big 12 North title. Iowa State has never been this far into the season and still had a chance to win the North, so it would be a huge win. Even though the North is obviously weaker than it has been in the past, that is totally irrelevant. The only thing that matters is who ends up the winner.

CN: Reflect on Iowa State's win over the Huskers during 2002, a game you were a part of. What did it mean to the program? How did it rate in all of the victories you were a part of? What was the post-game locker room like? Feel free to go into detail on each.

Whitver: At the time, it looked like the win that would turn the program around for good. Although it was a very important win, we didn't finish the season well enough to say it changed the program. It did give our team and the players a lot of confidence. Anytime you can beat a program that has totally dominated you in the past it builds confidence.

As far as individual games go, that was one of the two most gratifying games I was a part of (along with Iowa in 2002). It was great to beat a team that had the tradition like Nebraska. The reason I rate it behind the Iowa game is because it took a lot more to win the game. The Nebraska game was a game that we never felt we were going to lose. We were ahead the whole game and were never really pressured. This is obviously a big contrast to the Iowa comeback win.

I remember the locker room celebration was unbelievable. At the time, it felt like the program was going to new heights. It was simply one of the most satisfying moments of my career to know that I played on a team that dominated Nebraska.

However, in the middle of the locker room celebration, we found out that Luke Vander Sanden would be out for the rest of the year. This made it very bittersweet. Not many people remember this fact, but that was Luke's first full game back from his ankle injury, and not coincidentally, the only game all year where we dominated in the running game. I think a lot of people saw that this was going to be a huge loss. We haven't run the ball that well since that game in 2002.

CN: Was that game more mental than physical for the Cyclones? How much will this year's contest be played between the ears of the players?

Whitver: I think you are definitely right. There was an extreme sense of confidence with that team in 2002, and that was a big reason we were able to not only win the game, but dominate the Huskers. The mental aspect will be huge this weekend as well. Nebraska has won a lot of games in their history by simply showing their helmet to the other team. They have a great tradition, and that tradition can be a little bit intimidating.

Iowa State will be playing a lot of guys who have never played against Nebraska, so it will be very important for those players to realize they aren't playing the Nebraska teams of the mid 90's, or even of 2001. This is a totally different Nebraska team. I fully expect the young guys to step up to the challenge. They had no problem playing against Iowa in Kinnick Stadium, and that was only the second game of their careers. I think the older guys like Ellis Hobbs and Luke Vander Sanden will help get the younger guys mentally ready to play.

CN: How do you think the talent level on both teams compare to the 2002 season in which the Cyclones came up with a big victory over Nebraska?

Whitver: I think the overall talent level of the two teams is pretty similar to the 2002 teams. Obviously, both teams have lost some great players, but there are always new stars. As far as the Cyclones are concerned, we obviously lost one great player in Seneca Wallace. I think it will be a long time before Cyclone fans will see a better quarterback than Seneca. However, I truly believe that the overall talent level of Iowa State is better. The big difference is in experience. The talent that we have is better than we've had in a long time, but a lot of players are still in their first seasons as starters.

Nebraska has always had great athletes. In 2002, they were one year out of the national title game. The talent was obviously there. The difference with the Cornhuskers now is that they now have a new coaching staff and new philosophies on both offense and defense. It will take a little time to recruit to the new styles, especially on offense.

CN: What kind of approach do you think the Huskers will take, offensively, in this game? Do they go back to their ground game, as they did against Missouri, or is it back to an aerial attack?

Whitver: I would expect Nebraska to go with their running game. Even in his first season, Callahan is feeling some pressure. He is going to do whatever it takes to get a victory, even if it means abandoning his West Coast offense. He has to go with what is working, and Joe Dailey has not been consistent in the passing game. The players that are at Nebraska right now were brought in to run the ball, so obviously that is where the strength is.

CN: Would the preparation for Nebraska be more difficult this season, given the West Coast offense's introduction, or is it business as usual?

Whitver: I don't think it will be extremely difficult. They have their new offense, but recently they have gone back to running the football. They obviously have not had the success that they wanted passing the ball, so I think they will stick with the running game. This should make it a pretty average game plan for the Cyclone defense.

CN: Either way, the Cyclone defense will have to stay focused on tailback Cory Ross, who is also a viable threat in the passing game. What makes him so difficult to stop?

Whitver: First of all, he is a great athlete. Anybody who is the starting running back for Nebraska is a great player, because that has been one of the premier positions in all of college football. I think the thing that really sets him apart is the system he is playing in. In the West Coast offense, they use shorter, ball control passes to move the ball before hitting a deep pass. It is very important to have a running back that can not only run, but also come out of the backfield and catch passes. Cory has really come on the last few weeks, and he has been the Cornhuskers only weapon at times. He will be the focus of the Cyclone game plan.

CN: Nebraska's strength appears to be in a veteran defense. How should ISU go about attacking the Blackshirts?

Whitver: This will be the toughest challenge for the Cyclones. While the Blackshirts might have given up 70 points to Texas Tech, that is a special situation. Texas Tech plays a totally different offense than anybody in the country. It is very difficult to prepare for that offense in four days of practice. Also, they are better at throwing the ball than anybody in the country. Most teams do not have as complicated of a passing game as the Red Raiders.

Their defense is not as bad as some people think. I think the Cyclones will have a very difficult time running the football, so Bret Meyer and the receivers will have to have a big game throwing the ball for the Cyclones to be successful.

CN: Will it be necessary to open up the playbook a little more than last week against Kansas?

Whitver: There is no doubt about it. Iowa State was extremely conservative. If it wasn't for the special teams and defense setting up scores (one of my keys to victory last week), the Cyclones wouldn't have scored over three points. We will have to score more than three points this week to win the game.

Last week was kind of a weird game, where Coach Cotton didn't have to open the playbook much. The defense was playing so well that there wasn't much pressure on the offense to score. That is why the Cyclones were so conservative last week.

CN: You've been a part of teams that were on the verge of making postseason play. With the Cyclones needing two wins in three games to close the regular season, what type of focus does this team likely have going into Nebraska? Personally, do you even think about a bowl game, publicly and/or privately?

Whitver: The focus of the team should be extremely high. They have a lot to play for the next three weeks with bowl possibilities as well as a Big 12 North title. While it might be too early to be talking about a North title, there is still a lot to play for.

You will not hear any of the coaches or players talking about a bowl game, but I think the players will definitely be thinking about the bowl possibilities, but mostly as motivation. The good teams that I played on for the Cyclones seemed to always be thinking about the bowl games. It got to the point where you expected to go to a bowl game. It wasn't if we were going to go, but which one. As a player, you can't let it be a distraction, but you have to use it as motivation.

CN: Finally, what are a few keys to victory against the Huskers?

Whitver: The first key to victory is simply confidence. I think both teams have fragile confidence right now, so it will be important to get off to a good start and build on that confidence. Especially with the young Iowa State offense, it will be important for them to have success early so that they see that they can play with the Blackshirts.

The Cyclones will need to establish a passing game. I think it will be very hard to run the ball on the Nebraska defense, especially with the way we have been running the ball this year. However, I believe that the Huskers have a weakness in their pass defense. By giving up 70 points to Texas Tech, it shows that it is possible to pass the ball on their defense. It will be important for the receivers and quarterbacks to step up and make some plays if the Cyclones are going to be successful.

Finally, like every game this year, the special teams will play a huge role. One of my keys to victory last week was special teams play. I said we would need to set up scores and make our field goals, and that was the difference in the game.

This game will be no different. Nebraska has a lot of great athletes on their special teams and they always make plays. Last year, the Huskers blocked two punts against us, leading to 14 points. Other than those 14 points, it was a 14-point game. The Huskers blocked two punts last week for 14 points. It is essential that we play good on special teams and match the Huskers' athleticism.

I think it is premature to start talking about a Big 12 north title, a win this week will definitely heat things up in Ames. The Cyclones will need to play their best game of the year to win this game, but to be in this position in November feels very good. It should be a nice day in Ames, and a Cyclone win would make it a whole lot nicer.

AllCyclones Top Stories