Huskers dealing with multiple injuries on offensive line
Nebraska is trying not to limp to the finish line for a second straight season. By the looks of things in the trenches on both sides of the line for the Huskers, that might be a formidable task.
Last year, Nebraska's most obvious and significant injury was to freshman quarterback Taylor Martinez, who played the final six games on a severely-sprained ankle. The Huskers lost three of four games after starting 9-1.
Now, with the Huskers at 8-2 heading into season-ending games with Michigan and Iowa, head coach Bo Pelini is talking about "contingency plans" at offensive guard, a position the Huskers filled Nov. 12 at Penn State with two walk-ons and zero backups on the travel roster.
Welcome to November. The grind is here.
"I'm always cognizant of that this time of year," Pelini said about keeping his team fresh and healthy. "You have to fight and take care of your guys a little bit, but at the same time, you have to get your work done.
"If you don't practice a certain way, you won't be ready to play. It is always that challenge this time of year. You have to get your work done. If there was a perfect formula for it, everybody would do it. You just have to go with your gut feeling about what your football team needs rest-wise while getting your work done."
Nebraska played at Penn State with walk-ons Spencer Long and Seung Hoon Choi at guard. In fact, they played every snap, because there were no back-up guards who traveled to Penn State. Normal starter Andrew Rodriguez and backups Brent Qvale and Brandon Thompson were out with injuries.
In case of further injury, backup centers Cole Pensick and Mark Pelini -- a walk-on and nephew of the coach -- could've filled in at guard, as could have tackle Marcel Jones.
"We had a number of options there," Bo Pelini said.
Nebraska also played with tackle Yoshi Hardrick (ankle) at about 80 percent, and defensive tackle Chase Rome (pulled hamstring) at about 70 percent. Nebraska is already without defensive tackles Jared Crick and Thad Randle for the remainder of the season.
--Here's an intriguing bowl scenario for Nebraska, should the Huskers not win the Big Ten Conference -- or even advance to the league's first championship game. If Nebraska wins its final two games and finishes 10-2, the Huskers could be in position for an at-large BCS bid -- perhaps the Fiesta Bowl against old conference rival Oklahoma.
It could happen. Nebraska would have to finish in the top 14 of the final BCS rankings. (They are currently No. 16). Oklahoma, unlikely to play in the BCS title game, is in strong position to represent the Big 12 in the Fiesta Bowl, regardless of whether the Sooners win or lose in a key regular-season finale with unbeaten Oklahoma State. The Fiesta Bowl opponent would be an at-large pick -- perhaps Nebraska.
--RB Rex Burkhead has run for 1,072 yards through 10 games, becoming the first Nebraska player to crack 1,000 rushing yards in 10 games since quarterback Jammal Lord in 2002 (1,155 yards). The last Husker running back to accomplish that feat was Dahrran Diedrick, who had 1,097 rushing yards after 10 games in 2001. Overall, Burkhead is only the third Husker running back with 1,000 yards in 10 games or fewer since 1997.
--Punter Brett Maher was named the Big Ten Conference's special teams player of the week for the third time this season. That's what happens when you're a punter who pins the opponent at its 19-, 16-, 14-, 13- and 11-yard lines, as Maher did at Penn State. "His confidence is growing by the game and he's doing a heck of a job," Nebraska coach Bo Pelini said. "I don't know how far that (last) punt was (61 yards), but it was a big-time punt in a big-time situation to pin them down there. I'm happy with his progression."
SCOUTING THE OFFENSE: Nebraska offensive coordinator Tim Beck said he was mad at himself after the Northwestern loss. By his own admission, the play-calling in Nebraska's 28-25 defeat was too conservative. That changed against Penn State, when Beck kept a stout Nittany Lion defense off-balance with new formations and looks -- including putting running back Rex Burkhead under center. "As I look back and really thought about it, we've got to be who we are, and that's an attacking offense," Beck said. "Sometimes, I don't do that, for whatever the reason." Helping matters is the play of quarterback Taylor Martinez, who's improved his passing numbers while also operating the option game with better decision-making. "He is making a lot of progress and his confidence continues to grow, which is always a positive," coach Bo Pelini said.
SCOUTING THE DEFENSE: The Huskers are without Jared Crick for the remainder of the season, but two other senior preseason All-American defensive standouts are doing their best to lead Nebraska's defense. Linebacker Lavonte David made his second game-changing play of the Big Ten season on Nov. 12 when he made tackles on third-and-1 and fourth-and-1 on Penn State's Silas Redd in the fourth quarter, thwarting the Nittany Lions' drive with 1:39 remaining. "It's a big-time play. I consider him a big-time player," Nebraska coach Bo Pelini said. "He has a knack. He is just such a fierce competitor. He wanted to make a play and he made it. It was a pretty good play." Meanwhile, cornerback Alfonzo Dennard contributed with four solo tackles and two pass breakups, as he's shaped back into form after missing the season's first three games with a quad tear. "I don't think he has played a bad game yet," Pelini said. "I don't remember anybody catching many balls on him, and I've said this before and I'll say it again: I think he is as good of a corner as there is in the country. I believe that. I wouldn't trade him for anybody."
QUOTE TO NOTE: "He's like the witch doctor. You'll never know what he'll do." -- Nebraska coach Bo Pelini, on offensive coordinator Tim Beck's recent wrinkles, including putting running back Rex Burkhead under center.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
THIS WEEK'S GAME: Nebraska at Michigan, Nov. 19 -- Nebraska faces another must-win situation to stay alive in the race for the Legends Division championship. The game at 110,000-seat Michigan Stadium is the Huskers' second straight road game in a venue that holds more than 100,000 fans -- a first in school history. It's Nebraska's first visit to Ann Arbor since 1962, when the Huskers won 25-13 in Bob Devaney's first season as head coach.
SERIES HISTORY: Michigan leads Nebraska 3-2-1 (last meeting, 2005, 32-28 Nebraska)
KEYS TO THE GAME: Nebraska must contain Dennard Robinson. The Michigan quarterback is like another running back for the Wolverines. Like most UM foes, the game plan is to bottle him up and make him throw.
PLAYERS TO WATCH:
LB Lavonte David -- David's third-down and fourth-down stops of Silas Redd in the fourth quarter at Penn State exhibited the senior's knack for making big plays. He'll need to do the same Nov. 19 against Michigan quarterback Dennard Robinson and running back Fitzgerald Toussaint.
RB Rex Burkhead -- He's a player to watch every game for Nebraska. The junior running back continues to show his versatility -- he took snaps under center at Penn State -- and durability. Don't be surprised if coaches have even more wrinkles involving Burkhead this week.
QB Taylor Martinez -- The game appears to be slowing down for the sophomore quarterback, who ran the option at Penn State as well as he has all season, and has made good decisions and effective plays with his arms in the last two weeks. He'll need the same smart management in another difficult road environment.
--TE Ben Cotton, who left the first half of the Penn State game on Nov. 12 with an apparent arm injury, is doubtful for Saturday's game against Michigan. Coach Bo Pelini said Cotton will not need surgery, though.
--OG Andrew Rodriguez is doubtful for Saturday's game at Michigan, coach Bo Pelini said. Rodriguez didn't travel to Penn State because of an undisclosed injury.