Redshirt freshman Jeremiah Sirles returned to practice today. The starting left tackle went out early against Oklahoma State with an ankle injury. In his place was fellow first-year player, junior Jermarcus Hardrick, who has played in every game this year, saw his most significant reps in this game, getting approximately 60 of the 79 snaps against the Cowboys. "He graded probably out a little bit better in the pass protection than the run stuff – he's a little bit rusty," said Offensive Line Coach Barney Cotton. "But, the first play he went in there was a drop back pass. So, he went in there and did a good job for us."
Cotton said that while he was impressed with Hardrick's performance, especially considering the limited reps he's gotten throughout the season, Sirles remains the starter for this weekend. "You don't lose your job based on injury," he said.
Senior defensive end Pierre Allen Sr. was also injured against OSU, going down with a knee. But Head Coach Bo Pelini said that Allen could have gone today, but they opted to keep him out for now. He is expected to return to practice soon.
Subbing in for Allen was sophomore defensive end Josh Williams as well as redshirt freshman Jason Ankrah. Williams has seen much more time than Ankrah, dating back to last year and this season Williams has gotten reps in seven games. But both have served back up roles behind Allen and the starter at the other defensive end spot, sophomore Cameron Meredith.
Defensive Line Coach John Papuchis said that both did well in place of Allen, especially when you factor in their body of work when it comes to experience. "Obviously for young guys, there are things that they have to correct and get better at, but I thought they did a good job," he said.
As for the defensive line as a whole, the stats haven't been on the side of a unit which ranked among the nation's best in sacks last year as well as tackles for loss. This year the defense is tied for 72nd out of 120 teams in sacks, and in tackles for loss, Rice is the only team in the FBS ranked lower than the Big Red.
The Husker defense finished last year tied for second in the country in sacks and 28th in the country in tackles for loss. And the run defense has suffered greatly as well in this era we can refer to as "Post Suh." Last year's defense gave up just over 93 yards per game, good enough to rank ninth in the country. This year they are giving up over 165 yards per contest, "good" enough for 78th. The defensive line is going to take a lot of flack when the run game of the opponent is working, especially to the tune of over 200 yards for one player, which is what Oklahoma State's Kendall Hunter managed against Nebraska last Saturday.
But for Papuchis, he said what the naked eye doesn't see and what those numbers can't explain, is what is the most important about whether or not the run defense works.
"There's so much that goes into and factors into statistical success. I know a lot of people want to pin the running game on the defensive line and certainly, we have to carry a brunt of the burden. But at the end of the day it's a team defensive system," said Papuchis. "At the end of the day, it's a team defensive system. The way we fit the run game, whether we are using secondary players, linebacker or defensive line – everyone has a role and responsibility on every given play (and) we need to be able to carry it out.
"I wouldn't look at one group or the other to say that one group is the reason we haven't stopped the run as well as we would like. It's been a culmination of things."
Nebraska will have to find a solution to that, though, as they have gotten progressively worse in the last four weeks of the season, allowing 141 yards on the ground to South Dakota State, then 180 yards to Kansas State, 209 yards to Texas and lastly, 212 yards to OSU.
The Longhorns actually rank below Missouri in rushing offense, averaging just over 136 yards per game on the ground, while the Tigers average just over 138.
The Huskers will return to the practice field tomorrow, and stay tuned to Big Red Report as we will bring you video from tomorrow's press conference where the conversation continues about the upcoming match up with the Tigers.
Bo Pelini Post Practice Audio
John Papuchis Post Practice Audio