You might consider it refreshing that most of what Frank Solich said in his opening statement to the media was mostly about the up-coming opponent. While there was some addressing of the NU's current status, more was talked about the up-coming opponent and coach Solich even commented on how this off-week wasn't nearly as much of a relief as he assumed. "I thought Saturday would be kind of relaxing, just getting the chance to sit around and watch a few games." Solich stated. "I did not find it all that relaxing, just kind of wishing we were playing, I guess."
You could understand Solich's anticipation for this up-coming weekend and some might even call it angst. Nebraska travels down to Hattiesburg to play Southern Mississippi, a place notorious for upsets, but more specifically, it's a game on the road.
The road has not been kind to Solich and company since he took over the reins from Tom Osborne, Solich's teams going just 13-10 in away games, 1-8 against ranked teams.
Fortunately, at least for the aspect of stigma, Southern Miss. won't be ranked when NU plays them, but it hardly diminishes the threat that the Eagles represent, plus, it's a way for the revamped staff to see just where this team is at. As Solich stated, road games determine just what kind of team you are. "If you are going to be a good football team, you have to play well on the road." Solich stated. "It's not just when your home fans are in your corner, but when things are stacked against you a little bit on the road, you need to step up."
A step up is exactly what this game is considered, despite the fact the Golden Eagles are currently unranked. This game will be televised on ESPN and it will be on Thursday night, meaning that for fans across the country, this will be the game to watch.
Thursdays aren't familiar territory for the Huskers, but NU has managed to stay undefeated when asked to play just after mid-week. Since 1993, Nebraska has played 4 times on Thursday night, going unbeaten, defeating Oklahoma State twice in addition to Texas Tech and Rice. Rice was the last appearance for NU on ESPN for their Thursday night contest, Nebraska defeating the Owls, 48-3.
One other thing on Solich's side isn't his overall road-record, but his road success at least in regards to home-openers. Except for last year's loss to Penn State to open the road-schedule for Nebraska, Nebraska has remained perfect under Solich, beating the likes of California, Iowa, Notre Dame and Missouri.
Records aside though, much of the talk about this game has been about the Southern Miss. defense. Though the defense hasn't been statistically successful thus far, the attention continues to increase for their talented triumvirate on defense, Rod Davis, Etric Pruitt and Michael Boley. All three came into this season as contenders not just for All-American honors, but for a variety of individual defensive awards as well.
Offensive coordinator, Barney Cotton commented on two of the three standouts:
Rod Davis: "He's a tremendous middle-linebacker. He especially tightens the screws up down on the goal-line. He's made some big, big plays down on the goal line. I think their defense is 5 for 5 on stopping teams from the 1-yard line and he's a big reason for that."
Etric Pruitt: "Is as good as we've seen."
"They've got three very excellent defensive players." Cotton stated.
In truth, much of the attention has been given to Southern Miss' defense, because the offense of the Eagles is revamped and mostly untested. Though coach Pelini would no doubt not discount this unit for anything, needless to say, Cotton is worried more about what his offense will do.
Coming off the Penn State game that saw Nebraska throw the ball only 6 times the entire contest, a little more versatility is expected this up-coming Thursday or to put it better, it's not expected, rather it's needed for NU to realistically have a chance to put points on the board against USM. "You can never go into a game thinking you can be." Cotton said of being as one-dimensional as they were against Penn State. "When something like that happens, depending on how your special teams are playing and how your defense is playing, if you can get that conservative. That probably leads into it more than whether you think you can or whether you think you can't."
Coach Solich gave his thoughts on NU being so singularly focused on the offense. "I think they (Southern Miss) are very good at stopping the run." he said. "The problem is, they are also very good at stopping the pass."
"They have excellent speed on defense and so, we will test the water and see exactly what we can do and can't do. We have had some time to change things up a little bit. They have had time to change things up a little bit."
"One thing they have been extremely good at is stopping people in the red zone and of course, we have struggled with putting touchdowns on the board once we got inside the red zone, so that's going to be a big challenge for us."
The red zone woes already being covered ad nauseam, the obvious discussions have pointed as to why those woes have occurred. Ill-timed penalties being one factor, but the factor most talk about is the production of Jammal Lord.
The coffee-table talk continues about true freshman, Joe Dailey at least getting some reps in this game, but the coaches weren't willing to concede anything as to what will take place during the game, rather just pointed out the equal opportunity each QB is getting during practices. "Joe has gotten as many reps as Jammal in practice and we're preparing two quarterbacks and it's possible that he could play." Cotton said with a smile, fully aware of the interest in the current situation.
"(laughing) I got the coach-speak down guys." he said "I can do this."
"Joe is doing everything Jammal is doing. Joe gets exactly the same plays, the same reps as Jammal gets."
Cotton did say that though both are being prepared equally on paper, Lord is getting more reps with the first-team offense than Dailey.
The Best Defense in the Country
While much of the focus will be as to what NU's offense can do against the defense of Southern Miss., the expectations will be considerably higher for the "blackshirts" as Southern Miss. doesn't have the reputed offense, doesn't have the All-American candidates and this up-coming week, they won't even have their starting QB, Micky D'Angelo, D'Angelo being sidelined due to an injury. In his place will be Dustin Almond, a redshirt Sophomore, who's tossed a total of 22 passes this year, completing 7 of them for 93 yards and has rushed the ball 3 times for a total of 18 yards.
Coach Pelini doesn't look at the change in QB as anything that will take away from the offensive attack of the Golden Eagles. "I think he's a good player." Pelini said of Almond. "He played the whole second half of the Memphis game. He's made some plays when he was in there, moves around well, has a good arm and is a good football player."
"I don't think there's much of a difference."
The defense of Nebraska is expected to do well against the still-struggling Southern Miss. offense, but much of the questions towards Pelini about this up-coming game wasn't so much the opponent, but where it was at, it being on TV and it being what will most definitely be the epitome of a "hostile" environment. "It is what it is." Pelini said of the possible home-field advantage. "Especially when you go down there."
"They are a good football team and at their place, they will be even better. It will be a hostile environment and we know that coming in."
"We can't concern ourselves with that. You have to learn to focus on what you are doing and try to keep all the distractions to the minimum. You can't get all caught up in everything going on around you."
Another thing Pelini is adamant that isn't a concern or even a thought to him or his unit right now is the fact that Nebraska is now statistically the number one team in the country. "We haven't talked about that a whole heck of a lot." Pelini said. "We feel good about what we have accomplished up to this point, but that's about it."
"That's just a trap. When you start talking about that, worrying about that, you can fall into the trap and we've talked about not doing that."
"Let other people talk about where we're ranked and statistics. We're not about that. We're about getting wins and do what we have to do in a particular game."
In this game, Pelini's defense will face again, a hostile crowd, but more than anything, it's a road game and like any individual that loves the conflict of what defense brings you, this defensive coordinator doesn't mind being on the road one bit. "It's always a good test going on the road." Pelini said. "It's you against the world. Everybody is against you and you have to rally together. You have to pick each other up and you have to take a it's us against the world mentality when you go on the road."
"That's always a fun thing to do and it's always great as a coach to watch your players respond in an environment like that."
Not Downplaying a thing
The environment is considered around here in Lincoln as one of being hostile and the usual "Nebraska is coming to town" type of crowd. Down in Hattiesburg though, it's quite a different story. Meaning that it isn't "Nebraska is coming to town", rather it's "NEBRASKA IS COMING TO TOWN!!!!!!!!!!".
While you don't often see programs playing up the significance of one game, if only to address the fear of putting too many eggs in one basket, so to speak, such hasn't been the concern down at Southern Miss., this up-coming game with the Huskers being considered in some aspects, the biggest game to ever hit "The Rock", the nickname for the home turf of the Golden Eagles.
The media has thrown in plenty to make the game seem more like an epic than just a college football game on Thursday night not too far into the actual season of play. The Clarion Ledger said of NU's visit to Nebraska, ".....few would disagree that when Nebraska visits Southern Miss Thursday night, the Cornhuskers will bring the kind of college football pedigree never seen before at USM...." and the radio voice for the Golden Eagles (John Cox) added, "There may have better teams that have come in here — maybe — but in terms of having a certain mystique, they're as good as anybody we've ever had here."
From the "game of the year" to the "game of a lifetime", this game between Southern Miss. and Nebraska is being billed down in Hattiesburg, something akin to what Husker fans felt during the hay days of the OU/NU Rivalry, when national title-shots were decided every year when the game was played.
Chances are, there aren't national title considerations here for either NU or USM, but that hasn't calmed the talk down of the significance of this game, the fact that it's on TV, ESPN and the only show in town for the evening, it all adds a little luster or a lot, depending on who you are.
The game is expected to go off amidst almost perfect weather, temperatures ranging in the mid to high-70s and of course, the game will be aired on ESPN, 6:30 p.m. central time. Nebraska is currently a 8 ½ pt. favorite.
RE, Adam Carriker has been ruled out of the up-coming game due to an injury
RG, Jemayel Phillips who recently left the football team has now withdrawn from the University altogether according to head coach, Frank Solich. Greg Austin now finds himself taking Phillips' spot, listed third on the official depth chart and has taken snaps in practice with the regular units. Coach Cotton said that they aren't planning to play Austin, but are preparing as if he will play.
Steve Ryan can be reached at email@example.com or 402-730-5619