Inside Slant: Nebraska

The Sports Xchange gives an inside look at Northwestern's next opponent, the Nebraska Cornhuskers.

Nobody in the state of Nebraska takes the discussion of Blackshirts very lightly.

The tradition began in 1964, when legendary coach Bob Devaney sent a member of his coaching staff to a local sporting goods store to find some pullover, contrast jerseys to distinguish the starting defense from the starting offense. The coach, Mike Corgan, returned with the cheapest, most-available color: Black.

Soon after, members of the starting defense wore the black jerseys, and it quickly became an honored tradition. Stories of players coming to tears when seeing the coveted black jerseys in their lockers became epic.

Bo Pelini didn't know much about the Blackshirts before joining Nebraska's staff as defensive coordinator in 2003, but now that he's head coach, the defensive guru doesn't award them easily.

"I think there's a lot of pride that goes along with the whole tradition that surrounds it," Pelini said at his weekly news conference Monday. "I like the way we've handled it. We're the ones watching film and tape and we know what our standards are."

After seeing his defense hold Michigan State to a season-low 187 yards in a 24-3 victory, is now a good time for a Blackshirts ceremony?

"I don't know," Pelini said flatly. "When are we gonna do it? When we feel the time is right. I think I have a pretty good idea of what it takes to play good defense. You stay the course, you don't panic and eventually you get better as the year goes along. I think the guys are playing with a lot of confidence. Early on, they weren't. We're still not a finished product."

Pelini may be cautious because this week's opponent, Northwestern, presents a challenge with two mobile quarterbacks. Starter Dan Persa is a good passer and rusher, and his backup, Kain Colter, is the Wildcats' leading rusher.

Northwestern compiled 616 yards of offense in a 59-38 victory over Indiana, the Wildcats' first Big Ten win of 2011.

"I think Persa is a really good player," Pelini said. "He's elusive and he can make the throws. Northwestern has a well-thought out offense. They do some unique things in the running game. It will be a nice test for us to have to play well, practice well this week and get prepared."

NOTES, QUOTES

—The new look Nebraska showed along the defensive line against Michigan State is one the Huskers will probably use again this season.

On some snaps, especially third down, Nebraska confused the opposition by having all of its linemen stand and bounce around. Defensive coordinator Carl Pelini first introduced the concept the previous Tuesday.

"We thought he was kind of crazy," defensive end Cameron Meredith said.

But after Nebraska collected four sacks and forced Kirk Cousins into an 11-of-27 passing performance, players were convinced.

"I feel like it caused kind of confusion," Meredith said. "When there's people moving around, you don't know which gaps they're going to ... it kind of messes up their sliding protection and all that."

—Nebraska has won 10 straight divisional games in conference play, dating to its days in the Big 12 Conference. The Huskers haven't lost to a divisional foe since a stunning 9-7 loss to heavy underdog Iowa State in 2009. In fact, in regular season games, Nebraska is 22-3 since that defeat. Nebraska has won its first two games against Legends Division foes Minnesota and Michigan State in its first season in the Big Ten Conference.

SCOUTING THE OFFENSE: Nebraska ran for 190 yards against the nation's No. 8 rushing defense in Michigan State, and every single yard came with a bruise, it seemed. The Huskers averaged 3.3 yards per carry on 58 rushing attempts. "It was good to see our guys just keep banging their heads against the wall and banging their heads against the wall," NU offensive line coach Barney Cotton said. "We played well enough in the second half to put some points up on the board." The fact Nebraska didn't do much through the air — Taylor Martinez was 7-of-13 passing for 80 yards — didn't come as a surprise to Cotton. "We didn't think it was going to be a throwing game," he said. "We figured we were going to have some success, then there were going to be some times where we weren't going to have any success, and we were just going to keep banging our heads and kind of rely on the fact we've been a decent second-half team."

SCOUTING THE DEFENSE: Exactly how good was Nebraska's pass defense against Michigan State? The Huskers held senior wide receiver B.J. Cunningham — the all-time leader in receptions in Michigan State history — to no receptions. It ended Cunningham's streak of 41 straight games with at least one reception. Nebraska's defensive line is excelling (four sacks against Michigan State) despite the season-ending injury to senior tackle Jared Crick and a knee injury to Thad Randle that sidelined him against Michigan State. The secondary, burned so often early in the season, is also coming together with a healthy Alfonzo Dennard and the resurgence of sophomore Andrew Green. Also, walk-on Lance Thorell is settling in nicely as the starting nickel back.

QUOTE TO NOTE: "It's time to put the foot on the gas pedal and keep going. That's a challenge for college students. We have not arrived. There's a lot ahead of us and we have a lot to do to keep getting better." — Nebraska coach Bo Pelini.

STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL

THIS WEEK'S GAME: Northwestern at Nebraska, Nov. 5 — Now it's Nebraska's turn to avoid an emotional letdown. A week after upending No. 9 Michigan State at home in their most complete performance of the season, the Huskers (7-1, 3-1 Big Ten) host a Northwestern (3-5, 1-4) team that's had a history of pulling road upsets.

SERIES HISTORY: Nebraska leads Northwestern, 3-1.

KEYS TO THE GAME: Can Nebraska build on its defensive performance from the Michigan State game? Scoring points on Northwestern shouldn't be a problem, so if the defense can lock in and communicate as it has since the second half of the Ohio State game, winning a fourth straight game shouldn't be a problem.

PLAYERS TO WATCH:

CB Alfonzo Dennard — The preseason All-American is now excelling at the level many expected before his slightly torn quad muscle sidelined him to start the season. "The guy's as prideful a football player as I've ever been around," Nebraska coach Bo Pelini said. Northwestern won't likely have success throwing Dennard's way.

LB Will Compton — The junior middle linebacker is coming off his best out of the season (seven tackles, one for loss), and perhaps the best game of his career. He'll be key in slowing a Northwestern run offense that's averaging 188 yards per game.

QB Taylor Martinez — He'll have opportunities against a Northwestern defense that ranks 101st nationally in pass efficiency and is allowing 238 passing yards per game. And rest assured, Martinez could use a pick-me-up performance throwing the football after completing only seven passes (on 13 attempts) against Michigan State.

ROSTER REPORT

—DT Thad Randle remains sidelined with a knee injury and is questionable for Saturday's game with Northwestern.

—QB Taylor Martinez jammed his right thumb against Michigan State, causing him to hand off the ball with his left hand in the second half. Martinez said Monday he's "a lot better now" and would be fine.

—OT Yoshi Hardrick (ankle) and CB Ciante Evans were also injured against Michigan State, but coach Bo Pelini said the injuries were "bumps and bruises" and nothing serious. Evans watched the second half of the game in street clothes.


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