September 27, 2011

Tuesday notebook: UW brings a balanced attack

For most fans, when you think of Wisconsin football, you envision big, physical offensive linemen paving the way for big, physical running backs.

This year's version of the Badgers doesn't quite fit that mold entirely, however. While their running game is as good as ever with backs James White and Montee Ball, it's been their passing game that has really separated the 2011 offense from seasons past.

With the addition of talented senior transfer quarterback Russell Wilson over the summer, Wisconsin now possesses a full range of offensive threats. The Badgers come into Saturday's game leading the Big Ten and ranked No. 8 nationally in total offense at 532.3 yards per game, and it's almost an even split between passing and running.

Wisconsin not only ranks 13th in the country in rushing (245.5), it also leads the conference and ranks 26th nationally in passing (286.8).

Nebraska's coaches know full well about the challenges UW's offense presents, as they say preparing for the Badgers this week will be an all-around test for their defense.

"They're very sound, fundamentally," head coach Bo Pelini said. "They're a good team who is well coached. The kids know what to do and how to do it. They don't try to recreate the wheel or anything like that. They just do what they do, and do it well. They have a good understanding of what they're trying to accomplish. It is a sign of a well-coached football team."

Again, the biggest difference in Wisconsin's offense this season is Wilson. The former North Carolina State signal caller has averaged 311.0 yards of total offense, and he also ranks second in the Big Ten in passing efficiency with 11 touchdowns to just one interception.

Defensive coordinator Carl Pelini said of all the quarterbacks Nebraska has faced this season - and there have been some good ones - Wilson is the best of them all.

"I think he's probably the best out of all of them," Carl said. "I compared him a little bit to the kid from Washington, (Keith) Price, but more experienced. He's just real smooth. Not only is he a real talent with his arm, he can run and scramble. He does a lot of things with his legs. He's a game manager. He runs that offense very efficiently. He's as good a quarterback that we've faced."

Not only do the Badgers possess arguably the best quarterback and running back combos in the country, they also have one of the Big Ten's top wide receivers in senior Nick Toon. Far and away Wilson's favorite receiving target, Toon leads the Badgers with 21 catches for 353 yards and five touchdowns on the year.

Senior Husker cornerback Alfonzo Dennard said he's excited about the opportunity to match-up with Toon, saying he thrives on going up against the best wide outs the competition has to offer.

"He's a very good player," Dennard said. "He's an all-around good player. He runs good routes, he's a physical player, he never takes plays off. So it's going to be a good game… He doesn't take plays off, so it'll make me better. If I lack, he's probably going to catch me sleeping."

- Robin Washut

Crick glad to be back

Before missing this past Saturday's game at Wyoming, senior defensive tackle Jared Crick had 31 consecutive starts for Nebraska.

Crick strapped on shoulder pads for the first time on Tuesday since going down with a head injury late in NU's win over Washington on Sept. 18. Following Tuesday's full-padded practice Crick said it's good to be back.

"I feel good," Crick said. "My conditioning is still up. My technique, after taking a week off you have to get back to being technique sound and that takes a little bit time.

"I'm night and day though from where I was before."

Crick said he wasn't told until late in the week that he wasn't going to play against Wyoming, so he did his best to be mentally prepared in case he was cleared to play.

Not playing in Laramie was probably one of the harder things Crick has had to go through in his career.

"I sucked man, it really sucked," Crick said. "Not that I just wanted to be out there for my 32nd start, but I just wanted to be out there with my guys and that's the biggest thing for us is being there for each other.

"Me not being able to do that really hurt me. It definitely gave me an itch to be back out there and to be back doing what I do best. That gives me lot of motivation going into this week."

- Sean Callahan

Secondary still not set in stone

It's been a revolving door of sorts in Nebraska's secondary, as the Huskers have had a different set of starting defensive backs for all four games of the season.

Depending how things end up this week heading into Saturday's Big Ten opener against Wisconsin, it very well could be a fifth new starting lineup against Wisconsin.

The Huskers spent their non-conference season searching to find the right mix of cornerbacks and safeties, trying out a number of new players and combinations in the starting rotation. Unfortunately, they still don't seem to have found one they're satisfied with just yet.

"We are still mixing and matching, looking for the right combination," Bo Pelini said. "We put a lot of stock into who does well in practice at what we are trying to do. We have a number of guys and the competition is on today to see who plays Saturday."

Last week against Wyoming, Nebraska made some surprise changes to its secondary by giving redshirt freshman and former safety Corey Cooper the start at cornerback opposite Dennard, who made his first start of the year as well.

So far, the Huskers have started five different players at corner this year, including sophomores Ciante Evans and Andre Green, and redshirt freshman Josh Mitchell. It also just so happened that Evans hardly saw the field at all against Wyoming, and Green and Mitchell didn't play at all.

Instead, Cooper played much of the game despite never having played the position until that week. He definitely had some struggles in his first game at cornerback, and Nebraska left the game without any more comfort in its most recent secondary combination.

That's why the competition for the other corner spot along side Dennard will continue to start over from scratch each week until they find the right fit.

"Like I said after the game, every day is a competition," Carl Pelini said. "You've got Coop, you've got Andrew and you've got Ciante, and may the better man win. Everyday that position's on the line. They've got to prove it during the week."

For the defensive backs themselves, the weekly turnover in the secondary has certainly bumped up the intensity in practice. With no room for anyone to relax, every rep has turned into a chance to win or lose a starting spot.

"I think we're just trying to find the right combination, the right people that click together, so we can communicate better, the right level of physicality," said senior safety Austin Cassidy, the only NU defensive back to start all four games. "There's lot of different things that go into it. As you know, these coaches aren't scared to switch it up. If something's not working, or something's not working as well as they want it to, they're going to be willing to switch it up at any time."

- Robin Washut

Bielema calls NU a complete team

When Wisconsin head coach Bret Bielema looks at Nebraska on film he said it's hard to find a weakness through four games.

During Tuesday's Big Ten Coaches conference call Bielema said he's impressed with how Bo Pelini's football teams execute in all aspects of the game.

"They are as well thought out on film no matter what the scheme is and no matter what the call is," Bielema said. "The kids seem to be on board no matter what it is.

"Anytime you see that in a program no matter what the basic scheme is, that's when you find successful programs. I think Bo has brought that to the table at Nebraska."

As for Saturday's game in Madison, there are several reports of Wisconsin fans selling their tickets to Husker fans.

Back in July at media days, Bielema said he heard reports that 25,000 to 30,000 Nebraska fans might make the trip to Madison with or without tickets. As for those Badgers fans whom have solid their tickets to Husker fans, Bielema had this to say on Tuesday.

"Everybody has the right to make their own decisions," Bielema said. "I think the reason you become a season ticket holder at the University of Wisconsin is to see a game like this. It's probably the premier game to come into Camp Randall this year as far as two marquee teams ranked in the top 10.

"If you are going to have season tickets and spend that money, this would be the one that you want to see. We are going to encourage our fans to come out. Nebraska has their little 'blackshirt mojo' going. I'm sure there will be a few that get into the stands, but hopefully Wisconsin fans are strong and wear the red and make that environment second to none on Saturday night."

- Sean Callahan

Quick hits

***Mitchell said he was told "late last week" he wasn't going to travel to Wyoming because he did not perform well in practice last week. He does not know yet if he'll travel to Wisconsin this week.

"It's never easy when you don't travel or don't play," Mitchell said. "I'm a football player and of course I want to be on the field. At the end of the day it's all my fault."

***Even with the emergence of Nebraska's trio of freshmen running backs, don't expect junior Rex Burkhead's workload to be cutback one bit heading into Big Ten play.

"I couldn't tell you the statistics of any player in any ball game," offensive coordinator Tim Beck said. "I really couldn't. I don't even know how many carries he had. I heard through the media that he had 170 yards, but I don't know how many carries he had. We don't operate on those kinds of venues. We live for each play. It's about each play. It's playing the best you can each play with whoever's out there doing the best they can. If he can go, he's going to go."

***Beck called fullback Tyler Legate's play through four games "awesome", saying Nebraska couldn't do the things it wants to do into in the power running game without Legate leading the way.

***It's safe to say Saturday's trip to Madison has been one of the most anticipated road games for Nebraska's players since the 2011 schedule was released last year. While some players are excited mainly to play a great team in a primetime showdown, the game will have even more meaning for some players, such as Cassidy.

"My fiancée's entire family is from Madison, so they're all excited to watch the game and go back to where they all went to school and stuff," Cassidy said. "I think they were probably more excited than I was. Now that the game is finally here, I couldn't be happier. I know it's a really big deal with the fans like we were talking about earlier with ask our fans to wear black and stuff like that. It's going to be really exciting. It'll be a cool experience. I can't wait to see what it's all about."

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