For the first time all season, Alfonzo Dennard finally looked like himself in Saturday's win over Michigan State.
After what had been a frustrating start to what was supposed to be a breakout senior season, Dennard played like the star cornerback everyone expected, making highlight plays in coverage and shutting down one of the Big Ten Conference's elite receivers.
"It kind of felt like my old self from last year," Dennard said. "I made a lot of plays last year, and I'm trying to continue doing the same thing. I'm finally getting my confidence back. It felt good to go out there and make plays."
The biggest achievement of the game came when Michigan State senior receiver B.J. Cunningham, with whom Dennard matched-up the majority of the day, was held without a catch for the first time in 41 games.
It wasn't as if the Spartans were avoiding throwing Dennard's way at all costs, either. They actually tested him several times with deep shots down the field, and each time Dennard stepped up and made plays on the ball to prevent the completions.
While it seemed like a risky move to test Dennard the way MSU did, he said he knew the Spartans would try to get the ball in Cunnigham's hands as much as they could.
"I wasn't surprised at all," Dennard said. "They were trying to get the ball to their best player, and B.J. Cunningham, he's a very good player. I'm going to give him respect."
After missing the first four games of the season with a quad injury he suffered in fall camp, Dennard was definitely slow out of the gates when he finally returned to action against Wyoming.
He steadily improved each week, until he finally got back to his old self last week in one of the biggest games of the season for the Huskers. Senior safety Austin Cassidy said he could tell Dennard was himself again even before the first snap just in the way he was bouncing around on the sideline and before big plays.
"He's fired up," Cassidy said. "He likes to have a good time, and I don't think you saw that before. He was worried about what was going on with his leg and stuff. Now that he's back into it, he's really starting to enjoy himself again, which makes playing next to him more enjoyable."
Earlier this week, ESPN NFL draft guru Mel Kiper Tweeted that Dennard's play against Michigan State was good enough to put him into strong consideration as a late first round pick.
While raising his draft stock was obviously one of the reasons Dennard decided to stay at Nebraska for his senior year instead of entering the draft after last season, he said that's the furthest thing from his mind at this point.
Right now, it's all about continuing to help lead the Huskers to their first ever Big Ten championship.
"I really don't worry about what other people say, Mel Kiper or anybody like that, because I'm just worried about our football season right now and what's ahead of us," Dennard said. "I just try to keep my mind levelheaded and just go out there and perform."
- Robin Washut
Offense learning to grind it out
Through the first few games of the season, Nebraska's offense was almost entirely dependent on the big play.
Whether it was an long touchdown run or a big play-action pass down the field, the Huskers needed to come up with big chunks of yards in order to move the football and put points on the board.
The past few games, however, the offense has transformed into a team that can grind out long, clock-chewing drives that not only help NU control the game, but demoralize opposing defenses.
Last week against Michigan State, the Huskers had just two possessions in the third quarter, but the first was a 14-play, 89-yard and the second went 80 yards over 12 plays. The drives ate up more than 11 minutes and both resulted in touchdowns.
"I think it's our players' toughness, really," offensive coordinator Tim Beck said. "The perseverance. We've just kind of hung in there and just kept doing what we're doing. We learned a lot in our loss to Wisconsin of just kind of being who we are and doing what we do, and within that system, we create big plays.
"We still get some big plays, and they help us create momentum. Maybe they're not the 80-yard touchdown runs, but maybe they're 50-yard runs
We're still getting those plays, but we're not just dependent on those big plays."
Head coach Bo Pelini said getting away from the reliance on big plays was extremely important for his offense. While the 80-yard touchdowns were all and good, Pelini said games were won by churning out long drives and wearing down defenses.
"I said last year that even when we were putting up big numbers, we weren't being very efficient," Pelini said. "We were living on the big play and the big chunks of yards. When people made us earn it down the field, we struggled. That is where we have been dramatically different this year. That is one of the things we wanted to accomplish. There is a lot that contributes to that. Not only the rushing attack, but we have had good balance. The audibles help and Tim (Beck) has called some good football games. We put a lot of stress on defenses in a lot of different ways.
"Something that hasn't been talked about a lot and maybe isn't that obvious, and knock on wood, but we haven't killed ourselves penalty-wise. I think our tempo has helped in that area and getting up on the ball early. We aren't rushing at the end of the clock. You get those delay of games and false starts and it takes away your efficiency. You end up in first-and-15, second-and-15, and that happened time after time last year. We made a big emphasis on fixing that and it's helped this year."
- Robin Washut
Dunsmore presents familiar challenge for Blackshirts
For many defenses, Northwestern senior tight end Drake Dunsmore brings a skill set to the position unlike anything they've seen. Nebraska, on the other hand, knows all about the match-up problems a player like Dunsmore presents.
The Huskers have a tight of their own just like him in junior Kyler Reed.
When asked to describe the challenges Dunsmore presents to a defense, Carl Pelini's first comparison was to Reed, saying both players are capable of burning defenses in a number of different ways.
"He's Kyler Reed," Pelini said. "He's a real athletic kid. He's got great speed, and you've got to be careful how you match-up with him. He'll create mismatches if you let him, so you really have to study film and see how they're using him and try and match it up the right way."
Senior safety Austin Cassidy echoed Pelini' comparison, saying he was thankful the defense has plenty of experience going up against a hybrid style tight end that can split out wide out line up on the edge.
"(Dunsmore) can really move," Cassidy said. "Luckily we've got a guy like Kyler Reed where we've faced a tight end a lot that could probably spread out and play a wide receiver spot. Anytime you've got one of those guys who can be a deep threat and that you have to put maybe a linebacker on, that can create mismatch issues."
Technically listed as a "Superback" on Northwestern's roster, the 6-foot-3, 235-pound Dunsmore lines up in a variety of spots to create the biggest coverage mismatch in the passing game. He ranks second on the team with 29 catches for 328 yards and six touchdowns, and he's coming off his biggest game of the season in last week's blowout win over Indiana.
With a career-high four receiving touchdowns against the Hoosiers, Dunsmore was named the Big Ten Offensive Player of the Week for his efforts. Like Reed, Dunsmore has made a habit of coming up with big plays, hauling in 11 touchdowns in his past 21 games.
"He made some great plays on Saturday, and he's just been very consistent throughout his entire career," Fitzgerald said. "He's a man that I think the guys on Sunday are very intrigued by, and I don't think this will be his last year playing football."
- Robin Washut
A unique friendship
Perhaps no player will have a tighter bond this week with Northwestern than redshirt freshman wide receiver Kenny Bell.
As the Huskers get ready for Saturday's match-up with the Wildcats, Bell said his best friend would be on the other side playing Fitzgerald when the Wildcats come to Lincoln.
"(Northwestern's) back-up quarterback Kain Colter is a really good friend of mine and I know what type of talent they possess on the offensive side of the football and I've watched their defense this year," Bell said. "They play everybody close. This Wildcat team isn't going to be overlooked this week."
Growing up in the Denver area, Bell said his relationship with Colter dates back to quite some time ago. With an injury to Dan Persa earlier in the season, Colter actually was the starting quarterback for the Wildcats in a season-opening win over Boston College.
Colter's current role though is to come into the game as a "Wildcat quarterback." Within that role, he currently leads Northwestern in rushing at 57.4 yards per game and six touchdowns and ranks second in passing with 531 yards, four touchdowns to one interceptions and a completion percentage of 66.7.
He's also the team's third-leading receiver with 21 catches for 279 yards and a score. Colter's versatility may seem hard to believe, but Bell has seen it since before either of them even learned how to read.
"I've known Kain Colter the summer going into kindergarten and he's been my best friend since," Bell said.
- Sean Callahan
***Linebackers coach Ross Els said junior linebacker Will Compton had by far his best game of the season last week against Michigan State. Els said Compton has actually been playing very well over the past few weeks, but it was just people took more notice last week because of all the open field tackles Compton made against the Spartans. Els said if all those tackles had come up the middle, fans may not have noticed Compton's play as much.
***Defensive line/special teams coach John Papuchis said Nebraska would have use its blitzes wisely against a mobile and experienced quarterback like Northwestern's Dan Persa. Papuchis said the Huskers couldn't just send the house whenever they wanted because Persa was too good at recognizing blitzes and exploiting holes in the defense.
***Papuchis also said Rex Burkhead handles some of the punt return duties only when NU wants to simply make sure its fields the punt to get the offense on the field. Asked if he'd ever seen Burkhead drop a punt in practice, Papuchis said he hadn't, though he followed up with a "knock on wood."
***Defensive backs coach Corey Raymond said sophomore cornerback Ciante Evans was out of his green no-contact jersey and back in a white jersey with the rest of the defense on Wednesday. Raymond said the team doctors cleared Evans to fully practice, and the coaching staff is hopeful Evans will be good to go for Saturday's game.
***Raymond said the competition for the starting cornerback spot between Stanley Jean-Baptiste and Andrew Green was still too close to call. Raymond said the staff would likley name a starter after Thursday's practice. He added that both players have had great weeks of practice, and both would likely see the field on Saturday.
***Raymond added that the secondary would have be on its toes on Saturday because Northwestern's passing game is great at capitalizing on defense's mistakes. He said the Wildcat receivers were all great route runners, and the Huskers would have to be near perfect in their technique and not have any mental mistakes.
***Offensive line coach John Garrison said his proudest moment from last week's win was the play of his line in third quarter, as the front five paved the way for two 10-plus play touchdown drives that ate up more than 11 minutes of clock.
***Garrison said NU has started to lean towards sticking with the hot group on the on-line rather than rotate guys in and out the past few weeks. While the staff would love to get as many players on the field as possible, Garrison said they're realizing they've been more effective sticking with one group who gels and gets into a good rhythm.
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