November 3, 2011

Thursday notebook: Huskers staying the course

Coming off a huge win last week over Michigan State that kept its Big Ten championship hopes alive, Nebraska entered this week knowing it couldn't start feeling too good about itself just yet.

With four games left on the regular season schedule, including two big road games and Saturday's showdown with a Northwestern team much better than its record suggests, the Huskers made it a point to not buy into the hype and stay hungry for more.

As the team wrapped up its final full practice session of the week on Thursday, head coach Bo Pelini said he couldn't be happier with the focus his players showed all week as they prepared to take on the Wildcats.

"We've talked about it, and you know, anybody that wants to talk about last week, that isn't being talked about around here," Pelini said. "We have a lot of respect for the football team coming in here to play us, and it comes down to our preparation and being ready to go."

At least publicly, the Husker players have said all the right things this week about not taking Northwestern lightly, despite the fact that they're currently listed as 17-point favorites in the game.

The Wildcats' defense has had its share of issues this season, giving up an average of 31.5 points and 431.6 yards per game, including 193.6 rushing yards per contest. Things have been even worse since the start of Big Ten play, as Northwestern has allowed at least 34 points in its first five conference games.

As if that weren't enough, the Wildcats have also been outscored 139-101 in the second half this season, including 87-49 in the fourth quarter. That of course plays perfectly into Nebraska's strength, as the Huskers have been dominant offensively after halftime.

Even so, offensive coordinator Tim Beck said the Huskers would have to be ready for a battle against what he called an opportunistic Wildcat defense.

"They're a very well coached, very sound defense," Beck said. "Very physical, as all the teams seem to be in this conference. They don't make a lot of mistakes. You have to beat them. They've been very ball hawking. They've been able to create some turnovers in some games and force people to make bad plays.

"We've got to be patient and take what they give us and be physical with these guys, because they're a good football team. A lot better than their record has indicated."

The real threat for Nebraska will likely come from Northwestern quarterback Dan Persa, who possesses all the tools that have given the Blackshirts their biggest problems this season. His combination of mobility and exceptional decision-making ability makes defenses have to be on their toes on every single play.

With Persa completing 75 percent of his passes on the year and several talented and consistent receiving weapons, the Huskers say they'll be tested as much as ever on Saturday.

"They're a little bit like our offense in they attack defenses' weak spots," senior safety Austin Cassidy said. "They find something they know is going to work and they stick with it. Their guys run really good routes. They're fast. They're just really good football players. If I were looking at a team that I'd like to make my offense like, I would look at Northwestern. The way that they play, it's hard to defend."

- Robin Washut

Martinez gaining confidence every week

Taylor Martinez's career path has certainly been a rollercoaster ride since he won the starting quarterback job last season. Over the course of the past few weeks, though, Martinez has actually been as steady as ever.

After his forgettable performance in the loss to Wisconsin and his rough start in the first half against Ohio State, the sophomore seems to have calmed down and stopped trying to make every play on his own.

As a result, Nebraska has seen a much more poised, efficient and productive Martinez during its three-game winning streak. Since the second half against the Buckeyes, Martinez has completed 60 percent of his passes with four touchdowns to just one interception.

"I think I've improved in all ways," Martinez said. "I think I've done a lot better job handling the game maybe not throwing a pass here and checking a play here, just different stuff like that."

Beck agreed with Martinez's evaluation, saying the Corona, Calif., native's biggest improvement hasn't had anything to do with his mechanics, but just his decision making with the football and not trying to force plays when they're not there.

"I think also he's gotten a little bit smarter," Beck said. "He's learned how to slide and run out of bounds, and he's using his check-downs some and doing some different things that have prevented him from being exposed out of the pocket or in the pocket."

Pelini said getting to this point with Martinez definitely didn't just happen overnight. When you have a player who wanted to try to score on every snap, Pelini said, teaching him to be patient was one of the biggest hurdles.

"It wasn't easy," Pelini said. "It is still a challenge at times. He wants the ball in his hands. He has a lot of confidence in his abilities and that is part of the maturity of somebody, especially at his position, knowing when to and when not to. I think he has grown in that area and a lot of playing quarterback is decision making, and it isn't easy when things are happening 100 mph out there. He is making progress, and would be the first to tell you he has learned a lot along the way and has much more to learn."

- Robin Washut

Coming out party for Compton?

When junior linebacker Will Compton came to Nebraska out of high school there were quite a bit of expectations laid out in front of him.

For this first time this past Saturday against Michigan State, Compton finally looked like the dominant linebacker people thought he could become.

Compton was involved in several plays on Saturday, including multiple solo tackles on the edge where he put down MSU's running backs for little to no gain. Compton called the Michigan State game the best performance of his career.

"I just made plays when I had the chance to," Compton said. "I played well in other games, you just get better opportunities in some games over others.

"You have to take advantage of the opportunities you get and I had a few and took advantage of them. I've been capable of it in the past, I just haven't taken advantage of it like I did this past weekend."

Linebackers coach Ross Els also called the Michigan State game the best performance of Compton's career at Nebraska.

"We've been talking to Will (Compton) a lot," Els said. "He's been in right place this season, but then when he gets in the game he'll kind of breakdown and be a little hesitant or a little soft. He wasn't attacking the running back. He changed that last Saturday.

"He really did a great job of running through his tackles, which to me made all the difference in the world. He was able to make good open field tackles and go low and hit and wrap and twist. It should I think because he made some open field tackles and that's when everyone I think notices him."

- Sean Callahan

Thorell has a full plate

Because senior Lance Thorell has played both the nickel and peso roles for Nebraska this season, it's meant he's had to spend time in meetings with both the linebackers and secondary.

Els said Thorell would continue to bounce back and forth between both position groups during meeting time.

"It depends on what we are working on that day," Els said. "When (Thorell) is in that Will (linebacker)/Dime (corner) position here Lavonte (David) usually plays, he's with me.

"When he goes out and plays more in a nickel back spot he's with Coach (Cory) Raymond). He's in on both meetings and we put a lot on his plate, but he's a smart kid."

Els said not every player could handle the load Thorell has taken on this season.

"I think it takes a smart player," Els said. "A kid that has a good football sense that understands the whole scheme, not just his little arena. He's handed that well and he's able to do that."

- Sean Callahan

Quick hits

***Pelini said Northwestern wide receiver Jeremy Ebert was one of the Wildcats' most dangerous offensive weapons, despite the fact that he may not get that much attention nationally or around the Big Ten. Pelini said Ebert has shown to be one of Persa's favorite targets, especially in clutch situations.

"He's a good football player," Pelini said. "He makes a lot of plays. He makes a lot of plays down the field, and I think the quarterback has a lot of confidence in him. He's a good player."

***Pelini would not say who would start at the No. 2 cornerback spot on Saturday, as either Stanley Jean-Baptiste or Andrew Green could get the nod. He said both have played very well all week, and the team would be confident in either one as a starter. Pelini said it would come down to which player looked the best on film from the past week of practice.

"We'll see," Pelini said. "Whoever lines up there on Saturday will be the guy. We have confidence in all our guys… It depends on how this film looks. Like I said, we have confidence in both those guys."

***Sophomore cornerback Ciante Evans sat out of Monday's practice and wore a green no-contact jersey on Tuesday, but Pelini said Evans would be good to go for Saturday's game.

***Pelini said junior Josh Williams has played very well over the past few weeks, especially against Michigan State.

"I think Josh has done some good things for us," Pelini said. "I think he's played some pretty good football. I thought he did some good things last week, and the more snaps he gets I think the more he'll improve. He's doing a good job."

***Senior tackle Jermarcus Hardrick was in some pretty bad pain after injuring his ankle in last week's win, but Pelini said Yoshi has been able to fight through it and has practiced all week. Pelini said Hardrick was the type of player who made it very tough to keep him off the field, and he expects him to be ready to go against Northwestern.

"He wants to play," Pelini said. "He loves to play the game, and he's a prideful guy. He was dinged up a little bit last week, but he hasn't missed a practice all week and he's done a good job, so I think he's ready to play."

***Pelini said it's not been uncommon for Nebraska to have four defensive ends on the defensive line this season, especially in third down passing situations. He said the versatility of NU's ends allows them to play both inside and out and create speed mismatches in the pass rush.

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