October 21, 2010

Thursday notebook: Huskers thrive on the road

With Texas handing Nebraska one last frustrating loss on Saturday, a recent disturbing trend continued for the Huskers. For some reason, they always seem to struggle more at home than they do on the road.

That theory isn't just a knee-jerk reaction, either. Since head coach Bo Pelini took over in 2008, Nebraska is 14-5 at home and 11-4 on the road including Big 12 Championship and bowl games.

Since last season's last second loss at Virginia Tech,though, NU has reeled off six straight regular season road victories.

Considering that Memorial Stadium is regarded as one college football's best home field advantages, how could it be that the Huskers might actually play better on the road than they do at home? That's a question Pelini and his staff are determined to find out.

"Honestly I think there's less distractions on the road," Pelini said. "Whatever they may be, we're looking into why that is and trying to think outside the box a little bit about maybe handling home games a little bit differently and trying to eliminate as much distraction as we can. You look at the last couple of years, and last year in particular, the games where we really weren't like ourselves, that has really crept up a lot more at home than it has on the road.

"That's something that we're talking about and looking into."

Going back to last year's 31-10 home loss to Texas Tech, Nebraska is just 5-3 in its past eight home games, including just 2-3 in Big 12 home games. With Saturday's loss to the Longhorns, the Huskers are also 0-3 in conference home openers under Pelini.

With all of that in mind, Pelini said the way his team has struggled at home was an issue he simply couldn't brush off as mere coincidence.

"You reflect back after the game," he said. "You think about it. I'm not looking to make any excuses, that's not part of it, but you've got to look at everything and see if maybe there's something there and talk about it and be extra guarded against it. I don't know if our guys feel more pressure at home. I don't know that.

"It's something we're talking to the team about, because we weren't our self the other day in a number of instances. We just did some things that were out of character, so I'm a little bit concerned about it."

Some NU fans could be scratching their heads about how a program that at one point had won 47-straight home games could suddenly be less effective than when it plays in front of hostile road crowds.

While he's still searching for the answer to that question, Pelini insists Husker Nation has nothing to do with his team's home woes.

"I don't think (the problems are) obviously in our stadium," Pelini said. "Obviously I think our fans are great. They were loud, (and) they do a great job for us. What I'm concerned about is all the things leading up to the game - the day before and the day of. Like I said, I'm just looking at everything and talking to the players about it and making sure we're doing everything we can as a staff to make sure that we keep our guys focused on the things they can control and what they should be focused on on game day.

"We'll find out. I'm just talking to the guys about it and really looking forward for down the line to make sure that we're giving them the best opportunity to keep their focus in the right direction. I mean, our fans are awesome. They're great. We love playing at home. That has nothing to do with it. It's really all the things leading up to the game. We're making sure that we're doing the right things."

With Nebraska's recent trend of road success in mind, the best medicine following Saturday's loss just might be a trip to Stillwater, Okla., to take on the undefeated and BCS No. 16 Oklahoma State Cowboys, who happen to boast the nation's second-ranked offense.

"It's never a good time to go on the road, but I feel confident in our guys," Pelini said. "Our guys respond well on the road. Like I said, our guys don't feel like we played our best football the other day, and I think our guys - I could feel it in their demeanor yesterday and I could feel it in everything who they are. I think they're just anxious to get back out there and play, I don't care where it is. I'm looking forward to the next one, and I think they are too."

- Robin Washut

Thursday practice takes
Gill's job is safe: In somewhat Nebraska-related news, it looks like former Husker quarterback and now Kansas head coach Turner Gill's job is safe despite struggling mightily in his first season. According a story by the Lawrence Journal-World, Gill would be owed $8 million if he were to be let go before his five-year, $10 million contract expires. Not only that, the $8 million would be due within 90 days of his final day on the job. Unless the Jayhawks get so fed up that they're willing to drop some serious change to get a new coach, Gill will get at least a few more seasons to turn KU's ship around.

Pelini reunites with Young: Around this time 20 years ago, Bo Pelini was a hard-hitting safety at Ohio State leading the way for defensive coordinator Bill Young from 1987-90. Now, the two will square off on Saturday in a student-versus-teacher showdown pitting two defensive minds against each other when Nebraska travels to take on Oklahoma State. Pelini had only praise to give when asked about Young, now the Cowboys' defensive coordinator, on Thursday. "He's a good man," Pelini said. "He's a good football coach, a friend, and I have a lot of respect for him as a football coach. He's been doing this a long time."

Injury report: Pelini said junior tight end Ryan Hill suffered a concussion in last week's loss to Texas, and he was "probably going to be out for a while" as a result. The only other player not expected to play Saturday is sophomore wide receiver Khiry Cooper, who is dealing with an illness.

What's on tap next: The Nebraska football team practiced of in helmets only inside the Hawks Championship Center and the fields north of Memorial Stadium on Thursday. The Huskers will hold a brief walk-thru session in Lincoln on Friday before traveling down to Stillwater on Saturday for a 2:30 p.m. kickoff against Oklahoma State.

Paul putting in extra work

On Tuesday, senior wide receiver Niles Paul said, among other things, that he planned to step up his effort in practice in order to rebound from Saturday's tough outing.

So far, Paul seems to be living up to that promise.

After each practice this week, the Omaha native has stayed after to run extra sprints with fellow senior Roy Helu or catch a number of passes with team managers or other teammates.

According to his coaches, that extra effort is exactly what Paul needed to do in order to move on.

"I think it's a great life lesson for everybody," tight ends coach Ron Brown said. "There are so many people that settle for mediocrity. When the average guy in the workplace makes a mistake, he tends to just let it go and hopefully notices, and usually nobody notices a whole lot.

"But our ball players are demanded of with excellence, so Niles is out there doing something that - you know, Niles has excellent hands. He can catch the football, but there may be a few mechanical things there that he had to work on. You can't ever take it for granted."

Brown, who coached Nebraska's receivers for 16 years before eventually moving to tight ends upon rejoining the staff in 2008, compared Paul's additional work after practice to former Baltimore Colt and Hall of Fame receiver Raymond Berry. He told the story of how when Berry would drop a pass in practice, he would stay after and have quarterback Johnny Unitas throw him the exact same pass until he caught 50 of them.

The idea, Brown said, was to erase any mental doubt that Berry couldn't catch that same pass again.

"So much of it has to do with where you're at in your mindset," Brown said. "After a game like that, a guy like Niles Paul understands it's not just the physical reps that are important, it's the confidence that comes with catching that ball so many times after practice. It's a great attitude, it's the right response to a situation like that."

- Robin Washut

Young tight ends holding their own

After senior Mike McNeill moved to wide receiver and fellow senior Dreu Young was lost for the season with a back injury, Nebraska's tight end position suddenly got young and inexperienced in a hurry.

With McNeill and Young out of the picture, the top two tight end spots were handed to sophomores Ben Cotton and Kyler Reed, respectively. Coming into the season, the two had caught a total of 11 passes for 97 yards and a touchdown in a combined two career starts.

Despite their lack of experience, though, Brown said both players have more than held their own and met the challenge of stepping up this season.

"I'm very proud of those two guys," Brown said. "We've had three injuries that have knocked guys out probably for the whole year at the tight end spot, and these guys have not only had to man up as young guys, but they're in great physical condition. They've got to just gut it out. They're going through practices and games, and I just thank the Lord for the temperament of those two guys."

Cotton's play last year and over the offseason was one of the primary reasons why the coaching staff felt comfortable moving McNeill to receiver. Though Cotton has caught just two passes for 12 yards this year, Brown said his presence as a blocker has been just as valuable.

"Ben Cotton has blocked extremely well this year," Brown said. "He's a war daddy. He's got the temperament that you want, he's a big strong guy and he's an excellent technician for a sophomore. He goes through tremendous pain over making sure everything is letter perfect."

- Robin Washut

Quick hits

***Apparently Pelini isn't too familiar with Oklahoma State's offense outside of the jersey numbers he's seen from watching game film. After being asked about OSU quarterback Brandon Weeden on Thursday, Pelini had to clarify exactly who the reporter was talking about.

"Which one's Weeden?" Pelini asked.

Once informed that Weeden was the player who comes into Saturday's game ranked as one of the top quarterbacks in the country, Pelini knew exactly who he was being asked about.

"He's a good football player," Pelini said. "A good strong arm, runs the offense well. He does some good things. He's a good football player. Sorry, I just don't know them by name."

***Pelini was then asked about OSU receiver Justin Blackmon, the nation's second-ranked player in scoring, and he said Blackmon has the ability to go up and beat defensive backs on jump balls through his physical ability and aggressive play.

"He has really good ball skills," Pelini said. "He does a great job of attacking the ball down the field. You've got to be aggressive down the field, and you've got to win when the ball's in the air. You've got to compete. He's going to compete for the football. He's a good football player."

***Along with Blackmon, Pelini said Weeden has a number of other dangerous weapons to throw to in the passing game, and Weeden has shown little hesitation to just throw passes up for his wide outs to go get.

"Especially on some of the deep balls," Pelini said. "I think they want to give those guys - they've got a couple good receivers over there, a number of them - and I think (Weeden) has confidence in them and he wants to give them an opportunity to make plays. I think he does that well."

***While Oklahoma State has obviously put up some serious numbers through the air this season, Pelini said the Cowboys were not going to bring anything to the table that Nebraska hasn't seen before over the years.

"We've faced it before," he said. "Washington, we thought was pretty good on the outside. It's always a challenge. Every team you play - Texas had a pretty good receiving corps. It's always a challenge."

...More... To continue reading this article you must be a member. Sign Up Now!