October 5, 2010

Tuesday notebook: Huskers against the world

No one can give a real explanation for it, but for some reason Nebraska has been at its best away from Memorial Stadium since head coach Bo Pelini took over in 2008.

In the past 32 games under Pelini, the Huskers are 6-2 in road games and head into Thursday night's showdown with Kansas State in Manhattan, Kan., the winners of their past five road contests.

That winning streak marks NU's longest since it won the final two road games in 1999 and then the first three in 2000.

The Huskers have also won five straight Big 12 Conference road games, marking the longest streak since they won their first eight conference road games as members of the Big 12 from 1996-97. They were also one of just 13 teams in the country to boast a perfect conference road record last season.

So what is it about playing in hostile road environments that seems to bring out the best in Nebraska?

"I think our guys approach (road games) the right way," Pelini said. "Sometimes I think you have less distractions when you're on the road. Obviously you like to play at home, but you kind of go on the road and you're just focused on one thing, and that's playing football. You not as worried about tickets and people coming to town and those things that go along with playing at home.

"I don't know, I just think our guys have a good approach to it. They've been pretty mature about handling all the elements you have to deal with on the road."

Nebraska's players have noticed the recent trend of road game success as well. While none would come out and say the team plays better on the road than it does at home, nearly all of the players agreed that the "us-against-the-world" mentality brings the team together as well as anything.

"I know we go in there with the mindset that it's us against the world," senior safety DeJon Gomes said. "We know that they have their fans with them, and it's almost like motivation having them cheer against us. It's just us going out there and proving a point."

- Robin Washut

Tuesday practice takes
NU-KSU finale: Kansas State will be the first stop on Nebraska's Big 12 Conference farewell tour, and it will mark the 94th and final meeting between the two teams as conference rivals. Nebraska has dominated the series overall, boasting a 77-15-2 advantage, but the Wildcats had a brief string of success in the late 90s and early 2000s, winning five of the seven meetings from 1998-2004. However, the series has been dominated by the Huskers ever since, as they come into Thursday's night game looking to win their sixth straight over KSU, which would mark their longest winning streak over any Big 12 North opponent.

Starting fast: Based on what we've seen through the first four games this season, if Nebraska is able to score early against Kansas State, it should be a good night for the Huskers. Going back to the end of last season, NU has scored on its opening drive in five of its past six games and also five of their past six road contests. The one game the Huskers didn't score on their first drive? Last week's 17-3 win over South Dakota State.

Injury report: Head coach Bo Pelini said he expects all of the players listed on Nebraska's two-deep roster to be ready to play on Thursday, saying the team is actually pretty healthy at this point compared to previous years.

What's on tap next: The Nebraska football team wrapped up its final full practice of the week in full pads inside the Hawks Championship Center and the fields north of Memorial Stadium on Tuesday. The Huskers will hold a brief walk-thru on Wednesday before heading down to Manhattan, Kan., to take on Kansas State on Thursday at 6:45 p.m.

Run D ready to be tested

Last year, Nebraska allowed just two opposing running backs to rush for more than 100 yards all season. Through the first four games this year, that total has already been matched.

While Western Kentucky's Bobby Rainey (155) and South Dakota State's Kyle Minett (112) both had big days against the Huskers, neither performance did much to prevent a 4-0 start to the season for NU.

However, that might not be the case if Kansas State's Daniel Thomas puts up those kinds of numbers on Thursday night.

With 11 days to regroup as a defense and prepare for Thomas and the Wildcats' ground attack, Nebraska's is confident that its run defense will be ready to take on arguably its toughest challenge of the year.

"I feel good about our run defense," Pelini said. "We play a lot different than some people do. There is some give and take that we live with. It's kind of in what we call and what we play. A lot of our issues were communication issues, alignment issues and that type of thing that I think we've gotten figured out."

Pelini said the early success teams have had running the ball against NU was no bigger of a concern than it was when the likes of Virginia Tech's Ryan Williams or Colorado's Rodney Stewart both broke the century mark against them last season.

In fact, Thomas fell just one yard short of becoming the third 100-yard back last year when he rushed 19 times for 99 yards in Lincoln. Considering the fact that Nebraska still beat the Wildcats 17-3 in spite of Thomas's performance, Pelini said he's not worried about the stats.

"I don't get caught up in statistics and that kind of thing," Pelini said. "A lot of it is a process to get where you want to go, and teach your guys lessons along the way. I could really care less about the statistics. I have a pretty good idea where we are run-game wise and what we have to do to handle the run. I think if you look at my track record of how we play, we're a lot different than a lot of people in how we play.

"You get better as you go along. We have our ways to handle the run, but we don't necessarily always call those things, especially early on when we're controlling football games."

- Robin Washut

Smith progressing well

At one point, sophomore P.J. Smith was expected to be one of the successors to departing senior safeties Larry Asante and Matt O'Hanlon on Nebraska's starting defense this season.

Though he's generally not one of the first 11 defensive players on the field to open the game, Smith's role is still considered to be just as big as any other starter.

That fact was shown when Smith was awarded one of 12 Blackshirts despite having started just one career game. While sharing snaps with seniors DeJon Gomes and Rickey Thenarse, Smith's coaches say he's made the most of the playing time he's received thus far.

"I like everything about P.J.," defensive coordinator Carl Pelini said. "I think he is a very heady player. He understands our defense. He tackles well. I'd like all our guys to become better tacklers at the point of attack, but P.J. tackles as well as anybody we have back there. And he's smart in his coverage. He understands route combinations and where he is supposed to be. He gives us the depth we need at safety to be able to bring Gomes up and play that dime position. Without P.J., it would be very difficult to do what we do personnel-wise."

Smith's numbers definitely back up all that praise, as he currently ranks seventh on the team with 15 tackles and his three interceptions are tied with cornerback Alfonzo Dennard for the team lead.

While this year has been the most extensive playing time of Smith's young career, Carl Pelini said working as the No. 2 safety every day in practice behind a leader like Asante all last season had as much to do with his development as anything.

"Even though this is his first time in that starting role, he was prepared last year every week as if he were the starter," Carl Pelini said. "I felt like he was more of a veteran than a rookie coming into this season."

- Robin Washut

Snyder remembers 1998

Before 1998, Kansas State hadn't beaten Nebraska since 1968. For KSU head coach Bill Snyder, that 1998 game with the Huskers will always be one to remember.

Snyder called that win a monumental moment for the KSU program during his press conference on Tuesday.

"It was a major step for our program," Snyder said. "Victories against any team are hard, but against a program like Nebraska, who is very difficult, they are hard to come by. It was meaningful and very significant."

Thursday night's game in Manhattan against the Huskers could possibly be the last ever between the two schools who sit just 130 miles apart.

There's no question Snyder said not playing Nebraska anymore will be hard for a lot of Wildcat fans after this season.

"Outside of being a tremendous athletic program, I think the history and tradition and all that goes along with it that is relative to the Big 8/Big12 Conference, I think will be missed, Snyder said. "I hate to see them go. I am proud of the 10 remaining schools that they chose to make the decision that they did. I am disappointed and saddened by Nebraska not being in the conference."

-Sean Callahan?

KSU's players impressed with the Huskers

Nebraska received quite a bit of praise from Kansas State's players during their press conference on Tuesday.

Offensive lineman Zach Kendall said he doesn't see very many holes in the Husker defense when he breaks them down on film.

"Their fight is what impresses me," Kendall said. "They are 4-0 right now as well. Their coaching staff has them playing well right now. I have not seen a lot of their offense on tape because I have been focusing on their defense, but their defense is tough.

"They have an unbelievable amount of interceptions right now. They know how to pick off the quarterback and they can return it. The thing that I am most impressed with right now is their ability to spy the quarterback and pick the ball off."

Meanwhile on the other side of the ball KSU's players are very impressed with redshirt freshman quarterback Taylor Martinez.

"He can make plays anytime with his feet," defensive end Antonio Felder said of Martinez. "He has the ability to out-run a lot of people. He can make big plays on the ground."

-Sean Callahan

Quick hits

***Sophomore linebacker Eric Martin practiced without a Blackshirt for the second straight day on Tuesday. When asked what was behind the decision to take away Martin's Blackshirt, Bo Pelini wouldn't go into much detail.

"We put him in red," Pelini said simply.

Has Martin responded to the message like Pelini had hoped?

"We'll see," he said.

***The Huskers set their 70-man travel roster on Tuesday, which will be the smallest roster they will have played a game with so far this season.

***Bo Pelini said it would depend on how Thursday's game went to see whether sophomore quarterback Cody Green would see any playing time. If the opportunity presents itself, though, Pelini said he would like to get Green in the game.

"We'd like to," he said. "We'll see how it goes. We'll play it by ear a little bit."

***As Nebraska begins its Big 12 Conference farewell tour this week, the players were asked where Manhattan, Kan., ranks among the toughest places to play in the league.

"It's up there," junior defensive tackle Jared Crick said. "It's one of the more hostile places to play, but it's fun. That's what we look forward to. We don't consider it the more hostile the worst. We think of it the more hostile the better. It's just fun to go all over the Big 12, but they're up there."

Said senior wide receiver Niles Paul:

"I wouldn't say it's the worst Big 12 north school, but it's definitely No. 2 or. 3. They definitely talk a lot of trash and it's important to just block them out and focus on you, and just really focus on the game because they do talk a lot of trash."

***Carl Pelini said that while Kansas State quarterback Carson Coffman may get overlooked when talking about the Wildcats' offense, his efficiency makes it tough for defenses to capitalize on mistakes.

"He manages that offense well," Pelini said. "He plays within the scheme. I think he understands what his role is there. I call him a very accomplished game manager. He understands the offense. He understands what he is being asked to do, whether it's in the quarterback running game, the option game, and the passing game. He doesn't make a lot of mistakes. He's a smart guy and runs their offense really efficiently."

***With the extra time off with the bye week, linebackers Lavonte David, Eric Martin and Alfonzo Whaley have been able to work on the communication errors they said have been the biggest hurdles in the development this season, Carl Pelini said.

"We were able to last week, kind of go back to training camp for a couple days and do a lot of good against good, really work on areas we felt we hadn't performed very well in over the course of the first four games," Pelini said. "I think it was very beneficial for those guys. It gave them a chance to take a deep breath and school themselves up a little bit on our scheme."

***Carl Pelini also talked about the strides junior defensive back Austin Cassidy has made since the end of last season.

"Austin is very solid player for us," Pelini said. "He's a tremendous backup as he showed in the Big 12 Championship Game last year. He showed he can step in at any moment, and we wouldn't have a drop off. We're very high on him, and he's an important player to us."

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