Nebraska knew it had something special with the amount of returning star power it had on defense coming into the 2011 season, and while it's taken plenty of twists and turns to get there, the Blackshirts are starting to see those big names step up as expected.
The Huskers' "Big Three" of linebacker Lavonte David, cornerback Alfonzo Dennard and defensive tackle Jared Crick were regarded as one of the best defensive trios in all of college football at the beginning of the year. However, injuries prevented the group from ever gelling the way many had hoped.
Dennard missed the first four games of the season with a quad injury, and just when he came back Crick was then lost for the year with a shoulder injury. Since Dennard returned to the lineup against Wyoming, though, he and David have looked more and more like an All-American tandem.
"Those two guys are players," head coach Bo Pelini said. "They aren't only good football players, but they're tremendous competitors. They play with an attitude about them. It's infectious."
Last week's win over the Nittany Lions was a perfect example of the level of play David and Dennard have brought to the defense of late. Dennard locked up his side of the field on every passing play, forcing PSU to throw in opposite direction essentially the entire game.
"He plays with good technique and is a very physical corner," Pelini said. "I think since he came back he has played at a high level. I don't think he has played a bad game yet. I don't remember anybody catching many balls on him, and I've said this before and I'll say it again: I think he is as good of a corner as there is in the country. I believe that. I wouldn't trade him for anybody."
David was his usual dominant self, and he also came up with the biggest defensive play of the day when he stuffed Penn State running back Silas Redd with a one-on-one tackle on a fourth-and-1 late in the fourth quarter to help preserve the victory.
Defensive coordinator Carl Pelini called the play of the best individual efforts he'd ever seen, saying David only continues to show just how good of an all-around linebacker he is on a weekly basis.
"That's the thing about Lavonte, I've been saying it for two years: he's a 220-pound linebacker but he tackles like he weighs 240," Carl Pelini said. "He comes out of his hips, and he's a strong tackler at the point of attack. You can coach it all you want, but it's just an instinct for him. It's like an innate ability. He just has that knack to get up under ball carriers."
- Robin Washut
Drops are 'unacceptable' for receivers
If Nebraska's offense wants to take that next step as a unit, one of the things they have to do eliminate the drops they've had on key passing downs.
In last week's win at Penn State, redshirt freshman Kenny Bell said the Husker wide receivers had four dropped passes and four the week before in a loss to Northwestern.
Plain and simple Bell said those numbers are unacceptable.
"A drop can be the same as a turnover or an interception," Bell said. "It's absolutely demoralizing and it's something that we've talked about all year. It's something we can't allow to happen. We've got to convert on those third and longs. We have to convert on those second and mids.
"Catching the rock is all a part of that. When are not getting it done, we are not only letting the whole offense down, we are letting the whole team down."
Junior Tim Marlowe said wide receivers coach Rich Fisher has challenged his guys to have zero drops this week at Michigan.
Marlowe said NU's wide-outs have been staying late after practice each night this week to make sure you don't see any drops this week.
"It's a huge emphasis," Marlowe said. "We can't have any more drops, especially on third downs and those big money downs. We need to make those plays against a tough Michigan defense.
"Michigan has the No. 1 red zone defense in the Big Ten. We have a tough challenge ahead of us and we can't have any more plays that we leave out on the field."
One of those players that had two drops last week on key passing downs was senior Brandon Kinnie.
Following practice this week Kinnie said as a senior he should never have drops like the ones he had at Penn State.
"We are wide receivers, we can't drop the ball," Kinnie said. "You just have to get better at it. You have to focus better. That's a big part of catching the football and that's focusing, especially in a loud environment with people around you in traffic - you've got to catch it.
"That's why you are called a wide receiver and on scholarship. You've got to catch the football. It's frustrating to go through, but at the same time you just have to flush it make up for it."
- Sean Callahan
Hoke happy with Robinson's transition
Michigan head coach Brady Hoke started his tenure in Ann Arbor under good yet tricky circumstances on the offensive side of the ball.
While he wanted to get a jump on establishing his pro-style offense with the Wolverines right away, Hoke had a quarterback in Denard Robinson who didn't fit what he looked for at all at the position, but was also one of the most electrifying players in all of college football.
It's been a balancing act for Hoke, Robinson and MU offensive coordinator Al Borges this season, as Michigan has tried to install its brand of offense while also playing to Robinson's strength as a dual-threat weapon at quarterback.
On Tuesday, Hoke said he's been happy with the way all parties involved have handled the adjustment through 10 games.
"I think Al Borges has done a tremendous job of understanding that we have a special guy who athletically can do some things that some other guys can't do," Hoke said. "Having the combination of the things with the two-back sets and also having the combinations with the zone reads, quarterback powers, isos, those kinds of things that keep the ball in his hands, I think Al's done a good job. We've also tried to limit Denard to where it's not and it never is a one-man offense."
Last season, Robinson often times was the one and only source of offense for the Wolverines. He set the single-season D-I record for rushing yards by a quarterback and became the only player in NCAA history to both pass and rush for 1,500 yards. Robinson also broke the Big Ten record with 4,272 yards of total offense and led the conference in rushing.
Things have definitely slowed down for the junior this season, though. Robinson has barely completed 50 percent his passes and has as many interceptions (13) as he does touchdowns.
Hoke said part of the reason for Robinson's drop in numbers has been due to the emergence of other threats on offense, particularly freshman running back Fitzgerald Toussaint. Toussaint rushed for192 yards and a touchdown on 27 carries in last week's win over Illinois.
While his numbers might not show it, Hoke said he felt Robinson has gotten better and better each week within the Wolverines' new style of offense.
"I think the way he comes out every day and his work ethic every day, his leadership and his real attention to detail, whether it be in the throw game or carrying out fakes and those things, I think he's done a tremendous job," Hoke said. "We're glad he's here at Michigan."
- Robin Washut
Some easy road trips
Typically for Marlowe, his family from Youngstown, Ohio, would have to fly into Lincoln to watch most of his games.
However, with Nebraska's move to the Big Ten, this past week's game at Penn State and Saturday's game at Michigan have been just short car trips for the Marlowe family.
Marlowe said he's probably one of the few guys on the team that has really benefited from the move to the Big Ten in terms of making it easier on his family to make road games.
"I think I had about 10 or 12 family members at the last game and I think I'm going to have 16 at this game," Marlowe said. "It's been great for my family just to be able to drive and save some money instead of flying out here for every single game. The move to the Big Ten for me was awesome and my family is loving it."
- Sean Callahan
***Guard Spencer Long said Cole Pensick was the top backup at guard against Penn State. This week, Long said Brent Qvale was back in practice after sitting out while recovering from a concussion he suffered in practice. Long said it was up in the air who would be the top backup this week behind him and Seung Hoon Choi against Michigan.
***Saturday won't be the first time NU linebacker Lavonte David will go up against Michigan quarterback Denard Robinson. It turns out David and Robinson played against each other back in high school in Miami.
***Tight end Jake Long has been promoted to the No. 2 tight end spot behind Kyler Reed following the injury to Ben Cotton, but Long said the team is hoping to get Cotton back by the end of the season. Until then, Long said Kevin Thomsen would be the No. 3 tight end.
***Offensive coordinator Tim Beck said he's seen a lot of good things on film from Michigan's defense, particularly from its defensive line. He said defensive tackle Mike Martin would be as good as any player the Huskers have faced this season.
***Defensive end Eric Martin said he's getting more and more comfortable at the position with every game and week of practice he gets under his belt. He credits his added experience for allowing him to be able make more plays the past few weeks, especially in the pass rush.
***There's a chance Nebraska might be looking to use Martin as way to contain the elusive Robinson on Saturday. When asked if his role would change at all this week because of what Robinson brings to the table, Martin said he didn't "really have a comment on that" and that Nebraska would "just do what we have to do to stop him."
***Hoke said he's been very impressed with Nebraska on both sides of the football this season, but he's especially taken notice of the Huskers' play offensively the past few weeks.
"The footprint that they play with - being a physical, tough football team that's going to play through the whistle on both sides of the ball," Hoke said. "I think they play extremely hard. They execute well. They have a running back in Burkhead; Rex is just a tremendous back. He's a downhill guy and he runs with a lot of authority. Taylor Martinez, the way he's managed the offense and made plays within the offense, I think they're just a tremendous football team."
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