October 27, 2011

Thursday notebook: The game that started it all

When you talk about Bo Pelini's road to becoming a head coach at Nebraska, you can't leave out the 2003 Alamo Bowl against Michigan State.

Pelini was the interim head coach for the 9-3 Huskers and led them to a convincing 17-3 win over the Spartans.

With MSU coming to town now eight seasons later, it's hard not think what that night did for Pelini in elevating his stock to become NU's future head coach.

It was an emotion filled month after Frank Solich was fired, and somehow Pelini was able to keep the Huskers together to get one more win under some of the most difficult circumstances in program history.

Running backs coach Ron Brown was one of four current staff members at NU that were on Solich's staff in 2003. Jeff Jamrog was the defensive line coach, Barney Cotton the offensive coordinator and Carl Pelini was a defensive graduate assistant coach in 2003.

"I remember it was a pretty emotional game probably for both teams," Brown said. "We had a coach that was just fired and a lot of us were playing without any security or knowing what was going to take place. A lot of guys rose to the occasion and played well and hard."

In fact, there was tension between MSU and NU all week in San Antonio before that game. At a team fiesta at the La Villita Assembly Hall off the River Walk, a near brawl broke out during dinner when a group of Spartan players surrounded Husker quarterback Jammal Lord at the buffet line.

The group of MSU players where than greeted by NU offensive lineman Richie Incognito and a few other players, and the pushing and shoving began. Security guards separated the players and stood between Nebraska and Michigan State during remainder of the dinner. Brown said some of that tension even carried over into the game against the Spartans.

"I know we had a little bit of tension that rose at halftime with both teams being in the same area of the locker room," Brown said. "It was a hard fought game and I know our kids showed a lot of resiliency that game, particularly during that time of the year. I just remember there was a high amount of character from the coaches and the players with the situation they were under, and to go out and play that well in Alamo Bowl and beat a good team."

You could even make the case that the way Pelini got the team to play in the Alamo Bowl that day ultimately played a factor in him being the coach here today.

If the Huskers would have laid an egg in San Antonio that night, things may not look the way they do today at Nebraska. The way the Huskers played that night helped fuel a surge of pressure towards former Athletic Director Steve Pederson to hire Pelini as the next head coach.

"I think Bo did a great job of preparing the football team and pulling that team together as an interim head coach, which is tough to begin with when things aren't going well," Brown said. "When things are falling apart and collapsing and not going well, I've been around some teams in situations like that where they completely fell apart in the bowl game.

"That didn't happen to us and (Pelini) did a great job. I think it demonstrated his ability to instantly gain credibility and leadership."

As could be expected, Pelini said he doesn't think about that game like that. He believes his eventual hiring at Nebraska had much more to with his overall resume before, during and after his time in Lincoln.

Still, he admits that the win over the Spartans in San Antonio was a moment in his coaching career he'll never forget.

"I don't think it played much of a part in me being back here," Pelini said. "I think it was our body of work for the year and then obviously hopefully what I was able to be a part of after that at some other places. But that was a tough time. I have a lot of fond memories from that, believe it or not."

- Sean Callahan

NU hopeful Randle won't need surgery

After news broke Wednesday that sophomore defensive tackle Thaddeus Randle had been ruled out for Saturday's game against Michigan State with a knee injury, Nebraska had some potentially encouraging news on the situation on Thursday.

Pelini said the team would not know the official status of Randle for the remainder of the season for another week to 10 days, as the doctors still need time to run a number of tests to determine the extent of the injury.

However, Pelini said as of now, the staff is hopeful Randle's right knee won't require surgery.

"The length and how they're treating it and all that, it'll probably be a week to 10 days before the doctors make a decision on all that," Pelini said. "What we're hoping is that Thad won't have to have any surgery on that. That's the way it's heading right now, but like I said, it's going to take a little time to see."

With Randle out of the mix, the Huskers will have to rely heavily on redshirt freshman Jay Guy as the new fourth man in the defensive tackle rotation. Guy was recently promoted from the scout team last week and added to NU's travel roster for the game against Minnesota.

Guy played the entire fourth quarter against the Gophers but did not register a tackle.

- Robin Washut

Spartans' running game better than numbers show

Looking over the Big Ten Conference season statistics, it would seem as if Michigan State was about as one-dimensional of an offense as could be.

While the Spartans ranks third in the league in passing offense, they are dead last in rushing at just 138.0 yards per game.

After running for more than 1,200 yards and finishing fourth in the Big Ten in rushing last season, junior running back Edwin Baker has been kept in check all year long.

Following his all-conference season as a true sophomore, Baker is averaging 64.0 yards per game with two rushing touchdowns and has broken the 100-yard mark just once this year.

Despite what the statistics may suggest, though, Nebraska defensive coordinator Carl Pelini said Michigan State's running game would still be a big challenge for the Huskers on Saturday.

"They're a physical running team, but again, they kind of take what you give them," Carl Pelini said. "They're a power running team, and teams have been loading the box against them, and that's why you see their receivers having success. I think if you spread out and start to defend the wide outs, then they go back to the running game.

"They're a good offense. They're very balanced. You can talk about where they're ranked in the Big Ten in rushing, but again, they're going to tale what you give them. They're not going to try to fit a square peg in a round hole. If you stack the box, they're going to throw the ball."

Just because Michigan State hasn't been able to run the ball as effectively this year doesn't mean their running backs aren't heavily involved in the offense. Sophomore Le'Veon Bell, who also leads the team with six rushing touchdowns, ranks third on the squad with 13 receptions.

In fact, running backs and fullbacks have combined for 29 catches for 241 yards and a touchdown this season

The Huskers know they'll be lining up against a talented Michigan State backfield on Saturday, and they're definitely not taking the Spartans lightly just because the stats aren't as impressive as some.

"They're a good running team," junior defensive end Cameron Meredith said. "Just because of the statistics say they don't run ball, they're definitely a good running team, and they're good at screens and stuff like that. We'll have our hands full in the running game, definitely… If you don't stop the run, that's what we pride ourselves on if stopping the run before we can rush the passer."

- Robin Washut

MSU receivers as good as advertised

As if Nebraska didn't have enough to worry about with Michigan State's defense and quarterback Kirk Cousins, the Spartans also boast two of the best wide receivers in the Big Ten in B.J. Cunningham and Keshawn Martin.

Through seven games, Cunningham ranks not only as one of the best wide outs in the conference, but in all of college football. The 6-foot-2, 215-pound senior already has 48 catches this season for 723 yards and three touchdowns, ranking 15th nationally with 6.86 receptions and 103.9 yards per game.

Martin, 5-11, 185, is second on the team with 27 catches for 249 yards and three scores, and he's also the fourth-ranked punt returner in the Big Ten.

After watching film of the Spartans' offense all week, Nebraska's coaches know MSU's receiving duo will be as good as any its secondary has faced this season.

"They're both very talented kids," Carl Pelini said. "Great speed, great size, great hands. They make plays on the ball. They're a challenge for you, both wide outs."

Defensive backs coach Corey Raymond went a step further to include 6-2, 220, senior Keith Nichol on the list of receivers the Huskers have to especially account for on Saturday. Averaging 16.8 yards per catch, Nichol is one of the Spartans' top big play threats.

His most recent big play was as big as it gets, as he hauled in tipped pass at the goal line as time expired to beat then-No. 6 Wisconsin last Saturday.

"They've got three guys who can beat you, so we've got to come ready to play," Raymond said. "These guys are real good. They're some of the best guys we'll play this year."

- Robin Washut

Yoshi ready for the challenge

When senior offensive lineman Jermarcus Hardrick starts to look more in-depth at Saturday's match-up, he knows NU will have their hands full against this Spartan defensive line.

Hardrick said that MSU defensive end William Gholston and defensive tackle Jerel Worthy are as good as any defensive linemen he's seen this season.

"(Gholston) is probably the best defensive end I've seen all year, but I think (Worthy) is the best player on their team," Hardrick said. "He's the best one we've seen on film. He's got a motor, he's athletic, he's big and he has a nose for the ball."

However, Hardrick feels like the Husker coaching staff has gotten them prepared in film sessions this week for what they're going to see from this talented duo.

Hardrick said the graduate assistant coaches from NU put together cut-ups of all of their different moves from every game, which really helps them get ready for what they're going to see.

"When you go against great linemen some of them have signature moves," Hardrick said. "I study film and try to make sure I don't get caught in that signature move. I'm going to have to bring my A game this week."

- Sean Callahan

Quick hits

***Bo Pelini said Saturday's 11 a.m. kickoff had a bit of negative impact on recruits making official visits this weekend, but he's still expecting around four or five to make the trip. While the early start isn't ideal for recruiting, he said it does give the coaches time after the game to visit with recruits.

***On Thursday, the NCAA approved a financial package to distribute up to $2,000 a year or enough to cover full cost of attendance for student-athletes. Pelini said he hadn't heard the news prior to the end of package, but said he was fully behind the decision. He said there were a lot of players who struggle to get by financially while in school, and the package would only help student-athlete, as every little bit would help.

***While most people may think of Michigan State as a heavy personnel offense, Carl Pelini said the Spartans require just as much nickel defensive match-ups with their sets as they do a base 4-3.

"They're about 50/50 in nickel personnels and base personnels," Pelini said. "They've been a little bit different each game. Our personnel kind of reacts to what personnel they have on the field. It just depends on what they're giving us."

***When the Huskers do use their nickel package, look for senior Lance Thorell to be the primary peso against Michigan State. He manned the role for much of the win over Minnesota.

"He'll be used when we need him, and if the team wants to line up and play smash mouth, then you end up with the three backers," Carl Pelini said. "Lance has been playing well all year, it's just what we get, we match their personnel."

***Carl Pelini said one of the biggest improvements he saw from his defense last week against the Gophers was the play of NU's safeties.

"I especially thought our safeties did a great job of playing their roles, communicating better, getting our guys into the right checks, and I just think we're getting better at that aspect of the defense," he said. "As we continue to get better at that, we're going to get more sound defensively. I thought that was the biggest improvement, honestly, was our safety play. I think that made us all better."

***Carl Pelini was also encouraged by the play of sophomore Stanley Jean-Baptiste in his first career start at cornerback.

"He did fine," Pelini said. "He made some mistakes, but it didn't hurt us. They didn't catch any balls on us. I don't think they really went after him much, but it was great to give him that experience. His first start, get the jitters out of the way and he can move on now and start preparing for Michigan State with a game under his belt."

***Freshman running back Ameer Abdullah set a career high with seven carries for 30 yards last week against Minnesota. With Nebraska looking to prevent as much unneeded wear and tear on junior Rex Burkhead as the season goes along, Abdullah said he and the other freshmen backs were ready for an increased workload if need be.

"We saw a lot of vulnerable spots on (Minnesota's) defense, and we knew we could take advantage of them early," Abdullah said. "I knew if we got on them early that Rex was going to come out just to preserve his body for later weeks to come. I knew I was going to play when he comes out, so I wouldn't say I was preparing myself for that, but I was ready for anything."

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