November 14, 2011

Monday notebook: A return to normalcy

After one of the most eventful and distraction-filled weeks in recent memory for Nebraska, things seemed a little quiet around Memorial Stadium by comparison on Monday.

With all the talk all last week about the child sex abuse scandal at Penn State and the potential ramifications that could result from it, head coach Bo Pelini's team actually got to focus on football again when NU returned to the practice field to get ready to take on Michigan.

In many ways, Monday served as a return to normalcy for the Huskers. Well, relatively speaking, anyway.

"I don't think there is ever normalcy around here," Pelini said. "It's November, going into week 11. We have a lot to play for going into a tough environment against a good football team. We just have to prepare well and continue on and get better."

Pelini said he was proud of the way his players stayed focused during all of last week's unexpected events and how they came out ready to play on Saturday despite the rest of the college football world watching the game for mostly reasons outside of football.

As hard as it was to concentrate on getting ready for a game amid the severe issues going on in State College, Penn., Pelini said the Huskers were able to block all of the outside factors and put together one of their best weeks of practice of the season.

"I thought our team did a good job," Pelini said. "A lot of that stuff was out of our control. We didn't know what it would be like when we got there, a sense of unknown. I don't think our team approached it any different and that is the key. Maybe it enabled us to focus a little more in practice, I don't know.

"I know we need to do that this week. It's a totally different opponent and different challenges this week. We just need to have a great week of preparation."

The players themselves said it was tough to block out all the talk about the situation at Penn State and what it would mean for their football team going into the game, but in the end they simply focused only on what they could control.

"I mean, last week there was a bunch of drama going on," junior linebacker Will Compton said. "Obviously, we all saw it in the media. It was pretty much on every sports channel. Our coaches did a good job of having us control ourselves and focus on us and not really worry about that. But yeah, it's good to get back to a normal week."

For some Huskers, ignoring the outside distractions was easier than you might expect.

"I don't know anybody at Penn State," redshirt freshman defensive tackle Chase Rome said. "I don't have kids. I think it was a lot more taxing on the coaches. Having children, I think that just kind of changes your perspective on a lot of things. I don't know enough about that situation - I don't think anybody really does - to stand here and talk about it, but from what I've heard, it's obviously an awful situation. It can be taxing, but I think we did a good job locking in and saying, 'we still have a game. We're not going to go up there and do press conferences, we're going to play a game.' I think it's just on to the next one."

- Robin Washut

Rome fights through pain to add depth at DT

Rome knew full well that suiting up and playing in Saturday's game was going to be a painful experience, but there was never a question of whether he would be out on that field.

Even though he said the groin injury that kept him out against Northwestern and for much of the past week of practice was only about 70 percent recovered, Rome fought through the pain and played a significant amount of snaps.

With the lack of depth the Huskers already had at the position, Rome knew all along that as long as he could stand the pain, he was going be out there with his teammates.

"We don't have a lot of depth right now, and at the least I could contribute and give the other guys some rest when they needed it," Rome said. "I thought it was a good system in how it worked out, especially in my first time out since being injured… It was better than watching. I can't stand watching. Yeah, it hurt, but it's not really that big of a deal. They needed me, so I played."

Rome had just one tackle in the game, but the snaps he was able to play were huge for Nebraska's defensive line. The Huskers only played three true defensive tackles on Saturday, relying heavily on Terrence Moore, Baker Steinkuhler and Rome to play the majority of the game and playing defensive ends like Cameron Meredith and Joseph Carter inside as well.

Rome said he wasn't sure what his workload would be like this week in practice, but he expected to continue to get heavy treatment on his injury throughout the week and was hopeful he'd be ready to go once again this Saturday against Michigan.

In just his first season in the defensive line rotation, Rome knows that every chance to get playing experience will make him a better player in the long run. While he was as sore as he'd ever been following Saturday's win, Rome was glad to get all the snaps he could get.

"I think you get to a point where you kind of have it figured out in the system that you're in, but for me definitely every game is a learning experience, even every play," Rome said. "You start taking the things that you have learned and applying it to every down that you're in."

- Robin Washut

Maher earns more accolades

In a game where both teams struggled to do much of anything offensively for most of the day, it's fair to argue that Nebraska junior punter/kicker Brett Maher was the player of the game against Penn State on Saturday.

Maher averaged 45.0 yards on eight punts, putting five inside the Penn State 20-yard line and giving the Huskers the field position edge for the bulk of the game. He also drilled his only field goal attempt on the day from 41 yards out, which turned out to be the difference in the 17-14 victory.

His biggest play of the game came in the final five minutes of the fourth quarter, when he booted his best punt of the season 61 yards to pin the Nittany Lions at their own 11.
As a result of his stellar performance, the Kearney native was named the Big Ten Co-Special Teams Player of the Week on Monday.

Maher has now earned the honor three times this season, the most of any player in the Big Ten this season.

With all the questions surrounding how Maher would ever replace the great Alex Henery coming into the season, Husker fans couldn't have imagined a better start than what Maher's had thus far. In fact, neither could he.

"Realistically, probably not," Maher said when asked if could have ever imagined the level of success he's had this season. "It was something that I had hoped for and was definitely a goal of mine, but I think this was pretty far fetched, and I'm pretty tickled by just the success that I've had this year."

Maher talked about his game-changing punt late in the game against Penn State, saying he definitely felt the pressure of the situation considering how much momentum the Nittany Lions had just picked up from stuffing Nebraska's offense to get the ball back with a chance to tie or win the game.

He said he used the adrenaline from such a crucial moment sopto focus in on making sure he got off a good kick, and he knew it was one of his best yet as soon as it left his foot.

"There was just a lot of emotion, a lot of adrenaline, and I think the more you can use that to your advantage, it can really do some amazing things for you," Maher said. "I guess I like to try and use that to my advantage to maybe get a little extra behind it."

Maher said he's not one to get too caught up in individual awards or accolades, but he admitted that there was something special to being honored at the conference level for the third time already this season.

"I think it's a really cool deal, and definitely an honor," Maher said. "But at the same time, if I go and have a bad week next week, then it doesn't really mean anything as far as what I've done in the past. It's definitely something that I enjoy and that I'm very grateful for, but at the same time I have to go back to work this week and try and get better."
- Robin Washut

Quick hits

***Defensive coordinator Carl Pelini said linebacker Will Compton was named the team's Defensive Player of the Week for his 13-tackle performance against Penn State. Pelini said Compton is finally showing the aggressive play-making ability in games that's he's always had in practice, and he's not worrying so much about proper technique as he is just flying to the football.

***Carl Pelini also said Lavonte David's tackle on 4th-and-1 late in the game against the Nittany Lions was just another example of the caliber of player David has been the past two seasons. He said the play showed David's "innate" ability to find the football and come up with huge plays when the Huskers need them the most.

***Pelini said Michigan quarterback Denard Robinson would obviously be a big challenge for NU's defense. He said the defense would be looking at a few new, creative ways to account for Robinson's ability as a runner this week in practice.

***Senior receiver Brandon Kinnie said the drops the receiving corps has been having the past few games were obviously frustrating for the unit, but said he didn't view them as a major problem right now. He said it was just something the receivers would have to get corrected this season, and he was confident they would.

***As expected, tight end Ben Cotton (shoulder), receiver Khiry Cooper and guard Andrew Rodriguez all sat out of Monday's practice. Cotton had his right arm in a sling, and Cooper and Rodriguez were both wearing protective boots on their right feet.

***Tight end Kyler Reed said he was ready to try and fill the void left by Cotton this week, particularly by being more involved in run blocking. He said he also expects sophomore Jake Long to step in and help pick up the slack. Reed said Long has played well in practice all season, which has allowed him to see the field the past few weeks.

***Bo Pelini has said in the past that he wouldn't trade Maher for any other kicker or punter in the country. Maher only confirmed that sentiment with his performance on Saturday.

"Not after Saturday," Pelini said. "I thought Brett did a heck of a job. His confidence is growing by the game and doing a heck of a job. I don't know how far that punt was but it was a big-time punt in a big-time situation to pin them down there. I'm happy with his progression."

***With all the talk about junior running back Rex Burkhead potentially filling in as an emergency quarterback if need be, don't rule out Maher as a possible candidate as well. Turns out Maher was actually a national finalist in the NFL Punt, Pass & Kick competition when he was in fifth grade, and he got to compete for the title during halftime of a Raiders playoff game in Oakland, Calif.

"I played quarterback in high school for a little while, too," Maher said. "So I don't know. Maybe."

***Saturday will be a trip down memory lane of sorts for Bo Pelini, as he'll be taking on Michigan for the first time in 21 years since his days of playing in the Ohio State-Michigan rivalry as a safety for the Buckeyes. As heated as the OSU-UM games may have gotten during his playing days, Pelini said he's no more excited about this game than he would be for any other on the schedule.

"Is it 20 years? About 21 years," Pelini said. "Nah, it is a different time and place. I'm looking forward to going there and playing. I haven't thought about that aspect. People ask me what it is like to be at Michigan Stadium, and I remember but it's changed since then. I think they put a whole other press box and things are new. You're making me feel old."

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