October 20, 2009

Tuesday notebook: Pelini defends recent behavior

During his weekly press conference on Tuesday, head coach Bo Pelini stuck up for junior quarterback Zac Lee, who has been under heavy scrutiny from media and fans the past two weeks.

However, Lee wasn't the only one Pelini had to defend.

One of the topics that came up was how Pelini comes off at times to the public, both via the media or the way he conducts himself with officials on the sideline. While his sometimes abrasive approach has been tamed down significantly compared to last season, Pelini is still rubbing some people the wrong way with his demeanor.

On Saturday, Pelini was seen several times yelling and arguing at officials. In his defense, Nebraska was flagged 12 times for 95 yards in the game, which Texas Tech had only four penalties for 40 yards.

"You know what the interesting thing is, I think this year I've been pretty tame with the officials," Pelini said. "I've been making a pretty conscious effort of doing that. Sometimes you find yourself in a situation where there is only so much you can stand. I found myself in that situation the other day and you have to continually work at it. I've been probably the calmest I've ever been in my career this year. I continually work at that.

"Believe me, you always have to keep working on things and look at yourself in the mirror and get better at things. I was frustrated the other day. It really didn't happen until the second half, until late, is when I got really frustrated. I don't want to get into all the reasons why. I have to work on being too animated probably. I'm not trying to be. That's just the area I have to work on."

Pelini was then asked about the issue of the way he comes off at times to media during post-game and post-practice interviews, especially in response to questions he doesn't like.

On Monday, Pelini caught some heat for his answer to a question about his reaction to some Husker fans booing during the loss to Texas Tech. Pelini said he hasn't intentionally tried to disrespect reporters or fans, and that his short or occasionally irritated answers are merely a reflection of his personality.

"I'm never disrespectful," he said. "I answer things pretty directly. I'm a very direct person. I'm very black and white. That's how I answer questions. I understand people have a job to do and you guys have a job to do. I don't believe I'm ever disrespectful, but I'm very direct. I'm very to the point. That's who I am."

- Robin Washut

Tuesday practice takes
Ball security issues: If stopping Iowa State's Big 12 Conference-leading rushing attack is the top priority for Nebraska this week, than winning the turnover battle is right behind it. Coming into the game, the Cyclones rank second in the conference in turnovers gained with 17. On the other side, the Huskers have down about as well as they could have hoped for as far as ball security, as they are tied with Kansas for the Big 12 lead with only seven turnovers lost. Though they won easily 35-7 over ISU last season, the Huskers fumbled a season-high five times, losing three. If Nebraska wants to make sure it prevents an Iowa State upset on Saturday, ball security will have to continue to be as big of a focus as ever this week in practice.
Suh's Heisman chances still alive? After bursting onto the Heisman Trophy scene last week following his breakout game against Missouri, senior defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh's momentum for the award slowed down a bit with a relatively quiet game against Texas Tech. In fact, his name has been removed from the list of candidates to choose from on ESPN.com's "Heisman Vote 2009" fan voter page. However, Suh still leads the voting with more than 58,000 votes, which trumps that of second-place vote getter Tim Tebow's total of just less than 18,000. Some college football analysts around the country are still regarding Suh as a Heisman frontrunner, if not the leading candidate, so his campaign doesn't appear to be slowed down too much.
Injury update: After sitting out of Monday's practice, junior running back Roy Helu (shoulder) was back in practice on Tuesday, though he wore a green no-contact jersey.
What's on tap next: The Nebraska football team conducted a two-hour full-padded practice on the grass fields North of Memorial Stadium on Tuesday. NU is scheduled to come back on Wednesday for another two-hour full padded practice.

Green ready, but stands by Lee

The majority of interviews regarding the competition between Lee and freshman Cody Green for the starting quarterback job on Tuesday focused on standing up for Lee and cooling the criticism he's received for his play the past two weeks.

While Green said he would be ready if the opportunity were to present itself, he too defended his fellow quarterback. In particular, Green said he felt sorry for Lee that he has had to endure the negativity from the media and NU's fan base.

"(Nebraska) is the place where our fans, they're so into it and they're into everything we do around here," Green said. "I've seen it even when (running back Quentin Castille) got suspended from the team. Everybody loved Q, and then once Q left, some people were sympathetic for him but other people were pretty much just dogging him, and that was even with my friends that I had. You don't want people to do that, but they're still going to do it.

"With me being close to Zac, I feel sorry for him tremendously. I wish I could take some of the pain off of him just because I just don't want that feeling for anybody really. That a whole state would just jump on somebody's bandwagon one minute and then jump right off the next. For an athlete, that's nothing that you want."

Green may not like the negativity that's been geared towards Lee the past few days, but at the same time, he also realizes the opportunity that it could present.

Heading into the week, Pelini and offensive coordinator Shawn Watson said they would re-open the competition for the starting job, meaning Green could potentially beat out Lee and make his first career start Saturday against Iowa State.

On Monday, Green said he and Lee basically split the number of reps with the first-team offense, as Lee would take the first two snaps and Green would follow with the next two. He said he's noticed a change in the feel of practice this week, saying there's more of a competitive spirit at every position because so many players are fighting for starting spots.

"That's really the one thing any second-string competitor dreams of - that one chance to go out there and show what you can do," he said. "Right now is that time."

Green said he's also been preparing himself for the outside pressure off the field of potentially taking over as Nebraska's starting quarterback. After seeing what Lee has had to go through recently, he knows full well that it will almost definitely be a bumpy ride whenever he earns the job.

"I knew that there was going to be a lot of attention about me and (Rex Burkhead) being up here," Green said. "I know that. I've really just taken it in stride. You really learn how to start dealing with things like that, and you know what you can say and what you can't say and how to prepare for it. I know the coaches have helped me out a lot, and some of the older players have helped me out tremendously.

"Just watching them talk to the media and how they handle it, I've really just taken bits and pieces of how they do it and things I know how to do and just put it all together."

- Robin Washut

Defense line eager for Cyclones' running game

Rushing the passer for 80-90 percent of a game can be fun for defensive linemen, but for Nebraska's front four at least, there's nothing better than facing a good old fashioned power running team.

When Iowa State comes to town, the Huskers will get just that, as the Cyclones boast far and away the most productive running game in the Big 12 Conference. Led by junior running back Alexander Robinson, ISU leads the conference with 213.9 yards per game.

To put that number in perspective, Kansas State and Oklahoma State are tied for second with an average of 184 ypg.

As for Alexander, he ranks first in the Big 12 with 105.3 ypg, and has broken the 100-yard mark four times in seven games this season.

"I've always loved playing against teams that like to run the ball," senior defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh said. "I think they can run the ball on us. I think us four up front take that as a big challenge. We like to pride ourselves on being able to stop the run. It's a lot of fun if we can get them into a one-dimensional offense like we try to do with any team we play; it allows us to get after their passing game. It's a little tougher when they aren't a spread team and like to throw the ball. It's a little more of a challenge."

Despite the challenges Iowa State presents with its running game, sophomore defensive tackle Jared Crick said the Huskers are chomping at the bit to get back to some physical football.

"They're a good running game, and we've got to shut them down. We pride ourselves on stopping the run. That's first and foremost our goal. Once we stop the run, we can get after the passer. Coach is going to have a great plan for us this week to get after him.

"We like going against smash mouth offenses, because we're a smash mouth defense. Power on power. I'd rather go from a spread back to the run, because that's what we pride ourselves on."

- Robin Washut

Ward still competing for No. 2 running back job

After freshman Rex Burkhead was lost indefinitely with a foot injury last week, competition was at as high as ever to see who would take over as Nebraska's No. 2 running back.

Many expected redshirt freshman Lester Ward to be one of the leading candidates for the job, as he was named by the coaches as the No. 3 back during spring practice before the dismissal of Quentin Castille.

With five different backs competing all of last week to be the primary backup to junior Roy Helu, there was no clear indication of who the No. 2 would be heading into Saturday's game against Texas Tech.

As it turned out, sophomore Austin Jones was the first to go in the game, but only for one series. Sophomore Marcus Mendoza was next, and he got a decent amount of playing time while the Huskers tried to play catch-up late in the game.

Ward, however, didn't see the field once.

On Tuesday, Ward said he wasn't sure why he didn't play, as the coaching staff never gave him a reason. In his mind, his week of practice was good enough to warrant at least a series or two.

"I think I responded great (last week)," Ward said. "I've had some past experiences with competition, and I'm no stranger to it. I think I practiced well, I responded well, and I'm always prepared for competition.

"(I was) very disappointed. As an athlete at heart, you're always going to be disappointed when something like that arises. It's just something you're going to be disappointed with, but never can you hang your head down, and never will I hang my head. I'm going to keep on pushing, and I'm going to make sure I'm on top."

Though he was obviously upset about watching the game from the sideline, Ward said he's going into this week of practice with the same mentality as last week with the intention of winning the No. 2 job - or at least for some playing time.

"(Competition) makes you better as a person," Ward said. "I'm going to make sure I become better as a person, no matter what's given to me on the field or off the field. So it definitely motivates you."

- Robin Washut

Quick hits

***A few weeks ago, Green was asked roughly how many plays he felt absolutely comfortable running in games. At the time, he guessed about 15 or so. Well, apparently, that number has grown quite a bit since then.

"That number has grown tremendously," Green said. "From that time to now, I saying - last week we had somewhere around 320-something plays on the wristband. I probably knew 200-some of them. After (that first interview), I know people just had a field day with it. In the back of my mind I'm thinking, 'I know more plays than that.' It's just that was the first thing that popped into my head. I just went in and started hitting the playbook harder and tried watching film more and just really took the offense in."

***Pelini said Watson would play just as big of a role as he would in deciding who would be Nebraska's starting quarterback on Saturday and for the rest of the season.

"I have input in everybody that walks onto the field, but obviously I lean heavily on Wats," Pelini said. "He's the guy who coaches him and he has a heck of a lot more experience in that area than I do. I have total and the utmost trust in his evaluation and his decision-making ability."

***Even though Saturday's final score obviously wasn't what Nebraska had hoped for, the defensive line's performance was still a bright spot on an otherwise dark afternoon. Altogether, the Huskers' front four produced 17 tackles, nine tackles for loss and 4 sacks against the Red Raiders. Crick said the game might have been the d-line's best all season.

"Yeah, I think so," he said. "What did we have, like five sacks? And we constantly had pressure all day, so I would say so. By no means were we perfect. We could've done a lot better, but as far as a pass rush standpoint, I think that was our best game."

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