November 16, 2009

Huskers ready to finish turnaround with North title

A month ago, few people would have ever expected Nebraska to be in this situation.

Coming off of two straight especially disappointing home losses, the Huskers found themselves sitting at 4-3 overall and just 1-2 in Big 12 Conference play. Now, they're one win away from punching their ticket to the conference championship game.

On Monday, head coach Bo Pelini talked about his team's turnaround during his interview on the Big 12 coaches' teleconference, saying the determination of his players helped keep NU focused even during the bleakest points of the season.

"We knew we were better than we played in those two games," Pelini said of the consecutive home losses to Texas Tech and Iowa State. "Our guys stayed committed, they stayed mentally tough, and that's all you can do. You stick with the process, you keep working to get better, and I think we've done that.

"I think we're a better football team than we were a month ago. I think we continue to see some progress, but we still have a ways to go, and we're going to need to continue to play better than we have to win the football game Saturday."

Since those two losses, Nebraska has won three straight games, including two road games and a win at home over Big 12 power Oklahoma. While they have yet to put together a complete game during the stretch, the Huskers have found ways to win and steadily get their season back on track.

Now, NU only needs a victory at home against an overachieving Kansas State team - which was just crushed by Missouri, 38-12, on Saturday - to win the Big 12 North and have a chance to play for the conference title on Dec. 5 in Dallas.

Pelini said the resilience the Huskers have shown over the course of the season has been a reflection of the leadership provided by the senior class, which will be playing its final game in Memorial Stadium on Saturday.

As if Nebraska didn't have enough motivation to get a win over the Wildcats, sending its seniors out with a win in their final home game makes Saturday's showdown that much more important.

"Obviously they've done a lot for the program," Pelini said. "I've been with them now for two years. They've worked hard. They've stayed committed. I their approach, and I have a lot of respect for them. Our job is to send them out a winner at home."

Quick hits

***On the injury front, Pelini said junior tight end Mike McNeill is expected to be back at practice within the next couple days and would be ready to play by Saturday. McNeill was knocked out of the game in the fourth quarter against Kansas after taking a huge hit to the ribs.

"We expect him for this week," Pelini said. "He was feeling a lot better yesterday. Whether we practice him today, that's to be determined yet. But we expect him to be ready to play (on Saturday)."

***In other news, Pelini said freshman running back Rex Burkhead is getting closer and closer to returning to action after missing the past five weeks with a foot injury.

"He's coming along good," Pelini said. "He ran yesterday, and he's progressing really well. He expect to have him here in the next couple weeks."

***Like he said after Saturday's win, Pelini wasn't exactly pleased with Nebraska's play defensively against the Jayhawks. On Monday, he said the Huskers weren't focused enough on defense, which led to a number of mistakes on the field.

"Technique and execution," Pelini said. "Just carrying out our assignments consistently. We had some things - I thought we had some shoddy tackling at times. It wasn't our best effort."

***Pelini said he wasn't surprised with the play of junior quarterback Zac Lee, saying he never saw Lee lose any confidence over the course of the season, even when he was benched in favor of freshman Cody Green.

"I don't think he's ever lacked poise," Pelini said. "He's just gaining experience. I think he's more comfortable every time he goes out there. I think that showed on Saturday."

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