November 17, 2011

Thursday notebook: Slowing Robinson a huge test

It's no secret what the No. 1 key for Nebraska will be to come out of Saturday's game at Michigan with a victory, and it all starts with the player they call "Shoelace."


Ever since he broke onto the national college football scene with his electrifying play last season, quarterback Denard Robinson has been the heart and sole of the Wolverines' offense.


While his numbers have dropped off a bit under first-year head coach Brady Hoke and offensive coordinator Al Borges, there's still no argument that the only way to slow down Michigan's offense to bottle up No. 16.


Unfortunately for Nebraska this week, Robinson presents challenges that have burned its defense all season long.


For some reason, the Huskers have had issues with mobile quarterbacks who have been able to get out of the pocket and run or extend pass plays for big gains. Seeing how Robinson is as quick and elusive as any quarterback in the country, he has been the top concern for the Blackshirts all week long.


"Running quarterbacks cause problems for anybody because they take away your man advantage," defensive coordinator Carl Pelini said. "Just do the math. You always defend people 11 against 10, and then when a quarterback is involved in the run game it's 11 on 11. It's hard to get the extra guy to the tackle. You've got to look at creative ways to defend him."


The good news for Nebraska is Robinson's productivity has been down in recent weeks compared to what they were a year ago. While part of it has to do with him adjusting to Michigan's new pro-style attack, Robinson has completed just 48.2 percent of his passes for just 576 yards, and has only 190 yards rushing on 3.3 yards per carry over his last four games.


Some have speculated the biggest culprit for his drop off was a hand injury he suffered four games ago in the Wolverines' 42-24 win over Northwestern. In the previous six games, Robinson had 1,133 yards passing and 720 yards rushing.


Whatever the reason, Nebraska isn't taking anything lightly in getting ready Robinson and Michigan's offense. With the amount of success dual-threat quarterbacks have had on them this season, the Blackshirts know even a dinged up Robinson could be the difference in the game.


"Obviously he's faster than all get out, so we're going to have to have multiple people around the ball," senior safety Austin Cassidy said. "He's pretty good at making people miss. We're going to have to get as many hats to the ball as we can. It's not unbelievable to think that he'll make the first one or two people miss. Gang-tackling and stuff like that is going to be very important.


"It will be a really fun match-up. Obviously, he's difficult to defend and it'll be exciting to really challenge ourselves and see how we do against him."


- Robin Washut


UM's Martin 'a special player'


Co-offensive line coach John Garrison couldn't help but sit back and admire the play of Michigan defensive tackle Mike Martin while watching game film of the Wolverines this week.


While NU has faced plenty of NFL caliber defensive lineman already over the course of its first run through the Big Ten, Garrison said Martin brings such a unique skill set to the table that it's hard to be impressed when watching him play.


"He's a very physical player," Garrison said. "He's probably by far my favorite defensive lineman that I've seen just as far as his hands and how he plays the game. That entire group up front plays really well with their hands. They are going to be able to get their hands on you and be able to move and get separation. He is a high energy player and a special player."


The 6-foot-2, 305-pound senior came into the season a unanimous first-team all-conference selection, and he certainly hasn't disappointed. Martin ranks fourth on the team with 43 tackles along with three sacks and 5.5 tackles for loss.


The Huskers had their hands full with another stud Big Ten defensive tackle last week in Penn State's Devon Still. Still was a fixture at times in Nebraska's backfield, racking up six tackles, a tackle for loss and a forced fumble in the loss.


Seeing how NU had just two healthy guards last week and injury concerns still remaining at the position this week, offensive coordinator Tim Beck said slowing down Martin could be one of the biggest factors of the game for the Huskers.


"Mike Martin's a terrific defensive lineman," Beck said. "He'll be a great challenge for our offensive line."


- Robin Washut


Wolverines not sure what to expect


Just like what Nebraska goes through every week in the Big Ten, Michigan isn't quite sure what to expect on Saturday when playing the Huskers for the first time since 2005.


Senior Wolverine center David Molk said he sees a lot of similarities between the two programs.


"From what I've heard they're a tough team, they're a good team, they're a solid team," Molk said. "They're very much like us. But then again I've never played them, never really seen much of them playing. I don't know much about them because they just got in the Big Ten, but we're looking forward to seeing something new."


Molk had another comparison for Saturday that's also been used quite a bit by Nebraska when getting ready for a completely new opponent.


"It's kind of like going to a bowl game and playing a non-conference team," Molk said. "It's a new challenge because it also challenges our coaches since they haven't seen a lot of it. We haven't seen a lot of it.


"We don't really know their players. Like a lot of the teams we've played already, I really know most of their players and how to play against them. But now it's a totally new thing, like a bowl game."


- Sean Callahan


Quick hits


***Head coach Bo Pelini will once again go up against Michigan offensive coordinator Al Borges on Saturday. The two coaches faced off three times from 2005-07 when Pelini was defensive coordinator at LSU and Borges was the OC at Auburn. Pelini got the best of Borges in '05 and '07, winning the first meeting 20-17 in overtime and then 30-24 in the third and final meeting. Borges' lone win came in '06 when Auburn edged out a 7-3 victory.


"They have different personnel now than what he had at Auburn when I was at LSU, but I know Al's a good football coach," Pelini said. "All his teams are really sound. They're well coached, and I know they execute very well. You see some things that are similar, and obviously some things are different because of the different personnel they've got."


***Bo Pelini said guard Andrew Rodriguez (foot) and tight end Ben Cotton (shoulder) have been officially ruled out for Saturday's game.


***Bo Pelini also said guard Brent Qvale (concussion) would be a part of NU's 70-man travel roster this week after missing significant time this season. Qvale looks to be the Huskers' No. 3 guard along with Cole Pensick and possibly even Marcel Jones.


***Bo Pelini said defensive tackle Chase Rome was doing much better after playing through a groin injury last week, and even said Rome was as healthy as he'd been in weeks.


"He's done well," Pelini said. "He's healthy. He's feeling good. I think he's the healthiest he's been in weeks."


***Bo Pelini said he was very confident in Jake Long stepping up and filling in as the No. 2 tight end this week behind Kyler Reed. He also said Reed (hamstring) was healthy, so he felt good about the tight end position going into the game.


"Jake Long's a good football player," Pelini said. "He's played really well, and we think he's ready to play. He'll do a good job. Kyler's healthy. We're in decent shape."


***Bo Pelini said Nebraska didn't do anything differently in practice to try and imitate Michigan quarterback Denard Robinson's speed. He said it was practically impossible to replicate the speed Robinson brought the field. Bronson Marsh continued to be the scout team quarterback this week, and Pelini said Marsh's athleticism still gave the defense some good looks in practice.


"It was business as usual," Pelini said. "We've got a pretty athletic guy (Marsh) who's playing quarterback. I don't know if you can simulate Denard Robinson. That guy's a pretty tremendous athlete. The guy who's doing it (Marsh) is doing a heck of a job for us."


***Beck was asked who he felt was NU's go-to receiver when the Huskers got into the red zone on offense. He said they didn't have just one guy, which he felt made them more dangerous that close to the end zone.


"I think right now we have a bunch of guys, and that's what makes us good," Beck said. "We have a bunch of guys we can go to, whoever it may be: our tight ends, our backs, our receivers, whoever it is. That's as good sometimes as having one guy."


***Carl Pelini said he's been nothing but pleased with the play of defensive tackle Baker Steinkuhler this season, especially since Jared Crick was lost for the season.


"Baker's had a great season," Pelini said. "From the very beginning of the season, he's just quietly putting together a really good season. He's a really sold force for us inside. He doesn't make many mistakes, and he always seems to be around the football. I'm very proud of how he plays."


***Receiver Quincy Enunwa said Nebraska has made it a point to put last week's emotional win over Penn State behind and focus solely on getting ready for Michigan this week. He said the last time the Huskers starting feeling a little too good about itself, Northwestern put them back in their place.


"We definitely tried to just forget about it and have a short-term memory, because last time we came off a big win we went against Northwestern and just kind of let it all out and lost the game," Enunwa said. "This week we've just made sure to stay focused and win these next two games so we can go to the bowl game we want to go to."

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