October 26, 2010

Tuesday notebook: Amukamara still a top CB

Looking at the final stats and some of the many highlights from Saturday's win over Oklahoma State, it would seem that Nebraska star cornerback Prince Amukamara finally got exposed by Cowboys receiver Justin Blackmon.

With five catches for 153 yards, including two long touchdowns against Amukamara, Blackmon certainly had his share of success against a player many considered one of the best corners in all of college football.

But to say that Amukamara was somehow over-rated based on what happened Saturday, NU head coach Bo Pelini said, would be the furthest thing from the truth.

"When you play the way Prince does, and you're aggressive and you attack routes, there isn't a corner that's ever played - and I was around Deion (Sanders), I was around some great corners in the NFL - they all get beat," Pelini said. "There's no one that's invincible. Prince is the same guy. He's a heck of a corner. I wouldn't trade our corners for anybody in the country. But he's going to get beat sometimes. He's going to give up some plays every now and then.

"I mean, it's been remarkable the type of football he's played and how few times he's given up plays, especially as many times as we've put him in man coverage situations. The guy's a heck of a football player."

Coming into the game, Amukamara had allowed just two completions on 19 total passes thrown his direction. Even though Blackmon had more catches against Amukamara in the first half than the senior had allowed all season, Pelini said Amukamara bounced back perfectly in the second half.

In fact, Blackmon only caught two passes in the second half, neither of which coming against Amukamara.

"I thought what really showed what Prince is all about is how he played in the second half," Pelini said. "I mean, he played really well in the second half. He just had a couple bad things happen to him. That's sports. Believe me, that's life out on the corner. Those are all part of the learning experience for him, and I think he'll be better going forward because of it.

Pelini said Amukamara's struggles against Blackmon would only serve him well over the course of the rest of the season, as he was finally put in a position where he had to respond to getting beat and did so in convincing fashion.

"Let's face it, he hasn't had to fight that type of adversity," Pelini said. "I've coached secondary for a long time, and I played the secondary, and you're going to get beat. It's what you do after you get beat. Can you get back out there and not be gun shy? He wasn't gun shy at all, and if he had been, we probably wouldn't' have won that football game."

- Robin Washut

Tuesday practice takes
Martinez on record pace: With 870 yards rushing this season, redshirt freshman quarterback Taylor Martinez is just 130 yards away from becoming just the third freshman quarterback in NCAA history to run for more than 1,000 yards in a season. Martinez, who has averaged 124.3 yards per game on the ground through seven games, would also become just the second Nebraska freshman since Ahman Green (1995) and fourth Husker quarterback to break the 1,000-yard mark. Oh, he's also thrown for 1,046 yards on the year, meaning he'd also become just the third freshman and 50th player in NCAA history to both rush and pass for 1,000 yards in a season.

Lopsided affairs: When it comes to the recent history between Nebraska and Missouri, the games haven't exactly been nail biters. Of the past 11 meetings between the two schools, none have been decided by less than 11 points, with the closest being a 24-13 win by the Huskers in 2002. The last time a game was settled by single digits came when NU defeated the Tigers 20-13 in 1998. Considering that 19 of the 30 meetings between 1960-1989 were decided by 10 points or less, the recent trend has been quite the change of pace.

Injury report: Head coach Bo Pelini said senior defensive end Pierre Allen, who missed the entire second half against Oklahoma State with a knee injury, would "be just fine." Allen sat out of practice Monday and was limited once again on Tuesday.

What's on tap next: The Nebraska football team practiced of in full pads inside the Hawks Championship Center and the fields north of Memorial Stadium on Tuesday. The Huskers will return Wednesday for another full-padded session as they prepare to play host to No. 6 Missouri on Saturday at 2:30 p.m.

Martin clears up questionable hit

Sophomore linebacker Eric Martin has taken some considerable heat from fans and media alike over the big hit he delivered on Oklahoma State's Andrew Hudson during Niles Paul's 100-yard kickoff return on Saturday.

After the play, ABC color commentator Ed Cunningham went off on Martin for supposedly making an illegal hit, standing over Hudson and taunting him and then laughing about it on the sideline while Hudson, who had undergone back surgery earlier in the year, was taken off the field on a cart.

Over the past few days, Martin's hit has been under much scrutiny, as some have called it an illegal helmet-to-helmet hit and then chastised Martin for celebrating while Hudson laid on the turf for a good 10 minutes.

On Tuesday, Martin gave his side of the story.

"We just set up a return, and that's who I was supposed to block," Martin said. "He didn't see me coming, and it just happened the way it happened. The announcers made it sound worse than it was. I wasn't over there laughing at him or anything. I was tired from that play, and I had to go on kickoff right after that, so that's what we were laughing at, because I get tired real fast and I didn't want to go out on kickoff. I was just talking with my coaches about putting somebody else in on that kickoff because I was tired.

"So it wasn't nothing like that. I wasn't laughing at him. I actually felt bad that I did that, especially when I found out he had back surgery. That really made me feel bad. That's kind of what was running through my mind. I wanted to go apologize to him, but they already took him off on the cart. It wasn't like I was trying to hurt the man on purpose. I was just making a block for our team. It's just stuff happens."

- Robin Washut

Coaches agree, Martinez took a huge step Saturday

Taylor Martinez became a different quarterback before everyone's eyes on Saturday with a little more than two minutes left to go in the first half against Oklahoma State.

After the Cowboys had taken their first lead of the game at 27-24 late in the second quarter, the Huskers got the ball back at their own 38-yard line with a chance to either tie or take the lead going into halftime.

It was a situation that required a redshirt freshman in just his seventh career game to take control of the offense in a hostile environment and find a way to make plays. With a five-play, 66-yard drive capped off with a nine-yard touchdown pass to Brandon Kinnie with less than a minute remaining, that's exactly what Martinez did.

Looking back on that drive and his record-breaking performance as a whole, Martinez's coaches said they could see him grow as a quarterback on the field.

"When you're seven games in as a quarterback, every step you take is important," Pelini said. "That was just the next one. He showed everybody else what he's capable of, but we see it every day in practice. He's getting better and he's improving, but he needs to continue to do so.

"We keep stressing to him about getting into the details, letting the offense come to him, executing the offense, all those things, and slowly but surely he's getting better, which is a great thing. I think with his potential, he's not even close to what he's going to be in the future, which is pretty exciting to me."

Martinez was far from perfect against the Cowboys, and there were a few plays that made Pelini and offensive coordinator Shawn Watson's hold their breath when the Corona, Calif., native looked a little too much like a certain Minnesota Vikings quarterback with his ball security.

"He's got a little Brett Favre in him," Pelini said.

While his improvisation on the field is part of what makes him such an exciting playmaker, Watson said the next step for Martinez is to learn how to be a little more cautious with the football and limit the number of gunslinger plays.

"He's learning how to value the football," Watson said. "As a quarterback, especially in the offense that we run, you're going to handle the ball every time and most of the time you're making decisions, whether it's the running game or the passing game. As a younger player, that's the hardest thing to teach is to teach younger players the value of the ball and how important that is and how it affects the team.

"He's learning that. He's still a work in progress, but he really has grown and has a better understanding of what it means to respect the football and keep possession."

- Robin Washut

Huskers appreciate Henery's impact

The questions for senior kicker/punter Alex Henery just kept coming and coming during Nebraska's weekly press conference on Tuesday. There were so many, in fact, that you almost wouldn't know it was a kicker/punter sitting at the front podium.

Despite playing positions often taken for granted by most football fans, Henery has established himself as one of the most important weapons on the Huskers' entire roster. Last week against Oklahoma State, all Henery did was drill all three of his field goals and average 50.3 yards on his three punts, two of which landing inside the 20.

Henery's three field goals on the day gave him 59 for his career, breaking Kris Bown's school career record of 57. He's also made his past 17 field goal attempts, tying Brown's NU record.

The shy and soft-spoken Omaha native has never been one to enjoy the spotlight, but with his play over the past four seasons, there's pretty much no escaping it anymore.

"I never thought I'd be at this point," Henery said. "I played soccer when I was young. I never dreamed of playing football or anything really wanting to try it until my soccer coach suggested I go out for it. I just never really dreamed of being here or anything like that."

Having a kicker who is essentially automatic from almost 60 yards out is a weapon Henery's coaches definitely don't take lightly. Add in the fact that he's also the nation's No. 7 punter with an average of 46.2 yards per punt, and it's hard to argue that he's not one of Nebraska's most valuable players.

"What can you say? He's tremendous," Pelini said. "He just keeps doing it… He's a huge part of our football team, and he has been for the last three years I've been here and I'm sure his first year too. The guy is steady as can be.

"I've never looked at kickers as an auxiliary part of the team, because I've won and lost a lost of football games as a coach and a player based on a kicker's foot. It's an important job, and believe me, we feel very fortunate to have a guy like him in that position."

- Robin Washut

Quick hits

***With Missouri's wide-open spread offense, sophomore linebacker Will Compton said he doesn't expect to play nearly as much as he did last week in his first game back from injury.

"Against Missouri, they run a pretty wide-open spread," Compton said. "I know we're using Lavonte (David) this week. Coach (Mike) Ekeler said they might rotate us and stuff like that, but I don't know how much that will happen. If you're doing well, there is no need to rotate. I hope to get in there as much as I can. I'm going to play my role and that's preparing this week like I do every week. My focus will be there and I'll be ready to go when they call me."

***However, defensive coordinator Carl Pelini said just because the Tigers run a spread offense doesn't mean they don't feature a physical running game.

"They spread you out, but they run the ball well," Pelini said. "They're a physical offensive team. You can talk all you want about their throwing game, which is good, but I still think they're a team that wants to establish the running game, and in the games this year they've been able to do that. You've got to stop the run, and unfortunately teams haven't been able to that, haven't forced them to be one-dimensional.

"That's something you have to do. They're a run-first team, there's no question about it."

***While Bo Pelini was obviously happy with the result of Henery's 27-yard run on the first quarter fake punt against OSU, he said next time he wants Henery to be a little more cautious out in the open field.

"For a minute there I thought he was going to score," Pelini said. "But after the fact I thought about it and I told him yesterday that next if that ever happens again you get your butt down. He said 'I thought about (going down) when I was going over the middle.'"

***Redshirt freshman defensive end Jason Ankrah said he got plenty of congratulatory text messages and phone calls from back home in Gaithersburg, Md., following his most significant playing time as a Husker on Saturday.

"After the game I got a whole bunch of text messages giving me love, just like 'Finally you got in,'" Ankrah said. "It felt good just to have that and know that everyone back home still supports me even up to this point."

***While talking about how the defensive line will handle a quarterback the caliber of Missouri's Blaine Gabbert, Ankrah said he expects the front four to dial up a little more pressure than usual.

"Sometimes there are 'go' calls where you just go get the quarterback no matter what and you don't ready anything, and sometimes it's check run first and then go," Ankrah said.

Does he expect Nebraska to use more 'go' calls against Gabbert?

"Yes sir."

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