September 12, 2011

Monday notebook: NU 'furious' over defensive play

Nebraska head coach Bo Pelini's displeasure with his defense's performance on Saturday was obvious in everything from the tone in his voice to the uncomfortable shifts in his chair while fielding questions about the unit during Monday's press conference.

The Huskers' defense struggled to get Fresno State's offense off the field from the opening possession, and Pelini said the unit didn't do much of anything well in a game where the team was supposed to take big strides from a sluggish performance in the season opener.

When all was said and done, the Bulldogs had put up 444 yards of total offense on 81 plays and held the ball nearly 15 minutes longer than the Huskers. Fresno's 29 points were also the most Nebraska had given up at home since Texas Tech scored 31 back on Oct. 17, 2009.

"We did not execute the way we were supposed to," Pelini said. "We didn't play well. It was like a lot of guys were taking turns. Our defense, it's team defense, and you've got to fit it right. You have to have guys in the right spots and execute and doing the right things, and we didn't do that in coverage, we didn't do it in the run game. I'm not talking about the young guys. You can sit there and say we had a few young guys - it was our veterans that didn't play well. Hopefully it should be a wake-up call for us.

"I don' think we handled anything well defensively. We didn't play well."

After Saturday's game, both defensive coordinator Carl Pelini and several defensive players said Fresno State did some things offensively they hadn't seen in the seven games of film they watched leading up to the game.

In particular, they were the one running play that helped Robbie Rouse rush for 169 yards and the rollout style passes that helped quarterback Derek Carr throw for more than 250 yards and not get sacked once in the game.

On Monday, however, Bo shot down the idea that the Bulldogs caught his defense off guard with unique play calls. Instead, he said it was simply a matter of Nebraska not executing the way it was supposed to.

"I don't buy into that," Pelini said. "We did not execute. We didn't play well, and anything else is an excuse. Plain and simple, we didn't play well, and it had a lot to do with us. That will get fixed, because we know how to fix that."

Senior safety Austin Cassidy agreed, saying there needed to be far more accountability from the players on the field to make the corrections and adjustments during the game.

"It's something we're going to learn from," Cassidy said. "Yesterday watching it, we knew we had some blown opportunities. We messed up some things we should have gotten adjusted ourselves. We didn't need anyone to tell us. We knew exactly what was going on. It had nothing to do with what they were doing or our game plan coming in or their game plan coming in. It was just adjustments we should have been making without even needing to be told and we didn't do that."

Along with the poor execution, Carl said the other most concerning aspect of Nebraska's play defensively was the lack of fire and emotion it showed throughout the game.

"They hear from you guys for six months how great they're going to be, and they bought into it," Carl said. "You've got to respect Division I opponents. You've got to have respect for Fresno State, a good football team. They out-executed us. I'm furious about our performance. I'm embarrassed. I hope our guys are, and I hope they learn from it."

- Robin Washut

Dennard's return still questionable

The impact of not having senior cornerback Alfonzo Dennard on the field was more evident than ever on Saturday, and his status doesn't appear to be any clearer as Nebraska returns to practice this week.

Bo Pelini said Dennard would sit out of Monday's practice as he continues to rehab from a leg muscle injury, and was unsure whether he would be back for this week's game against Washington.

The good news is Pelini said Dennard continues to be ahead of schedule in his recovery. When he initially suffered the injury early in fall camp, Dennard was expected to be out roughly six to eight weeks. Counting Monday's practice, he'll have missed the past four weeks.

In fact, Carl Pelini was far more optimistic about Dennard's status than his brother.

"There's a good chance (he'll play). There's a good chance," Carl said. "He's out there and working hard and running very well, and we'll see what happens as far as that goes."

Should Dennard be able to go on Saturday, Carl made it seem as is he would have no intentions of holding him back against the Huskies.

"I don't have my medical degree and I'm not the head coach," Carl said. "I'd like to see him out there every play, but I don't know."

While the Huskers could obviously use Dennard's services against the best offense they've seen so far this season, Bo said he would continue to monitor his progress and make the decision both for Dennard and for the team.

Should Dennard be held out again on Saturday, Bo said young cornerbacks Andrew Green and Ciante Evans would continue to have to step up and fill the void.

"I think he's as good of corner as there is in the country, so obviously that's going to affect you some," Bo said. "But you've got to deal with that all the time at different spots. Guys go down, and other people have to step up."

- Robin Washut

Abdullah earns conference honor

Freshman Ameer Abdullah knew he wanted to make an immediate impact for Nebraska this season, but not even he expected his rise to come so quickly.

After setting a school single-game record last week with 211 yards on five kickoff returns, highlighted by his 100-yard touchdown return, Abdullah was named the Big Ten Conference's Special Teams Player of the Week.

"It means a lot, especially coming in as a freshman and contributing on special teams as well as offense," Abdullah said. "Just setting the record as a freshman really means a lot. Hard work pays off, as I've always been told by my father. Work has just started for me, so I'm looking forward to the weeks to come."

Following the season opener against Tennessee-Chattanooga, Abdullah said he was a little frustrated because he felt he should have taken back at least a couple punts for touchdowns. He finally got his runback on Saturday, and it couldn't have come at a better time for the Huskers.

Leading just 28-26 with 12 minutes left in the game, the Homewood, Ala., native gave NU the boost it needed to hold off the Bulldogs' bid for an upset.

"We knew it was a critical point in the game," Abdullah said. "We were up two points on them, and they were coming back, fighting back and never giving up. We just needed a big play, and God opened it up for me and I just took it."

Bo Pelini knew he had a game breaker at returner in Abdullah, and he said he only expects the freshman to get better with every game he gets under his belt.

"I thought Ameer did a great job in the return game," Pelini said. "Obviously he was a huge weapon for us, and I think he will continue to be."

His teammates said his performance on Saturday came as no surprise based on what he's done everyday in practice since arriving in Lincoln last August.

"He's awesome," freshman Jamal Turner said. "He's one of those guys at practice that I watch him and be like 'I'll do that.' He's young, but he's a leader on the field and off the field. Not vocally, but as in he's going to work hard every day to get better, and he motivates a lot of other players to go harder… He's really athletic, and the sky's the limit for him."

Abdullah, who turned down offers from the likes of Auburn, USC, Texas A&M and Tennessee in favor of Nebraska, said as much of an honor it was to be recognized by the Big Ten, he wouldn't spend much time basking in last week's success.

"I can celebrate it today, but after today I have to put it behind me and get ready for Washington," he said. "I have to focus on the game plan and try to do the same thing next week."

- Robin Washut

No shortage of motivation for Washington

One might think it would be hard for a team to get fired up for an opponent it's going to face for the third time in its past 15 games, but Nebraska doesn't look to be having any trouble finding motivation for Washington this week.

For one, the returning players are still bitter about the way the Huskies beat them up on both sides of the ball in last year's Holiday Bowl. They also remember how much trash talk Washington did before, during and after both of their meetings last season.

"They did a whole lot of talking," senior tackle Jermarcus Hardrick said. "I didn't think we took them very seriously in the bowl game because we blew them out (in Seattle) and I think that kind of hurt us. But I think we're going to be ready this time around."

Hardrick said the players have had their eye on this game all offseason, and now that it's officially game week the team will break down every practice with a resounding "Beat Washington!"

"This is Washington week," Hardrick said. "That's all you need to hear, Washington week."

Round 3 will definitely be a little different from the first two meetings, as the Huskies come to Lincoln having lost their top offensive and defensive players to the NFL. Particularly, they've had to replace first-round pick Jake Locker at quarterback with Keith Price.

Price has completed 35-of-50 passes (70 percent) for 417 yards with seven touchdowns and one interception in two games this season. Bo Pelini said even with some new faces on both sides of the ball, the Huskies haven't changed much in their offensive and defensive schemes, which means he's not preparing his team much differently than the previous meetings.

"It's no different," Pelini said. "I don't attack it any differently. You look at what the do and how they see you. Yeah, you look at the games from last year, but you also look at what they're doing this year… They haven't changed their offense. They still run the offense really the same way with (Price) as they did with Jake Locker. I don't much of a difference."

- Robin Washut

Huskers have creative ways to address fumbles

Quarterback Taylor Martinez's issues holding onto the football resurfaced on Saturday, as he coughed it up three times against Fresno State. While he was fortunate enough that the Huskers recovered all three of his fumbles, he knew he would still have to pay for them on Monday.

Under new offensive coordinator Tim Beck, the Huskers have used "pencil rolls" as a form of punishment for players who can't hang onto the football. A pencil roll is described as laying on the ground and rolling over and over for a full 100 yards.

Every time a player fumbles, he has to do a pencil roll.

"All you do is lay down and you keep rolling," Martinez said. "It's pretty hard. You guys should try it."

The worst part, Martinez said, is fighting off the dizziness and not losing your lunch on the field.

"Really dizzy," he said. "Try to roll 15 yards spinning in circles. It's about 100 times worse than that."

Bo Pelini hopes a few pencil rolls will be enough to make Martinez focus more on his ball security, as his fumbling hasn't seem to gotten any better from last season.

"It concerns me anytime the ball goes on the turf," Pelini said. "You watch him, and once again, it's fundamentals. When you're careless with how you carry the football, the ball's going to end up on the ground. It's got to be a sense of urgency to put that ball away and to do it the right way."

- Robin Washut

Pain won't keep Hardrick off the field

For most people, seeing your pinky finger bent to the side and covered in blood would be a good enough excuse to call it quits and go home for the day.

Jermarcus Hardrick is not like most people.

When he dove for a loose ball following a fumble by Fresno State's Derron Smith on an interception return in the first quarter, Hardrick's right pinky finger got caught between the turf and teammate Andrew Rodriguez, and he instantly knew something bad had happened.

When he made it back to Nebraska's sideline, the trainers took off his glove, and it wasn't a pretty sight.

"I remember I just took my glove off and just saw blood and bone," Hardrick said. "I just told them to tape it back up and let me go back out there."

After going to the locker room to get stitches on his finger and have his hand taped up, Hardrick was back on the field two offensive possessions later and played the rest of the game.

"I was kind of scared a little bit to go back in, but I just knew in the back of my mind I had to," Hardrick said. "I just knew if anybody else on the team would've got hurt they would've came back.

"It made me feel good to be back out there with the team playing and come out with the victory."

Hardrick was sporting a cast on his right hand on Monday, but said he fully planned to practice Monday and play against Washington.

He didn't expect it to hinder his play at all, either, seeing how he played all spring with a cast on his left hand.

- Robin Washut

Quick hits

***Of all the explanations for why Nebraska came out so flat against Fresno State, Carl Pelini may have summed it up best Monday when he said the Huskers didn't respect the Bulldogs enough as a legitimate challenge.

"I've always told our guys when I was the underdog, and it doesn't happen a lot here, but believe me, I've been the underdog a lot in my coaching career," Carl said. "I've always said to my guys, when you take that field, they're taking you lightly, and once you get some momentum and get rolling, it's hard for them to come back from that. Well now I've faced that from the other end.

"We had a team that I don't believe was ready to play, and once it started rolling on us, it's hard to right the ship. It's a great lesson, especially for our younger guys, that this is Division I football, man. You're facing quality athletes no matter who's on the field across from you. Fresno had a good football team, and I don't think our guys approached that game mentally prepared to take on that challenge."

***Bo Pelini said he wasn't all that surprised with the way Saturday's game played out for his offense, saying Fresno State's aggressive defensive style generally gives plenty of big play opportunities.

"With their style of defense, that' what they struggle with, is the big play," Pelini said. "They're going to hit you for a lot of no-gains and that type of thing, but they're going to give up some big plays. So I pretty much knew going that was going to be kind of how the game was going to go for us offensively."

As a result, Pelini said he wasn't concerned with Nebraska's offensive struggles last week, especially in the first half.

"That's the way it was going to be last week," he said. "You watch anybody who plays Fresno, that's how it works because of how they play defensively. We'll see how it goes this week. (Washington) is a little conventional style of defense we're going to see this week that what we saw against Fresno with eight, nine guys in the box playing zero coverage every down. That's feast or famine. That's the way those games play out every time they play."

***Despite linebackers Lavonte David and Will Compton each racking up 15 tackles on Saturday, Carl Pelini said both players had their worst games of the season against FSU.

"They did not play well," Carl said. "I don't care where those tackles were made. It's about execution, being where you're supposed to be. Those two guys did not play well."

***Jamal Turner said he stopped taking reps at quarterback, punt returner and kickoff returner at the end of fall camp and has only working as a receiver since the season started.

***It took junior college transfer Daimion Stafford all of five weeks to break Nebraska's starting lineup, as he made his starting debut against Fresno State. He ended the night with 11 tackles and a pass breakup.

"I think he's come a long way in a short amount of time," Bo Pelini said. "He plays hard. He's done a good job. He's a good tackler, he's physical back there and he does a really nice job of playing the football. I think he's still a work in progress and he's still got a lot to learn, but he's come a long way in a short period of time."

***Overall, Bo Pelini said Green and Evans have been just "average" through the first two games of the season.

"When we play technique we're pretty good," Pelini said. "When we get away from our technique we're not very good."

***Abdullah talked about his recruiting process and how he got a late offer from Auburn, a team he cheered for since he was little. He said he never really considered Auburn not only because they wanted him as a safety, but because he was already firm on his commitment to Nebraska.

"Growing up in Alabama, it's just like Nebraska - you only have Alabama football and Auburn football, so I watched all their games growing up," Abdullah said. "But it wasn't that hard (of a decision) for me when I saw Nebraska. There was nothing else on my mind at that point."

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