October 5, 2009

Monday notebook: Pelini holding out on Blackshirts

It seems that Nebraska head coach Bo Pelini[ just can't avoid the topic of the Blackshirts lately.

Even though the Huskers lead the nation in scoring defense through four games this season Pelini has yet to reward his defense with the long honored black practice jerseys.

Despite constant questions from media and fans about what he's waiting for, Pelini has stood firm in his decision to hand out the Blackshirts when he feels the time is right.

"You have to do things when you feel the time is right," Pelini said during Monday's press conference. "I don't really get caught up in all of that and our football team doesn't either… I think I said this a long time ago when I first got here - It's something you have to earn. You have to earn things over time. When that time comes, it's a feel thing."

After shutting down Virginia Tech on the road for all but two plays and blanking Louisiana-Lafayette 55-0 for their first shutout since 2006, many felt the Huskers have done more than enough to earn their Blackshirts the past two games.

However, Pelini disagreed, going as far to say that he is not satisfied with the play of his defense and that the unit still has a long way to go before it meets his expectations.

In his mind, the standards for earning the Blackshirts go much further than two good games.

"It represents playing to a very, very high standard, week in, week out," he said. "To me, it's as a unit. It's not an individual thing. To a certain extent it is, but it's about your unit. It's about that first group. It's about earning the right by how you're executing the type of football you're playing. That's how I see it."

Senior defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh said it's been tough for him and his teammates to not get a Blackshirt yet, but he understands and appreciates Pelini's intent by making the defense work for them and not just giving them out at the start of the season.

"It definitely makes it more personal that you have to work for it," Suh said. "It's not just winning yourself a spot during fall camp is going to allow you to get it. It makes it that much more valuable. You have to not only win your spot, but continue to have great practices week in and week out, and go out there and perform week in and week out against opponents that don't see you on a regular basis because you don't know what their weaknesses and strengths are. It makes it that much harder to achieve it."

- Robin Washut

Monday practice takes
Defense ready for no-huddle: Missouri has become known for its unconventional play calling style over the past few years, as it runs a no-huddle offense that at times uses up the bulk of the play clock getting the signals in from the sideline. Talking with Nebraska defensive players on Monday, it appears they are ready for whatever the Tigers do with their no-huddle offense, whether they use up big chunks of clock or rush right up to the line of scrimmage to snap the ball. Defensive coordinator Carl Pelini said the Huskers are well prepared for no-huddle offenses, as they use a mix of different hand signals and pre-snap calls to alter their defense and adjust to their opponents accordingly.
Gabbert nearly flawless: Freshman quarterback Blaine Gabbert has already put up some pretty impressive numbers in his debut season for Missouri. However, it's the one zero in his stat line that stands as the most impressive. After 131 passing attempts in his first four games, Gabbert has yet to throw an interception. Along with his 11 touchdowns, he's completing 66 percent of his passes and had already thrown for nearly 1,200 yards. Because of Gabbert's accuracy, the Tigers have committed just three turnovers all season.
Injury update: It seems the bye week has done Nebraska some good on the injury front, as the only injury report was that senior safety Larry Asante is close to returning to 100 percent after suffering a foot injury against Louisiana-Lafayette. Offensive coordinator Shawn Watson also said the offensive line is as healthy as it's been all season.
What's on tap next: The Nebraska football team practiced half pads for two hours inside the Hawks Championship Center indoor facility on Monday. The Huskers will conduct a helmets only practice on Tuesday before flying out to Columbia, Mo., on Wednesday evening.

Hagg, Thorell to see increased roles, Dennard now starting CB

With the start of the Big 12 Conference schedule, Nebraska is gearing up to face a completely different breed of offenses from what it's seen the first four games.

Spread out aerial assaults have become the norm in the Big 12 over the past few years, and Missouri has been one of the teams that has spearheaded the movement in that direction.

As a result, Pelini said the Huskers would come out on Thursday with a dime package (four linemen, one linebacker and six defensive backs) as their base defense. Defensive coordinator Carl Pelini said junior Eric Hagg and sophomore Lance Thorell would start as the two additional dime backs.

Additionally, he said junior Anthony West would also see some time as a dime back, as sophomore Alfonzo Dennard appears to have taken over as the No. 1 right cornerback.

Defensive backs coach Marvin Sanders said nothing has been made official yet, but Dennard has seen the bulk of the reps with the starting defense the past week of practice.

"He's always had the athletic ability," Sanders said. "Now he has a really god understanding of our scheme, and he's a young man that can make some plays. That's what we look for as a defensive back - a guy that's going to take that chance and try to make a play."

- Robin Washut

Huskers ready for Missouri hostility

Nebraska junior tight end Mike McNeill, a native of Kirkwood, Mo., knows all too well just how hostile the fans at Missouri's Faurot Field can get.

So do his parents.

When the Huskers traveled to take on the Tigers two years ago in what ended up a 41-24 loss, McNeill said he and his coaches and teammates weren't the only ones getting heckled by the Missouri faithful, as his parents apparently heard it almost as bad.

McNeill said his parents and other family and friends would still make the trip again on Thursday when the Husker try to win in Columbia for the first time in 2001. He doesn't expect things to be any different than the last time, either.

"I'm sure the fans will be pretty rowdy," McNeill said. "My parents got a rude awakening when they went two years ago, so I'm sure it will be crazy… Just the fans had some things to say to them, and I don't think my mom, like, she was assuming that they knew she was from Missouri, and obviously (the fans) didn't care because they were wearing Nebraska stuff. They just had some things to say about Nebraska."

While the fans might be just as vocal as ever, it's not as if Nebraska's players are going to be intimidated during the nationally televised showdown.

In fact, after nearly upsetting Virginia Tech on the road a few weeks ago, the Huskers have grown to relish playing on the road in hostile environments. Junior running back Roy Helu said he felt NU's offense played more focused as a team despite the deafening crowd noise from Hokie fans.

"It was amazing," Helu said. "I'd rather play on the road 12 games than play at home all 12 games. I love going on the road. I never really bought into that road mentality stuff until we went (to Virginia Tech). It was a great experience, the best football experience of my life so far."

Helu said the game in Blacksburg, Va., was different than any game he'd ever played in, saying the atmosphere was far louder and more exciting than anything he'd seen in the Big 12 Conference.

"I never experienced being a part of an offense going onto the field in that type of environment," Helu said. "My other years past, going to other places in the Big 12 North and places like Wake Forest, it's a little different. It's calm like when we go on offense over here. When you go out to somewhere where the fans are really cheering loud, it's pretty exciting. It makes you focus in more."

Needless to say, the Huskers are eager to get back to Columbia and take on the challenges both the Tigers and their fans will present. With the way the rivalry has heated up the past few years and the bad blood that still lingers from last season's meeting, there's no doubt crowd will be as raucous as ever.

All of that, however, is hardly the reason Thursday night's game will be huge for both teams.

"I think everyone knows this is a big game for a lot of reasons," McNeill said. "It's the North, the first Big 12 game, they've beaten us the last couple years and a lot of other things. We realize it's a big game, and we've had a week and a half to prepare for them, so we know what's at stake.

"Obviously if we want to meet all of our goals, we need to win this game. Is it make or break? I don't know. We'll see how things play out, but obviously it's a big game and obviously there's a lot at stake."

- Robin Washut

Gilleylen becoming Lee's go-to deep threat

After last week's win over La.-Lafayette, sophomore wide receiver Curenski Gilleylen said he was more than happy to be junior quarterback Zac Lee's No. 1 option when the Huskers wanted to try and stretch the field.

On Monday, Lee said he'd be happy to oblige.

"He runs his routes hard all the time, and I think that's a big thing," Lee said. "He helps us keep defenses real honest, just with his speed, getting down the field. I think people have to respect that. The big thing is, he knows the offense real well and he knows defenses real well. I think that helps him find openings and knows where he needs to get. Obviously, being physically gifted with speed helps a little bit."

So far, Gilleylen already has six catches of 26 yards or more and is averaging 31.9 yards per reception. His longest catch came on a 51-yard touchdown over the middle against Florida Atlantic, and he hauled in grabs of 42 and 43 yards two weeks ago against Louisiana-Lafayette.

Lee said Gilleylen has found ways to get open, especially over the middle.

"In the games we've had this year, we've faced some defenses that have allowed us to hit some big balls in the middle of the field," Lee said. "That's where I've hit him most of the time I think. We definitely have some chemistry there, but I don't think it's necessarily more than anyone else. I think he's just been the benefactor of being the open guy."

- Robin Washut

Quick hits

***Despite Missouri's mediocre start in the running game this season (143 yards per game and four rushing touchdowns, ranking 60th nationally), sophomore defensive tackle Jared Crick said Nebraska would still be focused on stopping run first on Thursday and "earning the right to rush the passer."

"They're a big screen team," Crick said. "Running the spread, they're not like in your face, trying to run at you and see if you can stop it. They're side to side, and they just try to get in your way. They're a good team, but just the spread, it's just different than what we run. They like screens, they like to run outside, they try and beat guys to the outside.

"They just try to make seams with their offensive linemen, so we've got to stop them from making seams and they'll have nowhere to go."

***Crick was asked about Nebraska's play defensively the past two games and how much that represents the new attitude under Pelini.

"That's just our swagger and our confidence," he said. "We know we're going to come out and we're going to play great defense. Everybody, all 11 guys, have got to believe that, and we do, and we have the past couple games. We've just got to keep rolling."

***Senior center Jacob Hickman said he hated playing in night games because of all the waiting around the team has to do before kickoff finally rolls around. To pass the time, he said he usually tries to nap or watch other college football games on TV. So what's he going to do Thursday when there aren't any other games to watch?

"I don't know, soap operas I guess," he said.

***Sanders was asked whether Missouri freshman quarterback Blaine Gabbert would be the best passer the Huskers will have faced this season. While he's close, he said Virginia Tech's Tyrod Taylor has earned that billing so far.

"I don't know, I saw a guy running make an 80-yard spiral a couple weeks ago," Sanders said. "Talk about a kid with some arm strength."

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