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2008 Oct 17

Five Keys to Iowa State


By SMcKewon

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Rarely has the middle of a football season felt so much like the beginning.

Nebraska’s football team is halfway through its regular season schedule. Any illusions of a Cinderella run to the Big 12 North title have disappeared. The Cornhuskers are 3-3 overall, 0-2 in the league, and looking square at six, seven or eight wins in 2008. Anything less and this year was a bit of a bust. Anything more, and NU somehow managed to upset Oklahoma in Norman.

The last half of this schedule is about winning, yes. But it’s more about how head coach Bo Pelini gets this team to grow as it wins and loses. A blowout loss to Missouri showed regression. An overtime loss to Texas Tech was a sign of Nebraska’s potential.

Now to Iowa State, a team facing similar issues this year. The Cyclones are led by their own young coach, Gene Chizik, and they have the tools to beat NU on Saturday. Here are the keys that will decide it.

Trenches:Nebraska’s offensive line finally began to find some rhythm against Texas Tech. Iowa State’s defensive line is arguably its best unit, consistently pressuring opposing quarterbacks with heat and playing a big part in ISU leading the Big 12 with 17 takeaways.

“They’re playing really good team defense,” offensive coordinator Shawn Watson said. “They pursue to the football and they get all over the ball. And they’re playing hard.”

But the effort-based bunch is undersized, and not so great at stopping the run - tenth in the Big 12, in fact, just ahead of moribund Kansas State and Texas A&M.

Will the Huskers take what the Cyclones give, like they did so wisely in Lubbock?

Turnovers: ISU feasts on them, and leads the Big 12 with 17. Not so good for an NU team that hasn’t won the turnover battle in three weeks and has not, in fact, created a turnover in that same time.

“It’s something that really jabs at me,” Pelini said in his Tuesday press conference. “It’s something we emphasize and it’s something the defenses I’ve been around have always hung their hat on.”

It’s hard to create turnovers when you’re playing teams like Missouri and Texas Tech, whose offenses generally depend on the quarterback having a quick trigger and making rhythm throws to receivers. Still – if Oklahoma State – nobody’s idea of a superlative defense – could force Mizzou’s Chase Daniel into three interceptions, why couldn’t Nebraska get one over the last three games?

Look, for a second, at the team speed on NU’s defense right now. Speed – flying around, swarming - is what causes interceptions and fumbles. Speed best delivers the unexpected element. Speed is the difference between being a half-second too late or right on time.

Why do you think Pelini’s last NU defense, in 2003, caused so many turnovers? Well, just look at it. It had arguably the fastest player in the 2005 draft in cornerback Fabian Washington, two fast safeties in Daniel and Josh Bullocks, and, most importantly, Demorrio Williams. Williams was the key to Pelini’s defense, and, yes, that includes Barrett Ruud, who’s a better NFL linebacker now than Williams.

Pelini used Williams like a mobile assault vehicle to create confusion and frustration for opposing offenses. Teams built their plans around making sure he was accounted for.

The Huskers have a “Williams type” in Cody Glenn, but he’s been hurt for the majority of the last two two games. Pelini doesn’t like to make excuses, and Glenn is sometimes out of position, but he’s also The Guy, the playmaker, the x-factor.

Back to the Base? After spending two weeks in the tropics of college football offenses, Nebraska’s defense returns to something a little more familiar: The basic shotgun zone-read attack. Similar in some ways to Texas, Iowa State seeks to establish the running game through quarterback Austen Arnaud’s ability to either give the ball to one of ISU’s three running backs, or take it himself.

Arnaud isn’t the runner that now-departed quarterback Phillip Bates was, so ISU has been throwing more passes over the last several games.

“Early in the year they were a little more base personnel, a couple of tight ends in the game,” Pelini said. “Now they are a little more spread out. How they choose to go at us, I don’t know yet. We have to be prepared to go at all of it.”

If Phillip Dillard and Glenn are ready to go, look for them to play in a nickel package, or possibly be joined by Tyler Wortman in a base look. If Glenn can’t go, expect to see true freshman walk-on Matt Holt or sophomore Blake Lawrence.

“They will have three receivers a majority of the game,” Lawrence said. “So they pose a threat in the passing game just for pure personnel. But out of that package they do a good job of blocking and setting up the run. So we have to be prepared at all times.”

Jack Trice: As in Iowa State’s football stadium, which is a better home field advantage than most teams in Iowa State’s class (below-average BCS Conference schools) enjoy. Crowds in Ames are lively and loud, and they don’t have a fondness for Nebraska. While the Huskers have won 7 of the last 10 games there, the margin of victory is only 34.3-19.2. And that includes, as you know, some pretty awful ISU teams in the Jim Walden years.

Just in case you thought NU was heading to Ames for a blowout.

Jack Trice has a grass field, which means the surface is probably a little slower than FieldTurf. The stadium is also an unabashed wind tunnel because of its open end zones. In 2005, former ISU offensive coordinator and current NU offensive line coach Barney Cotton recalled, a tornado touched down near the stadium, forcing a two-hour delay of the game, which was played in the kind of winds you’d expect in the aftermath of the tornado.

“All of the offenses scored only going one direction,” Cotton recalled. “Our defense scored going the other direction, otherwise it would have been a tie football game.”

It’s not the kind of place you want to make a mistake like Abner Haynes did in the 1962 AFL Championship.

Having coached there, Watson said he wasn’t worried, that he and quarterback Joe Ganz don’t mind throwing against the wind, which happens to be pretty common around Nebraska, if you didn’t know.

“Bo asks me all the time ‘Which way you want to go?’” Watson said. “We don’t care. Just line up and go. Throw into it. Throw with it. That’s the way the game’s gonna be. We’re not real user-friendly around here.”

Must-Win: NU guard Matt Slauson put it best when he said that, either way, the Iowa State game takes Nebraska off the .500 mark.

If NU goes to 3-4, it has to try and steal a game against Kansas or Oklahoma to reach seven wins. If Nebraska goes to 4-3, it heads into next week’s game at Baylor with poise and confidence.

If you’re merely gauging by Pelini’s comments, this was the best week of practice Nebraska’s had since fall camp. The question is…will it show up in the game?

“That’s the key,” Pelini said Thursday night. “We’ve got to make sure we take the good things we did, make sure we get the things corrected we need corrected, so we can put it all together consistently on Saturday.”

Tags: five keys, iowa state, nebraska, cody glenn, jack trice, bo pelini, shawn watson

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