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  1. 2011 Oct 25

    NEBRASKA FOOTBALL: Top Five Things the Huskers Must Do To Be Big Ten Champs - No. 5

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    By HuskerLocker

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    By Ryan Donohue

    - Improve By Leaps and Bounds on Defense

    If Nebraska fans are staked out on the road to the Big Ten Championship Game, they’re watching for the Blackshirts to roll by. I’m not sure we’ve seen them yet. Fans would like to see this team improve on both sides of the ball, of course. Let's assume for a moment that Nebraska's mercurial offense will find uncanny ways to score at least 21 points in its remaining games.

    The Huskers needs some defense. It's maddening to try and understand why Nebraska has fallen like a rock in almost every defensive category this year. These players aren’t unfamiliar to the system. Reasons given have been talent, coaching or schemes, but the decline appears to be driven by all three factors.

    Let’s face facts: This is a young secondary that won’t rank more than "average" by season's end. The talent isn’t going to change much. Nebraska also just enjoyed a well-placed week off and a pushover opponent, perfect for coaches to reset and re-connect with their players. Given the secondary’s struggles, defensive improvement rests in the hands of the front seven with special emphasis on the front four.

    Can they generate significant pressure, which doubles as a release valve for the secondary? Can they contain dual-threat quarterbacks as well as they did MarQueis Gray? The Ohio State game showed flashes of pressure, but that came against Joe Bauserman, a guy that makes defensive tackles look swift.

    Championship-caliber teams find a way to bottle up quarterbacks of all kinds, or at least contain them. If the pressure falls entirely on the defensive line, losing Jared Crick was a cruel blow, but can new blood revitalize this group? Will the Huskers get back to camping out in the pocket and causing mayhem? If the defense is to take any steps forward, that progress will start up front.

    Follow Ryan on Twitter: @DigitalRyan
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    Tags: big ten, blackshirts, marqueis gray, joe bauserman

  2. 2011 Oct 24

    NEBRASKA FOOTBALL: The Top Five Things We Saw Against Minnesota

    4,582 views

    By HuskerLocker

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    By Erin Sorensen

    A common sentiment by Gopher fans before kickoff last Saturday was, “Nebraska is going to destroy us.” Minnesota fans had already thrown in the towel before the game had even began. For Husker fans, confidence wasn't so easy to muster. Even though Nebraska was a 24.5-point favorite going into Saturday’s game, fans had a number of worries.

    Could the defense survive without senior Jared Crick? Will quarterback Taylor Martinez make big plays, or will he revert back to old habits? Questions plagued Husker fans. What did fans ultimately see Saturday?

    1.) A Step towards a Dominant Defense

    The defense had one mission last Saturday and that was to stop Minnesota quarterback MarQueis Gray from running. They managed to do just that, but some major question marks remained.

    One of the biggest head-scratchers was why there was never any real pressure put on Gray. While Minnesota's running game was stopped, there were no sacks against the Gophers. Gray also never appeared rushed to make a decision. This alone is worrisome, considering that many Nebraska’s remaining opponents will be much more dominant on offense.

    There were still bright spots for the defense on Saturday. Lavonte David continued to be a strong, vocal leader, the secondary stepped up and Nebraska held Minnesota scoreless until halftime. It wasn’t a perfect game and it wasn’t a completely dominant performance, but it was a step in the right direction.

    2.) Defensive Line Unity without Crick

    While Jared Crick’s presence on the field will be missed, Saturday afternoon proved that the senior is not the only necessity for the defense’s success. The leadership Crick provided during his playing days at Nebraska gave way to a new group of men who will be more than capable of holding down the fort up front. Between Chase Rome and Terrence Moore, the talent is there.

    Minnesota helped to provide experience that the line will need before facing the Michigan State Spartans this Saturday. While the Gophers’ offense isn’t the toughest, it gave this unit an opportunity to work out the kinks left by Crick’s absence.

    With No. 94 on the sidelines as a player coach, the line should have no issues adjusting. It’ll take a little time, but with some confidence under their belts, they have an opportunity to be stronger as each game passes.

    3.) Stability in the Secondary

    While the secondary still has a lot of work to do, Saturday breathed some life into the cornerbacks and safeties. TCF Bank Stadium was a good testing ground for a struggling secondary to find their footing once again. It was not pretty during the whole game, but their efforts showed a step in the right direction.

    Lance Thorell got a chance at cornerback on Saturday and played arguably one of his best games. Austin Cassidy picked up a fumble and ran it into the end zone for a defensive touchdown, something Nebraska fans have seen little of this season. Harvey Jackson even saw some time at safety, collecting four solid tackles in the fourth quarter.

    Again, the performance wasn’t always crisp, but it showed far more stability. For a secondary that has been plagued by poor play all season, this contest was a good one to build confidence and get back on track before Michigan State.

    4.) Continued Growth on Offensive Line

    Despite the fact that a group of Nebraska’s offensive line was stuck in an elevator for nearly 45 minutes Friday night, the frustrating situation had little affect on the unit's play. Led by senior offensive tackle Yoshi Hardrick, the offensive line was dominant and united. This group continues to grow each and every week, making the offense more efficient and stable.

    For quarterback Taylor Martinez, the big men up front are providing more time to make decisions. It is no surprise the Nebraska offense managed a time of possession advantage over Minnesota (31:52-28:08). As the line continues to play with confidence , the offense will improve week by week and play efficiently, which will help against stout teams like Michigan State.

    5.) A Convincing Win

    Nebraska fans were able to walk away from Minneapolis feeling good for two reasons: A big win and a dominant crowd. Looking around the stadium, it was easily half-red and “Go Big Red” chants drowned out the Gophers’ attempts at crowd noise. What some are calling “Memorial Stadium 2.0” took on a bigger meaning for Cornhusker fans: Nebraska is on its way back.

    While it would be somewhat of an exaggeration to call the 41-14 victory over Minnesota “big,” it was definitely a performance worth applauding. Martinez played a very smart game that resulted in long drives.

    Even if every series didn’t result in points, proper ball management made Saturday’s win so convincing. While Nebraska’s wide receivers did drop a number of potential catches that could have resulted in more scores, 41 points on the board isn’t a stat worth being upset over.

    With Minnesota now behind Nebraska, it is time to look forward to Michigan State. With the Spartans’ win over Wisconsin, this weekend’s contest may the biggest of the year thus far for Nebraska. Will the Huskers be able to keep up? If Saturday’s game against the Golden Gophers proved anything, it’s that Nebraska has the will to win and the talent to do so. When they can properly execute, that is.

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    Tags: taylor martinez, jared crick, marqueis gray, lavonte david, chase rome, terrence moore, michigan state, harvey jackson, austin cassidy, lance thorell, yoshi hardrick

  3. 2011 Oct 23

    NEBRASKA FOOTBALL: Most Valuable Huskers vs. Minnesota

    2,813 views

    By HuskerLocker

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    By James Stevenson

    The Cornhuskers disposed of Minnesota with little drama as Nebraska dominated not only the field at TCF Bank Stadium, but also the stands. The Big Red didn’t face a challenge from the worst team in the Big Ten in their 41-14 win, but there were still multiple efforts which stood above the rest and deserve recognition.

    Offensive MVP: The rout was on when redshirt freshman wide receiver Kenny Bell took a pitch on a reverse, then navigated down the sideline with perfect balance and speed for an 82-yard touchdown run. The scoring scamper was the longest touchdown run for a freshman in school history, and was Nebraska’s longest run since 2004. Bell also snagged four passes for 25 yards.

    Defensive MVP: Aside from leading the team with six tackles, senior safety Austin Cassidy made the biggest play of the day for the defense-that-is-yet-to-receive-their-Blackshirts. When Minnesota quarterback MarQueis Gray fumbled at his own 20-yard line, Cassidy, in his attempt to recover the ball, accidentally kicked it nine yards to the Gopher 11-yard line before scooping it up and returning it for a defensive score.

    Special Teams MVP: After looking at everything, from kickoffs, to field goals, to returners to that made tackles, there wasn’t a standout performance on special teams Saturday. Honorable mention to Brett Maher for scoring 10 points on two field goals and four PATs, but hard to give him the award after a rough day with his punting duties and missing a 52-yard kick in the third quarter.

    Minnesota MVP: MarQueis Gray accounted for 189 of the Gophers’ 254 yards of offense. He threw for 122 yards, and his 67 yards on the ground included a 30-yard rush and a touchdown.

    Workhorse: Despite being banged up during the bye week, junior I-back Rex Burkhead was still the workhorse for the Husker ground game. His fourth time breaking the century mark this season, Burkhead gained 117 yards on 23 carries and rushed for a touchdown,

    12th Man: An announced crowd of 49,187 consisted of an estimated 25-30,000 Nebraska fans. Early in the game, the “Go Big Red” chants drowned out the Minnesota marching band. Husker fans neutralized the road advantage, creating more of a high school or scrimmage atmosphere.

    Missing in Action: After the game, senior offensive tackle Jermarcus “Yoshi” Hardrick joked about several Husker players who found themselves stuck in a Minneapolis elevator on Friday.

    That’s one plausible explanation as to why junior tight end Kyler Reed didn’t see the field on Saturday. One of Nebraska’s most dangerous deep threats, he was sorely missed when the Husker wide receiver corps dropped multiple deep passes from quarterback Taylor Martinez.

    The Cornhuskers will need all of its offensive weapons against a salty Michigan State defense coming off of a historic win against Wisconsin.

    Welcome Back: After not playing in nearly a month due to a leg infection, true freshman I-back Braylon Heard helped run out the clock, averaging six yards a carry on seven totes of the football with a long of 22 yards.

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    Tags: kenny bell, austin cassidy, brett maher, marqueis gray, rex burkhead, yoshi hardrick, kyler reed, braylon heard

  4. 2011 Oct 19

    NEBRASKA FOOTBALL: Could the Cornhuskers Help Further the Argument to Fire Jerry Kill?

    5,811 views

    By HuskerLocker

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    Husker Locker had the opportunity to sit down with Michael, a passionate Minnesota Golden Gophers fan and creator of FireJerryKill.com (Warning: Language can/will be for those of the mature variety). While the site and his feelings towards coach Kill are controversial, we felt that such a zealous individual would be ideal in gaining perspective on Nebraska's upcoming renewal of this now-annual contest.

    HL: What’s your connection with Golden Gopher sports?

    M: Growing up in Minnesota fostered a fondness for the Gophers even though I’m far too young to remember the Gophers’ glory years—then again everyone is far too young to remember the Gophers’ glory years--and moving from the state when I was still in grade school actually made the bond stronger as I sought to derive some sense of personal identity from the teams of my home state.

    Jim Wacker was the coach when I was a child so that identity was largely non-existent defense, critical turnovers and losing to Michigan by 40. Fortunately, things have changed.

    HL: You're obviously not a fan of Jerry Kill’s hiring, but why is that?

    M: I hold no personal animosity towards the man and he is most likely a moderate step up from Tim Brewster. However, considering the significant investments the University has made in terms of an on campus stadium, new practice facilities and other program improvements it didn’t make sense to me to go cheap on a coach once again when they were in a position to hire so many other better candidates.

    It’s not even a question of bringing in a “name” candidate. There were intriguing coordinators out there like (former Maryland offensive coordinator and current Vanderbilt head coach) James Franklin that would have had a chance to inject positivity into the program and grow with it. Kill just feels like a bad fit for the program. He’s a small time coach in a big time conference.

    HL: How did Minnesota go from hanging tough with Southern California earlier in the year to getting blown out by Purdue?

    M: USC is a fiercely mediocre football team whose flaws are sometimes masked by a few special skill position players. The linebacking corps used to be the strength of their defense and they lost all their starters there after the 2009 season. The following year their secondary experienced a similar exodus.

    They’ve bled a ton of top end talent out of the program without replenishing it in the same way they have in recent years. USC is depending on a significant number of underclassmen for key contributions out of necessity rather than talent pressing for playing time.

    Despite all that USC hardly broke a sweat heading into the half up 19-3. In the second half they seemed to let up either from taking the Gophers lightly or maybe just from wearing down from lack of depth. Ultimately, the Gophers capitalized on two USC turnovers to make the game close but didn’t have the talent to close.

    Since then the Gophers, by Kill’s own admission, have gotten slower. These are well-conditioned athletes that started hitting their stride at the very end of last season, so their sudden break down seems curious. Max Shortell basically told Kill he’d hit a wall physically. I think a lot of this has to do with overtraining on the part of the Gopher staff.

    When Kill came in he promised to push the kids hard with up-tempo practices and that philosophy seems to be wearing the team out.



    HL: It seems like this Gopher staff can’t quite pin down whom they want under center between Marqueis Gray and Max Shortell. Is there any particular reason for this?

    M: Gray has suffered some health problems this year after injuring his toe against USC. As Husker fans probably remember with Ahman Green in 1996, turf toe can linger for weeks or even months. However, the staff was already planning on splitting time between the two before the injury ever occurred.

    My guess is they don’t believe in Gray but with Shortell failing to differentiate himself from Gray as a passer, and in fact being a significantly worse passer in third down situations, it’s hard to justify his continued playing time in light of the rushing advantage Gray has over him.

    From a work ethic and attitude perspective, Gray is everything you could ask for in a player. The staff’s sense of urgency to push him aside for a true freshman is one of the more perplexing things about this season.

    HL: Do you think a different Minnesota team will show up fresh off of a bye week?

    M: If I’d seen any sign of improvement on a game-to-game basis I might think there was a chance of this, but if anything Minnesota has grown even more woeful as the season has worn on.

    I don’t have much confidence in the Gophers’ staff and their ability to inspire confidence in their players or to construct a game plan that maximizes their strengths. Hopefully Kill et al. will be smart enough to let the players rest over the bye. Nobody has their legs under them especially at the lines.

    HL: On to this weekend’s game, what does Nebraska have to do well if nothing else to win this Saturday?

    M: Nebraska is vastly superior along the lines and at the skill positions, so it really comes down to fundamentals. The closest thing Minnesota has to a weapon on offense is MarQueis Gray and his rushing ability.

    He’s at his most dangerous when plays break down and the opposing defense breaks contain. Nebraska needs to stay home on defense and not break weak side containment. If they can do that bottling up Minnesota’s offense won’t pose much of a threat.

    The mismatch is even worse between Nebraska’s offense and Minnesota’s defense. The only real talent along the lines heading into this year, defensive tackle Jewhan Edwards, was cut loose in the off-season by Kill.

    They have a line that doesn’t rush the passer or contain the run, a group of linebackers that are slow to react and can’t shed blocks and a secondary that plays like it’s terrified of the ball. As long as Taylor Martinez doesn’t make any unforced errors they should be able to simply overpower the Gophers.



    HL: Are there any particular areas that you feel Nebraska could exploit especially well?

    M: The Gophers are exceptionally vulnerable down the seams due to poor linebacker play and questionable safeties. One of their starting linebackers, Lamonte Edwards, entered the season as a halfback. If Nebraska can hit them in the mouth early down the seams Claeys will revert into blitzing and create huge opportunities down the field if Nebraska can pick up Minnesota’s blitzes.

    In the run game they’re weak on the edges due to ponderous linebacker play and ends that are very aggressive about getting up the field but are too easily rerouted around the quarterback. Runs to the outside could prove huge early on and if Minnesota does start blitzing there will be massive opportunities in the draw, counter and screen games.

    HL: Despite the lopsided losses, Minnesota must be able to do a few things well. What does Nebraska need to be able to defend against/account for?

    M: Wide receiver Marcus Jones is an elusive return man with great acceleration and impressive speed once he gets outside. If not for a holding call against Michigan he would have scored touchdowns on a 90-plus-yard kickoff return in back to back games. He doesn’t get enough help for Nebraska to have to worry about squibbing it, but any over-pursuit could be dangerous.

    The other wildcard is true freshman running back David Cobb who sat out the Purdue game with a hamstring injury. He’s the most talented back on the roster and makes quick decisions and even quicker cuts. If he’s healthy and can contribute he could help build up a play action game with Gray.

    HL: What has to happen for the Gophers to have a chance at pulling off the upset?

    M: You never say never in college football, certainly not in world where Appalachian State can beat Michigan in the Big House, but this is about as long as long shots get between two major conference programs.

    USC helped keep Minnesota in the season opener with unforced errors, but I don’t think Taylor Martinez will put the ball in the air enough to create enough turnover opportunities to make it a possibility. With nearly 250 yards per game on the ground all Martinez has to do is hand it off to Burkhead and tuck it and run now and again.

    HL: Finally, what individual statements do you have for both Minnesota and Nebraska as they clash for the first time since 1990?

    M: Minnesota: Keep the ball on the ground and do the best you can to shorten the game.

    Nebraska: I’m not going to say hang 60-plus on the Gophers to further expose Kill because that would make me a bad fan, but hang 60-plus on the Gophers to expose Kill.

    Welcome to the Big Ten, we are the maroon carpet you will be striding into the conference on.

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    Tags: minnesota, jerry kill, marqueis gray, max shortell

  5. 2011 May 25

    NEBRASKA FOOTBALL: The Blackshirts vs. The Big 10 - Part 2

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    By HuskerLocker

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    By Husker Locker's Brian Towle

    We began an overall look at Nebraska’s upcoming conference opponents last week with Ohio State, Wisconsin and Penn State. Today, we look at two more with one being a large question mark and the other a potential pesky team to pick off.

    Minnesota: Jerry Kill was named the Gophers’ new head coach on December 7, 2010 after leading Northern Illinois to three consecutive bowl berths and a MAC title game appearance. Kill put together a solid resume at NIU as he coached the Huskies to a top 25 ranking in rushing, scoring and total offense. At the same time, his defense was in the top third of national rankings in scoring, rushing, passing and total defense.

    Kill’s taking over a team that was admittedly anemic at times checking in at No. 89 in scoring offense and No. 98 in total defense. There’s a lot of promise with the current roster, though. Marqueis Gray was a bright spot at times last year at wide receiver, but he’ll be taking snaps at quarterback for the Golden Gophers this season.

    The running of Duane Bennett is considered another positive. This team did win their last two games against an underachieving Illinois team in Champagne and a great victory against Iowa at home. One of Minnesota’s stinging defeats from last year was Kill's very own Northern Illinois squad coming into TCF Bank Stadium and beating Minnesota 34-23 on September 25.





    Watching NIU film from last year, it will be interesting to see if Kill continues to spreads out his receivers. The Huskies loved to bring the tight end in creating a hybrid H-Back position. In terms of blocking, there doesn't seem to be much difference from what Nebraska does. The Cornhuskers should be able to stop this offense well and having game film pile up during the season will help Nebraska figure out how to best contain Gray.

    Expect Bennett to be used even more than last season as he’s shown big game ability such as his 187-yard performance versus Middle Tennessee State last year. The offensive line has only two starters returning, so pass protection could be an issue for the Gophers.

    Defensively, Minnesota only returns one starting player from the secondary in cornerback Troy Stoudermire, but have a combination of seven players coming back that help man the front seven.

    This could be a lucky year for Nebraska to draw Minnesota away from home. Kill has shown that he can turn programs around in a short time. However, the lack of an offensive line and an inexperienced secondary spell out only a marginal improvement this year. Expect Minnesota to be better than their 3-9 record last year but not by much. It'll be fun to see how Kill can maximize his playmakers versus Pelini's defense.

    Northwestern: Pat Fitzgerald did very well last year with his Wildcat squad making it to a New Year’s Day bowl game. Sure, it was the TicketCity bowl vs. Texas Tech, but he also notched wins versus Iowa and at Vanderbilt. The Wildcats did jump out to a 21-0 lead in Happy Valley, but did eventually drop the game to the Nittany Lions 35-21.

    This team always seems to play hard for Fitzgerald on both sides of the ball. They may not have the best players in the Big Ten, but they make up for it by being smart and working their tails off. One of Northwestern’s trademarks is that they’ll play you very hard on the road hence the first half against Penn State last season.



    The Wildcats have perhaps the most underrated returning quarterback of the conference in Dan Persa. He was out with an injured Achilles’ tendon through the spring and only took part in non-contact drills. Persa threw for over 2,581 yards while running for an additional 519 yards in 2010.

    Northwestern has been hurting for rushing yards primarily due to their more "traditional" spread look with 3-plus receivers. The Wildcats return nine players from an offense that averaged almost 27 points per game yet didn’t blow anyone away with yardage numbers.

    On the defensive side of the ball, the Wildcats return seven players from a defense that got torched at times (35 in a half versus Penn State, 70 total versus Wisconsin). Northwestern lost some experience at linebacker, but Fitzgerald has been pleased with their resolve as a group to get better. One thing that seems to be consistent with the Wildcats’ defense is that once the opposing offense finds something that works, it usually continues to work.

    Northwestern gave up 21 points in the fourth quarter against Michigan State, 21 in the first quarter and 14 in the fourth against Illinois, 35 in the first quarter against Wisconsin, and 14 in the second and third quarters against Texas Tech.

    If Fitzgerald and his crew were anywhere but Northwestern, he would probably be one of the top 10 coaches in the country. The fact that he is at a school that doesn't usually get the most athletic kids in Illinois hurts.

    Nebraska has a big talent advantage that should tilt this contest in the Huskers’ favor. A word of warning: Given the schedule, if Nebraska has an off day this could easily be an upset. At this point, it doesn’t seem likely, but South Dakota State looked like a cream puff at this point last year, too.

    Tags: minnesota golden gophers, northwestern wildcats, jerry kill, pat fitzgerald, marqueis gray, dan persa

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