Big 12: 09 Big 12 title game coverage

Bearcats will be rooting for Cornhuskers

December, 5, 2009
Shortly after a dramatic 45-44 comeback victory over Pittsburgh, Cincinnati coach Brian Kelly was already looking forward to tonight's Big 12 championship game.

Considering that if Nebraska upsets Texas tonight, the Bearcats will have a better shot at making the BCS title game, Kelly is already making his plans.

"I love Mack Brown," Kelly told ABC-TV after the game. "But we'll be rooting pretty hard for Nebraska. Go Nebraska. Go Cornhuskers."

Kelly's one-night interest in the Big 12 will be matched only by TCU and Coach Gary Patterson's similar rooting interests for Nebraska.

Cornhuskers practice at Cowboys Stadium

December, 4, 2009
ARLINGTON, Texas -- Bo Pelini typically doesn't like for his team to have practices at new stadiums on the day before a game.

The Nebraska coach made an exception Friday before his team's game Saturday for the Big 12 championship against Texas.

The wow factor of the $1.2 billion stadium was one big reason for Pelini to make an exception before his team's first championship game under him.

"We're going to bring our football team over here today because this is a little different environment," Pelini said. "We just wanted to make sure they saw it before we got over here Saturday."

Pelini is usually has basic demands of his team before they play in a road game.

"We do most of our work at home. In fact, this morning we did our work at home," Pelini said. "The last time I saw every field is basically 120 yards long and I've never really understood the idea.

"I've been around places where you walk in and walk around the stadium, and take your shoes off and walk around in your bare feet. I've never understood that ritual. I think our guys would rather get over to the hotel and relax and get their minds right for the next day. I guess it's just a personal preference."

Nebraska's payback for TCU could come Saturday

December, 4, 2009
ARLINGTON, Texas -- Nebraska has a unique chance to pay back TCU for helping the Cornhuskers make their way to the 2001 national championship game.

In that season, the Horned Frogs played Nebraska early in the season. But their late charge with victories over Louisville and Southern Mississippi to bowl eligibility helped the Cornhuskers improve their BCS numbers enough to nose into the national title game against Miami in the Rose Bowl despite losing their Big 12 finale to Colorado.

The Cornhuskers could repay that debt Saturday with an upset over Texas, which could boost the Horned Frogs into the BCS title game.

Nebraska coach Bo Pelini said that opportunity to help the Horned Frogs won't change his approach to the game.

"I know Coach Patterson and what they've accomplished," Pelini said. "They've got to be proud of sitting their undefeated. I can say this, we're not playing the game for them. But I'll gladly shake his hand if we were able to help him out."

Pelini was a linebackers coach on the Green Bay Packers when the previous Nebraska-TCU game took place.

"What happened in 2001, I wasn't even in college football at the time," Pelini said. "But obviously, TCU deserves a lot of respect for what they've been able to accomplish this year."

Brown worries about Nebraska's special teams

December, 4, 2009
ARLINGTON, Texas -- One of Texas coach Mack Brown's biggest concerns is a Nebraska's special teams unit keyed by kicker/punter Alex Henery.

"The punter is unbelievable," Brown said. "He's like a magician the way he kicks the ball inside the 10-yard line. The field position is horrible for most teams they play."

Not only do the Huskers have strong kickers, but Brown is impressed with the collection of athletes that dot their special teams.

"This is probably the fastest Nebraska team we've seen," Brown said. "Their corners and linebackers are faster. Their receives are fast, so therefore, their special teams are faster. We feel like this is one of best matchups in the game. Both teams have been very good at times."

Nebraska's special teams key to Big 12 title game

December, 4, 2009
Swinging a mean pitching wedge along with a previous soccer career has helped make Alex Henery develop into one of Nebraska’s biggest weapons.

Henery is one of the rarest of all species in college football -- a combination kicker and punter who is proficient at both. His ability to place the ball inside the 10-yard line this season has earned him near rock-star status among Nebraska’s fans.

And among the reasons that Henery credits for his uncanny success are the touch he developed working on his short game playing golf and his kicking abilities as an all-state soccer player in high school.
[+] EnlargeAlex Henery
Jeff Moffett/Icon SMINebraska kicker Alex Henery will play a key role in the Big 12 title game.

“I do play golf a lot,” Henery said. “But I think it just comes from kind of messing around and seeing what will work. The soccer has helped me as well.”

Henery and other parts of Nebraska’s special teams will be critical if the Cornhuskers have any real hope of springing an upset over No. 3 Texas in the Big 12 championship game Saturday night.

He’s been dictating field position all season with a Big 12-best 26 punts that have been downed inside the 20-yard line. Amazingly, 15 of those kicks have pinning the opposition inside their 10, with eight inside the opponent’s 3-yard line.

With wind no factor and the roof at the Dallas Cowboys Stadium will be closed, it should result in a big night in the kicking game for both teams.

And there’s always that inviting target that drew the attention of Tennessee Titans’ punter A.J. Trapasso when his punt glanced off the facility’s mammoth scoreboard.

“I’m looking forward to kicking there,” Henery said. “A lot of people have been asking me if I’m going to try to hit the scoreboard. But I’m going to try to kick to get my technique down.”

Henery was chosen as second-team All-Big 12 as both a kicker and a punter earlier this week by Big 12 coaches. No player has ever been honored for both kicking during the same season with selection as a first and second-string punter.

After serving as the Cornhuskers’ kicker last season, Henery added punting to his responsibilities this season. He earned a scholarship before the season and has become proficient at both.

Henery is 16-of-20 on field goals this season, with his misses coming on a 54-yarder against Arkansas State, a 51-yarder against Texas Tech,a 43-yarder vs. Oklahoma and a 50-yarder at Colorado. The miss against Oklahoma was just the second of Henery’s career from inside 50 yards in his career.

"It would have been easier to do just one, but I wanted to take on the challenge of doing both,” Henery said. “It’s been harder to switch from just one to doing both. I’ve missed a couple of more kicks than I wanted this season. But the season has gone pretty well for me.”

His kicking has earned him perhaps the strongest compliment given by Nebraska coach Bo Pelini, who has continually referred to him as “a stud” because of how he has excelled at both.

“They’ve really done a good job of leaning on their special teams over the year,” Texas defensive coordinator Will Muschamp said. “Nebraska has really played to their strengths and that’s one of the bigger ones.”

The Cornhuskers also have been able to dictate field position on kickoffs thanks to the booming leg of kickoff specialist Adi Kunalic.

His booming kickoffs have resulted in touchbacks on 39 percent of his kickoffs, as he has drilled 26 of his 66 kicks to the end zone to enable the Cornhuskers to rank third nationally in touchbacks.

That work will be important in dictating field position against the Longhorns, who have returned three kickoffs for touchdowns and along with Arizona and Alabama are the only team to rank in the top 15 nationally in both kickoff returns and punt returns.

D.J. Monroe started the season strongly with two kickoff returns for touchdowns in the Longhorns’ first four games. Although he has missed Texas’ last two games after he was indefinitely suspended after he was accused of drunken driving, the Longhorns have still been returning kicks as a strength.

Freshman Marquise Goodwin provided a huge play last week with a 95-yard fourth-quarter kickoff return for a touchdown that helped ice the victory over Texas A&M.

“I just did my job, really,” Goodwin said. “It’s not about me making big plays. It’s just doing what I needed to do to help the team out.”

The importance that Texas places on its special teams can be seen by placing top receiver Jordan Shipley as one of its punt return specialists. Shipley has averaged 13.3 yards per punt return and produced two touchdowns.

Texas’ only weakness in special teams has been in punting, where Justin Tucker and John Gold have alternated. Mack Brown’s infatuation with the rugby punting of both players has been a negative as the Longhorns have averaged only 33.6 net yards to rank 99th nationally and 11th in the conference.

Nebraska has blocked five kicks, including three by All-American defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh. Playing key players like Suh and Shipley are indicative of the importance that both Pelini and Brown invest in special teams.

“They play special teams very good and are comparing us to them in a lot of categories,” Henery said. “I think whoever wins the special teams Saturday night will have a good chance to win the game.”

Emerging offense making it easier for McCoy

December, 3, 2009
AUSTIN, Texas -- Earlier this season, Texas offense consisted of Colt McCoy throwing a lot to Jordan Shipley.

Short passes. Screen passes. Deep passes. All kinds of passes from one roommate to another.

But as the Longhorns prepare for Saturday’s Big 12 championship game against Nebraska, the offense has evolved with many more potential playmakers.

“Overall, we’ve worked hard, prepared and found out what works,” McCoy said. “We’ve got a lot of guys who can help us out. And now, I feel like we are really playing at a high level.”
Thomas Campbell/US PresswireColt McCoy's job has gotten easier as more playmakers have emerged.
Malcolm Williams produced a team-high nine catches last week against Texas A&M. James Kirkendoll produced four grabs that led to a career-best two touchdowns, including a pivotal 47-yard fourth-quarter TD grab.

That growth should lead to a change in the kind of coverages that Shipley is seeing because of his productive teammates around him.

“The emergence of Malcolm and Kirkendoll has been huge,” Texas offensive coordinator Greg Davis said. “That makes it tough to do special things to Shipley. It makes it good when they get the one-on-one and they come through like they have. “

And the Longhorns’ much maligned running game has showed some promise in the last several weeks. After failing to crack 100 yards in back-to-back games against UCF and Oklahoma State, the Longhorns have averaged 217.7 yards in their last three games. That binge was topped by the 293-yard effort against Texas A&M that is their best against a conference foe this year.

The running game got a varied lift. Tre’ Newton rushed for a career-best 107 rushing yards. And all of those performances came in a game where McCoy rushed for 175 yards and became the first player in Big 12 history and only the third in college history with 300 passing yards and 150 rushing yards in the same game.

With so many other weapons around him, McCoy’s Heisman chances have improved over the last month as the Longhorns have become one of the nation’s most productive offenses. Since the Oklahoma game, Texas has scored on 36 of its last 61 drives (59.0 percent) with McCoy in charge.

“It’s somebody different every week,” Shipley said. The good thing for us is that we have a lot of guys making plays,” Shipley said. “If we can continue to spread the ball around and all those guys contribute the way they have, we’ll be pretty tough to stop.”

Williams has produced 15 receptions over his last two games after notching 20 catches in Texas’ first 10 games this season.

The 6-foot-3, 220-pounder has always been considered a potential star because of his superb athletic ability. But his struggles in practice have kept him from becoming a consistent playmaker until late this season.

“It was just growing confidence,” Williams said. “The coaches are having faith with me to out and make plays. And Colt believes in me enough to throw me passes.”

Kirkendoll emerged to grab a career-high eight passes against Kansas before the first multi-touchdown game of his career against A&M last week.

“Colt is so poised in the game,” Kirkendoll said. “We go over all of this stuff in practice and it’s really just muscle memory. Everybody is comfortable with each other and Colt is just a good quarterback (in getting them the ball). He’s really like a point guard in getting us all involved.”

The contributions from the varied cast members are making things easier for McCoy. He has responded with his best play of the season and arguably his career over the last month. That late charge has helped him become more comfortable in his offense after some admitted self doubt earlier this season.

“We weren’t very good early in the season, and we were erratic at receiver,” Texas coach Mack Brown said. “We were running some inconsistent routes, and a quarterback needs to trust his receivers, and that just wasn’t happening.

“We had a different running back playing every week, and Colt was sick for two of the games. I think he had such a great junior year that he thought it was just going to happen. But we had to kind of reinvent this offense and go back and figure out who we are.”

The change has come for McCoy after all of the new weapons sprouting around him.

“Those guys are really playing well. Offensively, we’re a different team,” Shipley said. “We’re a different team than from when we played Oklahoma earlier in the year.

“That’s a tribute to our coaches and all the hard work we’ve put in. But you’ve also got to give credit to James and Malcolm for putting the pieces of the puzzle together.”

Cornhuskers' defense bracing for Texas-sized challenge

December, 3, 2009
If Nebraska has any hopes of stunning Texas Saturday night in the Big 12 championship game, the Cornhuskers’ defense will be the major key.

The Cornhuskers have developed into one of the nation’s stingiest defenses after allowing only one opponent to score more than 21 points against them so far this season. But they will have to play one of their best games of the season to boost them to their first Big 12 title since 1999.

[+] EnlargeNdamukong Suh
Marc Piscotty/Icon SMINdamukong Suh and the Nebraska defense will need to contain Colt McCoy in Saturday's game.
“You hope when you have a challenge that is so great that it brings out the best in your team,” Nebraska coach Bo Pelini said. “I think our kids have an edge to them that should help them out. They have things to prove and this gives you the next opportunity. It’s a tremendous challenge and one that we look forward to.”

The Longhorn offense is third in the country in scoring (43.0 points) and 11th in total offense (451.6 yards). Texas is one of the most balanced offenses in the country after running the ball 447 times and passing it 462 times this season.

“They do everything well,” Nebraska defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh said. “They have balance and great receivers. I don’t see a problem in their offense. They have a mobile quarterback who can hurt you with his arm and his feet. It will be a big challenge that we’ll be up for.”

Nebraska is third in the country in scoring defense (11.1 points) and 11th in total defense (291.4 yards). The Cornhuskers rank among the top 25 teams nationally in six major defensive statistical categories -- rush defense, pass efficiency defense, scoring defense, total defense, sacks and pass defense.

Their star-studded defensive cast is headed by their strength inside with Suh and Jared Crick, who are the best pair of defensive tackles in the Big 12. Suh undoubtedly is the best defensive player in the conference and maybe in the nation. Crick is a solid producer who set a school single-game record for sacks earlier this season with five against Baylor.

The secondary also is dotted with playmakers, including All-Big 12 first-team selections Larry Asante at safety and cornerback Prince Amukamara.

The Nebraska talent has caught the attention of Texas quarterback Colt McCoy, who says it could be the toughest defense he has faced this season.

“They're really physical,” McCoy said. “They're really well coached. You see that on the film. They're not going to make mistakes. They're just really good at what they do. It's going to be a huge challenge for us.”

The team that has been the most successful against the Longhorns this season was Oklahoma, which brought a variety of new blitz packages against McCoy. It caused him to fumble and throw an interception in his worst game of the season.

[+] EnlargeJared Crick
Manny Flores/Icon SMIJared Crick recorded a school-record five sacks earlier this season against Baylor.
Pelini was a former member of the Oklahoma staff and has several close friends still there, including defensive coordinator Brent Venables and coach Bob Stoops. It wouldn’t be a surprise if Pelini had contacted the Oklahoma coaches to find out what they thought was successful against McCoy.

Former Nebraska defensive coordinator Kevin Cosgrove elected to utilize a similar strategy against McCoy and Texas in 2007. While they blitzed on virtually every down, the gambling strategy paid off for a 17-9 Nebraska lead after three quarters.

The Longhorns adjusted in the fourth quarter with a heavy use of a zone-read play with Jamaal Charles, who rushed for 216 of his 290 yards in the fourth quarter alone. The result was a wild 28-25 comeback victory for the Longhorns.

McCoy, then a sophomore, struggled in that game by completing only 12 of 28 passes for 181 yards.

But that Texas offense and McCoy’s sputtering performance is a marked contrast from this season, when he’s developed into the conference’s best offensive player and a likely finalist for the Heisman Trophy.

“He can do it all,” Asante said. “He can look you off, come back the other way. He can scramble. He's a better runner now. ... He's a better passer, more accurate. He's just an overall good quarterback.”

In order to combat McCoy, Nebraska defensive coordinator Carl Pelini has said that his team can’t afford to rush four down linemen and send seven players back in pass coverages.

One key might be gleaned from a defensive alignment that was used regularly against Colorado. The Cornhuskers used a five-man front with six defensive backs. It was the defense that was employed when safety Matt O’Hanlon produced a 20-yard interception return for a touchdown.

“I believe we have to play mistake free defense,” Asante said. “We have to put it together and play the best football we’ve played all year to beat these guys. It’s as simple as that.”

Big 12 title game prediction favors the Longhorns

December, 3, 2009
The South Division has dominated play in the Big 12 in recent years. It will be up to Nebraska to turn things around and provide some competition in the championship game.

Here's how I see the game playing out.

Texas 28, Nebraska 13: The Longhorns are heavy favorites to claim Mack Brown’s second Big 12 title. Nebraska has been one of the hottest teams in the conference as the Cornhuskers have run off five straight victories after starting 4-3. And the Cornhuskers have a puncher’s chance of stealing an upset victory in this game. If they are to be successful, they must continually pressure Colt McCoy and contain Texas’ offense. And on offense, they can't be intimidated by the Longhorns' No. 1 ranked rush defense. Because so much of Nebraska's offense is based on running the ball, they have to keep trying Roy Helu Jr. and Rex Burkhead, even if it isn't immediately successful. They do have hope after the Longhorns were gashed for 190 rushing yards and 532 total yards by Texas A&M last week. And Helu and Burkhead are an upgrade over the Aggies’ backs.

Nebraska must stay ahead of the chains and keep Zac Lee from long down-and-distance situations that have caused him to struggle this season. If the Cornhuskers are to be successful, they also must dominate the special teams with big efforts from punter/kicker Alex Henery and kickoff specialist Adi Kunalic.

But even with those weapons, Texas still has too many weapons. The Longhorns should get some big plays from receivers like Malcolm Williams, James Kirkendoll, Dan Buckner and John Chiles -- particularly if the Cornhuskers elect to double-cover Jordan Shipley. The Cornhuskers will stay close for much of the game, but the Longhorns should pull away late as they head to the BCS title game.

Last week: 5-0 (100 percent)

Season record: 74-23 (76.3 percent)

What to watch for in Big 12 championship game

December, 3, 2009
Here are five trends that merit watching in Saturday’s Big 12 championship game:

Can the North Division make this a game, for a change? The South Division has dominated this game, much like all aspects of cross-division play in recent seasons. Since Kansas State’s stunning upset victory over Oklahoma in 2003, the South Division teams have won the games by a combined margin of 233-51. During those five games, the North team has led for a total of 3 minutes and 22 seconds in the 300 minutes of game action. Nebraska’s defense should give it a puncher’s chance to be successful in the game. But Texas looks like the prototypical bully from the South Division that looks like it will be ready to jump on an opponent at the slightest sign of weakness.

Colt McCoy’s Heisman hopes: With the Alabama-Florida game being played earlier in the afternoon. McCoy should have a good idea who will be his prime Heisman opponent emerging from the SEC championship game. It won’t be easy as McCoy will be facing one of his biggest challenges of the season in terms of the rival defense. Nebraska ranks among the top 15 teams in the major team defensive statistical categories of rushing defense, pass efficiency defense, total defense and scoring defense. The Cornhuskers have allowed more than 21 points in a game only once this season and have averaged three sacks a game over their last five contests. McCoy will need a big statistical game to sway Heisman voters one last time.

The center of Nebraska’s defense: Ndamukong Suh and Jared Crick are the finest pair of defensive tackles in the conference. Suh likely is the best defensive player in the country. They will be backed up behind the line by starting middle linebacker Will Compton, a redshirt freshman. These players will need to dominate the game inside in their contest with Texas starting center Chris Hall and starting guards Charlie Tanner and Michael Huey. If the Nebraska defensive tackles and Compton can impose their will in the trenches, it will make life much more difficult for McCoy and the Longhorns.

Nebraska’s special teams need to be special: The Cornhuskers have dictated field position all season long thanks to punter Alex Henery and kickoff specialist Adi Kunalic. Henery is the most accomplished situational punter in the conference with 26 of his 65 punts pinning opponents inside their own 20-yard line. Eight of those kicks have landed inside the opponent’s 3-yard line. Kunalic leads the Big 12 with 40 percent of his kickoffs going through the end zone for touchbacks. If the Cornhuskers can dictate the special teams, they will be able to neutralize Texas kickoff return specialist Marquise Goodwin (24.1 average, one TD) and punt return specialist Jordan Shipley (13.3 yard per return average, two TDs). As difficult as it will be for the Cornhuskers to stick with Texas on offense and defense, they can’t allow any cheap touchdowns or wild changes in field position and expect to win.

Can Texas’ defense rebound? The Longhorns struggled through their worst performance of the season in their narrow victory over Texas A&M, allowing their most rushing yards, total yards and points of the season. Texas players said those memories have been blotted away as they prepare for the Cornhuskers. Nebraska’s offensive strategy should play more into Texas’ strengths that Texas A&M’s varied run-pass option attack. But it will be imperative for the Longhorns to forget about their recent defensive difficulties and bounce back with a big effort in the championship game.

Texas defense eager for redemption

December, 2, 2009
The lights were on early last Friday morning at the Texas defensive coaches’ offices

There was no chance for any of Will Muschamp's group to sneak away to any "Black Friday” sales. The Texas defensive coaches were working long and hard trying to rebuild some schemes heading into the Big 12 championship game after a struggling performance against Texas A&M.

Brett Davis/US PresswireWill Muschamp's defense will need to execute better if the Longhorns hope to defeat Nebraska Saturday.
Maybe it was the short work week. Or it might have been too many demands placed on his team. But whatever the reason, the Longhorns’ defense had its first clunker of the season in a closer-than-expected 49-39 victory over the Aggies.

Among the painful reminders were the most rushing yards, total yards and points allowed this season by the Longhorns. It was a game where defensive players felt like the offense bailed them out to continue their 12-0 season.

“We’re going to self-evaluate what we did,” Muschamp said. “But obviously, whatever we did wasn’t right.”

Texas A&M quarterback Jerrod Johnson befuddled the Longhorns with 439 total yards, including 97 yards rushing. That total was more than what nine teams had produced against the Longhorns this season.

“We had some missed communication, assignments, alignments, 13 missed tackles ... critical errors on third down," Muschamp said. "It makes for a long night. And it all falls on my shoulders.”

Those struggles are coming as the Longhorns prepare for their biggest game of the season. Nebraska looms, and with it , the Longhorns' first chance to play in the BCS title game since the 2006 Rose Bowl.

But in order to get there, the defense will have to show marked improvement this week against the Cornhuskers.

Texas coach Mack Brown doesn’t expect any hangover after last week’s struggles. In fact, he said the defense's struggling performance in College Station might be a benefit against the Cornhuskers.

“They will play their tails off," Brown said. "They were mad and embarrassed. They are very prideful kids. They were not happy, which I like. They were happy we won, but they know it was not good.”

That realization has the Texas defense excited about its chance at redemption.

“We’re excited to get back out there and have another chance to play football,” Texas defensive tackle Lamarr Houston said. “All of us can’t wait.”

Defensive end Sam Acho was even more direct.

“We know we made some mistakes, but we know we can improve on our performance,” Acho said. “We’ve moved on.”

The Longhorns might be receiving some benefits because they are playing Nebraska. The Cornhuskers don’t feature a dual-threat quarterback like Johnson or the Aggies’ squadron of speedy playmakers.

Instead, the Cornhuskers rank a pedestrian 11th in the Big 12 in total offense and have pulled back on some of their play-calling strategy during a recent five-game winning streak after Zac Lee reclaimed the starting quarterback position.

The Cornhuskers’ ground-based attack should play well into Texas' defensive strength, which remains the nation’s stingiest against the run, allowing only 61.8 yards per game.

“We’re anxious about the challenge about how they will play us,” Texas safety Earl Thomas said. “It will test how physical we are. Our defense is all about effort. I think we’ll be OK.”

Houston is particularly looking forward to that direct, physical challenge after last week.

“There is no linger,” Houston said. “A&M is a top-10 offense and no one gives them credit. We had some mental breakdowns we’re going to fix. And we’ll get ready for Saturday.”

Brown also thinks the struggles against the Aggies were a one-game aberration, and nothing like how his team will play in the Big 12 championship game.

"The lack of performance will get our attention for this week,” Brown said. “We probably tried to do too much last week. But we’ll go back and be who we are this week.”

The media interviews Lamarr Houston about the Big 12 title game.

Lee transformed by early-season benching

December, 2, 2009
Some sage advice prepared Zac Lee for the highs and lows he’s faced this season.

Lee has been both booed and cheered by Nebraska fans throughout his first season as the Cornhuskers’ starting quarterback. During his early-season travails, Lee leaned on some guidance from his father, Bob, a 12-year veteran NFL quarterback who has seen the best and worst of times during his own professional career.

Ron Chenoy-US PRESSWIREAfter being benched for one game, Nebraska quarterback Zac Lee has rebounded and helped lead the Cornhuskers to the Big 12 Championship Game.
“My dad told me when I first started playing that you’re not really a true quarterback until you’ve been run out of at least one place,” Lee said. “So I always kind of took it to heart and just prepared for it.”

While he technically wasn’t “run out of a place,” his one-game demotion gave him an opportunity to clear his head and prepare for his second chance as a starter.

Since his return, he has provided solid leadership and production that has helped spark the Cornhuskers’ late five-game winning streak after starting the season 4-3. It’s helped them claim their first Big 12 North title since 2006, earning a berth in the Big 12 championship game against No. 3 Texas Saturday night.

Along with the rest of the team, Lee struggled in a 31-10 loss against Texas Tech that was their worst defeat of the season. And although he played better the following week, the offense struggled with eight turnovers in a stunning home loss to Iowa State.

That led to his benching against Baylor in the next game in favor of freshman quarterback Cody Green, who directed the win.

“There really wasn't much we could say to him," junior receiver Niles Paul told the Lincoln Journal-Star. "It's something he had to deal with, and he either was going to make it through or he wasn't.

"But that's just the type of person he is. He's a confident person. He patiently waited for another chance to get out there, and when he got out there he executed."

Green also got the start against Oklahoma, but struggled and was removed after producing no first downs over the first five possessions against the Sooners. Lee entered the game, directed the victory and has been the starter ever since.

“I never had any doubts I could produce when I got another chance,” Lee said. “The biggest thing has been that my teammates stayed with me the whole way.”

Nebraska offensive coordinator Shawn Watson has tailored the offense to Lee’s specific strengths. It’s featured heavy doses of running by Roy Helu Jr. and Rex Burkhead, play-action passes and occasional running from the quarterback that has picked up over the last several games.

Texas defensive coordinator Will Muschamp said the changes have helped emphasize Lee’s strengths.

“He’s been effective in what they ask him to do,” Muschamp said. “They have changed philosophically to a certain degree in what they are doing. They have put him in a lot better situations are far as play action and pocket movement. He’s a good athlete and those things have helped him as much as anything philosophical in what they’ve done.”

Nebraska fans had a brief moment of anxiety last week against Colorado when Lee went with an ankle injury. Green took two snaps, but Lee had his ankle re-taped and returned on the next series and finished out the game. He said Tuesday his ankle felt “phenomenal.”

Lee’s passing statistics are down since his return, but his passing efficiency rating is up. Earlier this season, he posted three games of at least 200 yards passing and threw four touchdown passes against Arkansas State and three touchdown passes to lead the comeback against Missouri.

But in his last three games, Lee has not passed for more than 196 yards or thrown for more than a touchdown in any single game. It hasn’t really mattered because of the game results.

“We’ve had some relative success, but a lot of people have been caught up in the numbers,” Lee said. “But the reality is that we’ve been winning games.”

Lee will have to click as a “game manager,” as Watson has called him. It means the Cornhuskers need to stay ahead of the chains and can’t afford long down-and-distance situations where the Texas defense has been proficient at forcing turnovers, notching sacks and holding opponents to a conference-leading 28 percent third-down conversion rate.

“What those circumstances are going to be on Saturday night, you don’t know. It’s always ever-changing,” Nebraska coach Bo Pelini said. “We have to be ready to respond no matter what happens. If that means managing the game, great. But if that means we need Zac to throw four touchdown passes, let’s go.”

Thomas expects to return to Texas

December, 1, 2009
AUSTIN, Texas -- Texas All-Big 12 safety Earl Thomas said Tuesday he's not given much thought to declaring for the NFL draft at the end of the season and expects to be back for the 2010 season.

"I haven't even thought about it," Thomas said.

Thomas has been the most productive player in Texas' secondary this season, leading the team with school single-season record eight interceptions and 15 pass deflections. His 23 defenses passes leads the nation and he leads the secondary with 66 total tackles and five for losses.

But he said Tuesday that he thinks an additional season in college would better prepare him for the draft. He hasn't even talked to his coaches about the NFL.

"They haven't asked me about it," Thomas said. "Nobody has asked me about it."

Nebraska learned from A&M's rushing attack

December, 1, 2009
Texas leads the nation in rush defense and has been stingy throughout the season as it allowed only three opposing teams to rush for more than 100 yards against the Longhorns.

But Nebraska wide receiver Niles Paul said the Cornhuskers have taken some inspiration from the way Texas A&M played the Longhorns last week.

Texas A&M ripped the Longhorns for a season-worst 190 rushing yards as quarterback Jerrod Johnson gashed them for 97 yards and freshman Christine Michael chipped in for 83 yards.

"I have complete faith in our offensive line," Paul said. "I feel like we can get our running game established and it will open up a lot of thing for the pass. When you see Texas A&M, it gives you hope."

Because the Cornhuskers like to run "downhill" behind a massive offensive front with I-backs Roy Helu Jr. and freshman Rex Burkhead, Paul believes the Cornhuskers could be similarly effective.

"Texas A&M just ran straight at them and they took their shots which played in their favor," Paul said. "Our offense is one that controls the clock and grind it out. We're going to stick to our game plan."

The Cornhuskers have developed a bruising running game in recent weeks. Since quarterback Zac Lee returned to the starting lineup three games ago, the Cornhuskers are averaging 153 rushing yards per game. They will hope to dent a Texas defense that had not allowed an opposing rusher to gain more than 71 yards in any game before last week.

The previous high that Texas had limited before Johnson and Michael was produced by backup UCF running back Jonathan Davis, who rushed for 71 yards on 22 carries.

Suh eyes chance to topple Texas

December, 1, 2009
Nebraska defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh is confident in his team's chances to beat No. 3 Texas on Saturday.

Suh is so sure in his team's chances to win in the Big 12 title game that he told reporters he doesn't even consider his team as an underdog.

"I don't see us as underdog, but I do see them as a great team," Suh said. "They are 12-0 and we are 9-3. But we're going to play hard. I know we'll be fired up to play for a championship. That's one of our goals and something we'd like to do."

The biggest inspiration for Suh and the Cornhuskers is the opportunity to play in a BCS bowl game if they beat Texas. Nebraska would be headed to the Fiesta Bowl as the Big 12 champion if they can win on Saturday night. It would be the Cornhuskers' first trip to a BCS bowl game since losing to Miami in the 2002 Rose Bowl for the national championship.

"My main focus is I want to get to a BCS game and the Fiesta Bowl," Suh said. "It's too bad if I have to spoil Texas' national championship hype to get there. It's too bad if it's that way."

Burkhead and the Cornhuskers: A match made in blue-collar heaven

December, 1, 2009
So much for the glitz and glamour of being a college running back.

When Rex Burkhead started lining up his potential choices of where to play college football, he knew hard work would be an important factor in reaching his potential as a player.

Marc Piscotty/Icon SMINebraska running back Rex Burkhead didn't expect to start as a freshman, but has excelled.
And after meeting Nebraska’s Bo Pelini and learning of his determined, tenacious, blue-collar approach as a football coach, it was a match with Burkhead’s hopes for a program.

“I wanted to be at a place where the guys that surround me had drive and a work ethic,” Burkhead said. “It brings out positive atmosphere. When I noticed what they had at Nebraska, it was a big impact on me coming here.”

Burkhead’s early drive has helped him become a capable weapon for the Cornhuskers as a freshman. After missing five games midway through the season with a with a broken foot, he returned last week to rush for a career-best 100 yards against Colorado and was the Cornhuskers’ leading rusher.

His emergence has provided a capable compliment to leading Nebraska rusher Roy Helu Jr. Together, they have developed into the Cornhuskers’ biggest offensive threat going into the Big 12 Championship Game Saturday night against Texas.

“It’s nice to have multiple options,” Pelini said. “To have Helu and then what Rex brings to the table adds even more to what we have. You need guys who can come in and help. It’s developed some depth and getting Rex back helps us.”

Burkhead’s development into a rushing threat has come a little earlier than he expected. He wasn’t sure he would even play this season. But a late charge in training camp, coupled with the dismissal of Quentin Castille created a position for him in the Cornhuskers’ rotation.

After some strong early work, Burkhead appeared to be hitting his stride before he was injured in practice four days after the Cornhuskers’ victory over Missouri. While taking part in a routine drill, he sustained a hairline fracture in his right foot.

After the injury to Burkhead, the offense slid into a funk. The Cornhuskers scored only 17 points in losses to Tech and Iowa State. But they’ve rebounded from there to claim their last five games, entering the championship game with some growing offensive confidence as prepare for the No. 3 Longhorns.

Against Colorado, Burkhead provided a 7-yard touchdown run that helped ice the Cornhuskers’ victory. On the 13-play scoring drive, the gritty 5-foot-11, 200-pounder accounted for nine carries for 55 yards in his most consistent usage this season.

“It was a great drive,” said Burkhead, who had 12 of his 18 carries in the fourth quarter. “The offensive line did a tremendous job of opening up holes left and right. I felt like I was in high school, getting into rhythm. It felt good.”

The biggest transformation for Burkhead has come in areas other than carrying the ball. The 5-foot-11, 200-pounder has learned about pass blocking, gradually picking up other areas of Nebraska offensive coordinator Shawn Watson’s multi-faceted offense.

"It was about the same, but grasping all the other details was the biggest transition,” said Burkhead, who has accounted for 235 rushing yards in his injury-curtailed season. "I had to learn all of the other details about blocking like picking up the blitzers and reading the blitzes. It’s coming along.”

During his career at Plano High School in the suburbs of Dallas, Burkhead was one of the most celebrated high school players in the state of Texas. He rushed for 1,762 yards and 28 touchdowns as a senior, also adding 42 receptions for 594 yards and five touchdowns and excelled at returns.

Those big numbers earned him the Dallas Morning News’ All-Area Class 5A Offensive Player of the Year, joining recent standouts like Chase Daniel, Graham Harrell and Matthew Stafford who have won the award. And it earned Burkhead the nickname of “Superman” because of his exploits in football and basketball.

“Rex is a pretty special young man,” Pelini said. “You look at what he did as a high-school athlete. He’s done it for a long time when he did it in a competitive high-school area. He’s tough, hard-working and is a leader. He exemplifies everything I want to bring into this program.”



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Thursday, 1/1
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