Big Ten: Ciante Evans

LINCOLN, Neb. – Nathan Gerry often felt overmatched last season, and you can’t blame him. He was a freshman linebacker playing at just a couple meals over 200 pounds and was asked, play after play, to challenge players more than 100 pounds heavier.

Former Cornhuskers secondary coach Terry Joseph suggested that he would steal Gerry this offseason, labeling him John Lynch as an homage to the ex-All Pro safety.

[+] EnlargeNathan Gerry
John S. Peterson/Icon SMINathan Gerry, who had 32 tackles at linebacker in 2013, has moved to safety for the Cornhuskers.
Joseph left Nebraska in December for Texas A&M, but his words stuck with Gerry, who approached Nebraska coaches after the Gator Bowl to inquire about a move to the secondary.

Tuns out, they were thinking the same thing.

“I feel like it’s more natural to me,” Gerry said after three practices this spring in the secondary.

He’s part of a revamped backfield under new secondary coach Charlton Warren, who came to Lincoln after nine seasons at Air Force. Gerry and fellow sophomore LeRoy Alexander have manned the safety spots this month in the absence of senior Corey Cooper, out with a foot injury.

They form the leading line of a youthful but athletic group of safeties that includes redshirt freshmen Drake Martinez and D.J. Singleton. Early enrollee junior college transfer Byerson Cockrell and fellow junior Charles Jackson, a reserve safety last season, have played primarily at the nickel position managed well by Ciante Evans in 2013.

“I don’t think people really see the athleticism we have at the safety spot,” Alexander said. “Drake and D.J., they’re young guys, but they’re getting it. Me, Corey and Nate are going to try to bring them along, because they’re a play away -- I don’t know if they realize that yet – just like I was.”

Alexander emerged last season, something of a surprise as Nebraska searched for consistency alongside Cooper, who led the team with 91 tackles.

“He has a base,” coach Bo Pelini said of Alexander, who collected 34 tackles as a redshirt freshman. “He has some experience, has been there, done that a little bit. He’s made some great plays in practice the first couple days. I think he’s a lot more comfortable. I think he can be exceptional down the line.”

Pelini said he feels the same way about Gerry, who started three games and had 32 tackles last fall. The 6-foot-2 Gerry, a former state high-school champion sprinter in South Dakota, actually added about 10 pounds to reach 215 this winter in anticipation of the move to safety.

Gerry said he prefers the view from his new position.

“The farther away you move from the ball in this defense, the easier it gets.” he said.

The Huskers practice Friday, Saturday and three times next week before taking time off for spring break. Don’t expect much movement from Cooper until the team reconvenes on March 31 for the second half of spring drills.

“He could probably practice right now,” Pelini said, “but when you have the sprain that he has, we don’t want him to aggravate it. He’s had great offseason up to this point. He has a lot of experience in our system.

“This gives us a chance to work the younger guys and get them ready, make sure that Coop’s 100 percent before he gets back out here.”

Alexander and Gerry said they’ve enjoyed working with Warren as the coach transitions to Nebraska. It’s played out smoothly over the first two months.

Warren is a strong communicator, the players said. Occasionally, that military background is evident.

“You can tell when he raises his voice,” Alexander said. “He doesn’t like repeat errors.

“He’s not afraid to tell us anything. For him to come in and coach us like he’s had us for years is really a positive.”

Good thing, because the Huskers needed to avoid disruption in the secondary. Warren must find the right fit at safety and cornerback, where Nebraska has used junior Jonathan Rose and redshirt freshman Boaz Joseph to replace Stanley Jean-Baptiste opposite senior Josh Mitchell.

So far, so good.

At safety, especially without Cooper, the growth will continue. But the early impact of Alexander and Gerry rates as one of the key developments this month on the practice field.

“We’ve got a lot of depth, but it’s going to come down to the playbook,” Gerry said. “Everybody’s an athlete back there. (Whomever) knows what to do in these situations is going to determine who gets to play and who doesn’t get to play.”
We've reached October in our 2014 ultimate Big Ten road trip. Keep in mind this is basically pure fantasy because of budget limitations (but if you guys want to contribute to a Kickstarter to get us out to the biggest games every week, well, we wouldn't be opposed).

For those just joining in, we're each selecting one Big Ten game to attend each week during the 2014 season. We aren't tied down by a travel budget or nagging editors. If we want to attend a game -- depending on matchup, location, culinary offerings or any other factors -- we can go.

Here's our menu of selections for Week 6:

North Texas at Indiana
Nebraska at Michigan State
Michigan at Rutgers
Ohio State at Maryland
Purdue at Illinois
Wisconsin at Northwestern

Open date: Iowa, Minnesota, Penn State

Brian Bennett's pick: Nebraska at Michigan State

Well, this one's a no-brainer. While it might be fun to watch Big Ten newbies Maryland and Rutgers play host to the two most storied names in league history, you just can't beat Huskers-Spartans for competitive and entertainment purposes. They are the only two teams to ever represent the Legends Division in the Big Ten title game, and now they'll be playing a cross-division, East-West matchup that could have a huge impact on who gets to Indianapolis this December.

This has been a pretty good series in the last three years, with Nebraska unexpectedly dominating the Spartans at home in 2011, the Huskers pulling off a miracle comeback in East Lansing in 2012 and Michigan State exacting revenge in Lincoln last year in a wild, turnover-filled game. I'd pay money just to watch Randy Gregory and Shilique Calhoun on the same field. Then you've got Ameer Abdullah and Jeremy Langford at tailback, two of the more interesting young quarterbacks in the league in Connor Cook and Tommy Armstrong Jr. and what could be two of the conference's best defenses, if Nebraska's young talent continues to develop.

I didn't have to think twice about this one. Adam, should I save a spot for you at Crunchy's, or will you be checking out one of those titanic tilts in Bloomington or Champaign?

Adam Rittenberg's pick: Nebraska at Michigan State

Crunchy's? Yes, please. And before that, we can stop by The Peanut Barrel, where sources tell me colleague Jesse Palmer once ordered the rod-ay-o burger and was rightly panned. I considered staying home for Wisconsin-Northwestern, especially because my son turns 1 a few days later, but I'll be back in plenty of time for a birthday he certainly won't remember.

Although this game loses a bit of luster because it's no longer within the Legends Division (tear), the teams and the storylines make up for it. I've never seen a Michigan State-Nebraska contest and don't want to miss a key game for both squads. You've got two potential All-America candidates at defensive end in Calhoun and Gregory. Abdullah faces a new-look defensive front seven, but one that should still be pretty solid despite departures at both defensive tackle and linebacker. Nebraska has given Michigan State's defense some trouble in recent years, and the Huskers will feature a dual-threat quarterback, whether it's Armstrong, Johnny Stanton or wide receiver Jamal Turner, who has been taking snaps at QB this spring. Cook and the Big Ten's most improved receiver corps take aim at a Nebraska secondary trying to reload after losing two all-conference cornerbacks (Stanley Jean-Baptiste and Ciante Evans).

The game could be a preview of the Big Ten championship, and I've yet to see Michigan State play in this series. There's something about Nebraska that brings us together, Bennett. Meet you in Sparta.

Road trip itinerary

Week 1: Brian at Penn State-UCF (in Dublin, Ireland); Adam at Wisconsin-LSU (in Houston)
Week 2: Adam at Michigan-Notre Dame; Brian at Michigan State-Oregon
Week 3: Brian at Minnesota-TCU; Adam at Penn State-Rutgers
Week 4: Adam at Miami-Nebraska; Brian at Miami-Nebraska
Week 5: Brian at Cincinnati-Ohio State, Adam at Minnesota-Michigan

Video: B1G shoes to fill, Nebraska

February, 28, 2014
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Mitch Sherman discusses the hole left by Nebraska defensive back Ciante Evans and the challenge for the Huskers to replace him.
Let's look at what to expect this spring in the Big Ten's wild, wild West:

ILLINOIS

Spring start: March 5
Spring game: April 12

What to watch:
  • Toughening up on 'D': The Fighting Illini had one of the nation's worst defenses, especially against the run. Tim Beckman brought back defensive coordinator Tim Banks and hopes an extra year of maturity can help strengthen the front seven. Juco import Joe Fotu could win a starting job this spring, and Jihad Ward should help when he arrives in the summer.
  • 'Haase cleaning: Nathan Scheelhaase wrapped up his career by leading the Big Ten in passing yards last season. Oklahoma State transfer Wes Lunt likely takes over the reins, but backups Reilly O'Toole and Aaron Bailey plan on fighting for the job, as well. Bill Cubit's offense should equal big numbers for whoever wins out.
  • Target practice: Whoever wins the quarterback job needs someone to catch the ball, and Illinois' top two receivers from '13 -- Steve Hull and Miles Osei -- both are gone. Junior college arrival Geronimo Allison will be counted on for some immediate help.
IOWA

Spring start: March 27 or 28
Spring game: April 26

What to watch:
  • A new big three: The Hawkeyes begin the process of trying to replace their three standout senior linebackers from last season: James Morris, Anthony Hitchens and Christian Kirksey. They were the heart of the defense in 2013, and now guys such as Quinton Alston, Reggie Spearman and Travis Perry need to make major leaps forward in the spring.
  • Develop more playmakers: Iowa was able to win the games it should have won last year, but struggled against those with strong defenses because of its lack of explosiveness. Sophomore Tevaun Smith and junior Damond Powell showed flashes of their potential late in the year at wideout. They need to continue to develop to give quarterback Jake Rudock and the offense ways to stretch the field.
  • Solidify the right tackle spot: The offensive line should once again be the team's strength, but the departure of veteran right tackle Brett Van Sloten means someone has to take on that role. Whether that's senior Andrew Donnal or redshirt freshman Ryan Ward could be determined this spring.
MINNESOTA

Spring start: March 4
Spring game: April 12

What to watch:
  • Mitch's pitches: Philip Nelson's transfer means redshirt sophomore Mitch Leidner enters spring practice as the No. 1 quarterback. He's a load to bring down when he runs, but Leidner needs to improve his passing accuracy after completing 55 percent of his passes in the regular season and only half of his 22 attempts in the Texas Bowl game loss to Syracuse. Added experience should help. If not, he's got some talented youngsters such as Chris Streveler and Dimonic Roden-McKinzy aiming to dethrone him.
  • Mitch's catchers: Of course, part of the problem behind the Gophers' Big Ten-worst passing offense was a lack of threats at receiver. Drew Wolitarsky and Donovahn Jones showed promise as true freshmen and should only improve with an offseason of work. It's critical that they do, or else Minnesota might have to count on three receiver signees early.
  • Replacing Ra'Shede: The Gophers only lost four senior starters, but defensive tackle Ra'Shede Hageman might be the most difficult to replace. The first-team All-Big Ten selection created havoc inside defensively, and there aren't many athletes like him floating around. Scott Ekpe could take many of Hageman's reps, but the defensive line overall will have to pick up the slack.
NEBRASKA

Spring start: March 8
Spring game: April 12

What to watch:
  • Tommy's turn: Sophomore Tommy Armstrong Jr. entered the offseason as the clear No. 1 quarterback for the first time after taking over for the injured Taylor Martinez (and splitting some snaps with Ron Kellogg III) last season. Armstrong showed maturity beyond his years in 2013 but needs to continue developing as a passer and deepen his understanding of the offense. Redshirt freshman Johnny Stanton could push him in the spring.
  • Get the OL up to speed: Nebraska loses a lot of experience on the offensive line, including both starting tackles (Jeremiah Sirles and Brent Qvale), plus interior mainstays Spencer Long, Andrew Rodriguez and Cole Pensick. The Huskers do return seniors Mark Pelini, Jake Cotton and Mike Moudy, junior Zach Sterup, plus three freshmen and a junior-college transfer who redshirted last year. A strong group of incoming freshmen may also contribute. Big Red usually figures it out on the O-line, but there will be a lot of players in new roles this season.
  • Reload in the secondary: The Blackshirts have plenty of experience in the front seven, but the defensive backfield has a new coach (Charlton Warren) and will be without top playmakers Stanley Jean-Baptiste and Ciante Evans. The safety spot next to Corey Cooper was a problem area last season, and the Huskers are hoping Charles Jackson takes a major step forward. Warren has talent to work with but must find the right combination.
NORTHWESTERN

Spring start: Feb. 26
Spring game: April 12

What to watch:
  • Trevor's time?: Trevor Siemian split reps with Kain Colter at quarterback the past two seasons, serving as sort of the designated passer. Siemian threw for 414 yards in the season finale against Illinois and has a clear path toward starting with Colter gone. That could mean more of a pass-first offense than Northwestern ran with Colter. Redshirt freshman and heralded recruit Matt Alviti also looms as an option.
  • Manning the middle: Northwestern brings back a solid corps on defense but lost middle linebacker Damien Proby, who led the team in tackles the past two seasons. Pat Fitzgerald has some options, including making backups Drew Smith or Jaylen Prater a starter or moving Collin Ellis inside. He can experiment and find the best match this spring.
  • Patch it together: The Wildcats' health woes from 2013 aren't over, as 11 players will be held out of practice for medical reasons, including star running back/returner Venric Mark. Add in that the school doesn't have early enrollees, and the team will be trying to practice severely undermanned this spring. The biggest key is to get through spring without any more major problems and to get the injured guys healthy for the fall.
PURDUE

Spring start: March 6
Spring game: April 12

What to watch:
  • Moving forward: Purdue players wore T-shirts emblazoned with the word "Forward" during winter workouts, and no wonder. They don't want to look backward to last year's abysmal 1-11 season. It's time to turn the page and get some positive momentum going in Year 2 under Darrell Hazell. Luckily, optimism abounds in spring.
  • Trench focus: The Boilermakers simply couldn't cut it on the lines in Big Ten play, and Hazell went about trying to sign bigger offensive linemen this offseason for his physical style of play. Both starting tackles and three starting defensive linemen all graduated, and no one should feel safe about his job after last season's performance. Kentucky transfer Langston Newton (defense) and early enrollee Kirk Barron (offense) could push for playing time on the lines.
  • Find an identity: What was Purdue good at last season? Not much, as the team ranked near the bottom of the country in just about every major statistical category. The Boilers found some good things late in the passing game with freshmen Danny Etling and DeAngelo Yancey, but Hazell must do a better job instilling the toughness he wants and locating playmakers.
WISCONSIN

Spring start: March 7
Spring game: April 12

What to watch:
  • Catching on: The biggest concern heading into the spring is at receiver after the team's only dependable wideout the past two seasons, Jared Abbrederis, graduated. Tight end Jacob Pedersen, who was second on the team in receiving yards last season, is also gone. The Badgers have struggled to develop new weapons in the passing game but now have no choice. Gary Andersen signed five receivers in the 2014 class but none enrolled early, so guys such as Kenzel Doe and Robert Wheelwright need to take charge this spring.
  • Stave-ing off the competition?: Joel Stave started all 13 games at quarterback last year, while no one else on the roster has any real experience under center. Yet the redshirt junior should face some competition this spring after the Badgers' passing game struggled down the stretch. Andersen likes more mobile quarterbacks and has three guys in Bart Houston, Tanner McEvoy and freshman early enrollee D.J. Gillins, who can offer that skill. Stave must hold them off to keep his job.
  • New leaders on defense: Wisconsin lost a large group of seniors, including nine major contributors on the defensive side. That includes inside linebacker and team leader Chris Borland, plus defensive linemen Beau Allen and Ethan Hemer, outside linebacker Brendan Kelly and safety Dezmen Southward. That's a whole lot of leadership and production to replace, and the process begins in earnest this spring.

B1G players invited to NFL combine

February, 7, 2014
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The official invite list for the 2014 NFL combine is out, and 36 Big Ten players will try to impress pro scouts during workouts in Indianapolis from Feb. 22-25. In case you were wondering, that's fourth most among conferences behind the SEC (71 invitees), the ACC (48) and the Pac-12 (45).

Here are the Big Ten players who were invited, broken down by position:

Quarterbacks (0)

Running backs (2)

Wide receivers (8)

Tight ends (2)

Offensive linemen (8)

Defensive linemen (2)

Linebackers (7)

Defensive backs (7)

Specialists (0)

Breakdown
It's a strong list of players, but were there any snubs. Nebraska quarterback Taylor Martinez, Michigan State linebacker Denicos Allen and Iowa cornerback B.J. Lowery jump out right away as missing, though Martinez has injury (and position) concerns, while Allen's small frame means he'll have to prove to scouts he can play at the next level.

I'm also a bit surprised not to see Indiana's Ted Bolser on this list; he's not a traditional blocking tight end, but his receiving skills would seem to translate to the NFL. Only nine kickers and punters were invited to Indy, yet it's a little disappointing that Purdue's Cody Webster and Northwestern's Jeff Budzien weren't included in the specialists.

Others who could have gotten an invite include Purdue defensive tackle Bruce Gaston, Ohio State guard Andrew Norwell and Nebraska defensive back Ciante Evans.

That doesn't mean those guys won't play in the NFL. But their path to the league might be a little more winding.

Offseason to-do list: Nebraska

January, 23, 2014
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In the three weeks since Nebraska beat Georgia to extend its streak of nine-win seasons, the Huskers have replaced secondary coach Terry Joseph with Charlton Warren, who is already making himself known on the recruiting trail, and retained I-back Ameer Abdullah for his senior season. That's not a bad start to the offseason, but there’s more to do.

We continue our Big Ten offseason to-do lists with Nebraska.

[+] EnlargeBo Pelini
Eric Francis/Getty ImagesTurnovers have been a big issue for the Huskers under Bo Pelini.
1. Fix the turnovers. Enough is enough, we know. You don’t want to hear how the Huskers must address their issue with turnovers before taking the next step as a program. But it’s that important so we’ll keep talking about it. Nebraska extended an ugly trend under coach Bo Pelini last season, finishing 117th nationally in turnover margin at minus-11. In games after the nonconference season, the Huskers were dead last at minus-15; no other team was worse than minus-12. And those numbers include the Taxslayer.com Gator Bowl in which Nebraska finished plus-1. Without its two forced turnovers against the Bulldogs, the Huskers would not have won. It’s a good launching point into an offseason in which all of the Huskers -- offensive, defensive and special teams players -- ought to work regularly to make this area a strength next season.

2. Solidify the QB spot. Tommy Armstrong Jr. started eight games as a redshirt freshman. He was brilliant at times against Michigan and Georgia and played well against lesser competition like Illinois and South Dakota State. Inconsistency was a concern, but Armstrong figures to improve in the coming months. After all, he was thrown into the mix with little warning after Taylor Martinez's toe injury forced the senior out in September. Armstrong has plenty of time to prepare the right way for next season. And that’s the point: Give him time. Nebraska can have a nice quarterback competition in the spring with Armstrong and redshirt freshman Johnny Stanton, and even walk-on sophomore Ryker Fyfe and true freshman and early enrollee Zack Darlington. But by mid-April, offensive coordinator Tim Beck would be best served to identify a leader and define his role before August. If it’s Stanton, go with it. But likely, the Huskers' offense will go as far as Armstrong can take it next fall.

3. Plug holes in the secondary. Spring practice will be big for the defensive backs. Not only do they get to work out the kinks with Warren, their new position coach, but those 15 practices in March and April must go a long way toward identifying replacements for departed cornerbacks Ciante Evans and Stanley Jean-Baptiste. Start with Josh Mitchell, who collected two turnovers in the Gator Bowl. Mitchell will be a senior and part of the Huskers’ core of leadership. Safety Corey Cooper gives them another solid piece in the secondary. Harvey Jackson and LeRoy Alexander showed flashes last season, but the Huskers need more bodies. From a promising group of inexperienced players like Charles Jackson, Jonathan Rose, D.J. Singleton and Boaz Joseph, Nebraska will search for key contributors this spring.

More to-do lists:
Ohio State backup quarterback Kenny Guiton became a cult hero in September, putting up big numbers in place of Braxton Miller and leaving some wondering whether he was the league's second-best signal caller.

Those evaluations might have been a bit overboard, but Guiton is a fun player with a fun story, and possibly an NFL future. The Ohio State quarterback leads a contingent of five Big Ten players who will participate in the NFLPA Collegiate Bowl, to be played Jan. 18 at the StubHub Center in Carson, Calif.

Rosters for the game have been finalized. All five Big Ten players will play for the American squad. 'Merica!

TaxSlayer.com Gator Bowl preview

January, 1, 2014
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JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- Nebraska seeks to avenge its loss in the Capital One Bowl from a year ago against No. 22 Georgia on Wednesday at noon ET on ESPN2. Here’s a preview:

Who to watch: The quarterbacks are a good place to start. They won't be Taylor Martinez and Aaron Murray, the record-setting senior duo who led these teams to a combined 76 points last year in Orlando; rather freshman Tommy Armstrong Jr. is expected to start for the eighth time this season for Nebraska, and junior Hutson Mason gets the call for the Bulldogs for a second straight game. Also, keep an eye on Nebraska defensive end Randy Gregory, an SEC-caliber star with size, speed and strength. If he’s not the best player on the field, it might be Georgia running back Todd Gurley.

What to watch: Statistically, it’s difficult to identify too many spots at which one team might exploit the other. Remember, though, Georgia was challenged by a schedule that featured five teams arguably as good or better than Nebraska’s best foe. So the numbers matter little in gauging matchups. Here’s a hunch that the Huskers, who couldn’t stop Minnesota or, for one quarter, South Dakota State, will struggle to contain Gurley. He was in contention for the title of best SEC back before the midseason injury. And watch the matchup of UGA receivers Chris Conley and Michael Bennett against Nebraska defensive backs Ciante Evans and Stanley Jean-Baptiste. It should be good.

Why to watch: The trio of Big Ten-SEC clashes on New Year’s Day is always entertaining -- at least, it is for fans of the SEC teams. Seriously, the Big Ten is 0-2 in bowls (0-4 if you count 2014 newcomers Rutgers and Maryland), and the SEC is 3-0. Perhaps this game presents the Big Ten with its best chance to win on Wednesday. If that doesn’t get you, tune in to see if Nebraska's Bo Pelini can join the likes of Mack Brown, Tom Osborne, Steve Spurrier and Barry Switzer as the eighth BCS-conference coach in history to win nine games in each of his first six years at a school.

Prediction: Georgia 34, Nebraska 24. A big day for Gurley and a typical turnover or two will spell doom for the Huskers. Look for Ameer Abdullah to keep the Huskers close for a while, but like last year, the Bulldogs will make plays when necessary late.

Big Ten lunch links

December, 26, 2013
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There are no more presents under the tree. Hopefully these links can fill the void.
  • Michigan State will be without star linebacker Max Bullough after the program suspended the senior for the Rose Bowl, ending a decorated career and leaving a hole in the middle of the elite defense.
  • Michigan left tackle Taylor Lewan defended himself against accusations that he attacked an Ohio State fan last month after a loss in The Game.
  • Devin Gardner is still not practicing for the Wolverines, making it even more likely that Shane Morris will be the starting quarterback in the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl.
  • Leading Minnesota to a surprising season was a team effort by the coaching staff, and Jerry Kill's wife, Rebecca, offers an insider's account of what was behind it all.
  • Nebraska asks a lot of its nickelback, and a senior filling that role is in turn asking a lot of the younger players on the team around him as Ciante Evans sees his career wind down.
  • After another successful year and with salaries going up around the country, Urban Meyer could be in line for a raise with Ohio State.
  • Tampa Bay coach Greg Schiano denied a report that he had his eye on the Penn State job should Bill O'Brien decide to leave the program.
  • Reggie Love made the tough decision to redshirt as a sophomore, and the Wisconsin wide receiver is expecting it to pay off down the road.
  • The trip to Florida is a homecoming for Iowa quarterback Jake Rudock.
  • Inside Northwestern takes a look into the future and speculates on if a true freshman could provide an instant lift for the Wildcats next season.
LINCOLN, Neb. -- Departing receiver Quincy Enunwa, who often plays with the aggression of a defender, likes what he sees from the guys he practices with every day.

“I’m very excited about the defense,” Enunwa said.

[+] EnlargeIowa/Nebraska
Bruce Thorson/USA TODAY SportsCorey Cooper, Nebraska's leading tackler, will be back for the Cornhuskers' resurgent defense next season.
The TaxSlayer.com Gator Bowl, Jan. 1 against Georgia in Jacksonville, Fla., marks the final chance for this defensive unit to display the improvement that has served as a highlight for the Huskers amid a rocky season. In December practices -- Nebraska returned to work last weekend -- the promise of a dominant defense next year ranks as a driving force.

Nebraska heads into the postseason ranked No. 36 in total defense, allowing 367 yards per game, and 37th in yards allowed per play at 5.22. In the same categories at the start of October, the Huskers sat 107th and 108th, respectively.

What happened?

“They’ve grown up a lot, matured,” senior defensive end Jason Ankrah said. “The maturity brought the confidence out of them.”

The turnaround started, according to Enunwa, after a team meeting that followed the slow defensive start.

“We told them that we knew what they can do,” Enunwa said, “and they responded. The past three, four games, they were leading the team. They were the ones who were picking us up.”

That should continue next season with the Huskers set to return their top five tacklers in 2014, led by safety Corey Cooper and linebacker David Santos. But Cooper, a senior next year, and the rising junior Santos are just two of many reasons for optimism on defense.

An overall infusion of youth and athleticism, which figures to continue next season, tops the list.

Start with defensive end Randy Gregory, who led the Big Ten with 9 sacks as a sophomore in his first season at Nebraska out of junior college. An offseason in Lincoln figures to turn Gregory from a first-team all-conference pick into an All-America caliber defender.

“He brings a kind of athleticism to the defense that we haven’t had here in a while,” Ankrah said.

But it’s more than Gregory that excites Enunwa and the Huskers.

Fellow bookend Avery Moss earned all-freshman honors in the Big Ten, as tabbed by ESPN.com, along with middle linebacker Michael Rose, who emerged as a leader in the second half of the season. Redshirt freshman defensive tackle Vincent Valentine showed promise, as did freshman linebackers Josh Banderas, Nathan Gerry and Jared Afalava.

Speedy outside linebacker Zaire Anderson returns as a senior. Throw in Courtney Love, the defensive scout team MVP, and Marcus Newby, both of who redshirted, and you’ve got a deep and versatile group of linebackers.

Up front, Kevin Maurice and Maliek Collins played as true freshmen this year. Commitments from junior college tackle Terrell Clinkscales and end Joe Keels show that the Huskers aren’t slowing in their bid to stockpile man power.

“We have a lot of guys with a lot of great ability,” returning defensive back Josh Mitchell said. “We’re losing the most in the secondary, so that’s just a piece of the puzzle we’re going to fill in.

“But I think we’re going to be very explosive and very fast.”

Cooper and Mitchell, who has played multiple spots, return in the secondary in addition to part-time starting safety Harvey Jackson and promising underclassmen LeRoy Alexander and Charles Jackson.

The Huskers lose top cornerbacks Ciante Evans and Stanley Jean-Baptiste, easily the biggest shoes to fill. Both intercepted four passes this year.

Secondary coach Terry Joseph will likely shift a few bodies, and the Huskers could rely on redshirt freshman Boaz Joseph or little-used Auburn transfer Jonathan Rose to compete for time.

Regardless, the challenges look minimal in comparison to the hurdles cleared this year.

And this month -- and New Year’s Day -- should only help springboard the Cornhuskers into next season, Mitchell said.

“It’s going to give us a jump on next year,” he said. “Everyone’s going to remember their last couple practices. So whatever you learn now and whatever we can improve on now, it will carry over into the spring.”
Among the celebrated history of the Nebraska-Penn State series, Saturday in State College marks, well, the 16th game. This meeting of storied programs arrives without much of the drama that has accompanied prior clashes. The Cornhuskers are Nittany Lions are both unranked and out of contention for The Big Ten title.

Regardless, plenty of pride remains at stake. Let’s talk about it:

Considering the circumstances, what are the mindsets at Nebraska and Penn State as Saturday nears?

[+] EnlargeZach Zwinak
Rich Barnes/USA TODAY SportsFor Zach Zwinak and the rest of the Penn State seniors, this final home game is sure to be an emotional one.
Josh Moyer: Believe it or not, even without a postseason, the future is not on the minds of these Nittany Lions. This is the final home game for Penn State's seniors, and there's more on the line Saturday than usual. The Lions can't play for any bowl games because of the sanctions but, in the words of cornerback Jordan Lucas, these final two games are Penn State's bowl games. These seniors have endured more than most in the country -- the death of a longtime coach, a scandal heard 'round the nation, unprecedented sanctions, etc. -- and this is their final opportunity to leave a mark. Expectations this season hovered around eight wins, so a win here -- getting past .500 -- would be huge for Penn State. This game will be an emotional one for PSU, and a win surely means a lot to this team.

Mitch Sherman: The Huskers are a prideful bunch. And despite the many goals that vanished this year earlier than ever in coach Bo Pelini's six seasons, Nebraska shows no signs of playing with less than 100-percent effort. The Penn State name and setting at Beaver Stadium figures to stir some emotions with Huskers who understand the history of these programs. Nebraska is young on both sides of the football after injuries decimated the veteran offensive line. Young players tend stay focused more easily on the future. And once you get past pride and the incentive to again win nine games, the future serves a primary motivational factor for the Huskers.



What do you envision as the role in this game of Penn State's star receiver, Allen Robinson?

JM: He's the Penn State X-factor, as he's being targeted around every third throw. He's accounted for nearly half of the Penn State passing offense this season, and he's one of the top wideouts in school history. For PSU to experience any kind of success through the air, Robinson will need to have a big game. Minnesota had the right idea when it shadowed Robinson with two defenders on nearly every play – Gophers defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys said you could count on one hand the number of times Robinson experienced single-coverage -- but, even in that game, Robinson came away with seven of Christian Hackenberg's 14 completions. It's boom-or-bust for Robinson and the passing game.

MS: The Huskers are confident in their ability to cover with cornerbacks Ciante Evans and Stanley Jean-Baptiste, but they'll be hard-pressed to stay with Robinson. Jean-Baptiste is a playmaking NFL prospect, but he's not a lockdown corner on the level of, say, Michigan State's Darqueze Dennard -- or even Evans. Nebraska will mix its coverages in an attempt to confuse Hackenberg. Still, the freshman QB will find a way to get the football to Robinson. But just how much and in what position to gain yards after the catch? The answer figures to loom large in determining a winner.

Nebraska and Penn State feature freshmen quarterbacks. How do you expect them to play?

MS: Tommy Armstrong has shown excellent poise and resilience in his six starts as a replacement for injured senior Taylor Martinez. Armstrong has also displayed a streak of carelessness and a tendency to make mistakes. He threw three interceptions against both Purdue and Northwestern, then committed three more costly turnovers against Michigan State. In between, he led the Huskers on a game-winning drive at Michigan. Look for Nebraska to utilize Armstrong's athleticism against Penn State and rely on a heavy dose of Ameer Abdullah in an attempt to beat the Nittany Lions in the perimeter run game. The less Nebraska can place Armstrong in high-pressure spots, the better.

JM: Unlike Armstrong, Hackenberg has had the luxury of starting since Week 1. He's shrugged off mistakes, led PSU to two comeback wins (Michigan, Illinois) and has progressed every week. Despite his strong arm, he's been most dangerous on short-to-intermediate throws, and he's attempted at least 23 passes every game. Bill O'Brien isn't afraid to air it out but, like Nebraska, we'll likely see quite a bit of Bill Belton and Zach Zwinak in the backfield. Outside of Robinson, Hackenberg doesn't really have a key receiving target, and O'Brien has really been emphasizing the running game lately.

How do you expect the game to unfold?

JM: It's really going to come down to Penn State's hit-or-miss defense. The secondary has struggled, the entire unit is slow, and missed tackles have become a common occurrence. I could see this game following a similar path as the Minnesota contest, in that PSU will aim to stop the run. But even if that works early on -- just as it did against the Gophers -- there's no guarantee PSU will be able to stop a so-so passing attack. A good early indicator to PSU's defense will be how many long runs it allows and just how it fares on third downs. When the defense struggles, those seem to be the places where it really falls apart. That being said, the defense has played poorly all season -- and I think Nebraska has the advantage. I'm calling for the Huskers in a mild upset.

MS: For Nebraska, it's the same story, new chapter. Much like every game since the Huskers visited Minnesota on Oct. 26, the opportunity to win is right there, but Nebraska must limit its turnovers and special teams mistakes. Don't discount the emotion in play for Penn State on Senior Day. These Nittany Lions have endured so much in State College, and they've failed to beat Nebraska in two tries, a reality that ought to stoke the fires additionally for PSU players and fans. Still, Nebraska has the edge in talent and depth. And with a week to replay all the mental errors that spelled doom against Michigan State, look for the Huskers, by comparison, to play a clean game. Pull it off, and I like Nebraska to win a one-score contest.

Eric Murray manning up for Minnesota

November, 20, 2013
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Any credible list of the Big Ten's best cornerbacks starts with Michigan State's Darqueze Dennard, moves on to Ohio State's Bradley Roby and then typically branches off in several directions.

Nebraska's Stanley Jean-Baptiste would appear third on some ballots, as would Michigan's Blake Countess, Iowa's B.J. Lowery and Nebraska's Ciante Evans. Wisconsin freshman Sojourn Shelton also is getting noticed for his recent play.

One name no one's talking about is Eric Murray, although Minnesota's coaches could filibuster for days about the sophomore cornerback. Murray's problem: Unlike the other aforementioned corners, he has yet to intercept a pass this season. Interceptions equal attention, especially the pick-six variety.

[+] EnlargeEric Murray
Zumapress/Icon SMIEric Murray has hounded receivers such as Penn State's Allen Robinson throughout the Big Ten season.
The irony is that Murray's lack of picks can be attributed, at least in part, to how much confidence the coaches have in his game.

"He doesn't play a lot of zone," Gophers defensive backs coach Jay Sawvel told ESPN.com "He's pretty much a man-to-man guy, and a lot of it's press-man. It's hard to get a lot of interceptions when you play as much press-man as he does.

"But we feel like he can get people stopped when we need to get 'em stopped."

It's why Minnesota often has Murray mark the opponent's top pass-catching threat. He has lined up across from Penn State's Allen Robinson, Michigan's Jeremy Gallon, Indiana's Cody Latimer, Northwestern's Tony Jones, Nebraska's Kenny Bell and Quincy Enunwa, and San Jose State's Chandler Jones, the nation's No. 7 wideout. The 6-foot, 194-pound Murray has the length to defend bigger receivers and the speed to pace smaller ones.

Every receiver struggled to match his typical production against Murray, whose next assignment is Wisconsin star Jared Abbrederis on Saturday, when the 19th-ranked Badgers visit No. 25 Minnesota in the most anticipated Axe game in years.

Robinson, the Big Ten's top wideout, was targeted five times with Murray guarding him and recorded just two receptions for 18 yards. Enunwa didn't record any receptions in the nine plays he went against Murray.

"Our staff, we think Darqueze Dennard's the best corner in this conference," Sawvel said. "I know Roby gets a lot of publicity, and we think he's really good, too.

"But outside of those two, we wouldn’t trade Eric for anybody in the conference."

After playing mostly special teams as a freshman in 2012 -- cornerbacks Michael Carter and Troy Stoudermire started every game -- Murray had a strong offseason, leaving Sawvel optimistic about his potential for this fall.

Still, Sawvel wondered how the young cornerback would handle failure, and how often he would fail. The answer came Oct. 26 against Nebraska. On the fifth play from scrimmage, Bell beat Murray on a post for 42 yards to the Minnesota 2-yard line, setting up a touchdown.

"His reaction when he came back to the sideline was, 'I'm gonna kick his ass the rest of the game,'" Sawvel said. "It was not, 'Boy, he's tough to cover.' It wasn’t any of that. There was no self-doubt. He was mad about it, but he was like, 'I got this.' And he did."

Nebraska targeted Bell three more times with Murray on him but completed zero passes, as Minnesota rallied for a 34-23 win.

"Whoever's in front of me, it doesn't matter," Murray said. "I just have to be comfortable in myself. If you think negative, negative things will happen."

Murray's positive outlook and drive helped him get to the Big Ten despite being largely overlooked in recruiting. After Murray's junior year at Milwaukee's Riverside University High School, his coach took him to three camps -- Central Michigan, Northern Illinois and Minnesota. Murray worked mostly as a receiver during the Gophers' camp, but head coach Jerry Kill wanted to see if his athleticism translated better at corner.

Days later, Murray returned to Minnesota for a second camp, where he worked one-on-one with Sawvel for 2 1/2 hours.

"Sometimes you get fortunate in recruiting," Kill said. "You've got to go with what you see."

The coaches liked what they saw then, and what they continue to see from Murray.

"Sometimes you have to motivate people to go to work, but not him," Kill said. "He loves playing football, and he takes what he does very seriously.

"He's one of those kids who really tries to master his craft."

Murray spends at least 30 minutes a day watching film of opposing receivers, charting their tendencies and the routes they most often run. He prefers man coverage to zone, where a cornerback must expand his vision rather than simply shadow the receiver.

Murray also watches other cornerbacks, like Dennard, a potential first-round draft pick who plays in an aggressive scheme where the corners are left to fend for themselves. Minnesota uses its corners similarly.

"He presses a lot, and I feel like that's more of my style," Murray said. "I would rather press more than anything."

Even if it means fewer interception opportunities. Murray has come close, as he came down out of bounds following a pick against UNLV and had an end zone interception against Penn State nullified by an offsides penalty.

"I really don't mind it," he said. "As long as my guy doesn't catch the ball, I'm all right. It'll feel really good to get my first one, but I'm not putting too much pressure on myself."

Instead, he'll keep pressuring his opponents. Next up is Abbrederis, whom Sawvel calls "the biggest challenge in the conference.

Murray won't be the only Gophers defensive back dealing with Abbrederis, but the two will see plenty of one another.

"You've got to match strength with strength," Sawvel said. "Where Darqueze Dennard and those people are, that's what Eric Murray will be in the next year or two.

"This is a guy who's going to be as good as it gets in this conference."
Michigan State visits Nebraska (3:30 p.m. ET, ABC-ESPN2) Saturday in a Big Ten Legends Division showdown. The winner owns the inside track to Indianapolis and the league title game. Statistics favor the Spartans and their No. 1-ranked defense, but the Huskers are 9-1 at home as a member of the Big Ten. And MSU is 0-7 all-time against Nebraska, including 0-2 as a division foe over the past two years.

[+] EnlargeConnor Cook
Brian Spurlock/USA TODAY SportsConnor Cook and the Michigan State offense will have to handle an imposing crowd and improving Nebraska defense.
1. With those numbers in mind, what makes these Spartans different?

Chantel Jennings: This defense is just going to give every team fits. I've been really impressed with Ameer Abdullah but he hasn't faced a front seven like Michigan State's. The pressure the Spartans get against the run game and on opposing quarterbacks just forces other teams into mistakes and poor decisions. They've allowed just 24 rushing first downs this season. The next closest defenses? Alabama and Louisville … with 46. Streaks are streaks, but I think the more impressive streak of note in this situation is that Michigan State has gone nine games without allowing an opponent to rush for more than 100 yards. That streak matters in this game way more than the fact that MSU is winless against Nebraska.

Mitch Sherman: While the Spartans haven’t exactly faced an elite offense this year -- save for perhaps Indiana, which scored 28 points on MSU -- don’t rank Nebraska among that group, either. The Huskers deserved consideration as a top-tier unit before quarterback Taylor Martinez went down, followed by both starting offensive guards and left tackle Jeremiah Sirles. This week, junior Mike Moudy, the replacement at right guard, is doubtful with a shoulder injury. Additionally, junior receiver Jamal Turner, who caught the winning touchdown in the final seconds last year at Michigan State, remains out with a hamstring injury. The Huskers have struggled recently to move the football against mediocre defenses, so this challenge could overwhelm Nebraska.

2. Nebraska is riding a wave of momentum after emotional victories over Northwestern and Michigan. Will it matter on Saturday?

Sherman: Much like a week ago at Michigan, it depends on how Nebraska starts. The Huskers arrived in Ann Arbor on a high and jumped to a quick 10-0 lead. The fast start helped neutralize the huge crowd and provided an extra shot of confidence for freshman quarterback Tommy Armstrong and an injury-plagued offensive line. If Nebraska falls behind against Michigan State’s suffocating defense, the momentum will die in a hurry. But if the Huskers jump out, it might be the one-loss Spartans who have trouble handling the pressure.

Jennings: I totally agree with Mitch here. If Nebraska can get off to a really strong start, then that momentum can mean something. However, other teams have gotten off to good starts against MSU and it hasn't meant much. Michigan's first drive against Michigan State looked pretty solid (nine plays, 51 yards for a field goal). And then the rest of the game happened. But that game was played in Spartan Stadium and there's definitely something to be said for getting your fans in to the game. I think the Nebraska fans could affect the MSU offense more than it could affect the MSU defense, and even in a low scoring game, I think the experience of the Michigan State defense would find a way to win.

3. Connor Cook has brought stability to the MSU offense. How will he handle the environment in Lincoln?

Jennings: He's a confident kid and he told me earlier this season that he really doesn't get fazed by any of the external factors in those situations. I think the MSU offensive line has gotten better and better every game this season and those five guys are going to do everything they can to make sure Cook doesn't feel too much pressure. But getting to Cook will be the key here. The Nebraska defense is coming off a seven-sack performance against Michigan, but the MSU O-line has only allowed seven sacks all season.

Sherman: The Nebraska defense is making real strides this month. Confidence is growing as players improve at each level. Cook needs to keep an eye out for No. 44. Defensive end Randy Gregory sacked Devin Gardner three times last week, in something of a breakout game on the national level, but Gregory was well known to those who watch the Huskers closely. He's a force and will likely create problems for Cook and the Spartans. The sophomore quarterback would also be smart to watch out for fellow defensive end Avery Moss, plus blitzing safety Corey Cooper and cornerback Ciante Evans. And when the defense gets rolling, Memorial Stadium turns intimidating for a visiting QB.

4. So what must each team do to win?

Sherman: For Nebraska, it’s all about playing a clean game. The Huskers lost the turnover battle against Michigan and Northwestern. They lost important field position by failing to field a late first-half punt last week. And penalties killed a pair of late drives against the Wildcats. None of this can happen against the Spartans, who will make Nebraska pay for its mistakes. The Huskers might not need -- and likely won’t get -- a great deal of offensive production, but if the chance arrives to capitalize on a short field, they must cash in.

Jennings: I have a feeling this is going to be a relatively low-scoring game. So, each team is going to have to go for the big plays when it can. The MSU defense stacks the box and gets as much pressure on opposing quarterbacks as it can. The Nebraska offense will have to do is find a way to force MSU out of that game plan. If Armstrong can take some shots down field or Abdullah breaks out for a few big runs, then the Spartans won't be able to keep 10 guys up there. The same -- to a lesser degree -- is true of Cook and running back Jeremy Langford.
LINCOLN, Neb. -- Toughness shows its face on fourth-and-2, late in the fourth quarter, down three points before a crowd of 112,000 on enemy ground.

Pride emerges on the goal line in a tie game, when a defensive stand is the only answer that will lead to a victory.

[+] EnlargeBo Pelini
Gregory Shamus/Getty ImagesCoach Bo Pelini's Nebraska team has back-to-back come-from-behind victories over Northwestern and Michigan.
Resiliency rises to the surface, 83 yards from the end zone with 74 seconds to play in the shadowy din of a home stadium set to turn hostile.

Ten days ago, before Northwestern visited Memorial Stadium, most observers had left Nebraska out in the cold to die in the wake of a loss at Minnesota, stunning in how the Gophers punched Bo Pelini’s team square in the face and drew little response.

With two minutes left against the Wildcats on Nov. 2, the Huskers were all but buried despite a tenacious defensive performance over the final 2 quarters.

Yet here they sit as mid-November arrives, riding a renewed sense of confidence ahead of a visit Saturday from Legends Division leader Michigan State (3:30 p.m. ET/ABC-ESPN2).

Again.

This is old habit for the Huskers. Dig a hole, crawl inside, then as the walls appear set to collapse, find an escape route.

Nebraska punches its way out of a corner better than any team in the Big Ten. We’ve often wondered in Pelini’s six years about the identity of his teams. Maybe, after another dramatic victory on Saturday at Michigan -- the Huskers have won seven straight games decided by a touchdown or less -- it’s this: They’re a direct reflection of their coach, who for his all his faults, never stops fighting.

Pelini is a survivor. He thrives in averse situations, or so it seems. When the walls around him drew near in September after the ill-timed release of an embarrassing, two-year-old audio tape, he used the support of his former boss, Tom Osborne, to fend off critics and hunkered down for a rough week.

When his defense, bruised and confused by the likes of Minnesota, UCLA and Wyoming, faced a do-or-die moment against Northwestern, it responded just like Pelini had drawn it up.

Over the past two weeks among teams that have played twice, Nebraska’s defense ranks third nationally in allowing 250.5 yards per game.

No team, in two games this month, has fared better defensively on third down.

“We play for one another,” senior cornerback Ciante Evans said. “We’re never going to lay down for anybody. We’re tough. When you’re backs up against the wall, you have to come out fighting.

“That’s something we see from the coaching staff.”

Often, in the midst of a demanding time, it’s difficult to see what’s happening right in front of you.

Pelini said on Monday that he’s not sure if the Huskers’ resiliency reflects his persona.

“Hopefully, it’s reflective on the culture of our program,” he said.

The coach said he and his staff preach a culture of togetherness.

“Fight until the end,” he said, “no matter what happens.”

That message, above all others, gets through.

“Guys have embraced what our coaching staff has asked us to do,” senior offensive tackle Brent Qvale said. “One of our big things is just stay the course. Don’t ever give up. Don’t ever get down on yourself. You’ve got to have a short memory when you play. That’s something they’ve instilled in us.”

Whatever they’re doing, it helped freshman quarterback Tommy Armstrong Jr., starting away from home for just the second time, stare down the Michigan defense and its imposing crowd and convert a fourth down with a pass to Kenny Bell en route to the game-winning touchdown on Saturday.

It helped Evans, linebacker David Santos and budding star Randy Gregory at defensive end stuff back-to-back Northwestern runs in the red zone, forcing a field goal to keep the Huskers alive in the final minutes.

It helped backup QB Ron Kellogg III engineer a decisive drive that revived the Huskers’ season.

A formidable challenge arrives this week as the Spartans bring the nation’s top-ranked defense to Lincoln.

Nebraska crawled out of its hole last year to beat MSU, one of four double-digit deficits overcome by Pelini's team in Big Ten play. The Huskers, if nothing else this week, promise to fight.

“One of these weeks,” Qvale said, “we’ll be ahead in at the start the fourth quarter. That would be nice.”

With the inexperienced Armstrong and a patchwork offensive line, the Huskers look overmatched.

In other words, they're right at home.

Midseason report: Nebraska

October, 15, 2013
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Nebraska squandered its lone shot to make a positive statement on a national level on Sept. 14, blowing an 18-point lead to lose 41-21 at home to still-unbeaten UCLA.

The Huskers have handled business well since the loss to the Bruins, and coach Bo Pelini’s squad has done it without fourth-year starting quarterback Taylor Martinez. He’s missed the past three games with turf toe. In his place, freshman Tommy Armstrong and senior Ron Kellogg III filled in nicely, relying on a strong stable of backs and receivers to carry the load for a talented offensive unit.

Nebraska ranks eighth nationally in rushing yards per game at 284.8, and it’s averaging nearly 500 yards of offense. Ameer Abdullah is the workhorse at I-back, and Quincy Enunwa has caught seven touchdowns among his 25 receptions.

Defensively, it’s been a wild ride from the start. Nebraska squandered a comfortable lead in the fourth quarter of the opener against Wyoming, holding on to win 37-34. The 38 consecutive points surrendered to UCLA ranked as the low point, though Pelini was equally upset with the first quarter a week later against South Dakota State.

The Huskers have bounced back well in Big Ten play, in particular last week at Purdue in a 44-7 victory. Nebraska nearly pitched a shutout and held the Boilermakers to 216 yards. Defenders Ciante Evans at cornerback, defensive end Jason Ankrah, and linebacker David Santos have emerged of late, while defensive end Randy Gregory and cornerback Stanley Jean-Baptiste have been solid from the start.

Offensive MVP: Adbullah, the junior I-back, has followed up his 1,100-yard season with a better campaign. He’s rushed for 816 yards, second in the Big Ten and sixth nationally, averaging 7.2 yards per carry. And he’s caught 14 passes for 137 yards.

Defensive MVP: Gregory, the sophomore newcomer out of Arizona Western Community College, burst on to the scene as a feared pass rusher and play-maker on the defensive line. His strong play helped spark the defensive improvement of the past two weeks. Gregory enters the second half with a team-high eight tackles for loss. More of the same is necessary in November, when the schedule turns difficult.

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