NCF Nation: Cameron Meredith

The first Saturday of April kicks off spring football scrimmages around the country.

Baylor will unveil its new quarterback, while Georgia and Nebraska might need name tags on defense with so many new starters.

Most spring games are nothing more than glorified controlled scrimmages, and Florida's figures to be even less exciting because of injuries.

Here's a closer look at a few of Saturday's spring games:

Baylor Bears: Baylor fans will get their first chance to see if the Bears' transition to a new quarterback will go as smoothly as the last one.

Junior Bryce Petty is the heir apparent to replace Nick Florence, who threw for 4,309 yards with 33 touchdowns last season after replacing Heisman Trophy winner Robert Griffin III.

Petty, who was headed to Tennessee until coach Phillip Fulmer was fired, completed seven of 10 passes for 97 yards with one touchdown in six games last season.

The Bears also bring back eight defensive starters, after allowing 37.2 points per game last season.

Florida Gators: Because of myriad injuries along the offensive line, the Gators won't have a traditional spring game on Saturday at The Swamp. Florida coach Will Muschamp said the Gators will still have some team scrimmage work, but they'll also compete in individual coverage, pass rush and blocking drills.

"I can't ask these guys to line up and go 80 straight plays," Muschamp said. "Actually, it's going to be more beneficial for us to get the individual work, instead of just putting the ball down and scrimmaging."

Because of injuries, Florida is down to only six scholarship offensive linemen available for the spring. Four returning linemen are hurt and one is suspended; five more freshmen linemen will join the team this summer.

Among the walking wounded: starting guard Jon Halapio (shoulder), right tackle Chaz Green (ankle), guard Ian Silberman (shoulder), and guard Max Garcia (back). Guard Jessamen Dunker has been suspended since Jan. 16 after he was arrested for stealing a motor scooter.

Georgia Bulldogs: Quarterback Aaron Murray and tailbacks Todd Gurley and Keith Marshall are back, but much of the focus in Saturday's G-Day spring game at Sanford Stadium will be on UGA's defense.

The Bulldogs have to replace star linebackers Jarvis Jones and Alex Ogletree, as well as nose tackle John Jenkins and free safety Bacarri Rambo. In all, defensive coordinator Todd Grantham has to identify seven new starters on defense.

Freshman Tray Matthews, a mid-year enrollee, has raised a lot of eyebrows during spring practice and might emerge as a starting free safety this fall. Sophomore Josh Harvey-Clemons, another big hitter, appears set as the starting strong safety. Senior end Garrison Smith and sophomore linebacker Jordan Jenkins have emerged as two of the most consistent pass-rushers.

UGA fans won't see receiver Malcolm Mitchell, who will miss the spring game because of torn cartilage in his knee. He's expected to be ready for the start of preseason camp.

Nebraska Cornhuskers: Like Georgia, the Cornhuskers are undergoing a complete facelift on defense, after ranking 58th nationally in scoring defense (27.5 points per game) and 90th in run defense (192.5 yards per game). Nebraska lost end Cameron Meredith, tackle Baker Steinkuhler, linebacker Will Compton, along with five other starters on defense. The Cornhuskers will unveil their new-look defense in Saturday's spring game at Memorial Stadium.

A lot of eyes will be on freshman tackle Vincent Valentine, who might be the Cornhuskers' most physically imposing lineman since Ndamukong Suh. At 6 feet 3, 325 pounds, the Cornhuskers really need Valentine to contribute this coming season. Fans are also excited to see end Greg McMullen, and JUCO end Randy Gregory is expected to help when he gets on campus this summer.

Thomas Brown, Michael Rose and Jared Afalava are freshmen to watch at linebacker.

Cornhuskers coach Bo Pelini is expected to play it safe with quarterback Taylor Martinez, who will probably only see a couple of series. I-back Ameer Abdullah, linebacker David Santos and cornerback Daniel Davie have already been ruled out.

Virginia Cavaliers: Virginia fans will get an up-close look at the Cavaliers' revamped coaching staff in Saturday's Orange-Blue spring game. After the Cavaliers went 4-8 for the second time in coach Mike London's three-year tenure, he hired four new assistants.

Longtime defensive coordinator Jon Tenuta spent the spring installing an aggressive, blitz-heavy scheme, and former Colorado State coach Steve Fairchild was hired to take over the offense. Former NC State coach Tom O'Brien was hired to coach tight ends and serve as associate head coach for offense, and former Idaho State coach Larry Lewis is the new special teams coordinator/running backs coach.

On the field, sophomore David Watford is battling Greyson Lambert and Phillip Sims for the starting quarterback job. Sims, an Alabama transfer who started four games for the Cavaliers last season, went into the spring at No. 3 on the depth chart.

Big Ten weekend rewind: Week 14

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With just one game during the weekend, we'll dispense with the usual categories and do things a little differently with the rewind. Here's the good, the bad and the ugly from Wisconsin's 70-31 win over Nebraska in the Big Ten championship game.

The good: Good doesn't begin to describe Wisconsin's running game. The Badgers piled up 539 rushing yards, the most ever yielded by a Cornhuskers defense, and it was hard to single out one guy. Montee Ball had 202 yards and three touchdowns. James White ran for more than 100 yards and had five total touchdowns, including a touchdown pass. Melvin Gordon, who came into the game with 354 rushing yards the entire season, finished with 216 yards on just nine carries. Wisconsin used him to devastating effect on jet sweeps, and he became an effective decoy on plays where he didn't get the handoff.

[+] EnlargeMontee Ball
Richard Mackson/USA Today SportsMontee Ball focused on his production after contact this season. Wise move. He enters the Rose Bowl with 21 TDs.
Overall, the Badgers just looked faster than they had all season, surprising us all by taking better advantage of the turf at Lucas Oil Stadium than Nebraska did. They also ran to the outside more than we had seen all season.

"They were on the edge most of the game," Cornhuskers linebacker Will Compton said. "They weren't the up-the-middle, pound-and-pound team. They had got outside plays and really stuck with it, and then when that stuff works, why get away from it?"

Wisconsin stayed with it most of the night, throwing only 10 passes yet scoring 10 touchdowns.

The bad: The announced attendance for Saturday's game was just 41,260, or about 23,000 fewer fans than at last year's inaugural title game. Whole sections in the upper end zones and corners of Lucas Oil were empty, especially on the Wisconsin side. The Big Ten anticipated a smaller crowd than last year because of the unusual circumstances of the Badgers' season, but the league was hoping to cross the 50,000 mark through strong walk-up sales. By comparison, the ACC title game Saturday -- usually the butt of bad-attendance jokes -- drew 64,778.

That said, Indianapolis again proved to be an excellent host, and it sure didn't hurt that it was 60 degrees on Saturday. The streets were packed with red Friday and Saturday, and the Big Ten fan fest was packed before the game. The small crowd had some wondering whether the league should move the game to Chicago, where there are more casual Big Ten fans, or play it at home sites. But there's no guaranteed way to attract more fans. The Pac-12 title game between UCLA and Stanford was held Friday at Stanford. The announced crowd: 31,622.

We really can't judge this game until there's a team involved that has a chance to play for a BCS title or a spot in the forthcoming four-team playoff. Or if Ohio State or Michigan are in it. Then we'd probably see a whole different atmosphere.

The ugly: Nebraska's defense, obviously. This was as bad a defensive performance as you could see on a big stage, and the Cornhuskers for some reason looked completely unprepared. They took lousy angles to the ball and settled for arm tackles instead of trying to wrap up ball carriers. While coach Bo Pelini rightly said that the absence of injured defensive tackle Baker Steinkuhler was only a tiny factor, it's also true that Wisconsin's offensive line took advantage of a smallish defensive front featuring guys like 250-pound Eric Martin and 260-pound Cam Meredith. And as the game began to slip away, so did Nebraska's effort on defense, highlighted by some comical attempts at tackling Ball on his 57-yard touchdown run.

"What is defensive football?" Pelini said (and no, he wasn't asking for advice, smart aleck). "It's play your gaps. Handle your responsibility. Be where you're supposed to be and make tackles when you're there. We did none of the above."

The continual defensive lapses by this program on the road under a defense-first coach make you wonder. The Omaha World-Herald's Sam McKewon offered this stat Monday: In the Huskers' past 17 games away from home, they are giving up an average of 30.3 points and 400 yards per game. Record in those games: 8-9. (The offense isn't helping much, either, as Nebraska has an unfathomable minus-27 turnover margin and 40 giveaways in those 17 games.)
There's only one game on tap this week, but it's a big one: Wisconsin vs. Nebraska in the Big Ten championship.

Here are four things to watch Saturday night at Indianapolis' Lucas Oil Stadium:

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Jeff Hanisch/US PresswireWisconsin's Montee Ball has rushed for five touchdowns over his past three games.
1. Ball and Burkhead: Wisconsin running back Montee Ball and Nebraska running back Rex Burkhead occupied the top two spots on our preseason countdown of the Big Ten's top players. Many considered Ball the front-runner for the Heisman Trophy, while Burkhead also was in the mix. The season hasn't gone as expected for either back, as Ball suffered a concussion and ran behind an inconsistent line, while Burkhead suffered a knee injury in the opener, twice aggravated it in October and played only one full contest (against Wisconsin on Sept. 29). Both men will be on the big stage at Lucas Oil. Burkhead returned to action last week against Iowa and turned in a strong second half, and Ball has been surging as of late, having racked up 500 yards and five touchdowns over his past three games.

2. Down to the wire: Both Nebraska and Wisconsin are accustomed to close games this season, although the squads have had very different results. Wisconsin's five losses have come by a total of 19 points, including a 30-27 loss to Nebraska in Lincoln that marked the first of several furious Husker comebacks this season. Three of the Badgers' defeats have come in overtime (Michigan State, Ohio State, Wisconsin). Nebraska is 5-1 in games decided by 10 points or fewer this season, with all five victories coming in Big Ten play. The Huskers have rallied from a double-digit deficit four times in the second half this season -- tied for the second highest total in the FBS since 1996. "You look at Wisconsin, and they could just as easily be 10-2, just like we are," Nebraska tight end Ben Cotton told ESPN.com. "We know how good of a football team they are."

3. Back home again in Indiana: Aside from hosting the league title game at Camp Randall Stadium, Wisconsin wouldn't want to play anywhere besides the Hoosier State this week. Wisconsin is 8-0 under coach Bret Bielema on Indiana soil, including last year's dramatic win against Michigan State in the inaugural Big Ten title game in Indianapolis. The Badgers actually have won nine straight in the state, and their eight wins under Bielema have come by an average margin of 23.8 points. Wisconsin played its two best games on Indiana soil this season, thrashing Purdue and Indiana by a combined score of 100-28 and racking up a combined 1,031 rush yards and 11 touchdowns. Nebraska obviously poses a much tougher test than Purdue or Indiana did.

4. Huskers' men in the middle: Baseball managers always talk about being strong up the middle, and the adage applies to football, too. Nebraska faces some challenges Saturday after losing starting center Justin Jackson and starting defensive tackle Baker Steinkuhler to injury. Both Jackson and Steinkuhler have started all 12 games for the Huskers this season. Cole Pensick and Mark Pelini shared reps this week in practice at the center spot, and Nebraska will use a group effort to fill the void at defensive tackle, including moving ends like senior Cameron Meredith inside. Sophomore Chase Rome replaced Steinkuhler last week against Iowa, and Thad Randle also should see a lot of time in the interior line. It will be interesting to see if Wisconsin can exploit the injury with its run game.

Video: Nebraska DL Cam Meredith

November, 10, 2012
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Nebraska defensive lineman Cam Meredith talks about the Huskers' 32-23 win over Penn State.

Huskers make crazy work like a charm

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LINCOLN, Neb. -- Serious-minded Nebraska coach Bo Pelini is not usually one to make a lot of wisecracks when talking to the media.

But Pelini couldn't help but joke after his team pulled off yet another comeback from a double-digit deficit, this time to beat Penn State 32-23 on Saturday.

"I'm going to call the Big Ten and spot 'em 14 points, and we're good to go," Pelini said.

At this point, if you're a Nebraska fan or an opponent victimized by these zombie-like Huskers, you can't do much else but shake your head at the absurdity of this team's ways. Down 17 at home in the third quarter to Wisconsin? No problem. Trailing by 12 with six minutes to go at Northwestern? No sweat. Behind by 10 with a little more than seven minutes to play? We got this.

Some teams walk a tightrope. Nebraska jumps a motorcycle over a lake full of alligators while on fire. Team officials say the Huskers' four second-half, double-digit comebacks this season lead the nation and are the most in school history.

So when Penn State ran to the locker room with a 20-6 lead after 30 minutes on Saturday, there was no panic for the home team.

"The vibe at halftime was, 'All right, it's 0-0,'" running back Ameer Abdullah said. "We do this every week. We know what to do."

Pelini said he was hoping his team could the score by the fourth quarter. It surprised him by striking for two touchdowns in the first 5:23 of the second half to shift momentum their way. But this is Nebraska, so it still wasn't easy.

The Huskers wouldn't take their first lead until there was 10:57 left to play. And they caught a major break after that, when tight end Matt Lehman fumbled a potential go-ahead Penn State touchdown into the end zone for a Nebraska touchback.

Replays appeared to show that Lehman broke the plane just before losing the ball, but an official review upheld the fumble call. Nittany Lions quarterback Matt McGloin later tweeted out a video of the play and hinted in a postgame interview that referees had it in for Penn State because of the Jerry Sandusky scandal.

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AP Photo/Dave WeaverAfter losing to UCLA last season, Bo Pelini and Nebraska hope to turn the tables when the Bruins and Huskers meet again on Saturday.
Pelini acknowledged his team was "fortunate" that the play was ruled a fumble on the field, making it harder to overturn. Nebraska also benefited from some questionable late calls at Michigan State last week. But championship seasons are often marked by those kinds of good fortune.

Fumble or not, the fact remains that the Huskers outscored Penn State 26-3 in the second half, holding the Nittany Lions to just 136 total yards after halftime. The Blackshirts defense was clearly bothered by Penn State's hurry-up "NASCAR" offensive package, burning three defensive timeouts and getting caught with too many defenders on the field several times in the first half.

"They went to the hurry-up and we couldn't adjust well," defensive lineman Cam Meredith said. "A lot of times we were looking at the sideline and not getting the call. We came up with a solution."

The answer was brilliantly simple, as Nebraska decided just to go with the same defensive alignment every time Penn State went to the no-huddle. It worked, as Daimion Stafford grabbed a key interception against McGloin and the Huskers later forced McGloin into an intentional grounding in the end zone for a safety.

Nebraska forced three turnovers, for once coming out on the right side of that battle. That doesn't mean it was all good news, though, as quarterback Taylor Martinez fumbled the ball inside the Penn State 5 to ruin a scoring chance, and Tim Marlowe muffed a first-half punt return to set up a Nittany Lions touchdown. The Huskers entered the day tied for second-to-last in the nation in lost fumbles, and they gave two more away to run their season total to minus-16.

Slipperiness with the ball isn't supposed to translate to winning. Yet, like an eccentric billionaire, Nebraska keeps succeeding despite its erratic behavior. Its offense leads the Big Ten in scoring and yardage despite all the turnovers and the slow starts. What could the Huskers do if they ever cleaned all that up?

"The sky's the limit," said Abdullah, who had his sixth 100-yard day of the season with 116 yards on 31 carries. "We've yet to play our best game offensively. We say we want to play our best game in our last game, and we've got a couple of games left."

Believe it or not, there is some method to this comeback madness. Offensive coordinator Tim Beck says opposing defenses have thrown new looks at the Huskers all season long in an effort to slow down their deep cast of offensive skill players.

"There are some games where we might as well not even practice," he said. "Because what we're seeing isn't what we're practicing against."

Beck said it often takes a couple of quarters to figure out just what is happening and then adjust to it. On Saturday, the Nittany Lions used some blitzes and schemes that Beck hadn't seen on film from them all year.

Beck's offense also is designed to wear opponents out with its high-tempo pace and speed. That's one reason the Huskers kept running toss sweeps to different sides of the field, making Penn State's thin defense run from sideline to sideline all game. The Nittany Lions looked gassed by the fourth quarter.

That doesn't mean Nebraska would like to continue this particular pattern of falling behind, turning the ball over and mounting wild comebacks.

"It's enough already," Martinez said. "We need to start getting ahead."

But this particular brand of crazy works for them. After losing 63-38 at Ohio State on Oct. 6, Pelini told his team it needed to win out to claim a Big Ten title. Four straight wins later, the Huskers are in control of the Legends Division. They need only to beat Minnesota at home next week and win at struggling Iowa in the season finale to reach the Big Ten championship game.

"That's four down, and we've got two more to go," Pelini said. "We just have to stay the course."

The same crazy, winning course.
Nebraska's official homecoming game takes place Sept. 29 against Wisconsin, but for Huskers quarterback Taylor Martinez and a group of his teammates, it really arrives Saturday.

Martinez has had Saturday's game at UCLA marked on his calendar since his senior year at Centennial High School in Corona, Calif. As soon as Martinez and his close friend and high school teammate, Ricky Marvray, finalized their college choices -- Martinez picked Nebraska, Marvray picked UCLA -- they looked at the schedule and saw Sept. 8, 2012: Nebraska at UCLA, Rose Bowl.

[+] EnlargeTaylor Martinez
AP Photo/Dave WeaverTaylor Martinez is one of several Huskers looking forward to Nebraska's Week 2 game at UCLA.
"We've been looking forward to it ever since high school," Martinez told ESPN.com.

The wait ends Saturday afternoon in Pasadena, Calif., as Martinez and several other California natives return to home soil. Nebraska's roster includes eight Californians, including four -- Martinez, defensive end Cameron Meredith, wide receiver Quincy Enunwa and safety Daimion Stafford -- in starting roles.

As of Monday night, Meredith's cheering section had swelled to 216 people -- "That’s friends, family, teachers, coaches, everything," he explained. Although Nebraska made consecutive trips to San Diego for the Holiday Bowl in both 2009 and 2010, Meredith's entourage had more time to plan for Saturday's game.

"We're going to have a huge Nebraska section, just for us," said Meredith, a Huntington Beach, Calif., native. "You've got me, Taylor, Quincy, Eric [Martin], Josh Mitchell, there are going to be a lot of people for us alone. That will be pretty cool."

Because of its location in a sparsely populated state, Nebraska always has had to recruit nationally. Bo Pelini has put an emphasis on scouring California for talent since his return to Lincoln as the Huskers' head coach.

Pelini's first full recruiting class (2009) included six Californians, including Martinez and Martin. Nebraska has added seven California natives in the past three classes -- both high school players and junior college arrivals like Stafford. The Huskers' most talked-about recruit for the 2013 class, quarterback Johnny Stanton, hails from Rancho Santa Margarita, Calif.

"California's been a fairly productive area for us," Pelini said. "We've built some strong relationships there, had some really good success. ... We view this game as something that, the kids from California, their folks are going to have a chance to see them play. This provides that opportunity. And to showcase our program and what we do out there in the California area.

"We're looking forward to it."

Pelini is considering sending some of his assistants to local high school games Friday night to assist with 2013 recruiting. Meredith, one of three Californians to sign with Nebraska in 2008, two months after Pelini's hiring, isn't surprised by the Huskers' strategy.

"Texas, California and Florida, those are the high school football states," he said. "Nebraska has gone after some of those California prospects, especially since Bo’s been here. It's good for us because some really good athletes come out of there."

Both Martinez and Meredith drew interest from UCLA coming out of high school, and both have been on the Bruins sideline for games at the Rose Bowl. Martinez, who was recruited as a safety, admits he grew up a big Bruins fan and was initially disappointed when he didn't receive a scholarship offer from the team. Meredith attended junior day at UCLA and considered several Pac-12 schools in the recruiting process.

They both ended up in Nebraska -- about 1,500 miles and a world away from California.

"It's totally different from the West Coast," Martinez said. "Once you come out there, it's a culture shock. They do everything different. It's just a slower pace of life."

Meredith had grown accustomed to the varied landscape in California.

"You've got the Sierra Nevada Mountains to Laguna Beach to Big Sur to Death Valley," he said. "You've got so many different climates, it's amazing. I could surf and go up to the mountains and go snowboarding that same day."

There's not much surfing or snowboarding in pancake-flat Nebraska, but both Martinez and Meredith have warmed up to their new home -- even the weather.

"I love California, but I also love Nebraska," Martinez said. "I lived in California my whole life, and coming to Nebraska, actually living in snow and cold weather, that's kind of neat."

Added Meredith: "After meeting some friends here, going to their hometowns, hanging out in Lincoln for a little while, going up to Omaha, I’ve really adjusted to it. I'd consider living here."

This week's trip takes on added significance for the Huskers because they hope it's not their only one to Pasadena. After an impressive opening win against Southern Miss, in which Martinez set a career high for pass yards (354) and tied one for pass touchdowns (5), Nebraska is setting its sights on its first league title since 1999.

As a member of the Big Ten, Nebraska would, in all likelihood return to the Rose Bowl on New Year's Day.

"Our goal is to win the Big Ten, and if you win the Big Ten, you wind up in the Rose Bowl," Meredith said. "It’s a famous stadium. Just imagine all the famous teams that played there in the past, and all the championship games that went on.

"There will be some motivation for us to get back there."
Nebraska's defensive players enter their first game week feeling good vibes.

"Our confidence is high," senior linebacker Will Compton told ESPN.com. "And I think it's only going to get higher as the days go on."

All offseason, the Cornhuskers have talked about having a better understanding of the scheme and principals on defense, of communicating better and working together more. That, they believe, will lead to a much stronger performance from the Blackshirts than the disappointing showing of 2011.

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Cal Sport Media via AP ImagesWill Compton is looking to help Nebraska's defense regain its swagger after struggling in 2011.
Nebraska's defense had better be ready. Because it doesn't get much time to ease into things.

The season begins Saturday against Southern Miss, a team that averaged nearly 37 points per game a year ago. Week 2 brings a road trip to UCLA, followed by a visit from Arkansas State, which is now coached by former Arkansas and Auburn offensive whiz Gus Malzahn. September ends with a showdown against Wisconsin, which hung 48 points on Nebraska last season in Madison.

"We are going to get challenged right out of the gate," Compton said.

The Huskers think they're up to the challenge more than last year's defense was. Despite leaving the generally more offensive-minded Big 12, Nebraska's defensive numbers took a major tumble. To wit:

2009: 272 yards allowed per game (seventh in the FBS); 10.4 points allowed per game (first)

2010: 306.8 ypg (11th); 17.4 ppg (ninth)

2011: 350.7 (37th); 23.4 ppg (42nd)

So what has changed? More knowledge and more attention to detail. Better depth up front on the defensive line. And more experience at safety, a crucial spot in Bo Pelini's scheme.

"It's a much more mature group," first-year defensive coordinator John Papuchis said. "Guys like Daimion Stafford, Ciante Evans, Andrew Green were in their first year of playing last year. Another year in the system gives them a greater understanding of their roles.

"Right know, our knowledge of what we're asking our guys to do is at a greater level, and we're able to progress further along in our package than we were a year ago."

It is also a defense that, at least going into the season, lacks stars. Last year's team had Jared Crick, Lavonte David and Alfonzo Dennard as the defensive headliners. These Huskers don't have a single player who was a first- or second-team All-Big Ten performer on defense in 2011. But they don't expect to be a no-name defense for long.


"These guys will certainly be better well-known through their play this year," Papuchis said. "Daimion Stafford, Ciante Evans, Will Compton, Jason Ankrah -- these guys are on the cusp of being the names people identify with and recognize.

"But at the end of the day, I believe this is a very unselfish defensive unit. I don't believe that they're worried about individual recognition and who the stars are. They want to go out there as a group and play the best defense they can. I don't think anybody needs to be the star to do that."

Pelini called Compton the unquestioned leader of the defense this summer. Papuchis said leaders at other positions have emerged this month, including Stafford in the secondary and seniors Baker Steinkuhler and Cameron Meredith on the defensive line.

Leadership could be key early as Nebraska deals with some unknowns. Southern Miss has a new head coach in Ellis Johnson, a new starting quarterback and a new offensive coordinator in Steve Buckley, who spent the previous five years as a high school coach. Huskers coaches have prepared by watching all kinds of different film, including high school games, but they expect surprises.

"You're going to see some things that we haven't seen before, and we have to be ready to make adjustments on the fly," Pelini said Monday.


Compton has seen evidence of his team's ability to do just that in preseason practice. He said the defense has done a great job of getting off the field on third downs and readjusting if it does give up a third-down conversion. In doing that and communicating on the field, he said, the Blackshirts have "made a big jump."


Nebraska's defense is eager to show that last year was a blip and that this is another dominant unit. They'll get the chance to prove themselves in September.



"We need to take care of business our first couple of games," Compton said. "It's on us to do so. We need to make a statement early."

Big Ten bloggers Adam Rittenberg and Brian Bennett will occasionally give their takes on a burning question facing the league. We'll both have strong opinions, but not necessarily the same view. We'll let you decide which blogger is right.

Today's Take Two topic is this: Last season, defensive tackle was clearly the strongest overall position group in the Big Ten. What position will be the best throughout the league in 2012?

Take 1: Brian Bennett

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Kelvin Kuo/US PRESSWIREMontee Ball headlines a strong group of returning running backs in the Big Ten.
I'm tempted to go with linebacker, where some high-profile players and future stars are scattered throughout the conference. But my pick is running back.

There's some major star power at the position this year in the Big Ten, starting off with last year's Heisman Trophy finalist and record breaker, Wisconsin's Montee Ball. While Ball is the obvious choice for preseason offensive player of the year, he could get pushed by some other backs, including Nebraska's tough-as-nails Rex Burkhead, who ran for 1,357 yards and 15 touchdowns last season. Even with last year's No. 2 league rusher (Iowa's Marcus Coker) gone, the position is still stacked with guys like Penn State's Silas Redd, who we both think is primed for a huge season; Michigan's Fitz Toussaint, who ran for more than 1,000 yards despite not taking over lead rushing duties until the eighth game of the season; and Michigan State's Le'Veon Bell, who came on strong late last season and looks great this spring.

Purdue has some very capable runners in Akeem Shavers, Akeem Hunt and Doug Gentry, and Ralph Bolden is coming back from an ACL injury. Ohio State has a potentially strong group with Carlos Hyde, Jordan Hall, Rod Smith and freshman Bri'onte Dunn. Stephen Houston showed some good things for Indiana last year, and transfer Isaiah Roundtree had a big spring game. Minnesota is high on junior college import James Gillum. And don't forget James White at Wisconsin, who could start for most teams in the country.

Iowa, Illinois and Northwestern have some question marks at tailback. But overall, running back is where the Big Ten's bread will be buttered this season.

Take 2: Adam Rittenberg

A good choice, Bennett, as the Big Ten returns six of its top seven running backs and would have brought back all seven if not for Marcus Coker's transfer. But my experience covering this league has taught me to never overlook the defensive line. The D-line once again will be the Big Ten's strongest group in 2012.

Sure, the league loses standouts like Devon Still, Whitney Mercilus and Jerel Worthy. But you could substitute the names Aaron Maybin and Mitch King after the 2008 season, or Brandon Graham and Jared Odrick after 2009, or J.J. Watt and Corey Liuget after 2010. The Big Ten always finds ways to reload up front, and this year will be no different. There might not be as many familiar names as there are at running back, but that soon will change.

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Jonathan Daniel/Getty ImagesPurdue defensive lineman Kawann Short is a potential first-round NFL draft pick.
Let's start off with the top returning linemen, Ohio State's John Simon and Purdue's Kawann Short, both of whom earned first-team All-Big Ten honors in 2011. Both men will contend for All-America honors, and could be potential first-round picks in the 2013 class. Then you have a guy we're both excited about: Michigan State defensive end William Gholston. He's a physical freak, as you recently detailed, and has the potential to dominate games and become one of the nation's truly elite defenders in 2012. I'd also include Penn State defensive tackle Jordan Hill in this group of known commodities with the potential for very big things this season. Penn State's overall depth along the defensive line should be better this year.

Now for some lesser-known names who could have breakout seasons. Let's start at Illinois with defensive end Michael Buchanan and defensive tackle Akeem Spence. Buchanan is poised for a big year, as he showed in Illinois' spring game, while Spence is a next-level player who could follow Liuget's path this season. Speaking of defensive tackles, watch out for Ohio State's Johnathan Hankins, a very big man who can do very big things this season. The Buckeyes' heralded incoming freshmen should only bolster their line.

Michigan loses two standout linemen (Mike Martin and Ryan Van Bergen), but it's hard to imagine the Wolverines falling back much at all up front. Nebraska boasts good depth at the defensive end spot and could see a big year from a guy like Cameron Meredith.

While there are some question marks around the league, including an unproven line at Iowa, teams like Northwestern and Minnesota should be improved up front.
LINCOLN, Neb. -- They can't be called pop quizzes because they happen every day.

When safety P.J. Smith and his fellow Nebraska defensive backs enter their meeting room each day, they know exactly what's coming.

"This is the first time we've ever taken tests," Smith told ESPN.com. "Since the season ended, we had a test every week. And now, since [defensive backs coach Terry Joseph] is here, we have a test every single day we get in the meeting room."

Joseph's exams typically contain three questions, which require short written responses. The players have two minutes to complete their choices, which is 119 seconds longer than they have during games in the fall. The players with the lowest grades at week's end typically have to clean the secondary room.

"He tries to put pressure on us," Smith said.

Pressure is one word to describe the theme of Nebraska's offseason, particularly on the defensive side. Details is another. So is accountability.

[+] EnlargeWill Compton
Troy Babbitt/US PresswireWith star LB Lavonte David gone, Nebraska will look to Will Compton to make an impact at the position.
The team ended the 2011 season with a thud, falling 30-13 to South Carolina in the Capital One Bowl. A defense that had entered the fall with a star-studded lineup -- tackle Jared Crick, linebacker Lavonte David and cornerback Alfonzo Dennard were the headliners -- finished 42nd nationally in points allowed and 37th in yards allowed, significant drops in both categories from the previous season (ninth in points allowed, 11th in yards allowed). The Huskers' D received some A-level performances from David and Dennard, but the overall unit, aside from a few exceptions, wasn't exceptional.

Nebraska didn't generate enough pressure (84th in sacks, 112th in tackles for loss) and didn't really have a hallmark.

"Generally, we didn't make a ton of busts a year ago," said defensive coordinator John Papuchis, who coached the defensive line in 2011. "But it's the small details within each defense that make the difference between being a good defense and a great defense. At times, we showed signs of being a very good defense. And at other times, we didn't live up to the standard we have set for ourselves.

"And I think what held us back more than anything came into those details."

Papuchis and the other defensive assistants have spent the offseason stressing concepts rather than pure memorization. The how and the why became more important than the what and the who.

They "went back to square one," even with older players, and worked on terminology as an entire unit. Crick and other Nebraska players talked before last season about the uniqueness of their defense, how the scheme would help set the Huskers apart in a new league.

"There's not one defense that’s comparable to ours," Crick said. "Very complex, and that's what makes it unique. As a defensive lineman, I have five responsibilities, where other defensive linemen, all they've got to do is shoot their gap. We want it that way."

And it is different, as Nebraska uses a two-gap system not employed by most college teams. But because of several reasons -- the coaches point mainly to attention to detail -- the Huskers didn't enjoy a major schematic advantage.

"Our defense is kind of like learning how to study math," Papuchis said. "If you don't have a foundation, everything else after that won't make sense."

One issue Papuchis noticed with Nebraska's youngish secondary in 2011 was alignment. Players knew their responsibilities, but they would line up inside when they needed to be outside, or vice versa.

"What doesn't seem like a big deal, six inches one way or the other, makes all the difference in the world if they convert third-and-6," he said.

It's why Joseph tests them every day. Mistakes happen, Smith said, but Joseph wants the DBs to "make a new mistake. Don't make the same mistake."

Nebraska should have a more seasoned secondary in 2012, and Papuchis has been pleased this spring with Daimion Stafford, Ciante Evans, Andrew Green and Antonio Bell, among others. Linebacker Will Compton said the secondary is receiving extra attention this spring from both Papuchis and head coach Bo Pelini.

"We're getting back to some of the multiplicity we've had in the past," Pelini said. "I'm excited. I think we have a chance to be pretty good on defense."

There are different challenges for the other two groups on defense. The linebackers begin life without David, one of the nation's most productive defenders the past two seasons. Compton will lead the group, but depth is still a concern and will be for the next few years.

"We'll have guys very capable," Compton said. "It's about being a successful Will linebacker, not about being the next Lavonte David."

Nebraska has good depth at defensive end with Cameron Meredith, Jason Ankrah, Eric Martin and Joe Carter. And while the scheme stresses the need to prevent offensive linemen from reaching the second level, pass rushers could be turned loose more as Nebraska tries to generate more pressure.

New line coach Rick Kaczenski has brought an attacking style.

"Last year, we were a little bit passive," Meredith said. "Now offensive linemen at practice are telling us, 'You guys attack a lot more.'"

The linemen also are stressing accountability. If anyone is late for a meeting or another activity, the whole group runs or does Turkish get-ups.

"Everybody had a sour taste in how we finished up the season," Pelini said. "I said, 'Either you can talk about it or do something about it.' I think everybody around here has taken the attitude to raise their level of accountability.

"To get over the top, we've got to have a little bit more attention to detail, raise our standards that much more, raise our accountability that much more."
Cameron Meredith is a visual person, both inside and outside Nebraska's football complex.

The Huskers senior defensive end enjoys photography and has displayed his painting skills at The Corky Canvas, a Lincoln nightspot where patrons learn to paint while enjoying a beverage or two. Meredith's girlfriend is one of the painting instructors there.

[+] EnlargeCameron Meredith
Evan Habeeb/US PresswireNebraska's Cameron Meredith led the team in QB hurries (9), and ranked second in sacks (5).
"Not to brag, but I'm pretty artistic," said Meredith, who lists Salvador Dali's "Melting Clocks" and the works of Andy Warhol among his favorites. "That was my first passion, actually, before sports."

Meredith has used his visual skills in the film room this winter as he adjusts to a new defensive line coach, Rick Kaczenski, who joined Nebraska's staff in December after spending the past five seasons working with Iowa's defensive linemen. Kaczenski takes over a group that loses tackle Jared Crick but returns mostly intact and is led by Meredith and tackle Baker Steinkuhler, both multiyear starters.

To help Nebraska's linemen understand his vision, Kaczenski played them video clips of former Iowa standouts like Adrian Clayborn, Christian Ballard and Karl Klug.

"On the field, he can explain it, he can go through it," Meredith said, "but until we see it in full action, we don't really understand. He brought in some really good clips of those Iowa players doing some pretty good stuff."

The transition should be smooth, because Nebraska's defenders studied Iowa more than any other team in 2011, even before Kaczenski arrived. Iowa's two-gap scheme resembled Nebraska's defensive system, and while Meredith said it's not a carbon copy, it helped players to see a similar defense go against Big Ten offenses.

"I was watching more of the [players'] technique, but you can see similarities," Meredith said. "For example, Coach Kaz wants us to make contact with our head, head-butt them more and get separation. Once we see one of the Iowa players do it who's similar to us, it puts in our minds, 'Hey, it's the same stuff. We've just got to learn the technique.'"

Meredith and his teammates get down to business when Nebraska opens spring practice March 10. The Huskers' defense fell short of expectations in 2011, finishing 37th in yards allowed and 42nd in points allowed, and must replace standouts like linebacker Lavonte David and cornerback Alfonzo Dennard.

After spending much the winter self-scouting, Meredith thinks third downs and limiting big plays are areas the defense must upgrade. Nebraska finished 64th nationally in third-down defense (40.2 percent conversions) in 2011 after ranking fourth in 2010 (29.95 percent) and 15th in 2009 (32.3 percent).

"Third down needs to become a lot more important to the defense," said Meredith, who led the team in quarterback hurries (9) and ranked second in both sacks (5) and tackles for loss (6). "You can either give the ball back to your offense, or they have another chance to get a first down and go score. One of the biggest things, which is why we didn't have great success in some games, once a team got a big play, it was kind of a snowball effect. We need to eliminate that, get in those manageable third-down situations, and get home on a blitz or on the pass rush."

The Huskers will go through their first spring with new coordinator John Papuchis, although the linemen are more than familiar with Papuchis, who coached them directly the past four seasons. Papuchis emphasizes the need for players to not only know their position, but the positions alongside them -- defensive ends must be able to transition inside, and vice versa -- what's happening at other levels of the defense.

His mission should help Nebraska's defense improve its communication, which Meredith said must be significantly better in games.

"He did a great job as a D-line coach of making us aware of why we're doing things rather than [just] what we're doing," Meredith said. "We knew exactly what the linebackers and DBs were doing, because JP expected that out of us. Him being a defensive coordinator, he's going to broaden everyone's span of football knowledge."

Nebraska's defenders begin putting paint brush to canvas next week.

Meredith hopes the team's final pictures looks like this and this.
We covered all the offensive position groups in our postseason rankings series here, here, here and here. Now it's time to turn our attention to the defensive side of the ball.

Defensive tackle was the strongest position in the league in 2011, so that makes this a competitive situation. There are some major changes from our preseason order as well. Remember this is about overall production, and depth matters along with star power. The top four on this list are really, really strong.

Here we go:

[+] EnlargeWilliam Gholston and Aaron Murray
J. Meric/Getty ImagesWilliam Gholston and the Spartans' defensive line helped key a Michigan State win over Georgia in the Outback Bowl.
1. Michigan State: The Spartans finished with the top total defense in the Big Ten and one of the best in the nation, and it all started with a dominant front. All-American tackle Jerel Worthy commanded extra attention inside and was joined by Kevin Pickelman and Anthony Rashad White as forces inside. William Gholston was brilliant at times, never more so than in the Outback Bowl win over Georgia. And freshman Marcus Rush turned in an outstanding season at the other defensive end spot. The Spartans had no weaknesses at this position in 2011.

2. Michigan: We projected the Wolverines would make a significant leap in '11, but the amount of improvement still surprised us. The combination of head coach Brady Hoke and defensive coordinator Greg Mattison, both defensive line coaches at heart, and valuable seniors Mike Martin and Ryan Van Bergen made this the backbone of Michigan's Sugar Bowl run. The Wolverines were especially tough in short-yardage situations because their defensive front was so stout.

3. Penn State: Big Ten defensive player of the year Devon Still wrecked just about everybody's game plan with a huge senior campaign. Jordan Hill had a solid, underrated year next to him inside. Jack Crawford stayed healthy and contributed 6.5 sacks, while Eric Latimore and Sean Stanley combined for another 7.5 quarterback takedowns.

4. Illinois: Defensive end Whitney Mercilus was a consensus first-team All-American who led the nation in sacks and forced fumbles. Nobody saw that coming. He had good company along the line as well, with guys like Akeem Spence inside and Michael Buchanan at the other end spot. The Illini may have faltered down the stretch as a team, but the D-line stayed strong throughout the year.

5. Wisconsin: The Badgers didn't have many household names on the defensive line, and certainly no one stood out like J.J. Watt the year before. But Bret Bielema relied on a solid group of veterans that helped the team finish third in the league in total defense and fifth in sacks. Patrick Butrym, Louis Nzegwu, Brendan Kelly and Ethan Hemer were part of a group that played better than the sum of its parts.

6. Ohio State: The Buckeyes had one of the best defensive players in the league in John Simon, who had 16 tackles for loss and seven sacks in a breakout season. Tackle Johnathan Hankins emerged as a disrupter at 335 pounds. But Ohio State didn't get its usual production elsewhere on the line, got beat up as the season went along and lacked depth, which is one reason why Urban Meyer went out and signed so many pass rushers in his first recruiting class.

7. Nebraska: The biggest disappointment from the preseason, as the Huskers tumbled from their No. 1 ranking last summer. Jared Crick's season-ending injury hurt the production, but he was not putting up huge numbers before he tore his pectoral muscle. Cameron Meredith, Baker Steinkuhler and Eric Martin had some nice moments, but Nebraska wasn't nearly as fierce up front as we thought it might be.

8. Purdue: Kawann Short turned in his best season, with 17 tackles for loss and 6.5 sacks from his interior spot, while Bruce Gaston and Gerald Gooden provided solid support. But the Boilermakers' pass rush off the edge lacked explosiveness until freshman Ryan Russell started to come on late in the season. Everyone except Gooden returns, and with a new position coach Purdue hopes this unit can go from decent to great in 2012.

9. Iowa: Another disappointing crew, as the Hawkeyes proved it's not easy to replace three draft picks off the defensive line and simply reload. Mike Daniels and Broderick Binns were the senior anchors, but Iowa's pass rush was sluggish until late in the season. And there wasn't a whole lot of depth behind them. This group loses three starters and will be extremely young in 2012.

10. Northwestern: We ranked the Wildcats 10th in the preseason as well, but we still expected better things out of this group. Northwestern generated very little pressure on opposing quarterbacks and ranked last in the Big Ten in sacks. Vince Browne, a projected all-conference pick in the summer, had a subpar season with only 3.5 tackles for loss after putting up 15.5 in 2010. It's clear this group needs to get better for Northwestern to take the next step.

11. Minnesota: The Gophers weren't as terrible on the defensive front as they were in 2010, when they finished last in the nation with only nine sacks. In fact, they more than doubled that total with 19 last season. Still, it was a mostly anonymous crew that gave quarterbacks too much time to carve up the secondary in the passing game. Jerry Kill still needs to find more playmakers at this position.

12. Indiana: The Hoosiers had problems all over the defense, and the line was no exception. Adam Replogle and Larry Black gave the unit some veteran leadership in the middle, but Indiana resorted to playing a lot of kids at the defensive end spots. The results were about what you'd expect.

The offseason is upon us, and earlier today Brian took a look at the to-do lists for each team in the Leaders Division. Let's now turn the attention to the Legends Division and what teams need to accomplish during the next seven-plus months.

As a reminder, these items aren't recruiting needs, which we'll address in the near future, but rather areas each team needs to repair or restock before Aug. 31 or Sept. 1.

Iowa
  • Reverse the RB curse: Iowa's inability to retain promising running backs is well documented, and the Hawkeyes now must replace prolific sophomore Marcus Coker, who led the Big Ten in carries per game last fall (23.4 a game). The team has shown it produces capable backs, and several players either already on the roster or entering the mix could emerge. But it's critical that Iowa develops multiple options in the backfield in case injuries crop up or the AIRBHG (Angry Iowa Running Back-Hating God) decides to strike again.
  • Replenish the defensive line: A year after replacing three NFL draft picks from the defensive line, Iowa once again has to restock in its front four. The team loses three starters, including standout tackle Mike Daniels, and has very little proven experience back in the fold. Defensive line historically has been an area of strength for Iowa, but the team's new defensive coordinator (yet to be named) and the staff must make the front four a focal point as they try to identify difference-makers.
Michigan
  • Shore up the middle: Baseball general managers talk about the need to build a team up the middle. The same theory applies to football as teams that are strong in the center of both lines typically fare well. Michigan must replace two of the nation's best interior linemen in center David Molk, the Rimington Trophy winner, and defensive tackle Mike Martin. Both are NFL prospects and will be missed. The Wolverines need Will Campbell, Quinton Washington and others to emerge at defensive tackle. The center spot could be even more critical as coordinator Al Borges relied so heavily on Molk in 2011.
  • Tightening "Shoelace": Michigan won 11 games and a BCS bowl this past season despite enduring "good Denard, bad Denard" fluctuation at the quarterback position. Looking at the Wolverines' daunting 2012 schedule, they'll have no such luxury when September rolls around. They need Denard Robinson to perform like a senior and show good consistency and improved comfort in the offense. He'll need to cut down on turnovers and deliver more performances like the one we saw against Ohio State on Nov. 26.
Michigan State
  • Develop Andrew Maxwell: Michigan State returns the league's most dynamic defense and should be improved in the run game, too. The big question is whether or not the Spartans can replace quarterback Kirk Cousins, a three-year starter and a three-time captain. Andrew Maxwell has been groomed for the role and, barring a surprise, will lead the offense in September. It's a big offseason for Maxwell to establish himself in his own way and build chemistry with his teammates, particularly a new-look receiving corps.
  • Take line play to next level: Head coach Mark Dantonio understands that Big Ten success is tied to excellent play along both lines. The Spartans' defensive line looked elite at times in 2011, particularly when William Gholston and Jerel Worthy decided to dominate. Worthy is off to the NFL, and the Spartans will be looking to build more depth in the interior alongside Anthony Rashad White. More important, Michigan State must take a big step on the offensive line, a unit that lacked experience in 2011. The Spartans can't expect to win 11 games again with the nation's 78th-ranked rushing offense. They've established their identity on defense; it's time to return to their roots on offense and pound green pound.
Minnesota
  • Establish a defensive identity: Gophers coordinator Tracy Claeys wants to have an aggressive, pressuring defense, but the team had only 19 sacks and 61 tackles for loss in 2011. Those numbers need to increase and Minnesota must identify more playmakers along a defensive line that returns mostly intact. Keanon Cooper and Mike Rallis will lead the linebackers, but Minnesota's defense needs a new quarterback after the departure of productive safety Kim Royston.
  • MarQueis to the max: We've seen snippets of brilliance from quarterback MarQueis Gray, but at other times he looks lost and fails to complete most of his passes (50.7 percent for the season). Minnesota needs to lean on Gray in 2012, not just as a difference-maker, but as a consistent leader every Saturday. Gray enters his second offseason in the system, and his days of splitting time between quarterback and wide receiver are in the rear-view mirror. He's the leader of this football team, and he needs to make the necessary strides to elevate his game.
Nebraska
  • Star search: Nebraska's defense loses two of the nation's best in linebacker Lavonte David and cornerback Alfonzo Dennard. The Huskers don't necessarily need their replacements to be stars, but they need difference makers to emerge on a unit that fell short of expectations in 2011. Defensive line figures to be a very strong area for Big Red, and players like Baker Steinkuhler and Cameron Meredith will be called upon to lead the way. Nebraska also must make some adjustments to better handle the big, physical offenses in the Big Ten. Linebacker is one position that could use a makeover.
  • Maturity on offense: Running back Rex Burkhead is exempt from this, as he figures to have a huge senior season after making big strides in 2011. But Nebraska's offense has plenty of players that need to mature for the unit to reach its potential this coming season. The offensive line was green at spots and should benefit from another offseason in Tim Beck's system. Nebraska has young talent at wide receiver with Kenny Bell, Quincy Enunwa and Jamal Turner. If the wideouts can grow up, they'll be dangerous weapons in 2012. Quarterback Taylor Martinez also fits in here. He showed some good things in 2011, but must perform more like a third-year starter next fall.
Northwestern
  • Find playmakers on defense: Northwestern lacked difference-makers on defense this past season and loses one in All-Big Ten safety Brian Peters, who led the league with five interceptions. This might never be a shut-down defense, but it needs to identify more players who can influence games. Northwestern returns nine defensive starters and will look to players like defensive end Tyler Scott and safety Ibraheim Campbell to take their game to the next level. The Wildcats recorded a league-low 17 sacks in 2011 and ranked 104th nationally in tackles for loss (59).
  • Figure out the quarterback situation: Offensive coordinator Mick McCall has been masterful in turning inexperienced quarterbacks into All-Big Ten players at Northwestern. His next major project likely will be Kain Colter, who filled in admirably last season, but looked limited as a passer, and at times seemed better suited to play wide receiver. Colter will compete with Trevor Siemian and Zack Oliver for the starting job this spring. If he can make a similar jump as his Wildcats predecessors, he could be one of the division's most dangerous players in 2012.
The last time Nebraska took on a ranked Big Ten contender, things didn't end so well. The Cornhuskers, of course, got spanked 48-17 at Wisconsin in their official league debut.

So you can imagine the reaction when the players returned home from last week's game at Minnesota in time to catch the end of Michigan State's win over those same Badgers.

"I think we all kind of realized what we've got ahead of us this week," defensive end Cameron Meredith said.

The Huskers, though, think they're better equipped to deal with their next Big Ten challenge when the No. 11 Spartans come into Memorial Stadium on Saturday. That Wisconsin loss caused lots of second-guessing and criticism of the team and quarterback Taylor Martinez in particular. Nebraska then fell behind 27-6 at home against Ohio State in its next game out before mounting a huge comeback to beat the Buckeyes and to possibly save their season.

[+] EnlargeRex Burkhead
Jesse Johnson/US PresswireRunning back Rex Burkhead proved to be a workhorse for Nebraska this past season.
"We rallied around each other," offensive lineman Marcel Jones said. "We told ourselves that we're better than what we showed the country. I feel that we've come together a lot closer since then, and we've been able to overcome adversity. We learned not to panic, and that if we keep steering the course we'll be just fine."

The Cornhuskers need to bring their best effort this week, because they can't afford a loss and still realistically hope to win the Legends Division. Michigan State is already one game ahead of Nebraska in the standings, and if the Huskers lose Saturday, they'd need the Spartans to lose two more times just to have a chance to tie for the division lead. And Nebraska still must play at Michigan and Penn State this season. That's why receiver Kenny Bell called this a must-win this week.

Others have stopped short of applying that label to this game, but there's little doubt about its importance. The Huskers, after all, are the only Big Ten team used to how division play works from their Big 12 days.

"We understand what have we ahead of us and the opportunity," Meredith said. "We can't go too all-in to the hype, but we do understand what's on the line. Coach [Bo Pelini] has emphasized and made it real noticeable that this is a very important game, but we're still preparing just as we have all season."

Michigan State is led by its ferocious defense, a formula Nebraska was supposed to utilize this season. The Blackshirts, though, have been disappointing and now lack the services of defensive tackle Jared Crick, who's out for the season with a torn pectoral muscle. Meredith said he saw improvement during the team's bye week two weeks ago as the team focused on fundamentals. The Huskers allowed only 14 points and 254 yards to Minnesota last week while scoring a defensive touchdown, but the Gophers are hardly a worthy measuring stick this year.

One thing that might help the defense is that the Spartans don't have a running quarterback. Nebraska has faced a lot of mobile signal-callers this season, including Washington's Keith Price, Wisconsin's Russell Wilson, Ohio State's Braxton Miller and even Minnesota's MarQueis Gray. Kirk Cousins isn't likely to burn the Blackshirts with a long scramble or deep pass on the run.

"He's a great football player, but he's more of a pocket passer," Meredith said. "That should allow us to rush the passer a little more freely."

On the flip side, the Huskers offense hopes to slow down Michigan State's aggressive defense with Martinez and Rex Burkhead. The Spartans will have to focus on containing the edge, especially when Nebraska goes to its option plays. And with a no-huddle offense and a deep rotation of offensive linemen, perhaps the home team can wear out Jerel Worthy and the other Michigan State defensive linemen.

"It's very important to bring in fresh legs," Jones said. "We come at the defense with wave after wave."

Nebraska had better perform a whole lot better than it did in its last test against a ranked Big Ten team. Or else it can probably wave its league title hopes goodbye.

Nebraska in full control now

September, 17, 2011
9/17/11
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LINCOLN, Neb. -- It's safe to say that Nebraska, holding a 44-17 lead in the fourth quarter, will win the rubber match in its third meeting with Washington in a year.

The Cornhuskers offense has been efficient in the second half, and a good sign for them is that it's not all just Taylor Martinez. Running backs Rex Burkhead, Aaron Green and Braylon Heard and even fullback Tyler Legate all have gotten in on the action as Nebraska has steadily moved the ball on the ground.

The defense is pitching a shutout in the second half, too. Washington had a promising drive end in the Huskers' red zone when Cameron Meredith sacked Keith Price on fourth down. Credit Nebraska's secondary with good coverage there, too, as Price couldn't find any openings after rolling out on the play.

It's been a very encouraging half for the Cornhuskers, and a very discouraging one for the mistake-prone Huskies. The final score will end up looking a lot like Nebraska's 56-21 win in Seattle last year instead of Washington's 19-7 Holiday Bowl revenge.

Q&A: Nebraska DT Jared Crick

September, 9, 2011
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The Friday Q&A checks in with the Big Ten's No. 1 player in the preseason rankings, Nebraska standout defensive tackle Jared Crick. Nebraska opened its season with a 40-7 win against Chattanooga, and while the offense had some ups and downs, the defense performed as advertised.

Here are Crick's thoughts on Week 1, the depth of the Huskers' defensive line and what to expect Saturday night against Fresno State.

How did you feel about the defense's performance in the opener?

[+] EnlargeJared Crick
AP Photo/Nati HarnikJared Crick swatted away this throw by Chattanooga quarterback B.J. Coleman.
Jared Crick: I thought we played well, but after watching the film, I feel a whole lot better. I didn't see what I would want to see, but it's a good sign knowing what you've got to work on and knowing the exact points you've got to sharpen. We didn't play bad as a defensive front; we didn't play bad as a defense as a whole. I thought we played pretty well, it being our first time out there, but I'm definitely very excited after watching the film. In the past, you watch a game and you know you've got a whole lot to work on. Going into this week, we've just got to sharpen up a few things. And once we get that sharpened, we're going to be a whole lot better defense.

Are you ever worried to watch the film, even after a win?

JC: You're not worried, but you're always critical. You're always looking for the finer details, even if it's the littlest thing because sometimes that's what wins and loses games. You're very critical of yourself, you're very critical of your teammates. We played a good game. We only allowed seven points and that came on a bust on our part. But knowing the exact precise things we need to work on going into this next Saturday, it's very positive for us. It's a great feeling.

How much help will you have up front from guys like Cam [Meredith]?

JC: It was good, but we expect that of Cam. Now that Cam's healthy, he's got a year of experience under his belt and he did that all through fall camp, he made plays. So we expected that from him. But it was definitely nice to see him come out Saturday and just have fun. Last year, at times he worried a little too much about his responsibility instead of just relaxing and letting the game come to him. That's exactly what he did Saturday and he did a great job for us.

Did you expect him to score on the interception?

JC: I would have liked him to, but I'm just glad we got the turnover inside the 5. We always want to score as defensive linemen because we don't get that opportunity too much, but it was special enough that he got the pick.

Who else stood out to you along the defensive line?

JC: [Jason] Ankrah played well for us, his first start. This was really the cornerstone of his career of seeing how good he can really be, going against some different competition finally. This is only going to build his confidence throughout this year, and I expect big things from him. And also the new guys who played, Joe Carter, Eric Martin, Chase Rome. I saw a lot of good things out of T-Mo, Terrence Moore. I feel good knowing where we're at as a defensive line right now.

Did you feel Jason was coming on strong in camp? When did he turn the corner?

JC: Last spring he started to really come around. We asked him to gain a lot of weight. He came in at 240 and I think he's now up to 265, so he had to adjust to that weight change. He's playing a lot more physical. We saw it through this spring and he's progressed through the summer, into fall camp and definitely into the game. He's got to keep progressing.

You've only played one game, but do you have a sense of how offensive lines are going to approach you this year?

JC: Hard to say. Chattanooga ran a lot of two-step drop, they got rid of the ball quick. I saw a couple double-teams, slide pro. We saw it all, so we're going to watch the film again, see what kind of protections we didn't do so well on, what we did do well. We don't expect offenses to run the same kind of protection that Cam had pressure on, that I had a lot of pressure. We're looking for the protections we didn't do so well on. We're going to anticipate that a lot more and have to prepare for how to beat it.

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