NCF Nation: Mark Pelini

LINCOLN, Neb. -- There are two distinctly different ways to look at the mindset of Nebraska’s players as they get ready for the National University Holiday Bowl on Saturday against USC.

[+] EnlargeAmeer Abdullah
Jeff Hanisch/USA TODAY SportsAmeer Abdullah and the Huskers look to end their season with a win over USC.
The Huskers, who leave Tuesday for San Diego, have endured a tumultuous month -- from the firing of coach Bo Pelini on Nov. 30, two days after their overtime win at Iowa, to the deconstruction of his old staff as new coach Mike Riley hired his own assistants.

There was also the public reveal last week, presumably initiated by someone among them, of a volatile audiotape from Pelini’s final meeting with the players Dec. 2.

How, after all of that, can the Huskers be ready to play a football game? It’s a question for which they offer few answers. The past is behind them, quarterback Tommy Armstrong Jr. said.

“I’m focused on our staff,” he said. “These players and getting ready for USC.”

From the alternate perspective, the events of the past three weeks might have galvanized the Huskers.

As Armstrong suggests, they are driven to play well for interim coach Barney Cotton and the other eight assistant coaches, seven of whom likely will not remain at Nebraska after this week.

Riley plans to keep only secondary coach Charlton Warren.

Essentially, this is the last chance for the Huskers to work with the coaches who recruited them. It’s a motivating factor.

So is the desire to show well in front of Riley. The former Oregon State coach has watched from afar as Nebraska practiced this month and figures to use the Holiday Bowl as another chance to start evaluating his 2015 roster.

Mainly, though, they want to end this season well for one another.

“The things we’ve faced over the month, we’ve put them behind us,” safety Nate Gerry said. “We’ve kind of realized Saturday is the last time we’ve got together, and we’re just going to use our energy to go out there and play well for each other -- not really worry about anything.

“Play for the guys who brought you to Nebraska. That’s what I’m going to do. I’m going to give it all I’ve got, like I know they’re going to do for me.”

If you get past the forest of subplots, an interesting matchup awaits.

Nebraska, 9-3 and winless in four games against the Trojans (most recently a 49-31 home loss in 2007) has a chance to finish with its best record since 2003 -- the season after which coach Frank Solich and his first-year defensive coordinator, Pelini, were fired.

Parts of this game, to be telecast at 8 p.m. ET on ESPN, look especially appetizing.

The Huskers the lead the nation in opponent completion rate at 47.5 percent; USC is No. 1 in completion percentage at 70.1. Nebraska ranks 10th in yards per opponent pass play and ninth in third-down conversion rate allowed; the Trojans rank 18th and fourth in the respective offensive categories.

It's safe to say, though, Nebraska has not faced a foe such as USC. Michigan State, the most productive passing offense among the Huskers’ 12 opponents, ranks 38th nationally.

“It will be interesting to see what happens,” defensive end Greg McMullen told reporters last week. “That could probably benefit us by them throwing a whole lot.”

McMullen said he thinks the Nebraska defensive line can pressure USC quarterback Cody Kessler.

Likely, it depends somewhat on the effectiveness of fellow end Randy Gregory. The junior, an elite NFL prospect, missed the season finale. He battled injuries most of the season and returned to practice Friday in Lincoln.

Nebraska also faces injuries on the offensive line. At center, Mark Pelini and top backup Ryne Reeves are out, as is Zach Sterup at right tackle.

“We’ve got to make sure we win our one-on-ones,” Armstrong said. “They play a lot of man -- make you beat them on the outside. And they’ve got a great, physical defensive line.”

No matter the individual battles, for Nebraska, the Holiday Bowl will boil down to a question: Can the Huskers find the right mindset?

“It’s not about how I want to end,” said senior I-back Ameer Abdullah, allowed extra time to heal from a knee injury that slowed him in November. “It’s about how we should end things.”
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LINCOLN, Neb. -- Nebraska lost 28-24 to Minnesota on Saturday, blowing a two-touchdown lead in the Golden Gophers’ first win at Memorial Stadium in eight tries since 1960 and their first win on the road over a ranked team in 21 attempts, dating to 2000.

For Minnesota, it marked a major hurdle cleared and set it up to play in a Big Ten West title game next week in Madison, Wisconsin. Heady stuff for Jerry Kill’s team.

And for Nebraska? It changed nothing.

A victory on Senior Day would have felt nice and looked good. It would have made for a more enjoyable Nebraska Thanksgiving before the regular season ends Friday at Iowa.

Nothing changed here, though. This is the new normal at Nebraska, and even the coach won't argue.

“We don’t play very smart,” Bo Pelini said after the game in matter-of-fact fashion.

[+] EnlargeBo Pelini
Bruce Thorson/USA TODAY SportsWith Saturday's loss, winning critical games in November continued to be an issue for Bo Pelini.
He criticized the Huskers’ defensive execution and lamented fumbles after the catch by freshman De’Mornay Pierson-El in the closing seconds of the second and fourth quarters, both within grasp of the end zone.

“We had some good things happen,” Nebraska quarterback Tommy Amstrong Jr. said. “We had some bad things happen. Bad things happened at the wrong time.”

This is what you get now with Pelini’s program. There’s no way around it.

As Nebraska stands one defeat from a seventh straight four-loss season -- it merits mention alongside the streak of six consecutive nine-win seasons -- fans and school administration must ask these questions:

Are the Huskers in a good spot? And are they moving in the right direction?

Nebraska has lost three of its past four November home games. Pelini is 10-6 in the money-making month since the Huskers joined the Big Ten in 2011, including a 4-0 finish in 2012 before they fell off a cliff on Dec. 1. Remember that 70-31 Big Ten title game whooping by Wisconsin?

I don’t pretend to know what athletic director Shawn Eichorst thinks about this cycle of painful late-season weekends. Many people failed last year to forecast his moves.

When Eichorst, in August, last discussed football in public, he said Pelini’s program was “stable.”

The possibility exists that nothing has changed in Eichorst’s evaluation.

The Huskers lost by five touchdowns a week ago at Wisconsin, their 10th loss by 20 points or more since 2008. Minnesota didn’t break any all-time records in Lincoln, but the Gophers rushed for 281 yards and four touchdowns.

And even if Minnesota hadn’t exposed the Huskers on defense again or if Pierson-El hadn’t lost those fumbles, it wouldn’t have provided any answers about Nebraska’s direction.

Last week was about answering those questions. Not Saturday.

Pelini said he saw signs in practice for weeks of the defensive meltdowns that occurred the past two weeks. Before November, the breakdowns in execution had not hurt the Huskers badly.

“Last two weeks, they hurt us,” he said. “It’s as simple as that.”

Nebraska drilled repeatedly in practice on Minnesota’s zone-heavy rushing attack. The Gophers did not hurt Nebraska with new tricks.

“They were things that we covered, went over, executed, and then [when] we got into the game, it was like we never saw them before,” Pelini said. “It’s a bad recipe.”

According to safety Nate Gerry, the Huskers did not realize Minnesota would rely so much on QB Mitch Leidner in the run game. He carried 22 times for 111 yards.

All of it speaks to a disconnect. Either the Huskers aren’t coaching it right or they’ve got the wrong players in place. Regardless, Pelini is tasked to find the fix.

Will he? Can he?

Nebraska lost starting center Mark Pelini and star receiver Kenny Bell to injury on the first offensive series. For Minnesota, standout tailback David Cobb went down in the second half.

The Gophers simply responded better, getting tough play from backups Rodrick Williams and Donnell Kirkwood.

Williams burned Nebraska with a 19-yard touchdown run in the third quarter, bouncing to the outside on fourth-and-1 as the Huskers sold out to the inside. It was a gutsy call by Kill.

Minutes later as Nebraska led by three points, Pelini told offensive coordinator Tim Beck to look for a big play on second-and-1. A wasted down, Pelini said. Theiren Cockran sacked Armstrong to kill the drive.

“You know what, you live and learn,” Pelini said. “That call isn’t why we lost the game. Trust me on that.”

Trust in Pelini is waning, a reality unchanged by the result on Saturday.

No, this game didn’t change anything for Nebraska, which is perhaps more disturbing than the alternative.
LINCOLN, Neb. -- Minnesota stopped a streak of 20 consecutive road losses to ranked foes that dated to 2000, coming from two touchdowns behind to upset Nebraska 28-24 on Saturday at Memorial Stadium.

The victory keeps the Gophers in control of their destiny in the Big Ten West and secures a second straight eight-win season for just the second time in 50 years.

Nebraska lost center Mark Pelini and receiver Kenny Bell to injuries on the opening drive. Minnesota tailback David Cobb left with an injury in the fourth quarter, but coach Jerry Kill’s club made plays to win at the end.

How the game was won: Minnesota cornerback Briean Boddy-Calhoun stripped Nebraska freshman De'Mornay Pierson-El of the ball at the Minnesota 2-yard line after the freshman receiver grabbed a 28-yard third-down pass from Tommy Armstrong Jr. with 1:19 to play. The Gophers ran out the clock to earn their first victory in Lincoln since 1960.

Game ball goes to: Minnesota quarterback Mitch Leidner, who carried a heavy load before and after Cobb left with an apparent leg injury. The sophomore completed 8 of 17 passes for 135 yards and rushed 22 times for 110 yards and two touchdowns, including the game winner from 3 yards out with 3:25 left. Leidner led the decisive 80-yard, 10-play march, highlighted by his 38-yard strike to KJ Maye on third down to the Nebraska 25.

What it means: Another long week ahead for the Cornhuskers, who are mired in a second straight troublesome November. A year ago, Iowa piled on at the end. The mood this time around might grown even more ugly in Nebraska as speculation figures to grow about Bo Pelini’s job security. For the Gophers, it's another landmark moment in Kill's fourth season.

Best play: Nebraska safety Nathan Gerry used a convoy of blockers to go 85 yards after Randy Gregory blocked a Ryan Santoso 30-yard field goal attempt with five minutes to play in the first half. The touchdown put the Huskers ahead 21-7.

video What’s next: It only gets more difficult for the Gophers (8-3, 4-2), who close the regular season next week at Wisconsin. With a win, Minnesota would earn a rematch with Ohio State in the Big Ten title game. Nebraska (8-3, 4-3) visits Iowa on Friday.

Pregame: Capital One Bowl

December, 31, 2012
12/31/12
5:11
PM ET
Georgia (11-2, 7-1 SEC) vs. Nebraska (10-3, 7-1 Big Ten)

Who to watch: Considering that the two defenses in the Capital One Bowl rank 95th (Nebraska at 194.9 rushing yards allowed per game) and 77th (Georgia, 177.8 ypg) against the run, we recommend that you keep an eye on the respective teams’ running threats.

The run is particularly important for Nebraska, which ranks eighth nationally in rushing offense at 254.5 yards per game. Quarterback Taylor Martinez (175 attempts, 973 yards, 10 TDs) and running backs Ameer Abdullah (219-1,089, 8 TDs) and Rex Burkhead (74-535, 4 TDs) present a major threat for a Bulldogs defense that has surrendered 300-plus rushing yards in three straight games.

Georgia’s offense is more balanced than Nebraska’s -- the Bulldogs average 274.2 passing yards and 184.2 rushing yards per game -- but offensive coordinator Mike Bobo will no doubt try to set up his passing game with his dynamite one-two punch of freshman tailbacks, Todd Gurley (199-1,260, 16 TDs) and Keith Marshall (109-723, 8 TDs). Marshall has two touchdown runs of 70-plus yards this season, providing the home run threat out of the backfield that the Bulldogs have lacked for several years.

What to Watch: Georgia’s defensive front against Nebraska’s offensive line. The Cornhuskers have a pair of All-Big Ten offensive linemen in guard Spencer Long and tackle Jeremiah Sirles, but center Justin Jackson is out with an injured ankle. Their backup center, either Mark Pelini or Cole Pensick, will not have to go up against Georgia’s senior All-SEC noseguard, John Jenkins, who will miss the game after being declared academically ineligible last week. But they’ll hardly get much of a break in having to block 6-foot-6, 355-pound nose Kwame Geathers, who will replace Jenkins in the starting lineup.

Nonetheless, after getting shredded by Alabama’s powerful running game, Georgia’s defensive line will be subject to close observation against Nebraska’s talented runners.

Why watch? The Capital One Bowl is traditionally one of the highest-profile non-BCS bowl games, and this one fits the bill. No. 7 Georgia came within 5 yards of upsetting Alabama and playing for the BCS title. No. 16 Nebraska could have played in the Rose Bowl before laying an egg against Wisconsin in the Big Ten championship game.

Surprisingly enough, though, these teams have played only once before despite their positions as two of the winningest programs in college football history. Nebraska’s 45-6 win over the Bulldogs in the 1969 Sun Bowl still ranks as the worst bowl loss in Georgia history.

Prediction: Nebraska is going to score, but can it score enough to keep up with Georgia? The Cornhuskers have played six games against teams that rank in the nation’s top 50 in scoring offense. They went 3-3 in those games and allowed an average of 39.5 points per game. And here’s the kicker: Georgia boasts the highest-scoring offense Nebraska has faced this season, as the Bulldogs rank 19th nationally in scoring at 37.2 points per game. Georgia 38, Nebraska 24.

Bielema, Pelini preview B1G title game

November, 30, 2012
11/30/12
6:00
PM ET
INDIANAPOLIS -- Nebraska head coach Bo Pelini and Wisconsin head coach Bret Bielema met with the media on Friday on the eve of the Big Ten championship game at Lucas Oil Stadium.

Here are a few highlights and notes from each coach's media session:

Pelini
  • Pelini declined to name a starting center between Mark Pelini and Cole Pensick. Both competed for the job this week after Justin Jackson got hurt in the Iowa game. "You're going to see both of them," he said. " You're going to see a mix of guys that go through there both at the left guard spot, and the center spot."
  • Nebraska will also be without starting defensive tackle Baker Steinkuhler, but Pelini isn't expecting any drop-off. "I feel like we have our full gamut, everything that we want, offensively, defensively at our disposal," he said. "And I have a lot of confidence in the guys that are going to be playing."
  • One plus on the health front: Pelini said running back Rex Burkhead, who returned last week in the second half at Iowa, is 100 percent healthy and that he "knocked the rust off" last week. For the first time since the Sept. 29 game against Wisconsin, Nebraska will have a healthy Burkhead and Ameer Abdullah ready to go in its backfield. "Having Rex back for us, I think, is big," he said. "We're going to have a whole other option there as far as somebody to carry the football. I think that will make Ameer that much more effective. "
  • The Huskers have some extra motivation to win their first conference championship since 1999. This is Tom Osborne's final year as athletic director, and taking him to the Rose Bowl would be a great sendoff. "It would be pretty special to be able to present Coach with a trophy," Pelini said. "It means a lot to me."
  • Pelini guaranteed that Nebraska fans would show up for Saturday's game, even though ticket sales have been sluggish. "I'm sure there will be a great atmosphere," he said. "I know Wisconsin travels well. Nebraska travels well. [But] I don't care if there are 10 people in the stands -- it's going to be a heck of a football game."
Bielema
  • Linebacker Chris Borland, who missed the past two games with a hamstring injury, and wide receiver Jared Abbrederis, who suffered a head injury late last week at Penn State, are both full go and have practiced since Wednesday, Bielema said. Getting Borland back will make a big difference. "He makes you a really good head coach in a short amount of time," Bielema said. "We were doing what was supposed to be a halfspeed kicking drill on Thursday. And No. 44 decided to go full speed, and was very disruptive, shall we say. Really good players make players in the huddle better around them. And No. 44's that kind of guy."
  • Wisconsin has experience in this game, but not starting quarterback Curt Phillips. The senior did not make the trip to Indianapolis last year as he was recovering from his third knee surgery. But Phillips got to go through Friday's walk-through at Lucas Oil Stadium (Nebraska declined to do a walk-through), and Phillips got a special extra treat at the Colts' home field. "He's a [Peyton] Manning fan growing up, so we put him in his [Manning's] locker," Bielema said. "What used to be his locker, we were told. Gave him his own spot there. He was like a king bee sitting in there today."
  • As the home team this year (the Legends team got the home designation last year), Wisconsin is enjoying the perks of having the Colts locker room. "It is different," Bielema said. "You walk into that pro locker room, and it's bigger. I've got a head coach's office in there, and I could bring 15 of my buddies and we could have a heck of a good time. There is more room in there than you could ever think of."
  • The Badgers have dealt with a lot of tough losses this year, including overtime defeats in three of their past four games. Bielema said this team deals with adversity as well as any group he's had. But the coaching staff still had to be cognizant of the players' mindset. "It's very important for us to not brow beat our guys," he said. "You have to be hard on them, but on the same account you can't lose them. We did some things in practice that curtailed that, but also just physically backed off them a little bit, to make sure you weren't taxing them, because everybody is human. You have a breaking point that's there."
  • Wisconsin would probably like to import some of the wind and cold that slowed down Nebraska's offense last week in Iowa City. Instead, the Huskers will play under perfect conditions indoors, and the turf play to the benefit of a speedy team. "It's very, very clear that they're probably one of the fastest teams, if not the fastest from A to Z, that we've played this year," Bielema said. "I tried to get them to put in a longer turf out there, but nobody bought into it. So we're going to play on the fast track out there. But we've got some speed, too. We've got some guys that can run. I think our guys are gassed up and ready to play."
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:

[+] EnlargeBall
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.

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