NCF Nation: Matt O'Hanlon
"Last year when we played him, he was a young quarterback just learning the system and everything," defensive back DeJon Gomes said. "One of the biggest things we took away from that game is he’s a competitor and he’s going to do the best he can to get his team into a situation to win."
And one more thing.
No kidding. Jones has racked up 527 pass attempts in 2010, in part because of Oklahoma's hurry-up offense and in part to find more success as a sophomore passer.
No quarterback in the Big 12 has more than 500, and Dominique Davis at Eastern Carolina is the only quarterback in America with more attempts than Oklahoma's Jones.
The Blackshirts picked off Jones five times in Lincoln in 2009 -- including three by departed safety Matt O'Hanlon -- though Huskers coach Bo Pelini tossed a wet blanket on talk of that game having any relevance over a year later.
"It's a different time, different place, different offense, new challenges," Pelini said. "The furthest thing from my mind is what happened in that game last year."
What does matter is what's happened this year. Nebraska has put together the No. 2 pass defense in the country, allowing just 144 yards a game. Jones averages almost 330 a game, good for No. 3 nationally.
"It’s going to be an exciting game, especially with them having one of the top offenses in the country and us priding ourself on defense," Gomes said. "It’ll be a fun one to watch."
If history repeats itself, it'll be a lot more fun for Huskers fans than Oklahoma fans when it comes to passing the ball. On the way to that No. 2 ranking, the Nebraska secondary has ruined the days of a handful of good quarterbacks. A sampling:
- Nathan Enderle, Idaho: 16-31, 141 yards, TD, 5 INT
- Jake Locker, Washington: 4-20, 71 yards, TD, 2 INT (stress: not a typo)
- Carson Coffman, Kansas State: 14-22, 91 yards, TD, INT
- Garrett Gilbert, Texas: 4-16, 62 yards
- Blaine Gabbert, Missouri: 18-42, 199 yards, TD, INT
- Quinn Mecham, Kansas: 3-13, 15 yards, INT
- Cody Hawkins, Colorado: 10-26, 162 yards, 2 TD, 2 INT
Only Iowa State's Austen Arnaud, Oklahoma State's Brandon Weeden and Ryan Tannehill at Texas A&M managed decent days against the secondary. Part of Weeden's success was in finding receiver Justin Blackmon, one of the nation's best, for 135 of his 283 yards and both touchdowns. Only Tannehill got a victory with his success, however moderate (19-29, 172 yards).
Jones has another of the nation's best receivers, Ryan Broyles, to throw to, but even Broyles could only manage eight catches for 74 yards in 2009, one of his lowest outputs of the season while healthy.
"They have a trigger man who can get the ball to everybody," Pelini said of Jones. "They stretch the field on you. It's a good challenge for us."
It could be an even bigger challenge for Jones.
Update: My pre-spring power rankings will go up later this afternoon.
The Huskers will do without the services of the House of Spears, but the Pelini brothers’ defense was hardly built around one player. Replacing linebacker Phillip Dillard and safeties Matt O’Hanlon and Larry Asante won’t be easy, but the Nebraska defense should still be stout.
As for the offense, last season’s home loss to Iowa State in which the Huskers had more turnovers (8) than points (7) would suggest the only way to go is up.
To repeat in the North, the Huskers must defend Memorial Stadium, where they’ll get to face Missouri and Texas.
Missouri returns 18 starters, including junior quarterback Blaine Gabbert, who threw for 3,593 yards and 24 touchdowns as a sophomore.
He’ll need support from still-maturing senior corners Carl Gettis and Kevin Rutland, who gave up 427 yards passing to Baylor freshman quarterback Nick Florence (almost 200 more yards than he had in any other game last season) in an ugly home loss to the Bears, negating Gabbert’s career high of 468 yards.
For Missouri, taking back the North will mean surviving a difficult early conference schedule, which opens with Colorado but then forces the Tigers to play at Texas A&M before hosting Oklahoma. The next week, they travel to Lincoln for another showdown with Nebraska that would give the winner the inside track at a North title.
3. Kansas State
The Wildcats busted in their bowl-or-bust game against Nebraska to close out last season, but will try and rebound with a run at the North title. They’ll miss Brandon Banks’ kick returns, but Daniel Thomas (1,265 yards in 2009) wouldn’t mind getting his number called almost 250 times again like he did last season. For Kansas State, the earlier the uncertainty ends at quarterback, the better. Three candidates enter spring with a chance to start.
The personnel behind Kansas’ missing offensive firepower last season is gone. Kansas standouts QB Todd Reesing, receivers Dezmon Briscoe and Kerry Meier and running back Jake Sharp won’t return, and new coach Turner Gill will try to patch back together a team that finished last season on a seven-game losing streak after winning its conference opener against Iowa State.
Sophomore running back Toben Opurum provides a nice foundation for Gill’s new offense after playing well when Sharp sat out or was slowed with injuries.
5. Iowa State
Paul Rhoads’ team showed progress in 2009, finishing the season with a win over Minnesota in the Insight Bowl for the program’s first winning season since 2005. He’ll try to improve on that with only four defensive starters returning this season.
Quarterback Austen Arnaud and running back Alexander Robinson return, but on the Cyclones’ schedule, so do Oklahoma and Texas. They’ll also face Utah, Iowa and Northern Illinois in nonconference games. Returning to a bowl for a second consecutive season won’t be easy.
The Buffaloes didn’t earn much respect around the conference after giving up 54 points to Toledo in an early-season loss in 2009. They finished with three close losses at Iowa State and Oklahoma State before finishing the season with a home loss to North champ Nebraska.
If Colorado wants to dig itself out of the North basement, it’ll need Tyler Hansen to play like he did in the first half of a win over Kansas in Hansen’s first start, when the Buffaloes charged to a 24-3 second-quarter lead behind two Hansen touchdowns.
Cooper chose the Cornhuskers over Notre Dame, Arizona and Illinois.
Cooper, a 6-foot-2, 205-pounder, played wide receiver as well as defensive back in high school, but he is committed to playing defense for the Cornhuskers.
“When I visited there and talked with the coaches, I just felt comfortable,” Cooper told the Lincoln Journal Star. "I feel I can go in there and contribute."
With the loss of starters Larry Asante and Matt O'Hanlon, the Cornhuskers need safeties. Cooper might be good enough to contribute immediately.
His decision came on the heels of Brion Carnes' commitment to the Cornhuskers earlier on Wednesday.
It's been a good day for the Cornhuskers with an announcement set early this afternoon with Owamagbe Odighizuwa. If they can get him it would be an unprecedented late recruiting hat trick by Pelini and his staff.
But there were still enough top producers to fill out a team of top performers from the conference's 4-4 bowl season.
Here's a look at my top performers:
QB Landry Jones, Oklahoma: Passed for career-best 418 yards and added three passing TDs to direct Sooners’ Sun Bowl victory over Stanford.
RB Alexander Robinson, Iowa State: Rushed for 137 yards -- his sixth 100-yard game of the season -- to pace Cyclones’ victory over Minnesota in the Insight Bowl.
RB Baron Batch, Texas Tech: Rushed for 100 yards, scored two TDs and produced six receptions for 85 yards in Red Raiders’ comeback victory in the Alamo Bowl over Michigan State.
WR Jordan Shipley, Texas: Overcame slow start to produce 10 catches for 122 yards and two TDs against Alabama, becoming Texas’ leading career receiver.
WR Ryan Broyles, Oklahoma: Produced career-best totals of 13 receptions, 156 receiving yards and also matched career high with three TD receptions to help beat Stanford in the Sun Bowl.
TE Trent Ratterree, Oklahoma: Grabbed three receptions for 86 yards, including pivotal 38-yard catch that was Jones’ longest pass of game in Sun Bowl victory over Stanford.
OL Ricky Henry, Nebraska: Helped Cornhuskers dominate in the trenches in biggest Cornhuskers' bowl victory since 2000.
OL Kelechi Osemele, Iowa State: Dominant effort helped Cyclones claim first bowl victory since 2004 and only third bowl victory in school history.
OL Jacob Hickman, Nebraska: Cornhuskers’ center set the tone for easy victory over Arizona.
OL Brandon Carter, Texas Tech: Colorful lineman helped Tech roll up school bowl-record 31 first downs, 579 total yards against Michigan State.
OL Trent Williams, Oklahoma: All-American moved from tackle to center and didn’t miss a beat in the Sooners’ Sun Bowl triumph.
DL Sergio Kindle, Texas: Had his best game of the season with eight tackles, 2.5 sacks and 3.5 tackles for losses against Alabama.
DL Pierre Allen, Nebraska: Set the tone for Nebraska’s pass rush with two sacks, four tackles, forced a fumble and notched a quarterback hurry in the Cornhuskers’ shutout over Arizona -- first for a Big 12 team in a bowl game in conference history.
DL Christopher Lyle, Iowa State: Insight Bowl defensive MVP produced five tackles, including two for losses and one sack to lead Cyclones’ victory over Minnesota.
DL Rajon Henley, Texas Tech: Four tackles, four quarterback hurries, one sack against Michigan State.
LB Phillip Dillard, Nebraska: Produced team-high seven stops, broke up one pass in Cornhuskers’ shutout over Arizona.
LB Ryan Reynolds, Oklahoma: Produced 12 tackles (three solo, nine assists), two quarterback hurries and one tackle for loss against Stanford.
LB Andre Sexton, Oklahoma State: Produced 10 tackles, two interceptions and one tackle for a loss in Cotton Bowl loss to Mississippi.
DB Matt O’Hanlon, Nebraska: Earned Holiday Bowl defensive MVP honors with five stops, a 37-yard interception and a pass broken up against Arizona.
DB Ter’ran Benton, Iowa State: In his first game back after recovering from mid-season broken leg, notched five tackles and game-clinching fumble recovery in Cyclones’ Insight Bowl victory over Minnesota.
DB Jamar Wall, Texas Tech: Produced six tackles, broke up two passes and one interception against Michigan State.
DB Quinton Carter, Oklahoma: Notched eight stops (five tackles, three assists) and added an interception in Sun Bowl victory over Stanford.
P Quinn Sharp, Oklahoma State: Averaged 50.2 yards per punt on his eight punts, including four punts inside 20 in Cotton Bowl.
K Alex Henery, Nebraska: Converted all four field goals of 47, 50, 43 and 22 yards to set the Holiday Bowl record. His big night gave him a Nebraska single-season record of 24 for the season.
RET Niles Paul, Nebraska: The Holiday Bowl offensive MVP amassed 94 yards in returns, including a 49-yard kickoff return and a 28-yard punt return. He also added four catches for 123 yards, including a clinching 74-yard TD grab from Zac Lee.
The Cornhuskers have developed into one of the nation’s stingiest defenses after allowing only one opponent to score more than 21 points against them so far this season. But they will have to play one of their best games of the season to boost them to their first Big 12 title since 1999.
The Longhorn offense is third in the country in scoring (43.0 points) and 11th in total offense (451.6 yards). Texas is one of the most balanced offenses in the country after running the ball 447 times and passing it 462 times this season.
“They do everything well,” Nebraska defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh said. “They have balance and great receivers. I don’t see a problem in their offense. They have a mobile quarterback who can hurt you with his arm and his feet. It will be a big challenge that we’ll be up for.”
Nebraska is third in the country in scoring defense (11.1 points) and 11th in total defense (291.4 yards). The Cornhuskers rank among the top 25 teams nationally in six major defensive statistical categories -- rush defense, pass efficiency defense, scoring defense, total defense, sacks and pass defense.
Their star-studded defensive cast is headed by their strength inside with Suh and Jared Crick, who are the best pair of defensive tackles in the Big 12. Suh undoubtedly is the best defensive player in the conference and maybe in the nation. Crick is a solid producer who set a school single-game record for sacks earlier this season with five against Baylor.
The secondary also is dotted with playmakers, including All-Big 12 first-team selections Larry Asante at safety and cornerback Prince Amukamara.
The Nebraska talent has caught the attention of Texas quarterback Colt McCoy, who says it could be the toughest defense he has faced this season.
“They're really physical,” McCoy said. “They're really well coached. You see that on the film. They're not going to make mistakes. They're just really good at what they do. It's going to be a huge challenge for us.”
The team that has been the most successful against the Longhorns this season was Oklahoma, which brought a variety of new blitz packages against McCoy. It caused him to fumble and throw an interception in his worst game of the season.
Former Nebraska defensive coordinator Kevin Cosgrove elected to utilize a similar strategy against McCoy and Texas in 2007. While they blitzed on virtually every down, the gambling strategy paid off for a 17-9 Nebraska lead after three quarters.
The Longhorns adjusted in the fourth quarter with a heavy use of a zone-read play with Jamaal Charles, who rushed for 216 of his 290 yards in the fourth quarter alone. The result was a wild 28-25 comeback victory for the Longhorns.
McCoy, then a sophomore, struggled in that game by completing only 12 of 28 passes for 181 yards.
But that Texas offense and McCoy’s sputtering performance is a marked contrast from this season, when he’s developed into the conference’s best offensive player and a likely finalist for the Heisman Trophy.
“He can do it all,” Asante said. “He can look you off, come back the other way. He can scramble. He's a better runner now. ... He's a better passer, more accurate. He's just an overall good quarterback.”
In order to combat McCoy, Nebraska defensive coordinator Carl Pelini has said that his team can’t afford to rush four down linemen and send seven players back in pass coverages.
One key might be gleaned from a defensive alignment that was used regularly against Colorado. The Cornhuskers used a five-man front with six defensive backs. It was the defense that was employed when safety Matt O’Hanlon produced a 20-yard interception return for a touchdown.
“I believe we have to play mistake free defense,” Asante said. “We have to put it together and play the best football we’ve played all year to beat these guys. It’s as simple as that.”
Henery just uncorked a 62-yarder to again swing field position around. He's already accounted for two kicks inside the 5-yard line.
One kick helped set up Matt O'Hanlon for a 20-yard pass interception return for a score three plays later to extend Nebraska's lead to 21-7.
It's not a surprise that Henery has had a big game kicking at altitude.
But his 54.7 yard-per-punt average has been the biggest statistic in the half for the Cornhuskers.
But I didn't expect anything like this.
Sometimes even a pinch can’t convince Nebraska safety Matt O’Hanlon how far he’s come in the past five seasons.
|AP Photo/Dave Weaver|
|Matt O’Hanlon has 25 tackles and four interceptions this season.|
That’s what makes his performance last week in the Cornhuskers’ gritty 10-3 triumph over Oklahoma so memorable. O’Hanlon had the game of his career, producing 12 tackles and tying the school record with three interceptions as he earned national defensive player of the week honors from the Football Writers Association of America.
That game has highlighted a senior season where he has rebounded from adversity to become a key producer in the Cornhuskers’ emerging defensive unit. Still, it makes the 24-year-old O’Hanlon wonder when his dream might end.
“I ask myself that every day,” O’Hanlon said. “It’s amazing I’ve come this far, but there’s still more to go.”
O’Hanlon is a throwback player to Nebraska’s storied tradition as a haven for walk-on players. Like many young Nebraska boys, he grew up idolizing the Cornhuskers and hoping for the day he could play at Memorial Stadium.
That call didn't come after a high school career in the Omaha suburb of Bellevue, where he played running back and quarterback and was a state championship power-lifter. He instead chose Division II South Dakota, which was the only school to offer him a scholarship.
But after a stint of only a few weeks with the Coyotes program, O'Hanlon decided he had to come back home and play with the Cornhuskers.
“Just going up there and knowing what Nebraska's tradition was like, it was just something I didn't necessarily want at the time," O'Hanlon said. "I wanted to come to Nebraska and be a part of this tradition and be a part of games like Nebraska and Oklahoma."
After a semester at Nebraska outside the program, O’Hanlon responded to the call of an open tryout for the team organized by former coach Bill Callahan. His numbers in a combine-like workout were strong enough to get him invited back for spring practice -- the only player among the 60 or so attendees to get a call back.
From there, O'Hanlon spent three years in the program patiently awaiting his chance to play.
That opportunity finally materialized with the arrival of Bo Pelini as the Cornhuskers’ coach.
Pelini and his brother, Carl, the Cornhuskers’ defensive coordinator, liked O’Hanlon’s spirit and hitting abilities. But they knew it would be a long transformation in getting him into a trusted defensive player.
“When these coaches first got here I didn't know how to play defense," O'Hanlon said. "That first spring especially was a big learning year for me and how I learned to play defense."
His development was strong enough to earn him the starting job at the beginning of last season, making starts in the first nine games. He shared the job with Ricky Thenarse the rest of the year, but punctuated it with a key third-down pass deflection in the Gator Bowl that helped seal that victory over Clemson.
And because he had never attended a class at South Dakota in 2004, the NCAA granted him an additional season of eligibility this year.
Like earlier in his career, his senior season has been marked by perseverance. His breakdown in deep passing coverage allowed a long late pass that helped set up Virginia Tech’s game-winning touchdown in the final two minutes.
“That was the low point of my career,” O’Hanlon said. “It was hard to not have that play replaying in my head every day. But to have a good game like I did last week helps out.
“Hopefully, it doesn’t erase the memory but substitutes it with something else.”
The Cornhuskers have shown a similar durability. After losing back-to-back home games to Texas Tech and Iowa State, Nebraska has rebounded to win its last two games over Baylor and Oklahoma. That’s placed the Cornhuskers in the driver’s seat for the North Division title if they can win out their remaining three games.
If they do, a big reason will be O’Hanlon, who is nicknamed “Old Hanlon” by his younger teammates.
“You hear about guys with something to prove," Nebraska defensive tackle Jared Crick said. "Matty is that guy. I couldn’t be prouder of what he’s done."
O’Hanlon may never play football again after the completion of this season. But he’s content with what he’s accomplished as his plans on a special-education teacher in his hometown are moving forward. His wife, Amy, is a registered nurse and their lives will be content whether he plays football again or not.
“To have gone through all the things I’ve gone through has been a roller-coaster ride for sure,” O’Hanlon said. “But it makes it even more worthwhile.”
Posted by ESPN.com's Tim Griffin
A productive day at College Station yesterday has me excited about spring football all across the Big 12.
As such, I couldn't wait to scan through the newspapers and Web sites early this morning to see what was happening around the conference.
Here are some of the more notable stories.
- A leaner Nebraska defensive end Pierre Allen tells the Omaha World-Herald's Rich Kaipust that he's more able to withstand the demands of playing the Cornhuskers' defense after his recent body transformation.
- Bryan Eagle beat writer Robert Cessna reports that Texas A&M coach Mike Sherman is making do with his current roster until his mammoth 28-man squadron of freshmen arrives later this summer.
- Veteran Oklahoman columnist Berry Tramel claims that the controversy about Texas awarding itself an asterisk-influenced Big 12 championship has been greatly overblown.
- Funeral services have been set for Saturday for Kyle Woods, a paralyzed former Baylor defensive back who died last week after a heart attack, the Waco Tribune-Herald's John Werner reports.
- The Boulder Camera's Kyle Ringo reports that Colorado coaches are scrambling to find enough young wide receivers after freshman Chance Blackmon stunned them by announcing he wants to transfer.
- The Lincoln Journal-Star's Brian Christopherson writes about former walk-on Nebraska safety Matt O'Hanlon, who is hoping to build on his game-saving play at the end of the Cornhuskers' Gator Bowl victory over Clemson.
- The Des Moines Register's Randy Peterson writes that Iowa State cornerback Leonard Johnson is relieved that new secondary coach Chris Ash decided to stay with the Cyclones.
- Missouri starting tailback Derrick Washington looked good in his first practice of the spring, Kansas City Star beat writer Mike De Armond reports.
- Greg Evans of the Web site bleacherreport.com analyzes Oklahoma's offense and defense heading into Saturday's spring game in Norman.
TOP 25 SCOREBOARD
8:00 PM ET 20 Duke 1 Florida State 8:17 PM ET 2 Ohio State 10 Michigan State 4:00 PM ET 5 Missouri 3 Auburn 12:00 PM ET 17 Oklahoma 6 Oklahoma State 7:45 PM ET 7 Stanford 11 Arizona State 3:30 PM ET 25 Texas 9 Baylor 12:00 PM ET 16 UCF Southern Methodist 10:00 PM ET Utah State 23 Fresno State