Q&A with Nebraska Cornhuskers blog Corn Nation

Eric Francis

The Minnesota Golden Gophers and the Nebraska Cornhuskers square off this Saturday at 2:30 in Lincoln. We talked to Jon Johnston and three other writers from the SB Nation Nebraska blog Corn Nation about the game, the Huskers season thus far, Bo Pelini's not-so-hot anymore seat, and more...

The Daily Gopher: So be honest: before the season started did you think Nebraska would be two winnable games away from playing in the B1G title game?

David McGee: I thought they would if they were able to navigate the Michigan teams, which they did. I’m not sure I could say I expected to see them sweep those games, but I thought if they did they’d have a chance to be in the position they’re in.

James Stevenson: I figured we had a pretty good shot, actually, of making the title game and being in this position at this point. The defense couldn’t get much worse than 2011, and the offensive was going to improve. If you had told me we’d be without Rex Burkhead all season and be two games away, or that we would trail four Big Ten teams in the second half by double digits and be two winnable games away, I’d have thought you were crazy.

Jon Johnston: Heck yes! That’s partially because I’m delusional alla the time, and partially because I figured that we could figure it out as the season went on. I didn’t think we’d lose to UCLA, but I thought we’d have two losses in conference along with Michigan. So far so good!

Mike Jaixen: I thought they would as well; I figured that they would probably mess up one game, probably at Ohio State...but like Phil Steele, I thought Nebraska should have been the favorite to win the B1G’s West division.

The Daily Gopher: No real surprise that Nebraska's rushing offense has been a juggernaut. But what's going on with Taylor Martinez? While I'm guessing he still looks like he's "arm-punting" the ball when he throws it, it seems like his passes are being fair-caught- I mean caught in all the right places. He's completing 62% of his throws, is one of only two B1G QB's to throw for over 2000 yards this season, and has a 19-8 TD/INT ratio. What's happened that's made him so much better as a passer this season than past years?

DM: A few things happened. He got some help in the offseason. There’s been some improvement in his mechanics, but it’s still not a masterpiece. Also, being in the second year of the system has helped. He’s clearly more comfortable. He’s hitting his receivers in stride much more often. The miracle catches have decreased significantly. The other thing to happen is that his receivers got better. The drops this season have been nearly non-existent. Kenny Bell, Quincy Enunwa, Kyler Reed at TE and the emergence of Jamal Turner the last half of the season has been as big of a reason as any.

JS: You still see him regress a little bit when things get hairy in the pocket, but overall he is night and day from last year. I think the outside help was big for him. The wide receiver corps has also be gigantic, and quite honestly, I think it’s one of the best in the country in terms of starting three plus Kyler Reed. Though it does help to illustrate how Nebraska not having a true QB coach is an issue. I love Tim Beck, and Joe Ganz was great, but we don’t seem to have anyone on staff who is an expert at developing QB mechanics. Given Bo’s seeming desire to have a running threat at QB, this’ll be something worth watching as we move on.

Jon: It’s his second year starting in Tim Beck’s offense which was new last year. Beck is growing as an offensive coordinator as well - the previous year he would tend to get stuck in a rut and try to have the offense force things when they weren’t there. So did Martinez. Second year - Beck can get into a rhythm and Martinez’ decision making has gotten a lot better as well.

Mike: Everybody else has covered this. His fundamentals are significantly improved - not perfect, mind you - but improved. And he’s a junior who’s growing more comfortable with the game slowing down for him.

The Daily Gopher: The vaunted Blackshirts defense is only 9th in scoring defense and 5th in total defense (in the Big Ten). Looks like the pass D has been solid and they're leading the conference in sacks, so what's up with the run defense?

DM: Your guess is as good as mine. A lot of it is fundamentals tackling. I’m sure there’s a coaching component, but I think most of it is just that the talent has declined on the line. There’s some talent there, but not what there was a couple of years ago.

JS: A few culprits. A look at our schedule shows a lot of teams that like to run the ball, and we got shredded by a few of them (Ohio State, UCLA). But that said, the Huskers are still giving up waaaaay too many yards per rushing attempt (4.39 yards). It’s a dangerous achilles heel. That said, what terrifies me is that four of Nebraska’s last five opponents did better than Nebraska’s season averages in terms of rushing yards and yards per attempt. Only Michigan was shut down. Also strangely, Nebraska’s best performance this season against the run was against Wisconsin - something they’ll need to do again to win the conference crown.

Jon: The interior linemen aren’t consistent. Baker Steinkuhler and Chase Rome, Thad Randle have a problem getting caught up in blocks sometimes. Earlier on in the season the linebackers tended to get caught up as well. Redshirt freshman David Santos has emerged as a good alternative to Alonzo Whaley. Whaley plays well against power, Santos against speed and spread. So the team has gotten better as the year has gone on.

Mike: In recent weeks, Baker Steinkuhler and Eric Martin have upped their game, but the rest of the defensive line has been a huge question mark. Thad Randle has a chronic leg problem that keeps him on the sideline most of the time, so Pelini has been rotating a bunch of defensive ends inside to find something that works. Add in some spotty play by Alonzo Whaley at linebacker at times, and you’ve got a defense that can get gashed.

The Daily Gopher: I don't normally cheer for Nebraska but I'll be honest: after the Huskers beat the tar out of the Gophers this weekend I will be a huge, huge NU fan for your next two games against Iowa and Wisconsin. Please, beat them both. Badly. Embarrass them. Humiliate them. Make that smug SOB Bielema look like a pouty frat boy who's daddy just took away the keys to his Escalade. I don't even have a question, just wanted to say this.

DM: See what we can do. We’d be thrilled if they would oblige as well.

JS: Iowa and Minnesota don’t concern me that much, and I feel glad to have the insurance policy of Ohio State vs. Michigan (especially after Northwestern blew another late game lead against the Wolverines on Saturday). That said, it’s tough to beat a team twice in a season, the Badgers’ running attack seems to finally have started working, and even worse they now have a scrambling quarterback.

Jon: It’s still too early to chalk up wins against Minnesota and Iowa. This is the Big Ten - weird things happen. Hopefully they happen to Michigan and not us.

Mike: Actually, Iowa scares me only because they frequently win a game they have no business winning.

The Daily Gopher: How are you feeling about year two in the Big Ten? Still happy with the move? Do you hate Iowa a lot yet?

DM: I think we’re seeing a lot more comfortability. There has been some opining for the style of play that we saw in the Big 12, but I think most fans are still smitten with the move.

JS: I still marvel at playing Michigan, Michigan State, Ohio State, Wisconsin, Penn State and Iowa. What a treat. I miss playing against OU, Kansas State, Texas. I love every game on national TV, and the giant stadiums we play in with the traditional teams. I miss the precision offense and seemingly more tactical game in the Big XII. I like the end of season destination being the Rose Bowl and love all the New Year’s Day tie-ins against the SEC. I’ll miss pounding B1G teams in a bowl game and making fun of the conference for its out-of-conference incompetence.

Jon: Hate Iowa yet? YET? Whatever made you think a self-respecting Nebraskan would have to wait to move to the Big Ten to hate those bunch of SOBs?

As far as the move, it’s been great. We’ve had a warm welcome to the conference and we no longer have to deal with the inequity of the Big 12 (even though, honestly we benefited from it monetarily, it is not conducive to long term health). Plus, it was kind of nice seeing Missouri and Texas A&M being made out to be bad guys by their move to the SEC.

Mike: I miss some of the old rivalries, but nobody misses the drama queens in Austin. Everytime DeLoss Dodds led the Big XII to the brink of armegeddon, we thanked our lucky stars we were free of that mess. Still are, because nobody trusts Texas anymore. As for Iowa, we’ve had to listen to them for years, so they aren’t difficult to hate. They’re Colorado minus the national championship.

The Daily Gopher: Bo Pelini's seat seemed to be warming prior to the season. How are Husker fans feeling about their coach now? Do they need to win the conference for fans to be satisfied with his progress with the program, or would getting to the B1G title game be enough?

DM: Depends on who you ask. A lot of fans just want him to win, but there’s a healthy contingent of fans that really dislike the persona he portrays on the sideline. The fact is, that he’s been much better in this area the past few years. I’ve made a point of watching how other coaches act on the sidelines and interact with their players and in every game and with nearly every coach, I’ve seen similar behavior and in many cases more severe. Bo’s living off his reputation from the Texas A&M game from two seasons ago and it’s not nearly as volatile as it was.

Nebraska fans want championships. They were spoiled in the late 90’s and they still hold the the program to that standard, which is not a realistic standard to bear. Given all that’s gone on in the Big Ten this year, Nebraska fans will not be satisfied with a title game appearance. They will be expecting a win and a Rose Bowl appearance, nothing less.

JS: Bo needs to win a championship. This year is tailor made for it, he has the best offense, he should have at least some sort of defense. The funny thing is, in an alternate universe where Bo has a mustache, we might have four more losses instead of four come-from-behind wins. That’s why you play the games though, and I’m excited to see us play in Indy if we make it that far.

The reality is Bo needs that win. It’ll get a lot of folks back on his side. If he loses in the title game or misses it completely, it’ll basically be another wasted season. His detractors will cite the penalization of his teams, the idiotic turnovers, the poor special teams play and the bad recruiting / state of the roster as his downsides, and by and large, they’d be right. Nebraska, in many ways this season, has won in spite of Bo, rather than because of him.

Jon: What those guys said.

Mike: Bo’s had a small but very vocal band of detractors develop over the last couple of years. With every loss, a few more people join in. Bottom line is that Nebraska hasn’t won a conference title this century, and patience is running thin.

The Daily Gopher: In case you haven't heard, Minnesota beat Illinois last week for their sixth win of the season. Bowl eligible for the first time in three years, most fans (me included) aren't too worried about these last two regular season games, we're just happy to finally be going bowling again. Anything positive we get in these last two games is gravy (mmmmm gravy), and with the o-line and receivers decimated by injury, we're basically just hoping the Gophers don't get embarrassed in Lincoln. Do you see this game being at all close, or will it be over before halftime?

DM: Heh, well, no, frankly it shouldn’t be a close game. I’m not sure I trust Nebraska to blow anyone out at this point though. It’s been a roller coaster ride, often within games for Nebraska this season. Should it be that close? No it shouldn’t. I think it will be a game at half, wouldn’t even be shocked if Minnesota had a lead, but Nebraska has worn teams down, I expect that to happen on Saturday. I expect Nebraska to pull away with things and win fairly handily, but I don’t expect it to be by halftime. I’ll say NU: 42, MN: 24 I see the halftime score being something like 21-17 or in those whereabouts.

JS: Minnesota doesn’t have much of a run defense, and that’ll be problem. I expect we’ll see Senior RB Rex Burkhead back this week too trying to give senior day a go. I think this might actually be still in reach in the 3rd quarter for Minnesota on the scoreboard, but the game should be in control for Nebraska the whole way. Nebraska is pretty beat up from the last seven weeks of action, and has been taking it easy in practice this week, so that could let Minnesota hang around a bit more. I also expect the Huskers to call off the dogs early, and try to shorten this game to get back to resting, especially with the short 6-day week before playing Iowa on Friday. Let’s say NU: 37, MN: 17, with a close 21-10 score at halftime.

Jon: I don’t see it being that close, and I hope it’s over by half as it’d be nice to see Nebraska get a lead, keep it and not have to do this “comeback” routine again as my heart can’t take much more of that. Minnesota is really short on offensive weapons, and unless we start giving up turnovers (a distinct possibility), I don’t see how they’ll move the ball against our defense.

Having said that, Minnesota looks like they’ve found their three-year starter at quarterback in Phillip Nelson. He looks pretty good for a guy who was called into action part of the way through a redshirt season, the Gophers just need to find a good running back to compliment him.

Score, I’ll go 42-21 Nebraska, with a 28-7 lead at half.

Mike: Nebraska’s been playing with fire throughout conference play. I see no reason to expect anything different this week. The Huskers pull away in the fourth quarter, though.

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