LINCOLN — Rick Kaczenski's odometer already has plenty of Big Ten miles on it, so the Nebraska assistant can tell his defensive linemen all about taking on offensive fronts in the league.
But one trip through and they already have an idea of what's to come, starting with Wisconsin on Saturday night.
“It's Big Ten football,” defensive tackle Baker Steinkuhler said. “Teams don't try to trick you or do anything special. They just try to run down your throat. D-line play is going to dictate how the game goes.”
That's the message Kaczenski would send, if necessary. It's one learned from his seven seasons at Iowa before joining the Husker staff after last season.
Divide and conquer at the line of scrimmage and the rest will take care of itself.
“This will be, geez, my seventh time playing Wisconsin?” Kaczenski said. “It's always a tight game, and the game's won up front — and that's always going to be when you play in the Big Ten and you play a foe like Wisconsin.”
Kaczenski is readying his front four to be front and center and up to the task. Both with holding up against a power run game and with generating a pass rush, which would limit how much NU coach Bo Pelini and defensive coordinator John Papuchis have to dial extra pressure from the back.
Kaczenski said it's a challenge he wants his linemen to accept and relish.
“I just think being around the Big Ten a little longer than these guys, it's just trying to reiterate what they're about to see here in the next eight weeks and how big of a grind it's going to be and how important their steps and execution and their technique is against a team like this,” Kaczenski said. “They make you pay if you're not right. So we've got to make sure that we're dead-on for the next eight weeks.”
Each of Wisconsin's starting front five stands at least 6-foot-4 and all weigh more than 313 pounds. Right tackle Rob Havenstein is the biggest at 6-8 and 342.
Kaczenski knows from experience that you can't win by countering strictly with size or trying to beat the Badgers with speed.
“You got to have everything, because they got speed, too,” he said. “They're athletic guys. They're not just big guys.
“It's kind of deceiving when you watch them and then you look at the roster and you see 6-8, 338. The guy moves like he's 275 pounds. It's a little bit scary when you pick the program up.”
NU started Steinkuhler and Thad Randle at defensive tackle last Saturday and has been expanding the playing time of redshirt freshman Kevin Williams. Chase Rome is back on the team, but with an uncertain immediate future.
Cameron Meredith and Jason Ankrah have started every game at end, but the Huskers have gotten a boost the last two games from a healthy Eric Martin supplying pass rush off the edge.
The more pressure those up front can provide, Kaczenski said, the less NU has to gamble with blitzes and potentially leave itself vulnerable to big plays.
Of NU's 16 sacks, 9Ĺ have come from defensive linemen. Martin leads the team with 3Ĺ sacks.
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“We got to find a way to generate it with four guys. That's all I know,” Kaczenski said. “I mean, that's all we did at Iowa. That's what you got to do. You got to find a way.
“I don't care if it's five-on-four, six-on-four, seven-on-four, somebody's got to win. Our big thing is the guy who's got the one-on-one block, he's got to win.”
Williams said Kaczenski has been showing him cut-ups of former Iowa defensive end Adrian Clayborn and defensive tackle Karl Klug. Giving him a taste of what it takes.
“Those guys were phenomenal,” Williams said.
Steinkuhler said some of Kaczenski's teachings might be a little bit different, but the NU defensive linemen trust what they're hearing and like the attacking style. Now it's time to put it to use.
“He knows the Big Ten well,” Steinkuhler said. “He knows Big Ten football.”
Martin might be just what the Huskers ordered if he can build off the last two games. The senior banged up a knee midway through preseason camp and only recently returned to full speed.
Martin is not only a dynamic pass rusher, Pelini said, but somebody that NU can use in a variety of ways.
“Obviously besides Eric, we have some other capable pass rushers,” Pelini said. “It will be interesting to see who steps up as the season goes on.”
Kaczenski said opponents are going to have plans for Martin. Some other pass rushers will have to come through. His preference is that they're both inside and outside.
“We want our tackles to get pressure, too,” Kaczenski said. “I don't want to look at the stats at the end of the season and see our ends as the only guys with sacks. We're expecting to get pressure with all four guys.”
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