LINCOLN — I-back Rex Burkhead will play Saturday vs. Northwestern, if his presence Monday in practice is any indication. Burkhead was in full pads after re-injuring his left knee on a third-quarter run at Ohio State. He wore the black knee brace that he’s been using for weeks.
“It’s always nice recovering physically, mentally,” Burkhead said, “but making sure you are focused and you don’t get too lazy with the time off that you’ve had.”
Burkhead said the rehab for a re-injured knee is easier than rehabbing for the original injury. Burkhead missed two weeks after what turned out to be a Grade II MCL strain.
Coach Bo Pelini said Burkhead “had a good weekend” and is “feeling pretty good” in a return to workouts.
“I’m not sure if it will be a heavy workload early in the week, but it will progress to that,” said Pelini, who added that he’s confident in Burkhead’s backups, Ameer Abdullah and Braylon Heard. Abdullah and Heard have combined for 740 yards in three games.
“We’re going to play to win,” Abdullah said when asked how the team would divide carries. “Whatever necessary to win — that’s what we’re going to do. We never focus on how we’re going to divvy up carries or anything. We want whoever’s in to be the most effective at the time.”
Praising the Wildcats
Nebraska players and coaches were effusive — and authentic — in their praise for Northwestern’s playing style, scheme and head coach Pat Fitzgerald. The Wildcats’ 28-25 win against the Huskers in 2011 — one week after Nebraska handily beat Michigan State — probably has something to do with it.
“I really feel like people sleep on them,” cornerback Josh Mitchell said. “They’re a lot better team than people give them credit for, so we have to prepare for this team as hard as we prepare for any team.”
Said defensive tackle Chase Rome, who missed last year’s game with an injury: “They’re smart. I mean, obviously. They go to Northwestern. But they’re all really well-coached. Coach Fitzgerald does a great job. And they know exactly what’s going on. They know when the clock’s stopped. They know how their system works.”
A reporter asked offensive coordinator Tim Beck if Northwestern’s size on defense is comparable to the rest of the Big Ten. The combined weight of the Wildcats’ front seven — at least as it’s listed on their depth chart — is greater than that of Nebraska’s, but Beck said Northwestern plays bigger than its girth.
“Sometimes it’s the size of the fight in the dog, right?” Beck said. “Those guys are tough kids, they play extremely hard. (Fitzgerald) has got them believing in themselves and their system. That’s more important to me than how much they weigh and how tall they are. They love playing the game of football.”
Mitchell takes the blame
Ohio State quarterback Braxton Miller hit tight ends Jeff Heuerman and Nick Vannett on wide-open seam routes for 35- and 32-yard gains in OSU’s 63-38 win against the Huskers. Mitchell, the short defensive back lined up against the tight ends on those plays, said both blown coverages were his error.
“Those are both my fault,” Mitchell said. “You have to focus and you have to know that everybody is in a position for a certain reason.”
After both plays, Mitchell seemed to be arguing with safety Daimion Stafford about who had responsibility for the coverage. Mitchell confirmed it was he, not Stafford, assigned to handle the tall tight ends.
On the second long pass, Mitchell said his deep alignment forced him to drop back into Stafford, who was attempting to cover a swing route. When Mitchell and Stafford briefly collided, that allowed Heuerman to zip by.
When the 5-foot-11, 155-pounder was asked why he was assigned to cover tight ends when that’s normally a linebacker’s or safety’s job, Mitchell said: “They brought me here to cover. I should be able to cover anybody.”
Abdullah credits return unit
Abdullah might lead the Big Ten and rank No. 7 nationally in punt returns, but the sophomore I-back said a lot of the credit goes to his mates on that unit.
“They really care,” Abdullah said. “They really work their tails off to make sure that we’re able to field the ball, then they really bust their tails downfield blocking for me.
“That’s really it. It’s just those guys. It’s nothing I’ve done, really, it’s those guys.”
Abdullah used a 43-yard punt return at Ohio State to bump his season average to 16.5. He has at least one return of 20-plus yards in four of six games, including an 81-yarder for a touchdown against Idaho State. Abdullah averaged 7.1 yards on 15 punt returns last season as a freshman, with a long of 28.
Northwestern leads the Big Ten with 24.7 yards per punt return. Venric Mark averages 28.8 and has returned two for TDs, but is not included in the Big Ten individual statistics because he has only eight returns.
Where Nebraska can improve, Abdullah said, is with its kick returns. Abdullah averaged 16.0 on eight returns at Ohio State and twice was brought down inside the Huskers’ 15.
“Physically, they beat us to the point of attack,” Abdullah said. “We weren’t really sustaining blocks and the kicker was hanging it up there pretty high. They did a various amount of things.
“But I felt like we just didn’t play tough enough, and that’s something we’ve got to change this week. We can’t put our offense in drives where we’re starting on the 6-yard line.”
The Huskers rank second in the Big Ten in kickoff returns at 23.0 yards per attempt, with Abdullah averaging 20.8 (13 returns) and Kenny Bell at 29.7 (6 returns).
Tweaking 3rd-down approach
Nebraska’s offense is considering changes to its strategy for third-and-long plays, though the goal is still to avoid pass-first scenarios like that as often as possible.
In three games against BCS opponents this year, the Huskers have converted 11 of 38 third-down chances. They’ve needed 8 yards or more on 16 of those, gaining a first down once. Quarterback Taylor Martinez went 8 for 24 on third down in those games (two touchdowns, two interceptions, three sacks and a lost fumble).
Pelini said the offense needs to do a better job of executing on first and second downs to avoid unfavorable situations. But the Huskers used the bye week to analyze ways that they could tweak their approach in those spots, Pelini said.
“There’s some other things that we can do to make sure we’re in a more advantageous situation for everybody involved on that third and long,” Pelini said.
Stanley Jean-Baptiste got the nod to start against Ohio State because the coaches liked how he matched up against the Buckeye wide receivers. And the junior cornerback may not give the job up.
Jean-Baptiste, starting in place of junior Andrew Green, didn’t record a tackle but had a pass breakup. He played “really well,” Pelini said.