LINCOLN — Coach Bo Pelini indicated that Nebraska's struggling kickoff return unit has received extra attention in practice over the past two weeks in an attempt to clean up some of its errors.
In two Big Ten games, Nebraska's average starting field position after kickoff returns is its own 25-yard line. Take away an 83-yard return by Ameer Abdullah against Wisconsin, and the other 12 returns have been halted at the NU 19-yard line on average.
The Badgers and Buckeyes used a directional kicking strategy at times, though Pelini said the Huskers' mistakes had little to do with the opponents' tactics.
“First and foremost, we've got to execute and block people,” Pelini said. “Doesn't matter where they kick it. You've got to get your bodies on bodies and make blocks to give our guys a chance. That's been a big point of emphasis for us.”
Wildcats will test Husker ball security
If Northwestern's spread offense is a strong test for Nebraska's run defense, the Wildcats' defense is an equal challenge for the Huskers' propensity to fumble.
Northwestern ranks seventh nationally with nine fumbles recovered. Opponents have fumbled 20 times against the Wildcats' defense, which is the third-highest rate in the nation.
Tight end Ben Cotton said there's a reason for that.
“They play very hard,” Cotton said. “We experienced that last year. They're going to take chances and they're going to come after you. It's nothing to do with who they're playing.”
But Northwestern happens to be playing a team tied for second-to-last in fumbles lost with 10. Nebraska coaches and players say they've worked on ball security in recent weeks without elaborating just how they're emphasizing it differently than they did earlier in the year.
Cotton said part of the switch is exhorting the scout team to go after the ball.
“We're getting after our scout team to give us the best look possible,” Cotton said. “Every chance they get, we want them ripping at the football, hitting the football and get it out, so we're being secure throughout the week.”
Rome likely out with head injury
Nebraska could be without top defensive tackle reserve Chase Rome, a former starter, when it takes the field Saturday.
Rome has sustained a head injury, Pelini said. The specific diagnosis is unclear. But it's enough to sideline Rome, who has four career starts.
“More than likely, he won't be available,” Pelini said.
The Huskers will have the services of senior receiver Tim Marlowe, who's been out since the season opener while recovering from a broken collarbone. He'll be used situationally, Pelini said.
And Rex Burkhead, who injured his left knee again at Ohio State, is “feeling good” and “ready to roll,” Pelini said.
Evans may be target for Northwestern 'D'
Northwestern's offense repeatedly attacked the middle of the Husker defense through the air en route to a 28-25 win last year, finding some success as it tried to isolate defensive backs in space.
If the Wildcats take a similar approach into Saturday's game, they'll likely be targeting junior Ciante Evans and sophomore Corey Cooper, the Huskers' nickel and dime backs.
Coaches have raved about Evans' improvement all season, though. And after practice Thursday, Pelini passed along a similar assessment of Cooper, who's from the Chicago area.
“He's a guy that works extremely hard at it,” Pelini said. “It's real important to him. And it's showing.”
Bits and pieces
Former Nebraska men's basketball coach Doc Sadler attended NU football practice Thursday. Sadler, a friend of Pelini, is now the director of basketball operations at Kansas. … Pelini said there will be no alterations to the Huskers' road trip itinerary Friday and Saturday. They've lost their first two road games this season. … Pelini was informed after the Ohio State game that his kickers warmed up on the field as the OSU marching band completed its traditional “Script Ohio” halftime performance two weeks ago. Buckeye fans booed the NU players for the apparent intrusion. But Pelini, when asked about it Thursday, said he has “plenty of other things to worry about.”
— Sam McKewon and Jon Nyatawa
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