LINCOLN — Nebraska offensive line coach Barney Cotton expects both Mark Pelini and Cole Pensick to play at center in Saturday’s Big Ten championship game. They’ll replace starter Justin Jackson, who hurt his ankle at Iowa.
Cotton said Wednesday he didn’t know whether Pelini or Pensick would start. But Cotton, offensive coordinator Tim Beck and quarterback Taylor Martinez are comfortable with both.
“I liked the way Mark played in the game last week at the drop of a hat, and he came in and did a nice job for us,” Cotton said of the walk-on sophomore. “All week long, they’ve each taken half the reps with the ones and half the reps with the twos.”
Pensick could still play left guard, too, Cotton said. If Pensick plays more at center, backup guards Jake Cotton or Ryne Reeves could see some action. Reeves and Cotton played extensively in the fourth quarter of Nebraska’s win over Minnesota.
“We weren’t getting first downs when they went in there, but they blocked fine,” Barney Cotton said.
Bonuses for Bo
A performance bonus for appearing in Saturday’s Big Ten championship game pushes Nebraska coach Bo Pelini’s annual compensation beyond $3 million for this year. And a victory over Wisconsin would be worth even more.
According to the extension Pelini signed in 2011, the coach gets a $200,000 bonus for appearing in the game. He’ll receive an extra $150,000 — or $350,000 total — if he wins it.
Pelini gets a $150,000 bonus for appearing in any bowl game, but, should the Huskers win on Saturday, he’ll get an extra $100,000 — or $250,000 total — for appearing in the Rose Bowl, which is part of the Bowl Championship Series.
Expect new Badger ‘O’
Nebraska linebackers coach Ross Els expects new wrinkles from Wisconsin’s offense, which Els said has improved since the Huskers beat the Badgers 30-27 on Sept. 29.
Wisconsin’s linemen “come off the ball very well,” Els said.
“This is as good of an offensive line as we’ll see,” he said. “I think (Montee) Ball’s carrying the ball as well I’ve seen him. He’s hard to bring down. They’ve just got things clicking.”
New UW quarterback Curt Phillips gives Wisconsin the ability to run some zone read, Els said.
“We’ll see a lot of zone read, we’ll see a lot of pulling, we’ll see a lot of counter, we’ll see a lot of bootleg, we’ll see a lot of power,” Els said. “Every offensive play imaginable, they have.”
Return game struggles
For all of the things Nebraska has done well and all of the things that have gone right for the Huskers during a six-game win streak, success in the return game has not been one of them.
Two important stats as NU prepares for Saturday night’s game:
>> Nebraska is averaging just 1.9 yards on 12 punt returns in the past six games. Its only return longer than 5 yards was a 19-yarder by Tim Marlowe at Michigan State.
>> NU is averaging 17.9 yards on 12 kickoff returns from the Northwestern game on. The only return longer than 26 yards was a 31-yarder by Jamal Turner against Michigan.
The punt return numbers have been hindered by the Huskers’ inability to secure the catch (five fumbles on the 12 returns, four lost). Marlowe even muffed the punt that he returned against the Spartans, briefly scrambling to pick up the football before running.
NU’s last significant plays in the return game? a 43-yard punt return by Ameer Abdullah at Ohio State on Oct. 6 and an 83-yard kickoff return by Abdullah in the first game against Wisconsin on Sept. 29.
Running backs coach Ron Brown said he recently gathered the seven key backfield contributors for the Huskers — four I-backs and three fullbacks — and thanked them for maintaining a team-first attitude all year.
“They’re unselfish guys,” Brown said. “I’m just so proud of them, because we needed every single one of them.”
Injuries have limited senior Rex Burkhead, but sophomore Ameer Abdullah’s had a breakout year. Sophomore Braylon Heard (a change-of-pace, explosive back) and freshman Imani Cross (a downhill-style runner) have helped out in situations. At fullback, it’s been a combination of junior C.J. Zimmerer, freshman Andy Janovich and junior Mike Marrow, who’s battling back from a knee injury.
“They’re all factored in,” Brown said. “There’s a place for every single one of them. We’ll see what happens on game day.”