LINCOLN — Before Nebraska's offensive linemen begin their position meeting every Sunday, they've all noticed the two numbers written on the grease board.
The total sacks the Huskers have given up all year (11) and the amount they allowed the past week (four).
It's the first thing O-line coach John Garrison talks about each week. And nothing gets the linemen cringing and groaning quite like game clips of their quarterback getting popped.
“I don't have to preach to them that they have to have a sense of urgency of protecting the quarterback,” Garrison said.
Matter of fact, by the time Garrison turns on the film, most of the guys have already watched it on their own. Whenever he nears a critical mistake in pass protection, Garrison said he can feel “the air get sucked out of the room.”
The last two Sundays have been particularly difficult.
Nebraska opponents have recorded eight sacks the past two weeks, averaging one every nine pass attempts. Northwestern had four, choosing not to blitz on any of those plays but still generating pressure. On the last sack, the Huskers had enough blockers to double-team each Wildcat blocker, but had to watch Ron Kellogg get taken down to the turf.
“That can't happen,” senior tackle Brent Qvale said, some fire building in his voice.
All the veterans speak with that kind of firmness when asked about the problems, acknowledging the unacceptable nature of their mistakes. No excuses are given. Just a blunt desire for change.
Said senior tackle Jeremiah Sirles: “We've got to be better at that.”
Sirles, Qvale and fellow senior Andrew Rodriguez spent their summer months devoted to that exact mission.
They followed up every skills and drills session by simulating their exact in-game movements for passing plays. They did that after every weight lifting and every conditioning workout, too. Just a few extra minutes. Eight or 10 times.
They tweaked their technique a bit, Qvale said. They tried to shade inside a little bit more while stepping backward. They tried to keep their hands lower to start, so when they extended their arms in an attempt to redirect a pass rusher, they'd contact higher and have more force behind their punch.
The hard work was necessary, though. Sirles said the tackles were responsible for about 20 of the 35 sacks Nebraska gave up last year. And that ripped away at their pride all summer long.
“If it's 3-and-10 plus and you've got a wide-9 technique (at defensive end), it's not a fun situation,” Sirles said. “But it's a challenge. You look at it as a challenge. It's me and this guy. One-on-one. You've just got to fight.”
They're winning more of those battles this year. Well, at least up until the Minnesota loss.
Nebraska had allowed just three sacks in its first six games — one for every 54 pass attempts.
The Huskers haven't been as sharp since.
“It was flat-out just not executing,” Garrison said of the miscues against Northwestern. “They're in the right places. You've got to make blocks. They've got to get it done. That's concerning.”
Identifying opposing pass rush strategies hasn't been a weakness for the veteran group so far, though.
That will be put to the test Saturday.
Michigan likes to zone blitz, especially in third-down situations. The Wolverines will threaten to send as many as seven pass rushers just before the snap, only to drop two or three defenders back into coverage.
Qvale said none of the NU opponents has zone blitzed like Michigan this year. Garrison called the Wolverines' tactics “exotic” at times, even though they're often rushing just four.
Both said the crowd noise will make it tough, too.
But the Huskers are plenty motivated to rebound from the last two poor showings. Even without starting guards Spencer Long and Jake Cotton — two of the key leaders up front — the offensive linemen haven't lowered their standard.
At this point, they'll do anything to avoid another sour Sunday meeting, although the key to success at Michigan on Saturday might actually reside in their ability to relax, Qvale said.
“Just being able to stay calm, collected, and poised, and be able to communicate and make our calls,” he said. “Everyone has to be prepared.”
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Video: Nebraska coach Bo Pelini addresses the media following Thursday's practice:
Video: The Big Red Today Show