When you play Michigan and your offense faces third down, Barney Cotton says, you never know what you’ll see from the Wolverines.
Zone. Man to man. Three-man front. Four-man front. Seven defenders at the line of scrimmage. Blitzing. Dropping back into coverage. One deep. Three deep.
The Wolverine defense is coached by Greg Mattison, former coordinator of the Baltimore Ravens’ defense, and he has “maybe one of the most extensive third-down packages there is in college football,” Cotton said Friday at the Big Red Breakfast.
It’s a lot to recognize for a freshman quarterback and a patched-together offensive line.
“Obviously we have to do good on first down,” said Cotton, Nebraska’s associate head coach and running game coordinator. “If we do well enough on first and second down to avoid those third-and-seven pluses, that’s going to be one of the keys to victory.”
Cotton said he likes what he’s seen from the Huskers this week in practice. “Yesterday was one of the best Thursdays we’ve had,” he said. “And probably the best Tuesday and Wednesday we’ve had.”
The Huskers will be without starting left guard Jake Cotton for at least this week. Barney Cotton, Jake’s father, said Jake might be able to play next week against Michigan State, and he hopes the junior from Lincoln Southeast is back for the final two regular-season games.
With senior Andrew Rodriguez, NU’s top right tackle, poised to help at right guard, Zach Sterup could see time at right tackle, Cotton said. Sterup is a 6-foot-8, 315-pound sophomore from Hastings St. Cecilia.
“He’s really had a great fall,” Cotton told more than 200 fans at the Ramada Plaza Hotel and Convention Center. “I think he’s ready to start potentially seeing some action this last month of the season.”
Cotton, who coaches NU’s tight ends, said senior Jake Long might not be able to play the entire game Saturday after returning from a hamstring injury. He said Long probably will rotate with Sam Cotton and Cethan Carter.
Carter has been a surprise, Cotton said. The true freshman from Metairie, La., has seen action since the opening game — not an easy accomplishment at a position that Cotton considers the most difficult to learn on offense other than quarterback.
“He’s certainly raw,” Cotton said, “but he’s very physical. He can really run. And he’s got great hands.”
As a group, Cotton said, the Huskers’ tight ends are further along as receivers than blockers. “We still have a ways to go.”
Other Cotton comments:
Ľ Lost in the focus on Jordan Westerkamp’s touchdown catch and Ameer Abdullah’s fourth-down conversion on the Huskers’ winning drive against Northwestern were two catches made by wide receiver Sam Burtch, a sophomore from Elmwood-Murdock High School. On one catch, Burtch was close to being tackled inbounds but managed to stop the clock by reaching out with the ball — “like an NFL guy,” Cotton said — and tapping it on the sideline to stop the clock. “Otherwise, that game’s over.”
Ľ Cotton teased quarterback Ron Kellogg about his cross-field dash toward the north end zone after throwing the winning pass. “I told Ron, ‘We actually timed you. You had a running start and you still can’t break six-flat in the 40.’ ”
Ľ Nebraska’s second-half defense against Northwestern “was the best I think we’ve played defense against a very good offense in probably the last two years.”
Ľ Cotton hears fan complaints about NU’s punt return game, but he said returns are harder than fans think because of college rules that permit seven players on the punting team to head downfield at the snap. In the NFL, Cotton said, only two outside players can release at the snap. NU ranks 117th nationally at less than 3.4 yards a return. Kansas State is first at 21.7 yards; Iowa is fourth at 18.6.
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Video: NU coach Bo Pelini addresses the media Thursday: