LINCOLN — As he entered his first year as Nebraska's main offensive line coach, John Garrison had a unit full of seasoned, committed upperclassmen. Four returning starters, all seniors. A fourth-year junior at another guard spot. A fifth-year senior at quarterback. A Big Red page with everyone on it.
“Going into the season, we're a veteran group,” senior center Cole Pensick saod. “We're thinking: Just work on the little things.
“But injuries started happening.”
As Pensick looked back on it last week, he deemed the wave of knee injuries — first to All-American Spencer Long, then to Jake Cotton, Jeremiah Sirles and himself — as “weird.” Who would have thought four guys would suffer the same type of MCL injury? Pensick got his while being “sideswiped” in the Michigan State game. Falling bodies on fragile knees is common in the sport. But at this rate?
“After the second one, you could kind of see, 'Oh, man, what's going on?' ” Pensick said. “After the third one, you're thinking this has gotta be a joke.”
Players can see the stress on coaches as a season progresses, Sirles said. But Garrison, who was not available for interviews this week, kept a steady hand.
“He did a really good job not letting it pour over into our room, not letting it affect him when he was with us,” Sirles said.
Sirles and Pensick agreed that Garrison, a former Husker lineman who initially joined the program as an intern in 2008 — helped hold the unit together in two ways.
Ľ First, he and coach Bo Pelini assented to Cotton's request that he and other linemen wear Long's No. 61 jersey after Long was lost for the season in the Purdue game. Pensick said the idea helped reinforce the “band of brothers” mindset in the room. Cotton, Pensick said, played the best game of his career wearing Long's jersey in the Northwestern game until he, too, hurt his knee.
“It was nice to see the No. 61 out there,” Pensick said.
Ľ Second, Garrison didn't lower his standards for backups such as Mike Moudy, Ryne Reeves, Zach Sterup, Givens Price and Mark Pelini when they were called on to play in the wake of injuries.
“He went from having a veteran, senior, pretty strong group to trying to mash together an offensive line to put out there the last few games,” Sirles said. “I think he did a great job keeping us all together, keeping us all positive, and he didn't let the fact that we were injured be excuses. The five guys who were on the field were held to the same standards as the starting five that were out there at the beginning of the year.”
“He really kept us poised,” he said. “He told us he loved us and was going to get us ready to play. That he had our backs. We said it to him, too. We love him as our coach. We have his back, too. We're going to go out there and fight.”
And they'll do it with improved health in the Gator Bowl. Long will remain out as he prepares for the NFL draft, but Cotton, Sirles and Pensick should be healthy and prepared for the Jan. 1 game after a month off from in-game contact.
“We were pretty beat up, a lot of guys gutting through it, playing hurt,” Sirles said. “These couple weeks off, guys have lived in the treatment room, myself and others, and I feel really well.”