It's hard to remember a Nebraska game week when the focus has been almost entire on things off the field and hardly on football whatsoever, but such has been the case leading up to Saturday's game against Penn State.
In the wake of one of the most controversial and shocking weeks in college football history, the Huskers have found themselves dealing with issues no one would have ever thought of in any other circumstance.
With the volatile climate in State College, Penn., following the firing of legendary head coach Joe Paterno and the horrific child sex abuse scandal within the Penn State football program, Nebraska has had to take some extra precautions this week to address security and safety measures both for the team and traveling NU fans.
Athletic director Tom Osbonre spoke with reporters shortly after Nebraska's helmets-only practice on Thursday night, and he addressed what the school has learned regarding the situation the Huskers would be going into this weekend.
"A lot of people have inquired about security, so we've talked to their interim athletic director (Mark Sherburne), and he's assured us that there will be additional security in the stadium," Osborne said. "Really, with an 11 o'clock kickoff, I think things will be fine. I know there is some student activity to try to make sure that Nebraska fans are treated well. We'll see how that works out, but at least they're making that initiative.
"As far as we can tell we've done everything we can, and I think Penn State people have done everything they can, so we fee relatively good about things. I think those (Nebraska) fans going there will be OK. I can't guarantee anything because when you're dealing with a large crowd and somewhat of a different situation there are no guarantees. On the other hand I think from what I know, the proper steps have been taken."
Head coach Bo Pelini said he wasn't concerned at all with the safety of his team in the game, saying he fully entrusted the Penn State administration to take every measure possible to make Beaver Stadium a safe and secure environment.
"People have got to do their job," Pelini said. "That isn't my job. That's somebody else's concern, and you've got to trust that the powers that be are going to make sure that they do their job. That's what we're trusting in, and we'll go with that."
Osborne said there was brief discussion about whether Saturday's game should be played considering the circumstances, but he said Penn State officials ensured him they wanted the game to go on as scheduled.
He also said there was never really any serious talk about relocating the game to a different city - possibly Pittsburgh or Philadelphia - but the logistics of the suggestion made the idea virtually impossible.
"That would've been really hard," Osborne said. "You know, 110,000 people, and if you moved it Pittsburgh or Philadelphia, you're looking at 60,000-70,000 seats. So that would've been pretty awkward with short notice. I don't think that was every seriously considered, but I really don't know what all they thought about out there. We just had a very brief conversation this morning, and they've had their hands full."
Osborne did offer one word of advice to those Nebraska fans making the trip to Saturday's game. As hard as it might be not to proudly wear you Husker red, Osborne said it might be wise to try and blend in as much as possible in order to not make yourself a target for any aggressive acts from the emotional PSU fan base.
"I wouldn't say they shouldn't, but if you have a red sweater or red shirt on, that's great, but probably most people have a winter coat that's not red, so if they want to wear that it might not be a bad idea," Osborne said.
"I just don't know if it's a good idea in this circumstance to stand out, but I'm pretty sure - about 99 percent sure - that this is going to be pretty much like a normal game, and you're not going to be treated any different there than you would any place else. That's just my instinct, but then again, I guess you can't promise. There's nothing sure."
Huskers preparing for emotional buzz saw
A big key for Nebraska when they travel to Penn State will be handling the emotional buzz saw the Nittany Lions come at them with on Saturday.
After an emotional week of events that eventually led to Paterno's dismissal on Thursday, it's no secret PSU's players and coaches are going to come out fighting.
Pelini said all the Huskers could do was continue to focus on what they could control, which he said the team had done a great job of all week.
"It's how they channel their emotion," Pelini said. "Like I said, all we can control is us. How this all pertains to Penn State, that's how they deal with it. We control us, and that's how you've got to approach it."
Pelini added that he wasn't worried about coaching his team through a distraction like this.
"In this environment, where we live right here, you coach through distractions every week," he said.
When co-offensive line coach John Garrison talks about going out to Penn State, he said the Huskers can't afford to get off to a slow start on offense, because that will really ignite the crowd even more.
"The crowd is a factor in things and we want to take that out as much as possible," Garrison said. "Anytime you get that crowd going good and excited, I think that does play a factor in it. If we do start fast hopefully that will take the crowd out of the game.
"Starting fast will be huge for us. We've been effective late in the second half, but I don't think we can afford to be in a situation where we can start in the second half. We have to start fast at the beginning."
Garrison was actually a part of the last Husker team to play out at Penn State in 2002 when Nebraska loss to the Nittany Lions 40-7.
During that game there were over 110,000 people in attendance in Beaver Stadium, which is still the largest crowd ever to see NU play in person.
"I've tried to forget everything about that," Garrison said of NU's 40-7 loss to Penn State in 2002. "It was a loud and a neat atmosphere. I'll never forget the field being one best grass fields I'd ever played on and especially one of the loudest stadiums I'd ever played in.
"Their student section was extremely loud. We've got to be extremely focused in this game. We need to make sure we are sharp on things and not get any pre-snap penalties."
Regardless of everything that's happened this week at Penn State, linebackers coach Ross Els said NU has to be ready for an emotionally charged atmosphere on Saturday no matter what.
"It's another football game," Els said. "To be honest with you I think all the other distractions are going to go away quickly when that whistle blows. I just know there's going to be a lot of people there that are going to be against us, so we've got to come ready to play."
- Sean Callahan
Brown not second guessing Burkhead's workload
There have been some people who think junior running back Rex Burkhead has been overworked the past few weeks, as he's already carried the ball 57 times over the past two games alone.
Nebraska running backs coach Ron Brown is not one of those people.
Even though the Huskers' three freshmen running backs behind Burkhead have a combined six carries against Michigan State and Northwestern, Brown said he wouldn't change the way NU has used Burkhead this season.
"I'm not perfect," Brown said. "Maybe sometimes I should take him out on a play, but I know one thing, everybody's happy with most of it because he's been as good of finisher as there's been in college football all year. It's been when he's tired, it's when he's banged up, it's been when he's sore, so I didn't just take him out when he was tired. He didn't want to come out."
Burkhead has become known for wanting to take every rep in practice and every play each game if he could, so it's been difficult for Nebraska's coaching staff to balance when they should actually pull Burkhead from a game to give him a break.
Brown pointed to one example where keeping Burkhead in a little longer paid off in a big way for the Huskers. Four weeks ago, Nebraska had rallied back to tie Ohio State at 27-27 and had the ball with time running down.
Though Burkhead looked like he was wearing down, the coaches decided to keep him in game for at least one more snap. The every next play, Burkhead broke a 17-yard game-winning touchdown run to seal the biggest comeback in school history.
While the staff is confident about how much Burkhead can handle in games, they've been playing it safe in practice more and more as the season rolls along. Brown said Burkhead was held back more than ever this week in practice, and said the Plano, Texas, native was moving around much better than he was a week ago after his 35 carries against Michigan State.
Brown said he's always had an open line of communication with Burkhead to where if he ever felt like he needed a break to simply let the coaches and they would take him out. With a guy like Burkhead, though, Brown said it was tough to take out your best player out, especially when he wants to play as much as possible.
"It's one of those things when you're kind of the lead back, you put it on your shoulders and you know that you're going to be a little bit dinged up," Brown said. "It isn't going to be pure and sweet all the time."
- Robin Washut
Pelinis impressed with PSU's Redd
There hasn't been a lot that has stood out about Penn State's offense this season, but running back Silas Redd has bee the face of the unit all year long.
Having already broken the 1,000-yard rushing mark this season, Redd comes into Saturday's game as the third-ranked rusher in the Big Ten at 111.8 yards per game with seven touchdowns.
On a team that ranks 10th in the conference in total offense, Redd has accounted for roughly one-third of the Nittany Lions' yardage each week.
Nebraska head coach Bo Pelini has been nothing but impressed with what he's seen from Redd on film this season, saying he has the ability to move the ball in a number of different ways because of his versatile skill set.
"He's a really good player," Pelini said. "He's fast, he's quick, he runs hard. I think he's a really good football player. He's their feature guy. Like I said, he runs really hard, he has good vision, and he can hurt you with his speed and elusiveness outside and he can run between the tackles. He's a pretty complete back."
Defensive coordinator Carl Pelini had similar observations to his brother, saying the Huskers would have to step their run defense this week in order to slow down Redd. In particular, he said NU's tackling would have to get much better, because he's seen Redd consistently pick up big yardage after initial contact.
After last week's dismal performance against Northwestern, where the Huskers gave up 207 yards and three touchdowns on 54 carries to the Wildcats, is easy to see why shoring up the run defense would be such a high priority.
"He's a really good player," Carl Pelini said. "He's got quick feet. He makes you miss in the open field. He's one of those guys, you know, he's just real patient in the hole. He'll tuck it in there and you think he's got nothing, and all of a sudden he'll find a seam a squirt out for eight yards.
"He's just a really patient running back. He understands their blocking schemes, and you can see he's kind of waiting for holes to develop and anticipating them even before you see them on tape. He's going to be a handful, that's for sure
We've got to be ready to come and get a hat on him and get people flying to the football."
- Robin Washut
***Osborne said he had not yet spoken with Paterno, but planned to try and call him hopefully sometime tomorrow. Osborne added that he was deeply saddened by the whole situation at Penn State.
"This is difficult for everybody, everybody that knows Joe and everybody that cares about Joe," Osborne said. "It's difficult, but it is what it is. I just don't know all of the facts of what happened. I don't know if anybody knows everything that has happened. So we tend in our culture to rush to judgment. Anyway, I feel bad for him and his family. I feel bad about the people who were victimized. I feel very bad about them, because I work with kids a lot. That's something we all have to be concerned about, is our children."
***In actual football news, Pelini said redshirt defensive tackle Chase Rome and senior offensive tackle Jermarcus Hardrick both practiced Thursday and are expected to be good to go for Saturday's game.
***Brown said he's been preaching ball security more than ever with Burkhead and the rest of NU's backs this week after Burkhead's costly fumble near the goal line last week against Northwestern.
"Two through," Brown said. "When you're in rush hour traffic, you get two hands on the ball, and he had one hand on the ball. He knows it, and you what? He's probably gotten away with it before. He's very secure with one hand, but they got a good hunk of it as he was going down the thing popped up. It's two through. That's how it has to be."
***Co-offensive line coach Barney Cotton said Penn State's defensive line would be similar to what Nebraska saw against Ohio State and Michigan State. He said the Nittany Lions were very physical and aggressive up front and would be a big challenge to NU's offensive line.
"They're very physical, very athletic front, a lot like what we saw in Ohio State and Michigan State," Cotton said. "They're big, physical, athletic guys, and we've got to be very physical up front to block those guys."
***Cotton said the Huskers have done a good job of blocking out the situation at Penn State all week, saying they have to worry about themselves going into a game that could dictate their post-season fate.
"Circumstances or not, this is going to be a very, very competitive game," Cotton said. "Our backs are against the wall, and they're leading their division, so we both have a lot to play for. So regardless of the circumstances, it was going to be a high-energy game anyway."
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