ALL ABOARD: Nebraska visits Ryan Field to challenge them on Saturday and looming in front of them too are mid-terms. Seven games are behind them now, but they are not yet finished with even half of their conference schedule. Just one blemish mars their work to this point, but they are still far removed from achieving those goals they have set for themselves. That is the reality confronting the 'Cats, who are now in the very belly of their schedule, and that is the reason -- all through this week -- Pat Fitzgerald has talked of the grind and emphasized the need to embrace it.
Here is one way they have managed that. They have jumped on the Fun Train, the creation -- as we noted Wednesday -- of the defensive tackle Will Hampton. "You've got to fool yourself sometimes," senior defensive end Quentin Williams said when we mentioned that train to him, and then he explained.
"I can remember when I was a freshman. It's hard to wake up early. You're not used to it. As early as we wake up (the 'Cats are at the football complex by seven each morning), especially if you need treatment before practice, if you have stuff to do before practice, it's a really early morning. So waking up with the right attitude is really important. I know from personal experience. Sometimes I didn't wake up with the right attitude and you have to trick yourself into having a great day. Fitz always quotes Coach Walk (the late Randy Walker) about attitude being a choice. He says every time you asked Walk how he was, he'd say, 'I'm doing great.' It's telling yourself you're going to have a great day, telling yourself it's early, but it's fun."
Is that a learned skill?
"Definitely. I remember hearing Fitz say that and I did it sometimes. But it's hard to do, it really is, when you're waking up that early and you're not used to it. At this point my body's used to it, everything's used to it. So it's easy for me now. I was talking to (true freshman defensive end) Dean Lowry just the other day. 'You'll get used to it after awhile, you know.'"
So just keep grinding?
"Sure. We tell everybody that. At this point of the season it's really important. . .and I think the guys are doing a great job."
ALL ARE ABOARD: The defensive linemen were the original passengers on the Fun Train, but now they have been joined by the rest of the 'Cats. We learned this when we asked superback Dan Vitale, another true freshman, about Williams observation that fooling yourself is sometimes necessary. "For sure. Especially this week, we talked about it a lot," he said. "Not necessarily fooling yourself. But having fun out there and if you're in a bad mood, fool yourself into thinking you're in a good mood and get on the Fun Train. Coach Fitz pointed that out to us this week. It's nice to have that mentality that you can fool yourself into thinking you're having a great time even though you might not really be having the best time."
WELL, IF YOU SAY SO: A part of the Nebraska game notes for this game tout the defensive accomplishments of Bo Pelini, the Huskers' head coach. Yet their last time out, on Oct. 6 at Ohio State, the Buckeyes rolled up 63 points against them. "Let's credit Ohio State here now. They played out of their minds in the second half. They made some big plays," Fitzgerald said when asked about that meltdown and what it might mean on Saturday.
"This time of the year now, mid-October though November, it's going to come down to who's consistent, who wins the turnover battle, who wins the kicking battle and who makes big plays. That's what it's going to come down to. Everybody knows what everybody's doing. Everybody knows their personnel. Are there tweaks? Yeah. We saw some new things last week and we had to adjust. If we see some new things (Saturday) we'll have to adjust. In big games, as these all are moving forward, it's he who adjusts quicker. Then it's he who, with the adjustments, doesn't get paralysis by analysis and fundamentally executes. So we've got to do a great job in-game as coaches."
QUICKLY NOTED: The offensive catalyst of the Huskers is Taylor Martinez, a prototypal dual-threat quarterback. He has netted 338 yards on 68 carries, competed 97 of his 146 passing attempts for 1,273 more and thrown for 12 touchdowns while suffering just four interceptions. "Taylor Martinez is a special player, a very special player," Fitzgerald said of him. "If he gets an inch, he'll take it the distance. He's got speed like Venric (Mark), if not faster. He can really fly. He does a terrific job riding out the run fake. He just really carries that fake out well, so you've got to be really disciplined and gap sound, assignment sound. Then he's throwing the ball vey effectively, very efficiently.". . . Martinez's big-play receiver is Kenny Bell, who has averaged 23.1 yards on his 20 receptions. . . Rex Burkhead, the Huskers' punishing running back, was injured in their season opener and has carried only 43 times on the year. But last time out, against the Buckeyes, he busted one for 73 yards and totaled 119 yards on 14 carries. "He's got a toughness about him that I think every back aspires to have," Fitzgerald said of him. "He's physical. He runs behind his pads. He can make you miss in a phone booth. And he's got really top end speed.". . . One more Husker weapon is Ameer Abdullah, who is their version of the 'Cats Venric Mark. He is averaging six yard per rushing attempt, 16.5 yards on punt returns and 20.8 yards on kickoff returns. . . The Huskers lead the Big Ten in both rushing offense (292 ypg) and total offense (507.3). . . On defense, look for the Huskers to often use five defensive backs and just two linebackers behind their four down linemen. "We expect to see even some of the 4-1-6 that we saw a little bit a year ago," said Fitzgerald. . . The 'Cats will wear black jerseys for the first time on Saturday. Coincidentally enough, the Huskers' defense is nicknamed The Blackshirts. It picked up that label when the two-platoon system returned to college football in 1964 and Bob Devaney, then the Husker head coach, sent an assistant to a local sporting goods store to buy some sleeveless pullovers for his defense to wear over its regular practice jerseys. The pullovers that assistant came back with were, of course, black.
AND FINALLY: FItzgerald, when asked the impact of the flood of Husker fans expected Saturday at Ryan Field: "We're only playing 11 of their guys. That's all that matters. We've got a great fan base here. They'll be terrific. It'll be a great environment on Saturday. I think it's going to be an awesome, awesome night, I really do. I think our guys are excited about it. We've got to go out and execute better, we've got to play better in all three phases. If we do that, we've got a chance to win the football game. All the other stuff, it's fun for fans. I know their fans'll really enjoy our students. They've been terrific and I expect the same thing Saturday. Be early, be loud, be fully fired up."