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NCAA FOOTBALL: OCT 05 Illinois at Nebraska

No More Breaks

Now seems like a good time for work. It always feels that way when the weather gets colder, the landscape more bleak. It’s a natural tendency that could serve Nebraska well in the weeks to come.

The bye weeks are over. All that’s left now is a six-game trek through some pretty tough games in the Big Ten and the job starts Saturday on the road against a Minnesota team that should have Nebraska’s full attention after an upset of Northwestern last week.

“It’s a six-week meat-grinder is how I look at it,” tackle Jeremiah Sirles said. “No more bye weeks, no more breaks.”

Nebraska is the only team among what many consider the leading contenders in the Legends Division — Michigan State, Michigan and Iowa are in there too — that doesn’t have a bye week scheduled over the next month and a half, but coach Bo Pelini is happy with how the Huskers’ schedule has played out.

“When I first saw the schedule, I wasn’t thrilled with it,” Pelini said of having two byes prior to November. “Then, when you go through fall camp and you think about how the season is going to play out, I think it’s a good thing for us. I think it has helped prepare us for the six-week stretch we’re about to face.”

With the youth on Nebraska’s two-deep this season, it’s hard to replicate what the home stretch of this season will be like, but some of the veteran Huskers are trying.

“The first thing you say is ‘strap it in tight because it’s going to be a bumpy road,'” junior wide receiver Kenny Bell said. “There’s no doubt about it. When you’re playing great teams week after week, it’s tough. Look at Northwestern. They’re a great football team, but their schedule is a tough schedule. The number one way you get through it is how you prepare during the week.”

Michigan State and Nebraska are the only two teams in the Legends Division without a conference loss at this point. They’re also the only two teams who don’t have to face either Ohio State or Wisconsin in the regular season, but a wild week of upsets and near upsets showed that no team is actually out of the race yet. Not in the Legends Division or across college football as a whole if you ask Pelini.

“Look around college football, I think everything’s pretty wide open.  That’s just the nature of college football,” Pelini said. “In my opinion you can throw probably 40 teams in a hat and go week-to-week and teams that are going to execute that given week are the teams that are going to win football games. It’s not just the Legends Division, it’s across college football. That’s the way it is.”

Nebraska may start its gauntlet of division games with a familiar face back at quarterback. Senior Taylor Martinez returned to the practice field on Sunday in a limited role after missing the last three games with turf toe.

“We didn’t give him a lot of reps,” Pelini said. “We’ll see how it goes as the week goes on and he stresses it and sees where he is.”

Pelini though Martinez “looked good” on Sunday, but he’ll rely on feedback from his quarterback to make the ultimate decision as to who will start this Saturday.

“He’s got some rust in some areas that he’s gotta get cleaned up. It’s going to be getting back footwork-wise and how comfortable he feels doing all of the different movements – play actions, footwork and the things that he has to do throwing the football – and, obviously, feeling comfortable being able to put his foot in the ground,” Pelini said.

And if Martinez does return this week, that’s just fine with back-up quarterback Tommy Armstrong.

“I’m the future of being the quarterback here in a couple years, but at the same time you gotta understand this guy’s been here for four or five years and he’s done a lot,” Armstrong said. “He’s been hurt the past couple of weeks, but he’s earned that right to just come back and I understand it completely.”

A few other notes from Monday’s press conference:

–On the injury front, Pelini said tight end Jake Long is making progress after injuring his hamstring but Nebraska will take a “wait and see” approach with him this week. Wide receiver Jamal Turner, also dealing with hamstring issues, is ready to go according to Pelini.

–In a reversal of form over previous years, Nebraska has a positive turnover margin halfway through the 2013 season. Pelini offered the following explanation as to why the Huskers are winning the turnover battle more frequently this season.

“We have some playmakers in some areas,” he said. “We’re faster than we have been in the past. When we execute pretty well we have a chance to be pretty good. When we’re all on the same page and we’re playing disciplined football that’s usually when turnovers happen. Obviously, having some more speed and playmakers out there helps you.”

–Here’s a peek inside the wide receiver’s meeting room. Bell said that Nebraska’s goal coming into the season was a 90 percent “catch rate,” meaning less than 10 percent of the Huskers’ catchable passes are dropped. So far, Nebraska’s at 91 percent.

“As far as what we’re trying to accomplish, I think we’re getting it done and we’re getting it done pretty well,” Bell said. “We’re catching the ball well, we’re making big plays when they need to be made and we’re blocking our tails off.”

Which Husker actually has the best hands on the team? Bell offered an emphatic answer — redshirt freshman Jordan Westerkamp.

“Best hands I’ve ever seen, by far, head and shoulders above (in terms of) talent with his hands on the team,” Bell said. “I think from here since the beginning of camp, he has some 200 catches in camp and maybe one or two drops. It’s impressive how well he catches the ball.”

–As the Huskers look to replace starting guard Spencer Long, Pelini said he’d prefer to keep a rotation going on the offensive line rather than have to rely on smaller group of players. Mike Moudy and Ryne Reeves remain the top candidates for snaps in Long’s place, but Pelini said he hasn’t ruled out pulling the redshirt off junior college transfer Chongo Kondolo.

Whether or not Nebraska has to, could also depend on the development of sophomore Givens Price. One of the Huskers’ youngest signees ever — Price was still 16 when he showed up for his freshman season in 2011 — Sirles said he’s been impressed with the young lineman of late.

“Something clicked with him in the last three, four weeks. He’s been playing really good football. He’s coming off the ball, good footwork, good technique, he can move people. He’s finally starting to grow into his own body.”