* Nebraska looks to stay atop of the Legends Division.
* The Huskers look to make it five straight after losing to Ohio State on the road.
* Nebraska beat Minnesota, 41-14 last year.
* Husker running back Rex Burkhead is questionable with a MCL sprain.
* Saturday is Nebraska Senior Day and will mark the first full class Bo Pelini recruited.
Bo Pelini Thursday practice:
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Associated Press Overview:
Head Coach: Jerry Kill Minnesota's record in 2012: 6-4 (2-4)
What's at stake: Nebraska can take another step toward locking up the Legends Division title. Losing at home to the Gophers would be a big punch to the gut, but it wouldn’t necessarily be a season-wrecker. After all, Michigan still has to play at unbeaten Ohio State next week. The Gophers are bowl eligible and looking to move up in the postseason pecking order.
KEY MATCHUP: Nebraska defensive line vs. Minnesota offensive line. The Huskers lead the Big Ten with 27 sacks and will want to put lots of heat on freshman QB Philip Nelson. Nobody has had much luck stopping DE Eric Martin, who has a conference-leading 7 1/2 sacks. The Gophers have health issues up front. They’ll start converted guard Zac Epping at center after Jon Christenson and Zach Mottla went out with injuries. The left side of their line, anchored by Ed and Tommy Olson, is banged up.
PLAYERS TO WATCH:
Minnesota: WR A.J. Barker leads the Gophers with 30 catches for 577 yards and seven touchdowns. Barker has been out with an ankle injury, and it isn’t known how much he’ll play against Nebraska, if at all. The Gophers’ passing attack desperately needs this playmaker in the lineup.
Nebraska: RB Ameer Abdullah is poised to go over 1,000 yards for the season and is the first Nebraska back since 1994 to run for 100-plus yards in his first five starts. The Huskers lead the Big Ten in rushing and will be looking to ram the ball right at the Gophers.
FACTS & FIGURES: Minnesota is going for a second straight Big Ten road win for the first time since 2008. ... Nelson is 2-2 as a starter, has passed for 615 yards and six TDs and has thrown 67 passes without an interception. ... Nebraska has won 15 straight against the Gophers since 1963. ... The game marks the 500th game in which Nebraska athletic director Tom Osborne will be in an official role. Osborne was an assistant coach (1962-72) and Hall-of-Fame head coach (1973-97) and AD since 2007. Osborne is retiring Jan. 1. ... The Huskers will salute 29 players on senior day. ... With a win, the Huskers would go unbeaten at home for the first time since 2003. - Associated Press
Nebraska head coach Bo Pelini presser
On the senior class and how special it is to him
"It's a special group of guys. Obviously it means a lot to me. It's hard to believe that this is their last go around in Memorial Stadium. It's a special group of guys, and it was a class that some of them are fifth-year guys and some are fourth-year guys and like you said, I've recruited them all and brought them here under some tough situations. I kind of put that class together quickly in a short amount of time, and I think they have accomplished a lot. It's a tremendous group of kids not just as football players but more importantly as kids how they have represented this program, and what they have done off the field as much as they have done on the field. It will be an emotional day I'm sure for them, big time."
On how having a large number of fifth-year players has helped the program
"Well you know, we kind of made that decision my first year when I came in that we would redshirt most of them during that first year. I was trying to get the lay of the land of building for the future, and I still remember - I can't remember what game it was, it might have been Virginia Tech - I remember turning to (Will) Compton during his true freshman year and saying 'get lose, get ready to go' and I fought the urge to put him in there at that time and it decided to be the right decision for Will. But you think back about the amount of times that it was kind of hard to do at that time to sit them and not get them out playing right away but, we were trying to build something for the future and as it turns out it was the right decision. It wasn't always easy to do when you look back on it."
On what he sold to recruits with limited time after he was hired
"I was selling them what I always try to do and continue to do is sell this place; the university, what it represents and something to me that goes way beyond football and well beyond wins and losses. The one thing that I can say I've learned, and I think the one thing that got Coach Osborne and I on the same page from day one, was being into this for something that is much more than just football. It's about preparing kids for the rest of their life, it's not about just winning or playing the game, (it's) about how you do things, how you go about it. It's like I've said before, I'm proud of where this program is and a lot of people sometimes might not agree on how I do it or your read about your demeanor or how you are on the sidelines. One thing you can't argue is there is tremendous discipline in this program and our kids represent this program with class with character, and I'm proud of who they are and what they are becoming. I believe that (is the case) if you go through this program and that goes well beyond me and well beyond my staff. I'm talking about the Dennis Leblancs, the Keith Zimmers, Coach Osborne, everybody on the third floor and everybody that is associated with this program that I believe are in it for the student-athlete and that's rare in these days' athletics, in my opinion."
On a lot of the seniors being native Nebraskans and the importance of the walk-on program
"The walk-on program had taken a big time hit at that time (when I was hired) and obviously I leaned on Coach Osborne big time when I first took over. We talked about kind of where the program was and what needed to happen going forward, how important the walk-on program was. We made a concerted effort (to get Nebraska players) and continued too even if we aren't getting a tremendous amount in number of scholarship guys and this state is well represented, and let me tell you the walk-ons that have been in this program have represented the state really well and have done a tremendous job of contributing, and they are a huge part of this program. I was just talking about it with (ABC College Football Announcer) Chris Spielman the other day and the longer you're around it, No. 1 you become a lot more appreciative of the necessity of it here and the uniqueness of it. I think it would be hard, and this goes back all the way to probably Coach Devaney but obviously Coach Osborne and Coach Solich, of the understanding of the importance of it and how to use it. I'll be honest with you coming in I didn't quite understand how it all worked over time and how to make the best use of it and you kind of learn and grow with it and you realize how important it is to your program. To me, I've come to really understand how important it is to the people of this state and to the fans. I think it gives you a big time edge, and an edge we need to use. I don't know if someone else in a different state could copy the formula and make it work in another state, it's different here, and it's hard to explain but it just is. You have kids more willing to bypass maybe money someplace else or an opportunity to be on scholarship or whatever the situation might be. Every situation is a little bit different but the families, which to me comes back first and foremost (to) the families, moms and dads that are willing to flip the bill for their kids to attack their dream and play for Nebraska and that's unique, trust me when I tell you that doesn't happen everywhere, and it's not going to happen everywhere. I'm sure Coach O'Brien over at Penn State with the sanctions that they are going to run into or you look over across the country at USC, I'm sure they are talking about the importance of maybe getting the walk-ons but having that and actually making that happen without the tradition that we have here and uniqueness of what the case is here in Nebraska, I don't know if you can make that happen someplace else."
On what he told players who had committed to the previous coaching staff
"Well, the one thing that I've never done when I recruited is make promises. We try and obviously sell the people aspect of it, obviously the great things this university has to offer football-wise, educationally, culturally, sell the city of Lincoln and the state of Nebraska. We don't make any false promises. What I believe makes this state and the people in the state what it is, we sell an opportunity and you're going to get what you earned, and we are pretty black and white and be as honest as we can be when we recruit young men, and like I said we want to first and foremost get guys that fit our culture. I look at a guy like Tim Marlowe...I knew who he was, I knew what he represented as a human being, what I thought he could bring to our football program. Obviously I think he has played very good football, represented himself well, but I think the only other offer he had at the time was to Youngstown State. I knew a lot about him and took a chance on him, to my mind it wasn't really taking a chance it was taking a good football player, but a better competitor and a tremendous human being and that's all part of it - of what you do in recruiting."
On how bad Rex Burkhead wants to be out there for Senior Day
"I know he wants too obviously, I think it kills him every week, that's just who he is. He is a tremendous competitor but I haven't gotten involved in that situation, and I'm not going to get involved in that situation. The No. 1 thing for me is that we are doing the right thing for Rex not only in the next five days but for the long term. When he is right, and he feels like he is ready to go, believe me I'll be the first one to stand on the table and say 'let's go, let's go'. But that's got to come from him, and he knows his body and we have the best medical staff going so when the time is right they will tell me, and we will play him."
On weighing getting Burkhead back onto the field for future NFL exposure
"Well first of all his injury isn't anything that is going to affect him long term. It's just one those nagging injuries where it's bothersome, where he doesn't feel quite right. When you don't feel quite right you're not going to play the way you want to play anyway, and he tweaked it a couple of times and kind of went back to step one. He didn't injure it worse, and I don't think he was ever in danger of hurting it anymore but after it reoccurs one time that's one thing but when it reoccurs the second time you know we sat down, made a decision that let's wait until it's 100 percent and you're feeling that there is no issue whatsoever. Does that mean it couldn't happen again? No, it's football, it's athletics but I don't think we would do anything different through the whole thing but the situation is what it is."
On how Ameer Abdullah is holding up and if he expected him to carry the ball 31 times last week
"He is feeling great. Yeah, I was a little surprised by the number when I saw it because I saw Imani (Cross) and Braylon (Heard) in there. Some of those carries you just get off track a little bit because we were going with a pretty quick temp and we could run two, three, four tosses in a row a couple times and sometimes those carries can add up a little bit quicker and it doesn't seem like he is having as many carries as he had, but he came out of the game feeling great. He feels great today."
On if the staff has given Taylor Martinez more of a green light to run free than he had last season
"No, what I try to tell Taylor (Martinez) is to protect yourself and be smart. I think he has matured as a runner, too. I think he understands like you saw him the other day when he dropped his shoulder and got a first down, I think he understands when to and when not to. When to play himself open for a hit and when not to and that comes with experience and maturity. There are times when he is going, I've seen him run out of bounds. I know this, he is not going to run out of bounds unless he just doesn't see the sticks or something like that happens. When he understands that it is third down and we've got to get a first time he'll run differently than if he is in the open field and he has three guys barrowing down on him on the sideline, he is going to get out of bounds. I just think he has a lot better understanding of when to and when not to."
On Burkhead being a leader on the sideline by helping the other running backs
"Let me tell you even though Rex hasn't played over the last month or so or whatever it's been, he is a huge part of this football team in every way. That's just who he is, he is a tremendous leader and a presence, and he does everything he can to help the other guys and bring the other guys along. Help Ameer (Abdullah), help Braylon (Heard), help Imani (Cross) and that's just who he is."
On when he noticed the improved leadership on this year's team
"We talked about it coming out of the game last year (Capital One Bowl), and I think guys spoke out in length talking about accountability needs to go up across the board, the attention to detail, all the things that lead you to be a better football team, and our guys did a lot of things on their own during the offseason as far as the older guys teaching the younger guys. Spending time doing things and doing a little bit extra. That started last winter when we did some leadership training which I think is big. I think all those things play into the fact that you're able to overcome some of the things that we were able to overcome in the last month. You have to have a different mindset. I don't know if we would have been able to do that a year ago, two years ago, or three years ago. That requires mental toughness, it requires a belief in each other and belief in the team. I just think back the other day in the locker room at halftime we are down 14 points and there is not a sense of panic by anybody, our guys were as calm as they can be almost to the point where I was taken back with how calm they were, and they were just like 'ok, let's go, we know what we have to do lets go do it'. They were just into the adjustments talking about what we needed to do and it was kind of a business kind of approach which is from my standpoint is what you like to see."
On what he contributes to strong finishes by his teams (14-4 record in November)
"I like to think we get better as the season goes on. We stay with the process, and I like to think that our kids grow as football players as the season (goes on), as we practice and they stay in the process. I talk to the team a lot (about how) they have to overcome human nature to a certain extent. Everybody that plays a sport is sore and tired physically and mentally and all the things that go into it, and you have to find a way each and every day to work at it to get better and that's not easy to do. We stress it every day we don't change our approach much. Maybe pull back on time a bit here and there, make sure we try to be able to see where they are health-wise, legs-wise and that they are in the best shape possible come Saturday and there are a lot of little things - that's just not physically that's mentally - and we don't ignore it and for the most part the recipes worked."
On if the defense grows and gets better at the end of every year
"I think so, I've seen our defense grow as this year has gone on. Obviously every year you have to make adjustments no matter what in any phase of the game, offense, defense and special teams as the year goes on. I think the players grow and coaches too, and you look at the group you're playing with and hopefully you make the correct adjustments as the year goes on. I think that's happened but like I said I still believe there is a whole other level we can get to, and that's what we are working to do."
On the possibility of putting two punt returners back to field punts instead of just one
"Absolutely, we have done that a few times but sometimes it's when to and when not to. Obviously you leave yourself a lot more open to fakes when you leave two guys back there, so there are pluses and minuses there. It just depends on the team whether they are a roll punt team, and if they are a roll punt team you know they have fakes off of that so you just have to weigh all the possibilities and it's not easy. The other day I thought we were in good shape, and I think the hardest one to play and it's the hardest one to kick is when the roll punt that kicks across the field, there isn't a whole heck of a lot you can do about that and if you have two returners back there it will be tough to get your hands on that one."
On if the team can taste that Big Ten Championship Game
"They understand what's at stake. We've got two tough games ahead of us, and we just have to stay the course."
On what he has seen from Minnesota and the improvements the Golden Gophers have made from a year ago
"I think they are playing good defensively. They play hard. You know Coach (Jerry) Kill has those guys believing and playing hard. They are a more physical football team I think then they were a year ago and they are better. That's what you expect and more time under Coach Kill and his staff you see the improvement and you've got to give them a lot of credit. They are a good football team."
On if he has enough tape to evaluate Minnesota's new quarterback Philip Nelson
"Yeah, about four games worth. They haven't changed the offense a lot. Obviously he might be having a different style than the old guy, but he is going to be a good player in time. He does some good things, he has a good arm, he makes good decision and they are playing well around him."
On what type of progress he wants to see from his team this week
"Not get behind by 14 at halftime, that's first. I tell the team all the time it's not about doing something out of the ordinary, it's about doing the ordinary things consistently; just a higher, higher level of execution, understanding the game plan and executing week in and week out. We won the turnover battle the other day and we won the penalty battle (and) that was big. We talked about that going into the game but we still put the ball on the ground, we still had the two turnovers. It only led to three points for them, but obviously our three takeaways led to 10 points which allows you to win the football game. We've got to clean that aspect up and continue on cleaning up the penalty area and just being more efficient as the year finishes out."
On if he thinks the controversial fumble in the Penn State was the correct call
"First of all I looked at the TV angle and it wasn't a good angle. The one angle I did see from the goal line was actually on the goal line (and) it looked like it was coming out, but I think it was so close that I kind of will go (with), as I said after the game was that if they called it a touchdown they probably wouldn't have reversed it, and they called it a fumble on the field and it was too close to reverse it. If you looked at the angle they were showing on the TV, it was almost from the two yard line or so. It was an angle you couldn't really see it. The one picture I did see it was right inside the referee's head (and) it looked like the ball was coming out but it was too close to tell.
On what he has learned from this senior class
"I've learned a lot from these kids, and hopefully they have learned a lot with their time here. They have had to put up with me for four and five years, and we are not easy on them; we are demanding, we hold them to high standards every single day. Just the way they have grown as football players, I've learned a lot, I've made a lot of mistakes along the way as head coach with their time here. I think I've grown a lot as a head coach, same way they are still in progress of trying to be the best football player they can be, I'm still learning as a head coach and trying to be the best coach I can be. We've done that together. I think we have a pretty strong relationship, we believe in each other and it's been an honor to coach these kids because I love each and every one of them."
On if he asks for more feedback from players now than he did earlier in his career
"Absolutely, especially these guys that have been around me for a number of years. It's a different time in the program (than) when I came in. Now, a lot has changed."
On if his practice of not making promises has become a rarity in college football recruiting
"You know what I don't know, I don't really know how other people really go about it. The recruiting process has become interesting to say the least. Everybody has a different approach on it and different philosophies on how to go about it, and I don't know what other mind is right better than anyone else but it's what I believe works here at Nebraska and for our program."
On if he expects anything different from his team going into the last two games
"Absolutely not. I know this: we are going to get what we earn over the next two weeks. We've got to expect to get better each and every day and be ready for the challenges that lie ahead, and it's not going to be easy, it never is."
Big Red Report Prediction:
Nebraska 34...Minnesota 13 (Harvey)
*** Nebraska might make this a game in the first quarter, they always seem to do, but in the end Minnesota doesn't have the firepower to stay with Nebraska for an entire contest. The Gophers will be forced to go to the air after getting behind by a few scores and Nebraska's 2nd ranked pass defense will take over. Expect a very confused Minnesota freshman quarterback on Saturday.
Nebraska/Minnesota 2011 highlights:
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