Enemy Insights – Q&A With Omaha World Herald’s Tom Shatel
Let’s get straight to business today. Tom Shatel, an esteemed member of the Nebraska sports mafia at the Omaha World-Herald and online blog Big Red Today, was kind enough to join us for a truly insider’s perspective of the ‘Cats-Huskers match-up on Saturdya.
LTP: Frame up Saturday’s game from the Nebraska perspective. Fans often make a huge deal about “revenge” games, but with team turnover, a full year of games in between, how much credence do you give to the fact this is a circled payback game from Nebraska’s perspective?
TS: Nobody’s talking about revenge. Nebraskans don’t know anything about Northwestern. There’s no history there. If Kansas State or Colorado or Missouri had come in throw a wrench into the season, that would be another story. Husker fans would hear about it all summer. It’s not that they don’t respect the other “NU,” they just don’t know it. If there’s revenge, it would be against Wisconsin or Michigan, which throttled the Huskers last year. NU wanted to show well in its first Big Ten game and first time in the Big House and walked away red-faced. But still, I didn’t hear the talk about revenge for Wisconsin or Michigan this year. Last year was such a blur. Nobody knew where to go or who to play. Revenge is an emotion that will take time. Meanwhile, Husker fans are totally self-centered on their program right now. They’re looking forward to the trip to Chicago and to see a beautiful campus, another new stadium. But they’re thinking about if Bo Pelini has the program on the right track. That’s what they want to see on Saturday: a Nebraska team lined up right and playing hard and winning. Opponent is secondary right now. There will be a lot of red people there. Northwestern fans, if they ae so inclined, could make a ton of cash this weekend.
LTP: Let’s discuss Bo Pelini. Frankly, I was pretty unimpressed with his in-game temperament when the ‘Cats upset the Huskers. He was literally finger pointing and seemed to be really in the blame game, a scene I’ve seen from him quite a bit. It just seems like a misfit from the culture of respect and sportsmanship that seems to be a hallmark of the program. I’ve got to believe his seat is going from warm to hot. Do you view this week as do-or-die for Bo Pelini’s future?
TS: Bo is Bo. He doesn’t chum up to the cameras or press conferences. He’s old-school that way. His image is somewhat overblown. The cartoon faces are seen less and less these days. And most Husker fans were okay with the act at Texas A&M two years ago, when Big 12 refs fleeced the Big Red as they left the league. When the tirades come, some fans jump on him. Some defend him. Lately, people are jumping on Bo because of the way the team performs in big games. Tom Osborne doesn’t own a hot seat. But there’s more heat on Bo from the fans now than ever in his five years here. The fact that a new boss was just introduced has added to the drama. But Bo isn’t going anywhere anytime soon, and next year NU trades Wisconsin and Ohio State for Illinois and Purdue, for what that’s worth. Big things will probably need to happen in 2013 for a program that hasn’t won a league title since 1999. It could still happen this season, but then, isn’t that what the other teams in the Legends are thinking, too?
LTP: Let’s talk the ground game. Nebraska has put up silly numbers, 292 ypg on the ground, with the huge caveat that all but 392 of the rushing yards did NOT include formerly injured RB Rex Burkhead. Has the OL been THAT good, has it been Martinez’s magic in the zone option, Abdullah just being Abdullah? Frame it up for us.
TS: When they’re all healthy, Nebraska has the best stable of running backs in the Big Ten. Burkhead, Abdullah and Heard are relentless runners, and Martinez can be terrific when he gets loose. The issue is always blocking, and while it’s been better, it’s not consistent yet. Also, play-calling. OC Tim Beck can get on a roll calling the toss plays and downhill runs, then decides to start throwing. You’ll see Martinez throw it, possibly early, to loosen up the Wildcats’ run defense. Should be fun to watch. But I do expect Nebraska to be able to run.
LTP: The ground game is clearly the obvious statistical “something’s gotta give” point. NU (Northwestern) has been stout against the run game unless your name is MarQueis Gray and give up only 110 ypg on the ground. Conversely, the ‘Cats are #4 in the B1G in rusing with 223 ypg and Nebraska’s rush defense has been horrendous. What’s your take on what gives on Saturday?
TS: I think it’s up to the Nebraska offensive line. If they show up, I think the Huskers run for their share. But if Martinez has a tough day throwing, then obviously Northwestern may load it up and make it tough.
LTP: Educate us on the progress of Taylor Martinez the passer. His mechanics have been the highest trending topic in the state since Spring Ball, but what’s the difference we’ll see on Saturday from the guy we saw in November in Lincoln?
TS: Taylor has improved and it’s a difference you can notice. He’s less off the back foot, less with the happy feet and quicker in his progressions. He’s not Dan Marino but he’s better. But he’ll still make a Jay Cutleresque mistake and that hasn’t changed. That’s the key with Taylor. Not the arm, but the head. He’s had some flashbacks to his turnover days in both losses, most noticably against Ohio State. Taylor blamed those turnovers on everything but himself this week. That lack of accountability from the QB sent out some alarms in Husker Nation. His teammates seem okay with him. Bottom line: he’s better but he can still be the old guy.
LTP: Special teams, particularly punt and kickoff coverage seem to be a pretty glaring issue for the Huskers. Obviously, with Venric Mark as the nation’s leading punt returner (although he doesn’t qualify based on # of returns), how big of a deal do you see this being on Saturday?
TS: Might be a good idea not to punt.
LTP: What’s the perspective among Nebraskans for this game? Is it “last year was a fluke” in losing to Northwestern and this year you’re going to dominate or is it more of a self-questioning fear factor that you may very well lose this game?
TS: Again, the feeling going into this game is less about Northwestern and more about Nebraska. How are the Huskers going to rebound from Ohio State debacle? Is their leadership? Can Bo motivate? Can they find a level of consistency they can keep the rest of the season? There are some nervous folks down here. But it has more to do with the home team, their home team. No offense to the Cats. Folks respect the heck out of Pat Fitzgerald. They know Northwestern will be well-coached.
LTP: Top three surprises for you this season.
TS: Three surprises. 1) I should have known better, but I thought there would be better leadership than has been shown so far. They still don’t react well to adversity. 2) Ameer Abdullah has emerged as a big-time, all-Big Ten type back. The future is bright there. 3) Pelini doesn’t have a better defense than this. I thought they would have struggles but at times they look unmotivated and out of position.
LTP: Top two non-household names Wildcat fans should be honing in on as potential gamechangers.
TS: Since I expect a shootout, I would say Abdullah and sophomore Kenny Bell, who looks at times like the most explosive receiver in the league. You’ll see the ball in their hands a bunch. They both know how to motor in space.
TS: Back in August I picked Nebraska in this one. Not for revenge and not because Northwestern isn’t up to it. But I’ve seen this before: Nebraska comes into a smaller stadium, people in red take over, and they win by 14 to 21 points. I still think that. The state of the Husker defense will add some drama to the thing, and if Northwestern gets up early, it will be interesting to see how this team reacts. But, the Wildcats have given up some big numbers to some average teams. I like Nebraska’s running game and receivers in this one. I think they win the shootout, 49-35.
LTP: Tom, thanks for the great stuff. We really appreciate the time and hope you enjoy your first trip to Ryan Field. We hope to make it a great experience in every way, but on the field!
LTP Flag Project
You’ve gotta love it when the players’ families submit photos. I know I do. We’ve had several over the years and we now have two of the top three QBs on the current team on the LTP flag map. Today, Barbara Oliver posts a flag photo from Baton Rouge, LA, home of current back-up QB Zack Oliver. The Olivers join the Siemian family on the map, so Colter family, now it is your turn! Be sure to check out the LTP Flag Project by clicking on the navigation bar at the top of this page. We’ve got more than 300 Northwestern flags from around the world on this map of pride and we’d love to add yours. Simply send us the photo and location to email@example.com. Thanks Oliver family! Baton Rouge is on the map!
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