Steven M. Sipple: Linemen's injuries hard blow to Husker midsection

2012-11-25T23:50:00Z 2012-11-29T18:40:11Z Steven M. Sipple: Linemen's injuries hard blow to Husker midsection JournalStar.com

Things I know and think I know:

They toil in the middle of the fray — quiet, efficient, effective.

Their loss to injury is a hard blow to Nebraska's midsection, a clean shot, especially as the 14th-ranked Huskers prepare to play rugged Wisconsin in Saturday night's Big Ten Championship Game.

The Badgers (7-5, 4-4 Big Ten) aren't a great team, obviously, but they are a hard-hitting team. It's a program that prides itself on strong play in the trenches. Which only increases the impact of season-ending injuries to Husker senior defensive tackle Baker Steinkuhler (knee) and senior center Justin Jackson (ankle).

Both starters went down in the first half of Friday's 13-7 win at Iowa.

Nebraska coach Bo Pelini, during a Sunday teleconference, at least twice described Wisconsin as being "physical and sound" on both sides of the ball.

"It's been a formula that's worked for them over a long period of time — the physical aspect of football," he said.

Wisconsin, even in a "down" season for the program, ranks 23rd nationally in rushing offense, averaging 212.7 yards per game.

"They're a very physical, smash-you-in-the-mouth-type team," said Nebraska defensive coordinator John Papuchis.

In Nebraska's 30-27 comeback win against Wisconsin on Sept. 29, the Badgers managed only 56 rushing yards on 41 carries. The 6-foot-6, 290-pound Steinkuhler, a Lincoln Southwest graduate, played arguably his best game of the season, recording five tackles, including two for losses. He also put a memorable welcome-to-the-Big Ten hit on freshman quarterback Joel Stave late in the game.

Stave has been sidelined since suffering a shoulder injury Oct. 27 against Michigan State. Wisconsin is now led by fifth-year senior Curt Phillips, 1-2 as the starter. Phillips is much more mobile than Stave and has a "very, very good arm, especially throwing on the run," Badgers coach Bret Bielema said Sunday.

Wisconsin's offensive line improved as the season progressed, Pelini said.

In Steinkuhler's absence Friday, senior defensive end Cameron Meredith slid inside to the tackle spot. In fact, Meredith played in the interior much of the season and "really held up well," Pelini said.

At 6-foot-4 and 260 pounds, Meredith is undersized for an interior lineman. Even so, he doesn't complain about the task, although it is asking a lot of him. He's an unsung hero on an improving defense.

"He's phenomenal — I don't know how he does it," said Husker defensive end Eric Martin. "He's one of those guys who can play all positions. He can go from linebacker to defensive end to defensive tackle. It's ridiculous. … Nobody else could do it."

Consider the fix Nebraska would be in right now without sophomore defensive tackle Chase Rome. Rome left the team for a few days in September for personal reasons.

Junior defensive tackle Thad Randle was held out Friday because of an undisclosed injury (he has chronic knee soreness) but will be ready Saturday, Pelini said.

Redshirt freshman tackle Kevin Williams (6-2, 265) has appeared in only two conference games, while true freshman tackle Aaron Curry (6-1, 280) has appeared in no league contests after playing in four nonconference games.

Meanwhile, Jackson, in his first season as the starting center, did a "remarkable job," Pelini said. The 6-3, 280-pound Roca native is an athletic player whose fiery nature helped give the offense a hard edge.

Sophomore walk-on Mark Pelini of Youngstown, Ohio — Bo's nephew — replaced Jackson on Friday and "did a lot of good things," Coach Pelini said Sunday. Mark Pelini is only 6-foot (and 285 pounds) — a bit undersized. But he obviously possesses that familiar Youngstown toughness. Maybe you noticed he went sleeveless in the bitter cold. Yikes.

Bo didn't commit to Mark Pelini being the starter Saturday, saying junior Cole Pensick also will be considered. Pensick has been a regular contributor at left guard.

Bo Pelini expresses confidence in his team, even without Steinkuhler and Jackson. How their injuries impact Saturday wasn't his foremost concern.

"You feel worse for the kids," Pelini said. "Let's face it, they play all year long and bust their butts. To have an injury this late in the year, you just feel for them. Especially two seniors."

Said Martin: "The have to know we're playing for them now."

* Papuchis has a pretty good idea of how Wisconsin has evolved since Sept. 29.

"I'd be lying to say I haven't kept one eye on them a little bit, just to see what they've been doing," he said.

What the Badgers haven't been doing is beating the tough teams on their Big Ten schedule. Their four conference wins came against teams with a combined seven league victories — Illinois (0), Purdue (3), Minnesota (2) and Indiana (2).

The Huskers' seven league triumphs came against teams with a combined 28 conference wins.

* Nebraska now ranks first nationally in pass defense and 15th in total defense. Yeah, I saw that coming back in early October. Sure I did.

Reach Steven M. Sipple at 402-473-7440 or ssipple@journalstar.com.

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About the writer

Steven M. Sipple | Lincoln Journal Star

Steven, a lifelong Nebraskan, newspaper enthusiast and UNL grad, joined the Journal Star in 1990 and has covered NU football since 1995.


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