Michigan vs. Nebraska, 10.27.12

Nebraska running back Ameer Abdullah (8) looks for a hole provided by Spencer Long (61) and the Huskers offensive line against Michigan. Behind the offensive line play, the Huskers have the 24th best offense and 8th best rushing offense in the nation.

ORLANDO, Fla. -- Nebraska boasts the nation's 24th-ranked offense in terms of total yards per game.

Barney Cotton's linemen must have done something right.

"You always want to play better than you played," the veteran offensive line coach said. "But this year was another building step from last year, I think."

Nebraska (10-3) finished last season ranked 66th nationally in total offense at 379.9 yards per game. This season, the Huskers are averaging 462.15 yards and rank eighth in rushing offense (254.5) -- up from 15th a year ago (217.2).

However, Nebraska this season ranks 85th in sacks allowed and was slowed at times by inconsistency.

Nebraska will return five linemen next season who are part of this season's regular rotation, led by junior guard Spencer Long, an All-Big Ten selection.

"These guys were one the favorite groups of guys I've coached," Cotton said. "They were good off-the-field guys. They were good film guys. They were good meeting-room guys. They were good practice-effort guys.

"The culture of the whole team, not just the offensive line, over time has changed dramatically for the better."

Cotton guides a line that this season has adapted to a faster-paced offense. He says the linemen are perhaps a little smaller than past seasons, in better shape and a bit more active.

"Part of that is the way we practice -- we're practicing to run more plays in a game," he said.

On Tuesdays and Wednesdays, he said, Nebraska runs between 130 and 140 plays in practice, which is probably about 40 more than last year.

"We really didn't make a big switch to (fast) tempo until right before spring football, and our guys were dying out there the first couple weeks of spring ball," Cotton said. "So, our winter will have more conditioning in it than we did last year.

"It's still going to be about building strength and explosiveness and all of those things, but it's going to have to be more about conditioning because we're going to run more plays every practice."

Penn State-like: Georgia freshman tailbacks Todd Gurley and Keith Marshall remind Nebraska defensive end Jason Ankrah of Penn State's Zach Zwinak.

In other words, Gurley and Marshall are physical runners.

Zwinak rushed 21 times for 141 yards Nov. 5 in Lincoln. The 6-foot-1, 218-pound Gurley has rushed for 1,260 yards this season, while the 5-11, 216-pound Marshall has 723 yards.

"They're downhill runners," Ankrah said. "They don't look to finesse many people."

Georgia doesn't use the zone-read option nearly as much as many teams Nebraska's faced -- which is fine by Ankrah.

"Defensive end-wise, not seeing it is kind of a relief," he said.

Familiarity: Conventional wisdom says the Georgia defense's talent-level is similar to that of South Carolina's last season. The Gamecocks defeated the Huskers 30-13 in the Capital One Bowl.

However, "I felt like we were better than South Carolina last year," Nebraska sophomore running back Ameer Abdullah said. "We let that game get away from us."

Has the loss to South Carolina been on Abdullah's mind lately?

"Not at all," he said. "It was last year. Why would it be?"

Fresh and ready: Abdullah doesn't agree with the notion that Nebraska was worn down physically in its 70-31 loss to Wisconsin in the Big Ten Championship Game.

Husker head coach Bo Pelini said last week that his team looked "leg weary" against the Badgers, perhaps because the second half of the season took a toll.

"We all play football -- everybody has to go through that grind, not just us," Abdullah said.

He did acknowledge Nebraska faced ample pressure to win late in the season as it battled to make the league title game.

"The stakes were high as the season went on," he said. "You're going to be drained, but mentally I feel like if you stay with it, you'll be OK."

Another big boy: Georgia lost a significant piece from its defensive line when senior nose tackle John Jenkins was ruled out for the bowl for academic issues.

The 6-foot-3, 358-pound Jenkins is considered a potential high-round pick in the upcoming NFL Draft.

Does Cotton breathe a little easier with Jenkins out of the equation?

Not really.

"Well, his backup is 6-6, 358 as well, or something like that," Cotton said. "One guy doesn't make any defense or any offense. We'd like to be playing a team with all their horses. This is a good team regardless."

Cotton was referring to junior Kwame Geathers, who is listed at 6-6, 355 pounds.

Abry Jones, a senior defensive end who missed the last seven games after ankle surgery, is planning to play for Georgia Tuesday, perhaps somewhat cushioning the blow of the Jenkins' loss.

The finish line: The end of the run is rarely easy. Sometimes a senior doesn't even want to recognize it's coming.

"You don't really think about it 'til it's over," said NU senior defensive end Eric Martin. "Right now, I'm not even thinking about this as my last practice. I'm still thinking like I have another year. It probably won't hit me until I actually can't practice anymore."

Martin, ever the jokester with teammates, said it's those relationships with his fellow Huskers he'll miss more than anything.

"Coming from high school, I just missed hanging around my teammates because you develop such a good friendship and relationship that you just feel like you guys will never be apart," Martin said. "You feel like a brother and then everyone goes their separate ways and you might not see them again. ... It sucks, but it's life."

Itinerary: Nebraska had an early afternoon practice Sunday but there were no media interviews scheduled Players also attended "a day for kids" at Walt Disney World.

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


Husker columnist

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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