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Nebraska Week! Q & A with Corn Nation and the Big Red Network

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USC takes on Nebraska this weekend at the Coliseum in what is sure to be a great game between two of college footballs great powers. Nebraska is a program with a long tradition but has had some down years of late. Coach bill Callahan is bringing them back to national prominence.

 Jon Johnston over at fellow SBN Nebraska Blog Corn Nation and Jason Siffring along with writers Steve Hanway and Darren Carlson of The Big Red Network recently contacted me about sharing some questions and answers and doing a little roundtable.

My questions and their answers are below.

1- Now that Bill Callahan has been there for a few years where have you seen a marked improvement? 1) The Offense 2) The Defense 3) Both?

The Big Red Network:

Steve Hanway says:
We're only just now seeing the real improvement in the offense (after some flashes late in the year last season).  I can only speak for myself but I don't have total faith in the defensive coaching staff. The staff the huskers had in 2003 was pretty good.

Darren Carlson says:
Answer - In terms of scheme, it is clearly the offense. In year three we are seeing the product we thought we bought. It took a few calls to "customer service", but it is definitely working now. For example, 10+ players caught passes in each of the first two games. There is nearly perfect offensive balance, run-pass. We're seeing all of the things they say about this style of offense. The difference is the trigger man. Callhan has his guy in Taylor. He makes the reads and throws an accurate ball.

But the real answer to your question is both. I say that because of improved personnel. Callahan and staff's biggest mark has been in recruiting. NU's drop off under Solich had more to do with Jimmy and Joe than X and O. There are many more play makers on both sides now than when Callahan first arrived. The team has gotten progressively better as they have added better players.

Corn Nation:

Last year's Nebraska team had problems scoring against Maine in the season opener. Against Wake Forest, we had 31 points, but three touchdowns by the defense. We had a single touchdown in the win over Pitt. We couldn't run basic offensive shifts without procedure and delay calls and we couldn't run the ball, finishing 107th in rushing.

We've played two games this year, blowing out inferior opponents, scoring over 100 points in two games. In terms of execution we are light years ahead of where we were last year. That's exciting. We have a large number of experienced receivers, and we have four good backs, each of which brings something different to the field. We have tight end Matt Herian back from a broken leg, one of the best tight ends in the nation.

Last year the Nebraska Blackshirt defense finished number one in sacks and tackles for loss. It's hard to improve on that. If we had one problem last year, it was consistency, suffering big losses against Missouri and Kansas. I expect more consistency out of the defense this year because of our depth in the front seven (more on this later).

2- What are the perceived strength's and/or weaknesses of the program this season?

The Big Red Network:

Steve Hanway says:
The offensive line lacks depth and the starters are no better than average to above average by college standards.  The running backs still need experience.  The secondary is the biggest weakness on the team and the scariest one going into the game against USC.  The strengths are at tight end, defensive end, and linebacker.  Zac Taylor is a courageous quarterback and tremendous leader.  He will always hang in and take the big hit in order to deliver the ball.

Darren Carlson says:
No question that the injury to Zach Bowman made our defensive secondary (especially the cornerback position) the biggest weakness of the team. We're razor thin there. Offensively, I'd have to say the offensive line was a big question mark. But, the line really has looked good to start this year. But, those games weren't against USC, either.

Our strength on defense is the front 7. The defensive ends are as good as any in the country, and we are very deep and talented at linebacker. Offensively, we have some very talented skill players. It's a "pick your poison" situation at running back, spearheaded by Lucky (fast) and Glenn (powerful). Does that sound familiar? Our WR corps is pretty good, with Nunn and Swift being steady, and Purfiy offering the chance for the spectacular. We also have a lot of tight ends that play, one of which - Herian - is pretty darn good.

Corn Nation:

Let's start with weaknesses, and unfortunately, they're not perceived, they're real. Nebraska lost Zack Bowman before the year started to a knee injury. At the end of last year, he had become an excellent cover corner. We lost another corner, Isaiah Fluellen, for the season in the first game. We were already weak in the defensive backfield without the injuries, so I'm sure Dwayne Jarrett and his buddies are licking their chops this week.

Fortunately, the strength of Nebraska is in the Blackshirt front seven. We have great depth on the defensive line and linebacking corps, possibly one of the best front seven sets in the nation. You should know the names of our starting defensive ends, Jay Moore and Adam Carriker.

There's reason to think the offensive line is back to form, but this game will tell us whether or not they as good as they look or we're just beating up on inferior opponents. Nebraska fans won't tolerate a mediocre offensive line - they pay attention to the line probably more than anyone in the nation.

There's a part of me that believes Bill Callahan's version of the WCO is an enormous asset to Nebraska. I've seen some people say that it's not that complex, but I'd challenge that. We play a large number of personnel in a wide variety of sets on offense. For the college game, it's very complex. It'll be fun to see how USC's defense does against our offense.

3- How has Zac Taylor and the rest of the offense adapted to the West Coast Offense?

The Big Red Network:

Steve Hanway says:
It finally looks like most fans expected it should.  It's a balanced attack that spreads the ball around and uses timing to make plays. Zac already holds the schools top passing records (over mostly option QB's but there were some passers like Vince Ferragamo).  Now he appears to be taking his game up a notch.  He is by far the most important player on the team right now.

Darren Carlson says:
Pretty well, now in year 3. Taylor knows all of this offense - all the checks, reads, shifts and progressions. And, that just makes a huge difference. With Dailey in 2004, it was an interception-fest. Taylor's first year out of JC ('05) and we saw about 50% of what it was capable of. Taylor now has mastered it, and it shows. It helps that his WR and TE players are more in sync with the scheme now, too.

Corn Nation:

I don't think you could find a quarterback that was more improved last year throughout the season. Taylor really grabbed hold of the offense at the end of last year in our wins over Colorado and Michigan in the Alamo Bowl. In Nebraska's last five games, Taylor has thrown 14 touchdowns with only three interceptions. Again, light years of where he was last year at this time.

It's clear in Callahan's third year that Nebraska is grasping the WCO. We have shown great balance this year, and are currently eighth in rushing nationally.

The offense has adapted faster than Nebraska fans. Most native Nebraskans believe in the virtue and work ethic of the running game - passing the football was for pansies trying to play basketball on a football field. Personally, I miss the pictures of our offensive line moving in front of a back on a trap play or an option pitch, but I guess that's something no one can take away from us.

4- While it has been a few years since Nebraska was in the MNC mix, short of going all the way this year what is an acceptable level of success for the program this season?

The Big Red Network:

Steve Hanway says:
Anything less than a division championship will be a major disappointment and could possibly put the coaches in trouble.  A conference championship and/or BCS bowl would be awesome, but the Big XII North is the bare minimum.

Darren says:
We live and die with winning the Big 12 North division. While the Pac-10 remains sans divisions and title game, in the Big 12, SEC, and ACC, they mean everything. NU hasn't won the division since 1999! With NU's development and the relative weakness of the North, we absolutely
must win it. After that, you take your chances in the title game. All other goals (Big 12 title, BCS, MNC) all hinge on just that one game, which sort of sucks.  Having to play your potentially best opponent twice is just a bear for any team. In three of the 10 years in the game's history, it has been a major upset.

The real goal and expectation in my mind, and the minds of many fans, is to win the North over and over and over again. Get it to the point that the North sounds like broken record. The title game should be NU and whatever team the South sends. Only then can NU assure itself of
some chances to really break through. And, for me personally, it is all about "Braveheart" style vengeance on some of these other slack-ass, poser North programs (KSU, ISU, MU). When we play a North school, it needs to put a boot in their ass for me to be happy.

Corn Nation:

Win the Big 12 North, get into a good bowl game. It'd be nice to win the Big 12 which would get us into a BCS bowl, but I won't be upset if that doesn't happen this year. Ask me again after the USC game - it's a huge barometer for Nebraska.

I'm sure there are those who are more rabid about it than myself, and there's still people angry about Frank Solich's firing and would rather see Bill Callahan fail so they can complain about it some more.  They need to get over it, and get on with their lives.

5- Getting Keller for next season was a great move for Nebraska, what has been the general attitude of the program upon hearing of his arrival?

The Big Red Network:

There's a great deal of excitement.  A lot of us looked ahead to Zac's departure after this season and were worried that there would be a huge drop off (especially with highly touted Harrison Beck leaving in a snit). The #2 and #3 quarterbacks right now are guys that Callahan probably wouldn't have recruited if he wasn't hired so soon before signing day in 2004.  If Ganz (the current #2) can't be the guy, Keller could buy the Huskers time to develop younger guys like Hildebrand (a JC transfer who first went to Oregon State) and Witt (a  recruit who's committed to Nebraska for next year and will arrive in  spring).  With his huge upside Keller could turn what would have been a rebuilding year into a year they could contend for a BCS bowl.

Darren says:
Cautious optimism defines Husker fans in general. No question he's a talent, and we're happy to have him. Especially when you consider that our '07 team could be our most talented in quite a while...with one notable hole - quarterback. He fills a big gap for us. However, I've said over and over that the key to this offense is precision and the QB knowing everything. It remains to be seen if Keller can reach Taylor-level control over it in just one year.

Corn Nation:

People are excited about Keller, especially since he chose us over Bob Stoops at Oklahoma. That's a coup any way you look at it. Personally, I'm a little hesitant about having a quarterback around for only one season, but those with calmer personalities have pointed out to me what an asset it will be to have Keller's experience around our younger quarterbacks. He is an excellent athlete that fits our system, so maybe I'm just trying too hard to find something to complain about

6- What is Kurt Mann's status for this week's game? Will his current illness keep him out of the game?

The Big Red Network:

No real update, though they didn't seem to miss a beat without him. Granted, it was against I-AA competition, but in year's past the Huskers struggled with that level opponent at times.  Since it's just a virus, you'd have to think he could return by Saturday.

Darren says:
He should be fine. You can expect him to play. It was just an infection and they held him out in a cautionary way.

Corn Nation:

It's too early in the week, there has been no news about Mann. If I hear something, I'll update this. It is a cause for concern for Nebraska since Mann is such a force for the offensive line.

7- What are the keys things that Nebraska needs to do to win this game?

The Big Red Network:

Nebraska has to pressure usc's quarterback.  There will be no "coverage sacks" against the Trojans.  The front seven has to get there fast. Offensively they have to be patient, yet at the same time daring.  They can't commit penalties or turnovers.  Taylor has to get rid of the ball fast.  Going for it on 4th down, on-sides kicks, fake punts, etc. should all be on the table.  The Huskers are trying to steal a game and to pull it off, they're going to need to take some big chances.

Darren says:
To win, NU will absolutely have to protect Taylor, stop the run, get enough pressure from the front 7 to protect the secondary, get a big play on special teams, and win the turnover battle. So, they pretty much need to play a perfect game. No big deal...

Seriously, this is a good exchange. Good luck, and we hope you can come to Lincoln in 2007.

Corn Nation:

We'll know if Nebraska is going to stay in this game by watching what happens in the first quarter. Two things have to happen for Nebraska:

−    The Blackshirts have to put pressure on John David Booty. The Blackshirts have to hit him a few times, knock him down. It'll be a great asset if we can do this with our front four - without blitzing linebackers. If we're not getting pressure on Booty, he has too much protection, and USC's excellent receiving corps will eat our defense alive.

−    Maintain ball control on offense. Whether by an intermediate passing game, or running the football, we must control the tempo of the game. We cannot allow USC's defensive front to control our offensive line. If USC's linebackers are able to roam free their speed will kill us on offense.

If we do these things early, we can stay in the game.

I don't see Nebraska winning this game, but I see us playing close. If we have some luck, maybe pick up a win due to a rare USC turnover and our kicking game.

I am really excited for us to be playing USC. It is an excellent chance for see where we are in the Bill Callahan era.

Go Big Red Nebraska!

Great exchange guys. I know this game will have some exciting moments. It's great to see two proud programs get together to put it all on the line.

Good luck on Saturday.