LINCOLN — Nebraska's improving offensive tackles appear to be peaking just in time for their toughest challenge yet.
Junior Jeremiah Sirles, who contributes on the right and left sides, rarely seems to leave the field now that he's starting to master his dual role. Junior Andrew Rodriguez earned his first start of the season at right tackle at Northwestern. And against Michigan, junior Brent Qvale played the best game of his career at left tackle, assistant coach Barney Cotton said.
Problem is, the three Husker tackles are preparing for Saturday's trip to Michigan State, which has a defensive end who can spoil progress and spark regression in a hurry. Matching up against Will Gholston won't be easy, Cotton knows.
“You don't play against too many 6-8, 280-pound guys — he's so long,” Cotton said. “Plus, he can run, too. He's very fast.”
He's especially dangerous as a pass-rusher, which might be the biggest concern for Nebraska.
Qvale and Rodriguez, both guards until last winter, are still learning the tackle position's intricacies and trying to consistently apply those concepts during the rapid-fire moments after a snap. Rodriguez has spoken a few times this season about the importance of footwork in pass blocking.
Sirles, meanwhile, knows his technique principles better than anyone else — but those minor details occasionally get lost when he's flipping between the left and right sides of the line while opposing defensive ends explode toward him.
Ohio State's two senior defensive ends, particularly John Simon, regularly gained the advantage against NU's tackles in one-on-one matchups in passing situations last month. Simon finished the game with five tackles for loss, and he and Nathan Williams collapsed the pocket or at least quite regularly disrupted a play's timing.
Rodriguez said he thinks the group has come a long way since that 63-38 loss on Oct. 6.
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The extra time that he and his teammates have devoted to watching film and studying scouting reports has helped, according to Rodriguez. That should be the case this week, too.
“If I study enough in the film room, especially on (Gholston's) pass rushes, than I should be OK,” Rodriguez said.
Gholston's not the only focus for NU's offensive tackles.
Sophomore defensive end Marcus Rush has started every game of his career. MSU sends extra defenders toward the quarterback pretty regularly, according to the NU players, which helps explain why linebackers Max Bullough and Denicos Allen have combined for 17 stops behind the line of scrimmage. Cotton said the Spartans' third-down blitz package is “huge.”
The Spartans are averaging just 1.25 sacks per game this year, but they recorded five during last weekend's overtime win at Wisconsin.
NU tackles are “going to get tested with linebackers,” Cotton said. “They're going to get tested with secondary people. And they're going to get tested with starters who have played multiple years — two very experienced defensive ends.”
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