LINCOLN — Nebraska coach Bo Pelini joked Monday that he’d like to have a magic wand to make the league’s worst turnover margin disappear.
He’ll have to settle for making the Huskers’ minus-9 turnover rate his top priority to fix during the last three games of the regular season.
“It’s the No. 1 thing that equates to winning and losing,” Pelini said. “We’ve been able to overcome that a few times.”
Penn State — which leads the Big Ten with a plus-9 turnover margin — could pose a challenge.
“We can’t give them anything,” I-back Ameer Abdullah said. “We gave Michigan State a couple turnovers. We’ve done it a lot this year. But this is a very well-coached team, a very disciplined team, and we can’t give them anything.”
Against the Spartans, NU quarterback Taylor Martinez threw three interceptions. He nearly lost a fumble, as well. The Huskers only forced one turnover — a fumble by Michigan State running back Le’Veon Bell.
For the year, the Huskers are tied for seventh in the Big Ten in forcing 14 turnovers. But they’re last in losing 23 of them. Penn State is tied for second in creating turnovers and losing the fewest.
Since 2008 — Pelini’s first year — Nebraska is minus-17 in turnover margin. That’s second-worst in the Big Ten behind Michigan (minus-29). The rest of the rankings:
Ohio State: plus-53
Michigan State: plus-10
Penn State: minus-1
Pelini said Nebraska is stressing protecting the ball and creating turnovers in practice.
“It’s something you just got to keep working at,” Pelini said. “There’s nothing magical about it. You keep stressing it and you’re going to get what you stress. It’s something I’ve thought a lot about and we talk about it all the time.”
Nebraska has to cut down on “careless” penalties in which players “come off the field and immediately know what they did wrong,” Pelini said. This doesn’t necessarily include defensive pass interference penalties that have dogged the Huskers in recent weeks. Pelini wants his cornerbacks and safeties staying aggressive.
“We play the way we play,” Pelini said. “There’s some things you gotta live with.”
Injured Marlowe hopes to be healthy for Saturday
Senior Tim Marlowe, who broke his right clavicle in the season opener, said he popped his left shoulder out of place twice Saturday.
Once in the second quarter, when he unsuccessfully dove for a pass near the sideline. And again in the fourth quarter, when he took a hard hit at the end of a punt return.
Marlowe didn’t practice Monday, but hopes to be healthy enough to play Saturday against Penn State.
“(The injury) certainly wasn’t fun to play with. But that’s football. That’s Big Ten football,” Marlowe said. “You’ve got to play through some injuries. … I’m just glad it isn’t worse than it is.”
In other injury news, Rex Burkhead (knee) needs to keep progressing before he’ll rejoin the lineup, Pelini said. Martinez is still battling an ankle injury suffered against Michigan, but isn’t expected to be limited in practice this week.
Smith getting flak for taking big hit from Spartan RB
Alonzo Whaley may not let P.J. Smith off the hook quite yet for the hit Smith absorbed from Bell. The Spartan running back knocked Smith over with a vicious shoulder shot that hit Smith’s chin and popped him to the ground.
“He hasn’t heard the end of it,” Whaley said, laughing.
Whaley said he watched the highlight of the fourth-quarter on NU’s plane ride home “six or seven times.”
“I made a joke in the locker room this morning that his dad took his jersey off in the stands once he got ran over like that,” Whaley said.
Smith said he’s still getting texts and calls about it. His argument to the razzing: He made the tackle.
Cornerback Bell has left program
Senior cornerback Antonio Bell left the program before the Michigan game because of a violation of team rules, Pelini said. He did not elaborate.
Bell and Pelini exchanged heated words on the sidelines in the fourth quarter of the Northwestern game, when Bell picked up a holding penalty on a key third-down play. The penalty had no effect on the outcome of the play — Wildcat quarterback Trevor Siemian scrambled for a first down — but Bell got the hook anyway.
Saving timeouts pays off for Pelini
Pelini said he’s more reluctant to burn timeouts in the second half, stinginess that paid off in the 28-24 win at Michigan State.
The Huskers had all three of their timeouts when MSU began its final drive with 3:12, attempting to run out the clock and earn the win. But Nebraska, even after giving up a first down, got the ball back because it could stop the clock three times.
“If I feel like I need to do something to settle our guys down or make a particular correction, I don’t hesitate (to call timeout) in the first half,” Pelini said. “I try everything I can to avoid that in the third and fourth quarters.”
Nebraska used two timeouts on offense in the first half at MSU Saturday. On both occasions, the Huskers scored a touchdown on the ensuing snap – a 2-yard pass to Ameer Abdullah and a 71-run by Taylor Martinez.
Nebraska-Minnesota set for 2:30 p.m. kickoff
The Big Ten announced Monday that Nebraska’s Nov. 17 home football game against Minnesota will kick off at 2:30 p.m. on BTN.