LINCOLN — Nebraska assistant coach Rick Kaczenski had a defensive tackle playing perhaps the best and most dominating football of his career the second half of this season.
And now Baker Steinkuhler is out.
NU assistants John Garrison and Barney Cotton had a former walk-on go from defensive lineman to starting center in one of the best Husker stories of 2012.
And now Justin Jackson won't be available for the Big Ten championship game.
The reality of those two injuries settles in this weekend after Nebraska survived the loss of the two seniors Friday during the 13-7 win at Iowa. Neither will play next Saturday night when NU meets Wisconsin for the Big Ten championship.
So Nebraska shifts from thinking short-term solution to long-term answers for replacing some of the guts of the Husker lines — and against a Badger team built around its offensive and defensive fronts.
“Unfortunately it's part of the game,” Kaczenski said. “Wisconsin isn't going to feel bad for us.”
Steinkuhler (right knee) had been holding together the defensive front, where other injuries and inexperience had been problems at tackle. The Huskers will need increased snaps and production from Chase Rome and Thad Randle, and possibly more time inside from end Cameron Meredith.
Jackson (left ankle) won the starting center job in preseason practice after battling with Cole Pensick and was helping the Huskers put up impressive offensive numbers. NU went with Mark Pelini on Friday after Jackson was hurt eight plays into the game — not wanting to disrupt Pensick's rotation at left guard — but likely will re-evaluate those two this week.
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“We'll go back and look at the film and see,” offensive coordinator Tim Beck said.
Kaczenski was effusive in his praise for Steinkuhler after the Nov. 17 win over Minnesota, and said that NFL scouts had taken notice of his recent surge. After he went down with about 10 minutes left in the first half Friday, his final Husker season likely is over with 47 tackles (seven for losses) and 2Ĺ sacks.
But Kaczenski said Steinkuhler was the first one waiting for the team when it returned to the locker room after the game, and that Steinkuhler will remain a leader on the team for its two postseason games.
“After it's all said and done, the hardest thing and the thing I feel worst for is him,” defensive coordinator John Papuchis said. “He's been such a hard worker for us. He's been everything you could ever ask out of a player, and you want their career to end on their terms.”
Kaczenski said he would get together with Papuchis and head coach Bo Pelini and figure out how to best remedy the situation.
“But obviously you lose a great player like that, it's going to affect you,” Kaczenski said. “You can't compensate with just one guy. It's going to take all 11, but in particular it's going to take two or three more guys inside stepping up more.
“I've got to do a good job getting these guys ready, and Bo and J.P. will have a great plan to help us out, and maybe offset if there's any deficiencies inside.”
Rome said he would not feel any different kind of weight on his shoulders. The sophomore was briefly off the team in September and currently has 17 tackles in nine games, two of which he has started.
“Obviously you pray for Baker and hope he's all right,” Rome said. “But it's kind of how it is. The train keeps moving. If you stop and worry about those things, it's not what Baker would want me to do.”
Before replacing Jackson, Pelini was a sophomore walk-on who had played limited snaps and none at significant points in games. Although the NU offense struggled to duplicate the success it had on that first possession of the game, Garrison said Pelini held up on a cold day and worked well with quarterback Taylor Martinez.
“I was proud of Mark for the job that he did, coming in and performing the way that he did,” Garrison said.
Beck called Pelini “an unsung hero” in the game that clinched the Legends Division title for the Huskers. He said NU knew it would get stability, toughness and smart play from the nephew of Bo Pelini — and didn't consider a change to Pensick anywhere along the way.
“I thought Mark was doing a good job in there, so why change a good thing?” Beck said.
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