LINCOLN — The blocking on the field becomes music in assistant coach Rich Fisher's ears once Nebraska's receivers finish a series. A game within a game that he's devised has their attention, and they're not afraid to give him instant updates on their progress.
Fisher's game doesn't just recognize touchdowns and yards after a catch. It rewards points for several types of blocks, which helps a Husker pursue Fisher's end-of-season “Perimeter Warrior Award.”
“It's fun when they come to the sideline, letting you know exactly how many points they acquired on that specific drive,” Fisher said.
In a 39-19 win over Illinois, Husker receivers accumulated a glut of points, especially for blocking. Their work sprung several long runs for Ameer Abdullah — who gained 225 yards in the game — and had praise flowing. Fisher called it the best blocking performance of the year. Junior wide receiver Kenny Bell called it the best since a 24-3 win over Michigan State in 2011.
“What we did in our first Big Ten game is something that every team we play is going to watch,” Bell said. “It's our personality, and it's what we want on film as a wide receiving corps. It's not just about catching the ball. It's how we do everything.”
That's because Fisher's “goal board” — updated each Monday after a game — keeps track of everything, including yards after catch and several kinds of blocks:
Ľ Knockdown blocks knock a defender down or out of bounds, a wide receiver's version of a pancake.
Ľ Protect-and-attack blocks help spring a big run by a back or receiver after a catch.
Ľ Blazer blocks help some other Husker score a touchdown.
Ľ Stone blocks are the rarest, the best of the knockdowns, a fierce imposition of will.
“A knockout, like Kenny did in the Big Ten championship,” senior Quincy Enunwa said.
Enunwa said he and junior slot receiver Jamal Turner each have one stone this year.
“You get a stone, you're pretty proud of yourself,” Enunwa said. “A blazer as well.”
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The points go toward competing for Fisher's annual award. Enunwa won in 2011 and 2012. He's first so far in 2013. Bell, who's in second, successfully lobbied Fisher to add touchdowns as point categories this year in an effort to catch Enunwa.
“My kangaroo court in there decided they needed to add some stuff to the board,” Fisher said. “We added touchdowns. That was Kenny's idea. That's not working out so well for him right now.”
Enunwa has six touchdowns. Bell has three.
But when Fisher took the wide receivers job in early 2011, he wasn't too concerned with motivating his players to catch touchdowns. Receivers are easily motivated there. He instead wanted to create an incentive for them to block — not just out of duty, but in pursuit of something. Hence the award.
“I wanted to come up with a system where they compete against themselves during the game,” Fisher said. “An incentive. You want to go out there and block, but playing out there on the perimeter, the dirty work doesn't get rewarded as much as it should. So I wanted to change the culture.”
He did, or at least he flipped it back to the Tom Osborne era of option football, when wide receivers blocked far more often than they caught the ball.
Now, Nebraska's receivers talk often with reporters about blocking and have little trouble recalling their best work of a game or even a season. As memorable as Bell's 37-yard touchdown catch against Illinois may be by the end of his career, one YouTube video of his block in the Big Ten title game — flagged as a personal foul — has more than 325,000 hits.
“Knowing at the end of the year that you get acknowledged as the best blocker, that's good enough to make the guys in the room compete,” Enunwa said. “You go up there every week after the game to see how you did during the game and see the points. I think that's a big factor in why I take so much pride in that. Obviously, we all want to win the game, and blocking is a big part of winning the game. The incentives to win that award are pretty high.”
The rewards of good blocking? More opportunities to catch passes.
“When teams start to stick their nose in there because they're trying to stop the run, it opens up play action and the opportunity to run by some guys,” Fisher said.
Unless receivers spring a running back first. Abdullah's highlight-reel, 43-yard touchdown run against Illinois was a textbook moment for perimeter protection. Abdullah took a pitch from quarterback Tommy Armstrong and swung around right end. Enunwa and tight end Cethan Carter had control of their defenders 20 yards downfield. Left guard Jake Cotton had pulled around to block a defender directly in Abdullah's path, which left Bell looking for someone to hit.
“So I turned back on the corner,” Bell said. “I knocked him down, and it just happened that Ameer cut back right where I blocked the guy. That's the beauty of it.”
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Video: Nebraska coach Bo Pelini addresses the media Thursday after practice