LINCOLN — Nebraska tackle Jeremiah Sirles finished his interviews during Monday's press conference at Memorial Stadium and said he was headed to the Huskers' training room. Maybe he was joking when he said he'd be there for eight hours.
“Ice tub, ice tub, ice tub,” he said as he walked to the elevator.
After a 27-24 Hail Mary win over Northwestern, the Huskers are far from beaten down. But they are beaten up. Especially on offense, where six preseason starters could miss Saturday's game at Michigan. Other guys, like Sirles, are dealing with the bruises and pain associated with eight games in the Big Ten, which pundits consider one of college football's more physical conferences.
“Guys need to be living in the training room on their day off,” tackle Brent Qvale said.
And even when the Huskers practiced Sunday, Qvale said, the coaches took it significantly easier on the team than they did a week before after the 34-23 loss to Minnesota. No pads this Sunday. No physical message to send. Qvale said NU was plenty physical against Northwestern. Now, it's about getting as healthy — and focused — as possible for a big game in the Big House.
“We're in November now,” Qvale said. “Week 11 with the byes. It's all mental now. There's still going to be a little hitting to keep the game speed going, but we're definitely going to back off accordingly.”
A look at the injury list explains why.
One offensive starter, guard Spencer Long, is out for the season. Another, quarterback Taylor Martinez, is beset by four maladies, including the newly discovered abdominal strain, the result of a hip pointer suffered in the loss to Minnesota. Coach Bo Pelini gave little indication Monday that Martinez was part of the plans for Saturday, instead focusing on Tommy Armstrong and Ron Kellogg.
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“I don't have any sense right now,” Pelini said of Martinez's return. “It depends on his degree of health and where he is. There's a lot of speculation there. I deal with that when we come to that crossroads.”
Armstrong, Pelini said, is still the starter despite throwing six interceptions in his last two games.
“I still like the things that Tommy brings to the table,” Pelini said. “He's a young quarterback and he's going to make some mistakes. I don't see Tommy any different today than I did before the football game. I have a lot of confidence in him. I believe in him. Ronnie will have his role in the game, trust me.”
The four remaining injured players appear more likely to return. Tight end Jake Long — out for a month with a hamstring injury — will practice this week and could play at Michigan. Long has been slowed since training camp.
Left guard Jake Cotton has a strained MCL in his knee, Pelini said, and is “doubtful” for the game, although Pelini left open the possibility that Cotton could rehab quickly. If Cotton can't play, starting center Cole Pensick would slide over to guard while Pensick's backup, Mark Pelini, plays center.
Junior wide receivers Kenny Bell and Jamal Turner — who have groin and calf injuries, respectively — look to be “game-time decisions,” coach Pelini said. Turner has played sparingly since exiting the UCLA game nearly two months ago with a lingering hamstring issue, while Bell sat out most of the Northwestern game.
In Turner's absence, redshirt freshman Jordan Westerkamp — hero for a day on the Hail Mary — has flourished. He's now third on the team in receiving yards with 194, and the game-winning catch of 49 yards is NU's longest reception of the year. Westerkamp has been a beneficiary of the Huskers' “next man up” catchphrase that expects the same out of a backup as a starter.
“When a guy goes down, the next guy steps up and is ready,” Westerkamp said. “You always got to prepare for the opportunities when a guy goes down ... it's the nature of the game. Injuries happen. You expect the next guy to step up.”
Bell's and Turner's injuries left Elmwood-Murdock walk-on Sam Burtch having to spell Westerkamp at slot receiver. When Burtch moved to slot, another walk-on, Lincoln Southwest's Brandon Reilly, briefly took Burtch's spot.
Burtch — who said he played roughly 30 snaps, the most of his career — thought he and Reilly handled themselves well. After the game, wide receivers coach Rich Fisher gathered them together and told them how proud he was of their work.
Pelini saw it the same way. His defense — deeper but younger — hasn't sustained too many injuries. Further, the Huskers have dealt with some long-term injuries in Pelini's tenure — Barry Turner's broken leg in 2008, Sean Fisher's broken leg in 2010, Jared Crick's season-ending torn pectoral muscle in 2011, Rex Burkhead's knee troubles in 2012 — that prime them to handle the troubles now.
“We're not looking to make excuses around here,” Pelini said. “We're going to win a football game, regardless of who comes off that bus healthy enough to play. Those are the guys we're going to go with and do everything we possibly can to win a football game. ... Life's about adversity and dealing with adversity and trying to overcome adversity. I know one thing: We have a bunch of guys in there who are going to do everything they possibly can to go.”
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Video: Nebraska coach Bo Pelini during Monday's press conference
Video: Nebraska wide receiver Jordan Westerkamp during Monday's press conference
Video: Nebraska running back Ameer Abdullah during Monday's press conference
Video: Nebraska quarterback Ron Kellogg during Monday's press conference