LINCOLN — Nebraska's battered offensive line might take the field against Michigan State on Saturday without yet another starter because of injury.
Coach Bo Pelini confirmed that junior offensive guard Mike Moudy was injured in practice this week. Moudy was seen in a sling after Wednesday's practice. His status is uncertain, Pelini said.
Moudy stepped into a starting role at guard last month — replacing senior Spencer Long, who suffered a season-ending knee injury on Oct. 12.
Top left guard Jake Cotton (knee ligament sprain) hasn't played since Nov. 2, though he returned to practice this week. Three-year starting tackle Jeremiah Sirles is still recovering from a sprained knee ligament suffered at Michigan last weekend.
Sophomore Zach Sterup has taken over for Sirles at right tackle, playing the first meaningful snaps of his collegiate career in Nebraska's 17-13 win over the Wolverines on Saturday. Senior Andrew Rodriguez moved from tackle to guard last week to fortify the interior. Starting senior center Cole Pensick can also play guard, and junior reserve Mark Pelini has taken snaps at center in every game.
Line depth 'fortunate thing'
Before all the injuries hit the Nebraska offensive line, the Huskers were rotating three tackles (Sirles, Rodriguez, Brent Qvale) and giving Moudy game reps behind Cotton at left guard and Pelini snaps behind Pensick at center.
NU assistant coach Barney Cotton called that a “fortunate thing” as several non-starters have either been starting or picking up more playing time in recent weeks with injuries to Long, Jake Cotton, Sirles and now Moudy.
“So we're putting guys in games that have played extensively throughout the year,” Barney Cotton said.
One who wasn't playing much but got the call Saturday was Sterup, who replaced Sirles at right tackle just before halftime. It's possible that the sophomore will make his first career start against Michigan State.
Cotton said Sterup is at 6-foot-8 and 325 pounds after being around 250 when NU was recruiting him at Hastings St. Cecilia and arriving at 260 in 2011.
“And I doubt that he's done growing,” Cotton said. “I would assume that 325 isn't where he stops.”
Running backs juggling new drill
Nebraska running backs coach Ron Brown invented the latest drill for his position while having an innocuous conversation with sophomore fullback Andy Janovich. Janovich told Brown about how he’d been juggling for kids as part of community outreach when Brown had a question.
Do you move your head when you juggle? No, Janovich said. You keep your head in one spot and see all the balls out of the corners of your eyes. Not long after, Brown had all of his running backs and fullbacks juggling tennis balls after practice. The idea: to work on seeing multiple defenders without having to turn their heads to do it. Brown calls incessant head-turning “playing ping-pong.”
“I don’t want the whole head-on-a-swivel football player,” Brown said. “I don’t want them to play ping-pong. I want them to juggle — to put their eyes on a spot and see peripherally.”
It’s especially helpful for fullbacks, Brown said, who come around the line of scrimmage and have to decide which free defender to block. Brown collected examples on film to show his fullbacks when they’re moving their heads too much — and thus missing the right blockers.
“When those fullback come and they’re lead blockers — and they’ve got a choice between the safety inside, the corner outside and the backer down low, what are they going to do?” Brown said.
He wants them to look straight ahead and see players from their side vision. Having to juggle tennis balls, which fall in and out of their central gaze, helps with that, Brown said. Running back Ameer Abdullah agreed.
“You can get in open space and sometimes you’re kind of pitter-patting around,” Abdullah said. “If you can focus on one spot and make a quick decision on where to go, it really helps.”
Abdullah said he struggled to juggle well initially. “I’m like the Bozo the clown now,” Abdullah said. “I can juggle anything. Chainsaws, knives.”
Said fullback C.J. Zimmerer: “(Teammates) were laughing at us doing it, but they’re catching on and doing it as well.”
Picks may be hard to come by
As Nebraska tries to win the turnover battle Saturday, it might not be able to bank on Michigan State interceptions.
Michigan State has thrown the fewest interceptions (four) in the Big Ten. Sophomore quarterback Connor Cook has just three in 230 passes this season, completing 59.1 percent of his throws with 13 touchdowns.
“We've got to take advantage of the opportunities,” NU defensive coordinator John Papuchis said Wednesday. “He hasn't made a lot of bad decisions with the ball, but hopefully we get enough pressure on him — get guys in his face — and we're tight enough in coverage that we're able to get our hands on some balls.”
The Nebraska defense has 12 interceptions this season, led by Stanley Jean-Baptiste with four and Ciante Evans with three.
Although Cook hasn't run much, Papuchis said Nebraska will respect that threat, too.
“I don't know that that's a huge part of what he tries to do, but if he gets out and runs, he's a good athlete,” he said.
Zaire Anderson impresses
Papuchis and the NU defensive staff were happy with the play of Zaire Anderson at Michigan, and Papuchis said it was “probably his best game” this season.
The junior from Philadelphia finished with six tackles (five solo) and registered two of the Huskers' seven sacks. NU held Michigan to 175 total yards and did not allow a first down via the rush.
“He played very good,” Papuchis said. “He tracked his gaps well, he fit things up correctly, and when he got to the point of attack he was physical and made plays.”
Anderson has started two of the past three games at weakside linebacker. It's likely that he will again line up next to Michael Rose, although Papuchis said both Rose and Josh Banderas will play at middle linebacker.
“I think we'll kind of stay with what we've done where they're both getting reps,” he said. “I would imagine Michael would go out there with the first group.”
Cross, Huskers not afraid of Spartans
Nebraska I-back Imani Cross had a ready answer Tuesday when asked if the Huskers are intimidated at all by Michigan State: “No, there's no fear around here.”
NU will be tested by a Spartan defense that ranks No. 1 nationally in total yards and rushing yards allowed, and No. 3 in points allowed. Cross said the Huskers appreciate the challenge, but for the right reasons.
It's not so much that it's the No. 1 defense as that it's the next team on the schedule and we need to win,” he said. “And that's how we're looking at it. Statistics don't make a football team. What makes a football team is execution. And if we execute and give our best effort, things can be done.”
* * *
>> Video: The Big Red Today Show, Nov. 12: