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You know Bo Pelini's in a good mood when he walks into a press conference saying he wants a Halloween mask of Lincoln Journal-Star sports columnist Steve Sipple. The quip set the mood for a productive half-hour in which Nebraska's head coach covered a wide range of topics, including his respect for upcoming opponent Northwestern and its head coach, Pat Fitzgerald; the emergence of Eric Martin at defensive end; the mindset his team takes in a tightened divisional race; Taylor Martinez's considerable growth in his game management from last year to this year; and the major difference between last year's quick offensive explosions compared to this year's clock-eating consistency and why that's more important.
Pelini said he told his team after the game that it faces a tough stretch that starts with a good, well-coached Northwestern football team. "They can put some stress on you. I think the quarterback (Dan Persa, a senior with 3,795 career passing yards and 46 touchdown passes and 10 rushing touchdowns) is a really good player. He's elusive and does a nice job when things break down. He finds ways to escape inside, outside, up the middle. He puts a lot of stress on our line and it's a concern. He's really a good football player and has great instincts in the pocket."
Pelini said the Wildcats "do some unique things in the running game. I have a tremendous amount of respect for Pat Fitzgerald. I think he's a great coach and a tremendous person." Pelini said NU coaches challenged defensive end Eric Martin to step up and get better, and he's finally playing like he was earlier in the season before he experienced a series of injuries. "He's getting healthy," Pelini said, "and he's getting back into shape since he missed some time. He's hitting his stride now and getting a lot of confidence. He's also doing a nice job on special teams. He did a heck of a job setting the tone of the game for us."
Asked if Nebraska's mindset changes now that it controls its own destiny in the Legends Division, Pelini said nothing changes, and the Huskers focus only on what game it can control next. "I think this week is going to be a tremendous challenge for us - to come back emotionally after all the hype surrounding that game for a lot of reasons," Pelini said. "The last thing you want to do is take a deep breath here now. You want to put your foot on the gas pedal and keep going. We have not arrived. We have a lot ahead of us to keep getting better."
Pelini believes Taylor Martinez is part of the continuous process for quality improvement, even though Nebraska's sophomore quarterback has made tremendous progress in his overall game management. "I think Taylor has come a long way in many different ways," Pelini said, pointing out how he's mastering the audible system, recognizing defenses and getting the Huskers in and out of plays. "He wants the ball in his hands. He has a lot of confidence in his abilities, and that's part of the maturity of somebody, especially at his position, knowing when to and when not to."
When one writer pointed out that Nebraska's 2011 rushing numbers are comparable to last year, but the offense appears to be in much better shape, Pelini credited the observation as accurate.
"Last year, even when we were putting up big numbers, we weren't being very efficient," he said. "We were living on the big play and the big chunks of yards. When people made us earn it down the field, we struggled. That's where we've been dramatically different this year. That's one of the things we wanted to accomplish. There's a lot that contributes to that. The audibles help and Tim (Beck) has called some good football games. We put a lot of stress on defenses in a lot of different ways."
Pelini then knocked on wood and said the Huskers also have avoided killing themselves with delay-of-game and false start penalties.
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