A 2011 All-Big Ten running back playing his first game in five weeks, a disruptive 2012 All-Big Ten defensive end who played linebacker his first three years as a Husker and a repeat All-Big Ten placekicker earned top honors Monday from their coaches after postgame film study of NU's 13-7 win at Iowa last Friday.
I-back Rex Burkhead was named the Huskers' Offensive Player of the Game with "Special Mention" honors going to senior tight end Ben Cotton and sophomore center Mark Pelini, who filled in for season-long starter Justin Jackson. Senior defensive end Eric Martin, whose positional switch just may earn him a meaningful hybrid role in the National Football League, was named Nebraska's Defensive Player of the Game.
Senior placekicker/punter Brett Maher was named NU's Special Teams Player of the Game for his rock-solid performance inside Iowa's cold, windy Kinnick Stadium - a critical component in Nebraska's sixth straight win that advanced the Huskers to Saturday night's Big Ten Championship against Wisconsin.
In addition, Alonzo Moore was named Scout Offensive Player of the Week, Derek Foster Scout Defensive Player of the Week and Sam Foltz Scout Special Teams Player of the Week. Moore is a freshman wide receiver from Winnfield, La., Foster a sophomore cornerback from Elm Creek, Neb., and Foltz a freshman wide receiver from Grand Island, Neb.
Nebraska Coach Bo Pelini said Burkhead would start in Saturday night's nationally televised rematch against the Badgers, a team seeking its third consecutive Big Ten title and the Rose Bowl invitation that comes with that honor.
Getting a chance to win Nebraska's first conference championship in 13 years has been a season-long goal. "That was the expectations not only for the players, but also for the coaches and this university as well," Burkhead said. "Just getting in the game is a great opportunity, but at the same time, our goal is to win it."
Burkhead Likes Team's Season-Long Mindset
After showing remarkable ability to finish off runs, fight for extra yards and give his teammates a powerful emotional boost at Iowa, Burkhead praised the Huskers' overall state of mind. Asked to compare this year's mindset with Nebraska's narrow Big 12 Championship misses in 2009 and 2010, Burkhead was straightforward in his answer.
"I think this team is a lot more, I don't want to say focused, but driven," he said. "Throughout this off-season our one focus was to win the Big Ten Championship. That was our ultimate goal. The accountability we had this past off-season, during the season and seeing the week in-and-week out improvement of the team, I think is the biggest difference."
And nowhere is that difference greater than Martin's new home at defensive end. "I think he's really had a good year," Pelini said. "He's an impact guy. He's hard to block on the edge. He's a guy you have to account for and know where he is. He's not your prototype defensive end size-wise. But he's a powerful guy. He's quick, he's explosive, and he plays with tremendous energy. He's a good player and he's had a great year for us."
One reporter Monday asked how Martin's breakout season might position him at the next level. "I think he translates well," Pelini said, "because he can do a lot of different things for us. With the NFL becoming more spread out, needing hybrid guys is key. Eric can play a 3-4. He can help a guy on special teams because of his athleticism and speed. He can do a lot of things to help your team. In the NFL, with the limited roster sizes, that's a big thing."
Pelini, however, refuses to look back and second guess Martin's previous three seasons at linebacker. "I think we needed him at linebacker," Pelini said. "He did some good things for us at linebacker when he was there."
Mark Pelini Fills in for Justin Jackson at Center
Speaking of mission-critical need, Nebraska faced a major hole in the offensive line when Jackson went down at Iowa. To the rescue came Mark Pelini, who filled in nicely, thanks, no doubt, to his head coach's wisdom to use him in the same lineup with Nebraska's starters the previous week when the Huskers throttled Minnesota.
"I think he (Mark) has a really good understanding of what we're doing and has gotten better," Pelini said. "He executes well, and we have some help between him and (Cole) Pensick. I've said all along that I feel good about the center position. Just like any other position, if someone goes down, somebody has to step up."
Fortunately, in this case, it happens to be the head coach's nephew. "He (Mark) decided this was what he wanted to do. He had other options, but decided he wanted to give it a go," Pelini said. "(For) guys who want to walk on, this is one of the programs where you know you're going to get a shot."
For Mark Pelini, the cultural fit seemed right. "He was looking at the Ivy League," Bo pointed out Monday. "His father, my brother, played in the Ivy League. He's high academic. He was looking at going to one of the academies. He had a lot of different options. I was a little bit surprised that he made the choice to come here. I'm glad he did."
Ben Cotton: We Want to Finish with a Flourish
Cotton, Nebraska's leading receiver at Iowa, sees the Huskers finishing the regular season with a flourish because they're on a mission, even though they'll be forced to play without Jackson and Baker Steinkuhler - important anchors in the offensive and defensive lines, respectively.
"We've kind of taken the attitude each week that everything we've been able to do, everything that we've been able to accomplish so far won't mean anything without a win on Saturday," Cotton said Monday. "As a group of seniors and guys that have been a part of this, we've realized that each win became more important. Each week, the stakes have gone up. This is the highest they're going to get, and I think we're going to do everything we can this week to make sure that we're properly prepared to play our best game on Saturday."