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Resurgent Huskers take cue from Pelini

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Huskers under Bo
Comparing some offensive and defensive stats of last's year's Nebraska team to the 2008 squad.
2007
OFFENSE
2008
33.4
Pts/G
40.0
323.8
PassYds/G
261.3
144.4
RushYds/G
189.0
468.3
TotYds/G
450.3
2007
DEFENSE
2008
37.9
Pts/G
14.3
244.7
PassYds/G
269.7
232.2
RushYds/G
77.7
476.8
TotYds/G
347.3
More Nebraska coverage: HuskersIllustrated.com

LINCOLN, Neb. – Drive through campus almost any weekday morning, and you're sure to see Nebraska's most well-known face weaving through students as he jogs along the street.

Bo Pelini used to be a seven-minute miler. These days it's more like eight. Either way, no matter the weather, the Huskers' new coach said he gets in 30 to 35 miles per week.

"I'm trying to keep my figure," Pelini joked, "and it's a good way to unwind."

Apparently.

One month into his inaugural season as a college head coach, Pelini already seems settled in at Nebraska.

Fans are praising him in chat rooms and chanting his name at games. He has a buddy-buddy relationship with athletic director Tom Osborne, and his players are talking about doing all sorts of crazy things to prove their loyalty to Pelini, who was hired off LSU's staff in December to replace Bill Callahan.

"If Coach Pelini said I needed to jump off a cliff to win a game, I'd do it," strong safety Larry Asante said. "I trust him that much."

So, too, do the rest of the Huskers, which is why they're exuding confidence heading into Saturday night's game against Virginia Tech.

Nebraska is 3-0, but the players know a victory over the Hokies would carry much more weight than the ones they've logged against San Jose State, New Mexico State and Western Michigan.

By winning Saturday night at Memorial Stadium, the Huskers – and Pelini – could send a message to the country that the program is back on course following a Callahan regime that left an entire state downtrodden and filled with angst.

"Last year, you'd go into a Hy-Vee (grocery store) after a loss, and everyone in the store was walking around with their heads down," linebacker Phillip Dillard said. "Now it's a whole different attitude. This as much fun as I've had since I've been here."

The reason for that, players said, is Pelini, who was an assistant at Nebraska for one season (2003) before moving on to Oklahoma and LSU. Just as he did five years ago, Pelini has developed a mindset among the Huskers that should go a long way toward re-establishing their national prestige.

"If they're walking in here dreading going to practice every day, then I haven't created the type of atmosphere that I hoped to create," Pelini said. "I'll joke with them. They joke with me.

"It doesn't have to be doom and gloom and screaming and yelling all the time. There are times when points have to be made. But it doesn't mean you can't go out on the practice field and enjoy it."

Not long ago, to lighten the mood after a tough workout, Pelini staged a "fake fight" with guard Matt Slauson in the locker room. Players such as Dillard labeled him a "coach and a friend." Heck, just last weekend, defensive end Zach Potter talked to Pelini about the Jonas Brothers.

"His daughter was talking about going to their concert," said Potter, laughing. "It's the kind of relationship you may not have seen here the last few years. There are a lot of guys that would run through a wall for him."

Potter paused and smiled.

"That's not to say that he's not intense," he said.

Indeed, as easygoing as Pelini can be off the field, players said he's equally as fiery on it. Potter talked about the time when Pelini went berserk over a no-call on what he thought should have been an interference penalty with three seconds remaining against New Mexico State.

"There were only three seconds left and we were winning big," Potter said, "but that shows how much he cares about each and every play."

That is why Asante said it's a mistake to forget an assignment or to be out of position – even if it's in practice.

"Even if you get beat, as long as you're playing your technique, he doesn't really chew on you," Asante said. "But if you're out of place and don't know what's going on "… that's what gets him going."

Pelini said: "I don't have a real gray world. My players at LSU knew that. We clearly define our expectations. These guys understand that they can trust us and that we have their best interest at heart. That doesn't mean we don't coach them hard. At the end of the day, they know that we're going to have their back. In return, we expect them to have ours."

Pelini's efforts seem to be paying off.

Operating with a less complicated, "user-friendly" playbook, Nebraska is averaging 450.3 yards per game, a mark that ranks 20th in the nation. Defensively, the Huskers are allowing just 77.7 rushing yards per game.

Even though the Huskers' defense has depth issues, Pelini has been able to combat that with some clever schemes that keep offenses guessing. That kind of game-planning is a Pelini trademark and a big reason he was able to help lead LSU to a national title last season.

"The blitz packages and the coverages are something I've never seen before," Potter said. "It's something you'd see on a video game. You think, " 'Is that really going to work?' But it does.

"We're adjusting all the time. He preaches communication because there are so many checks going on. If you can't communicate, you're not going to be a very good team."

As successful as Nebraska has been, it has yet to face an opponent as athletic as Virginia Tech. The Hokies (3-1), who lost to East Carolina in the season opener, enter Saturday's game off back-to-back 20-17 victories over Georgia Tech and North Carolina.

"People around here … they joke about how we haven't beaten anyone yet," Asante said. "At the same time, it's true. We haven't played anyone yet. We haven't been tested against national teams. It all starts Saturday."

Even if the Huskers don't win, Nebraska's fan base seems more than willing to give Pelini ample time to bring the program back to national prominence. Their love affair with Pelini actually began five years ago, when Pelini took over on an interim basis when Frank Solich was fired at the end of the 2003 season.

Pelini led Nebraska to a victory over Michigan State in the Alamo Bowl, which evoked a public outcry for Pelini to be hired as Solich's replacement. The job went to Callahan instead, but Pelini never lost his affection for Nebraska, where he hardly secludes himself despite being in the public eye.

"I don't mind being out in the community," Pelini said. "I don't want to be some guy that isn't out there. We'll go out to dinner at Outback or wherever. We don't try and hide and say, 'People are going to bother us, so let's order out.' We like interacting with people."

It's something Pelini hopes to be able to do for a long, long time.

"Ever since 2003, this is a place where he's wanted to be," said Pelini's brother, Carl, Nebraska's defensive coordinator. "There have been other opportunities for him at other schools. But he'd always compare those places to here. He'd say, 'It's a great job, but it's not Nebraska.'

"This is the place where his heart really was."