The Huskies are off the field following their Thursday practice, a 90-minute non-contact workout heavy (as usually the case on this day) on special teams.
It was the last full practice before Nebraska comes to town for Saturday’s 12:20 p.m. game, and left UW coach Steve Sarkisian remaining confident about his team’s chances against the Cornhuskers.
After practice, he was reminded about his comment at the “Raise the Woof” pre-season booster celebration (which was broadcast live on KJR-AM) that the team would not lose a home game this year.
“‘It was at a booster event,” Sarkisian reiterated. “And I believe we can. I believe every opportunity we get we have a great opportunity in Husky Stadium. This is a tremendous home field advantage for us. Our fans do a great job supporting us and we’ll give it our best shot Saturday.”
UW’s efforts will be aided if middle linebacker Cort Dennison is able to play. That looked like at least a little bit of an issue Thursday as he essentially sat out practice, Sarkisian explaining that he was “under the weather.”
Sarkisian seemed to think Dennison would be back. But if not, he would be replaced by true freshman Garret Gilliland, who has made a meteoric rise at the MLB spot.
“He’s a really bright football player,” Sarkisian said. “He comes from a great football program – Orange Lutheran High School (in Anaheim, Calif.) – been in a lot of big games before. He was extremely well-coached in high school, which has enabled him to be ready to play at our level. He’s a very bright kid, yet he’s still athletic. He’s a former running back and a linebacker in high school, so he’s got the athleticism and the smarts…and he’s done fine every time he’s been in.”
That looked like the only real personnel news of note. Johri Fogerson again sat out and it seems unlikely he would play, though Sarkisian said he hadn’t yet ruled anyone out for this week. The offensive line again looked the same as it has all week, with Erik Kohler going with the ones. But Sarkisian said he wasn’t yet ready to say that was the starting unit.
Everything else appeared pretty status quo.
As noted, Thursday tends to be a day heavy on special teams work, and Sarkisian said he likes what he sees of an area that has had its issues through the first two games.
“I like the fact that I think our punter is much more comfortable,” he said. “Kiel Rasp being back there, everyone is much more comfortable with him. I think he is striking the ball much better than last. I think our kickoff return game is only going to get better with the new return it’s another week of executing it and it got better as the game went on last week and anxious to see that this weekend and that our kick coverage will be better. Guys are understanding the urgency that it really takes to cover kickoffs so I think we will show better as well.”
What Sarkisian also hopes to see are some better kickoffs from Erik Folk, who said after Saturday’s game that he just wasn’t striking the ball well.
“I saw it, too,” Sarkisian said. “The ball wasn’t traveling nearly as well as we’ve seen it. Part of that could’ve just been some jitters and whatnot being at home. So we’ll assess that Saturday.”
Here are some other thoughts from Sarkisian:
On Nebraska’s two defensive tackles: “Their two defensive tackles are both obviously a size factor. Not only are they big guys, but they are tall and they have long arms and they use their hands really, really well. They are a two-gap defense, which what that means is that they like to get their hands on the offensive linemen and then shed ’em whichever direction the ball is going. They are both very good at it, they are both very well coached. They are big, strong, and they’ll be a good challenge for us.”
On what having two good DT’s allows Nebraska to do: “What it does, it allows them to play more coverage-oriented defense when you can handle things at the line of scrimmage the way they are able to do with those four down guys.”
On what the OL has to do against a two-gap scheme: “A lot of what two-gaps defenses do are built on leverage, so they try to feel leverage and then shed opposite, so it’s going to be important for us to, once we get our leverage base where we need it to be, to solidify it.”
On Nebraska facing a much better team than the two they’ve faced so far: “I think they’ll be OK. They’ve been in big games before, obviously, and coach (Bo) Pelini will have them ready to play.”
On intangibles at home, with weather and all: “We always like it a little gray, a little misty. And I wouldn’t even mind some wind on Saturday. That’s the way we like to play. I think it’ll be a great atmosphere. A 12:30 kickoff, it’s football. That’s what college football’s about: 12:30 kickoffs, you get up, go to the stadium, tailgate, watch a great football game, then you go on and you have a nice Saturday. We’re excited about the opportunity. I’m sure Nebraska is too. It should be fun.”
On whether his game face being on earlier for a big game? “I don’t know. I always kind of, as a staff and as players, we try to enjoy our Thursday nights. They’re the nights to be with our families and our wives, and for the players it’s a chance to step away for a second, and then we’ll lock back in tomorrow.”
How hard is that, to step away? “It’s not hard for me. (laughs) Part of it is, when you’re grinding, and it’s 24-7, and you wake up four times in the night to write a note down or write a play down that you’re thinking about, these nights are the ones when you kind of like to relax. It’s enjoyable to watch other games that are on, Thursday nights, just watch football and be a fan for once.”
On any particular excitement among the players at this point in the week?: “I think they are excited about the opportunity to play at home. As we’ve touched on, we only get six opportunities this year to play in Husky Stadium. We’re already on number two. For the seniors, their time is already dwindling down here at Husky Stadium. We’re just trying to embrace and maximize and embrace the opportunities that are here. This is another one. It’s a great college football matchup. But I think bigger than that is just the opportunity to play here.”
On the homefield edge at Husky Stadium? “I think the first us one, we have passionate fans. It’s in their heart when they are cheering. Second is we have very bright football fans, our football IQ for our fans is high. They know when to be loud, when to not be loud, when to be really, really loud in portions of the game that really matter. So I think they take pride in our defense and when our defense is on the field in critical situations I think that in and of itself it’s not just that it’s loud all the time, it’s at the moments when you want it to be loud they know they need to be.”
On incoporating that into the game plan: “You’ve got to be smart. One thing that can be missed in this is so much we are hammering about man we’ve got to do a good job of being loud to take care of the opponent on offense, our defense has to communicate extremely well because we are on the field and they cant hear either, so our communication, our signals on defense need to be on point as well.”