Commentary

Ganz, Pelini hope winning returns to Nebraska in 2008

Originally Published: March 28, 2008
By Tim Griffin | ESPN.com

Patience hasn't been an easy virtue for Joe Ganz to develop.

The toll of sitting on the bench was difficult for Ganz, who served as Nebraska's backup quarterback for nearly three seasons before getting his shot late last season when Sam Keller went down with a season-ending broken collarbone.

[+] EnlargeJoe Ganz
AP Photo/Nati HarnikCan Joe Ganz's late-season surge translate into success in 2008?

That brief taste of playing time has made Ganz determined to keep the starting job.

"Last year is all the motivation I need," he said. "My main motivation is not to let anyone take the spot I have. I've worked too hard to let someone take this job from me."

New Nebraska coach Bo Pelini shares a similar determination to see that things are done his way in his first head-coaching position. The combination of Nebraska's indomitable new coach working with a quarterback who shares a similarly resolute approach should be an ideal match.

Ganz's own background serves as a reminder of how far he's come since arriving at college. He was one of Nebraska's last recruits in the 2004 class, picking the Cornhuskers over scholarship offers from Ball State, Central Michigan, Eastern Michigan and Air Force. He sat out his freshman season as a redshirt and later spent two seasons as Zac Taylor's caddie before beginning last season behind Keller.

Once Ganz got his opportunity, he made the most of it, erupting for 1,399 passing yards and 15 touchdown passes in his final three starts. Included in that barrage were three of the top five 400-yard, single-game passing performances in school history, topped by a record-breaking 510-yard, seven-TD pass effort against Kansas State on Nov. 10. It marked the most productive run of passing offense in the 118-year history of Nebraska's football program.

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But Nebraska's defensive collapse led the Cornhuskers to lose two of those three games, bottoming out a disappointing 5-7 season that cost coach Bill Callahan his job and led to Pelini's hiring.

After he served as the defensive coordinator for national champion LSU last season, the new coach's expertise is concentrated on defense. However, he's excited about having Ganz back for another season.

"At this point in his career, he's only touched the base of his talent of how good he can be," Pelini said. "There's a lot more out there for him, and he certainly understands that."

Last season's struggles have helped serve as an inspiration for the Cornhuskers. Ganz could detect that feeling as soon as his team started conditioning work after returning to school in January.

"Guys are pumped about getting back out there," Ganz said. "This spring, we have a lot to prove. I know they are excited because it was tough when our name was dragged through the mud like it was last season."

Bo Pelini
P Photo/Nati HarnikNew Nebraska coach Bo Pelini hopes to put a disappointing 5-7 season in the past.

Ganz's development should be bolstered by the return of offensive coordinator Shawn Watson, who strongly considered joining Nick Saban's staff at Alabama before deciding to remain with Pelini's staff.

I-back Marlon Lucky, the Big 12's only returning 1,000-yard back, likely will be featured more as a running threat this season. Lucky set a school record for receptions with 75 to go along with 1,019 rushing yards.

Some of the team's confidence is based on the return of four starters along the offensive line. Mike Huff, Jacob Hickman, Matt Slauson and Lydon Murtha have combined for 67 career starts. The group is considered "the strength of the team" by Pelini.

"I think we can be as good as we want to be -- one of the best lines in the nation," Murtha said. "We have that cohesiveness from working together that a lot of lines don't have. It should help us work together."

Pelini's biggest spring chore will be to rebuild confidence in a defensive unit that was humiliated in the worst season statistically in Nebraska history.

The Cornhuskers allowed more points (455), yards (5,722) and first downs (299) than any other team in school history in 2007. Making matters worse, they ranked among the nation's bottom 10 in total defense, rushing defense and scoring defense.

It was far removed from Pelini's triumphant one-season stint as Nebraska's defensive coordinator in 2003. During that season, the Cornhuskers produced 47 turnovers, including a school-record 32 interceptions.

Pelini's defenses have traditionally relied heavily on zone defenses. The largely man-to-man defenses of former coordinator Kevin Cosgrove generated only 11 turnovers last season.

They'll see our way works … what we do has a proven track record. There's not much room for debate -- it will be done a certain way. And if they want to do it another way, there's a lot of other programs they can play for.

--Bo Pelini

"What happened in the past is kind of irrelevant in my opinion," Pelini said. "I don't understand what they were taught and the schemes they were playing. Because of that, you kind of get a skewed view of whether they were good or bad. And until you start working with them, you don't see where they are."

Those struggles have led Pelini to use last season's game films as an evaluation tool of his opponents rather than of his own personnel.

"We need to put them in our scheme and see where they fit for us. They are who we have," Pelini said. "We can't go out and get free agents. Our job is to make them better and more productive in our system."

The defense figures to get a jolt of energy from the fiery leadership of Pelini, who became a folk hero of sorts during his one season at Nebraska.

Nebraska fans remember how Pelini confronted former Kansas State coach Bill Snyder after he felt that Snyder ran up the score on his defense. And they hope he will similarly pump some vibrancy back in the program after a forgettable season where those feelings seldom surfaced -- particularly on defense.

Those feelings will give his new team a definite idea of how Pelini wants things done.

"They'll see our way works … what we do has a proven track record," Pelini said. "There's not much room for debate -- it will be done a certain way. And if they want to do it another way, there's a lot of other programs they can play for. There's not a lot up for discussion in how we'll do things. And that's how it's going to be."

That might seem harsh, but Ganz said the program needs Pelini's enthusiasm -- particularly after last season.

"I love Coach [Pelini]," Ganz said. "His door is always open, and his mentality is definitely welcomed around here. He knows how to motivate us, and he's a players' coach. I'm very excited to get to work for him."

Tim Griffin covers college sports for ESPN.com. He can be reached at espntimgriff@yahoo.com.