- Brian Bennett, ESPN Staff Writer
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In 2009 and 2010, Bo Pelini's Nebraska defenses were regarded as some of the very best in the nation.
Even playing in the wide-open Big 12, the Cornhuskers controlled the action with their defense. They allowed fewer points per game than anybody in the FBS in '09 (10.4) and followed that up by ranking among the top teams in yards and points allowed the following year.
Since then, however, it has been a different story. After a pedestrian 2011, the Nebraska defense suffered one of its worst performances of the Pelini era in last week's 36-30 loss at UCLA, surrendering 653 total yards, or seven more than Rice yielded the week before against the Bruins.
Pelini used words like "embarrassed" and "sickened" to describe the defensive debacle. Blackshirts? More like black and blue.
"We shot ourselves in the foot, from the beginning of the game to the end," safety P.J. Smith said. "It's bad, man. A real bad feeling."
While we should never overreact to just one bad game early in a season, it's also fair to say that the Huskers' defense just isn't the same as it was even two years ago. Yet Pelini didn't suddenly forget how to coach, and the scheme has not changed. He tried to offer some reasons for the decline during Monday's news conference, talking about the changing nature of college football offenses and his team's move into the Big Ten.
"The day and age when you could just shut out everyone is probably over, especially when you are playing a spread team," he said. "We were in a very spread-out conference, kind of what we saw from UCLA, and then we move into the Big Ten and we are trying now to load up on linebackers to get ready for conference play. You start building your systems for conference play. Then you come back at the start of the season and play spread-out teams, so you are jumping back and forth a lot, you have to use your personnel differently which presents challenges for you."
Nebraska definitely has tried to change how it recruits to fit in the Big Ten after getting run over by some teams last year. But does Pelini's answer really make sense? Nebraska was in the Big 12 just two years ago, so it's not like the team's personnel is so different from when it regularly faced spread offenses. And it's a myth that the Big Ten is all three-yards-and-a-cloud-of-dust still. The Huskers saw spread offenses in the league last year while facing Northwestern and Michigan (losing to both of them). They'll see more of it this year with Ohio State using the spread under Urban Meyer.
No, it wasn't the scheme as much as the execution that cost Nebraska against UCLA. The Bruins smartly created a lot of one-on-one matchups in space against Nebraska. Huskers defenders simply got beat in way too many of those confrontations.
"We just didn't finish the play," Smith said. "We were there most of the time, but we didn't bring them down and a lot of times they got extra yards when we did get to them. It's frustrating. I watched the film, and I missed two critical open-field tackles myself."
Defensive coordinator John Papuchis told reporters Monday night that team speed has been lacking on defense early this season. So faster players like linebackers Zaire Anderson and David Santos are getting long looks this week as Nebraska re-evaluates its personnel. Pelini said he is "dissecting every little piece" of the defense. He said the current situation reminds him of when he arrived in Lincoln in 2008, and that his defenses usually improve as the season goes on.
"I have been through this before and I have a good idea on how to fix it," he said.
The biggest question is whether he has the tools to make those fixes.
It's no coincidence that Pelini's best defense was in 2009 when Ndamukong Suh was a senior. Jared Crick led the 2010 defense before missing most of 2011 with a pectoral injury. Where are the stars up front for this year's team? Since 2008, Nebraska hasn't recruited one defensive lineman who has gone on to be an all-conference performer, though some of the younger players still have time to develop. The key to stopping any offense, whether it's a spread or a classic Big Ten pro-style, is dominating the line of scrimmage, and the Huskers haven't been able to do that for a while now.
Players and coaches talked confidently this preseason about how better communication and understanding of the scheme would turn this no-name group into a great defense. But through two games, the lack of major difference-makers is still an alarming problem. The Blackshirts' decline may ultimately be rooted in one thing: recruiting.
Pelini insisted Monday that there's enough talent to turn this thing around, which is the answer you'd expect. This week's game may provide some concrete evidence. Though Arkansas State lacks UCLA's talent, it runs a similar spread attack led by new head coach and spread offense guru Gus Malzahn. Nebraska will find itself in a lot of similar defensive situations on Saturday.
"I think it will be a good follow-up to the game we just played," Pelini said. "It comes kind of at the right time for us. We need to make a jump and evaluate how far we are coming."
The numbers show how far the Huskers' defense has fallen since 2009 and 2010. Can it get back up?