Huskers confront 'Cats, defensive demons

October, 17, 2012
10/17/12
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Saturday's game against Northwestern gives Nebraska's defense another chance to confront all of its demons.

Spread offense? Check. Mobile quarterback? Check. Road game? Check. All those conditions were also in place in the Cornhuskers' two losses this season to UCLA and Ohio State, when the defense surrendered a total of 99 points and 1,151 yards.

[+] EnlargeAlonzo Whaley
Joe Robbins/Getty ImagesAlonzo Whaley said the problem with the defense has been about focus and execution.
Nebraska spent last week's bye week taking a critical look at itself and why its defense was so easily exploited again in the 63-38 loss at Ohio State last time out. Coaches and players insist that there is not some fundamental flaw in the design of the defense that makes it vulnerable to these types of offenses.

"That's definitely overblown," linebacker Alonzo Whaley told ESPN.com "When we look at ourselves and criticize ourselves, we notice small things. We don't look at it as like, 'Dang, we cannot defend this thing.'"

Instead, Whaley said, the breakdowns come down to more simple, even mundane, problems. Blown assignments. Missed tackles. Lack of concentration.

"When you look at it schematically, it wasn't a big deal," he said. "There little things here and there, guys in the wrong position or not being where they're supposed to be. I don't think as a whole we have a problem defending spread offenses. I think as a whole we have a problem focusing for four quarters."

Head coach Bo Pelini isn't changing his approach or making any major personnel changes heading into this week. He reiterated his stance last week that the plan was sound but the execution was lacking against the Buckeyes. Playing a quarterback like Braxton Miller can make every little mistake look like a catastrophe.

"The play that jolted us a little bit defensively ... was when we had [Miller] surrounded by four guys and missed," Pelini said this week. "For whatever reason, from that point on, we felt like we lost our mojo a little bit. Our guys stopped. We started doing things that were out of character, and bam! Pretty soon it snowballed on us.

"When you screw up in a pro-style offense and you miss your execution, it's a lot easier for someone to make up for it. When that happens in a quarterback offense where you're spread out, those mistakes become magnified big time."

Now here comes Northwestern and Kain Colter. He's not the same type of player as Miller, and the Wildcats will move him around to different spots on the field. But Colter gave the Nebraska fits last year when he took over the controls in the second half, rushing for two touchdowns and throwing another one as Northwestern stunned the Huskers in Lincoln, 28-25.

Nebraska has spent a lot of time focusing on slowing Colter, and the bye week could help the players digest Pelini's preparation-heavy system. The Huskers had two of their best defensive performances of the season last year after the bye, allowing a combined 17 points in wins over Minnesota and Michigan State.

They had some physical practices during this year's idle week, and Pelini said he wanted "an angry team."

"The bye week allow it to hurt and sink in a little but more," Whaley said. "But I also think it allowed us to get that attitude and focus back. We know we have this in our control and can still be who we set out to be, even with the little hiccups we've had."

Are Nebraska's defensive problems against spread teams with mobile quarterbacks on the road just a hiccup, or the sign of a more fundamental flaw? Conditions are perfect this weekend to provide an answer.

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