Tuesday, October 4, 2011
Pelini staying the course with Blackshirts
By Adam Rittenberg
On Saturday night, Nebraska's defenders shook hands with an unfamiliar opponent and then walked out of an unfamiliar stadium with an unfamiliar feeling.
They had surrendered 48 points, 486 yards and 27 first downs. Not counting a kneel-down at the end of the first half, Wisconsin reached the end zone on its final five offensive possessions.
Although Nebraska's defensive performances against Fresno State and Washington raised a few red flags, the alarms didn't truly go off in Lincoln until Saturday night. It marked the Blackshirts' worst performance since Oklahoma slapped 62 points on them in November 2008, Bo Pelini's first season as Huskers coach.
Nebraska could do little to slow down Montee Ball and the Badgers as Wisconsin put up 486 yards of total offense and scored 7 touchdowns.
Pelini's first Huskers defense was a rebuilding project, a unit still reeling from the Callahan years. This year's D, despite losing several standouts, including first-round draft pick Prince Amukamara, still had star power and high hopes of being a championship-level unit.
What's going on with the Blackshirts?
"Youth, maturity," Pelini said Monday. "We had a number of guys we had to replace. It is one things to do it in practice and another when the bullets are flying. You have to do it. At the end of the day, we were in position [at Wisconsin], we just didn't make a play.
"It's not magical."
Neither is the solution. You might see some different faces in different places Saturday night against reeling Ohio State, but Pelini has a proven formula on defense, and he doesn't plan to deviate from it.
Despite pedestrian numbers -- Nebraska ranks 64th or worse nationally in total defense, scoring defense, rush defense or pass defense -- Pelini thinks the unit is "not real far off."
"You make subtle changes," he said. "You don't overhaul. ... It's about execution, technique and fundamentals. You stay the course. Does that mean you don't make adjustments? That's asinine. You just keep working to get better."
The Blackshirts were a supremely confident group when I visited with them this spring in Lincoln. Little changed even after they allowed 67 points combined to Fresno State and Washington.
But the defense seemed to let up in the second half in Madison. Wisconsin RB Montee Balltold ESPN.com that he saw Nebraska's defenders wearing down.
"I could see that in some people," Huskers cornerback Alfonzo Dennard told ESPN.com on Monday. "Myself, I knew the game wasn't over, but I was kind of down on our secondary because I knew we could play better than that. No doubt Wisconsin is a great team, but we really bet ourselves really, in not competing like we should."
Nebraska might not see an offense like Wisconsin's for the rest of the season -- both from a schematic standpoint and a production standpoint -- but the Huskers' move to the Big Ten will prompt some adjustments on defense. Pelini acknowledges that he recruited more safety-linebacker hybrid players in the spread-heavy Big 12, while the power football played by Wisconsin and other Big Ten teams (Iowa, Michigan State) requires a different mix.
"We need to get more linebackers in here for depth reasons," he said. "You can't fix that so soon. Our blueprint will change, but it's nothing drastic."
Dennard called the loss "a wake-up call." The unit has a great opportunity to revive itself this week against Ohio State, which ranks last in the Big Ten and 108th nationally in total offense (308.2).
Buckeyes freshman quarterback Braxton Miller will make his first career road start in a hostile setting in Lincoln. Ohio State on Saturday came 10 seconds away from suffering its first home shutout since 1982.
"It's very important," Dennard said. "We don't want to have people thinking because we had a bad game at Wisconsin that we've got a bad defense. I just hope we go into Ohio State and have fun and compete more, get our hands on balls and play our game.
"I don't think they've got a bad offense. They're pretty average. And they want to win just as much as we do."
Dennard remains hopeful about the defense's potential but admits he's "not sure yet" how good the Blackshirts can be. He knows the group isn't far away from breaking through.
"We're right at the edge," he said. "We just have to fix a few things and we'll be right there."