Big Ten: Avery Moss

We're taking snapshots of each position group with each Big Ten team entering the spring. Up next: the defensive lines.

Illinois: This is a significant concern for the Illini, especially after the recent departure of Houston Bates, who started last season at the Leo (defensive end/outside linebacker) spot. Illinois also loses its other starting defensive end, Tim Kynard. The team will rely heavily on junior-college players such as Jihad Ward and Joe Fotu, but it also needs holdovers like Dawuane Smoot and Paul James III to step up on the perimeter. Illinois returns more experience inside with Austin Teitsma and Teko Powell, but there should be plenty of competition, especially with the juco arrivals, after finishing 116th nationally against the run.

Indiana: The anticipated move to a 3-4 alignment under new coordinator Brian Knorr creates a different dynamic for the line this spring. Indiana must identify options at the all-important nose tackle spot, and possibilities include sophomores Ralphael Green and Darius Latham, both of whom are big bodies. Nick Mangieri had a nice sophomore season and should be in the mix for a starting job on the perimeter (end or outside linebacker), while David Kenney could be a good fit as a 3-4 end. Defensive end Ryan Phillis is the team's most experienced lineman, and Zack Shaw also has some starting experience.

Iowa: This group should be the strength of the defense as Iowa returns three full-time starters -- tackles Carl Davis and Louis Trinca-Pasat, and end Drew Ott -- as well as Mike Hardy, who started the second half of the season opposite Ott. End Dominic Alvis departs, but Iowa brings back almost everyone else from a line that allowed only eight rushing touchdowns in 2013. Junior Darian Cooper could have a bigger role and push for more playing time inside, and Nate Meier provides some depth on the perimeter after recording two sacks in 2013. Iowa is in good shape here.

Maryland: The Terrapins employ a 3-4 scheme and appear to be in good shape up front, as reserve Zeke Riser is the only rotation player to depart. Andre Monroe leads the way at defensive end after an excellent junior season in which he led Maryland in both sacks (9.5) and tackles for loss (17). Quinton Jefferson started at defensive end last season and recorded three sacks. There should be some good competition this spring at nose tackle between Keith Bowers and Darius Kilgo, both of whom had more than 30 tackles last season. The challenge is building greater depth with players such as end Roman Braglio.

Michigan: If the Wolverines intend to make a big step in 2014, they'll need more from the front four, which didn't impact games nearly enough last fall. Michigan's strength appears to be on the edges as veteran Frank Clark returns after starting every game in 2013 and recording a team-high 12 tackles for loss. Brennen Beyer, who started the second half of last season, is back at the other end spot, and Michigan has depth with Mario Ojemudia and Taco Charlton. There are more questions inside as Willie Henry, Chris Wormley and others compete for the starting job. Young tackles such as Henry Poggi and Maurice Hurst Jr. also are in the mix, and Ondre Pipkins should be a factor when he recovers from ACL surgery.

Michigan State: The Spartans return the best defensive end tandem in the league as Shilique Calhoun, a second-team All-American in 2013, returns alongside Marcus Rush, one of the Big Ten's most experienced defenders. Joel Heath, Brandon Clemons and others provide some depth on the perimeter. It's a different story inside as MSU loses both starters (Micajah Reynolds and Tyler Hoover), as well as reserve Mark Scarpinato. Damon Knox, James Kittredge and Lawrence Thomas, who has played on both sides of the ball, are among those who will compete for the starting tackle spots. If Malik McDowell signs with MSU, he could work his way into the rotation.

Minnesota: Defensive tackles like Ra'Shede Hageman don't come around every year, and he leaves a big void in the middle of Minnesota's line. The Gophers will look to several players to replace Hageman's production, including senior Cameron Botticelli, who started opposite Hageman last season. Other options at tackle include Scott Ekpe and Harold Legania, a big body at 308 pounds. Minnesota is in much better shape at end with Theiren Cockran, arguably the Big Ten's most underrated defensive lineman. Cockran and Michael Amaefula both started every game last season, and Alex Keith provides another solid option after recording five tackles for loss in 2013.

Nebraska: Other than MSU's Calhoun, Nebraska returns the most dynamic defensive lineman in the league in Randy Gregory, who earned first-team All-Big Ten honors in his first FBS season. If the Huskers can build around Gregory, they should be very stout up front this fall. Nebraska won't have Avery Moss, suspended for the 2014 season, and players such as Greg McMullen and junior-college transfer Joe Keels will compete to start opposite Gregory. The competition inside should be fascinating as junior Aaron Curry and sophomore Vincent Valentine both have starting experience, but Maliek Collins came on strong at the end of his first season and will push for a top job.

Northwestern: It will be tough to get a clear picture of this group in the spring because of several postseason surgeries, but Northwestern should be fine at defensive end despite the loss of Tyler Scott. Dean Lowry, Ifeadi Odenigbo and Deonte Gibson all have significant experience and the ability to pressure quarterbacks. Odenigbo, who had 5.5 sacks as a redshirt freshman, could become a star. The bigger questions are inside as Northwestern must build depth. Sean McEvilly is a solid option but must stay healthy. Chance Carter and Max Chapman are among those competing for starting jobs at tackle.

Ohio State: A total mystery last spring, the defensive line should be one of Ohio State's strengths in 2014. Noah Spence and Joey Bosa could become the Big Ten's top pass-rushing tandem, and the Buckeyes have depth there with Jamal Marcus, Adolphus Washington and others. Returning starter Michael Bennett is back at defensive tackle, and while Joel Hale might move to offense, there should be enough depth inside with Tommy Schutt, Chris Carter and Washington, who could slide inside. Nose tackle is the only question mark, but new line coach Larry Johnson inherits a lot of talent.

Penn State: Like the rest of the Lions defense, the line struggled at times last season and now much replace its top player in tackle DaQuan Jones. The new coaching staff has some potentially good pieces, namely defensive end Deion Barnes, who won 2012 Big Ten Freshman of the Year honors but slumped as a sophomore. Barnes and C.J. Olaniyan could form a dangerous pass-rushing tandem, but they'll need support on the inside, where there should be plenty of competition. Austin Johnson will be in the mix for a starting tackle spot, and early enrollees Tarow Barney and Antoine White also should push for time. Anthony Zettel provides some depth on the perimeter.

Purdue: The line endured a tough 2013 campaign and loses two full-time starters (tackle Bruce Gaston Jr. and end Greg Latta), and a part-time starter (end Ryan Isaac). Competition should be ramped up at all four spots this spring. Senior end Ryan Russell is the most experienced member of the group must take a step this offseason. Evan Panfil and Jalani Phillips will push for time at the end spots, along with Kentucky transfer Langston Newton. The group at tackle includes Ryan Watson and Michael Rouse III, both of whom started games in 2013.

Rutgers: Keep a close eye on this group in the spring as Rutgers begins the transition to the Big Ten. The Scarlet Knights lose two starters in end Marcus Thompson and tackle Isaac Holmes, as well as contributor Jamil Merrell at tackle. Darius Hamilton provides a building block on the inside after recording 4.5 sacks and 11.5 tackles for loss in 2013, and end Djwany Mera is back after starting throughout last season. David Milewski played tackle last year, but both he and Hamilton likely need to add weight for their new league. Rutgers has some talent in the younger classes and needs players such as Sebastian Joseph, Kemoko Turay and Julian Pinnix-Odrick to emerge.

Wisconsin: Linebacker Chris Borland is the biggest single departure for the Badgers' defense, but the no position group loses more than the line. Wisconsin must replace several mainstays, most notably nose tackle Beau Allen, who performed well in the first year of the 3-4 set under coordinator Dave Aranda. Senior Warren Herring will step in for Allen after three years as a reserve. Konrad Zagzebski is a good bet to fill one of the end spots, but there will be plenty of competition with players such as Jake Keefer, James Adeyanju, Arthur Goldberg and Chikwe Obasih.
Tags:

Purdue Boilermakers, Minnesota Golden Gophers, Penn State Nittany Lions, Big Ten Conference, Michigan State Spartans, Northwestern Wildcats, Indiana Hoosiers, Illinois Fighting Illini, Ohio State Buckeyes, Michigan Wolverines, Wisconsin Badgers, Iowa Hawkeyes, Nebraska Cornhuskers, Rutgers Scarlet Knights, Maryland Terrapins, C.J. Olaniyan, Ryan Phillis, Louis Trinca-Pasat, DaQuan Jones, Konrad Zagzebski, Tyler Hoover, Larry Johnson, Micajah Reynolds, Warren Herring, Aaron Curry, Ra\'Shede Hageman, Harold Legania, Beau Allen, Austin Teitsma, Ryan Russell, Marcus Rush, Sean McEvilly, Lawrence Thomas, Dominic Alvis, Deion Barnes, Chance Carter, Max Chapman, Zack Shaw, Bruce Gaston Jr., Shilique Calhoun, Deonte Gibson, Michael Amaefula, Damon Knox, Darian Cooper, Jalani Phillips, Joel Hale, Jake Keefer, Anthony Zettel, Houston Bates, Tyler Scott, Carl Davis, Noah Spence, Nick Mangieri, Greg McMullen, Arthur Goldberg, Randy Gregory, Ryan Isaac, Tommy Schutt, Adolphus Washington, Ifeadi Odenigbo, Vincent Valentine, Jamal Marcus, Teko Powell, Greg Latta, Ryan Watson, James Kittredge, Tim Kynard, Mark Scarpinato, Chris Carter, Ralphael Green, Chikwe Obasih, Malik McDowell, David Kenney, Dawuane Smoot, Darius Latham, Nate Meier, Dean Lowry, Joey Bosa, Dave Aranda, Evan Panfil, Cameron Botticelli, Theiren Cockran, Avery Moss, Michael Rouse III, Drew Ott, Scott Ekpe, Antoine White, Alex Keith, Paul James, Joe Keels, Tarow Barney, Jihad Ward, Maliek Collins, Langston Newton, Joe Fotu, Andre Monroe, B1G spring positions 14, Quinton Jefferson, Keith Bowers, Darius Kilgo, Roman Braglio, Marcus Thompson, Isaac Holmes, Jamil Merrell, Djwany Mera, David Milewski, Sebastian Joseph, Kemoko Turay, Julian Pinnix-Odrick, James Adeyanju

Best B1G games of 2013: No. 4

January, 30, 2014
Jan 30
5:00
PM ET
We're continuing our countdown of the top 10 games from the Big Ten in 2013. Remember that we're taking into account the stakes in the game, the excitement level, the quality of the performances and the atmosphere.

Next up on the list is the game that featured the craziest ending of 2013:

No. 4: Nebraska 27, Northwestern 24, Nov. 2

How it went down: With four seconds left, Northwestern called timeout. Nebraska had the ball on the Wildcats' 49, trailing by three. Barring a miracle, Pat Fitzgerald's team was going to get a big win in Lincoln to snap a four-game losing streak, and the Cornhuskers were going to face a lot of uncomfortable questions about Bo Pelini's job status.

[+] EnlargeJordan Westerkamp
AP Photo/Nati HarnikNebraska wide receiver Jordan Westerkamp catches the game-winning touchdown, a desperation heave from quarterback Ron Kellogg III.
But, of course, that miracle happened. Ron Kellogg III heaved the ball toward the end zone, and Jordan Westerkamp caught it off a tip for the improbable game-winning touchdown. Westerkamp had never caught a pass longer than 10 yards in his career and had no career touchdowns before that play, while the walk-on Kellogg came into the season as the third-string quarterback. So, yeah, it was crazy.

The game was also a pretty good one before the play that will live on in Huskers lore. Avery Moss' interception for a touchdown tied the game at 21-21 in the third quarter, while a Tyler Scott interception set up Northwestern for its go-ahead field goal with 1:20 left.

Ameer Abdullah had the unsung play of the game, catching a short pass on fourth-and-long and willing himself through tacklers to get the first down on the final drive. Abdullah's effort led to the play of the year in the Big Ten, helped introduce the public to Westerkamp's glorious mustache and added another chapter to Northwestern's misery.

Player of the game: Abdullah had 127 yards on 24 carries in addition to his key catch late in the game.

Stat of the game: Nebraska won despite losing the turnover battle 4-1. The Huskers' defense didn't allow a touchdown after early in the second quarter and held Northwestern to a field goal after the Wildcats had second-and-goal from the 1 with 1:34 to play.

They said it: “I didn’t even know I could throw it that far,” Kellogg said, “but thank God for Jordan Westerkamp.”

More best games

  • No. 10: Ohio State 31, Wisconsin 24
  • No. 9: Michigan 41, Notre Dame 30
  • No. 8: Arizona State 32, Wisconsin 30
  • No. 7: Ohio State 40, Northwestern 30
  • No. 6: Penn State 43, Michigan 40, 4 OT
  • No. 5: Michigan State 34, Ohio State 24

The loss of Avery Moss for the 2014 football season -- and possibly for good -- rates as a significant setback for Nebraska.

Moss has been banned from Nebraska campus for one year, he confirmed to the Omaha World-Herald, as a result of a 2012 incident in which he was charged with exposing himself to a campus convenience store worker. He pleaded no contest on Monday to one count of public indecency.

According to the newspaper report, Moss could appeal in December. If denied, he would face a four-year campus ban, which would eliminate his opportunity to play again at Nebraska.

As it stands, the chances appear less likely that he’ll continue his career in Lincoln. Moss would have to not only win the December appeal but also spend a year in limbo, delaying his football progress during a time in which he could spend in practice with another FBS program or play at a lower level.

Moss, as a redshirt freshman, displayed ability that would eventually make him a nice NFL prospect -- the caliber of talent that’s been in short supply on the Huskers’ defensive line since the 2009 departure of Ndamukong Suh.

Moss collected 36 tackles last season, including eight behind the line of scrimmage with 4.5 sacks.

The pairing of Moss with returning junior Randy Gregory, an All-Big Ten selection in his first year at Nebraska last fall, would have given the Huskers an experienced pair of ends next season on par with any duo at the school in the past decade.

With remade groups on the offensive line and in the secondary and a new full-time starter at quarterback, the front seven on defense must still serve as one of Nebraska’s top position groups.

So where do the Huskers turn without Moss?

Spring practice looms large for inexperienced, young ends Greg McMullen and A.J. Natter. The careers of upperclassmen Donovan Vestal and Walker Ashburn were cut short last year because of injuries. Beyond that, walk-ons dot the roster.

Gregory was a boon last season out of junior college. Maybe Joe Keels, the No. 4 juco defensive end prospect, can make a similar impact. And more than a week remains until signing day for Nebraska to win over another prospect to help at the position.

The Huskers have decent depth at the interior line spots and lots of manpower at linebacker. Might Nebraska tinker in the spring with an alignment similar to the 3-4 look that worked well for Wisconsin last season? If so, it would mark a departure from the norm for coach Bo Pelini.

Regardless, the loss of Moss looms large.
New Year’s Day is near, along with the end to long layoffs for No. 22 Georgia and Nebraska.

Mitch Sherman and David Ching come together for a final discussion on the TaxSlayer.com Gator Bowl, set for Wednesday at noon ET on ESPN2:

How motivated is Georgia to win this game and why?

Ching: That's the big question entering this game, isn't it? It doesn't feel like either fan base is particularly jazzed about this matchup since these teams just played in a bowl a year ago. It wouldn't be a surprise if the teams deal with the same problem. Georgia seems like the more talented team here, but the coaches have to convince the Bulldogs that this is a game worth playing their best.

Sherman: I don’t expect motivation to be a problem for Nebraska. The Huskers don’t want their streak of nine-win seasons -- a point of much discussion and pride -- to end. A victory over an SEC opponent would serve as boost for Bo Pelini’s program and the Big Ten. Moreover, it has been a long, trying season in Lincoln; playing well in the Gator Bowl could change the narrative and allow the Huskers and their fans to focus on positives.

What do you expect out of the quarterback position?

Ching: Hutson Mason has the benefit of already making one start in a huge game. He started slowly against Georgia Tech in the regular-season finale, but helped the Bulldogs rally for a double-overtime win. Nebraska has a talented secondary that will test him, but I expect Mason to perform well. He has waited his turn behind Aaron Murray, but is well prepared to become a solid performer as a senior in 2014.

Sherman: We saw at the Big House in November that Tommy Armstrong has a knack for playing well under the spotlight. And for a redshirt freshman with seven starts under his belt, New Year’s Day is big. Armstrong is motivated. His linemen are healthier than at any point since late October. His receivers are healed up, and while Kenny Bell and Quincy Enunwa won’t surprise Georgia with their athleticism after last year, look for the Huskers to make plays in the passing game.

Who holds the edge when Nebraska has the football?

[+] EnlargeTodd Gurley, Ahmad Christian
Dale Zanine/USA TODAY SportsGeorgia tailback Todd Gurley has been effective since returning for injury, rushing for six touchdowns in his last five games.
Ching: Probably Nebraska. I know the Huskers have struggled on offense for most of the season without Taylor Martinez, but Georgia's defense has only dominated against the least of its competition this season. I expect Nebraska to produce decent yardage and point totals against the Bulldogs, considering how half of their opponents this season generated at least 400 yards of offense and eight scored at least 30 points.

Sherman: If we’re answering based off the second half of the season, it’s Georgia, despite its defensive injuries and propensity to allow chunks of yardage. Offensively, Nebraska simply hit a wall after mid-October, with the exception of the Michigan State game. The Huskers didn’t once scored 30 points after all-conference guard Spencer Long went down on Oct. 12 at Purdue. Injuries are the wild card, though. Long remains out, but most of the others who missed time are back. If Nebraska creates some momentum early, it could top 400 yards for the first time in five games.

Who holds the edge when UGA has the football?

Ching: Georgia. The Huskers haven't defended the run particularly well -- they're 60th nationally at 161.2 yards per game -- and that doesn't bode well for stopping Todd Gurley after he's had a month to allow his injured ankle to heal. Nebraska's defense has been fairly average in every way, so even with someone other than Murray at the helm, I expect Georgia's high-scoring offense to keep rolling in Jacksonville.

Sherman: Season-long statistics don’t tell the whole story of this Nebraska defense. The Blackshirts are much improved from September, when they were trampled in the opening quarter by an FCS-level foe. Since Nov. 1, the Huskers rank among the top 20 defensive units nationally. They’re especially strong against the pass. And with time to prepare, Pelini will devise a scheme to test Mason. As for Gurley, well, he could pose a problem. The Huskers will miss defensive end Avery Moss. And Big Ten results so far this bowl season don’t bode well for Nebraska.

Season report card: Nebraska

December, 20, 2013
12/20/13
1:00
PM ET
We continue our delivery of the regular-season report cards with Nebraska.

It was an odd year in Lincoln, shaped by injuries and controversy but growth and promise, and it ended with a fan base largely divided. For every member of Husker Nation ready to hand out passing grades, there’s another who saw it in just the opposite way.

So at the risk of just adding to the confusion, here it goes:

Offense: B-minus

[+] EnlargeAmeer Abdullah
Rick Osentoski/USA TODAY SportsAmeer Abdullah, who ran for 1,568 yards, was one of the bright spots for the Nebraska offense this year.
Considering the bevy of injuries on the offensive line and the loss of quarterback Taylor Martinez for all but one game in Big Ten play, Nebraska gets the benefit of the doubt. Its replacements played well enough to keep the Huskers in every game -- if not for the turnovers.

Oh, the turnovers. Nebraska lost the football 28 times, most in the Big Ten, and often turnovers came at the worst times. There’s likely not a team in the country that could have handled four fumbles and an interception against Michigan State better than the Huskers did on Nov. 16. But it was still a 13-point loss.

Before the injuries hit, the Huskers’ running game was a force. And I-back Ameer Abdullah still finished with 1,568 yards, arguably the best season by a Huskers back since 1997. Freshman QB Tommy Armstrong enjoyed some nice moments. Receivers Kenny Bell and Quincy Enunwa did their jobs well.

Nebraska badly missed a playmaker at tight end. But no one will soon forget the Ron Kellogg-to-Jordan Westerkamp Hail Mary that beat Northwestern, a play that single-handedly nudges this grade upward.

Defense: C

Remember the fourth quarter against Wyoming and the first 15 minutes against South Dakota State? Too much bad stuff happened to bump this grade past the point of average.

Sure, the Huskers were young. They needed time to grow into their roles. Why is that, though? How did Nebraska find itself, six years into the coach Bo Pelini regime, in a spot that required a rebuilding job? In year two or three, we’d understand more easily.

There was also debacle in Minneapolis as Minnesota rushed for 271 yards and basically punched the Blackshirts in the face.

Nebraska responded well late. It played a great defensive game in the win at Michigan and a good one to win at Penn State. Even against Iowa, despite losing 38-17, the defensive play was decent.

When factoring the promise for next year -- with emerging stars like Randy Gregory, Avery Moss and Michael Rose -- this defense is better than average. But production doesn’t always meet potential.

Special teams C-minus

Bell on kickoff returns and place-kicker Pat Smith, who was solid all year and hit a game-winning field goal in overtime at Penn State, prevented a failing grade here.

Just too many mistakes and lack of adjustments.

Nebraska averaged 3.04 yards per punt return -- better nationally than only Mississippi State and 1-11 Cal. More than that, the Huskers fumbled a pair of punt returns and erred too often on decisions in the return game.

Additionally, Michigan State converted a key fake field goal against the Huskers, and Pelini’s ill-advised decision to fake a punt against Iowa proved costly.

Overall: C-plus

Nebraska sits 8-4 as it prepares for the TaxSlayer.com Gator Bowl against Georgia, leaving it with a chance to again reach nine wins. A loss on New Year’s Day would mark Pelini’s first season with five defeats and make this the second Nebraska team not coached by Bill Callahan since 1968 to miss the nine-win benchmark. The absence of key players, youth on defense, turnovers and other mistakes factor in the Huskers’ overall grade. None of it weighs heavily enough to sink this team to great depths, yet Nebraska hasn’t done enough, either, to get far above the industry average.
LINCOLN, Neb. -- Departing receiver Quincy Enunwa, who often plays with the aggression of a defender, likes what he sees from the guys he practices with every day.

“I’m very excited about the defense,” Enunwa said.

[+] EnlargeIowa/Nebraska
Bruce Thorson/USA TODAY SportsCorey Cooper, Nebraska's leading tackler, will be back for the Cornhuskers' resurgent defense next season.
The TaxSlayer.com Gator Bowl, Jan. 1 against Georgia in Jacksonville, Fla., marks the final chance for this defensive unit to display the improvement that has served as a highlight for the Huskers amid a rocky season. In December practices -- Nebraska returned to work last weekend -- the promise of a dominant defense next year ranks as a driving force.

Nebraska heads into the postseason ranked No. 36 in total defense, allowing 367 yards per game, and 37th in yards allowed per play at 5.22. In the same categories at the start of October, the Huskers sat 107th and 108th, respectively.

What happened?

“They’ve grown up a lot, matured,” senior defensive end Jason Ankrah said. “The maturity brought the confidence out of them.”

The turnaround started, according to Enunwa, after a team meeting that followed the slow defensive start.

“We told them that we knew what they can do,” Enunwa said, “and they responded. The past three, four games, they were leading the team. They were the ones who were picking us up.”

That should continue next season with the Huskers set to return their top five tacklers in 2014, led by safety Corey Cooper and linebacker David Santos. But Cooper, a senior next year, and the rising junior Santos are just two of many reasons for optimism on defense.

An overall infusion of youth and athleticism, which figures to continue next season, tops the list.

Start with defensive end Randy Gregory, who led the Big Ten with 9 sacks as a sophomore in his first season at Nebraska out of junior college. An offseason in Lincoln figures to turn Gregory from a first-team all-conference pick into an All-America caliber defender.

“He brings a kind of athleticism to the defense that we haven’t had here in a while,” Ankrah said.

But it’s more than Gregory that excites Enunwa and the Huskers.

Fellow bookend Avery Moss earned all-freshman honors in the Big Ten, as tabbed by ESPN.com, along with middle linebacker Michael Rose, who emerged as a leader in the second half of the season. Redshirt freshman defensive tackle Vincent Valentine showed promise, as did freshman linebackers Josh Banderas, Nathan Gerry and Jared Afalava.

Speedy outside linebacker Zaire Anderson returns as a senior. Throw in Courtney Love, the defensive scout team MVP, and Marcus Newby, both of who redshirted, and you’ve got a deep and versatile group of linebackers.

Up front, Kevin Maurice and Maliek Collins played as true freshmen this year. Commitments from junior college tackle Terrell Clinkscales and end Joe Keels show that the Huskers aren’t slowing in their bid to stockpile man power.

“We have a lot of guys with a lot of great ability,” returning defensive back Josh Mitchell said. “We’re losing the most in the secondary, so that’s just a piece of the puzzle we’re going to fill in.

“But I think we’re going to be very explosive and very fast.”

Cooper and Mitchell, who has played multiple spots, return in the secondary in addition to part-time starting safety Harvey Jackson and promising underclassmen LeRoy Alexander and Charles Jackson.

The Huskers lose top cornerbacks Ciante Evans and Stanley Jean-Baptiste, easily the biggest shoes to fill. Both intercepted four passes this year.

Secondary coach Terry Joseph will likely shift a few bodies, and the Huskers could rely on redshirt freshman Boaz Joseph or little-used Auburn transfer Jonathan Rose to compete for time.

Regardless, the challenges look minimal in comparison to the hurdles cleared this year.

And this month -- and New Year’s Day -- should only help springboard the Cornhuskers into next season, Mitchell said.

“It’s going to give us a jump on next year,” he said. “Everyone’s going to remember their last couple practices. So whatever you learn now and whatever we can improve on now, it will carry over into the spring.”
Earlier today, we presented our All-Big Ten team. Now it's time to honor the top freshmen from 2013 with our Big Ten all-freshman team.

Here it is:

OFFENSE
QB: Christian Hackenberg, Penn State (captain)
RB: Corey Clement, Wisconsin
WR: DeAngelo Yancey, Purdue
WR: Jordan Westerkamp, Nebraska*
TE: Maxx Williams, Minnesota*
TE: Jake Butt, Michigan
OL: Dan Voltz, Wisconsin*
OL: Ben Lauer, Minnesota*
OL: Jack Conklin, Michigan State*
OL: Jacob Bailey, Indiana*
OL: Kyle Kalis, Michigan*

DEFENSE
DL: Joey Bosa, Ohio State (captain)
DL: Austin Johnson, Penn State*
DL: Avery Moss, Nebraska*
DL: Willie Henry, Michigan*
LB: Michael Rose, Nebraska*
LB: Nyeem Wartman, Penn State*
LB: T.J. Simmons, Indiana
DB: Sojourn Shelton, Wisconsin
DB: Desmond King, Iowa
DB: Tyvis Powell, Ohio State*
DB: Matthew Harris, Northwestern

SPECIALISTS
K: Michael Geiger, Michigan State
P: Cameron Johnston, Ohio State
All purpose: Dontre Wilson, Ohio State

* -- redshirt freshman

It was a pretty strong year for freshmen in the league, highlighted by Hackenberg and Bosa. Shelton was terrific as well. ... Tight end is a promising position for the future. Penn State's Adam Breneman just missed, but he looks like a future star. And Michigan State's Josiah Price had a big impact in the Big Ten title game. ... Nebraska's young defense could really turn into something special. We also considered defensive lineman Vincent Valentine and linebackers Jared Afalava, Nathan Gerry and Josh Banderas. ... It was also a good year for rookie QBs, as beyond Hackenberg there was Purdue's Danny Etling, Nebraska's Tommy Armstrong and Minnesota's Mitch Leidner. ... Ohio State's Wilson didn't have a true position, but he did a lot of things and was a good return man, so that's why he gets our all-purpose slot. ... Some others we considered included Penn State receiver Geno Lewis and linebacker Brandon Bell, Purdue offensive lineman Jason King and Indiana defensive lineman Ralphael Green.

B1G bowl opponent primer: Georgia

December, 13, 2013
12/13/13
10:00
AM ET
We’re examining the Big Ten bowl opponents this week. Time to take a look at Georgia, Nebraska’s repeat postseason foe in the TaxSlayer.com Gator Bowl.

TaxSlayer.com Gator Bowl
Jacksonville, Fla., Jan. 1, noon ET, ESPN2
Nebraska (8-4) vs. Georgia (8-4)

Georgia Bulldogs

Coach: Mark Richt (13th season)
Record: 8-4, 5-3 SEC
Combined opponents’ record: 90-56
Common opponents: none
Leading passer: Aaron Murray, 225-347 (64.8 percent) for 3,975 yards with 26 touchdowns and nine interceptions. Murray is injured. In his place, Georgia looks to Hutson Mason, 46-71 (64.8) for 648 yards with four touchdowns and two interceptions.
Leading rusher: Todd Gurley, 144 carries for 903 yards in nine games (6.3 per carry) and 10 touchdowns.
Leading receiver: Chris Conley, 42 receptions for 605 yards (14.4 per catch) and four touchdowns.
Leading tackler: Linebacker Ramik Wilson, 72 solos and 56 assists, 11 tackles for loss, four sacks and seven quarterback hurries.

What to know: The Bulldogs fought injuries almost from the outset after a three-point, season-opening loss to Clemson. The low point came during the first three weeks of October, when Gurley, the sophomore tailback, missed time with an ankle injury as the Bulldogs snuck past Tennessee before losing to Missouri at home and at Vanderbilt. Since Gurley’s return, Georgia has won four of five games, losing only at Auburn on Ricardo Louis’ miraculous game-winning catch. Murray, the record-setting senior QB, went down with ACL tear against Kentucky, but Mason, a junior, stepped in nicely to throw two touchdowns against Georgia Tech. The receiving duo of Conley and Michael Bennett, both 6-foot-3 and back from midseason absences, will test the Nebraska secondary. It’s been an adventure for the Bulldogs on defense after replacing a talented, veteran group from a year ago. Eight opponents scored 30 points or more. Georgia was especially susceptible against strong aerial attacks and ranked last in the SEC in allowing 7.6 yards per passing attempt.

Key matchup: Gurley vs. Nebraska’s defensive front seven. As Nebraska gets healthy on offense and prepares to face a Georgia defensive unit that has struggled plenty this year, you might expect the Huskers to fare well in a shootout, especially with Murray on the sideline. Not probable. It didn’t work last year in the Capital One Bowl, won by Georgia 45-31 after a close 2 quarters. To succeed in Jacksonville, the Huskers likely need a strong defensive showing focused on Gurley, the bruising runner who finished strong with 122 yards and four scores against Georgia Tech. Nebraska was gouged on the ground by the likes of Wyoming, South Dakota State, Minnesota and Northwestern this year. Gurley is better than all of their backs. But the Huskers’ defensive front, notably first-year starters Randy Gregory, Vincent Valentine Avery Moss and Michael Rose, have shown rapid improvement and now rank as a strength of this team.
Michigan State visits Nebraska (3:30 p.m. ET, ABC-ESPN2) Saturday in a Big Ten Legends Division showdown. The winner owns the inside track to Indianapolis and the league title game. Statistics favor the Spartans and their No. 1-ranked defense, but the Huskers are 9-1 at home as a member of the Big Ten. And MSU is 0-7 all-time against Nebraska, including 0-2 as a division foe over the past two years.

[+] EnlargeConnor Cook
Brian Spurlock/USA TODAY SportsConnor Cook and the Michigan State offense will have to handle an imposing crowd and improving Nebraska defense.
1. With those numbers in mind, what makes these Spartans different?

Chantel Jennings: This defense is just going to give every team fits. I've been really impressed with Ameer Abdullah but he hasn't faced a front seven like Michigan State's. The pressure the Spartans get against the run game and on opposing quarterbacks just forces other teams into mistakes and poor decisions. They've allowed just 24 rushing first downs this season. The next closest defenses? Alabama and Louisville … with 46. Streaks are streaks, but I think the more impressive streak of note in this situation is that Michigan State has gone nine games without allowing an opponent to rush for more than 100 yards. That streak matters in this game way more than the fact that MSU is winless against Nebraska.

Mitch Sherman: While the Spartans haven’t exactly faced an elite offense this year -- save for perhaps Indiana, which scored 28 points on MSU -- don’t rank Nebraska among that group, either. The Huskers deserved consideration as a top-tier unit before quarterback Taylor Martinez went down, followed by both starting offensive guards and left tackle Jeremiah Sirles. This week, junior Mike Moudy, the replacement at right guard, is doubtful with a shoulder injury. Additionally, junior receiver Jamal Turner, who caught the winning touchdown in the final seconds last year at Michigan State, remains out with a hamstring injury. The Huskers have struggled recently to move the football against mediocre defenses, so this challenge could overwhelm Nebraska.

2. Nebraska is riding a wave of momentum after emotional victories over Northwestern and Michigan. Will it matter on Saturday?

Sherman: Much like a week ago at Michigan, it depends on how Nebraska starts. The Huskers arrived in Ann Arbor on a high and jumped to a quick 10-0 lead. The fast start helped neutralize the huge crowd and provided an extra shot of confidence for freshman quarterback Tommy Armstrong and an injury-plagued offensive line. If Nebraska falls behind against Michigan State’s suffocating defense, the momentum will die in a hurry. But if the Huskers jump out, it might be the one-loss Spartans who have trouble handling the pressure.

Jennings: I totally agree with Mitch here. If Nebraska can get off to a really strong start, then that momentum can mean something. However, other teams have gotten off to good starts against MSU and it hasn't meant much. Michigan's first drive against Michigan State looked pretty solid (nine plays, 51 yards for a field goal). And then the rest of the game happened. But that game was played in Spartan Stadium and there's definitely something to be said for getting your fans in to the game. I think the Nebraska fans could affect the MSU offense more than it could affect the MSU defense, and even in a low scoring game, I think the experience of the Michigan State defense would find a way to win.

3. Connor Cook has brought stability to the MSU offense. How will he handle the environment in Lincoln?

Jennings: He's a confident kid and he told me earlier this season that he really doesn't get fazed by any of the external factors in those situations. I think the MSU offensive line has gotten better and better every game this season and those five guys are going to do everything they can to make sure Cook doesn't feel too much pressure. But getting to Cook will be the key here. The Nebraska defense is coming off a seven-sack performance against Michigan, but the MSU O-line has only allowed seven sacks all season.

Sherman: The Nebraska defense is making real strides this month. Confidence is growing as players improve at each level. Cook needs to keep an eye out for No. 44. Defensive end Randy Gregory sacked Devin Gardner three times last week, in something of a breakout game on the national level, but Gregory was well known to those who watch the Huskers closely. He's a force and will likely create problems for Cook and the Spartans. The sophomore quarterback would also be smart to watch out for fellow defensive end Avery Moss, plus blitzing safety Corey Cooper and cornerback Ciante Evans. And when the defense gets rolling, Memorial Stadium turns intimidating for a visiting QB.

4. So what must each team do to win?

Sherman: For Nebraska, it’s all about playing a clean game. The Huskers lost the turnover battle against Michigan and Northwestern. They lost important field position by failing to field a late first-half punt last week. And penalties killed a pair of late drives against the Wildcats. None of this can happen against the Spartans, who will make Nebraska pay for its mistakes. The Huskers might not need -- and likely won’t get -- a great deal of offensive production, but if the chance arrives to capitalize on a short field, they must cash in.

Jennings: I have a feeling this is going to be a relatively low-scoring game. So, each team is going to have to go for the big plays when it can. The MSU defense stacks the box and gets as much pressure on opposing quarterbacks as it can. The Nebraska offense will have to do is find a way to force MSU out of that game plan. If Armstrong can take some shots down field or Abdullah breaks out for a few big runs, then the Spartans won't be able to keep 10 guys up there. The same -- to a lesser degree -- is true of Cook and running back Jeremy Langford.

LINCOLN, Neb. -- Jordan Westerkamp grew up in the western Chicago suburbs, about 25 miles from Evanston and the Northwestern campus.

Pat Fitzgerald knew all about him two years ago at Montini Catholic. Westerkamp was one of the top prospects in the state of Illinois’ 2012 high school class. Fitzgerald and Northwestern recruited him, but Westerkamp, the son of a former Illinois wide receiver, picked Nebraska early in the process.

On Saturday, at last possible moment, he buried a dagger in the hearts of the Wildcats and their head coach.

“You can never let somebody get behind the pile,” Fitzgerald said.

His words echoed hollow in the aftermath of this improbable, 27-24 Nebraska victory at Memorial Stadium.

With his snag of a 49-yard Hail Mary from backup quarterback Ron Kellogg III as time expired, Westerkamp assured Northwestern of a losing Big Ten season. And in the most unlikely of moments, his catch pumped life into an almost-deflated season at Nebraska.

Jubilance masks all kinds of trouble. As celebratory music rained down on Tom Osborne Field while thousands above screamed with joy and disbelief, the problems of Saturday and last week and the season’s first half seemed momentarily insignificant to the Cornhuskers.

[+] EnlargeJordan Westerkamp
AP Photo/Nati HarnikNebraska wide receiver Jordan Westerkamp catches the game-winning touchdown, a desperation heave from quarterback Ron Kellogg III.
Can one play reverse the momentum of a football season? The Huskers hope so.

“I hope it keeps them believing,” Nebraska coach Bo Pelini said, “keeps them up.”

Pelini stopped to correct himself. His players would never stop believing, he said.

But the message lingered. Pelini didn’t need to say it; things were beginning to look bleak in Lincoln. Without the miracle in the south end zone, Nebraska was headed to Michigan next week -- with Michigan State on tap a week later -- off two consecutive bad losses.

Pelini’s critics were sharpening their knives even as the Huskers drove to near midfield before the final, fateful play.

Face it: The offense, for much of Saturday, was a mess of injuries and inefficiency. After an impressive opening drive, Nebraska sputtered throughout. Before the final play, Nebraska’s only score in the second half came on Avery Moss’ pick-six of a Trevor Siemian throw.

When the Huskers twice neared scoring range in the second half, they committed drive-killing penalties.

Freshman quarterback Tommy Armstrong Jr. threw three interceptions, including a seemingly deadly pick by Tyler Scott that led to a Jeff Budzien field goal with 80 seconds left, placing the Wildcats on top.

And these are Nebraska’s cards. Taylor Martinez, the injured veteran quarterback who started 43 games over four seasons and set the school’s all-time total-offense mark, does not look set to return soon, if at all.

Martinez watched from the press box on Saturday. Asked after the game about the senior’s status, Pelini danced around the question. The coach didn’t even bother to list Martinez’s ailments. He was sick, too, this week, Pelini said, for whatever that’s worth.

“I’m going to stick with the way it went today,” Pelini said.

The defensive performance was equally confounding. The Blackshirts, shoved around a week ago in a loss at Minnesota, allowed three touchdowns on Northwestern’s first four possessions. The Wildcats led 21-7.

Then, as if to throw their arms skyward in despair, Pelini and defensive coordinator John Papuchis asked the defenders what they wanted to do differently. The players voted to scrap the game plan, which called for a three-man front.

The Huskers went back to their traditional look with four linemen. They stopped Northwestern on 11 consecutive possessions before the fourth-quarter field goal, which ought to count as another stop. It came after the Wildcats reached the 1-yard line on the first down after Scott’s interception return.

“We’re going to need that type of energy going into Michigan,” said Moss, the defensive end who tied the score at 21 with the 25-yard interception return midway through the third quarter.

Maybe it’ll work. Maybe it started on the last drive. Nebraska took over at its 17-yard line with 74 seconds to play. Pelini summoned Kellogg. The senior, who hadn’t played since the second quarter, said he felt “extremely nervous” before taking the field.

A former walk-on who’s never started a game, Kellogg found Ameer Abdullah for a 16-yard gain on fourth-and-15 to the Nebraska 40 with 21 seconds left. The signal-caller completed two short throws to the sideline before an incompletion and a prayer into the end zone.

“I didn’t even know I could throw it that far,” Kellogg said, “but thank God for Jordan Westerkamp.”

The kid snuck behind the pile, just a couple of yards deep in the end zone as Kellogg let it go toward Nebraska receiver Quincy Enunwa and a mess of defenders. Enunwa said he never touched the ball. It bounded off a Northwestern player and right to Westerkamp.

“I was just fortunate to be there,” Westerkamp said.

Kellogg didn’t see it. He got hit in the head at the line of scrimmage, he said, and lost his helmet on the field. Pelini missed it, too. He saw Westerkamp flash and heard the crowd roar. The coach wore a look of incredulity as he left the field.

Important lessons apply, he said.

“It’s about attitude,” Pelini said. “It’s about character.”

Don’t give up, no matter how dire the situation.

“Whether we caught that ball or didn’t catch that ball,” Pelini said, “we’re still the same team tomorrow.”

Perhaps, but as sure as Northwestern’s heartbreak after a fifth consecutive defeat, this one at the hands of a home-state kid, the Huskers got a reprieve Saturday. Another shot to show they’re not done yet.

Defensive woes loom large at Nebraska

September, 23, 2013
9/23/13
3:00
PM ET
LINCOLN, Neb. – Amid four quarters on Saturday filled with defensive sequences that exasperated Bo Pelini, the Nebraska coach had no trouble identifying one spot, moments after the Huskers’ 59-20 victory over South Dakota State, that captured the essence of the Blackshirts' trouble at the end of a scary September.

The Jackrabbits scored two touchdowns on nine plays, covering 176 yards in less than three minutes to open the game -- often running straight at Nebraska.

But that’s not what Pelini referenced. He’s talking about the next possession, when the Huskers stacked the box with eight defenders, and still South Dakota State running back Zach Zenner churned for 15 yards on the first play, followed by gains of 4 and 5 up the middle.

“There is zero,” Pelini said, “zero excuse for that.”

[+] EnlargeBo Pelini
AP Photo/Nati HarnikBo Pelini wasn't happy with Nebraska's defense against South Dakota State.
The Nebraska defense has problems. Four games into this season, troubling trends that emerged late last season have turned into a cold reality.

Replacing seven senior starters from a year ago, the Huskers knew they would face growing pains this fall. Some of what we’ve seen this month, though, is rooted more deeply than in Nebraska’s lack of experience.

“Every week with this group, right now, feels like it’s a new adventure,” defensive coordinator John Papuchis said, “whether it’s from quarter to quarter or half to half or game to game. There are times that we show signs of being pretty good, and then there are times where it’s hard to watch.

“I don’t know how to say it other than that.”

He could say it like this: The Huskers have two weeks to prepare for Illinois and the start of Big Ten play. And based on the results of late – FCS-level South Dakota State scored just three points after the first quarter on Saturday but still totaled 465 yards – Nebraska coaches and players must decipher the cause of their defensive woes and fix them fast.

Statistics here tell just part of the story. But an important part.

In the first 12 games of last season, Nebraska ranked first nationally in passing yards allowed per game (152.2), first in opponent completion percentage (45.5), second in yards per opponent passing attempt (5.16), 13th in yards per opponent play (4.59) and 23rd in points per opponent drive (1.44).

In six games since, in the same categories, Nebraska is 105th (277.5 passing yards per game), 82nd (62.4 percent completion rate), 116th (9.35 yards per opponent passing attempt), 118th (7.45 yards per opponent play) and 105th (2.58 points per opponent drive).

Something is wrong. Pelini said it’s a missing attitude.

Pelini discussed it Saturday with former Huskers tight end and current associate athletic director Jamie Williams before the coach roasted the defense in his postgame news conference.

“You’ve got to have a killer instinct,” said Pelini, who was defensive coordinator at Nebraska, Oklahoma and LSU. “In football, no one’s going to give you anything. You’ve got to take it. You’ve got to earn it. If you don’t have that kind of approach, it’s not going to work out well for you.

“Right now, we’re not playing with a type of attitude that you need to take to the field defensively. There has to be a sense of urgency every time you line up.”

The Huskers have endured struggles at all three levels.

Newcomer Randy Gregory at defensive end is a bright spot. Freshmen Avery Moss and Vincent Valentine have played well on the line, but veterans Jason Ankrah and Thad Randle aren’t showing up.

True freshman linebackers Nathan Gerry and Josh Banderas were benched for Zaire Anderson and David Santos in the first half on Saturday. Anderson appeared to play well, but missed assignments continued to plague the unit.

In the secondary, Stanley Jean-Baptiste, with interceptions in every game this year, is a star in the making. The safeties are a different story, especially at the spot next to Corey Cooper.

“They’re playing too tentative,” Pelini said.

The Huskers lack aggression, in general, on defense. Pelini and defensive line coach Rick Kaczenski talk regularly to the linemen about exploding at the snap, initiating contact with the players across the line of scrimmage.

“I wasn’t doing that the first series,” Gregory said. “The defensive line as a whole, we weren’t doing that.”

Gregory doesn’t know how to make the fixes or even what to say to his teammates.

“I don’t think anybody knows what to say,” he said, “but we’ve got to come in with the mindset that we’re going to stop them.”

Others sounded more confused. A couple defenders said they thought the Huskers played well defensively on Saturday. Meanwhile, Pelini described it as “the worst defensive performance of the season.”

He issued a promise, too.

“I’ll get this fixed,” the coach said. “Trust me there.”

Interesting choice of words. Trust, it seems, is wearing thin among the Nebraska defense these days.

Big Ten awards race tracker: Week 4

September, 19, 2013
9/19/13
4:00
PM ET
Every Big Ten team has already completed one-quarter of its regular-season schedule, and after this weekend, everybody but idle Illinois will have finished off a third of its regular season. (Don't blame me, I'm just the messenger).

With a little bit of data to crunch, it's time to bring back the weekly awards race tracker, where I attempt to gauge the temperature for some of the Big Ten's top individual honors. Please note that there's a long way to go, and performance in conference play looms large, so these will fluctuate wildly. But for now, here's how I see these races stacking up:

Graham–George Offensive Player of the Year

1. Penn State WR Allen Robinson: Receivers have a tough time winning these kinds of awards because they're so dependent on others. But I'd argue Robinson stands farther above his Big Ten peers at his position than any running back or quarterback right now. He ranks fourth in the FBS in receiving yards with 405 through three games, and that's with missing the first half of the opener because of a suspension. He's on pace for a 1,600-yard season.

2. Wisconsin RB Melvin Gordon: He's leading the Big Ten in rushing with 477 yards while averaging a ludicrous 12.9 yards per carry.

3. Michigan QB Devin Gardner: He would have been the frontrunner after Week 2, but his turnover binge against Akron really hurt. Still, he's leading the league in total offense.

4. Indiana QB Nate Sudfeld: He's tops in the conference in passing (917 yards) and passing touchdowns (10) while ranking seventh nationally in pass efficiency.

5. Iowa RB Mark Weisman: He's been Superman for the Hawkeyes so far, carrying the ball 85 times in three games and averaging 141.7 yards per game. The big news is that neither Braxton Miller, the reigning champ, nor Taylor Martinez appear in our initial Graham-George tracker. Miller simply hasn't played enough, while Martinez hasn't put up the rushing numbers we expected. But it's early.

Waiting room: Illinois QB Nathan Scheelhaase; Michigan WR Jeremy Gallon; Ohio State RB Jordan Hall

Nagurski–Woodson Defensive Player of the Year

1. Michigan State DE Shilique Calhoun: The Spartans sophomore gets the early nod in a wide-open race thanks to his scoring heroics (three defensive touchdowns so far) and being one of the faces of the league's best defense by a large margin.

2. Wisconsin LB Chris Borland: The Badgers statistically have the Big Ten's second-best defense, though that's propped up by two early cupcake opponents. Still, Borland has been his usual brilliant self, leading his team with 24 tackles.

3. Penn State DT DaQuan Jones: He was dominant in the Nittany Lions' first two games, not so much in the UCF shredding last week. Yet Jones' numbers -- 23 tackles, two sacks, five tackles for loss -- are very impressive.

4. Minnesota DT Ra'Shede Hageman: Hageman is having the big senior season we expected from him. He has collected 4.5 tackles for loss, and his push inside has helped free teammate Theiren Cockran, who's leading the league in sacks (three).

5. Northwestern S Ibraheim Campbell: All he does is catch the other team's passes. Campbell has three interceptions so far and one in each of his past five games.

Waiting room: Ohio State LB Ryan Shazier, Michigan State LB Max Bullough, Illinois LB Jonathan Brown, Iowa LB Christian Kirksey

Thompson–Randle El Freshman of the Year

1. Penn State QB Christian Hackenberg: Keep reminding yourself that he's only 18 years old, but Hackenberg has been every bit as good as advertised, and quite possibly better. He has completed 71.7 percent of his passes for 851 yards and four touchdowns, though he does have three interceptions.

2. Ohio State WR Dontre Wilson: Speed kills, and Wilson is an assassin. He is averaging 9.3 yards per carry, has caught seven passes for 72 yards and has a 51-yard kickoff return. Expect his role to grow throughout the season. For now, this is a two-man race.

Waiting room: Michigan OL Kyle Kalis; Minnesota QB Mitch Leidner; Nebraska LB Josh Banderas, DE Avery Moss and DT Vincent Valentine; Indiana S Antonio Allen and LB T.J. Simmons; Wisconsin RB Corey Clement
You could understand if Nebraska defensive coordinator John Papuchis is suffering from UCLA post-traumatic stress disorder this week, seeing blue and gold flashes in his nightmares.

[+] EnlargeBrett Hundley
AP Photo/Ben LiebenbergUCLA quarterback Brett Hundley had a field day last season against the Nebraska defense.
Neither Papuchis nor any member of Big Red Nation needs any reminders of what happened the last time the Huskers and Bruins met. The numbers stick out like a bad memory: UCLA put up 653 total yards in a 36-30 win at the Rose Bowl in Week 2 last season, drawing a giant red circle around the cracks in Papuchis' defense.

"Coming out of that game, it became clear that we did have some deficiencies," Papuchis told ESPN.com. "I knew that the rest of the season, we were going to have mask them as best we possibly could to make sure they didn't get exposed again."

You know what happened next. Nebraska did a decent job hiding its flaws in the regular season, save for a trip to Columbus, before Wisconsin ripped open the wounds in the Big Ten title game. Almost all offseason conversations in Lincoln centered around how Papuchis and head coach Bo Pelini would fix that defense.

Now here comes UCLA again, minus a few key players like star tailback Johnathan Franklin but still boasting top-notch playmakers such as quarterback Brett Hundley (358 total yards, 4 touchdowns in last year's win). Nebraska hopes its defense is much different this time around.

Many of the names, for sure, have changed. The Huskers have seven new starters on defense, and nine players in their front-seven rotation have made their major college debuts in the past two weeks. That includes freshmen starting linebackers Josh Banderas and Nathan Gerry and defensive end Randy Gregory, a junior college transfer.

Opening returns weren't great, as Wyoming turned in a very Bruins-like showing behind another mobile quarterback named Brett (Smith) and piled up 602 yards, but Nebraska pulled out a 37-34 squeaker. Last week, though, Nebraska held Southern Miss to just 284 yards and forced four turnovers in a 56-13 victory.

"I think that [Wyoming] experience was tremendous for those guys," Papuchis said. "Just the experience of being out there, I think, settled a lot of nerves. We were tenfold better [in Week 2], and I think that was a better indication of what this defense is going to be about -- an athletic and fast group with a chance to be dynamic."

Speed, especially in the front seven, was something last year's senior-laden defense lacked. Pelini has said he made a mistake in not throwing some of this year's redshirt freshmen on the field last season to help. That weakness first became particularly glaring against the Bruins, who didn't run a lot of complicated sets last season, and still don't. They focus on getting the ball to their running backs and receivers to create one-on-one matchups in the open field.

In last year's matchup, Nebraska lost far too many of those battles. Pelini estimated that nearly 300 of UCLA's yards came after first contact with a Huskers defender. Guys like Franklin and receiver Shaq Evans often had Nebraska players reaching for air.

Papuchis said he notices a marked improvement in his defense's quickness, especially in the front seven with guys like Gregory, Avery Moss, Greg McMullen and Zaire Anderson.

"We've incorporated a lot more speed," senior defensive back Ciante Evans said. "Those guys can run sideline to sideline, and I think that's very helpful. It makes it easier to make plays."

The question, of course, is not just whether Nebraska defenders can beat UCLA skill players to a spot, but also whether they can wrap them up. And the Bruins are surely going to target and test young guys like Banderas and Gerry, who were in high school just a few months ago.

"One thing I like about those guys is that, to this point so far, the moments haven't been too big for them," Papuchis said.

Another benefit of that speed, Pelini said, is that more guys will be running toward and getting to the ball, rather than leaving a Husker on an island to make a tackle. Both Wyoming and Southern Miss featured spread offenses with similarities to UCLA, and the Nebraska defense swarmed to the ball much better from Week 1 to Week 2.

It may be unfair to judge a defense this young on its performance against a talented and veteran Bruins offense. But Nebraska fans and observers have been waiting for this game to use as a litmus test for the defensive progress.

Papuchis and Pelini, like their players, have insisted this week that winning or losing provides the ultimate judgment. If the Bruins put up big stats but Nebraska gets the win, they say, good enough.

Even if it's another 653-yard day?

"I wouldn't be happy with it," Evans said, "but I'd take it."

It would sure beat another case of UCLA PTSD.

Huskers search for defensive answers

September, 3, 2013
9/03/13
10:00
AM ET
LINCOLN, Neb. -- Of the five touchdowns Wyoming scored on Saturday in Nebraska’s 37-34 escape, none ate even two minutes of clock.

The last two drives, which covered 114 yards, took all of five plays and 53 seconds. When time expired as Brett Smith’s heave from the Cowboys’ 31-yard line falling harmlessly in Nebraska territory, a distinct feeling of relief blanketed Memorial Stadium.

Should it have instead been dread of what’s to come? The Nebraska defense is trending in a dangerous direction.

Wyoming’s 35 first downs are the most ever surrendered by the Huskers. The Cowboys’ 28 plays of 10 yards or more (on 74 offensive snaps) matched UCLA -- which visits Lincoln on Sept. 14 -- as the most recorded by an FBS program in the opening week of college football this year.

Defensive coordinator John Papuchis, in the aftermath on Saturday, described the fourth-quarter feeling as a “nightmare.”

“It’s a win,” Papuchis said, “but it’s not good enough.”

Yet Bo Pelini, the Huskers’ sixth-year coach who cut his teeth as a defensive coordinator in the Big 12 and Southeastern Conference, said he watched film into the early hours of Sunday, then went to bed hours after the game with a “pretty good” feeling about his team.

“There were a lot of positives that came out of it that got masked,” Pelini said.

Admittedly, Pelini is not a stats guy.

So perhaps he’s not concerned that in Nebraska’s past 12 quarters against Wyoming, Georgia and Wisconsin, it has allowed more than 1,800 yards of total offense. Each of those games sit among the nine highest total-yardage outputs ever produced by a Nebraska foe.

Including a loss to UCLA last year in which the Bruins gained 653 yards, the second-highest figure all time against Nebraska, that’s four of the top nine in the past 12 months.

Pelini, who’s not known for his tolerance of poor defensive execution, talked on Monday in positive tones about growth. He used a form of the word “learn” four times in his 2-minute, 15-second opening statement.

Of Saturday’s debacle, Pelini said the Nebraska coaches may have oversimplified matters for their young defenders. Most of the mistakes, he said, were mental.

What gives? Why all the patience and understanding?

“I’ll put it this way,” he said. “It’s very fixable. The things that hurt us the other day are very fixable.”

Meanwhile, the natives are growing restless. They’re waiting for Pelini and his staff to actually fix it.

The coach praised Smith, who accounted for 475 yards, including 383 through the air. Smith consistently avoided the Nebraska pass rush, revamped with new contributors Vincent Valentine, Avery Moss and Randy Gregory.

“I think he has a unique feel for not only scrambling,” Pelini said, “but when to step up in the pocket and when to flush himself.”

Smith nearly flushed the Huskers’ NCAA-record streak of season-opening wins.

Don’t look now, but UCLA quarterback Brett Hundley is even better. He showed it against Nevada last week, ranking third nationally in Total Quarterback Rating.

Southern Miss awaits on Saturday. It has lost 13 straight games, including a 49-20 decision in Lincoln a year ago.

It could be a get-well game for the Huskers.

Nebraska needs it after Wyoming.

“Everyone was just over-hyped,” senior cornerback Ciante Evans. “Guys were worried about not making mistakes too much, and they were just over-thinking the game. But that just comes with the season opener.”

Last year, it came with several games. After an offseason to replay in their minds the bludgeonings delivered by Wisconsin and Georgia, the Huskers sought a change of pace to start this year.

They’ll have to wait at least another week.

Big Ten Friday mailblog

August, 23, 2013
8/23/13
4:30
PM ET
Last weekend of the offseason. Enjoy it and then gear up for some football.

Remember, follow us on Twitter.


Some Guy from Michigan writes: Adam, I'm not sure I understand all the hype around Michigan. They have to replace a lot of their offensive line and there isn't a whole lot of depth with the receivers. Their defense returns a lot, but Ryan is also a huge loss. Looking at their schedule, there are potential losses at Penn State, MSU, Northwestern, Iowa, and home to ND and OSU. I don't see Michigan beating MSU, OSU or ND, and could definitely lose to Northwestern. Last year was definitely an off year for the Hawkeyes, but don't underestimate them. And Penn State probably won't be a cake walk, either. That being said, I think 10 wins is a lot for a team rebuilding the entire middle of its offensive line, even with arguably the best tackle tandem in the nation.

Adam Rittenberg: You make some good points, Guy, and Michigan by no means is a shoo-in to win 10 games. The schedule isn't overly taxing, but Michigan isn't simply going to roll over teams like Penn State, Michigan State and Northwestern. There are some legitimate questions entering the season, mainly the interior of both lines and wide receiver. Although Devin Gardner has given us every reason to think he'll have a big season, he could endure some speed bumps, especially against a great defense like Notre Dame's. Gardner also is the most indispensable player in the league, in my view. If he gets hurt, you can forget about Michigan winning the Legends. As for Ryan, he's recovering extremely well from his injury and should be back for the Big Ten season. How he responds from a major knee injury remains to be seen, but his absence shouldn't be a huge factor. I think Michigan makes strides this year, but I also could see the roster as being a year away from a true breakthrough.


Philosopher Joe from Spartan Nation writes: Adam, in your over/under for MSU, you predict my Spartans will upset ND and still have three losses to finish out the season 9-3. If we win in South Bend, where do the other three losses come? I suspect we will have trouble with Nebraska on the road, but you really don't think we can beat U-M or Northwestern when both of those were two of the "bad luck" close losses from last year that you are predicting will swing our way this season? What gives? Are we going to win the close ones or not, and if we are going to win a few of them, how do we lose three games, anyway?

Adam Rittenberg: I don't buy the bad luck/close-loss deal with a team like Michigan State. Remember that the Spartans also won some close games like Wisconsin, which had momentum before losing starting quarterback Joel Stave to a broken collarbone. If Stave stays healthy, I think Wisconsin wins that game. The point is it goes both ways. I once again expect a lot of close games for a Michigan State squad with some huge question marks on offense. Remember, you're removing a pro running back and a pro tight end from a pretty bad unit to begin with. You have to evaluate the opposing teams, too. Michigan and Northwestern both look like better teams than they were in 2012. Could Michigan State go 2-1 or even 3-0 against the class of the division? Sure. But I see the Spartans struggling a bit down the stretch.


Craig from Farmington Hills, Mich., writes: You've written several times that the national championship is all that determines national perception. I'm continually boggled by this. Why is that? Is the media driving it or more the fans driving the media? There is no intelligent basis for that idea (especially since only one league could be "respected" using that criteria), so what causes it?

Adam Rittenberg: It's a good question, Craig, but the idea of championships driving perception really applies to most sports, pro or college. What made college football unique for years was that the national championship was largely subjective and could be awarded to multiple teams based on polls, media outlets, etc. In many ways, the championship wasn't the focal point. The bowl system as a whole carried greater weight, and there was less conference vs. conference debate. There could be more than one celebrated team or conference at the end of the season. That changed with the BCS, which gave us a national championship game, despite the controversial method for determining the matchup. It narrowed the focus, just as the College Football Playoff will.

How did we get here? I'm sure it's a combination of media and fans, but it's really not unlike other sports. I've found that more fans these days want clarity in their sports. While I'm sure some college football fans long for the old days when the national championship was blurry and the bowl games mattered more, but my sense from covering the sport is the majority would rather focus on a playoff/championship game.


Steve from Seattle writes: Hi, Adam. I was watching a movie and I saw a guy that looked exactly like you. He was a doctor. So what I want to know is: Are you hiding your talents from us -- your blog fans? Or do you just have a twin out there? To my real question. I know you went to Madison and watched the Badgers for the second scrimmage. I know everyone is saying that the weakness of the defense is the secondary, but by the articles that I've been reading it seems like the secondary is in better shape. Maybe it doesn't have the same amount of experience, like last year, but it seems like they should be fine for the year.

Adam Rittenberg: No twin that I know of, although I often get called Alan. The guy who just painted my new condo calls me Mr. Alan. Anyway, I'm guessing you saw the man my wife wished she had married. And I'm stunned that a nerdy-looking guy was playing a doctor. Just stunned. On to Wisconsin (pun intended), the secondary didn't look too bad and Darius Hillary made several nice plays, both in the morning practice and in the afternoon scrimmage. But keep in mind that Wisconsin's secondary is facing one of the weakest wide receiver corps in a major conference. Jared Abbrederis is awesome, but there's a sizable dropoff after No. 4. You have to wonder how much the new-look secondary is really being tested. I'm a little worried about how they'll fare against a really good group of receivers, such as Arizona State's in Week 3. Wisconsin will try to mask the secondary with more blitzing, but teams that can protect and pass the ball effectively will score against this defense.


Curtis from Nebraska writes: It's that time of your when all I have to do is drink Husker Kool-Aid and dream. I think this year could be special if the Husker D can find some consistency and eliminate the major breakdowns and the offense can pick up where they left off. Do you think there is any reason to believe that the defense will be improved?

Adam Rittenberg: The biggest reason to believe is the Huskers secondary, which could be one of the Big Ten's best. It boasts good depth and talent and both the corner and safety positions. Nebraska can go three deep at most spots and boasts an All-Big Ten candidate in corner/nickelback Ciante Evans. The hope among Bo Pelini and his staff is that even though the front seven lacks experience, there could be more talent and more overall depth than Nebraska had in 2012, where it was moving Cam Meredith to defensive tackle because no one else could play there. Junior college transfer Randy Gregory could be an impact player at defensive end, and Avery Moss is another exciting young prospect. Nebraska clearly needs a big season out of middle linebacker David Santos.


Adnan from Berkeley, Calif., writes: Do you expect the B1G to schedule games on a semi-regular basis at FedEx Field and MetLife Stadium for Maryland and Rutgers, respectively, when Michigan, OSU and PSU visit?

Adam Rittenberg: Always good to hear from my hometown, Adnan. The Big Ten doesn't schedule games for its schools but can assist with guidance, reaching out to venues, etc. Ultimately, Rutgers and Maryland must make those decisions. There are pros and cons to playing Michigan/Ohio State/Penn State at NFL venues. You get more exposure and attendance, but you lose the true home-field advantage that on-campus venues provide. It wouldn't surprise me at all to see Rutgers play a marquee opponent at MetLife Stadium. Maryland might be less likely to move games off campus, but it's certainly something to explore.


Chris from Louisville writes: Adam, are you doing the Big Ten Podcast this year? Really enjoyed it last year and hope it is continued this year. Can you please let me know?

Adam Rittenberg: Chris, unfortunately, the weekly Big Ten podcast won't continue this season. More of a production issue than anything else. We hope to restart it again in the future. The good news is that Brian and I will have similar elements on the blog -- you'll find out soon -- and we'll appear more regularly on the ESPNU podcasts with colleague Ivan Maisel.

SPONSORED HEADLINES