Big Ten: John Papuchis

LINCOLN, Neb. -- Nebraska defensive coordinator John Papuchis was 29-years-old when he received his first full-time coaching job in 2007, following Bo Pelini here from LSU.

Three years ago, Papuchis earned a promotion to defensive coordinator.

 The coach and his wife, Billie, are parents to four children, all born during their time in Lincoln, the youngest three days before the Huskers’ season-opener in August.

"My family, all they know is Nebraska,” said Papuchis, who will coach his last game at Nebraska on Saturday against USC in the National University Holiday Bowl (8 p.m. ET, ESPN). “One way or another, that’s coming to an end Saturday night. So if it’s going to come down to an ending, it might as well end on a good note.”

New Nebraska coach Mike Riley, introduced Dec. 5, has announced plans to retain secondary coach Charlton Warren. The remaining holdovers from the staff assembled by Pelini, who was fired on Nov. 30, are likely left to coach this week and leave.

Pelini is now the head coach at FCS-level Youngstown State.

The NCAA granted Nebraska a waiver that allows the old staff – under contract through January 2016 -- to run practices this month. Meanwhile, Riley’s hires, headquartered one floor above the football offices at Memorial Stadium, went to work on recruiting.

Difficult circumstances, for sure, said interim coach Barney Cotton, who worked with Pelini at Nebraska for the past seven seasons and in 2003 as the duo served under former coach Frank Solich as coordinators.

“I wish I could make it all go away,” Cotton said of the often-painful transition.

Cotton has accepted a position as offensive coordinator for new UNLV coach Tony Sanchez. Nebraska offensive line coach John Garrison is also headed to Las Vegas.

Papuchis is still looking, along with offensive coordinator Tim Beck. The remainder of the staff includes Rick Kaczenski (defensive line), Ross Els (linebackers), Ron Brown (running backs) and Rich Fisher (receivers).

“It’s been unique to say the least,” Beck said last week. “But I’m alive, and I get a chance to get out here and coach. I just coach. I enjoy it. I enjoy the kids. It’s what I do, and it’s all I know.”

In addition to Warren, Riley hired four assistants from his former school, Oregon State – defensive coordinator Mark Banker, linebackers coach Trent Bray, special teams coach Bruce Read and offensive line coach Mike Cavanaugh.

The new head coach watched the Huskers practice in Lincoln, and he said he’ll be an interested observer during the Holiday Bowl.

Meanwhile, the old staff is tasked to keep the Huskers focused for this game.

“The thing that I’ve tried to emphasize with the players,” Papuchis said, “in their career, they’ll only get four opportunities at the most to play in a bowl game. And every one of those opportunities, you’ve got to maximize and cherish.

“Despite all the things that are surrounding the program and however they felt about the transition, this is about them. The kids sometimes get lost in all the discussion.”

Papuchis, now 36, has tried to focus entirely this month on preparing Nebraska to face the 24th-ranked Trojans.

“I don’t ever want to cheat our players and cheat this program,” he said.

“At the same time, obviously, I’ve got four little ones and a family to take care of, so I’m trying to do the best I can as far as balancing what’s going to come after [Saturday] and what is taking place.”

Beck said he’s leaving Nebraska with no regrets.

“I think we did it with class,” the offensive coordinator said, “and I think we did it with humility, integrity. We are who we were from the beginning to the end. We’ve never changed. We’ve believed in each other and worked hard doing it.”

At Nebraska, Beck, the school’s highest-paid assistant at $700,000, and Papuchis worked in a spotlight that shone more brightly than on the position coaches. More of the same is likely on tap for Saturday, the first game for both without Pelini since 2007.

Papuchis said he’s “confident” about his future. And in this final game at Nebraska, he said, “there’s no real reason to be conservative.”

“I don’t mind saying this at all,” Papuchis said. “I look at this as an opportunity -- another chance to build on a résumé, to play a great team. And hopefully we have a good defensive showing, and that will help going forward.”
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LINCOLN, Neb. -- Some 46 hours before Nebraska athletic director Shawn Eichorst stepped out from behind the curtain of silence and explained his decision on Sunday to fire Bo Pelini as coach, the Huskers celebrated an emotional overtime victory at Iowa.

It marked the second-largest comeback in school history. Players and coaches rejoiced.

"We kept fighting and swinging and needed something good to happen," defensive coordinator John Papuchis said in the aftermath on Friday, "and something good did happen."

The athletic director's clear message at the end of this holiday weekend? Not good enough.

Credit Eichorst, in his second year at Nebraska, for removing the emotion of the regular-season-ending victory from his decision on Pelini. Credit him for recognizing that, if Nebraska expects to reach its desired position in the Big Ten and beyond, it's not about beating Iowa.

"In the final analysis," he said, "I had to evaluate where Iowa was."

The truth hurts. It hurts for Nebraska, too. Look, the Big Ten West is a hard place to thrive. It'll lull you to sleep, then punch you in the mouth. Nebraska's next coach will learn that lesson in time, but Eichorst on Sunday sent a strong message about his belief in the Huskers to advance as a program.

To rise above Iowa and Minnesota to the level of Wisconsin. And bid to go higher.

Eichorst ended his epidemic of silence, which -- in the face of uncertainty -- conveyed a vacuum of leadership.

He took a step in the right direction, dragging Nebraska toward a place it has not dared to venture in the past four years as a Big Ten program -- a place in which it thinks strategically about its place in college football.

Sure, Pelini said he wouldn't be satisfied until the Huskers won every game. But how did he plan to get there? And where was the progress?

The coach, in recent weeks, wouldn't discuss the big picture.

Eichorst demanded such talk on Sunday.

"We just, for whatever reason, weren't good enough in the games that mattered against championship-caliber opponents," Eichorst said. "And I didn't see that changing at the end of the day."

A bit shaky at the start on Sunday, Eichorst grew comfortable as he answered questions. He displayed leadership. He showed respect in the right moments. He illustrated that this matters to him, like it does to fans who have contributed to 340 consecutive sellouts.

He showed he has a vision. Some Nebraskans had begun to wonder.

Asked how he plans to unite the fan base in this period of trepidation, Eichorst said he would do it through communication.

It's a vow worth remembering.

"I'm compassionate about that," Eichorst said. "This isn't a day of celebration for me. We've got a lot of good, young people in our program who are hurting. And I get that. My focus needs to be on that."

Pelini's players, former and current, chimed in loudly on Sunday.




Recruits Kendall Bussey, a star running back out of Louisiana, offensive lineman Mirko Jurkovic and receiver Stanley Morgan, reportedly decommitted on Sunday.

The healing process may take a while. Nebraska will likely step back before Pelini's successor creates an opportunity to break through the 10-win ceiling in place since 2001.

More than ever, Nebraska needs strong leadership.

"The people of Nebraska deserve not only high standards and expectations," Eichorst said, "but they deserve seeing our people and our teams reach them."

Pelini's teams won 40 of 42 games since 2008 against opponents that finished at .500 or worse. They lost 25 of 51 games against winning teams, went 4-9 since 2011 against ranked foes, and lost by 20 points or more 10 times.

Not good enough, said Eichorst, who won't hire a search firm to help him find a new coach.

Asked if he was concerned over how coaching candidates might view a program that fired a coach with Pelini's nine- and 10-win history, Eichorst sounded irritated at the suggestion.

"No," he said.

Right answer.

Now is not the time for excuses. Now is not the time to hide among the Big Ten West, where Illinois issued a statement of support on Sunday for coach Tim Beckman after a 6-6 finish in his third year. Now is not the time to gauge your program against Iowa, where the status quo reigns after a 7-5 finish under a coach in his 16th season.

"This is what's best for the university," Eichorst said in a decisive tone to open his remarks Sunday.

He started on a strong note.

For the sake of the program's future, Nebraska needs its athletic director to stay strong and lead.
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It was always going to end amid controversy for Bo Pelini at Nebraska.

The extremes defined his tenure in Lincoln. There was no middle ground with Pelini. In the final days, you either loved him or you were done with him. The fiery coach, a product of his blue-collar hometown of Youngstown, Ohio, was a lightning rod -- a walking, talking paradox -- in his time at Nebraska.

Pelini, fired Sunday by Nebraska athletic director Shawn Eichorst, won more than any coach at the school over a comparable period. But he lost four games in each of his first six seasons. The man to whom all other coaches at Nebraska are compared, Tom Osborne -- the man who hired Pelini -- never lost more than three games in his 25 years.

Pelini’s consistency was nearly unmatched. Only Alabama and Oregon can equal Nebraska’s nine-plus wins in each season since 2008. But the losses were big, often in blowout fashion.

Consistent yet volatile. It's a bad mix anywhere, especially in conservative Nebraska.

The high moments were aplenty in Pelini’s time. He graduated his players. He largely ran a clean program. His players represented Nebraska well in the community. And they loved their coach.

The Huskers, on his watch, played with a determination that usually served them well in pressure spots, evidenced by his final moments on the field Friday at Iowa as Nebraska roared back from a 17-point deficit in the second half to win 37-34 in overtime.

Yet he never won a conference title. He never led Nebraska to a major bowl game. He was known as much as anything for his red-hot demeanor -- on the sideline and in interviews. There was the video last year in which he criticized Nebraska fans. It all hurt.

His program appeared to lack direction in the Big Ten years. It never forged an identity outside the dramatic wins and crushing defeats.

On Monday, as Pelini left his weekly news conference, a terse meeting with reporters who sought answers the coach could not deliver, he saw freshman De'Mornay Pierson-El waiting to take his turn in front of the cameras.

Pierson-El, eyes cast down, had lost two fumbles in range of Nebraska touchdowns 48 hours prior in a crushing, four-point home loss to Minnesota on Senior Day.

Pelini grabbed Pierson-El by the shoulders and captured his gaze. Don’t feel bad, the coach said. Don’t even think about it.

On Friday at Iowa, four days later, Pierson-El returned a punt 80 yards for a touchdown in Nebraska’s comeback and set up another second-half score with a long return. He was a hero, energized by his coach.

“Coach Pelini just trusted in me and got me to snap out of things and think of the bigger picture,” Pierson-El said. “That’s just one moment. There are so many more like it with him.”

But in the end, this discussion was black-and-white, a common Pelini saying. No middle ground.

“Every season is like an epic,” Nebraska defensive coordinator John Papuchis said as he exited the tunnel outside Nebraska’s locker room Friday at Kinnick Stadium.

So true. In fact, the wild ride sealed Pelini’s fate. The roller coaster crashed. It was always going to.

There were too many highs and lows. Too much volatility -- in the coach and the team that mirrored him.

Old debate, hard decisions face Nebraska

November, 17, 2014
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They’ll line up on opposite sides this week in Nebraska, fans and media and anyone with an opinion -- with seventh-year Cornhuskers head coach Bo Pelini in the middle -- and trade angry shots.

The argument is futile and redundant, and it nearly ripped this football program in half a year ago. Yet for the fourth straight season, it’s unfolding, with a little more exasperation and resentment each November or December.

Remember those good vibes in the offseason as Pelini showed his playful side? Turns out, it was never more than a distraction. The seemingly timeless debate is back: Support Pelini for his consistent winning ways and unwavering loyalty or skewer him for the Huskers’ repeated flops on the big stage.

The latest, a 59-24 defeat Saturday at Wisconsin in which Melvin Gordon rushed for an FBS-record 408 yards and the Badgers outgained Nebraska 627 yards to 180, destroyed momentum from the Huskers’ eight wins in nine games to open this season.

Since Pelini arrived in 2008, Nebraska has lost 10 games by 20 points or more. It has allowed 45 points or more six times since the 2011 move to the Big Ten. Wisconsin has twice set the all-time rushing record by a Nebraska opponent and won three of four games against the Huskers by an average of 35 points.

Next will come the calls for Pelini to revamp his coaching staff. Major change is unlikely. Pelini showed last year he would rather be fired than disassemble the group around him.

As the drama progresses, inevitably, a big-name coach or commentator will issue this advice to the Pelini detractors:

Be careful for what you wish. Dozens of programs with more natural advantages than Nebraska would gladly trade spots with the Huskers, who need one victory to reach the nine-win plateau for the seventh time in seven seasons under Pelini. Don’t take for granted such success, says the narrative, and, oh, stop living in the 1990s. Your days of dominating college football are gone and never coming back.

Such an argument is comically out of touch with reality at Nebraska, where repeated embarrassments in meaningful moments are threatening to steal the soul from a proud program and its passionate fans.

Media in attendance for the Saturday debacle in Madison offered strong words, all of them justified. Wrote Omaha World-Herald columnist Tom Shatel of Pelini:
    Yes, he’s won a bunch of games. But Pelini’s era is defined by victories you don’t remember and losses that you do.

From Steven M. Sipple of the Lincoln Journal Star:
    The latest embarrassment is frankly inexplicable for a program with Nebraska's wide array of resources and energy poured into the program.

And the World-Herald’s Dirk Chatelain on the post-Wisconsin comment of defensive coordinator John Papuchis that the next game, Saturday in Lincoln against Minnesota, would reveal much about the Huskers:
    No. No. A thousand times no. ... These are the games that MATTER. These are the days that define a coach and his program.

Nebraska football is officially in a dangerous place. Its reputation nationally has absorbed hit after hit, dipping after Saturday perhaps to its lowest point of Pelini’s time at the school.

Nebraska athletic director Shawn Eichorst, a protégé of Wisconsin’s Barry Alvarez, no doubt felt uncomfortable in the return to his old home.

But the second-year boss in Lincoln stays notably quiet, especially in these times.

A year ago, Nebraska struggled to the finish, losing by three touchdowns to Iowa in a regular-season finale overshadowed by speculation about the coach’s job security. Eichorst said nothing in public until the morning after that game. Most observers interpreted his silence to mean Pelini was in trouble.

The coach appeared to believe it, too -- or maybe he was just sick of the scrutiny. Regardless, it's coming back.

And it's more clear than ever that leaders at Nebraska face a decision. Maintain the stability in place or risk change to make a run at the top in the College Football Playoff era?

The choice is up to Pelini, unless Eichorst makes it for him.

The 46-year-old coach, resolute as ever, said on Saturday that he would not engage in “big picture” conversation.

Nebraska is inching closer to that tipping point, where the school and the fans, who ultimately pay Pelini’s salary, demand some attention paid to the big picture over the comfort of another nine-win season.

Two reasons to believe in Nebraska

October, 1, 2014
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LINCOLN, Neb. -- You’ve heard it all before about Nebraska, the program that wants more than any other in the country to reclaim a lost identity.

You’ve heard about how the Cornhuskers have not defeated a top-10 team on the road since 1997.

You’ve heard about how now is the moment, about how the chance sits front and center to make a statement.

Yet every time over the past decade-plus, that moment ended in disappointment -- against USC, Texas, Oklahoma, Wisconsin, UCLA, even Michigan State last year in Lincoln.

[+] EnlargeAmeer Abdullah
Eric Francis/Getty ImagesAmeer Abdullah has three 200-yard rushing games this season.
When Nebraska beat the Badgers, Ohio State and Michigan in recent years, none was ranked higher than 20th. Georgia, last year in the Gator Bowl, was rated No. 23. The wins felt good, sure, but did little to distinguish Nebraska as a real contender.

Opportunity is here again as the Huskers visit No. 10 Michigan State on Saturday night (8 ET, ABC), one win from a 6-0 start for the first time since 2001. With a victory, Nebraska, barring a big upset, would go to Wisconsin on Nov. 15 at 9-0 as a legitimate player in the race for the College Football Playoff.

“We all understand what’s at stake,” Nebraska defensive coordinator John Papuchis said.

The Huskers’ 5-0 start has been met nationally with a collective eye roll. There’s the mediocre competition, the ugly Big Ten reputation, the four-loss-a-year history of coach Bo Pelini and, well, this program’s penchant to fall flat in moments like the one before it on Saturday.

Theories abound in Nebraska on what makes it different this year. The Huskers on defense are solid up front. They’re committed to the running game. The leadership is improved.

Here’s what I know is different: At nearly every key moment on Saturday night in East Lansing, with apologies to the Big Ten’s top QB, Connor Cook, the best player on the field will be wearing a Nebraska uniform. That matters.

I-back Ameer Abdullah and defensive end Randy Gregory give the Huskers a chance. In Abdullah and Gregory, Nebraska has arguably the best offensive and defensive players in the Big Ten.

They demand attention from the Spartans. Both are extraordinary talents, though somewhat unintroduced to the nation, which doesn’t believe that it wants to invest again in Nebraska football.

They offer reason to believe. Abdullah and Gregory change games in ways not seen at Nebraska since Eric Crouch and Ndamukong Suh, one of whom won the Heisman Trophy and the other who came close as a defensive tackle.

Nebraska had a special talent in former quarterback Taylor Martinez. When healthy, he was just as electric as Abdullah. But Abdullah, a rare two-time captain, inspires hope among teammates like so few players.

And old coaching axiom says when a team’s best player is also its hardest working, you’ve got something special. That is Abdullah defined. He carried Nebraska to victory against Miami and thwarted a major upset against McNeese State with perhaps the most incredible individual effort in college football this season.

Abdullah leads the nation in rushing this fall with 833 yards through five games, on pace to break the career mark of Mike Rozier, long considered unattainable. Behind Abdullah, Nebraska has carved an identity for its offense: In the past two games, the Huskers have rushed the football 124 times, tops nationally, for 801 yards.

On Abdullah, Pelini cautions that it’s the beginning of October.

“I don’t know how it’s going to go,” the coach said, “but I can tell you one thing. Right now, he is playing at an extremely high level.”

Gregory is an even more unusual specimen. After missing the first two games with a knee injury, he eased into action at Fresno State on Sept. 6, then exploded with 4.5 sacks in the past two games.

But his impact far exceeds the numbers. Gregory baffled Illinois last week by lining up at multiple spots among the front seven.

“By moving him around,” fellow defensive end Greg McMullen said, “it only adds more attention.”

Offensive linemen search for him before every snap. Imagine the mindset of a quarterback.

“He’s a missile going through there,” Papuchis said. “He reads people. He reads it fast and hits it hard.”

At 6-foot-5 and 245 pounds, he runs more like a safety than a lineman. After Nate Gerry's third-quarter interception against Illinois, in fact, Gregory delivered a devastating block 20 yards down field of Illini receiver Malik Turner.

The Huskers will continue to use Gregory in creative ways.

Until Nebraska breaks through in a game like this, reasons exist to doubt it. Abdullah and Gregory offer hope that it ends differently this time.

Nebraska could be Big Ten's best shot

September, 22, 2014
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LINCOLN, Neb. -- Think of Nebraska as a football program that fell into a 15-foot hole, shallow enough to see the light from above but too deep to climb out easily.

For the sake of this discussion, let’s say the Cornhuskers disappeared from ground level -- the plane on which championships are contested -- on a January night in 2002, courtesy of a swift uppercut from the Miami Hurricanes.

Several times, this program has scaled the slippery walls, seemingly ready to leap out before Texas or Oklahoma or Wisconsin shoved it back into the darkness. With each fall, the likelihood of another fast climb diminished.

[+] EnlargeAmeer Abdullah
Eric Francis/Getty ImagesAmeer Abdullah rushed for 229 yards and two touchdowns as the Huskers pounded Miami.
On Saturday night, as most of the nation focused elsewhere, the Huskers reached a collective hand over the edge of that hole and grabbed hold of flat ground.

Nebraska is 4-0, its first unbeaten nonconference finish since 2011, after a 41-31 win over its postseason rival from the glory years in Lincoln. The Huskers churned for 343 rushing yards and generally pummeled Miami, save for the first and last five minutes at Memorial Stadium.

Now, this was not vintage Miami. And Nebraska still needed a last-minute escape this month to beat McNeese State.

But the Huskers, who open Big Ten play on Saturday at home against Illinois, look set to head to Michigan State as an underdog next week with a chance to make a major statement.

It’s too soon, yes, to declare that Nebraska gives the Big Ten its best chance at the College Football Playoff. Nebraska hovers on the far edge of the national radar. But a win in East Lansing would distinguish it as a contender.

Are the Huskers ready to carry the torch for the Big Ten at the end of the league's dispiriting month?

“Our goal is to win them all,” defensive tackle Maliek Collins said. “We’re just going to take the momentum and keep going with this.”

ESPN’s Football Power Index gives Nebraska a 1.1 percent chance to win out. The Huskers’ probability to win the Big Ten, according to the FPI, is 9.3 percent. By comparison, Wisconsin sits at 40.1 percent, which makes the Badgers a huge favorite in the West. And Nebraska must visit Madison in November.

“We’ve got four tough road games in the conference,” defensive coordinator John Papuchis said on Saturday night. “Hopefully, the resolve that we showed [against Miami] will translate when we go on the road. It’s going to be a battle all the way through, but I think our offense is good enough to score points on anyone. And I think we’re good enough to stop anyone that we play.”

The Huskers showed that resolve twice in the second half on Saturday as fights erupted following interceptions of Miami QB Brad Kaaya.

The first pick was overturned by a roughing-the-passer penalty. Nebraska stiffened defensively to force a field goal. After the second scuffle, Nebraska marched 40 yards for a touchdown to go up 17 with less than five minutes to play, icing the win.

“We just played as Nebraska plays,” left tackle Alex Lewis said. “We didn’t care about Miami.”

The Huskers remain deficient at spots on defense. Quarterback Tommy Armstrong Jr. has performed spectacularly at moments, but his consistency must improve.

Still, reasons exist to believe Nebraska will respond differently to adversity this season. The Huskers have broken even in the turnover category after forcing three against Miami, a huge improvement. Special teams look solid, another important change over last year.

Primarily, though, Nebraska has Ameer Abdullah, who offers an answer in most every situation. He ran for 229 yards against Miami, “a man possessed,” according to coach Bo Pelini.

“Our running game is what won this football game for us,” Pelini said. “That’s what Nebraska football is all about.”

Abdullah, a two-year captain, provides a strong voice in the locker room. His message to the Huskers as the Miami game approached figures to apply for as long as the Huskers continue to play well.

“Don’t believe the hype,” Abdullah said. “Don’t buy into anything that you hear.”

Miami poked the bear and paid for it on Saturday, said Papuchis, the defensive coordinator. We’ll learn soon if that bear is ready to crawl out of his hole.

Big Ten morning links

August, 11, 2014
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(Welcome to a new incarnation of the links, which have expanded and moved from lunchtime to the morning. With our apologies to Buster Olney).

With a little more than a week of preseason practice in the books at most Big Ten campuses, it's too early to say which teams are having the best August so far. But we can definitely point to the team that had the toughest opening week-plus in the league: Nebraska.

In a three-day period, the Cornhuskers lost three potential starters on defense. First, projected starting nickel back Charles Jackson went down with a season-ending knee injury. The nickel position has grown in stature with the rise of spread offenses, and Ciante Evans showed how important it can be in Nebraska's system the past couple of years.

A day after Jackson's injury, coach Bo Pelini announced that safety LeRoy Alexander, who was battling for a starting job, would be suspended for the season. Then on Friday night, linebacker Michael Rose-Ivey informed the world via Instagram -- and later confirmed by Pelini -- that he would miss the season with a torn ACL.

Ouch.

Much of the optimism around Nebraska this season stemmed from what fans saw as potentially the best defense under Pelini during the Huskers' run in the Big Ten. The offense has a lot of potential, especially if quarterback Tommy Armstrong Jr. can step forward. But defensive breakdowns have haunted Big Red in some of their biggest Big Ten games.

Rose-Ivey, who appeared to be really improving, is probably the easiest to replace, as defensive coordinator John Papuchis has a deep well of linebackers to call upon. Josh Banderas likely takes over his spot.

It's a little murkier in the secondary, where junior college transfer Byerson Cockrell now likely takes on an even larger role, and Nathan Gerry -- who played linebacker as a freshman in 2013 -- must make the adjustment to safety.

The Lincoln Journal Star's Steven M. Sipple remains optimistic about the Nebraska defense despite the injuries.
"There's been predictable overreaction," Sipple writes. "But to say the three losses have decimated Nebraska's defense would be a significant overstatement. I spoke with Pelini late Saturday afternoon. As one might expect, he retained confidence. He said there was no reason to start holding anything back schematically. All systems go, he said.

"The Huskers still look excellent in the front seven and possess better-than-decent overall talent and depth in the secondary, but a handful of newcomers will have to step up quickly."

These injuries shouldn't make or break the Huskers' season. Pelini has built depth on that side of the ball. But that depth has taken a shot to its broad side, and Nebraska needs good health the rest of training camp or else some of that early optimism could start to fade.

Depth chart stuff
  • This has the makings of a potentially incredible story: Tom Hruby, a 32-year-old active Navy SEAL, is trying to walk on to Northwestern's team as a defensive end, Seth Gruen writes.
"I don’t feel like where I’m at today is some outstanding or amazing thing," Hruby told the Chicago Sun-Times. "It’s just more of a challenging route ... the way I kind of think about finding and accepting and trying to take on these challenges that most people would probably say are impossible, one, or very unlikely or just plain dumb."
Bumps and bruises
Weekend scrimmages
West Division
East Division

Big Ten lunch links

July, 31, 2014
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It wouldn't even take me a day to get this entire playbook down pat ...
LINCOLN, Neb. -- Nebraska has yet to release an update on junior offensive lineman Ryne Reeves, who experienced pain in his neck and was removed from the practice field by stretcher on Wednesday.

Cornhuskers coach Bo Pelini described the actions to immobilize Reeves, who did not lose any feeling or ability to move, as precautionary.

“Let’s hope it turns out to be that,” Pelini said, “very precautionary.”

Reeves, bidding to start at center next season, received the most extensive playing time of his career late last season because of multiple injuries on the offensive line.

The Huskers worked out in full pads. They will scrimmage at Memorial Stadium on Thursday, reaching the halfway point of spring practice before a break until March 31.

Pelini said he wants his players to treat the Thursday workout like another practice and “not get freaked out because it’s a scrimmage situation.”

“It’s taking what they’ve been coached and apply it,” he said. “It’s about executing what we’re asking you to do.”

At nearly the midpoint of spring drills, Pelini said he’s pleased with the team’s focus.

“I think our guys are a lot more to the point where they know what to do,” the coach said. “Now, we’ve got to get into the details. I’m seeing progress on both sides. I’m seeing guys who are competing.”

Also from Wednesday at Nebraska practice:
  • Iowa State offensive coordinator Mark Mangino attended the afternoon workout. Nebraska defensive coordinator John Papuchis and offensive coordinator Tim Beck coached on Mangino’s former staff at Kansas. Pelini also knows Mangino well.

    “He wanted to come over and see what we were doing,” Pelini said, “how we do some things. It gave us a chance to pick his brain a little bit. He’s a heck of a football coach and a good man.”

    Before going to work for Paul Rhoads at Iowa State, Mangino coached as an assistant for two years at FCS-level Youngstown State in Pelini’s Ohio hometown.

  • A key to spring progress in the Nebraska secondary involves the emergence of a strong candidate to replace Ciante Evans at the nickel position. The Huskers hoped it could be Charles Jackson, who has struggled to practice well enough earn playing time at safety and cornerback the past two seasons. So far, Jackson looks the part. So what’s he done differently?

    “Not taking a day off and just paying attention,” Jackson said. “Watching film, watching angles people take every single day. Once you get in that mentality to watch film and get out there and translate it all into the game, it becomes a lot more natural.”

  • The shift of sophomore Nathan Gerry from linebacker to safety is more than a spring experiment.

    “I feel really good about our linebacker spot,” Pelini said, “and I love the way he’s playing at safety right now.”

    Gerry has worked with the No. 1 defense alongside LeRoy Alexander in the absence of returning starter Corey Cooper, who remains out with a foot injury.


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.

Gregory keys Husker D in homecoming

October, 12, 2013
10/12/13
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WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. -- Everyone wanted a piece of Randy Gregory earlier this week, so much so that the Nebraska defensive end could only say "probably around 15" when asked how many friends and family members he knew Saturday in the Ross-Ade Stadium stands.

A short while earlier, he had looked right back at home while walking off the field, serenaded with a chorus of "GRE-GO-RY!" cheers by a whole lot more than 15 of the Cornhusker faithful, thousands of whom had turned this venue into Memorial Stadium East and waited until the end to soak in every minute of a defensive performance long in the making.

Gregory's homecoming was a success on all fronts, with the nearby Fishers, Ind., native making plays that had to have made any locals who remained for the second half shake their heads at the one who got away.

The one-time Purdue commit wreaked havoc on the Boilermakers, forcing and recovering a fumble and recording two sacks, including a safety, in Nebraska's commanding 44-7 win here. He added another sack in the fourth quarter, too, but that one was brought back because of an offsides penalty.

[+] EnlargeRandy Gregory
Joe Robbins/Getty ImagesNebraska DE Randy Gregory recovers a fumble against Purdue in the Cornhuskers' 44-7 victory on the road.
Forgive him for being a little anxious. This was his first time delivering blows to the home team inside this building.

"It's big. We've always been known as the Blackshirts, and I think the coaches, I know I have, and some of the other guys were waiting for us to really play together and start playing like the Blackshirts that everyone knows," Gregory said. "These last few weeks are big for us -- how we want to play for the rest of the season."

To be clear, this was against the Boilermakers, who had beaten only FCS Indiana State this year, who had entered Saturday with the nation's No. 117 offense -- 112th in scoring -- and who had just turned over control to quarterback Danny Etling.

But the Huskers did not make life easy for the true freshman in his first career start, picking off Etling once and limiting him to 14-for-35 passing for 184 yards -- 55 of which came on a touchdown pass to DeAngelo Yancey with 39 seconds left, ruining Nebraska's shot at its first Big Ten shutout.

"I thought it was great," head coach Bo Pelini said of the defense. "We really were about three quarters and about 14-and-a-half minutes, but that last one was unfortunate."

Still, Nebraska weathered the early-season storm of fielding a young defense and has now opened Big Ten play by holding consecutive opponents to less than 20 points, with a bye week and then a trip to Minnesota on the docket before a Nov. 2 Legends Division rendezvous with Northwestern.

Defensive coordinator John Papuchis knew this was going to be a work-in-progress from the get-go, and he has found himself liking what he sees a whole lot more.

"On track," Papuchis said when asked if the unit had exceeded expectations so far. "I think when you look at some of the games, there were some things that we would've liked to have done better, but I think we're kind of where I thought we would be about half-way through. And being 2-0 in the Big Ten and 5-1 overall -- obviously our expectations are always to be perfect, but I feel pretty good about where we're at."

He can thank Gregory for that, with the defensive coordinator saying that players like the 6-foot-6, 255-pound end make the staff better coaches.

Gregory's first big play came mid-way through the second quarter, turning the momentum by drilling Purdue rung back Dalyn Dawkins and recovering the loose ball, just one play after the Huskers watched corner Stanley Jean-Baptiste get tossed on a controversial targeting penalty. Ameer Abdullah rushed for a 28-yard score on the next play to make it 21-0. With the lead up to 28-0 mid-way late in the third, Gregory chased Etling a whopping 17 yards back into the end zone for a safety.

Three Etling snaps later, and the rookie was again on the ground because of Gregory, this time for an 11-yard loss.

"Randy's kind of an even-keeled guy," defensive line coach Rick Kaczenski said. "He's just kind of business as usual, and so that's what you want in a guy. You don't want a guy too high, you don't want a guy getting too low. And I think that helps with him being a mature guy, an older guy, even though it's his first year."

Two years at Arizona Western Community College, coupled with a Purdue coaching change, placed Gregory on Nebraska's side here Saturday, playing some 70 miles or so away from home.

Ron Kellogg III stood by after the game when Gregory made a late exit from the locker room and was met by a throng of reporters, with the quarterback jokingly begging the day's star for a shout out.

Gregory had slightly more important people to please nearby before heading back to Lincoln.

"I think there are a few of them over at the buses right now I'm trying to get to," Gregory said of his family members. "I didn't see them in the stands, but I knew they were out there supporting me, and it was big for me."
Defensively, for Nebraska this season, two categories exist in surrendering chunks of yardage: There are simply big plays, and there are big plays with catastrophic results.

In the Huskers’ Big Ten opener last week against Illinois, a 39-19 Nebraska victory, the Blackshirts progressed little in limiting the big play. But, the frequency of disastrous plays diminished significantly.

Nebraska continues to rank in the bottom 8 percent among FBS schools in allowing gains of 10 yards or more. Illinois accumulated 17 -- just two fewer than the Huskers’ defensive average through four games -- to bring the total for the season to 96. That’s 114th nationally.

[+] EnlargeCiante Evans
Eric Francis/Getty ImagesCiante Evans and the Blackshirts made some timely plays to keep Illinois in check.
What you didn’t see last week at Memorial Stadium, though, was the domino effect so prevalent in non-conference play, in particular on Sept. 14 against UCLA, when the Huskers collapsed in allowing the final 38 points of the game. Against Wyoming and South Dakota State, too, problems snowballed for the defense.

“It’s small, baby steps to give these guys some confidence,” defensive line coach Rick Kaczenski said.

Coaches asked their players in the two weeks that followed the Huskers’ 59-20 win over South Dakota State to let go of the bad thoughts.

If you make a mistake on the field, forget about it. If the offense makes a mistake, let it go.

“Don’t look at the JumboTron,” Kaczenski said. “Don’t worry about it. We can’t ride the highs and lows of the offense. We’ve got to concentrate on what we’re doing.

“We signed up for this gig, too. Go put the fire out.”

The Huskers did just that on defense against the Illini, which averaged 478.5 yards before the trip to Lincoln. Nebraska held it to 372.

But it’s not necessarily the yardage that matters; it’s how the Illini got its yards. And when.

Notably, Nebraska held Illinois when it needed stops. Here are three examples from the first half:

  • The Illini drove inside the Huskers’ 25 late in the first quarter after Nebraska jumped on top 14-0. On third-and-7, defensive end Jason Ankrah sacked Nathan Scheelhaase for a 4-yard loss. Next play, Scheelhaase fired a strike to Steve Hull, who was met over the middle by Stanley Jean-Baptiste, whose hit jarred the ball loose to end a scoring threat.
  • Early in the second quarter after the Huskers made it 17-0, Illinois marched from its 8 to the Nebraska 6. It faced just one third down, on which Scheelhaase needed 12 yards and scrambled for 17. But on first-and-goal, cornerback Ciante Evans hit Donovonn Young for a 3-yard loss. Evans sacked the quarterback for an 11-yard loss on third down to force a field goal.
  • Leading 23-3, Nebraska endured a brain cramp in the shadow of its goal line, utilizing Imani Cross on a wide run. Illinois linebacker Houston Bates nailed Cross for a safety, and suddenly Illinois had momentum with less than two minutes to play before halftime. The Illini started near midfield but went nowhere as Nebraska linebacker David Santos made an open-field tackle of Josh Ferguson then pressured Scheelhaase into a third-down incompletion.

“Sometimes, in the course of a game, plays get lost in the shuffle,” Nebraska defensive coordinator John Papuchis said. “I thought we did a nice job kind of standing up when they got in the red zone, not breaking at that point.”

The defensive stops prevented Illinois from chopping into Nebraska’s lead. Once the Huskers drove 75 yards in four plays to score on the opening possession of the third quarter, the game was out of reach.

“I think we played a lot more confident, a lot more loose out there on defense,” linebacker Michael Rose said. “We gave up a lot of plays to (South Dakota State) that were head scratchers. There comes a time when enough is enough. Someone’s got to step up and make a play. That’s the attitude we took.”

Coach Bo Pelini said he credits some of the improvement at key moments to better communication.

“We got to the point where we, as a staff, got fed up with it,” Pelini said. “We demanded that we expect to see 11 guys talking on every single play. Eleven guys. And if you’re not talking, you’re coming out. I said, ‘Try it for a day.’ I think they found out what a difference it makes.”

Still, the Huskers rank 98th nationally in total defense (445.4 yards per game), 102nd in yards allowed per play (6.15), 118th in first down per game (25.4) and 90th in yards per pass attempt (7.92).

But they were looking for some sign of improvement. Against Illinois, they got it by avoiding disasters. As Pelini said on Monday, “it shouldn’t get to that point” where the Huskers sit on the brink. That’s a challenge for this week as Nebraska prepares for its trip to Purdue.

“When it was time to bow up, they did,” Kaczenski said. “That’s good. That’s the stuff you preach. You’ve got to walk the walk. These are steppingstones, and you take small strides.”

Defensive woes loom large at Nebraska

September, 23, 2013
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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.
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
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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.

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