Chicago Colleges: Alonzo Whaley

Huskers confront 'Cats, defensive demons

October, 17, 2012
10/17/12
3:29
PM CT
Saturday's game against Northwestern gives Nebraska's defense another chance to confront all of its demons.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Big Ten power rankings: Week 6

October, 1, 2012
10/01/12
9:00
AM CT
The Big Ten still is a mostly muddled mess after the first Saturday of league play. While Penn State made a statement and Iowa showed it shouldn't be counted out, few other squads looked truly impressive in Week 5. Wisconsin looked better than it has but still fell at Nebraska, and while Michigan State came close against Ohio State, the Spartans still haven't turned the corner on offense.

There's no shuffling at the top and very little separation throughout the rankings. Although both Wisconsin and Michigan State fall, while Penn State rises, you can slide a sheet of paper between these teams. Ohio State remains at the top but will be tested this week by Nebraska.

Let's get to the rundown ...

1. Ohio State (5-0, 1-0 Big Ten, last week: 1): It's not easy to overcome three turnovers on the road, but the Buckeyes received enough magic from quarterback Braxton Miller and solid play along both lines at Michigan State. Linebacker Etienne Sabino stepped up in a big way for the defense. Urban Meyer's team has its flaws, but it can still win a lot of games in a flawed Big Ten. Ohio State showed it can win a big road game. Nebraska provides a nice test this week.

2. Nebraska (4-1, 1-0 Big Ten, last week: 2): After a miserable start against Wisconsin, Nebraska rallied from 17 points down in the third quarter to record a win it absolutely had to have. It tied the second-largest comeback in team history, and provided Taylor Martinez and the offense some confidence heading to Ohio State. The Huskers are loaded with offensive weapons and received terrific linebacker play from Will Compton, Alonzo Whaley and Sean Fisher. They still put the ball on the ground too much, though, and can't afford another slow start in Columbus.

3. Northwestern (5-0, 1-0 Big Ten, last week: 3): Thanks to Kain Colter, Northwestern remained perfect on the season and starts 5-0 for the third time in five years. The concern is that the Wildcats once again couldn't finish off a team after storming out to a 27-0 lead. No lead is truly safe with Northwestern, and while the defense has been very good most of the season, it needs to limit bad quarters like the third on Saturday. This is a young, maturing team that continues to win, but the tests get tougher beginning this week at red-hot Penn State.

4. Michigan (2-2, last week: 5): In this year's sputtering Big Ten, sometimes it pays off not to play. Michigan moves up in the rankings after Purdue struggled to hold off Marshall on Saturday. There's not much separating the Wolverines and the Boilers, and we'll find out the superior team this week when they meet at Ross-Ade Stadium. Michigan's defense took a nice step at Notre Dame, but as usual, the team's fortunes likely rest on how quarterback Denard Robinson performs.

5. Purdue (3-1, last week: 4): After storming out to a 42-14 halftime lead, Purdue had to hold on to win a shootout against Marshall and thus drop a spot. Although the Boilers won't face another passing offense quite like Marshall's this season, they have to be a bit concerned about their defense, which surrendered 439 passing yards and 534 total yards. Purdue faces another spread-ish offense -- and certainly a spread-ish quarterback in Michigan's Robinson -- this week in West Lafayette. The Michigan game begins a defining stretch for Danny Hope's crew.

6. Penn State (3-2, 1-0, last week: 9): The Big Ten's hottest team makes the biggest move of the week, rising three spots after another impressive win against Illinois. Linebacker Michael Mauti is leading a revived defense, while quarterback Matt McGloin continues to perform well in the new offense. You can't say enough about the job Bill O'Brien has done in his first season as Lions coach. Penn State faces its biggest test since the season opener this week against Northwestern before a challenging stretch with three of four on the road.

7. Michigan State (3-2, 0-1, last week: 5): The Spartans lost to Ohio State by only a point and were burned by a premature whistle that killed a potential fumble return for a touchdown. Then again, Michigan State had numerous opportunities to beat Ohio State and held a plus-3 turnover margin on its home field. The offense simply isn't coming together well enough, as good passing Saturday was offset by an invisible Le'Veon Bell. We still think the Spartans can make a run for the Big Ten title, but they haven't looked impressive in the early going.

8. Wisconsin (3-2, 0-1, last week: 8): For a half and change, it looked like Wisconsin would make a major move up the power rankings. The Badgers came out hot against Nebraska and took a big lead behind the inspired play of linebacker Chris Borland and the poise of quarterback Joel Stave in his first career road start. But the same problem that plagued the Badgers in the first four weeks -- flimsy offensive line play -- coupled with a defense that couldn't keep pace with Martinez led to a crushing defeat. Wisconsin still can take some pluses from Saturday night. It needs to take another step this week against Illinois before next week's showdown at Purdue.

9. Iowa (3-2, 1-0, last week: 11): Besides maybe Illinois, no team needed a win in Week 5 more than the Hawkeyes, and they delivered in a big way. Iowa took control from the get-go against Minnesota and brought home the bacon to fill its long-empty trophy case. Running back Mark Weisman continues to be one of the Big Ten's best early season stories, and the Hawkeyes' defense responded well from a poor performance against Central Michigan, receiving great play from the linebackers. An open week comes at a good time before Iowa resumes play at Michigan State.

10. Minnesota (4-1, 0-1, last week: 7): Week 5 brought a reality check of sorts for Minnesota, which never really challenged Iowa and lost the Floyd of Rosedale for the first time since 2009. As coach Jerry Kill said Sunday, the Gophers really need top quarterback MarQueis Gray (ankle) to get healthy, as backup Max Shortell had three interceptions at Iowa. More unsettling was the play of Minnesota's defense, which couldn't stop Weisman. The Gophers can regroup during the bye week before their league home opener against Northwestern.

11. Indiana (2-2, 0-1, last week: 10): Credit the Hoosiers for fighting back at Northwestern and making it a one-possession game in the fourth quarter. Indiana has some serious talent at wide receiver with Kofi Hughes and Cody Latimer, both of whom made circus catches Saturday. The Hoosiers also saw some good signs in their run game. But again, the defense continues to struggle mightily, surrendering more than 700 yards to the Wildcats. Until IU can defend like a Big Ten team, it won't win a Big Ten game.

12. Illinois (2-3, 0-1, last week: 12): Oy vey. If we could drop Illinois to 13th, we would. Tim Beckman's program is in complete disarray just five weeks into his first season. From the turnovers to the special teams miscues to a supposedly elite defense showing cracks each week, Illinois is in a tailspin. The Illini really needed to build some confidence at home. Instead, they're going to have to get it together on the road against Wisconsin and then Michigan. There's a lot of talent in Champaign, but once again, it doesn't seem to matter.

Big Ten helmet stickers: Week 5

September, 30, 2012
9/30/12
9:00
AM CT
Recognizing the best and brightest from around the Big Ten in Week 5. This week's stickers have a defensive flavor to them ...
  • Penn State LB Michael Mauti: He has been the Big Ten's best linebacker this season and arguably the league's best defender, and he turned in his best performance in a 35-7 rout of Illinois. Mauti recorded two interceptions, returning one for 99 yards to set a new team record for longest interception return. He added six tackles, including a half-sack, as the Lions swarmed the Illini. Mauti has 48 tackles, including 1.5 sacks, to go along with two interceptions, two forced fumbles and a fumble recovery this season.
  • Northwestern QB/WR Kain Colter: One of the nation's most versatile players had quite a day against Indiana as Northwestern racked up a team-record 704 yards in the 44-29 win. Colter repeatedly gashed Indiana on the zone read and as a receiver in the passing game. He recorded career highs for rushing yards (161), receiving yards (131), receptions (9) and touchdowns (4, all rushing). Colter tied a single-game team record for both rushing touchdowns and total touchdowns. He averaged 11.5 yards per rush.
  • Ohio State LB Etienne Sabino: Perhaps Sabino is saving his best for last with the Buckeyes. The senior came through in a big way Saturday, recording a sack and two crucial quarterback hurries as Ohio State held off Michigan State 17-16. Sabino recorded eight tackles and a pass breakup in the win. Buckeyes quarterback Braxton Miller also merits a mention here.
  • Nebraska QB Taylor Martinez: The Huskers junior avenged the worst performance of his career last year in Madison with a strong one in Nebraska's come-from-behind 30-27 win against Wisconsin. Martinez finally showcased his running skills with 107 yards and a touchdown on just 13 carries. He also completed 17 of 29 passes for 181 yards and two touchdowns with no interceptions. Huskers linebackers Will Compton and Alonzo Whaley also merit mentions here.
  • Iowa's linebackers: The Hawkeyes' defense bounced back in a big way against Minnesota, and linebackers Anthony Hitchens, James Morris and Christian Kirksey led the way. Hitchens and Morris combined for 22 tackles, two sacks and a pass breakup, while Kirksey had a 66-yard interception return for a touchdown in the fourth quarter of Iowa's 31-13 win, to go along with a fumble recovery and six tackles.

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