Huskers still look to clear last hurdle
March, 29, 2013
By Brian Bennett | ESPN.com
LINCOLN, Neb. -- When Nebraska returned from a 10-day break in the middle of spring practice earlier this week, head coach Bo Pelini had something waiting for his defensive players.
He gave them a nearly 120-page packet that included photos from every play of a lackluster scrimmage the defense had turned in right before spring break. Mistakes were circled and highlighted on the photos, along with written descriptions of what should have happened on each play.
"It looked like the third Harry Potter book," defensive lineman Jason Ankrah said. "I'm still going through it."
Veteran players couldn't recall receiving such a voluminous breakdown before. Pelini told ESPN.com he spent several hours putting it together while the players were away.
"I did it so they could see the level of detail required and the things we need to do to have great success," Pelini said. "I was saying, 'This is reality. This is where we are, and this is where we have to go.'"
If that last bit sounds familiar, it should. Where the Huskers have been under Pelini -- consistently good, not great -- and where they still need to go -- to a championship level -- has become the inescapable topic of conversation in Big Red country.
Nebraska has won either nine or 10 games in each of Pelini's first five seasons in Lincoln, and his 49 wins in his first five years rank 15th-best in FBS history, according to the school. Only three other FBS teams -- Alabama, Boise State and Oregon -- have won at least nine games in each of the past five years.
Mike Carter/USA TODAY SportsNebraska coach Bo Pelini has a message for those who want to see him make changes to his defense. "That's asinine," he said.
Yet the Cornhuskers have also lost exactly four games in each season under Pelini, and the proud program still hasn't won a conference championship since Bill Clinton was in office -- 1999. Pelini's teams have been close, going to three conference title games and coming within a controversial second of winning the Big 12 in 2009 against Texas. Yet in some ways, Nebraska seems to be getting farther away from reaching the elite level.
The team was thoroughly embarrassed in a 70-31 trouncing by 7-5 Wisconsin in last year's Big Ten championship game. The Huskers suffered massive defensive breakdowns in their four 2012 losses, allowing a staggering 53.5 points per game in those defeats. Since entering the Big Ten in 2011, Nebraska has given up nearly 46 points per game in its losses. Last year's Big Ten title game in particular provided a flashpoint for critics who wonder whether Pelini will ever return the program to glory.
"People were on the ledge about the way that team represented the school and the Blackshirts tradition," said Michael Grey, who hosts an afternoon sports call-in show on Omaha's ESPN radio station. "You can point to the nine or 10 wins [per year], but the losses -- and the way that they've lost -- tend to overshadow the wins, especially last year. It's been a long, long time since they hung a banner in North Stadium, and I know they want one bad."
Pelini built dominant defenses in his first few seasons, led by imposing defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh, while his offenses struggled at times to find their footing. The reverse has been true the past couple of seasons, as Nebraska has been among the top-scoring teams in the Big Ten but has been gashed defensively in key games.
Despite those recent setbacks, Pelini scoffs at those who suggest he needs to make changes on defense.
"That's asinine," he said. "I don't listen to that. People don't have a clue.
"At the end of the day, we've just got to be more consistent in what we're doing. A lot of times when we got hurt [defensively], it wasn't something the offense did to us; a lot of it was self-imposed, and that's easily fixable."
Pelini said there were "common themes" in the poor defensive performances but doesn't want to identify those publicly. He does second-guess himself on whether he should have played some of his younger, more athletic defenders last year, especially down the stretch when several starters were dealing with injuries. This year, he doesn't have a choice in that regard.
Nebraska is replacing eight defensive starters this spring and has almost no game experience among its front seven. Pelini and defensive coordinator John Papuchis are focused on teaching the younger guys, whom they feel have the potential to make the defense great again. The Huskers clearly lacked some speed on the edge last year, which showed in losses to UCLA and Ohio State, and they've worked to address that in recruiting.
But attention to detail -- not just on defense, but on an offense that has shot itself in the foot too many times with turnovers in big games -- is paramount for success, Pelini says. Hence the packet of mistake highlights.
Brian BennettNebraska has won its share of conference titles, but none since 1999.
"We are extremely, extremely close," receiver Jamal Turner said. "It's just the details, the small things."
Some players, including quarterback Taylor Martinez, talked last spring about their aims to play for the national title. Such talk has been conspicuously absent this year.
"Our motto this year is it's time to put up or shut up," defensive back Ciante Evans said. "Fans are expecting [a championship], and honestly I believe one needs to be delivered. But we've been talking about it so long; we need to just go out and do it."
This is a big year for the Huskers, who once again have a prolific offense and have a much more manageable Big Ten schedule. Pelini has won too many games to be considered on the hot seat. But Nebraska has a new athletic director in Shawn Eichorst, who replaced Tom Osborne in January and has no ties to Pelini.
Osborne could relate to Pelini's plight. The Nebraska legend won nine or 10 games in each of his first nine seasons and once faced the criticism that he couldn't win the big one, until he won three national championships in four years at the end of his career.
Will Pelini follow a similar path? Or will the school that fired Frank Solich after 58 wins in six years get fed up with the championship drought?
Pelini, for his part, seems unburdened by the question.
"I'm proud of what we've done up to this point," he said. "Yeah, I want to win a championship, but we've been consistent in winning. Our kids are graduating at maybe the highest rate in the history of the program, and our kids are doing things the right way on and off the field.
"Now we've just got to put it all together and go for it."