NCF Nation: Jason Ankrah

A man wearing a newsboy cap approached Kirk Cousins and offered congratulations to the former Michigan State quarterback, who held court with reporters in the Rose Bowl tunnel moments after the Spartans beat Stanford.

Jim Delany wasn't easy to spot in the headgear, and one could argue that the Big Ten commissioner wisely disguised himself on a day that hasn't been kind to his league in recent years. But for the first time in four years, and for just the second time in 14 years, Delany walked out of the Rose Bowl with a smile on his face.

[+] EnlargeConnor Cook
Jeff Gross/Getty ImagesConnor Cook and Michigan State gave the Big Ten plenty to celebrate.
For Delany and the Big Ten, the Rose Bowl sits on a pedestal. And after just one Big Ten win in the previous 10 tries, Michigan State's 24-20 triumph in the game's 100th edition was cause for celebration. MSU's victory doesn't dull the pain of the Big Ten's second consecutive 2-5 bowl season, but it certainly helps to prevail in the most important postseason game on the biggest stage against the best opponent.

The Spartans won a team-record 13 games and completed the best season for a Big Ten team in recent memory, finishing No. 3 in the final polls. Nebraska provided the other bright spot, upsetting Georgia in the TaxSlayer.com Gator Bowl thanks to a stingy red-zone defense and several standout performances from seniors.

Elsewhere, the Big Ten felt the familiar postseason sting of what might have been. The league easily could have had a better record in the Florida bowls, but Wisconsin and Ohio State had sloppy performances and Iowa's offense never got on track against LSU.

Wisconsin never punted in the Capital One Bowl against South Carolina and had two 100-yard rushers in Melvin Gordon and James White, but the Badgers committed four turnovers and scored just 17 offensive points. A team that had been so solid through the first 11 games unraveled in the regular-season finale against Penn State and in the bowl, failing to capitalize on a great chance to build on a 17-13 third-quarter lead. Dave Aranda's defense was shredded for the second straight game as South Carolina quarterback Connor Shaw accounted for five touchdowns (3 pass, 1 rush, 1 receiving). A decorated Wisconsin senior classes ended 0-4 in Jan. 1 bowls.

Ohio State also finished the season on a surprising losing streak, squandering two second-half leads in a 40-35 loss to Clemson in the Discover Orange Bowl. Like Wisconsin, the Buckeyes also were doomed by turnovers, particularly a muffed punt by Corey Brown in the third quarter with a nine-point lead. A depleted Ohio State defense couldn't stop Clemson's big-play receivers, the coaches once again avoided running back Carlos Hyde in crunch time, and a banged-up Braxton Miller committed turnovers on Ohio State's final two possessions.

Injuries and personnel issues were a theme throughout the Big Ten during the bowl season. Wisconsin and Iowa saw their starting quarterbacks hurt during games, while Michigan's top signal-caller, Devin Gardner, showed up in Arizona on crutches and didn't play in the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl. Michigan State overcame the loss of starting middle linebacker and co-captain Max Bullough, as Kyler Elsworth and Darien Harris filled in well. Ohio State played without top cornerback Bradley Roby (injury) and top pass-rusher Noah Spence (suspension).

A little more offense could have put Iowa and Minnesota over the top in their bowl games. Minnesota didn't reach the end zone for three quarters in the Texas Bowl, eventually falling 21-17 to a mediocre Syracuse team. Iowa's only touchdowns came on drives of 1 and 4 yards, as the Hawkeyes had just 11 first downs and 233 total yards against LSU.

It wouldn't have taken much for the Big Ten to post a winning record in the bowls. The league had only one non-competitive performance, coming from Michigan in the Wings Bowl, as the Wolverines ended a disappointing season on a down note. The defense never gave first-time starting quarterback Shane Morris much of a chance, allowing touchdowns on Kansas State's first three possessions. Morris held his own but Michigan didn't reach the end zone until the 58th minute in what proved to be the final game for beleaguered offensive coordinator Al Borges.

Nebraska started New Year's Day on a good note as wide receiver Quincy Enunwa triggered the win with a 99-yard touchdown reception, while defensive linemen Jason Ankrah, Randy Gregory and Thad Randle limited Georgia's offense. Michigan State capped the afternoon by rallying past Stanford behind a suffocating defense and quarterback Connor Cook, who collected another postseason MVP honor and his second straight 300-yard passing performance.

The Spartans boost hope for the future after another Big Ten postseason rife with missed opportunities. The league has another team capable of competing for a national championship.

The playoff arrives in 2014, along with a more palatable Big Ten bowl lineup and most likely more bowl-eligible teams. The Big Ten took a small step in the postseason after a historically bad 2012 campaign, but more progress must be made for the rest of college football to start tipping its cap.

Big Ten all-bowl team

January, 9, 2014
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The Big Ten went 2-5 in bowl games for the second consecutive season, but there were notable performances around the league, even in losing efforts.

Here's a look at ESPN.com's Big Ten all-bowl squad:

OFFENSE

[+] EnlargeConnor Cook
Robert Hanashiro/USA TODAY SportsConnor Cook threw for 332 yards and two TDs to lead the Spartans to a Rose Bowl win over Stanford.
QB: Connor Cook, Michigan State: He followed his first career 300-yard passing performance in the Big Ten championship with his second in the Rose Bowl against Stanford. Cook overcame an ugly pick-six to pass for a career-high 332 yards and two touchdowns on 22 of 36 attempts. He earned offensive player of the game honors.

RB: Melvin Gordon, Wisconsin: The Badgers featured Gordon, who will return next year, in the Capital One Bowl and received good production, as the sophomore rushed for 143 yards on 25 carries. His fumble in the closing minutes allowed South Carolina to run out the clock, but he showed his typical explosiveness as well as durability that should help him in the 2014 season.

RB: Ameer Abdullah, Nebraska: Abdullah ended a tremendous junior season with his 11th 100-yard rushing performance as Nebraska upset Georgia in the Gator Bowl. He finished with 122 rush yards and a touchdown on 27 carries.

WR: Quincy Enunwa, Nebraska: Enunwa ended his Huskers career with his best performance, recording a career-high 129 receiving yards and two touchdowns, including a 99-yarder in the third quarter that proved to be the winner. He broke Nebraska's single-season record with 12 touchdowns and earned bowl MVP honors.

WR: Tony Lippett, Michigan State: MSU leaned on its passing game to open up the deep middle, and Lippett repeatedly attacked Stanford's vulnerable secondary. He had five receptions for a career-high 94 yards, and his 25-yard touchdown reception early in the fourth quarter ended up being the winner. His five receptions marked the most by a Spartans receiver in a Rose Bowl.

TE: Maxx Williams, Minnesota: The Gophers' offense wasn't pretty in a disappointing Texas Bowl loss to Syracuse, but Williams again provided a bright spot in a mostly meek passing attack. The freshman led Minnesota with five receptions for 76 yards, including a 20-yard touchdown early in the fourth quarter.

C: Cole Pensick, Nebraska: Pensick returned to the center spot after playing several games at guard and helped Nebraska to a win. Georgia had only one sack, and the Huskers rushed for 144 yards.

OL: Kyle Costigan, Wisconsin: Costigan and his fellow linemen held up well against Jadeveon Clowney and Co., as the Badgers racked up 293 rush yards on 43 attempts.

OL: Blake Treadwell, Michigan State: The Spartans' co-captain graded out well in the Rose Bowl as MSU had success moving the ball against a strong Stanford defense.

OL: Rob Havenstein, Wisconsin: Like Costigan, Havenstein helped Gordon and James White both eclipse 100 rushing yards against South Carolina, which recorded only one sack in the game.

OL: Jack Allen, Michigan State: Allen was among three Spartans linemen not to allow a sack and aided an offense that racked up 21 first downs and 24 points against Stanford.

DEFENSE

DE: Jason Ankrah, Nebraska: Another Husker who shined in his final college game, Ankrah recorded two sacks, a forced fumble and two quarterback hurries as the line applied good pressure on Georgia backup quarterback Hutson Mason. It marked the first multi-sack performance of Ankrah's career.

[+] EnlargeTajh Boyd
Mike Ehrmann/Getty ImagesOhio State's Joey Bosa made plenty of big hits in the Orange Bowl, including this one on Clemson's Tajh Boyd that resulted in a safety after Boyd was called for intentional grounding.
DE: Joey Bosa, Ohio State: If you're looking for reasons to feel optimistic about Ohio State's beleaguered defense, Bosa certainly provides a big one. The freshman made his presence known in the Orange Bowl despite an ankle injury, combining with linebacker Joshua Perry to force a first-quarter safety. He finished with five tackles, including a sack.

DT: Micajah Reynolds, Michigan State: The 307-pound Reynolds clogged the middle and helped Michigan State shut down Stanford's running attack for the final three quarters of the Rose Bowl. He recorded a team-high two tackles for loss and finished with four solo tackles in his final college game.

DT: Thad Randle, Nebraska: Like several Huskers on this list, Randle saved arguably his best performance for his final game. He recorded eight tackles as Nebraska held Georgia to 2.2 yards per rush and only 12 points on six trips inside the red zone.

LB: Kyler Elsworth, Michigan State: Thanks to Elsworth, Max Bullough's absence had little bearing on the Spartans' defense, which limited Stanford to 13 offensive points. Elsworth recorded 1.5 tackles for loss and was the first man in on the decisive fourth-down stop of Stanford's Ryan Hewitt. He earned Rose Bowl defensive player of the game honors.

LB: James Morris, Iowa: Morris ended an excellent senior season with 2.5 tackles for loss, including two sacks, as the defense kept Iowa alive for much of the Outback Bowl against LSU. He finished the season with a team-high eight sacks and eclipsed 400 career tackles.

LB: Denicos Allen, Michigan State: Allen also stepped up in Bullough's absence and sparked Michigan State with 1.5 tackles for loss and a forced fumble. He helped Michigan State hold Stanford to only three offensive points in the final three quarters.

CB: Darqueze Dennard, Michigan State: You didn't hear Dennard's name called much during the Rose Bowl because he shut down Stanford's Ty Montgomery and one side of the field. He finished with a tackle for loss and made sure Stanford didn't attack the No Fly Zone in his final game.

CB: Josh Mitchell, Nebraska: Mitchell made two plays to set up Nebraska touchdowns against Georgia: a second-quarter fumble recovery and a third-quarter interception on the first series of the second half. He hadn't had a takeaway all season before the bowl but stepped up at the right time.

S: John Lowdermilk, Iowa: He gave Iowa new life in the third quarter of the Outback Bowl with a 71-yard interception return. It should have been a touchdown, as Lowdermilk dropped the ball short of the goal line, but Iowa scored three plays later to cut LSU's lead in half. Not a bad time for Lowdermilk's first career interception.

S: Cedric Thompson, Minnesota: Thompson recorded a career-high 14 tackles in the Texas Bowl as Minnesota held Syracuse to only 188 pass yards. He also recovered a fumble in Gophers territory in the first quarter as the defense kept Minnesota in the game.

SPECIAL TEAMS

P: Cameron Johnston, Ohio State: Aussie, Aussie, Aussie (Oi Oi Oi). Ohio State's Australian import ended a tremendous debut season with a big performance in the Orange Bowl. He averaged 48.2 yards on five punts, with a long of 63 yards, and placed three punts inside Clemson's 20-yard line, including one downed at the Tigers' 1 that set up an Ohio State safety. There were a lot of good choices here (MSU's Mike Sadler and Minnesota's Peter Mortell also were terrific), which says something about the Big Ten's bowl showing.

K: Matt Wile, Michigan: Not many great choices here, but Wile was the only Big Ten kicker to convert multiple field-goal attempts in a bowl. Wile did a nice job filling in for starter Brendan Gibbons in the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl and also handled punts and kickoffs.

Returner: Kenzel Doe, Wisconsin: Doe kept Wisconsin's hopes alive in the Capital One Bowl with a 91-yard kickoff return for a touchdown after the Badgers had fallen behind by 10 points. It marked Wisconsin's first kickoff return touchdown in a bowl game and its first since David Gilreath's 97-yard runback on the opening play of the Badgers' win against No. 1 Ohio State in 2010.

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.

Nebraska seeks road to relevance

September, 9, 2013
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LINCOLN, Neb. -- Buzzwords around Nebraska football tell a story representative of the program’s progression over the past decade and a half.

There was dominance in the mid-to-late 1990s.

Chaos followed, from about 2002 until Bo Pelini arrived to coach in 2008.

Now, it’s relevance -- or a lack thereof.

Nebraska last finished a football season ranked in the top 10 in 2001, the same year it most recently played in a BCS bowl game. And while Pelini’s record is impressive -- he sits among four first-time coaches to win nine games in each of his first five seasons -- the Huskers finished outside of the top 15 in four of those years.

Nebraska is not moving the meter nationally. It is not connecting consistently with elite recruits. It rates as an afterthought outside of its conference and, often, outside of its state.

The Huskers over the past few years have failed on the big stage. In three conference title games, Nebraska lost heartbreakers to Texas in 2009 and Oklahoma a year later before Wisconsin ran it out of Lucas Oil Stadium last December.

The same Badgers welcomed Nebraska rudely to the Big Ten two years ago in a top-10 showdown.

[+] EnlargeJason Ankrah
AP Photo/Scott A. MillerSenior Jason Ankrah said he didn't even know where Nebraska was before he was recruited.
And really, that’s it. As a borderline elite program, chances to vault into the national conversation arrive rarely. At every chance of late, save for perhaps a 10-3 win over 20th-ranked Oklahoma in 2009, Nebraska found a way to stay out of sight, out of mind.

The next opportunity comes Saturday at noon ET. The Huskers dropped in the Associated Press poll after each of their two wins to open this season. A victory over 16th-ranked UCLA won’t entirely fix Nebraska’s image, but it’s the only way the Huskers can stay relevant until November.

With South Dakota State on deck and a soft opening set of Big Ten games that include Illinois, Purdue and Minnesota, the Huskers won’t make any noise if they’re 6-1 when Northwestern visits on Nov. 2.

Not until a Nov. 9 trip to Michigan would Nebraska demand more than a passing glance on the national landscape.

Unless, that is, it wins on Saturday.

The road back to relevance goes through Michigan. Until then, UCLA offers Nebraska its only ticket to the big show.

Senior defensive end Jason Ankrah said he understood the "sense of urgency."

It's time to make a statement, he said.

"We set our goals to do certain things this year," Ankrah said, "and they're just another team in our way."

That said, the Huskers wanted UCLA on their schedule this year, according to Ankrah, after the Bruins beat Nebraska 36-30 last year at the Rose Bowl.

"We're in the same boat as a lot of other teams," linebacker Michael Rose said. "We're a program trying to re-establish ourselves. We've got the right players and the right coaches. I don't think there's a lack of respect at other places for Nebraska."

No, but Rose got to know a pair of high-profile recruits two years ago after he committed to Nebraska. The Huskers made the final two for Devin Fuller out of New Jersey and Andrus Peat of Arizona.

Fuller is now a top receiving target for UCLA quarterback Brett Hundley. Peat starts at left tackle for Stanford. Maybe a couple of conference titles this century would have provided an edge for the Huskers.

Senior center Cole Pensick grew up around this program. His dad, Dan, played defensive tackle for former coach Tom Osborne. Cole attended Lincoln Northeast High School. To him, relevance was never the issue. Friends of his father surrounded Cole as a kid. He lived through the championship era of the '90s and heard stories about the significance of Nebraska football to a worldwide fan base.

"It's kind of giving me chills right now just thinking about it," Pensick said, "how many people out there love Nebraska."

I-back Ameer Abdullah came to Lincoln from Homewood, Ala., learning quickly of the tradition.

Abdullah, discussing the importance of Nebraska's relevance, rattled off a few stats -- the Huskers have won more games than any other program over the past 50 years. They've sold out every home game since 1962.

The list continues.

Nebraska's notable tradition and passionate fan base, at some point, provide a crutch: The Huskers have fought for a decade to regain their edge, but hey, no program can claim more victories since 1970.

Ankrah grew up in Maryland. He graduated high school in 2009. Before Nebraska began to recruit him, Ankrah said, he knew little about the Huskers.

"I'm not going to lie," Ankrah said. "I did not know where Nebraska was."

That's relevance for you. Irrelevance, more precisely.

UCLA is coming to Lincoln. Opportunity awaits.
LINCOLN, Neb. -- David Santos is what passes as a graybeard on Nebraska's defense these days.

Santos is a redshirt sophomore linebacker with one career start under his belt. Yet this spring, he was the guy many of the other Huskers linebackers were turning to for answers.

"It's kind of strange," he said. "This is only my second year, and a lot of guys helped me out last year. Now I guess I'm the veteran in the room. I don't feel old."

[+] EnlargeNebraska's David Santos
AP Photo/Nati HarnikNebraska linebacker David Santos had 10 tackles in his lone start last season, against Michigan.
Actual game-worn players are hard to find on that side of the ball, especially in the front seven. Senior defensive end Jason Ankrah is the only returnee with significant starting experience, as Big Red's defense will be massively green going into 2013.

So, even though Santos is still young and Ankrah is hardly a household name, both players are being asked to lead this spring and summer.

"It's been cool," Ankrah said. "I've always had somebody older than me be the vocal guy who takes control when things go wrong, and now I'm taking on that leadership. I've had some film sessions with [the other defensive linemen] one-on-one and a couple as a group. They'll ask me how to play a certain technique and other stuff."

Ankrah doesn't just want to lead with his words. The 6-foot-4, 265-pounder has shown glimpses of his ability, with six tackles for loss, a pair of sacks and two forced fumbles as a junior. He's eyeing the same kind of breakout senior season that Eric Martin had in 2012.

"I've been out there and I've been playing," he said. "Now, I want to be out there to make plays and change games."

Ankrah had to move down and play defensive tackle some last year as injuries hit the line. With a more set role this season and a little more freedom to get after opposing quarterbacks, he could flourish.

"Jason has played a lot of football for us the last three years, and there have been times when he's played really well," Nebraska defensive coordinator John Papuchis said. "But he feels like there's so much more in his game, and he knows he hasn't reached his potential yet. We want him to go out and have that hunger to have a great year, and I think he's set himself up to have a pretty good senior year."

The Huskers have been expecting good things out of Santos, an athletic linebacker who recorded 10 tackles in his lone start last season against Michigan. He played mostly weakside linebacker last season, but spent the bulk of the spring at the middle spot, where he helped instruct the young players around him on where to lineup. An arm injury near the end of spring practice kept Santos out of the spring game, but he's expected to be back for summer workout.

"He's pretty good at taking command of the guys and at making the calls," Papuchis said. "He's a bit ahead in terms of development from the other guys, and that means we're going to put more responsibility on him."

That responsibility includes not only learning a new position and adjusting to a full-time starting role, but also leading everyone else.

"I can't get lackadaisical, because I want to get to the next level," he said. "But while I'm doing that, I've got to help the young guys little bit."

Santos should get a little help in the leadership department when redshirt junior Zaire Anderson gets healthy. With Anderson at the weakside spot and Santos in the middle, Papuchis likes the speed his linebackers have. Redshirt freshman Jared Afalava drew rave reviews for his spring performance, and could step in at the strongside spot.

The defensive line is more of a mystery, though Papuchis liked what he saw this spring out of guys like Greg McMullen, Avery Moss and Aaron Curry. He thinks Thad Randle can be a force inside if Randle can ever stay healthy, and highly touted junior college defensive end Randy Gregory is coming. The Nebraska defense showed during the spring game that it has a long way to go, but there is some athleticism to work with.

"The one thing about them is they can all run, and that makes up for some inexperience," Papuchis said. "If our guys play hard and they run to the ball and be physical, I think we'll be a pretty good defense."

And Santos and Ankrah will need to lead the way for the front seven.

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.

[+] EnlargeBo Pelini
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.
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.

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.

[+] EnlargeNebraska Cornhuskers
Brian BennettNebraska has won its share of conference titles, but none since 1999.
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.

"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."
If Bo Pelini is feeling any pressure in Lincoln this spring to deliver a championship, you couldn't tell by the way Nebraska started spring practice. The Huskers coach participated in a Harlem Shake video with the team over the weekend, with Pelini sending up his own fiery image before dancing with his players.

I caught up with Pelini after Nebraska's first spring practice to ask about the spring and how he plans to replace eight starters on defense. Here is that conversation.

How did the "Harlem Shake" video come about?

Bo Pelini: We were just having some fun with it. It was actually my daughter, she just turned 12, she had a sleepover the night before. And her and her friends, they'd been telling me what this "Harlem Shake" thing was and they were showing it to me. And I thought it was a good idea, that our kids would have fun with this. We had fun with it, and it was something different.

Was that a way to loosen things up as you get started with practice?

BP: No doubt. The team, they had a good time. It was fun. I'm just glad I didn't throw my back out. It was probably the first time I'd danced since my wedding.

It looked like you had some pretty good moves.

BP: Yeah, right. You know better than that.

What are some of your main goals and objectives this spring?

BP: Just get these guys taught and develop their understanding. We've got kind of an interesting mix of youth and experience. I think it's a very talented group, a pretty explosive group of athletes. We've got a lot of guys who've got a lot to learn. Even on the offensive side, where we have some experience coming back, per se, and some guys who have been through it, in this day and age you've got to keep building depth. Every guy out there you've got to try and get taught, and get as many guys out there that you trust as possible.

[+] EnlargeBo Pelini
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.
As a coach, is it kind of exciting to be able to work with a young group that has some athleticism on defense?

BP: Oh, no doubt. It's going to be fun. This a real eager group and a real hard working group. These kids want to play. They're eager, they soak in everything you tell them. Sometimes guys get to a point in their career where they think that they know. These kids know they don't know. They're like sponges right now. It's a fun time to work with them and help them develop into the kind of players they can be.

Given how much experience you have on offense, will you spend more time than normal with the defense this spring?

BP: Yeah, that's where I spend the majority of my time anyway, but it makes sense to get as many eyes and extra teachers on that side of the ball. That will help us. We feel good about where we are offensively and what that potential is; now we've just got to match that up with what we think we can do defensively. And I think we have a chance to be pretty damn good.

I saw a quote where one of your players said the young defenders might make mistakes, but they'll make them going 100 mph. Is that kind of what you're looking for, that they may not all get it right away but that they can make up for that with their speed and athleticism?

BP: Absolutely. And to a certain extent it's our job to try not to weigh them down. Don't get them thinking. Kind of the message is, I told them, "You're not going to be perfect. But play fast. Believe in what you see. We'll get you coached up, but don't go out there thinking. Go out there and believe in your preparation, believe in what you're learning, trust your learning and go out there and play fast and make plays." That's kind of been the common theme, and I saw a lot of that the other day.

The defensive line and safety are two areas hit hard by graduation. What do you see out of those positions this spring?

BP: I think we have guys that may be a little more dynamic athletically than what we've been. And we have some guys who we think can really do some things. It's going to be interesting to watch their development and how they continue to respond. We've moved some guys around. We have a lot of options in the secondary. A few years ago when we we were in the Big 12, we were recruiting more in the secondary than we were at linebacker, which is why we're a little bit younger at linebacker. We have a few more options in the secondary and guys that can do a lot of different things and play multiple spots, so that helps you.

Is there a whole lot of competition this spring, given how many starting jobs are open on defense?

BP: Absolutely. Like I told our guys, "Don't worry where you're lining up on the depth chart. Worry about taking care of yourself and your reps. Concentrate on making yourself a better football player." At the end of the day, it's only 15 practices. These jobs aren't going to be won or lost this time of year. Now we're going to make some strides, and maybe certain guys put themselves in position to be starters. But there's a lot of football to be played and a lot of practices to be had before we actually kick this thing off at the end of August. So if every guy just concentrates on making themselves better and tries to make the most out of every single rep that we have, then that's going to give them the best opportunity to grow as a football player and be ready to play in the fall.

You're going to be doing more live contact stuff than usual this spring, right?

BP: Yeah. We're going to do a little bit more scrimmaging maybe than we have in the past and really have a nice, good physical spring to try and put guys in position to see who can do it live, who's going to be able to make plays in space. Defensively, who's going to be able to make those one-on-one tackles when they find themselves in those positions? You want to take the guesswork out of it, see that guy, if he was there, would he have finished it off? Well, we're going to be asking them this spring to finish it off and see where they are. It's one of the reasons we went a little bit earlier in the spring than we have in the past, so we can be physical and then split up our spring with the spring break. We'll have eight practices before spring break and seven after, to give our guys a little bit of a break in there so we can make the most out of every opportunity we have.

[+] EnlargeJason Ankrah
AP Photo/Scott A. MillerVeteran Nebraska defensive lineman Jason Ankrah is looking forward to taking on a leadership role, coach Bo Pelini said.
Jason Ankrah is one of your few veterans up front defensively and a guy you're counting on as a leader. What do you see for him this spring and this season?

BP: He is a leader. He's been around, he's played a lot of football for us. He's looking to embrace that type of role, and he's got that kind of influence in the locker room. He's got the ability and the experience that guys are going to look to him. Some guys embrace that, some guys don't. It's got to be in your personality. He's looking forward to it, and I think that will be big. We had some leadership walk out the door. So we have to make sure we have guys who are ready, willing and able to step into that role.

You've got a lot of guys on offense where you pretty much know what you're going to get, like Taylor Martinez, Ameer Abdullah, Kenny Bell, Spencer Long. Do you hold them out of the live stuff and focus on younger players this spring because of that, or do they still need those reps?

BP: A little bit of both. We want to continue to develop our depth on that side. But the bottom line is, you've got to continue to get better. Even a guy like Taylor, as much football as he's played here, there are a lot of things he still needs to continue to work on to get better at. So there are going to be certain times and certain situations, just like any spring, where you take some guys out who have played a lot of football and maybe not get them as banged up as much, and that gives you a chance to look at some younger guys and build depth. But there are going to be some times where they're right in the thick of it.

What is the next step forward for Taylor?

BP: Just like any quarterback, it's such a difficult position, so much goes into it. Continue to work on being efficient and on decision-making. Eliminate turnovers and just continue to manage the offense. He has such confidence in himself that sometimes he tries to win the game by himself. As a quarterback, you've got to continue to let the offense work for you and let the game come to you. You don't need to try and win the game on every play. It all comes down to decision-making and managing the game, managing the offense. I think he made a lot of strides last year, but like any guy who's a young football player -- and all these guys are still young, they're all still learning how to play the game -- he has a ways to go in that regard.

The receiver group was impressive last year, and almost all those guys are back. How much potential does that group have this year?

BP: It's a dynamic group, and I think they got better last year. I thought they played very well. You look at it, and we still have some youth there. We have to continue to build that depth over there. We got hit hard with injuries. In the early games, we had a bunch of guys catching passes, but it was just one of those things where you got a bunch of injuries at the wide receiver spot. But we think we have some other guys who can spell those guys, and if that's the case and they can take some snaps off them and keep them fresh throughout the game, that will make them that much more effective.

Imani Cross did some great work at the goal line last year. How much more can he add to his game this spring and offseason?

BP: He's looking good. He's -- not noticeably, because he's such a big thick guy -- but he's carrying less weight, and he's slimming down a little bit. I think he has a chance to really be a good football player for us and do some things. Not be just a short-yardage guy, but a guy who can carry the ball and help us in a lot of different areas and a lot of different situations. I think he's got that in him, and we can really expand his role. I think he's excited to do that, and he's determined to do that.

Finally, you lost a very valuable special-teams player in kicker/punter Brett Maher. Is that an area you can figure out this spring, or will that have to wait until fall camp?

BP: It probably won't be settled until this fall, but we have some good competition there. We've got some kids coming in, too. I think it's going to be good competition. The talent is there. We have guys that can do it. But having that consistency ... we've been really fortunate that we haven't had to worry about it the past couple years. We had Alex [Henery] and then went right into having Brett. So we've been very fortunate in that regard. This year, the job is open, and the competition will go right to the end. Obviously, to win a championship, you'd better have somebody in that kicking mode that you can trust.
INDIANAPOLIS -- When the Big Ten championship game ended and both teams went to the middle of the field to shake hands, Nebraska safety P.J. Smith stayed back a few yards.

Hands on his hips, Smith simply stared at the Wisconsin players celebrating a 70-31 victory and a league title. It was almost too much for the senior to process.

"Everything, I mean, everything went wrong," he would say a few minutes later in a news conference. "It's just ... I don't know. It's hard to explain."

As a group, the Cornhuskers clearly appeared dumbfounded by this result. They went into Saturday's game having won six straight games to cap a 10-2 regular season. After a humiliating 63-38 loss at Ohio State in early October, the team bonded together and got its defense back to playing at a level worthy of the Blackshirts label.

Then came this nightmare of a performance, as Wisconsin ran for 539 yards, the most rushing yards ever surrendered by a Nebraska defense. The Badgers had 42 points at halftime. When they scored their ninth touchdown early in the fourth quarter, Huskers coach Bo Pelini turned his back to the field and threw his play sheet in the air.

"Shock doesn't even begin to ... shock doesn't even begin to explain it," he said.

[+] EnlargeNebraska's P.J. Smith
AP Photo/Michael Conroy"Everything, I mean, everything went wrong," Nebraska's P.J. Smith said. "It's just ... I don't know. It's hard to explain."
So what in the heck happened? Pelini said the Huskers practiced against "99 percent" of what Wisconsin used on offense. But the Badgers showed several new wrinkles and a handful of trick plays. While Nebraska was worried about the interior of its defensive line because of an injury to starting tackle Baker Steinkuhler, the Badgers spent more time than normal running outside. Their three terrific tailbacks repeatedly beat Nebraska defenders to the edge and then turned the corner for huge gains.

"They were bouncing runs to the outside to get us in space," defensive coordinator John Papuchis said. "We've had some struggles with that this year, and they exposed us with that tonight."

Wisconsin dictated play with its offensive line, which has improved immeasurably since the Huskers' 30-27 win against the Badgers in Lincoln on Sept. 29. Nebraska contributed to its own demise by continually missing tackles and losing leverage. The most embarrassing moment in a night full of them for Big Red came when Montee Ball spun out of an arm tackle from Jason Ankrah and raced down the sideline, where cornerback Ciante Evans had the angle on him. But Ball stiff-armed Evans to the turf and scooted in for another touchdown.

"They controlled us up front, and when they do that, you don't have a chance," defensive line coach Rick Kaczenski said. "It just got out of hand, and there wasn't a whole lot we could do to help. That's bad when you're a coach, because they're looking toward you. And I didn't have an answer."

The blowout loss was wildly disappointing on so many levels for Nebraska.

The program still hasn't won a conference title since 1999 and likely won't ever have a better opportunity than this championship game presented, against a five-loss team that finished third in the Leaders Division. Ohio State looks like it is building toward dominance and could be a formidable opponent in Indianapolis for years to come.

The defeat also raises familiar, uncomfortable questions about Pelini's ability to get this team over the hump. Pelini is 49-19 in Lincoln and has won at least nine games every season. But the Huskers have had some notable defensive disasters under a coach known for his knowledge of that side of the ball. In their three losses this season, they have allowed 653 yards to UCLA, 498 to Ohio State and now 640 to Wisconsin. They thought they had it fixed after the Ohio State game. They were wrong.

"Hell, we were the No. 15 [total] defense even with the UCLA and Ohio State game on top of us," senior linebacker Will Compton said. "We killed it at practice last week. I'm at a loss for words right now. I'm embarrassed. It's just awful."

These humbling setbacks shouldn't be happening at the end of Year 5 under Pelini. So the Nebraska fan base will debate again whether he can get the program over the hump or whether he's taken the Huskers as far up the mountain as he can. It sounds silly to say Pelini will be on the hot seat, but Huskers fans demand championships.

A bleary-eyed Pelini opened and closed his news conference with an apology to Nebraska fans everywhere. But he bristled when asked whether Saturday's loss showed cracks in his foundation.

"You can try to put a big thing on it," he said. "It's on me. Put it on me."

The Cornhuskers hadn't suffered this type of loss with so much on the line since Colorado beat them 62-36 in the final regular-season game of 2001. That Nebraska team still somehow found its way into the BCS national title game. This one just went from a potential Rose Bowl appearance to a possible spot in the Outback Bowl.

"This was it for us," Compton said. "And we blew it."

All that's left is another painful search for answers.
Nebraska's defensive players enter their first game week feeling good vibes.

"Our confidence is high," senior linebacker Will Compton told ESPN.com. "And I think it's only going to get higher as the days go on."

All offseason, the Cornhuskers have talked about having a better understanding of the scheme and principals on defense, of communicating better and working together more. That, they believe, will lead to a much stronger performance from the Blackshirts than the disappointing showing of 2011.

[+] EnlargeWill Compton
Cal Sport Media via AP ImagesWill Compton is looking to help Nebraska's defense regain its swagger after struggling in 2011.
Nebraska's defense had better be ready. Because it doesn't get much time to ease into things.

The season begins Saturday against Southern Miss, a team that averaged nearly 37 points per game a year ago. Week 2 brings a road trip to UCLA, followed by a visit from Arkansas State, which is now coached by former Arkansas and Auburn offensive whiz Gus Malzahn. September ends with a showdown against Wisconsin, which hung 48 points on Nebraska last season in Madison.

"We are going to get challenged right out of the gate," Compton said.

The Huskers think they're up to the challenge more than last year's defense was. Despite leaving the generally more offensive-minded Big 12, Nebraska's defensive numbers took a major tumble. To wit:

2009: 272 yards allowed per game (seventh in the FBS); 10.4 points allowed per game (first)

2010: 306.8 ypg (11th); 17.4 ppg (ninth)

2011: 350.7 (37th); 23.4 ppg (42nd)

So what has changed? More knowledge and more attention to detail. Better depth up front on the defensive line. And more experience at safety, a crucial spot in Bo Pelini's scheme.

"It's a much more mature group," first-year defensive coordinator John Papuchis said. "Guys like Daimion Stafford, Ciante Evans, Andrew Green were in their first year of playing last year. Another year in the system gives them a greater understanding of their roles.

"Right know, our knowledge of what we're asking our guys to do is at a greater level, and we're able to progress further along in our package than we were a year ago."

It is also a defense that, at least going into the season, lacks stars. Last year's team had Jared Crick, Lavonte David and Alfonzo Dennard as the defensive headliners. These Huskers don't have a single player who was a first- or second-team All-Big Ten performer on defense in 2011. But they don't expect to be a no-name defense for long.


"These guys will certainly be better well-known through their play this year," Papuchis said. "Daimion Stafford, Ciante Evans, Will Compton, Jason Ankrah -- these guys are on the cusp of being the names people identify with and recognize.

"But at the end of the day, I believe this is a very unselfish defensive unit. I don't believe that they're worried about individual recognition and who the stars are. They want to go out there as a group and play the best defense they can. I don't think anybody needs to be the star to do that."

Pelini called Compton the unquestioned leader of the defense this summer. Papuchis said leaders at other positions have emerged this month, including Stafford in the secondary and seniors Baker Steinkuhler and Cameron Meredith on the defensive line.

Leadership could be key early as Nebraska deals with some unknowns. Southern Miss has a new head coach in Ellis Johnson, a new starting quarterback and a new offensive coordinator in Steve Buckley, who spent the previous five years as a high school coach. Huskers coaches have prepared by watching all kinds of different film, including high school games, but they expect surprises.

"You're going to see some things that we haven't seen before, and we have to be ready to make adjustments on the fly," Pelini said Monday.


Compton has seen evidence of his team's ability to do just that in preseason practice. He said the defense has done a great job of getting off the field on third downs and readjusting if it does give up a third-down conversion. In doing that and communicating on the field, he said, the Blackshirts have "made a big jump."


Nebraska's defense is eager to show that last year was a blip and that this is another dominant unit. They'll get the chance to prove themselves in September.



"We need to take care of business our first couple of games," Compton said. "It's on us to do so. We need to make a statement early."

LINCOLN, Neb. -- They can't be called pop quizzes because they happen every day.

When safety P.J. Smith and his fellow Nebraska defensive backs enter their meeting room each day, they know exactly what's coming.

"This is the first time we've ever taken tests," Smith told ESPN.com. "Since the season ended, we had a test every week. And now, since [defensive backs coach Terry Joseph] is here, we have a test every single day we get in the meeting room."

Joseph's exams typically contain three questions, which require short written responses. The players have two minutes to complete their choices, which is 119 seconds longer than they have during games in the fall. The players with the lowest grades at week's end typically have to clean the secondary room.

"He tries to put pressure on us," Smith said.

Pressure is one word to describe the theme of Nebraska's offseason, particularly on the defensive side. Details is another. So is accountability.

[+] EnlargeWill Compton
Troy Babbitt/US PresswireWith star LB Lavonte David gone, Nebraska will look to Will Compton to make an impact at the position.
The team ended the 2011 season with a thud, falling 30-13 to South Carolina in the Capital One Bowl. A defense that had entered the fall with a star-studded lineup -- tackle Jared Crick, linebacker Lavonte David and cornerback Alfonzo Dennard were the headliners -- finished 42nd nationally in points allowed and 37th in yards allowed, significant drops in both categories from the previous season (ninth in points allowed, 11th in yards allowed). The Huskers' D received some A-level performances from David and Dennard, but the overall unit, aside from a few exceptions, wasn't exceptional.

Nebraska didn't generate enough pressure (84th in sacks, 112th in tackles for loss) and didn't really have a hallmark.

"Generally, we didn't make a ton of busts a year ago," said defensive coordinator John Papuchis, who coached the defensive line in 2011. "But it's the small details within each defense that make the difference between being a good defense and a great defense. At times, we showed signs of being a very good defense. And at other times, we didn't live up to the standard we have set for ourselves.

"And I think what held us back more than anything came into those details."

Papuchis and the other defensive assistants have spent the offseason stressing concepts rather than pure memorization. The how and the why became more important than the what and the who.

They "went back to square one," even with older players, and worked on terminology as an entire unit. Crick and other Nebraska players talked before last season about the uniqueness of their defense, how the scheme would help set the Huskers apart in a new league.

"There's not one defense that’s comparable to ours," Crick said. "Very complex, and that's what makes it unique. As a defensive lineman, I have five responsibilities, where other defensive linemen, all they've got to do is shoot their gap. We want it that way."

And it is different, as Nebraska uses a two-gap system not employed by most college teams. But because of several reasons -- the coaches point mainly to attention to detail -- the Huskers didn't enjoy a major schematic advantage.

"Our defense is kind of like learning how to study math," Papuchis said. "If you don't have a foundation, everything else after that won't make sense."

One issue Papuchis noticed with Nebraska's youngish secondary in 2011 was alignment. Players knew their responsibilities, but they would line up inside when they needed to be outside, or vice versa.

"What doesn't seem like a big deal, six inches one way or the other, makes all the difference in the world if they convert third-and-6," he said.

It's why Joseph tests them every day. Mistakes happen, Smith said, but Joseph wants the DBs to "make a new mistake. Don't make the same mistake."

Nebraska should have a more seasoned secondary in 2012, and Papuchis has been pleased this spring with Daimion Stafford, Ciante Evans, Andrew Green and Antonio Bell, among others. Linebacker Will Compton said the secondary is receiving extra attention this spring from both Papuchis and head coach Bo Pelini.

"We're getting back to some of the multiplicity we've had in the past," Pelini said. "I'm excited. I think we have a chance to be pretty good on defense."

There are different challenges for the other two groups on defense. The linebackers begin life without David, one of the nation's most productive defenders the past two seasons. Compton will lead the group, but depth is still a concern and will be for the next few years.

"We'll have guys very capable," Compton said. "It's about being a successful Will linebacker, not about being the next Lavonte David."

Nebraska has good depth at defensive end with Cameron Meredith, Jason Ankrah, Eric Martin and Joe Carter. And while the scheme stresses the need to prevent offensive linemen from reaching the second level, pass rushers could be turned loose more as Nebraska tries to generate more pressure.

New line coach Rick Kaczenski has brought an attacking style.

"Last year, we were a little bit passive," Meredith said. "Now offensive linemen at practice are telling us, 'You guys attack a lot more.'"

The linemen also are stressing accountability. If anyone is late for a meeting or another activity, the whole group runs or does Turkish get-ups.

"Everybody had a sour taste in how we finished up the season," Pelini said. "I said, 'Either you can talk about it or do something about it.' I think everybody around here has taken the attitude to raise their level of accountability.

"To get over the top, we've got to have a little bit more attention to detail, raise our standards that much more, raise our accountability that much more."

Q&A: Nebraska DT Jared Crick

September, 9, 2011
9/09/11
11:00
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The Friday Q&A checks in with the Big Ten's No. 1 player in the preseason rankings, Nebraska standout defensive tackle Jared Crick. Nebraska opened its season with a 40-7 win against Chattanooga, and while the offense had some ups and downs, the defense performed as advertised.

Here are Crick's thoughts on Week 1, the depth of the Huskers' defensive line and what to expect Saturday night against Fresno State.

How did you feel about the defense's performance in the opener?

[+] EnlargeJared Crick
AP Photo/Nati HarnikJared Crick swatted away this throw by Chattanooga quarterback B.J. Coleman.
Jared Crick: I thought we played well, but after watching the film, I feel a whole lot better. I didn't see what I would want to see, but it's a good sign knowing what you've got to work on and knowing the exact points you've got to sharpen. We didn't play bad as a defensive front; we didn't play bad as a defense as a whole. I thought we played pretty well, it being our first time out there, but I'm definitely very excited after watching the film. In the past, you watch a game and you know you've got a whole lot to work on. Going into this week, we've just got to sharpen up a few things. And once we get that sharpened, we're going to be a whole lot better defense.

Are you ever worried to watch the film, even after a win?

JC: You're not worried, but you're always critical. You're always looking for the finer details, even if it's the littlest thing because sometimes that's what wins and loses games. You're very critical of yourself, you're very critical of your teammates. We played a good game. We only allowed seven points and that came on a bust on our part. But knowing the exact precise things we need to work on going into this next Saturday, it's very positive for us. It's a great feeling.

How much help will you have up front from guys like Cam [Meredith]?

JC: It was good, but we expect that of Cam. Now that Cam's healthy, he's got a year of experience under his belt and he did that all through fall camp, he made plays. So we expected that from him. But it was definitely nice to see him come out Saturday and just have fun. Last year, at times he worried a little too much about his responsibility instead of just relaxing and letting the game come to him. That's exactly what he did Saturday and he did a great job for us.

Did you expect him to score on the interception?

JC: I would have liked him to, but I'm just glad we got the turnover inside the 5. We always want to score as defensive linemen because we don't get that opportunity too much, but it was special enough that he got the pick.

Who else stood out to you along the defensive line?

JC: [Jason] Ankrah played well for us, his first start. This was really the cornerstone of his career of seeing how good he can really be, going against some different competition finally. This is only going to build his confidence throughout this year, and I expect big things from him. And also the new guys who played, Joe Carter, Eric Martin, Chase Rome. I saw a lot of good things out of T-Mo, Terrence Moore. I feel good knowing where we're at as a defensive line right now.

Did you feel Jason was coming on strong in camp? When did he turn the corner?

JC: Last spring he started to really come around. We asked him to gain a lot of weight. He came in at 240 and I think he's now up to 265, so he had to adjust to that weight change. He's playing a lot more physical. We saw it through this spring and he's progressed through the summer, into fall camp and definitely into the game. He's got to keep progressing.

You've only played one game, but do you have a sense of how offensive lines are going to approach you this year?

JC: Hard to say. Chattanooga ran a lot of two-step drop, they got rid of the ball quick. I saw a couple double-teams, slide pro. We saw it all, so we're going to watch the film again, see what kind of protections we didn't do so well on, what we did do well. We don't expect offenses to run the same kind of protection that Cam had pressure on, that I had a lot of pressure. We're looking for the protections we didn't do so well on. We're going to anticipate that a lot more and have to prepare for how to beat it.

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