NCF Nation: 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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Important lessons apply, he said.

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

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

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

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

Defensive woes loom large at Nebraska

September, 23, 2013
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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.

Mora: We have to handle our emotions

September, 11, 2013
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Which Bruin has the outside contain against Nebraska quarterback Taylor Martinez doesn’t really seem as significant as it did a week ago. How UCLA plans to attack Nebraska’s defense and the progression of the running back corps feels completely secondary.

“Football pales in comparison to what they are going through right now,” coach Jim Mora said.

This is the fine line Mora and his staff have had to toe since the Bruins returned to work following the death of wide receiver Nick Pasquale last weekend. It’s Mora’s job to be a father figure and to be emotionally available to his players. He’d call that his most important responsibility as a coach. But it’s also his job to prepare the 16th-ranked Bruins as they go on the road to face No. 23 Nebraska.
[+] EnlargeJim Mora
William Mancebo/Getty ImagesJim Mora and his team have had an emotional week.


“First and foremost, it’s most important that you are available to them,” Mora said. “ . . . [Football is] also an outlet for their emotions and their grief and the things they are feeling. Just make myself available to them 100 percent of the day. And they know that. And I think when you do that, it helps them come to grips with their emotions and it helps them get focused on the task at hand. I think it’s just about being real. Being genuine. Being honest and being there for them.”

The Bruins will wear Pasquale’s No. 36 on their jerseys. Likewise, Nebraska will wear No. 36 on its helmets. Before kickoff, the 91,000 in Memorial Stadium in Lincoln also will hold a moment of silence. Mora praised Nebraska coach Bo Pelini for his empathy and the prayers and well-wishes of the Nebraska program. But he also knows that when the moment of silence ends, those 91,000 will be screaming for his team to lose.

“I don’t know that we could find a more difficult situation,” Mora said. “You combine what’s happened here from an emotional standpoint to our team over the last three days and how it’s affecting them. ... When the game starts, they want to win, we want to win, and their fans will be cheering like crazy for them. And we have to be able to handle all of that. We have to be able to handle our emotions. We have to remain poised and be able to overcome adversity. To me, those are things that define mental toughness is your ability to do that. It’s a tremendous test.”

Speaking of tests, the Bruins will be looking to slow down Nebraska's Martinez. During the bye last week, the coaching staff spent plenty of time evaluating what they did right and wrong in Week 1’s win over Nevada, which also boasts an athletic dual-threat quarterback in Cody Fajardo. He was Nevada’s offensive bright spot in the 58-20 loss, rushing for 106 yards and two touchdowns.

To slow Martinez, Mora said the Bruins' defenders have to account for him -- and not just react to him -- as a runner.

“You have to be assignment-perfect,” Mora said. “But what happens is you get frustrated and you do something you wouldn’t typically do and he exploits it. He’s a tenacious competitor. That’s what I respect so much about him is his competitive drive. [In last season's game] he never gave up. He was never down. He never conceded a down, and that makes it really difficult to defend a guy.

“ . . . Sometimes that forces you to do something silly on the next snap, and you can’t do that with this guy."

Nebraska is equally concerned about the playmaking of UCLA quarterback Brett Hundley. Last season’s 36-30 win over Nebraska in Pasadena was Hundley’s “hello, world” moment to the rest of college football.

“I think what’s good about Brett Hundley is that he is efficient,” Nebraska defensive coordinator John Papuchis said. “He doesn’t make a lot of bad decisions with the ball. When things aren’t there, he pulls it down and can hurt you with his feet. He’s effective in the running game, and he has the ability to throw the ball well so you have to make sure you’re very balanced in the way you defend him.”

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.
After several mostly speculative versions of the Big Ten power rankings, we finally had a chance to evaluate these teams in games. The Week 1 competition mostly wasn't great, and the Big Ten's overall performance left something to be desired. We'll learn a lot more about most of these teams in the coming weeks.

We try to keep these rankings consistent with our ESPN.com national power rankings, so Ohio State remains No. 1, ahead of Michigan, even though the Wolverines looked more impressive against their MAC opponent than Ohio State did. But a Michigan win against Notre Dame this week could change things.

Wisconsin and Nebraska trade places in the rankings, and so do Penn State and Michigan State.

Here's one last look at the preseason power rankings.

Let's get to the rundown ...

1. Ohio State (1-0, preseason: 1): The Buckeyes had a flawless record in 2012, but they were a flawed team. They still are, and they showed some warts during the final three quarters of a 40-20 win against a plucky Buffalo squad. Quarterback Braxton Miller has improved and has a much better supporting cast, including running back Jordan Hall, but the Buckeyes need to take better care of the ball. A soft schedule should give Ohio State's young defense time to develop.

2. Michigan (1-0, preseason: 2): This year's opener went just a tad better than last year's for Brady Hoke's Wolverines. Michigan made big plays in all three phases and received contributions from many different players, delivering the most impressive debut in the league. Quarterback Devin Gardner (162 pass yards, 52 rush yards, three total touchdowns, two interceptions) can build off of this performance before facing a talented Notre Dame defense under the lights next week.

3. Northwestern (1-0, preseason: 3): The Wildcats remain in the three hole but solidified themselves after a resilient performance on the road against Cal. They played most of the game without their dynamic backfield of quarterback Kain Colter and running back Venric Mark, which fundamentally changed the offense. Thanks to unlikely heroes such as linebacker Collin Ellis and running back Treyvon Green, Northwestern remained perfect in openers under Pat Fitzgerald. Up next, Syracuse.

4. Wisconsin (1-0, preseason: 5): Fortunately, Wisconsin's next three openers (LSU twice, Alabama) will provide a lot more clues about the Badgers than Saturday's laugher against FBS bottom-feeder UMass. But you play the team across the field, and to Wisconsin's credit, it completely dismantled the Minutemen on both sides of the ball. The three-headed rushing attack of James White, Melvin Gordon and Corey Clement sparkled, combining for 388 yards and three touchdowns on 40 carries.

5. Nebraska (1-0, preseason: 4): The concerns about Nebraska's young defense weren't merely confirmed in the opener against Wyoming. They grew. Nebraska surrendered 35 first downs and 602 yards and nearly blew a 16-point fourth-quarter lead before surviving 37-34. Coach Bo Pelini didn't sound too discouraged Monday, but defensive coordinator John Papuchis said the defense has "nowhere to go but up." Nebraska needs a crisper performance this week against Southern Miss.

6. Penn State (1-0, preseason: 7): Like Northwestern, Penn State fought through some adversity to beat another major-conference team away from its home stadium. Freshman quarterback Christian Hackenberg backed up the hype for the most part, and tackle DaQuan Jones and safety Stephen Obeng-Agyapong sparked the defense. The Lions must get better on third down (1-of-15) before Central Florida comes to town in Week 3.

7. Michigan State (1-0, preseason: 6): As dominant as the Spartan Dawgs were against Western Michigan -- and could be the entire season -- the big concern here is an offense that appears to have regressed, if that's even possible. The quarterbacks remain the focus, but Michigan State isn't getting enough from any part of its offense. If things don't change, expect another season of games that can go either way. MSU has a chance to get well this week against slumping South Florida.

8. Minnesota (1-0, preseason: 8): Credit defensive tackle Ra'Shede Hageman and the Gophers for making big plays in all three phases in their opener against UNLV. But the 51-23 final score masked some of the issues Jerry Kill's team must address before the competition level improves. Minnesota needs a more physical effort from its offensive line, and it has to get off the field on defense after allowing UNLV to go 4-for-4 on fourth down. The Gophers need to clean things up this week on the road against New Mexico State.

9. Indiana (1-0, preseason: 9): A loaded Hoosiers offense set a Memorial Stadium record with 73 points against Indiana State, and Indiana has multiple weapons at quarterback, running back and wide receiver. But we've seen big offense from Indiana before. Can the Hoosiers' defense improve enough to boost the win total to bowl eligibility? IU's discipline will be tested this week against Navy's tricky triple-option offense.

10. Iowa (0-1, preseason: 11): Yes, the Hawkeyes actually move up a spot despite a loss (it has more to do with Purdue's plunge). Iowa in some ways looked like a better team against Northern Illinois, surviving a sluggish start to take control behind quarterback Jake Rudock, linebacker Christian Kirksey and a physical defense. But breakdowns on both sides of the ball doomed Iowa down the stretch, and Rudock's interception led to NIU's game-winning field goal. Iowa really needed a win and must regroup this week against Missouri State.

11. Illinois (1-0, preseason: 12): Senior quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase looks much more comfortable in Bill Cubit's offense and threw for a career-high 416 yards and two touchdowns against Southern Illinois. That's the good news. Illinois still has many areas to fix, especially on defense after nearly blowing a 22-point third-quarter lead. We'll learn a lot more about this team the next two weeks against Cincinnati and Washington.

12. Purdue (0-1, preseason: 10): What a mess. Nothing went right for the Boilers in coach Darrell Hazell's debut. The defense couldn't get off of the field on third down or fourth down. Rob Henry struggled and the offense committed three turnovers. Aside from a Cincinnati special-teams blunder, Saturday was a nightmare for the Boilers, who fell 42-7. Fortunately, Indiana State is next, but there's a lot of work to do.
Ohio State already had started paying more competitive salaries for assistant coaches before Urban Meyer arrived in November 2011.

But when Meyer and athletic director Gene Smith sat down to discuss staff pay, Smith soon realized he needed to do more.

"I think Michigan had stepped up with their coordinators," Smith recalled last week during Big Ten spring meetings in Chicago. "So we were already going to that before Urban Meyer came, but we bumped it up a little more. Any time there's change, you have that opportunity."

[+] EnlargeGreg Mattison
Lon Horwedel/Icon SMIMichigan DC Greg Mattison ranks as the highest-paid assistant coach in the Big Ten for the 2013 season.
"Everyone's always focused on head coaches' salaries," Smith continued. "That's always the thing. But really when you look at the changes, it's really been assistants' salaries across the country -- not just in the SEC, but the Big 12, Pac-12, all across the country."

The Big Ten is part of the change, too, as the league is allocating more money toward football assistants than ever before. The Detroit Free Press has an excellent look at Big Ten assistants' salaries, complete with a database that includes 10 of the 12 current members (Northwestern doesn't submit salaries as a private institution, and Penn State doesn't have to because of state laws).

The Free Press found that eight of the 10 schools are paying more for assistants in 2013 than they did in 2012 (only Indiana and Illinois are not). There are some significant total increases, such as Wisconsin (up $558,000), Nebraska (up $518,500), Purdue ($400,000) and Minnesota ($355,000). Staff pay had been an issue at Wisconsin, which lost six assistant coaches following the 2012 Rose Bowl, and at Purdue, which paid less for its staff during the Danny Hope era than any Big Ten school.

The total trend among the 10 schools is an increase of $1,720,852.24 for 2013.

Ohio State and Michigan remain No. 1 and No. 2 in Big Ten staff salary, as the Buckeyes allocate $3.416 million and the Wolverines allocate $2.805 million. Nebraska and Wisconsin make the biggest moves in the league for 2013, as the Huskers rise from sixth to third and the Badgers rise from seventh to fourth.

Illinois, which replaced five assistants from the 2012 team, including co-offensive coordinators Chris Beatty and Billy Gonzales, dropped from third in staff pay ($2.314 million) to eighth ($2.065 million).

The database shows that nearly every Big Ten assistant with "coordinator" in his title -- whether he's the sole coordinator or a co-coordinator -- will earn north of $300,000 for 2013. Only 18 assistants listed will make less than $200,000 in 2013 -- 15 work for Minnesota, Illinois, Purdue and Indiana.


Some notes:

  • Although Wisconsin paid former offensive coordinator Paul Chryst good coin, the school has increased its commitment for Gary Andersen's staff, not only with the coordinators but with some coveted position coaches like running backs coach Thomas Hammock ($300,000).
  • All of Nebraska's assistants are earning $200,000 or more for 2013, but there's a huge drop-off between Beck and the next highest-paid assistant (defensive coordinator John Papuchis at $310,000).
  • Michigan State has a similar drop off between Narduzzi and co-offensive coordinators Dave Warner ($270,000) and Jim Bollman ($260,000). Warner will be the primary offensive play-caller and has been on Mark Dantonio's staff since 2006, while Bollman is a newcomer.
  • Although Michigan is paying top dollar for its coordinators, the school gets its assistants for a relative bargain. Receivers coach/recruiting coordinator Jeff Hecklinski will earn $225,000 in 2013, while the others all will earn $205,000. Ohio State, meanwhile, pays all but one of its assistants $286,000 or more.
  • The Big Ten's three lowest-paid assistants all are in their first years: Illinois wide receivers coach Mike Bellamy ($125,000) and Purdue linebackers coach Marcus Freeman and running backs coach Jafar Williams (both at $120,000).
  • Although schools like Illinois, Wisconsin and Iowa ($325,000) pay their coordinators the exact same amount, others have slight differences in salary. Purdue's Shoop makes $5,000 more than defensive coordinator Greg Hudson. Minnesota defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys ($340,000) makes $5,000 more than offensive coordinator Matt Limegrover. Wonder if that leads to any underlying jealousy?
  • Most Big Ten schools have assistant salaries in round numbers, but there are some interesting totals from Indiana, which pays co-offensive coordinators Seth Littrell and Kevin Johns $255,500.04 and new recruiting coordinator/assistant defensive line coach James Patton $173,740.08. Never know when that change can come in handy.

The Big Ten still lacks some of the OMG totals seen in the SEC -- LSU is paying new offensive coordinator Cam Cameron $3.4 million in the next three years -- but the overall trend puts the league more on par with what we're seeing nationally.
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."
Nebraska offensive coordinator Tim Beck oversaw one of the most prolific attacks in the Big Ten in 2012. Now, Beck is getting rewarded for that good work.

According to the Omaha World-Herald, the third-year coordinator had his salary nearly doubled on Jan. 1, going from $365,000 last season to $700,000 this year. That would make Beck the third-highest paid coordinator in the Big Ten, behind Ohio State co-defensive coordinator Luke Fickell ($761,000) and Michigan defensive coordinator Greg Mattison ($750,000). Beck would be making more than Michigan offensive coordinator Al Borges and Michigan State defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi. (We took a look at the highest-paid Big Ten assistants last month, which you can find here).

According to the story, head coach Bo Pelini said Beck had been contacted by at least two teams for jobs after the regular season.

Some other Huskers assistants also got raises. Defensive coordinator John Papuchis went from $300,000 to $310,000. Assistant offensive line coach John Garrison got the biggest bump, going from $160,000 to $245,000. Running backs coach Ron Brown and offensive line coach Barney Cotton saw their salaries jump from $240,000 to $254,800. Overall, the Huskers are adding more than $500,000 to their assistant coaching salary pool this year.

We've talked here recently about how Big Ten teams need to continue to pay their assistants well if they want to compete with other national powers. It's good to see Nebraska step up and reward Beck, who has done a great job so far in Lincoln.
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.

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