LINCOLN, Neb. - The surprise isn't that No. 9 Nebraska is unbeaten. It's that the offense has been carrying the defense so far.
The re-emergence of the Cornhuskers under Bo Pelini the past three years has been predicated on strong defense.
The Huskers are nowhere to be found in the top 60 of the major defensive categories while the offense has scored 40 or more points in the first three games for the first time since 1995.
Maybe the biggest surprise is that the temperamental Pelini isn't grousing about the defensive problems, at least not yet.
“It's all part of the process,” he said Monday. “It's why they put 'coach' in front of our names. You don't panic. You look at it for what it is and work to get it fixed.”
There's plenty to fix before the Big Ten opener at No. 6 Wisconsin in two weeks.
The front seven, led by preseason All-America tackle Jared Crick and linebacker Lavonte David, have been soft against the run. A week after Fresno State's Robbie Rouse ran for 169 yards, Washington's Chris Polk gouged the Huskers for 130.
Nebraska hasn't gotten much pressure on passers, though it should be noted Fresno State and Washington rolled the pocket and had their quarterbacks throw on the run. The Huskers have only five sacks, one by Crick, and their 4.3 tackles for loss a game ranks 96th nationally.
“I think Crick can play better. No question,” Pelini said. “The way teams are playing us is hurting him stat-wise.”
The secondary has taken a huge hit with the loss of cornerback Alfonzo Dennard, who has been out since pulling a muscle in his right leg in mid-August. The Huskers are allowing 233 yards through the air.
“Obviously it hurts you because, in my opinion, I don't think there's a better corner in the country. I think he's that good,” Pelini said. “It also has given us an opportunity to look at other guys. You're 3-0, you've looked at a lot of guys. Hopefully it makes you stronger over the long haul.”
Dennard dressed for last week's 51-38 win over Washington but didn't play. He's expected to be in the lineup at Wyoming (3-0) on Saturday.
Sophomore corners Ciante Evans and Andrew Green have taken turns getting abused by opposing quarterbacks.
“I'd like those guys to be more aggressive and to play with more confidence,” defensive coordinator Carl Pelini said.
The tackling at times has been shoddy, too. Polk broke through five would-be tacklers to turn a 2-yard loss into a 6-yard gain in last week's game, and the problem cropped up again in the fourth quarter when Washington scored 17 points to keep Nebraska from putting away the game.
Pelini, defensive coordinator for LSU's 2007 national championship team, took over at Nebraska in 2008 with orders to restore the aura of the iconic Blackshirts.
In 2009, the Ndamukong Suh-led defense ranked seventh overall and allowed a nation-low 10.4 points a game. Last season the Huskers had three defensive starters selected in the first four rounds of the NFL draft after they ranked 11th in total defense and ninth in scoring defense.
Nebraska has allowed 74 points, the third most through three games since 1957. Only the 1991 team, beaten 31-26 by No. 9 Washington, and the 2007 team, beaten 49-31 by No. 1 USC, allowed more points in the first three games.
“I don't really buy into statistics,” Bo Pelini said.
He said he has kept his cool about the gaffes against Washington because he understands why they happened.
He said there were a few offensive wrinkles the Huskies hadn't shown before, and his inexperienced players didn't react well to them. He also noticed breakdowns in communication and instances where players in pressure situations failed to do as they had been coached.
Bo Pelini said he decided against simplifying the defensive schemes.
“I don't think you grow quite as much when you do,” he said. “We're going to grow a lot because of what happened in all phases the last couple weeks.”
Meanwhile, the offense is content to carry the team, if need be. After all, the defense led the way as Nebraska won 10 games and played for the Big 12 championship each of the last two seasons.
“We've got no resentment toward the defense at all,” receiver Kenny Bell said. “I've got nothing but faith that our defense will play lights out every week. Have they had their struggles? Perhaps. But it's a football game. No one can play perfect.”