Lincoln, NE - As I prepped for the job of Nebraska beat writer for FOX Sports NEXT in 2011, I remember thinking to myself how excited I was to watch Bo Pelini’s defense on a regular basis.
I’m sort of a defensive snob.
Living in Dallas, the Big 12 was a regular part of my Saturday viewing. And I was more likely to watch a Nebraska 10-3 win over Oklahoma, than a 47-41 shootout between Oklahoma and Oklahoma State.
But now through 15 games on the job, I have made a pretty easy observation. This isn’t even close to the same defense everyone grew accustomed to in 2009 and 2010.
It’s not as aggressive.
It’s not as fast.
It’s actually hard to watch.
The defensive line doesn’t cause pressure. The linebackers are slow to the outside. The secondary gets beat on too many jump balls.
Pelini was brought to Lincoln to fix a defense that had become non-existent in the Bill Callahan era.
It might be broken again
The buzz in Big 12 country a few years ago was no one wanted to play Pelini’s squad – offensive coordinators now have to be licking their chops.
On Saturday Nebraska gave up 653 yards of total offense – just a few off the school record. If UCLA quarterback Brett Hundley doesn’t kneel the ball a couple times at the end of the game for a loss, the record would have fallen.
Who would have ever imagined that on Pelini’s watch? He did after all win a National Title as a defensive coordinator at LSU.
Saturday’s loss to now No. 23 UCLA can’t be solely placed on the defense, they didn’t play horribly in the second half, but it wasn’t exactly a total game effort.
A freshman quarterback shouldn’t be able to throw for 300 yards against a defense formally known as the Blackshirts.
UCLA running back Jonathan Franklin earned honorable mention all-conference honors last year as a junior. He looked like a Heisman candidate against Nebraska. How often did he look brought down in the backfield, to only break a couple tackles, and get a large gain?
Allow that to happen the opening game of the year and it can be chalked up to rustiness.
Do it two games in a row and you have a trend – a bad trend.
By the way, the two skilled players did it behind a line featuring three freshman.
Nebraska head coach Bo Pelini in his fifth-year on the job. The defensive starters are his guys. He recruited them. The likes of Bill Callahan recruits such as Suh, Prince, Crick, and Hagg are gone.
And maybe that is the problem.
Pelini’s schemes have worked before. He’s quick to point it out.
“I know what I’m doing defensively,” Pelini told reporters on Monday, saying a game like UCLA wouldn’t shake his confidence.
Which makes me ask the question, is it more about the Jimmys and Joes than the X’s and O’s?
Here is a breakdown of all the defensive starters from Saturday night’s game coming out of high school according to FOX Sports NEXT/Scout.com.
2008 recruiting class:
DT.) Baker Steinkuhler – No. 2 OG in the country
LB.) Will Compton – No. 13 MLB in the country
LB.) Alonzo Whaley – No. 52 OLB in the country
S.) P.J Smith – No. 55 S in the country
DE.) Cameron Meredith – No. 49 DE in the country
2009 recruiting class:
DE.) Jason Ankrah – No. 24 DE in the country
CB.) Andrew Green – No. 68 CB in the country
2010 recruiting class:
DT.) Chase Rome – No. 22 DE in the country
CB.) Josh Mitchell – No. 102 CB in the country
S.) Daimion Stafford – four-star JC transfer
Nickel.) Ciante Evans – No. 39 CB in the country
Rankings can mean squat. Players can be coached up, in fact Pelini prides himself on it. Great recruiting classes don’t always make great offensive and defensive units – the Longhorns and Irish have proven it.
But it’s hard to look at that list of players and expect a top scoring defense like Pelini’s teams have cranked out before. It's not a coincidence teams like Alabama and LSU, who are consistently great defensive units, feature Top 10-15 players out of high school at each position.
The fifth-year head coach told reporters on Monday his defenses have traditionally gotten better as the season went on. It didn’t happen in 2011 (Michigan and South Carolina), but I believe him.
On Saturday night as players left the Rose Bowl visiting locker rooms, they were quick to remind the media all their goals were still a possibility – a real Rose Bowl is still in sight.
If that’s even remotely possible, the defense will have to look like a different unit down the road.
With an upperclassmen heavy squad, I expect this team to bounce back against Arkansas State, but the Huskers better not mess around. The Red Wolves can score and score quickly.