Category Archives: Blackshirts

Real Question, is Wisconsin Ready for Nebraska?

BY TODD NEELEY

I’m not totally buying into the hype.

Pundits have given Nebraska hardly a chance against Wisconsin in Madison Saturday, but in all the excited fog surrounding the game is a dose of reality.

There are plenty of reasons to believe the Huskers have a shot to beat Wisconsin.

Sorry to upset the Russell Wilson apple cart here, but tell me one time early in this 2011 season that the Badger quarterback has had so much as a hand in his face.

Yeah I didn’t think so.

Wilson will face a much more athletic, physical defense than he’s faced all season. Wisconsin has barely broken a sweat in going 4-0, but things will change with Nebraska coming to town.

The Badgers may not face a better, more physical, faster team this season unless they play in the national championship game.

The Blackshirts will need to come to play this week, but defending Wisconsin is not impossible.

Week in and week out the Nebraska defense was challenged by the likes of Oklahoma State, Oklahoma, Missouri, Texas A&M, Texas and Texas Tech.

Let’s face it, Nebraska hasn’t lived up to its standards in 2011 – they rank an embarrassing 52nd in the country in total defense. These are the kinds of numbers that once got Craig Bohl fired as defensive coordinator, and proof that Husker coaches are pounding on their
defenders in practice.

Bo Pelini has a history of making adjustments on defense, and usually has that unit peaking by midseason. The fact that Nebraska hasn’t played very well on that side of the ball yet means its best game is yet to come.

It would be a great week to put it all together.

Setting all the hype and history aside, Nebraska has a clear path to its first Big Ten win.

First, the Nebraska defensive line must get a push against a mammoth Wisconsin offensive line – one of the biggest at any level of football. This means Husker all-American Jared Crick has to somehow find a way to re-establish the line of scrimmage two to three yards in the Badger backfield, forcing Russell Wilson to run. The guy is a better passer than he is a runner.

If Nebraska can force Wisconsin into third and long, then the Huskers can bring the heat and get hits on Wilson.

Nebraska has to make the Wisconsin defense make decisions on the perimeter. The Badgers have to be made to choose between containing Taylor Martinez and Rex Burkhead – making the option the perfect play to run against what appears to be a good, but fairly slow defense.

Nebraska has a lot of speed at receiver and will need to take shots downfield and exploit holes in a Wisconsin zone defense.

NU has been outstanding on special teams with kicker/punter Brett Maher and kick returner Ameer Abdullah. Nebraska will need to win the field position battle to put pressure on the Wisconsin defense and these guys can make a huge difference.

The Huskers have to force at least two turnovers in this game. Simply put, Wisconsin hasn’t made mistakes and that will have to change. Conversely, Nebraska has to hold onto the ball – they laid the ball on the ground four times at Wyoming last week. What’s more, Nebraska has to not beat itself with dumb penalties.

If you watch Russell Wilson during his days at North Carolina State, he had plenty of games when he made knuckleheaded mistakes with the ball – proving defenses can get to him.

Finally, Nebraska can’t allow the Wisconsin offense to just pound away in the running game and control time of possession.

Though Husker fans are up in arms about Nebraska’s slow defensive start that may be the silver lining heading to Madison – this is a Nebraska team that hasn’t come close to reaching its potential on defense.

The Nebraska offense has improved significantly from game one – finally finding an identity that includes a power running game and a big-play quarterback. NU holds a speed advantage on both sides of the ball and Nebraska’s special teams have been special, Wisconsin’s not so much.

With all the talk about how NU is facing a balanced and disciplined team in a hostile environment, you’d swear Nebraska has yet to play in the kind of atmosphere it will see at Camp Randall Stadium.

Nebraska fans remember well playing at Virginia Tech, Texas A&M, Washington, Oklahoma, you name it. Kids come to Nebraska to play in the big games on a big stage with a lot on the line.

Wisconsin has been good, really good, but championships aren’t won by playing softies. So far the Badgers have been playing weekly scrimmages, but this week they face an opponent that will punch them in the mouth – win or lose.

Is Wisconsin ready for Nebraska?

Fresno Faces O Line Trouble Heading to Nebraska

TODD NEELEY

Fresno State will have to reshuffle its offensive line ahead of its game at No. 10 Nebraska this week in Lincoln, according to the Fresno Bee, http://www.fresnobee.com/2011/09/05/2526294/bulldogs-lose-center-helepiko.html.

Starting center Richard Helepiko will be out with an ankle injury, the Bee reported.

The Bulldogs will start 6-foot-5, 310-pound redshirt freshman Cody Wichmann at right tackle.

Sophomore Austin Wentworth, who started at right tackle against California last week will slide over to right guard. Senior Leslie Cooper, who was the starting right guard, will start at center.

Junior Matt Hunt and senior Bryce Harris will stay in their original starting spots at left guard and left tackle, respectively. Junior Trevor Richter will serve as the No. 6 lineman in the rotation.

This is not good news for Fresno State. Nebraska’s defensive line is proving to be deep, fast and aggressive, led by Jared Crick and Cameron Meredith.

The timing couldn’t be worse for the Bulldogs, and this should be a significant factor Saturday night.

Nebraska’s Crick, David Named to Lott Trophy Watch List

Senior defenders Jared Crick and Lavonte David are two of 42 players named to the 2011 Lott IMPACT Trophy Watch List on Tuesday. The award honors the top collegiate defensive player in the country and is named in honor of former USC and NFL great Ronnie Lott.

Crick enters his senior season with 19 career sacks, including 9.5 sacks in each of the past two seasons. He has been a first-team all-conference selection each of the past two years and will look to become the first Nebraska player in more than a decade to be a three-time all-conference pick. Crick was a quarterfinalist for the Lott Trophy last season, while also being named a second-team All-American and a semifinalist for the Rotary Lombardi Award.

In his first season at Nebraska in 2010, David set a Nebraska single-season record with 152 tackles. His play earned David Big 12 Defensive Newcomer-of-the-Year honors and second-team All-America accolades. David recorded eight games with double-figure tackles last season and also ranked second on the team in sacks (6), tackles for loss (15) and pass breakups (10)

David and Crick are among seven starters returning to a Nebraska defense that ranked in the top 12 nationally in scoring, passing and total defense a year ago.

The list of 42 watch list members includes eight players who will compete in the Big Ten Conference in 2011.

Eating Crow After Close Call at Iowa State, Sort of

BY TODD NEELEY

Some people take themselves way too seriously.

I wrote a blog last week ahead of the Nebraska/Iowa State game in which I pretty much said it was way past midnight on the series with the Cyclones, http://dld.bz/58e5.

If you read the comments in response to the blog you’ll see I got into a little “discussion” with a handful of readers who said they were Iowa State fans. Unfortunately there was hardly a comment that didn’t resort to personal attacks on yours truly.

Did I have some of it coming?

You be the judge.

I threw down some pretty hard smack on how I believe the series between these two teams has been a waste of time for Nebraska.

And Saturday’s 31-30 Nebraska win on a dramatic interception by Eric Hagg on a fake point-after try by ISU in overtime, has done nothing to change my belief that it’s time to put these one-sided series on the shelf.

Nothing has changed for me.

An occasional uprising by teams like ISU every decade isn’t enough if Nebraska wants to compete for national championships. For those ISU fans who don’t get that, too bad, but Nebraska has always been about winning championships. That’s just the way it is around here.

Let’s face it, all fan bases have those people who resort to name calling. Whatever happened to engaging in a real debate on the merits of what I had to say? Why not throw a little Nebraska smack back at me rather than resorting to name calling?

They no more represent the entire ISU fan base than I represent the Nebraska fan base. But if you can’t take the smack, find another blog to read.

The point remains — in this day and age when style points mean everything in college football, Nebraska can no longer afford to play cupcakes. And even good and decent ISU fans will admit their team has — by and large — been a cupcake.

Speaking of food, I’ll eat just a little crow on that tight game in Ames.

I said Nebraska would run away from ISU 42-14. But the absense of Taylor Martinez and all-American candidate  cornerback Alfonzo Dennard made for a much closer game than many people expected. ISU fans made a point that the Cyclones won in Lincoln last season with their backup quarterback and backup running back.

I’ll submit to you, ISU fans, that Nebraska won in Ames pretty much without a quarterback.

I’ll give credit to Iowa State. They again took advantage of numerous Nebraska mistakes and made a couple of plays on offense to make a game of it.

But ISU had no answer for running back Rex Burkhead, who ran the Nebraska offense from the ‘wildcat’ formation. By the way, why the heck did NU play Cody Green at all on Saturday? He has proven what I said here awhile back — that he’s all hype and has been a huge disappointment for Nebraska fans.

About last week’s blog, I said what I meant and meant what I said.

I pointed out the obvious: That the series with ISU has never been a rivalry — 18 Cyclone wins in 114 years since these two teams started playing each other does not constitute a rivalry. Not even close.

For years to come fans will remember this last Nebraska/Iowa State game for several reasons.

First, ISU Head Coach Paul Rhoads showed great courage in faking the point-after attempt to go for two. But it made no sense to put the game in the hands of your kick holder instead of just going for two with Austen Arnaud running the offense. That was a critical miss for ISU, especially since the Cyclones had success moving the ball on the Blackshirts.

Second, great teams make big plays when the game is on the line. If Hagg didn’t pick off that pass in the endzone we’d be lamenting the rotten taste of two consecutive losses to Iowa State to end Big 12 play for Nebraska. And ISU fans, at least the ones I’ve heard from, would be talking about how Iowa State has arrived.

Third, Nebraska is a great team with Taylor Martinez running the offense and inconsistent without him.

Speaking of crow, Kansas comes to Lincoln Saturday in what will be, again, the last game in yet another cupcake series for Nebraska.

ISU fans also pointed out in their comments (in between the personal attacks) that Nebraska would have it rough in the Big Ten.

You know, that may be true.

But let’s put it this way — next season’s first Big Ten schedule for Nebraska will be necessarily brutal. NU plays Ohio State, Wisconsin, Iowa, Penn State, Michigan and Michigan State in 2011.

Maybe it’s just me, but if Nebraska runs the table next year it looks a lot better than running the table on Missouri, Kansas, Kansas State, Colorado and Iowa State.

Then again, maybe it’s just me.

Nebraska Lacks Focus Required of a Championship Team

BY TODD NEELEY

It was a amusing to watch a local reporter tell readers Sunday to not make too much out of Nebraska’s lack of performance against South Dakota State in Lincoln Saturday.

Excuse me?

Well, maybe he’s right. Maybe this 17-3 win against a I-AA opponent doesn’t really matter in the scheme of things. But it should.

SDSU showed the college football world how to beat Nebraska.

It doesn’t take great analysis to figure out that championship teams don’t play the way NU did on Saturday. From the opening kickoff Nebraska should have delivered a knockout blow against an opponent that should have been outmanned.

Still waiting for that one.

If Nebraska played like it did at Washington it would have been 70-3.

Every game matters when it comes to playing championship football. That’s why anyone with the reaction that Nebraska’s performance was shocking or “embarrassing” as Bo Pelini said afterwards, knows instinctively that there’s a bigger issue at play here.

To win championships you can’t have letdowns and you have to play at a consistently high level. So far in 2010 Nebraska hasn’t done that. NU should have hung 60 points on the Jackrabbits, but for whatever reason Nebraska didn’t come to play.

It would be hard to make the case that Nebraska was looking past SDSU to that first conference game at Kansas State because of a bye week before the trip to Manhattan. Sure, even great teams have close calls. But you expect that to come from opponents that match up with Nebraska athletically, not from an 0-2, I-AA team.

Texas’ 34-12 loss to UCLA in Austin Saturday is a prime example of a team looking ahead. UT plays Oklahoma Saturday.

Nebraska proved it can easily get off course and lose focus if it chooses to.

SDSU was flying around on defense and they stuffed the Nebraska running game for the most part. On offense SDSU was able to run the ball with way too much success, finishing with 141 yards including 112 from Kyle Minett.

Who? Did you say Walter Payton? Unfortunately not.

If ever there was a reason for Pelini to take back the Blackshirts he issued just before this week’s game, this performance is screaming for it.

Nebraska defensive back coach Marvin Sanders offered the only positive comment following the game. He said that if you look across college football there have been several big upsets. His point was that Nebraska found a way to grind it out and pull out a win. With all due respect to coach Sanders, Nebraska put itself in a position to lose that game.

In fact, if SDSU had even a couple more playmakers on offense it could have been a much different final score.

No one has been able to figure out Nebraska’s zone read all season — until Saturday. There should be reason for concern here.

Of all teams, SDSU showed the college football world how to defend the new Nebraska offense. It takes complete team defense and discipline. All 11 guys on that Jackrabbit defense knew their assignments and stuck with it for four quarters.

For the rest of the season Nebraska will have to find much better success in the passing game. That’s because SDSU showed that if you play eight or nine guys up at the line of scrimmage and every player stays in his lane and lets the Nebraska offense come to them, then you eliminate the overpursuit that has led to big running plays by Taylor Martinez, Roy Helu and Rex Burkhead.

SDSU held Nebraska at bay with a group of average athletes who gave great effort — that’s why there’s reason for concern.

Pelini obviously misread his team in practice last week. In the postgame he had no answers as to why his team played so poorly, especially since he said it was a good week of practice.

So, has this team reached a point where it is believing all the hype about being a top 10 team?

Pelini has been good at pushing all the right buttons to get his teams to play hard. Did players just not listen this week?

Unfortunately this lack of focus could come back to haunt in the big games down the road.

Nebraska will either take this game as a loss and step up the intensity, or this is the beginning of a bad habit.

Does anyone know where to find a good sports psychologist?

Nebraska may Reconsider ‘Peso’ Defense When Big Ten Play Begins

BY TODD NEELEY

With Nebraska’s move to the Big Ten starting in the 2011 season, it makes you wonder if NU’s recent move to what coaches call the “Peso” defense will hold up.

The Peso essentially includes four down linemen, one linebacker and six defensive backs. Defensive back Eric Hagg has been playing a hybrid linebacker/defensive back position. This has allowed Nebraska to get a ton of speed and athleticism on the field at one time.

The one true linebacker spot in the Peso is usually occupied by Lavonte David, Alonzo Whaley or Eric Martin. Most of the time in the first two games David has been the one linebacker playing in the Peso. The one downside is that David is just 6-0, 200 — pretty much the same size as any of the defensive backs in the lineup.

This defense makes  a lot of sense in the Big 12 because we’ve seen wide-open, pass-happy offenses carry the day in the past several years. Nebraska’s Peso has been effective because NU can put seven great athletes on the field at one time to cover some great receivers in this conference.

But who knows what happens starting in 2011.

During Nebraska’s weekly Tuesday press conference Nebraska Head Coach Bo Pelini said the smash mouth style of play in the Big Ten may have some bearing on whether the Huskers play the Peso after the 2010 season.

That’s because to defend what are run-oriented teams in the Big Ten could put a bigger premium on recruiting linebackers more suited for defending the run.

No offense against Lavonte David, but who knows what Nebraska will do on defense when it takes on Kansas State and bruising running back Daniel Thomas in a couple of weeks down in Manhattan. Last year in Lincoln Nebraska was able to keep Thomas pinned down, mostly because linebacker Phillip Dillard was all over the field. Yet Thomas was hard to tackle and put up some decent numbers.

If you look at the Big Ten there is a drastic difference in the way teams play offense. Nebraska will face a much more physical brand of football than what it sees in the Big 12, and much like the way Pelini has NU playing right now.

Pelini told reporters Tuesday that NU continues to recruit players like Hagg who can play multiple positions. It makes you wonder how well this works on defense considering that size may be a premium to defend the run.

Really, though, it isn’t always size that matters.

If you look back on Nebraska’s history, some of the best Husker defenders of all time were not exactly big. Mike Brown, the former Nebraska all-American and all-pro safety was the most fundamentally sound tackler NU has had — and the guy was only 5-11, 200. Barron Miles played corner for Nebraska during the ’94 championship season, and was a very good run defender at 5-8, 165.

I think we’ll continue to see Pelini and company recruit the best athletes regardless of position on defense.

As we’ve seen in Pelini’s first few years at Nebraska, guys aren’t necessarily recruited to play any one position. A good example is safety DeJon Gomes. Pelini said Gomes came to Nebraska as a corner back but hasn’t played that position since he came to Lincoln.

In a short time, however, Gomes has proven that he’s a playmaker. It started last season at the beginning of conference play when Gomes was inserted as a nickel back. He made a big interception at Missouri and had a big forced fumble at Kansas, both changing the face of the game.

Pelini said Lavonte David also has the ability to play more than one position. More importantly, I think we can refer to the back seven on the Nebraska defense as just the back seven. Position really doesn’t matter like it once did. It’s not as clear-cut.

Chances are Nebraska will continue to rely heavily on the play of its defensive line when it begins Big Ten Conference play next season at Wisconsin. Pelini and his staff have shown a tremendous ability to develop defensive linemen.

Ndamukong Suh was a good player when Pelini arrived, but quickly became the best defender in Nebraska history.

One thing’s for sure, we know Pelini will make the right adjustments ahead of the 2011 season.

Pelini: ‘Blackshirts’ Breakdowns Against WKU Fixable’

By Todd Neeley

So maybe Bo Pelini was overreacting a bit when he said Nebraska’s defense was “absolutely embarrassing” following the 49-10 win over Western Kentucky Saturday in Lincoln.

Honestly, the coach should be sore that the Blackshirts gave up 179 yards rushing to a team that has lost 21 games in a row — but on second look the breakdowns on defense apparently were nothing to sound the alarm bells over.

“Trust me, I don’t push the panic button,” Pelini said during Nebraska’s weekly press conference Tuesday. “You know where it is, it doesn’t change our expectations going in. It doesn’t change our standards. There were a lot of things that I kind of expected. We were better in some areas than I thought we’d be and worse in some areas. Most of it is very fixable. A lot of the things were communication errors, missed calls, that type of thing. Those things are easily fixable. Those are the things that happen in the first game.”

Pelini said his defense played well when all defenders communicated well.

“When we lined up I thought we were pretty good and were all on the same page,” he said. “Like I said, most of the things were communication issues. I kind of anticipated that would be the case coming in.

“Defense always has to be better. Across the board you have to communicate, especially the way we play defense. Communication has to be good across the board. Everybody has to talk, that just comes from growing together and getting more comfortable with each other. If you look at my history, that’s our style of defense. You get better as you go on, as you get more time together. I’ve been here before, I’m not real concerned. I’ll be concerned if I’m saying this four or five weeks from now. I don’t think that will be the case.”

Junior defensive tackle Jared Crick said one of the main problems the defensive line faced Saturday was that players were “playing high.”

“I feel we’re still a great team,” he said. “I’m still very confident in the offense. I’m very excited abou this team going through the rest of the season. I haven’t seen one guy coming out in practice not coming out to get better.”

Crick lauded the performance of linebackers Lavonte David and Alonzo Whaley, who filled in for the injured Will Compton and Sean Fisher. Pelini said Compton has a foot injury and will miss four or five weeks.

Starting senior safety Rickey Thenarse said he believes the NU defense has already made the necessary changes and adjustments in practice.

“I don’t think we played ot our standard,” he said. “From yesterday’s practice I think our defense is better than Saturday’s game. Coach wants perfection, to dominate our opponent and we didn’t dominate them.”

Pelini said coaches should have done a better job of preparing the defense for WKU. Because the Hilltoppers came into the game with a new coach, Nebraska had no specific idea of the type of offense they would face.

“Without getting into it too deep, we game plan and we get pretty specific on a weekly basis on how we’re going to do things,” he said. “We make a lot of adjustments, checks, calls. That takes time. One of the reasons I said I kind of expected it going in last week is we weren’t really sure what we were going to get from the opposing offense. We had to practice a lot of different things because we weren’t exactly sure what they were going to feature or how they were going to do it because it was a new staff. We had some educated guesses as to what we were going to see.”

He said that makes it more difficult on defenders.

“We probably exposed them to too much last week, maybe did a little too much for that being the situation and having some youth in there,” Pelini said. “Our situation kind of changed on Thursday when Will Compton went down. Not that the other guys weren’t capable of doing it, because they are, but it changes because we weren’t expecting that to be the case. Like I said, it’s not something I’m real concerned with because we’ve already made big strides since the game.”

Deep Nebraska Defense Hopes not to Miss a Beat

By Todd Neeley

LINCOLN — With Ndamukong Suh off to the NFL where he’s already terrorizing quarterbacks, the Nebraska defense is looking for new leaders to help regain the swagger it had at the end of 2009.

Husker Defensive Coordinator Carl Pelini said during Nebraska’s press conference Tuesday ahead of Saturday’s game against Western Kentucky, that even with Suh and a group of other starters gone his mind is more at ease.

There’s more than a single reason why Nebraska hopes not to miss a beat in 2010.

The Blackshirts are deep at every position.

“I think there’s a quiet confidence about things,” Pelini said. “I think the swagger comes after we face opponents. It is always a nerve-wracking time heading into the first game. You feel untested and not sure how you’ll react to different situations. Until you step on the field and call the first play and it plays out, the jitters are there.”

Nebraska coaches and players Tuesday went on and on about the play of junior college transfer linebacker Lavonte David. Pelini was equally excited about the depth in the defensive line — Jared Crick, Baker Steinkuhler, Thadeus Randle, Terrence Moore, Chase Rome and others.

Don’t be too surprised, however, if David makes an immediate statement on the field.

Head Coach Bo Pelini said David is unusual for a first-year player in that he’s caught on to Nebraska’s defensive system and is making plays — just months after arriving on campus.

“Lavonte’s had a great camp,” Carl Pelini said. “He is as instinctive of a football player as I”ve been around. He has progressed because of those instincts. He’s going to be on the field for us. I’m not usually as confident in a first-year player heading into the first game.”

Husker receiver Brandon Kinnie, who faces David and the defense everyday in practice, said the linebacker causes problems for the offense.

“He’s just fast,” Kinnie said. “He’s just got this knack for the football. He’s just always there.”

David’s chances of starting improved with the loss of Sean Fisher to a broken leg for the season, as now David, Eric Martin and Will Compton appear to be the top three linebackers.

In addition, Carl Pelini said senior defensive end Pierre Allen came into fall camp much stronger and faster. That is the case, he said, because Allen has recovered from a series of physical problems, and unlike previous off-seasons, was able to work on his strength and speed during summer workouts.

“He made huge gains in the off-season in a short time,” Pelini said. “I think he’s got all the tools.”

Allen is part of a defensive line that is in a better position than it was one year ago.

“I sleep a little better this year than I did last year,” Pelini said. “We’re going to be fresher and healthier and I expect our defensive line as a whole to have no drop off. There is always a focus on today. All I’m worried about is today and how we practice today. Everyday guys are fighting for playing time. Depth has done that.”

Last season Suh and Crick played a significant number of minutes, barely taking a break primarily because Nebraska wasn’t that deep.

Crick said he expects the defensive line will play well even when he’s on the sideline.

“I love our depth,” he said. “It’s going to be hard coming off the field but it’s good to know the guy replacing you can get the job done.”