There were two quotes from Nebraska head coach Bo Pelini following the Huskers 59-20 win over South Dakota State on Saturday that should be very important to Nebraska fans as the team heads into a bye week and then Big Ten play.
Important Quote No. 1: “I thought that was our worst performance defensively. For a lot of reasons – fundamentally, technique-wise…missed assignments – just basic things that there’s no excuse for. I told the defense ‘We’ve gotta make up our mind of what we’re going to be and how we’re going to approach it.’”
I agree with Pelini. This was the Huskers worst defense performance in a season that, so far, is full of them.
South Dakota State put up 465 yards of total offense, averaging 6.94 yards per play. On the season Nebraska is now allowing 6.55 yards per play this year, almost a full yard worse than the national average among FBS defenses coming into Saturday, and even worse than the defense that got Bill Callahan fired. That 2007 team allowed 6.1 yards per play on the year, but “just” 5.92 in four non-conference games that season.
The main culprit, a carry-over from last season, is run defense. Yes, Jackrabbits’ running back Zach Zenner is one of the best running backs in college football regardless of division. Yes, he was running behind a surprisingly large offensive line. But South Dakota State isn’t Baylor. Giving up nearly 5 yards per play in the run game is almost unthinkable against an FCS opponent. That’s what Nebraska did on Saturday.
According to numerous defensive coaches the Huskers misfit, misaligned and, all too often, just missed in this game. Linebackers got outflanked. Defensive tackles didn’t get a push. Five sacks and three takeaways kept the margin comfy, but that’s a high-risk way to play defense. Particularly against a team that’s allowed to have 63 scholarship players.
As pretty as the offense was under backups Tommy Armstrong and Ron Kellogg III — the offense topped 300 yards both passing and rushing for the first time in school history — the defense was ugly. There’s no way around it. If Nebraska continues to play defense this way, there’s no way it improves upon last year’s record. Or the year before that. Or the year before that, etc.
“You’ve gotta have a killer instinct. In football, no one’s going to give you anything, you’ve gotta go take it, you’ve gotta earn it,” he said following the game. “If you don’t have that approach, it’s not going to work out well for you. And right now that’s how we’re playing.”
The Huskers do have a badly-needed off week to work on things. It’s the most important week of Pelini’s tenure to date.
Which brings us to Important Quote No. 2: “I work in the business of getting it fixed and I take it as a challenge right now, to get this thing fixed. We’ll find the right combination and we’ll find a way. I’ve always been able to do that and I feel confident we’ll be able to do it. I’ll get this fixed. Trust me there.”
Trust. That’s what this off week comes down to for Nebraska fans. They showed on Saturday that they were willing to trust Pelini when he said he didn’t really mean what he said about the fans on that Deadspin audio. Probably the smart move there.
But the trust Pelini is specifically asking for in that quote is going to require an even bigger leap of faith. The Huskers problem on defense aren’t totally scheme-, talent-, or attitude-based. It is all of those things, which means that what we’re really talking about here is the culture.
Too often Nebraska’s defense looks like 11 men all trying to make the play. That’s how gaps get abandoned. That’s how bad tackling angles come about. It takes trust on the players’ part to just stay assignment-sound, to maintain contain when you’re a defensive end, to stay outside of the man who’s blocking you or inside if that’s where you’re supposed to be, to do the right thing that allows someone else to make the play.
So how does Nebraska create a football culture where making those sorts of mistakes — tiny things individually, but big things in concert — simply aren’t tolerated? That’s Pelini’s challenge this week and, judging from his post game comments, he seemed well aware of just how big of a challenge that will be.
“The amount of times that we shoot ourselves in the foot is ridiculous,” Pelini said. “They don’t even have to do anything well. I’m not taking anything away from South Dakota State by any means, but when you just blow your gap or flat out bust or don’t align with the right guy. The amount of times that happened in the game was mind-boggling to me. That starts with us coaches.”
It does, and a week’s not a whole lot of time though this last one certainly felt like it.