How Nebraska knuckled down on defense

Nebraska’s defense will be wearing Blackshirts this week because, after the embarrassing loss to Ohio State in early October, they’ve played like Blackshirts the past two weeks. Over the past two games Nebraska has given up a total of 489 yards while allowing just 10-of-35 third down conversions. The Huskers now rank 26th nationally in total defense, ninth in pass efficiency defense, and 26th in third down conversion percentage.

It wasn’t surprising then that coach Bo Pelini gave a mini-treatise on defense at Monday’s weekly press conference, detailing what’s changed, what hasn’t, and what to expect going forward as the Huskers prepare for a run of games that will be heavier on pro-style quarterbacks as opposed to the dual-threats Nebraska has seen all season.

First, the mission statement:

“Playing great defense is doing your job, playing great team defense and handling your responsibility first,” Pelini said. “(It’s also) having an idea of what we’re trying to get done and why we’re trying to get it done. It requires great preparation to play great defense in this day and age.”

So what changed for a team that gave up 8.03 yards per play against Ohio State — the second-highest yards per play of the Pelini era — but only 2.94 against Michigan two games later?

“We haven’t changed philosophically over the past couple weeks, but we’ve executed a lot better,” Pelini said. “Our preparation has gotten better, our understanding has gotten better so therefore the results have been there. That’s your challenge week-to-week, execute what we’re trying to do.”

When asked for more specifics beyond just “execution,” Pelini added that the defensive line play has improved and, most importantly, Nebraska has limited big plays.

“We haven’t made a lot of big mistakes,” he said. “Our mental errors have been few and far between. That’s a big difference.

“When you don’t have mental errors, you don’t create big issues, you limit explosive (plays), and you make people have to execute down the field. That’s helped us.”

What’s led to the fewer mistakes and overall better execution? Pelini wasn’t quite ready to say he’s simplified things defensively, but he did say he’s perhaps limited the calls in certain situations and with certain personnel.

“I’ve altered what we do philosophically a little bit, but not a lot. We’ve stayed within the same structure but maybe limited certain areas of it to allow them to play fast and aggressive and with a greater deal of understanding.

“A lot of the concepts we used against Ohio State we’ve used the last two weeks, we’ve just done them better. You maybe limit the amount of ways you do it, maybe that’s been, to a certain extent, what we’ve done, but there’s some give and take with that.”

The Huskers had their best game defensively against Michigan State last year, holding the Spartans to just 187 yards of offense. With a new quarterback and new receivers, the Spartans are struggling offensively this year ranking 10th in the Big Ten in total offense, 11th in scoring offense and 12th in rushing. Quarterback Andrew Maxwell represents the first real pocket passer the Huskers have faced this season. That will change some things for Nebraska, including more three linebacker sets, but it won’t change the Huskers preparation this week.

“Great defense is about reading and reacting and making the right decisions,” Pelini said. “It’s our job to help them make them the split-second decisions the right way more often than not.”

It may have taken a big loss and a bye week to find that line of thinking again, but Nebraska’s there now.

A few other notes from Monday’s press conference:

–Many Husker fans were wondering where Braylon Heard was at on Saturday with starting running back Rex Burkhead on the bench. Pelini said Heard “tweaked his groin” during practice last week and was available to play but the staff tried to keep him out unless he was needed. Heard is back to 100 percent this week.

–Redshirt freshman wide receiver Taariq Allen will have surgery this week and is done for the season after injuring his knee on the opening kickoff Saturday night.

–Quarterback Taylor Martinez said he’ll be undergoing treatment after slightly tweaking his ankle on Saturday but he fully expects to play this week.

–Pelini had some additional praise for his quarterback who is 115 yards away from becoming the school’s all-time leader in total yards:

“I think he’s done a lot of great things since he’s been here. The best part about it is there’s still a lot out there for him. He continues to work hard. He’s developing in a lot of different ways. He’s growing, he’s maturing as a football player and I think there’s a lot more he can do to get better.

“He’s not perfect by any means, but he’s continued to grow and develop as a football player. As a coach, that’s really all you can ask him to do.”

–Brett Maher was named the Big Ten Special Teams Player of the Week for the fifth time in his career, setting a conference record. David Santos was named one of two Freshmen of the Week for his 10 tackle performance against Michigan.

–The Nebraska-Penn State game on Nov. 10 is set for a 2:30 p.m. kickoff. The game will be televised on ABC and, in certain regions, ESPN2.