LINCOLN — Will Compton knew it was one of Nebraska's more aggressive defensive plans. A complex medley of blitzes, defensive line shifts and coverage hand-offs that the Huskers felt confident they could handle in their trip to UCLA.
“We had a good amount on us,” Compton said. “And we should have that amount on us.”
“I loved the game plan,” defensive coordinator John Papuchis said.
Why did Compton and Papuchis think it would work? The accumulated experience of Nebraska senior defenders, Compton said. Combine that with Bruin quarterback Brett Hundley making just his second career start, and the Huskers believed that they'd make big plays and put UCLA behind the chains.
Then the Bruins ran a staggering 94 plays for the second-most yards in history against a Nebraska defense. Highway 653.
“Everything went wrong,” safety P.J. Smith said. “From the first play until the last play.”
“I still have the hangover,” linebacker Alonzo Whaley said.
Sickened. Nasty. Angry. Head coach Bo Pelini and players Monday morning used those words to describe NU's 36-30 loss to the Bruins, placing much of their self-criticism on bad tackling. Pelini said his team could have doubled its number of sacks and tackles for loss through basic fundamentals.
By the end of Monday's practice, NU coaches and players had offered a full reckoning of the historically bad performance. And their focus had widened to even the most basic elements of athleticism.
“We want to get a little bit faster,” Papuchis said. “Team speed is something that's been lacking over the first couple games, so we're going to try to get some of our faster guys on the field and see how that works this week. Everybody's in the equation right now.”
First up: linebackers Zaire Anderson and David Santos. Despite few snaps against Southern Mississippi and none at UCLA, they worked at the No. 1 Will linebacker spot Monday.
“These guys are much more progressed in understanding how we play the game and what we need to do,” linebackers coach Ross Els said. “They'll see playing time.”
Els said he didn't think that either was ready to help against the Bruins' no-huddle, motion-heavy spread offense. And how much playing time the junior college transfer and redshirt freshman get, Els said, is dependent on how they handle first-team snaps Tuesday and Wednesday as NU installs its game plan for Arkansas State, which runs a similar offense to UCLA.
Talking to reporters for the first time this season, Anderson said he's been working one-on-one with Pelini to learn the complex, check-heavy defense.
“Heck, yeah,” Anderson joked when asked if learning the scheme was harder than he expected. “When a playbook's harder than your homework, that's a problem. I think it's harder than my homework.”
Pelini said his defense is designed to improve as the year goes on, and better identify which players best fit the scheme. Against UCLA's spread, no-huddle attack, Pelini and Papuchis often spun the pick-a-player wheel.
They rotated 20 guys — nine defensive linemen, three linebackers, two hybrids, three safeties and three corners. Nearly two whole defenses, including freshman defensive tackles Aaron Curry and Kevin Williams. During one series, Curry and Williams played at the same time.
But four athletes against UCLA didn't see the field: Anderson, hybrid Charles Jackson, Santos and corner Mo Seisay. All are four-star recruits in the past two years.
Seisay twisted an ankle in fall camp. Defensive backs coach Terry Joseph said Seisay was available to play against the Bruins, but the game turned into a “dogfight.” Seisay will debut Saturday, Joseph said. Jackson remains behind Ciante Evans at nickel. Evans is the “bona fide No. 1,” said Joseph, who added that Evans “played pretty well” Saturday.
Anderson and Santos now enter the spotlight. Both Compton and Whaley on Saturday struggled to cover UCLA's quick tight ends and receivers. Whaley gave up a touchdown. Compton said his own bad technique hurt him on a couple of crossing routes.
“We're not very dynamic,” Els said. “We didn't make plays in the open field like we needed to, but also we don't have that eraser mentality, that ‘bang, there's the ball, I'm gonna go hunt it down.' We need to get to that level. We're a little cautious right now. And maybe lacking a little confidence.”
Why? Because confidence is built during games, Els said, making “special plays.” Even if the senior-laden defense last week didn't struggle when NU's scout team mirrored UCLA's motion and tempo in practice, it didn't respond when the Bruins ran it, Pelini conceded. NU suffered “ridiculous busts” in the first half, he said. Players at times appeared confused as to which defender would cover the sideline swing pass.
Whaley said most defenses stop pressuring offenses that use so much back/wide receiver motion. Not Nebraska. It wanted to keep the pressure hot on Hundley. But UCLA countered NU's scheme with quick, horizontal throws that relied on Bruins beating Huskers in one-on-one matchups. Nebraska didn't win very many of them.
“UCLA — they're not dumb,” Compton said. “They have smart coaches. They were in good calls sometimes.”
The spread offense also seemed to stymie Nebraska's front four, Pelini said.
“We've let the style of offense dictate to us instead of us dictating to the style of offense we're playing,” Pelini said. The goal now, Pelini said, was to get NU's line “attacking” again.
But don't expect much change in how the Huskers line up a yard off the ball. Nebraska's done that consistently in Pelini's tenure. It helps to make sure linemen don't get easily shoved into one gap. And no, NU's not changing its two-gap philosophy, either.
“All our guys have to do it,” defensive line coach Rick Kaczenski said. “And it's not like two-gapping is out of the realm. A lot of people do it. And we don't ask our guys to do it every single snap. ... I think all of our guys are definitely capable of doing it.”
Where can the line improve? Kaczenski said his unit needs better leverage and better discipline on its assignments within the whole of the scheme.
“Understand where you're at on the field and what's behind you,” he said. “You can't peek your head inside when you're the end man on the line of scrimmage. That's how quarterbacks get out. Just trust that cavalry's coming. Guys are trying to do a little too much.”
Kaczenski said Williams, Curry and freshman defensive end Avery Moss are all “fast-twitch” players who will do “a lot of positive things” in coming weeks. He stopped short of suggesting they'd play significantly more in lieu of starters, although, Kaczenski said, Williams played the second-most defensive tackle snaps next to senior Baker Steinkuhler.
Papuchis said it's important to implement changes in mindset and personnel before the Sept. 29 Big Ten opener versus Wisconsin. The Sept. 22 opponent, Idaho State, figures to offer little schematic challenge or resistance — the Bengals just beat Black Hills State, a Division II peer of Chadron State — so Arkansas State is the so-to-speak guinea pig. The Red Wolves are an athletic team with the Sun Belt Conference's best quarterback in Ryan Aplin.
“We will be tested,” Pelini said. “It'll be a good follow-up to the game we just played. We need to get better in that area. It kind of comes at the right time for us to make another jump and evaluate how far we're coming.”
Can NU alter its mindset, personnel and tackling skills all in one week? Are 653 yards worth of mistakes that fixable, that quickly?
“Oh God — they better be,” Els said.
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