LINCOLN — Bad breaks become blessings if you respond to them boldly. Nebraska’s defense got a truckload of trouble in the third quarter vs. Arkansas State, and the unit coach Bo Pelini promised would improve — the secondary — answered the bell.
All college teams practice the “quick change” scenario that befell the Huskers when referees incorrectly ruled that a punt had touched Ameer Abdullah’s heel. But rarely are those scenarios as drastic — ASU needed 15 yards to a score a touchdown — or conducted without the head coach watching.
While Pelini underwent tests at a Lincoln hospital — we still don’t know exactly what happened to the fifth-year coach, only that it wasn’t serious enough to keep him from film work Sunday — officials put his defense in a position to fail. A sleepy Memorial Stadium crowd rose to the false persecution. Husker fans never did like the zeebs much.
On first down, nickel Ciante Evans knifed through a block to hogtie Red Wolves back Rocky Hayes, who caught a lateral. Textbook stuff, Evans keeping a hand free for the tackle. Zippo on the carry. Arkansas State, a man down in the huddle, panicked and called time out.
On second down, quarterback Ryan Aplin rolled to his right, wanting top receiver Josh Jarboe on a corner route. Mo Seisay, in his first game as a Husker, blanketed the route and Aplin’s pass sailed high.
Then NU panicked — too many men on the field — and called time out. Remember: It’s the first time since December 2007 that Pelini had no immediate control over Nebraska’s defense. His schemes. His concepts. But no Bo there, hands on knees, locking into the play.
Third down. John Papuchis dialed up a blitz. Aplin, jumpy already, zinged it high and wide of Jarboe, who had to break outside because corner Stanley Jean-Baptiste had taken away the slant. No yards. No touchdown. Arkansas State was effectively done threatening to pull the upset.
I’m not sure I’ve seen a three-play snapshot like that since 2010. NU locked down the middle of the field. It forced Aplin, an average-to-good passer, to make exceedingly tough throws outside the numbers. And — led by Evans, safety P.J. Smith and corner Josh Mitchell — defensive backs made savvy, aggressive tackles.
Pelini and his staff advertised so much about this defense before the season. Too much. But on Saturday, the secondary fulfilled Bo’s billing.
And through three games, NU can hang its hat on one category: red-zone defense. The Huskers rank ninth nationally and first in the Big Ten, giving up two touchdowns in 12 trips. That’s a small, good thing. A building block.
There are no great passing offenses left on the Huskers’ schedule. From a yardage perspective, Michigan State is the best, and the Spartans managed exactly three points vs. Notre Dame. The air attacks of Wisconsin (114th in yards, 92nd in efficiency) and Iowa (100th, 112th) are stains on the forward pass.
Ohio State’s is the most dangerous throwing game by sole virtue of Braxton Miller running around and creating adventures. And Minnesota’s is efficient so far, but if you wanted a slate where NU could focus its attention on stopping the run, this is it.
Since the Huskers are 111th in rushing defense, some focus is warranted. But every offense struggles more to run the ball in the red zone. That 20-yard strip of land magnifies the strengths and weaknesses of quarterbacks, receivers and defensive backs. If NU’s secondary can duplicate that effort and execution, the defense stands to get better. Not great. Better. And perhaps even stingy when it counts.
On with the rewind.
I see you
>> Papuchis: The defensive coordinator found the right fevered pitch in Pelini’s absence. NU needed the emotion from somewhere, and Papuchis — far from being a deer in the headlights — rose to it. That’s smart coaching.
>> Abdullah: He sticks his nose into traffic, takes big shots and keeps churning. His 2-yard touchdown in the second quarter — in which he bounced off an Arkansas State tackler — might have been one of his best. He’s 13th nationally in rushing yards per game and second in the Big Ten — behind Miller.
>> Wide receiver Kenny Bell: His 42-yard touchdown catch on Taylor Martinez’s underthrown ball is the play Niles Paul always struggled to make.
>> Evans: NU’s best defender right now. He’s playing with a swagger to go along with his cool haircut.
>> Defensive end Eric Martin: The Huskers have to draw up more ways for him to rush the passer unabated. He got inside Aplin’s head early in the game, and stayed there.
>> Martinez: That extra beat of patience on a seam-route throw to Kyler Reed paid off for a big first down.
>> Defensive tackle Thad Randle: With a bum leg, he’s playing very hard. NU needs him, too, with Chase Rome off the team.
>> Smith: His best game as a Husker? I’ll still take his performance at Kansas State in 2010, but Smith — always a good quote — is finding his stride on the field.
>> Safety Daimion Stafford: After hammering two Red Wolves with big hits, Stafford went to do the same to Aplin, who was scrambling out of the pocket. Rather than go for the first down, Aplin slid short of it.
>> Turnovers: Martinez lost two fumbles, Mike Marrow lost another and Abdullah — though he didn’t touch the ball — waited too long to bail off that punt. The Huskers are lucky Arkansas State didn’t take better advantage.
>> Special teams: Watching from above in the press box, I think NU’s kickoff coverage unit still looks leaky. And coordinator Ross Els should have put far more heat on a terrible ASU punter. Husker returners also seem to struggle tracking the ball sometimes.
>> Pelini’s health: Bo said in a statement that he’s fine. You take him at his word, of course, and he returned to work Sunday. A deeper explanation Monday of his hospital trip — however precautionary it might have been — would stop speculation, not fuel it. One thing’s clear after (and before) Saturday: Pelini’s stamp is all over the program. Coach and player comments, full of respect and reverence, made that obvious.
>> When does Rex Burkhead return? He already did after the Arkansas State game, when he threw passes to a couple of kids on the Memorial Stadium field for a half-hour.
When does he return for NU? Perhaps this week. Perhaps next. Working out the kinks vs. Idaho State would actually be a good thing if Burkhead’s knee can bear the load. If this were Big Ten season, I suspect he could have come back already.
>> Should the NCAA ban FBS-FCS games? I waffle on it. Some FCS teams are perfectly good tests — all of the Dakota schools, for example — and they cost a lot less for FBS teams to schedule.
I don’t want to knock FCS teams for taking a big check to pay athletic department bills. I’d prefer to see some kind of win standard created for FCS teams to be eligible. If you can’t win 28 games in four years — that’s seven wins per — forget it. FCS teams should not humiliate themselves for money.
>> Are Alabama and LSU just going to do this whole thing again? I really, really hope not. But with USC’s ugly loss to Stanford Saturday night, it looks like Florida State and Oregon are the two teams most likely to stop the Crimson Tide and Tigers from dominating the headlines for the next two months.
>> 86th: Nebraska’s ranking on third-down defense. Still not good enough.
>> 32: Number of AP voters who left NU off their Top 25 ballots this week. All of those voters ranked UCLA, though.
>> 20.5: Average yards per catch by Bell.
Northwestern is 3-0 after a gutsy win over Boston College. The Wildcats are allowing 80 yards rushing per game (16th in the nation) and have a real chance to be 7-0 when Nebraska visits Evanston. How’s that? Check the schedule: South Dakota, Indiana, at Penn State, at Minnesota. It’s doable.
Halfway through Monday’s press conference, some nose-to-the-grindstone reporter asks Pelini: What’s the key to slowing down Idaho State’s offense?
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