LINCOLN — When Big Ten coaches convene for annual meetings, Wisconsin's Bret Bielema likes to find a spot near Nebraska's Bo Pelini. They go back decades, Pelini having served as a graduate assistant at Iowa in 1991 when Bielema played there.
On the surface, it's a bit of an odd couple.
Bret's boisterous, a raconteur, a salesman, an extrovert. He reads your reactions to him. Bo's guarded, analytical, a counterpuncher. He reads you before he makes his play.
And yet in the seconds after the Huskers beat the Badgers 30-27 earlier this year, Pelini shook Bielema's hand and said “Let's meet again in Indy.” And meant it.
Why? Because underneath the outward personalities is a shared bedrock confidence in their systems, a “do or don't” worldview that shapes their teams.
“I don't mince words,” Bielema said. “I don't hold back. I speak the truth. I speak reality, no matter how hard it is to hear.”
Nebraska and Wisconsin's respective identities are different. Though Bielema has his coaching roots in defense like Pelini, the Badgers are unmistakably built around their running game. The soul of Pelini's program is bound up in the defense, specifically the aggressive, complex way NU defends the pass.
Both foundations were shaken earlier this year. Wisconsin's offensive line couldn't mash, running back Montee Ball couldn't get out of neutral and the play-action passing game stunk as a result. Nebraska's defense had been shredded twice in one month by UCLA and Ohio State. Bielema and Pelini both chose to respond boldly. True to their personalities. And true to their bedrock confidence.
Bielema fired his new offensive line coach, Mike Markuson, after two games, and replaced him with graduate assistant Bart Miller. The offensive line — the lifeblood of Wisconsin's program — wasn't buying into Markuson's zone schemes and techniques, even if many college teams use them. Although he'd made a blunder hiring Markuson, Bielema trusted his own coaching instincts enough to know he'd screwed up and didn't need to waste time letting the hire fail for any longer.
“We always knew he was very serious about our run game,” Ball said. “But firing a coach at the beginning of the season — after the second game — really showed us how serious he was.”
“The run game is Wisconsin,” quarterback Curt Phillips said.
At the time, the Badgers ranked 103rd in rushing offense and 102nd in scoring offense. They've improved those numbers to 23rd and 72nd.
“It was a decision I knew I had to do,” said Bielema, whose staff changes frequently and could again this offseason. “It wasn't an easy one. I just wanted to give every person in this football family a chance to win. I couldn't be more pleased with the development we've made. Have we been perfect? No. But we've made strides. We've got our players playing better up front.”
Loyal to the last, Pelini struggled to shed himself of assistants even when it would have served him well (see Watson, Shawn). So he wasn't going to run off any of his coaches halfway through a ho-hum start to the year on defense.
But he did put it to the defensive players themselves to decide whether they'd be willing to better coordinate film sessions with each other and learn the opposing offenses more or whether they'd settle for similar results. Because there weren't any athletes like Lavonte David or Alfonzo Dennard (both starting as NFL rookies) out there to erase flaws in the defensive structure, to diminish execution mistakes. Nebraska's 11 guys either had to fit just so, or risk getting run over by the Big Ten's best skill players.
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“He said 'Guys, it's up to you. Everything is still out there to get. How do you want to remember this year?'” safety P.J. Smith said of Pelini's speech.
Defensive coordinator John Papuchis would hammer home the message in his defensive meetings, too.
The defense responded, Smith said, with more tenacious study habits. Smith and Mike linebacker Will Compton will now watch film together and review the calls they'd make if they saw the same formations in a game. Smith found several defensive backs watching film after workouts Monday morning. Compton even hit up Smith on Sunday while the safety was headed to church. Smith chose the pews over pigskin. But he's studied plenty since then.
“A lot of people were writing us off and writing them off,” Pelini said of his staff and players. “They knew better. It's one thing to want it, but it's another to match your effort and your preparation to what you want to have happen later and I think they've done that.”
After the Ohio State game, Nebraska ranked 49th in total defense and 73rd in scoring defense. This week, NU's stands at 15th and 31st. The Huskers responded and exceeded any expectations I've had for their performance during this stretch, especially when you factor in that David and Dennard have found significant roles on two NFL teams in playoff contention.
Pelini read the weaknesses of his team and counterpunched. Bielema struck early, with surprise, and watched his team react to his leadership. Both moves were in the spirit of each coach's personality, pointing back to core beliefs: Protect the identity.
“I've known Bo a long time,” Bielema said. “He's the same person every time I'm around him. A guy that loves to compete.”
Said Pelini of Bielema: “You see the same formula regardless of who's calling the plays or whatever. Which is worked for him over a long period of time. I think that's the mark of a good football coach.”
They'll meet again in Indy.
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